The Tender Mercy of God
A mother once approached Napoleon seeking a pardon for her son. The emperor replied that the young man had committed a certain offence twice and justice demanded death. "But I don't ask for justice," the mother explained. "I plead for mercy." "But your son does not deserve mercy," Napoleon replied. "Sir," the woman cried, "It would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask for." "Well, then," the emperor said, "I will have mercy." And he spared the woman's son.
The word mercy is rich and warm and comforting. And this little story illustrates two truths about mercy:
Mercy is a gracious favour bestowed by a superior (in this case Napoleon) on an undeserving inferior (the guilty young man)
Mercy is a compassionate regard for those is misery – and what more miserable state than that of this young man condemned and awaiting execution?
These two aspects of mercy form part of the way the Bible understands God's mercy. But the Bible goes further adding a further dimension to the mercy of God:
Mercy is God's persistent refusal to wash his hands of his wayward and undeserving people – this truth is underlined again and again in the OT but also here in the very recent experience of Zechariah himself!
This morning we are turning our thoughts to the words that Zechariah prophesied under the influence of the Holy Spirit. As we do so we will consider God's wonderfully gracious plan of salvation. This plan was first in drawn up because of "the tender mercy of God" and as it was put into action it demonstrated the mercy that God promised to show.
The word "prophesy" when used in the Bible always means to tell forth the Word of God. In addition it often includes a declaration concerning something that is going to happen in the future. (And any prophecy that does not proclaim the Word of God is seen to be the work f false prophets.d then is something that depends not upon the wishes or desires of the speaker but upon God. A man speaking without the influence of the Spirit of God would only be able to "tell forth" his own human words not the Word of God. And if he tried to declare what was going to happen in the future his efforts would only be guesswork based upon his limited and frequently erroneous understanding of the prevailing circumstances.
Peter describes true biblical prophecy in his second letter:
2Pet.1:21 "For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit."
And now we learn that Zechariah is filled with the Spirit and prophesies – what he makes known then is the very word of God and what he says can be trusted.
When we look at Zechariah's prophecy we quickly see that it can be divided into two related parts:
God's great plan and purpose
The role to be occupied by Zechariah's son in this plan
God's great plan and purpose vv.68-75
What God did:
Zechariah begins by blessing God and he explaining his reasons for doing so. The interesting thing for us to note is that as he speaks he uses the past tense but is in fact speaking about events that had not yet then come to pass. So what are we to make of this?
Under the influence of the Holy Spirit Zechariah is speaking about what God is about to do. So certain is it that God will act in this way that Zechariah speaks as though he had already done so – because God has said so it's as good as done!
Why does Zechariah want to bless God? What it is that God has done that makes Zechariah want to bless him?
He gives us three reasons in vv.68-69:
he has visited - suggestive of their previous condition
and redeemed his people - " " " "
and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David - that is he had provided a strong redeemer – Jesus Christ the Son of David.
Why God did this:
Having explained his reasons Zechariah then moved on to explain that this was exactly what was to be expected because this was just what God has earlier promised that he would do!
Once more Zechariah has multiple reasons for saying what he does:
God had already talked about the salvation and the deliverance (v.71) that he was now actively bringing about:
v.70 "as he spoke by the mouth of the prophets of old…"
Mercy was to be expected because:
v.72a "mercy (was) promised to our fathers"
This was entirely in line with the terms and conditions of the covenant whereby God had bound himself to his people:
v.72 he "remember(s) his holy covenant"
And if these various promises that had been made were not enough God had even gone a step further and bound himself by an oath to free his people!
v.73 he remembered "the oath that he swore to our father Abraham… (that we might be) delivered from the hand of our enemies,"
Heb.6:18 "by two unchangeable things( God's promise and God's oath), in which it is impossible for God to lie"
God's purpose in doing what he had promised:
All well and good you might be tempted to say – so what if God made promises a long time ago and kept them a long time ago what has that to do with us today?
Well it has a lot to say to us because Zechariah also tells us what God's purposes were in originally giving those promises and in subsequently keeping them. And that purpose remains valid for us today!
From the very first line of the entire Bible to the very last words the existence of God is assumed. Nowhere does the Bible ever attempt to prove the existence of God and for cause – every man, woman, boy and girl knows deep down that he exists. Many try to suppress that knowledge and act as though it weren't the case but God has left his mark upon us – it's part of our having been created in the image of God.
Consequently the Bible addresses a different question – it doesn't waste time on proving the existence of God (which we all know already) instead it is concerned to speak to us about how we are to relate to this God – how is it possible and what it will look like.
Here Zechariah tells us some of God's purpose in first drawing up a great master plan of salvation and then secondly putting it into effect. Listen to how Zechariah explained God's purposes:
vv.74-75 "that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days."
Man's chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy him forever. But sin has spoilt all of us as we have all fallen short of the glory of God. If we are to have any kind of relationship it must involve us in serving him because that is the way we glorify him. We glorify God best by serving him in such a way that:
makes him look supremely valuable in himself
that makes submission to him look thrilling
But before we are saved the only ways we know of trying to submit to God are ways that only make him look threatening, not thrilling. These are the ways of trying to do what he says that only call attention to the fact that he is a harsh demanding authority figure not a treasure at all. And serving in that kind of way is characterised by fear because we will always be wracked by questions such as "Have I done enough?" and "Is what I've done good enough for him?"
But God's purpose in redemption and salvation is to enable us to serve him in the right way: without fear, in holiness and in righteousness. He even gives us the strength we need to serve him in this way:
1Pet.4:11 "Whoever serves, [let it be] as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ."
And he will enable us to go on and serving all our days because he will give us all we need to do so!
John's Role in God's Plan vv.76-79
Zechariah's son was not the Messiah, he wasn't going to be the one by whom the promised salvation and deliverance would be brought but that did not mean he was unimportant quite the reverse! John would have a very important and necessary role to fulfil.
John would be God's mouthpiece preparing the way for the Lord to come v.76
Still speaking under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit Zechariah went on to explain just how John would do this.
He would tell the people how they might be saved and come to know their sins forgiven v.77.
He would bring spiritual light to those who were living in spiritual darkness and who didn't know where to turn for help v.79.
He would guide men and women into the way of peace v.79.
When John grew up he did these things by:
by preaching repentance
by warning of the wrath to come
by explaining how men and women ought to live
and, most importantly, by pointing men and women to the Lord Jesus Christ. "Behold the lamb of God" would be his repeated cry out as Jesus came into view (Jn.1:29, 36) John would be all taken up with Jesus and longed for others to be too: "He must increase, but I must decrease." Jn.3:30
God's tender mercy towards sinners has been celebrated by Zechariah as he has blessed God and explained God's wonderful plan of salvation.
It was indeed God's tender mercy that drove God to draw up this plan.
Further it was God's tender mercy that caused him to pile promise upon promise to convince his people of his purposes of love for them.
It was God's tender mercy that carried out his planned salvation explaining one more time at the very outset of the gospel era/the Christian era just what he was about to achieve.
Don't think that all this repetition is tedious it is a demonstration of God's tender mercy toward those who had not yet understood, to those who had not yet seen their own need, to those who were still lost.
And so, it was in God's tender mercy that John had been appointed to minister as the forerunner of the messiah to minister to people who were:
unsaved and guilty of sin
in darkness and in desperate need of light
out of the way of peace and on the broad road that leads to destruction
And supremely it was in God's tender mercy that there was a Jesus to whom John could direct men and women; a Jesus to whom they could go for the forgiveness of their sins.
Finally my friends this morning it is in God's tender mercy that you are able to listen one more time to what he has planned and purposed and carried out. Have you responded to God's tender mercy that directs you too to 'Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world'?
What do you think the outcome will be for you if you neglect such a great salvation? What will be kept in store for you if you despise these tender mercies of our God?
Come to Jesus Christ and come today!