THE TENDER MERCY OF OUR GOD
"To give knowledge of salvation unto his people
by the remission of their sins through the tender mercy of our God;
whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us,
to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death
to guide our feet into the way of peace."
Observe how Zacharus, in this his joyful song, extolled the remission of sins, as one of the most extraordinary proofs of the tender mercy of our God. He had been dumb for a season, as a chastisement for his unbelief; and therefore he used his recovered speech to sing of pardoning mercy. No salvation is possible without forgiveness, and so Zacharias says, "To give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins." The Lord could not forgive them on the ground of justice, and therefore he did so because of his tender mercy—the tender mercy of our God, who has made himself "our God" by the covenant of grace. He passes by the transgression of his people because he delighteth in mercy. At the very outset, I want any soul here that is burdened with sin to believe in the forgiveness of sins, and to believe in it because God is love, and has a great tenderness towards the work of his hands. He is so pitiful that he loves not to condemn the guilty, but looks with anxious care upon them to see how he can turn away his wrath and restore them to favor. For this reason alone there is remission of sins. Forgiveness comes not to us through any merit of ours, present or foreseen; but only through the tender mercy of our God, and the marvellous visit of love which came of it. If he be gracious enough to forgive our sins, it can be done; for every arrangement is already made to accomplish it. The Lord is gracious enough for this—for anything. Behold him in Christ Jesus, and there we see him as full of compassion. We sang just now, and sang most truly—
"His heart is made of tenderness,
His bowels melt with love."
Now, the original word is, "The mercy of the heart of our God." The evangelists, though they wrote in Greek, carried with them into that language the idioms of the Hebrew tongue; so that they do not use an adjective, as it would seem from our translation—"tender mercy;" but they say, mercy of the bowels, or of the inwards, or of the heart of God. "The mercy of the heart of God" is to be seen in the remission of sin, and in the visitation of his love when he comes to us as "the dayspring from on high." Great is the tenderness of divine mercy.
Nor is this all—the mercy of God's heart means his hearty mercy, his cordial delight in mercy. Remission of sins is a business into which the Lord throws his heart. He forgives with an intensity of will, and readiness of soul. God made heaven and earth with his fingers, but he gave his Son with his heart in order that he might save sinners. The Eternal God has thrown his whole soul into the business of redeeming men. If you desire to see God most Godlike, it is in the pardon of sin, and the saving of men. If you desire to read the character of God written out in capital letters, you must study the visitation of his love in the person of his dear Son, and all the wonderful works of infinite grace which spring therefrom. It is a grand sight to behold God in earnest when he says, "Now will I arise." With awe we watch him as he lays bare his arm: but this full energy of power is best seen when his work is grace. When he stirs up his strength to come and save us, and brings the essence of his being into intense action to bless us, we are favored indeed. It is this watching to do us good, this eagerness to bless us, which is meant by the mercy of his heart. It is not only tenderness, but intensity, heartiness, eagerness, delight, and concentration of power. All this is to be seen in the dealing of God with guilty men when he visits them to grant them the remission of their sins.
I. In the first place, I invite you to observe that he shows this tender mercy in that HE DEIGNS TO VISIT US. "Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us."
In what ways has the Lord shown his tender mercy in deigning to visit us?
Remember that he not only took our nature, but he dwelt among us in this world of sin and sorrow. This great Prince entered our abode—what if I call it this hut and hovel?—wherein our poor humanity finds its home for a season. This little planet of ours was made to burn with a superior light among its sister stars while the Creator sojourned here in human form. He trod the acres of Samaria, and traversed the hills of Judea. "He went about doing good." He mingled among men with scarcely any reservation; being through his purity separate from sinners as to his character, yet he was the visitor of all men. He was found eating bread with a Pharisee, which perhaps is a more wonderful thing than when he received sinners, and ate with them. A fallen woman was not too far gone for him to sit on the kerb of the well, and talk to her; nor were any of the poor and ignorant too mean for him to care for them. He was bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, and his visit to us was therefore of the most intimate kind. He disdained no man's lowliness; he turned aside from no man's sin.
But I do not think we ought to insist upon this as the only visit of God's tender mercy, since the text is in the Revised Version rendered in the future: "The tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high shall visit us." To this day we are visited of God in other respects, but with equal mercy. The proclamation of the gospel in a nation, or to any individual, is a visit of God's mercy. Whenever you come and hear the gospel, be you sure of this, whether you receive it or not, the kingdom of God has come nigh unto you. Even if you stop your ears, and will have none of it, yet God has visited you in tender mercy, in that by the gospel he tells you that there is a way of salvation, that there is a plan for the remission of sin. It is a monstrosity—what if I say a miracle?—of iniquity, that men having sinned, and God having done so much to work out a way of remission of those sins, men should refuse to accept God's pardoning love. Oh, my hearers, Why are you so besotted? Wherefore do you hate your own souls? Surely, the devils themselves would at the first have scarce believed it, that there could exist a race of creatures so hardened as to refuse the love which visits them in grace. This is what devils never did. Men sin not only against God, but against their own interest, when they turn aside from the wooings of disinterested goodness, and refuse salvation through him who loved us even to the death. That which God has so tenderly and heartily wrought out in the gift of his dear Son to die for us ought to be received with eagerness. Will not you receive it? My dear hearers, you shall not go out of this place this morning without knowing that God in great tender mercy hath visited you by the blessed fact of your having heard the good tidings of free grace. Jesus seeks you, will you not seek him?
Often and often, since our first visitation by the Lord, I trust we have had special visits from him, bringing with them rapturous joys, singular deliverances, and countless blessings. "The love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us." The Lord has visited us in the night: he has drawn nigh unto our spirit, and so he has preserved us. We have enjoyed near and dear communion with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. Have we not? This hath often happened when we have been in great trouble. When we were depressed in spirit, when we were burdened with unusual cares, or weeping over heart-breaking bereavements, the mercy of our God has made the dayspring from on high to visit us at just such times; and therein we have seen his tenderness. Our life is bright with these visits as the sky with stars. I cannot enlarge upon this charming theme, but I leave it to your thoughts, O you whose experience will be the best sermon on the text! The visits of God to his own children are proofs of the heartiness, the intensity, the tenderness of his mercy. Talk of it, ye who have had most enjoyment of such visits!
While this gospel visitation is thus apparently less in splendor than that of the law, yet it is not deficient in efficacy or in true glory. God has not visited us as a candle, which might suffice to cheer our darkness but could not change it into day. David rejoiced, saying, "The Lord will light my candle;" but in this we go far beyond him: we need no candle, for the Lord has visited us with the day-dawn.
The visitation of the Lord to us is as the dayspring, because it suits our eye. Observe how the eye is suited to the light, and the light to the eye, in the economy of nature; and it is even so in the realm of grace. Day, when it first breaks in the east, has not the blaze of burning noon about it; but it peeps forth as a grey light, which gradually increases to the perfect day. So did the Lord Jesus Christ come: dimly as it were, at first, at Bethlehem, but by-and-by he will appear in all the glory of the Father. So doth the Spirit of God come to us in gradual progress. There is sweet suitableness in the grace of God to the heart, and in the renewed heart to the grace of God. He hath abounded towards us in all wisdom and prudence. The revelation of God to each individual is made in form and manner tenderly agreeable to the condition and capacity of the favored one. I sometimes think the gospel was made exactly to meet my case. Do you not think the same of it yourselves? The morning light suits your eye as exactly as if there were no other creature to behold it; and so in divine tenderness the Lord has made his visits suitable to our sorrow, and even to our weakness. He shows us just so much of himself as to delight us without utterly overwhelming us with the excess of brightness. He might have come in the majesty of his grace to us at the first, as he does to us afterwards; but then we were not able to bear it, and so he forbore. We are now more ready to sup with him upon strong meat, and so he puts us upon men's fare; whereas before he gave us milk, which is more convenient for babes. All the visits of God to us are merciful, but in those of the dawn of grace we see tenderness as well as mercy.
I like to think of Christ as coming into the world as the morning light, because he comes with such a largeness of present blessing—blessing immeasurable, unlimited. Some are always for measuring out Christ: they can never do without estimates of how much, and how far. Truly our Lord comes to save his elect, that I do verily believe; but hence certain friends would allot so many beams of light to so many eyes, and limit the light by the number of those who rejoice in it. Not so, beloved, Jesus is the light of the world; he comes from on high to shed light over the whole universe, even as the sun goeth forth from one end of heaven to the other, and there is nothing hid from the heat thereof. He appears as the light which lighteneth every man that cometh into the world: there is no other light. Whosoever is willing to receive that light is free to do so: yea, he shines on blind eyes. This light comes even to those who hate it, and thus they are left without excuse: "the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not," and "this is the condemnation, that light is come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil." When the Lord comes to men, his blessings are infinite. You might as well take your three feet rule, and begin to measure the length and breadth of the sunlight as measure the length and breadth of the tender mercy of our God in the revelation of our Lord Jesus Christ.
Now all this seems to me to be a wonderful instance of the tenderness of divine mercy. Think you not so? This coming of the Lord, and of his light, so gradually, and yet so lavishly; so fittingly, and yet so effectually; does it not fill you with gratitude? Every little bird rejoices in the rising of the sun: God has made that great orb to rise so graciously that not even a sparrow trembles at it, but chirps with confidence its happy praises. Not even a little flower trembles because the great sun is about to flood the heavens, but God hath so made the sun to rise that every tiny cup of every flower that blooms opens to drink in the golden light, and is refreshed thereby. The coming of Christ is just such to us, even to the least and feeblest of us. It is not a stupendous blessing, crushing us by its enormous weight; it is not a mysterious revelation, confounding us by its profundity; but it is simplicity itself, gentleness itself; none the less, but all the more grand and sublime because it is so simple and so tender. Let us bless God this morning, then, that he visits us, and that when he visits us, it is as the dayspring from on high.
Furthermore, our God visits us when we are in darkness; when we are in such darkness as to know nothing, see nothing, believe nothing, hope nothing; even then the Lord's mercy comes to us. Is not this tenderness? "Educate a man up to a certain point," says one, "and then we may hope that God's grace will visit him." Educate him by all means, but have hope that God may visit even those who have no education of any sort. "Follow the advance of civilization," cries one, "and do not risk your missionaries among barbarians." Not so; our marching orders are, "Preach the gospel to every creature." The gospel is to precede and produce civilization. To them that sit in darkness, the Lord is pleased to send the dayspring from on high. To send light where there is light is superfluous. Have we not a proverb about sending coals to Newcastle? God sendeth not grace to us because we have already something which may be viewed as prevenient and preparatory; but the prevenient and the preparatory are of his grace, and he comes in love to bring these with him, to those who as yet know nothing of his light and life. They are in the dark, and he creates their day.
Then it is added, "and in the shadow of death." Did you ever feel that shadow? It has a horrible influence. Chill and cold, it freezes the marrow of the bones, and stops the genial current of life in the veins. Death stands over the man, and if his hand does not smite, yet his shadow darkens joy, and chills hope, benumbing the heart, and making life itself a mode of death. The shadow of death is confusion of mind, depression of spirit, dread of the unknown, horror at the past, and terror of the future. Are any of you at this time bowing down under the shadow of death? Has hell gaped wide, and opened her jaws for you? Have you in your despair made a league with death, and a covenant with hell? Thus saith the Lord, "Your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand;" for the Lord has come forth, and visited you in the person of his dear Son to deliver the captive, and save those who are appointed unto death. Knowing your guilt, the Lord visits you this morning, and bids you look up. "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world." Look and live; look, and be delivered at once, even from the horrible deathshadow which now broods over you. I do delight to think of this tender mercy of God to those who are lost. There are lost that shall be found, and last that shall be first. You seem forgotten of God, left out of the register of hope, but yet to you has Jesus come—"to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death." Is not this tender mercy? If he had not come to shine on such I should never have been saved. A gospel for the cheerful would never have met my case; I wanted a gospel for the despairing. I know some here who must have perished if the gospel had only been suitable to those who are of good character, and have the beginnings of natural religion within them. Only a sinner's Savior would have suited some of you, or, indeed, any of us. As the good Samaritan did to the wounded man, "he came where he was," so did Jesus come to us in our ruin. The benefactor of the wounded did not stand and say to him, "Come here, and get on my beast, and he shall carry you to the inn." But he went to him when he was lying half dead, and therefore helpless; and he poured the oil and wine into his wounds while the poor wretch could not move an inch, nor stir hand or foot. He bound up his wounds, and then set him on his own beast, and took him to the inn. This is tender mercy; and in this fashion Jesus deals with us. He does everything for us from the very beginning. He is Alpha, even as he must be Omega. Does not this show the tender mercy of our God, that he does come to us in the darkness, and under the grim shadow of death, and there and then reveals his love to us?
Our point is this, that when the Lord Jesus Christ visits us, he actually brings light to our darkness; really leads into the way, and makes that way a way of peace to us. Put all together, and remember what the Lord has done for you. You did not know the way once, and all the preaching in the world would not have made you know it, if Jesus had not by his Spirit visited you as the dayspring. When you did know the way, you could not reach it of yourself: you saw it as from a distance, and could not enter upon it, but when Jesus came near, he actually guided your feet into that way. He put your feet upon a rock, and established your goings. That way, good as it was, would have been to you a way of doubt, and fear, and hesitation, if the Lord had not so sweetly shone upon you that your road became a way of perfect peace. Peace in our text means prosperity, plenty, rest, joy. I ask you, friends, whether you have not found it so. Since the Lord has visited you, have you not gone forth with joy, and been led forth with peace?
The call this morning is for liberal help to our hospitals. These are called in France "houses of God;" truly they are Godlike in their design. There is not a man here but may be in a hospital to-morrow. Do you reply that you are a wealthy man? Yet you may be run over in the street, or fall in a fit, and the hospital's door is open to you. It is not merely for the beggar, but for the noble, that this is a refuge. Many a time men of immense wealth have had to be carried to the hospital from injury inflicted by fire or water, accident, or sudden sickness. I appeal to your selfishness, and to your honor: pay your proportion towards a common protection.
But I appeal to you on higher grounds. I forget just now how many thousands of cases of accident have gone into the hospital during the past year, but it is very surprising. They never ask who they are, or where they come from, but receive all the wounded. Every great accident involves a huge expense upon the hospital which is near the spot. This is not sufficiently thought of, or there would be special contributions on each sad occasion. Few consider how these noble institutions are supported. "Oh, the rich people give to them!" Alas, the rich people often forget them! "Oh, but these general collections will do the work!" No such thing! It is such a pitiful contribution which usually makes up a collection that the hospitals are little aided thereby. These institutions are left to run into debt, or spend their capital, or keep their beds empty. I could not too strongly put the case of hospitals just now. I have half wished that the Government would undertake them, only I am not sure that they would be so well conducted in that case as when they are left to private management by hearts that feel for men. Something must be done. We must give a great deal more; the collections ought to be at least twice as much in all our churches and chapels as they have ever been. If you were present when a man was run over, and you heard his bone break, you would put your hand into your pocket, or do anything else in your power to help him. I wish I could make you feel in the presence of such a calamity for a minute, so as to touch your hearts and your hands. Diseases are always abroad, and driving thousands to seek hospital help. I would like to take you down a ward, and cause you to listen to the stories told from half-a-dozen beds. What sickness! What poverty caused by sickness! What pains poor bodies are capable of enduring! Oh, come, let us help them! Let us give to the support of those who nurse them, and for the help of those who exercise their best skill for their relief. Who can withhold? By the tender mercy of our God, I charge you to give freely to this excellent cause. As the box goes round, remember that this is not the time for threepenny-pieces. You who are wealthy must write cheques or give notes, and you may send them to our treasurer if you prefer it. All must be generous for the sake of that tender mercy which is the dayspring of our hope and life.