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April 18, 2020

The sparrow

Have you ever read or heard a statement that stopped you in your tracks, took up immediate residence in your mind and continues to create an echo in your heart that reverberates out through your life?

This happened to me recently, but before I get into what's gotten into me, I'd like to offer a couple of examples out of my past. Words that stuck.

The first one goes back more than fifty years. It came from the lips and heart of President John Kennedy. Here was his challenge to America: "Don't ask what your Country can do for you, but rather what you can do for your country!" His commitment to our country cost him his life. I am deeply moved by how his words and sacrifice are being fleshed out today by thousands of Americans who are putting their lives on the line for others during the Coronavirus Pandemic. "Words that stick" and bear fruit even in the lives of those who have never heard them. Words have a power of their own beyond the lives of those who speak them. "I'm proud to be an American," as the song says. More words that continue to stick in my mind. I sometimes think about them when I have the privilege of putting my hand over my heart and declaring the Pledge of Allegiance: "one nation under God with liberty and justice for all..." My eyes tear up. They need to!

The second example I'd like to offer comes from the words of Abraham Lincoln. I read them years ago but they still stick in my mind. I may not get this word perfect, but the impact of Lincoln's words is there: "I'm not as concerned that God is on my side as I am that I'm on his side!" I am reminded of another leader who had the same concern. He put it this way: "Search me O God and know my heart, test me and know my thoughts" (NIV: anxious thoughts:). "Point out any thing that offends you (I always add, "or makes you sad"), and lead me along the path of everlasting life" (King David, Psalm 139: 23,24). Should not words like these find expression in all our hearts?

Now the words that got to me recently got to me to the degree I wanted to share them with all of you.

I opened my Bible to 1st Peter a few days ago and two words gripped my heart in 1:3: "Boundless mercy." Here's the complete verse: "All honor to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for it is by his boundless mercy that God has given us the privilege of being born again. Now we live with a wonderful expectation because Jesus Christ rose from the dead." Edmund Clowney in his book," The Message of 1 Peter (the Bible Speaks Today) writes concerning Peter: "The resurrection of Jesus was a life-changing reality for Peter. When Jesus died on the cross, it was the end of all Peter's hopes. He knew only the bitter sorrow for his own denials." ("I swear by God, I don't know this man you're talking about" (Mark 14: 71) "The dawn could not bring hope: with the crowing of the cock (rooster) he heard the echo of his curses" (P. 44). But all that was about to change because Peter would discover that his hopes wouldn't end with the crucifixion, because "Jesus Christ rose again from the dead" to give us new life through his boundless mercy.

Peter's whole life was capsulized in those two words: "Boundless mercy." Mercy can be defined as the offering of help beyond our weaknesses. I wonder what all went through Peter's mind prior to his writing "boundless mercy." Was it a time of reflection? What had he seen and heard in the life of his Lord? There was a gift of mercy offered to the woman who was shoved before Jesus, accused by the religious leaders of committing adultery. They wanted her stoned to death. "All right, (said Jesus), stone her. But let those who have never sinned throw the first stones." Then Jesus offered her mercy beyond the boundaries of adultery: "Neither do I (condemn you). Go and sin no more" (John 8: 1-11). Was Peter thoughtful about this? Are we? Then there was Zacchaeus, "one of the most influential Jews in the Roman tax-collecting business, and he was very rich" (Luke 19:2). But his riches did not satisfy the deepest needs of his heart. He also would not have been popular with his fellow Jews. He was short in stature and the crowds wouldn't make room for him to get a glimpse of Jesus. No mercy for him so he ran ahead and climbed up a sycamore tree. When Jesus walked by he stopped, looked up, at Zacchaeus and called out: "Zacchaeus! Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today." "Zacchaeus climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and Joy" (Luke 19: 5,6). And how did the crowd (many of them religious) respond: "The crowds were displeased. 'He has gone to be a guest of a notorious sinner,' they grumbled." (Luke 19: 7). What did Peter see that day? Jesus' "boundless mercy", (no social distancing) extended to "notorious sinners" including Zacchaeus!

On Jesus' final journey to Jerusalem, great crowds lined the roadway. Mark tells us that at the side of the road that day sat a "blind beggar" named Bartimaeus. When he heard Jesus was passing by, "he began to shout out! Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me. What kind of response did the crowd have to his appeal for mercy? Mark 10: 48: "Be quiet!" some of the people yelled at him." This might be interpreted "Don't bother Jesus, beggar!" But how did Jesus respond? "When Jesus heard him, he stopped and said, Tell him to come here! Mercy has time for others. Bartimaeus pleaded for "mercy" and Jesus honored his request and restored his sight. Peter observed that "boundless mercy" includes ignored people along the side of the road of life. Peter would never forget this. Mark probably got this story from Peter.

One of the most moving accounts of Jesus' (God's) boundless mercy came from the Cross. Jesus was on the cross for six hours, but shortly before he uttered his last words these words echoed across the crowd who had put him there, including the four soldiers that performed the crucifixion: "FATHER FORGIVE THEM, FOR THEY KNOW NOT WHAT THEY DO" (Luke 10:34). Then he turned to the thief who out of a repentant heart (We deserve to die for our evil deeds', Luke 23: 41) pleaded with Jesus for mercy: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom and Jesus responded, "I assure you, today you will be with me in Paradise (Luke 23: 42, 43).

One of the greatest expressions of mercy is forgiveness. Peter experienced the boundless mercy of Jesus when Jesus invited him back as an apostle (John 21:15-23).

Two things. Jesus wants to include us in his boundless mercies. In the weaknesses and sins of our lives, whatever they may be, Jesus says, "Come to me, all you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke fits perfectly and the burden I give you is light" (Matthew 11: 28-30). Will you reach out and take Jesus at his word?

The second thing is this: Jesus (representing the Father's heart) wants us to extend mercy to others, some who have been badly crippled by life. Now in our human beingness, even as Christians, we need to be honest and admit that the boundaries of our mercy toward others are not "boundless" but Jesus wants to help us expand them.

Yesterday as I was working on this article I heard a thump against the glass sliding-door of my cabin. When I got up to investigate I saw a little sparrow lying next to the door. She was breathing with difficulty and could not move. I picked her up, cupped her in my hands and sat on my couch with her. My heart was sad but hopeful. I prayed that God would give her life back and I said to her as she looked up at me with her tiny eyes, "Life can be hard sometimes here on earth." After about a half hour of giving a piece of my life to her she was able to fly again and be what God created her to be. Thank you, Lord! Jesus said, "not even a sparrow, worth only half a penny, can fall to the ground without your Father knowing it" (Matthew 10:29). The boundless mercy of God. It goes all the way to sparrowness, and BEYOND. Maybe we can help someone to "fly again!"

In closing I want to offer you a quote from the book, "Against All Hope: the Prison Memoirs of Armando Valladares", P. 380. It is about his twenty-two years in one of Castro's Prisons. Here's what he saw one day: " the midst of the gray, ashy dust and the orgy of beatings and blood, prisoners beaten to the ground, a man emerged, the skeletal figure of a man wasted by hunger, with white hair, blazing blue eyes, and a heart overflowing with love, raising his arms to the invisible heaven and pleading for mercy for his executioners. "Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do." and a burst of machine-gun fire ripping open his breast".

Until next time,

Pastor Joe


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