in Catechesis, Sermons

07. December 2011
Advent II – Midweek
Mercy (diakonia)

A preaching series based on and drawn from John Pless’s outline and Al Collver’s Bible study materials. 

This year’s midweek Advent services will consider the latest emphases from the praesidium of our Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod: Witness – Mercy – Life Together. These are helpful tools for us to consider what it means to be Christ’s church. This time of Advent is a time of preparation as the bride for her husband, a time of waiting as those virgins for bridegroom, and a time of hopeful expectation like Simeon in the temple. Our Lord has come, He is yet coming, and will come again.

During this time of waiting, our life is conformed to the way of the Father’s Son. Our life is transformed by the great gift of Christ’s justification, begun in the promise to Eve, incarnate in Mary’s womb, and finished with death at the Cross. This is the source and foundation of who we are in Christ. We are bearers of Christ, the very ones who delivered Him unto death but who now bear witness to Him unto eternity. This truth is not self-evident. It must be spoken, verified, and heard before it is believed. Thus, we spoke of nothing else than Jesus Christ and Him crucified.

Just as our witness must be learned, so must also the life of mercy. Mercy is not natural but comes only in the life lived in Jesus. Christians are therefore different; they are known by the work of Christ in them. When Christians see someone in need, they don’t ignore the person. Rather, Christians have compassion, going to their neighbor and helping him. Whenever people came up to Jesus and said Kyrie eleison (“Lord, have mercy!”), Jesus had compassion on them. Jesus fed, healed, and consoled those in need, proclaiming to them that the kingdom of God was near. Like Jesus, Christians hear their neighbors’ cries with compassion and respond by providing for them.

The word for mercy is diakonia. The Greek word diakonia is usually translated as “service” or “ministry.” Service and even ministry are loose terms with little meaning of themselves. They do not describe specific kinds of service. Diakonia is not another word for the Office of the Holy Ministry, that special office instituted by Christ for the church that she would have a man in each place whom He has chosen and sent for preaching, catechesis, and pastoral care. Diakonia is properly associated with mercy.

The word mercy is firmly rooted in the forgiveness of sins that Jesus won on the cross. In Jesus we see true mercy, that God would forgive us by the death of His own son. Mercy, diakonia, means feeding the poor, taking care of the sick, and caring for orphans and widows. Diakonia is caring for our neighbor in concrete and effective ways because of what Jesus has done for them—and for us. Filled with Christ’s love and Spirit, Christians serve their neighbor mercifully.

As the theologian Oswald Bayer writes, “Mercy is not self-evident… On the contrary mercy is actually something that is won and something that, emerging, happens unpredictably. And as this justifying God is not simply and in principle merciful, so also is sinful man not simply and in principle on the receiving end of mercy.”

Mercy was not self-evident to the virgin Mary in tonight’s Gospel. She was “greatly troubled” (Luke 1:29) until the angel comforted her with the good news that the son she would conceive and bear is the Son of God. Only then were Mary’s lips unlocked to magnify the Lord, declaring the scope of His mercy for all who “fear him from generation to generation” (Luke 1:50). Having received mercy, Mary was enabled to confess her God and Savior who helps “His servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his offspring forever” (Luke 1:54-55).

It is this Lord who has “According to his great mercy… caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3). Mercy is not self-evident for sinners; it is not something that the guilty expect, even to His servant Mary. Mercy comes only by God’s doing in the crib and on Calvary.

Can a holy and vengeful God come and dwell among sinners? Thomas Aquinas said that “Christ cannot enter into living communion with a sinner.” Yet, Luther argued on the opposite: “Christ dwells only among sinners.” At the core is a difference in understanding God’s mercy, His diakonia.

The great 20th century Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse said: “Every page of the New Testament is indeed testimony of the Christ whose proper office it is ‘to save sinners’ (1 Timothy 1:15), ‘to seek and save the lost’ (Luke 19:10). And the entire saving work of Jesus—from the days he was in Galilee and, to the amazement and alarm of the Pharisees, ate with tax collectors and sinners, to the moment when he, in contradiction with the principles of every rational morality, promised paradise, to the thief on the cross—yes, his entire life on earth, from the cradle to the cross, is one unique, grand demonstration of a wonder beyond all reason: the miracle of divine forgiveness, of the justification of the sinner.” Advent announces the arrival of this Christ who makes divine mercy certain for sinners. Thus, it is true, that “Christ dwells only among sinners.”

Jesus’ actions demonstrate the love of God for humankind. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Out of love for us and in obedience to the Father, Jesus suffered and died; “love to the loveless shown that they might lovely be” (LSB 430:1). This is a transformative love. First, God the Father forgives our sins for Jesus’ sake and credits to us Christ’s righteousness; we apprehend these gifts through faith. Then, through the Means of Grace, the Holy Spirit makes us lovely to those whom we show love, mercy, and compassion in their time of need.

The apostle John writes in his first epistle: “By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him? My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:16-18).

A unique word is used in verse 17, splánchna. Originally, spláchna meant the internal organs of an animal used in ritual sacrifice. In ancient Greek temples, these internal organs would be “read” in order to “tell the future.” Spláchna is onomatopoetic, meaning it sounds similar to what it means. When the internal organs were removed and thrown to the ground, they made a “splat,” hence splánchna. By the New Testament era, the world spláchna has become associated with compassion or mercy. Our English phrases “butterflies in the stomach” and “gut reaction” convey somehow how our emotions affect our bodies.

The love of God is known chiefly in mercy. His mercy is known by His compassion. All throughout the Gospels, the love of God that leads Him to mercy is show in Jesus’ compassion. He has compassion on them for they were sheep without a shepherd (Mt 9:36-38). He had compassion on them and fed the five thousand and four thousand (Mt. 14:13-21; Mt. 15:32-39). He had compassion on the two blind me (Mt. 20:29-34), on the leper whom He cleansed (Mk 1:40-45), before casting out the deaf and mute spirit (Mk. 9:14-29), and raising of the widows son (Luke 7:11-17). Two of the most beloved parables feature love yielding mercy that begets compassion. The Good Samaritan had compassion, splanchnidzomai, on the man in the ditch (Lk. 10:29-37). The father ran to his prodigal son and had compassion on him (Lk 15:11-21).

Diakonia, mercy, is really all about service. In Christ, we see diakonia take a most real and concrete form. It is most clearly seen in His sacrificial death for you. It is seen in His great acts of compassion. It will been seen on the last day when in He welcomes you into the eternal paradise. And it is being seen as the Lord serves the church now. In His Divine Service, He serves us and delivers to us the forgiveness of sins. Sunday morning is primarily about the Lord serving us and then our response of praise and thanksgiving.

Compassion, service, and mercy begin with Jesus. The Lord came to redeem the entire person, body and soul. Forgiveness of sins is about the here and now and it is about the life to come. The ailments of the body—even death—are the result of sin. Jesus forgives sins and then shows compassion on those who are in physical need. In His earthly ministry, Jesus healed the lame, made the blind to see, and raised the dead. He undid the effect of sin both by forgiving and healing. Living forgiven in Christ, we have compassion first on those nearest to us and then on others as we encounter them in our day-to-day lives.

The Lord serves His Church. Having been served by the Lord, we go into the world wherever the Lord has placed us and serve Him by caring for those He has put in our lives. Thus, our lives are living witnesses of God’s own mercy in Christ for us and for the sin of the whole world.

In Name of the Father, + Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church
Dyer, Indiana