have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the shadow of death
a light has dawned ...
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:2, 6 (NIV)
Christmas is above all the time when God's mercy in the gift of his Son is celebrated.
What exactly is mercy? We all know the word so well that maybe a redefinition is in order. Easton’s Bible Dictionary puts it like this:
MERCY: compassion for the miserable. Its object is misery. By the atoning sacrifice of Christ a way is open for the exercise of mercy towards the sons of men, in harmony with the demands of truth and righteousness (Genesis 19:19; Exodus 20:6; Exodus 34:6-7; Psalm 85:10; Psalm 86:15-16). In Christ mercy and truth meet together. Mercy is also a Christian grace (Matthew 5:7; Matthew 18:33-35).
The object—i.e. what it is directed towards—of mercy is misery. Think about that a moment. What does a life of misery look like? A life broken, unhealed—maybe a life with embarrassing problems like addictions, debt, social dysfunction. Certainly messy, and possibly dangerous.
God is calling us to minister—to each other certainly—but far more than that to people with whom you wouldn’t normally think of getting along. People who live lives of misery aren’t comfortable, respectable people. They’re not guaranteed to enhance our lives, and they certainly aren’t guaranteed to enhance our reputations! They won’t always accept our help, and if they do they won’t always be properly grateful. What’s more, they are likely to be perennially needy, always coming back for help, unless and until God does something amazing in their lives.
Remember Jesus’ pattern of mercy? He helped people first, and then recommended lifestyle changes. The perfect example of course is the beginning of John 8, the story of the woman who was about to be stoned for adultery. Or take the time Jesus spoke to the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4). Jesus didn’t instruct her to get her messy life straightened out before he’d talk to her. In fact, he allowed her to minister to her people as an evangelist (John 4:28-30; 39-42) even before she’d sorted out her tangled love-life. (Re-read the passage if you don’t believe me!)
Jesus’ ideas are not like our ideas (cf. Isaiah 55:8) and he doesn’t give a fig for our respectable ideas of who is or isn’t fit company for a proper Christian (Luke 5:30; Luke 7:36-48)—in fact it’s those who are in trouble, who are living lives of misery, that he came specially to save.
This Christmas, and on into this New Year of 2006, let us live in the expectation of our Lord’s return: let us live lives of such mercy that all those we meet and minister to will meet Jesus in the love we show them, as we reflect the love he has for us—“We love because he first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)