The Tender Mercy of God
So one effect of our technology today is that nobody knows what it’s like to be lost anymore.
Think about this for a minute: as long as we have our phones, it’s almost impossible to be in a place and not know where you are. My kids will never know what that’s like — but some of us know what that’s like. Some of us have been lost before. I’ve been lost before.
It was back before the GPS, before the smartphone — I was 17 years old and my dad and I were driving from North Carolina to Tennessee, and that means we had to go through the Appalachian Mountains. I had a baseball game on a Saturday in Tennessee, and so we left on a Friday afternoon, after school, driving west, and by the time we got into the mountains it was night and very dark … and very foggy.
And we didn’t have any map devices; we just had an old paper map — you open the thing up and blocks the entire windshield, and somehow we got off the main highway, looking for a shortcut, and it became the perfect setting for a horror movie.
And I remember, for whatever reason, my dad was letting me drive his truck — and timeout for a second; I don’t understand this, but my parents let me do things I would never let my kids do; just for the record. It was dark and foggy, and the roads were curvy and mountainous, and I was driving my dad’s Super Duty diesel Ford F-250, and we were lost. And I remember it was so foggy that you couldn’t tell what anything was except for the road right in front of the headlights. And we were just driving in circles. We were lost in the mountains, in the dark.
In today’s passage, at the end of Luke 1, we see this vivid image of when it means to lost in a spiritual sense. This last section of Luke 1 is pretty straightforward. In verses 57–66 we see the birth of John (which Alex just read), and then in verses 67–80 we see the prophecy of Zechariah. And it’s interesting because the word “mercy” is used three times in this last section, and each use is in a slightly different context. And so the plan for the sermon is to look closer at these places — in verse 58, verse 72, and then verse 78 — and here’s what we’re going to call it. Today we’re looking at God’s mercy:
Practical Mercy of God
Promised Mercy of God
Personal Mercy of God
And I’m excited about what we see here, so let’s pray and then we’ll get started.
Father, in this moment as we are gathered in worship, and as we come to your word, there are all kinds of ways that we imagine you. We all have some kind of mental image of what you’re thinking, and of what you’re doing, and Father, this morning we ask that you would conform our imaginations to your truth. Show us your heart, we pray, in Jesus’s name, amen.
#1. Practical Mercy of God (vv. 57–66)
Let me just tell you the story of what’s going on here. Elizabeth gives birth to John the Baptist, just like Gabriel the angel had said, and verse 58 tells us that the word gets out. Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives heard that she bore a son, and they’re all happy — and apparently they all get very involved.
Now we know that this was a different time and culture than our own, but it’s pretty strange how these neighbors and relatives assert themselves here. In verse 59, on the eighth day after John’s birth, the verse says:
And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”
And yes, hopefully you just caught that — these people were in process of naming Elizabeth’s baby for her. Can you imagine that? Some of you moms: could you imagine some friends and relatives coming to see you after you’ve given birth to a child, and they’re like, “Yeah, we’re going to call him Junior”?
That’s what is happening here, and then when Elizabeth tells these people that his name is John, look what happens in verse 61: these people argue with her. They tell Elizabeth that she can’t possibly name her son John because nobody in her family has that name. And then apparently these people get so irritated with Elizabeth that they turn to her husband, Zechariah, and they’re like: “Can you believe what your wife wants to name this child? What are we really going to name him?”
Next time you have a friend who has a baby, I dare you to try this.
And this is when Zechariah, who has not been able to speak in months, grabs a pencil and paper and writes, “His name is John.” And when Zechariah does that all the people are in wonder. And suddenly Zechariah opened his mouth and finally started speaking, and he was blessing and praising God, and then all the people were astonished with fear, and the word about John began to spread throughout this whole region. Everybody was talking about this baby named John because they knew it meant something big.
The Special Occassion of John
And as strange as we might find the involvement of these relatives and neighbors, I think their response here is important. At the level of narrative, their involvement and response is really just meant to showcase the special occasion of John’s birth, and especially the obedience of his parents. Zechariah and Elizabeth named their baby “John” only because that’s what the angel had said. We’re supposed to see here very clearly that apart from the angel the name “John” doesn’t make any sense, but because Zechariah and Elizabeth trust God, “His name is John.” The relatives and neighbors are just a backdrop to highlight this.
Calling Out God’s Mercy
But they also do something else. It’s in how they first interpret the news about John. Luke tells us in verse 58 that when they heard the news of Elizabeth giving birth, Luke says: “they heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.”
So these people heard that Elizabeth had a baby, and Luke says that they heard the Lord showed great mercy to Elizabeth.
Which means that seamlessly, almost automatically, these neighbors and relatives understood the great mercy of God to Elizabeth to be a child.
These people understood that God’s mercy is practical. We’re talking about the practical mercy of God. It’s not theoretical. It’s not abstract. Mercy is not this invisible thing that we reference for sentimental value, but the mercy of God can be seen and heard and held, and his diaper can be changed. And I love that these overbearing relatives and friends saw John that way.
I know they tried to name him, but I’m giving them a pass on that because in a lot of ways I wish we were more like them. What if we looked at one another the way these people looked at Elizabeth?
Do you think we could look at each other’s lives, and in very practical ways, say, “that’s the great mercy of God”? What if we looked for that in one another?
I want us to think about this. When we’re talking with people and we’re hearing about what’s going on in their lives, I want us to look for practical ways where we can say of one another: that’s God’s mercy —
Someone’s talking to you and they say, “I got that promotion at work I was praying about.” That’s God’s mercy.
“Hey, my son wants to be baptized.” That’s God’s mercy.\
“The doctor’s appointment went really well.” That’s God’s mercy.
I want us to see the mercy of God on display in one another’s lives. And then as we see God’s mercy, we say it, and then what do we do? We rejoice together.
Because God’s mercy is practical.
#2. Promised Mercy of God (vv. 67–75)
78 Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71 that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
Look at verse 67. After Zechariah could speak and he was praising God, he speaks a prophecy, and it’s basically the rest of Chapter 1, but it has two parts. The first part is verse 68–75. Let’s read it. Zechariah says:
We see the word “mercy” mentioned there in verse 72, and I think we all have a basic idea about what mercy means in English. Mercy means kindness, forgiveness, goodness — and all that’s right — but in the Bible the word “mercy” can have a very deep and rich meaning, and that’s what we see that here.
Zechariah, in this first part of his prophecy, is not talking about John; he’s talking about Jesus. Zechariah knows that John is a pointer to Jesus, and so it’s about Jesus that he says God has raised up for us a “horn of salvation … in the house of his servant David.” And Zechariah says in verse 70 that God doing this is just like the Old Testament prophets had said, and now here’s the purpose for it in verse 71. God is sending Jesus so that:
first, we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us, and
second, so that God will show the mercy he promised to our fathers…
So we need to get this: Zechariah says Jesus is coming for two reasons:
Jesus is coming to save us; and
Jesus is coming because Jesus is God showing the mercy he promised to Abraham.
So what exactly is that mercy? What is the “mercy” God promised to Abraham? It’s all the promises of God.
The word “mercy” is shorthand for everything that God told Abraham he would do — it includes rescue from Israel’s enemies and a land where God’s people can worship him freely. And this means that when we look back on the Book of Genesis and on the entire Old Testament, there’s one word that can summarize everything we see there: it’s mercy — God’s covenant faithfulness, his resolve to fulfill his word, his unwavering commitment to bring redemption — it is God’s mercy.
And this shows us that God’s mercy is a deliberate action, not a mere reaction. God’s mercy is planned and calculated. It’s on purpose. God is an architect in mercy, not a scribbler. And that is why we can trust him.
The Krispy Kreme “Hot Light”
See, a lot of times we can think of God’s mercy and kindness the way we think about our own. We can think it’s whimsical — we hope we can get some of God’s mercy, but we better catch him at the right time on a good day. We can treat God’s mercy like the Krispy Kreme hot light.
Anybody every heard of Krispy Kreme donuts? They’re big in the Carolinas and other states that love their people. Well Krispy Kreme always has donuts, but throughout the day when the donuts were just being made, when they’re super fresh and warm, they turn on this light that says “Hot Now.”
And whenever you see that light, you know it’s time. People will be driving down the road, they’ll see that light, and they will slam on breaks and spin into the parking lot, and that is completely acceptable. Nobody gets judged for that. In fact, you can go into any place you want holding a dozen Krispy Kreme donuts, and just be like: “it was hot light.”
And as I’ve been thinking about these donuts, I don’t actually remember ever having a Krispy Kreme donut when there wasn’t a hot light. I don’t think anybody ever bothered Krispy Kreme unless they saw that hot light on. And that’s the way we can treat God.
We think that if we really want his mercy, like his good mercy, we better wait for the hot light. Which means, we have to be driving by at exactly the right moment.
But no. That’s not how it works. Because God’s mercy is intentional, it means his mercy is reliable. God is the God who has revealed himself to us. He is a God who has made promises to us, and that means he will always only act in harmony with those promises. And that is his mercy. That’s what Zechariah is saying. In sending Jesus, God is showing mercy. God is doing just like he said he would do. We’re talking about the promised mercy of God.
#3. Personal Mercy of God (vv. 76–79)
This is the last part of Zechariah’s prophecy. Look at verse 76. Zechariah says:
And you, child [talking about John] will be called the prophet of the Most High;
76 for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78 because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79 to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
So we saw a couple weeks back that the mission of John the Baptist was to be a witness for Jesus — God sent John as a prophet to prepare the way for Jesus — and Zechariah says that again here, but with a little more detail this time. What does “preparing the way” for Jesus look like?
Well, preparing the way for Jesus means, in particular, verse 77: “to give the knowledge of salvation to [God’s] people in the forgiveness of their sins.”
In short, John prepared the way for Jesus by reminding God’s people that he had not forgotten them. And why not? Why didn’t God forget his people?
Well that’s in verses 78–79, and here we see a movement into metaphor — Zechariah is going to give us an image. But first, in verse 78, Zechariah says that God hasn’t forgotten us, God is coming to save us, God is at work for us because — verse 78 — “because of the tender mercy of our God.”
This is the third time we see the word mercy, and this is different from the first two.
Mercy from Deep Down
We get that mercy is practical (it’s something we can see) and we get that mercy is promised (God is intentional), but the mercy mentioned here in verse 78 goes even deeper than that. Because now we’re talking about the personal mercy of God.
It means that mercy is not just seen or promised, but mercy starts at the very heart of God himself. That’s what the phrase “tender mercy” means. This is the only time these two Greek words are put together in the whole Bible. The word “tender” actually means inward parts. It’s referring to the stuff deep down on the inside. It’s like how we might use the phrase “the bottom of my heart.” It’s the deepest part inside us, and here it’s describing God’s mercy.
God’s mercy is from the deepest place within him. That’s what it means. It means that God’s mercy is as true and sincere as it possibly could be. There’s nothing held back. This is ultra mercy. This is mercy extreme in its compassion, and it’s so surprising and unexpected that we really can’t wrap our heads around it.
This is one of those phrases where we really just need a story to show us how it looks. The concept is too profound just standing by itself, and so we need an image to attach to these words — and Zechariah does that for us, but Jesus also does that for us a little later in this Gospel.
I think this is the genius of Luke — which is another reason I want to have lunch with him — but a little later in this Gospel Jesus is going to tell a couple stories and he’s going to use the verb form of this word translated as “tender.”
How Mercy Looks
One story comes in Luke 10. It’s about a man who was traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he was attacked by robbers and left for dead. They took everything he had and just threw him by the side of the road barely alive, and the next day, as people walked past him nobody helped him.
But then there was a Samaritan man who came walking by, and Jesus says that when he came to the place where he saw the man laying there on the side of the road helpless, Jesus says the Samaritan man had compassion on him. That’s the word.
Maybe you’ve heard that story. It’s a good one, but that’s not even the main story that uses the word. The main story comes in Luke 15.
This story is about a son, and this son came to his dad one day and he asked his dad if he could cash out his inheritance early. This son wanted to go ahead and pocket all of his property and money, and then when he got it all from his dad he went to faraway country and he spent every bit of it. He burned through all his cash and lived recklessly, and then he became absolutely broke. He had no money; he had no job, and he was starving, and so he went and made himself a slave. He became a feeder of pigs, and he actually found himself hungrier than the pigs he fed, and that’s when he realized: “I’ve got to go back home.”
And so he stands up, surrounded by these pigs, and he decides I’m leaving, and so he starts walking to his dad’s house. And as he’s walking, on this long way back, he’s preparing what he’s going to say to his dad. He’s going to say: “I really messed up. I sinned against God and against you. I don’t deserve to be your son. Just make me a slave.” That’s what he’s practicing as he’s walking and getting closer to his dad’s house.
Meanwhile the dad is at home, and he’s looking out down the road, and a long ways off, way out in the distance, the dad sees his son. And this is a big moment because we all wonder: What’s this dad going to do?
And Jesus says, Luke 15:20, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion…” That’s the word.
And the dad “ran and embraced him and kissed him.” And the son started with his speech, but the dad just held him tight, and then he wrapped him in the best robe he could find, and he put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet and he threw a party.
And that is the mercy of God. That image. That story. That is the tender mercy of God that Zechariah is talking about.
And Zechariah also gives us an image.
Like the Shining Sun
In verse 78 he says that Jesus is coming because of the tender mercy of our God …
whereby (or through which) the sunrise shall visit us from on high,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.
Zechariah says the tender mercy of God is like a sunrise, but it’s not just any sunrise. To really understand what he’s saying we need to have some idea of the people’s situation he describes in verse 79. This is a sunrise for people sitting in darkness. These are people sitting in the shadow of death. It’s dark everywhere around them, and they don’t know where to go. These people are lost.
And I don’t know if you’ve been lost before, but I’ve been lost before and it feels kind of like this metaphor. I was driving my dad’s truck in the mountains of North Carolina and it was dark and foggy, and it wasn’t just that we didn’t know where we were, we couldn’t see where we didn’t know where we were. And we could not improve our situation. That’s what it means to be lost.
Like the man beaten and left for dead; and like the prodigal son who was feeding pigs; these people in Luke Chapter 1 are stuck in darkness. The shadow of death is hovering over them. They’re not going anywhere, and they wonder if the night will ever end.
And then like the man who stops on the road, and like the father who runs to meet his boy, all of a sudden the sun comes up and the light of the sun shines into the darkness and they can see! All of a sudden everything is in color, and now these people know the way. They’re not lost anymore, now they are found.
That is the tender mercy of God. That is the mercy deep down in the heart of God. That is what the coming of Jesus was like. Christmas is like the sun shining into your darkness, bending down to heal your wounds, embracing you with a love that will never let you go.
That is what Jesus means. That is why he came.
And that’s still true today. Wherever you are right now. However dark or wounded or lost you feel, Jesus came to find you.
Jesus came to find you, and how far did he come?
He didn’t just come here as a man, but he came here to live in your place. He has walked in your shoes. He knows what it’s like to be tempted and to suffer. And Jesus did all of that for you — and yet in every way that we failed, Jesus was perfect. And as a righteous man, the only perfect man, Jesus went to the cross and died. Jesus took all of your sins — all of your guilt and shame and fear — and he was punished in your place. Jesus was crucified, dead, and buried for you. And then on the third day, he rose again. Jesus is victorious over sin and death for you. Jesus ascended to heaven and one day he is coming again. And right now he is the sun shining into your darkness. Trust him. This morning wherever you are, you can be found. Put your faith in Jesus.
Father, for those of us who trust you, we thank you for your tender mercy. Father, thank you. And now as we sing, and as we celebrate these baptisms, we ask that you overcome our hearts more and more with the truth of your mercy. Open our eyes to understand in new ways how extreme and wondrous is your compassion toward us.
And for so many, Father, I ask that where there is darkness, give light; and where there is despair, give hope; and where there is sorrow, give joy. Father, make the glory of your Son to shine upon us. We ask in Jesus’s name, amen.