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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
 frca.org.au/mountnasura/
 
Title:Mercy and Truth have Met Together!
Text:LD 4 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God's Justice
 
Preached:2020
Added:2020-03-08
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 75:1,4                                                                                          

Hy 1

Reading – Psalm 85; Belgic Confession Article 20

Ps 85:1,2

Sermon – Lord’s Day 4

Ps 85:3,4

Hy 80:1,2,5,6

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved in Christ, we’re gathered to meet with God. It may seem an unusual question, but what kind of God? What is God like, the One to whom we offer prayers and confessions and gifts? It’s something to think about, not just in public worship, but in our personal devotions—during the week, as you pray, as you read his Word, and as you serve God through your daily work: What kind of God is our God? Ponder his power. Think about his faithfulness. Reflect on his patience and compassion and eternity.

It’s so good for us to meditate on the character of God. And today we get some help from the Catechism. Right from Lord’s Day 1, the Catechism is all about comforting and guiding us as believers. Yet it’s very much a God-centered confession. For the two always go closely together: the more we know about our God, the more we’ll be encouraged.

In our Lord’s Day today, a few of God’s many characteristics are explored. What is God like? Lord’s Day 4 mentions that our God is a God of justice and a God of mercy. Read it again, and you see reference to God’s displeasure with sin, God’s punishment of sin, God’s holy requirements, and even God’s “most high majesty” (Q&A 11). With these truths, we come into God’s heavenly throne room! As we look at Scripture, we meet the holy God who saves us from sin and gives us new life.

How is this possible, that the “most high” God takes an interest in us sinners? How can He save us? And it’s not enough to answer that God does it because God is love. God is love, but God is also just. So how can his perfect justice allow evil-doers like us to walk free? This is what we consider in Lord’s Day 4 with the help of Psalm 85. I preach God’s Word on this theme,

Mercy and truth have met together!

  1. God’s mercy
  2. God’s truth
  3. their perfect meeting in Christ

 

1) God’s mercy: Every once in a while, you’ll find that a dictionary comes in handy. For sometimes it’s good to start with a definition. That way, if you mention a key term, everyone knows what you’re talking about. So what is mercy? My dictionary tells me that mercy is “compassion or forbearance, shown by one to another (especially an offender), who is in his power and has no claim to kindness.”

I like that definition, because it emphasizes how mercy is undeserved by those who receive it. And mercy is unexpected, because you’re fully under someone else’s power or authority; he holds the keys to our freedom. And we’ve got no claim to his kindness!

Probably the best way to understand mercy is to look at mercy in action. Say there’s an offender (like our definition said), a criminal who has been found guilty. This criminal knows that he’s going to be punished for his crimes, even severely. When he gets his day in court for sentencing, he’s got nothing to say: he’s got no excuses, he can plead no special circumstances, he can make no pleas for pity.

But for whatever reason, the judge decides to show mercy. Maybe he’s in a really good mood today, or he sees something in the offender that no one else does—whatever the case, he imposes a lighter sentence than deserved. Or imagine that he even lets him go, releases the guilty one onto the streets! The judge held the fate of the offender in his hands, and he was moved to show compassion: undeservedly, unexpectedly.

With that example, we’re getting close to the idea of not just mercy in general, but God’s mercy. The Lord our God has many qualities, and we’ll never say that one quality is more important than another. But among God’s attributes, from the perspective of lowly sinners at least, God’s mercy is immense.

Think of how the LORD reveals himself to Moses in Exodus 34. A bit earlier, Moses had asked to see the glory of God. And he asked because he wanted to receive confirmation that the LORD was still with the Israelites, to save and protect them. Moses wanted this assurance because God really had every reason to abandon his people Israel.

For so many years they’d been a grumbling and complaining people. They showcased their disobedience at every turn of the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. A short time ago had been the very worst moment of their rebellions so far, when they made a golden calf and worshiped it—and they had done so, even at the same time that Moses was receiving God’s covenant law on the mountain. Here was the LORD, setting down the terms of the covenant of grace, and they were running fast the other way! On that day God had come “this close” to destroying them, but He relented only because of the pleading of Moses.

Now Moses wants to know for certain that God is still with them, and for them. God agrees to this request, saying He’ll reveal his glory to his servant. But when the time comes, God’s revelation of glory doesn’t take a dazzling physical form, like a volcanic eruption or stunning fireworks in the sky. For God’s glory resides in who He is—his glory is his blessed character as God.

So this is what happens on the mountain: the LORD passes before Moses while announcing his name, “introducing himself” to Moses: “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6-7). Do you hear the first word God applies to himself? God is merciful. He has not crushed his people, will not reject these idol-worshipers, but He is gracious.

We see the same mercy in Psalm 85. This Psalm, like many others, comes without an explanation of why it was written. Some explainers believe the Psalm was written in a time when was oppressed by a regional enemy like the Philistines. Others suggest it was written shortly after the return of the exiles from captivity in Babylon—and I think this seems likely. God showed great mercy in restoring them from exile, yet the land wasn’t the same. And that was the struggle: the land was in ruins and overgrown and destitute, a shadow of former glory.

All the same, when we set our heart upon the LORD, outward circumstances aren’t so important as they first seem. Despite his mood of pain and disappointment, the Psalmist begins with the great things God has done. Notice the six-fold “You have…” in verses 1-3: “You have been favourable to your land; You have brought back the captivity of Jacob; You have forgiven; You have covered all their sin…”

The Psalmist will meditate on this happy subject. Even in Israel’s trouble, he wants to remember the kind of God they worship. The LORD is still the God who acts for his people, the ever-gracious God. For He didn’t have to bring them back, but could’ve left them in captivity. After all their sin and covenant-breaking, God was within rights to walk away. But He didn’t, and He doesn’t.

For, the Psalmist continues, “You have forgiven the iniquity of your people; you have covered all their sin” (v 2). Right at the heart of all their hardship was the problem of sin. In the seventy years of exile, God was punishing them for their disobedience. Yet God in mercy also forgives his people. Literally, it says, He lifts sin away—like pulling off ten tons worth of burden. And He covers sin, even with the atoning sacrifice of blood.

And He does so entirely, “You have covered all their sin.” What a gift! God forgives not some of our transgressions, the respectable ones—while He leaves the really ugly and shameful ones on our account. No, if we repent, we receive the “complete forgiveness of all our sins.” Though it’s a burden almost too heavy to lift away, though it’s a stain almost too ugly and deep to cover up, God forgives and covers.

The Psalmist remembers how God has been good to his people. And when you’ve just received a big favour, when someone’s already gone the extra mile, you don’t want to ask for any more. But the Psalmist makes one more request, “Will you not revive us again, that your people may rejoice in you?” (v 6).

For in spite of the riches of God’s mercy, there’s been a decline among his people. They’re back in the land, worshiping at the temple—but they’re in a funk: they’re discouraged, they’re tired of the constant struggle, troubled by memories of past sin, and maybe haunted by the thought of more punishment. So the Psalmist asks for renewal in the land, and renewal in their hearts: “Will you not revive us again?”

Revive us! It’s not enough to be released from our captivity and to have sins forgiven. We also need a restoration of joy, a restoration of faith, and a restoration of holiness. And if we’ll ever move forward, and grow in faith, and get better at following Christ, we depend entirely on God to change us. “Revive us again!”

Then comes the request for God’s favour, “Show us your mercy, LORD, and grant us your salvation” (v 7). We don’t have a claim on the kindness of God—as sinners, it’s not ours to demand—so this is all we can do. God’s mercy is our one and only sliver of hope, our lifeline. Like the Catechism asks, “But is God not also merciful?” (Q&A 11). And He is indeed merciful!

The word “mercy” is rich in English; it’s even more so in Hebrew. The word translated as “mercy” carries the sense of commitment. It’s not just a one-off, when a judge shows leniency to a lucky criminal. The Hebrew term for “mercy” means “loyal love,” or “unfailing love.” Now when we want to ask someone for mercy or help, especially for the third or fourth time, we’re worried about being a pain, tiring them out, annoying them. But God’s mercy never fails, his grace cannot be exhausted.

In your guilt and trouble, know that God keeps showing compassion to those who fear him. This is God’s covenant faithfulness: not because of us, but because of himself, He’ll show abiding mercy. Yet it’s never a mercy without truth.

 

2) God’s truth: If I turn to my dictionary again, I see that “truth” means that “quality or state of being true or accurate.” Truth is all about being measured by a higher standard. For example, a child’s words to her parents can be judged as honest or dishonest. A media report can be considered genuine, or perhaps dismissed as fake news. A decision in a law court is just, or it’s unjust.

So is our God a God of truth? For him, there’s no standard by which He can be measured, for God himself set the standard. He is Truth! But what we can do is look at what God has said. What has He promised, decreed, and commanded? And does God himself abide by this? Is God always true to the Word that He’s spoken?

God is true. Put another way, God is righteous: He always upholds the perfect standard of his Word. And that reality has two very different effects on us as sinners. The first effect is a great comfort. For isn’t it wonderful to know we can count on God? If God has said something, if He has promised something, then we can build our lives on it. Like it says in Isaiah 40:8, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.” God has spoken, and He’ll make it good. Think of any of God’s promises, and be sure that He’ll do it.

But the second effect of God’s truthfulness or righteousness is fear. We ought to tremble and quake before the righteous God, because He has said that human sin must be punished with everlasting punishment. He said that sin deserves death, that sinners must be put out of his presence. Go back to Exodus 34 when God reveals his glory to Moses. After telling about his abounding mercy, the LORD also says this, that He “by no means clears the guilty” (Exod 34:7).

God doesn’t clear the guilty, because God can’t. Let me explain that. When we’re in trouble, we all hope for leniency. For example, if we get pulled over for doing eighty in a fifty, we hope the police officer will let us off. Or when the kids broke a window when playing hockey/cricket/baseball in the kitchen, they hope that Mom or Dad won’t make a big deal about it.

So in our guilt we wonder: If God is so good and so merciful, can’t He let our disobedience go unpunished? That’s the thought behind Question 10 of the Catechism, “Will God allow disobedience and apostasy to go unpunished?” God knows we sinned, but does He have to penalize us? Couldn’t He just let it go?

God cannot. He cannot, because our God is a God of unfailing justice. He always acts in accordance with what is right, always upholds his perfect standard. If God allowed a sin—even one—to go unpunished, by that act He would contradict his “most high majesty” (Q&A 11). He is holy, so He can’t tolerate the unholy. He is righteous, so He must hate what is unrighteous. Still today, sin in any form and to any degree is considered high treason against heaven.

For this reason we keep coming across anger in Psalm 85. It’s there in verse 3, “You have taken away all your wrath; you have turned from the fierceness of your anger.” The Babylonian invasions, the sieges, the massacres, the long march into captivity, the years of captivity—all this was God’s displeasure. God’s wrath has been taken away and turned aside, but remember this: Why had God been so angry?

Because of sin. By their disobedience the people had deeply offended the holiness of God. And so even now they ask, “Will you be angry with us forever? Will you prolong your anger to all generations?” (v 5). Will the hammer fall again? Won’t things ever get better? Because God is God, He’s angered by anything that goes against his revealed will. The Catechism says “[God] is terribly displeased” with our sins (Q&A 10).

So where can we go? What option do we have? The Catechism tries with Question 11, “But is God not also merciful?” Will He not relent, this God who is love? Can’t He just look the other way? But that door is closed: “God is indeed merciful—but He is also just. His justice requires that sin committed against the most high majesty of God also be punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul” (Q&A 11). Sin committed against God’s infinite holiness requires infinite punishment. It sounds like we’ve come to a dead-end—literally—with no way out.

But that’s not where the Catechism leaves us. If you read between the lines of this Lord’s Day, you’ll see that the Catechism is bringing us somewhere. It’s leading us to the gospel, pointing us quietly to the cross. It is showing that God does show mercy—mercy, together with truth!

           

3) their perfect meeting in Christ: As he pours out his prayer to God, the Psalmist prepares to receive an answer. And he knows what the answer will be, because he knows God: “I will hear what God the LORD will speak… He will speak peace to his people and to his saints” (v 8). Though God has been angry, He’ll come near with words of reconciliation and healing. Instead of continued enmity, there will be a beautiful peace.

How can this be? Is it because God’s mercy is always stronger than his justice? Is it because in the end, God’s love always outweighs his truth? Because God is God, it cannot be. God cannot be conflicted within himself, by a power struggle between his love and truth. So often we are conflicted, of course: we can be kind and generous one hour, grumpy and selfish two hours later—often for no good reason. Our personalities are fickle, inconsistent, contradictory things. Sometimes we just hope that our good side outweighs our bad. Yet God is ever-constant in who He is.    

So this is what happened—this is what makes salvation possible: “Mercy and truth have met together” (v 10). There’s a perfect convergence in the attributes of God, an amazing harmony. In God, there’s a perfect unity between mercy and truth. He has punished Israel—that was his justice—but now his anger is turned away. He’ll again show them his steadfast love, for “God’s mercy and truth have met together, righteousness and peace have kissed.”          

And where have God’s mercy and truth met together in the most wondrous way? At the cross of Christ! Ever since the time of the early church, Psalm 85 has been understood as pointing ahead to Jesus’ saving work. Do we want to see God’s justice? Look at the cross. Do we want to see God’s mercy? Look at the cross. And do you want to see how God’s mercy and justice can meet together perfectly? Then all we have to do is look at the suffering Christ.

For Jesus experienced just how true the Scripture is: “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” He stood in our place to receive our just penalty for sin. And so Christ experienced the terrible displeasure of God. For us and in our place, He was “punished with the most severe, that is, with everlasting punishment of body and soul.”

Human words can’t describe what this meant. What would it be like if God took away his presence from us? What would it be like, not to have God’s blessing, God’s Spirit, God’s listening ear, God’s promise to save? Christ endured this terror, and He endured it for us.

For this same God is moved by love for an unlovable people. God looks on us, and He sees a people who can do nothing for themselves: liable to be cursed, worthy of wrath, destined for hell. But God is moved with mercy for sinners. His mercy is so great that at the cross He had no mercy left for his Son! Christ was cursed by God, that we might be richly blessed forever.

The Belgic Confession puts it so concisely, “God… [showed] his justice against his Son when He laid our iniquity on him, and poured out his goodness and mercy on us, who were guilty and worthy of damnation” (Art. 20). Justice and mercy: at the same time, in the same breath, shown on the same cross. In Christ, they have met together perfectly—they have kissed.

The measure of God’s hatred for sin can be seen in how much Jesus suffered. And the measure of God’s love for us can be seen in the same. He gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Beloved, who is our God? This is our God: He is a God of mercy. And He is a God of truth. And there’s never a contradiction between the two. It means we can trust in this God, for we know that He is so constant. We can worship God, for he is so majestic. We can come before God with confidence, for we know that He is merciful and He is faithful.

Beloved, in this coming week take some time to meditate on the amazing character of our God. Ponder his power. Think about his faithfulness. Reflect on his patience and compassion and eternity. Delight in God’s truth, for it means we can always count on his Word. And embrace God’s mercy, for his mercy is unfailing—for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2020, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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