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Sermon: Cathedral Eucharist - 20 December 2015

Sunday 20th December 2015
Cathedral Eucharist
Micah 5.2-5a
Luke 1.39-55
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“God’s mercy is on those who fear him through all generations”

+ In nomine Patris…

A mother, whose son is condemned to die for being a thief, kneels on the ground pleading with the Emperor, ‘Show my son mercy’. Coldly, he replies, ‘This boy is a habitual thief, and for what he has done, he deserves justice, and that justice is death’. The mother begs, ‘But I don’t ask for justice, your highness, I seek mercy’. ‘He deserves no mercy’ replies the Emperor. To which the mother says, ‘It would not be mercy if he deserved it’.

And so, the story goes, the Emperor was touched by the mother’s grief and compassion and released the boy.

This story draws on two particular themes that come from this morning’s gospel reading: that of the mother, and that of mercy.

Mary’s song, the Magnificat, touches many themes, of course. The fundamental one is her glorification of God and his works, in her life and in the world.

Mary magnifies for us the mercy of God: she says, ‘God’s mercy is on those who fear him throughout all generations”, “God, remembering his mercy, has come to the aid of his servant Israel”.

Mercy is at the heart of God’s relationship with Mary’s own people, Israel.

Narrating Israel’s history, Psalm 136 has this as a repeating refrain, ‘for his mercy endureth for ever’.

‘God, remembering his mercy, has come to the aid of his people Israel’, Mary sings.

Israel strays time and again from God. Justice would demand retribution and punishment for that: but God shows mercy and patiently calls Israel back to himself.

But how much mercy? What does mercy look like in the face of terror and violence, in bullying and ostracising? Bluntly, is there any possibility of mercy for Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot, Abu Bakr al-Bagdahi or Jihadi John?

Perhaps justice demands eternal death and damnation for them. Or is that just retribution?

Pope Francis, who is passionate about mercy, has said, ‘Mercy is not opposed to justice but rather expresses God’s way of reaching out to the sinner, offering him a new chance to look at himself, convert and believe.’ (Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus, §21).

This mercy is available to all people in our generation as well as in the past, otherwise it is not mercy.

This is what, in five nights, time we proclaim and celebrate afresh. Mary gives birth to divine mercy in human form. So now we see the divine mercy of God in the face of Jesus Christ.

The ultimate act of mercy is the coming of the Word made Flesh, Jesus Christ. Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness (Philippians 2.7). Christ born as one of us: that is mercy. ‘And being found in human form, he humbled himself, and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross’ (Philippians 2.8). Christ dies for us and our salvation: that is mercy.

Jesus taught and lived mercy. ‘Go away and learn what this means’, he says, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice’ (Matthew 9.13). He became a sacrifice for sin to show us mercy. This is how we can sing, ‘O Lamb of God, that takest away the sin of the world, have mercy upon us’.

Jesus illustrates mercy in the parables.

The parable of the Good Samaritan hinges on mercy. The priests who passed by were being fastidious about ritual cleanliness and bypassed the bloodied man so as not to defile themselves ready to offer the temple sacrifice; because of that they were devoid of mercy.

That’s not what is seen in the Samaritan. Jesus asks the lawyer at the end of the parable, ‘“Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy”. Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10.36, 37).

Another ‘mercy parable’ is the one known as ‘The Prodigal Son’. But focus on the son detracts from the merciful character of the father, which is, without doubt, telling us of the nature of God. It is the parable of the merciful Father.

In that parable justice demanded that the father reject and punish his wayward, disrespectful and morally bankrupt son, yet mercy means that he says, ‘let us celebrate for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ (Luke 15.24).

When mercy is shown to us it is life giving and life affirming.

It is this life that Mary delights in in the Magnifcat.

She sings about God’s mercy which frees us - and his people throughout the ages - to awe, reverence, adoration, honour, worship, confidence, thankfulness and love.

Put that way, when we sing ‘Kyrie eleison’, ‘Lord, have mercy’ it is not an abject plea, but a joyful response to all that God does for us, just as Mary sings about in the Magnificat. When we pray, ‘Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer’ it’s not to persuade God to be merciful but it’s because God is merciful that we can pray it.

So mercy has two faces.

It is the gaze of God upon you and me, mediated in the face of Jesus Christ, the image of the Father. As St Benedict says in his Rule, ‘Finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy’ (RB4).

The challenge of the Magnificat for you and for me is to gaze mercifully upon other people and upon yourself; to be the face of mercy to the people with whom we share our lives, even our enemies and those we find most difficult or detest.

In response to the impending birth of her Son, the Saviour of the World, Mary sings of God’s mercy in her life and in God’s world. Inspired by her example, and the merciful face of her Son, may we hear afresh these words of his, as we prepare for Christmas and live every day of our lives:

‘Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy he has shown you’ (Mark 5.19).