Kingdom of Mercy
Today we are returning to our series “Matthew: An Invitation to the Kingdom”. We paused this series when we switched to online services. As a teaching team, we really wanted to speak God’s truth into the situation we all suddenly found ourselves in. I hope you have enjoyed the last few weeks of the series “For Such a Time As This”.
The first 4 chapters announce that the King has arrived, fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, and we begin to see that following Jesus in this new kingdom will look different than a worldly kingdom.
Then chapters 5 to 7 focus on the teachings of Jesus, or what some call the “laws of the kingdom” – although these are laws rooted in kindness and grace.
Chapters 8 and 9 focus on the power of Jesus and we have a series of stories on healing miracles.
The first few times I read through Chapter 9, I was drawn to the results of Jesus’ miracles:
- Jesus causes a paralyzed man to stand, pick up his mat, and walk.
- A woman suffering from bleeding for 12 years is healed with just a touch of Jesus’ robe.
- A young girl is raised to life.
- Two blind men ask for mercy; their eyes are opened and they can see.
- A mute and possessed man is freed from his tormentors and given back his voice.
The stories in this chapter tell us about the moment of the miracle, the moment of transformation in each of these people’s lives.
I love stories of miracles, of happy endings. Miracle stories are full of promise, and I’m often drawn to them both in the Bible and in real life. So I initially thought I was going to teach today about Jesus’ powerful miracles.
But, here’s the thing that I couldn’t get past: we don’t always get our miracle happy ending, do we? Our stories don’t always turn out the way we had hoped. I have experienced this in my life and I know many of you have as well.
So I started to wonder if God had more for us in this chapter than experiencing the moment of a miracle. I got curious about what was going on for each person before their miracle.
As I read the chapter with a different focus, I could imagine how these people were living in pain, suffering, and desperation.
For the paralytic man, what would it be like to depend on others for everything? To have ideas and dreams, but no ability to act upon them?
For the bleeding women, what would it be like to spend everything you have seeking a cure, but to no end? To live for years, every single day, in chronic pain and isolation?
For the blind men, what would it be like to never see the beauty of a sunrise? To never explore outside your comfort zone for fear of encountering an unknown danger?
It’s not pleasant to imagine what life is like for those who live on the peripheries of society. It’s not pleasant to imagine illness and death or isolation and adversity. Some of you don’t need to use your imagination, this has been your experience the last few months. Some of you are likely feeling empathy right now because you have previously had your own experiences in times of pain, suffering, and desperation.
So my starting point for us today is what does Matthew 9 teach us about the rule and reign of God in times of pain, suffering, and desperation?
By the end of today I hope you will join me in declaring that the rule and reign of God in times of pain, suffering, and desperation is a Kingdom of Mercy. Today you will learn a very practical method of how to have your own experiences with God’s mercy in the moments of your deepest need.
Let’s start with understanding more about mercy.
When the Old Testament references God’s mercy, the word “hesed” is used most frequently. Hesed means unmerited loving-kindness, friendliness, and favour.
So when His people are experiencing pain, suffering, and desperation, mercy is the attribute of God that causes Him to turn toward you and not away from you.
Mercy is the attribute of God that responds to you with loving-kindness, even though you truly have no claim to it, given that you are a sinner.
The word mercy is also translated from “racham”. Racham is actually a verb; it literally means “to compassionate”. So we have to understand mercy not just as an attribute or characteristic, and not just as a feeling; mercy is active.
Let’s take a look at two examples of this mercy in Matthew 9. Read along with me, starting in verse 9:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the toll booth, and he said to him, “Follow me”.
Matthew was a tax collector, an occupation detested by many first-century Jews because tax collectors worked for the oppressive Roman government and they often abused their authority for their own financial gain. As a tax collector, it’s likely Matthew was excommunicated from the synagogue and shunned in Jewish society. Think of who in our society today is completely despised, excluded, or considered to be beyond redemption or forgiveness; that was the tax collector in those days.
But as Jesus was passing by, he stopped and he saw Matthew.
The Greek word here for “saw” is “eido”, meaning to know or discern or to understand. So Jesus didn’t just visually see Matthew, but he perceived who Matthew was and deeply understood him.
St. Bede, an English monk and theologian from the 8th century, wrote that “Jesus saw Matthew through the eyes of mercy and chose him, he said to him: Follow me.”
Jesus saw Matthew in his distressing situation. He saw his wretchedness and his sin and he met Matthew in his need; despite everything, he called Matthew to be his disciple. This is mercy.
A second example of mercy in this chapter is Jesus healing several people from disability and disease. To understand these healings as examples of mercy we need to understand the historical context of illness and disease. Obviously, in Jesus’ day, there was a lack of scientific knowledge about medicine. People didn’t understand bacteria or viruses. There was no such thing as immunizations. Medical treatments would have been simple, made from mixtures of herbs or animal parts.
The dominant belief was that sickness was caused by the sin of the sick person, and that sickness or disability was a punishment for that sin.
Given this, the chronically ill—such as the paralytic, the bleeding woman, or the blind men—would have been considered impure and thus they would have had restricted or even no access to religious and social life. Chronic illness in those days meant you were excluded and shunned from your family and community.
But this was not Jesus’ response.
When the paralytic man is boldly lowered from the roof, Jesus recognizes his faith and doesn’t just offer physical healing but also forgiveness of sins.
When the bleeding woman timidly touches his robe Jesus turns toward her and the same word, eido, is used here again. Just like with Matthew, Jesus doesn’t just visually see this woman, he perceives and deeply understands who she is. Instead of rebuking her for defiling him with her impurity he calls her daughter and offers her words of loving encouragement.
When the blind men persist in following Jesus, begging for his mercy, he physically touches them and according to their faith he restores their sight.
In those days, restoration to physical health was also restoration to status within one’s family and community.
Jesus’ mercy is not just an abstract feeling, it is “visceral”; it’s something that quite literally changes you from the inside out.
What moved Jesus in all these situations was nothing other than mercy, with which he read the hearts of those he encountered and responded to their deepest need.
If I were to try to sum up mercy for you, I would describe it like this: God, who is all-powerful and holy, is concerned with your distressing situation as a human being. He sees the wretchedness of your sin and misery, and hears your laments. God remembers his promises to you. God comes to you in your need, and despite all your unfaithfulness, he concerns himself with you and forgives you again and again. This is mercy.
So let’s go back to our starting question of today: what does Matthew 9 teach us about the rule and reign of God in times of pain, suffering, and desperation?
These stories in Matthew 9 teach us that the place where you will encounter the mercy of Jesus will be the place of your deepest need.
You have to start by acknowledging your own deep needs, by examining your own pain, suffering, and desperation.
- What might be standing between you and God?
- What experiences are causing pain or suffering between you and your family or community?
- In what areas of your life are you feeling rejected or excluded?
This type of self-reflection isn’t easy and it might not be something you want or feel ready to do, but the first and only step required to experience mercy is to acknowledge that you are in need of mercy. Even just an expression of your desire for mercy is enough.
In verse 27 the blind men call out “Have mercy on us, Son of David”. This verse offers us a practical idea of how to begin a process of self-examination and an encounter with mercy.
Lord, have mercy. Kyrie Elieson.
There is probably no prayer in the history of Christianity that has been prayed so frequently and intimately as the prayer “Lord, have mercy”.
The “Lord, have mercy” prayer is typically associated with Eastern Orthodox litanies, which are requests that are repeated, three times, twelve times, sometimes even up to one hundred times. In this tradition it is also known as a “breath” prayer, a practice taught by the monastic fathers in which you unite your breathing to your praying.
In the Western Roman Catholic or Anglican churches, it is common to find this prayer either spoken or sung repeatedly as a part of a regular service.
I want to acknowledge that sometimes we can have a negative reaction to the repetitive nature of liturgical traditions. They can seem contrived and you might feel that the repetition takes away from the meaning of the words. So I want to share with you my own experience with repetitive prayers like the “Lord, have mercy” prayer.
I first turned to liturgical prayers a few years ago, when I was struggling to focus my thoughts and put my own words together in prayer. I started out with trying Benedictian fixed-hour prayers; using an app or the book Divine Hours, I would stop at various times to pray the morning, mid-day, or evening prayer.
I liked knowing that I was praying the same prayers each day as thousands of other believers across the world. Eventually breath prayers became a way for me to pray at any point in the day, often with a phrase drawn from a verse I was meditating on or even just the word “Jesus”.
Fixed-hour prayers and breath prayers help me to pray when I can’t even come up with the words myself.
I started off today by hoping you would join me in declaring that the rule and reign of God in times of pain, suffering, and desperation is a Kingdom of Mercy, and by promising you would learn a very practical method of how to have your own experiences of mercy in the moments of your deepest need. The “Lord, have mercy” prayer is this simple, practical method that will help you encounter and experience God’s mercy.
This week, I invite you to practice praying the “Lord, have mercy” prayer. I actually suggest you try it during moments this week when you are experiencing pain, suffering, or desperation. Maybe when you are fighting with your spouse or annoyed at your kids or your roommate. Maybe when you wake up in the middle of the night feeling overwhelmed by your worries.
Take a deep breath and say “Lord”. Breathe in the sovereign lordship of Jesus, your King. Then exhale, “have mercy”. Breathe out anything standing between you and God. Repeat the prayer a few times, taking deep breaths and letting God’s mercy wash over you.
Whatever your experience of pain, suffering, or desperation, when you pray “Lord, have mercy” God will turn toward you, He will hear your laments, and He will respond with a loving-kindness that will change you. This is mercy.
How can I assure you of that? Because God himself has promised you that.
God’s mercy endures forever. Psalm 136 repeats this phrase 26 times, a consistent promise from the beginning of time, in all of creation, to all of God’s people, whether you are wandering in the wilderness or in need of deliverance today.
In times of pain, suffering, and desperation, the rule and reign of God is a Kingdom of Mercy, available to everyone. That is truly a miracle.
With this in mind, let us pray.
Eternal God, in whom mercy is endless and the treasury of compassion inexhaustible, look kindly upon us and increase Your mercy in us; that in difficult moments we might not despair nor become despondent, but with great confidence submit ourselves to Your holy will, which is Love and Mercy itself.