We recently held what is, I believe, one of our most memorable missions conferences. Our guest speaker was Choolwe Mwetwa from Central Baptist Church in Chingola, Zambia, and he spoke to us on “The Greatness of the Great Commission.” Sitting under his ministry was like receiving manna. But he has returned now to his home church now. The manna has ceased, and we are now being fed with the ordinary food of the land (see Joshua 5:11).
In one sense, nothing has changed since our conference, at least nothing with reference to the greatness of the Great Commission and our responsibility to have a great commitment to it. And yet, there is a sense in which some things have changed. As a church, we have experienced challenges since Choolwe left. In recent days since the conference, sin that was unknown has been exposed in the lives of church members. Heartache, devastation, broken relationships, almost unbearable pain, not to mention shame, have been felt by many. One particular sin issue was recently raised in the congregation, and the effects will no doubt be multiplied for a long time to come. In that sense, a lot has changed since last week.
These two realities come together in the words and the theme of Psalm 67.
This psalm was written in celebration of the harvest that was typically acknowledged at the annual feast of Pentecost. The people of God celebrated the wonderful provision from the good hand of God upon them. And they pled for more.
But the psalm is not only about a physical harvest. Rather it also typifies the spiritual harvest among the nations. It is a missions-themed song.
Israel, in her better moments, realised that she was on mission for God—to glorify Him among the nations.
But when you think about her history, it is clear that Israel was a mess. Her “church life” was messy with sins—all sorts of sins. But her mission remained the same. That is why she needed mercy. And the same is true of the Israel of God in our own day. The same is true for this local expression of that Israel of God here at BBC. The gap between the mess we are and the mission that we have is filled by the mercy God gives.
As I briefly survey this psalm under that theme, I want to touch on five major points.
The Means of Mercy
First, I wish to touch on the means of mercy. The psalm significantly begins with a cry for God’s mercy, for His grace to them: “God be merciful to us and bless us, and cause His face to shine upon is” (v. 1).
The Hebrew word translated “merciful” is ḥânan. It means to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior; to favour or bestow. Causatively, it means to implore—to beseech for favour; to be merciful, have mercy or for another. This is significant.
The psalmist, representative of true Israel (see Romans 9:6) had a heart for God. He had a heart for God’s mission, and faith and hope in what God could do. In short, he had a passion for God. But He knew that the nation was dependent upon God for success in this mission. This was no ordinary mission. It was a supernatural one. It involved spiritual conflict (Ephesians 6). We need great mercies for this great mission.
The Mission of Mercy
Second, we must consider the mission of mercy. The mission is about those who have received mercy proclaiming that mercy to others. It is about one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread. The mission given to the church is to “that [God’s way] may be known on earth, [His] salvation among all nations” (v. 2). Since we have received God’s mercy and blessing, since His face has shone upon us, we are responsible to tell others how they can experience similar mercy.
Elsewhere, God reminded Israel that He did not choose them because they were better than the surrounding nations:
For you are a holy people to the LORD your God; the LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself, a special treasure above all the peoples on the face of the earth. The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the least of all peoples; but because the LORD loves you, and because He would keep the oath which He swore to your fathers, the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
In light of the fact that they had received mercy, they were to preach a message of mercy to the surrounding nations.
Paul said something similar in the New Testament, writing to his young friend and disciple, Timothy:
And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord who has enabled me, because He counted me faithful, putting me into the ministry, although I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man; but I obtained mercy because I did it ignorantly in unbelief. And the grace of our Lord was exceedingly abundant, with faith and love which are in Christ Jesus. This is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. However, for this reason I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might show all longsuffering, as a pattern to those who are going to believe on Him for everlasting life.
(1 Timothy 1:12–16)
Why did Paul obtain mercy? In order that he might live as an example to those who would later believe, through his message, in Jesus Christ.
When we lose sight of this mercy, we have lost the plot of the mission. Perhaps that is why it is not a passion to so many who claim the name of Christ. Only those who are truly glad will sing such a song—at least, with meaning.
But what makes a person glad in the Lord? It is the experience of His mercy. One things of the woman in Luke 7, who washed Jesus feet with her tears. With Simon the Pharisee got upset at what he saw, Jesus told him that she was doing it as a display of her understanding of His mercy. She had been forgiven much, and so she loved much. When the lame man in Acts 3 experienced mercy, he walked and leaped and praised God, and immediately told people about what God had done for him. Peter failed Jesus miserably when he denied Him three times, but Jesus restored him (John 21), and Peter because the foremost spokesman for the early evangelists, and the one on whom, humanly speaking, the church is built.
Time and again in the New Testament, you find those who have experienced God’s mercy expressing that mercy to others. Likewise, we who have received mercy are to be taking the message of mercy to the lost.
The Message of Mercy
Third, we must address the actual message of mercy. This psalm is a message of mercy. It speaks of mercy being showered, not only upon Israel, but upon all the nations. “The peoples” and “the nations” must all come to “praise God,” to “be glad and sing for you.”
Natalie Grant has sung, “It’s never too late, never too far, for you to reach out…. When you feel the rain, call out His name; He’ll find you in the hurricane.” This is the message of mercy: that God’s mercy is available to all who will receive it.
It is the message that drives the mission. The message is on mission and it is a message drenched in mercy. Only mercy can heal the nations. Only mercy can make the nations glad. Only mercy can overcome the misery. God’s hesed is His message—at least for now.
And the LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”
The gladness of which the psalmist writes is the fruit of grace. That is why it is so essential that we live gospel-centred lives. We need more grace, and grace is found only in the gospel of Jesus Christ. Barbara Duguid, in Extravagant Grace, asks,
What if growing in grace is more about humility, dependence, and exalting Christ than it is about defeating sin? How would that impact our struggle with sin and our joy in Christ as we continue to live as weak sinners in a fallen world? Surely it would make all the difference in the world!
And, I might add, it would make all the difference to the world. This is a major point of Psalm 67.
The Mess that Requires the Mercy
Next, we must address the mess that requires mercy. The cry for mercy implies sin. The psalm is predicated on failure. The opening verses confesses a missing mark; it comes in the historical context of sinful messiness.
Israel was a nation on a mission, but it was a nation in a mess. Just days after God’s glorious deliverance from Egypt, the people were whining about his perceived inability to provide for and protect them. Just days after receiving manna from heaven, they complained in unbelief. Days after receiving the law on Sinai, attended with powerful manifestations of God’s holy presence, they built a golden calf and worshipped it. Despite miracle after miracle, they refused to believe God about victory on the mission field of the Promised Land. Despite the experience of miraculous victories in Canaan, they sinned in the accursed thing (Joshua 7). Despite God’s blessings, they departed from Him and were often defeated (see the record of Judges). Despite restoration, they sinned against God and were carried away exile.
What a mess! God’s people were clearly in need of mercy for their mission! Thankfully, at least some of them realised that they were on mission for God. They realised that nothing had changed in that regard. Perhaps what did change was the realisation that they needed God’s mercy and grace for the mission.
So it is with us. We are still to pray the Lord’s Prayer. We are still to see Matthew 28:18–20 as our mandate, given to us by our Master.
Practically, we cannot allow the mess of body life to divert us from the mission of the body. Yet, at the same time, the mess does mess with the mission and therefore we should daily be praying for God’s renewable energy of daily mercies as a means to live right thus avoiding the mess.
When messiness hits a church, the church must persevere. There is too much at stake for us to be paralysed. Consider the ministry of the early church. There was a big mess in Acts 5, but the church marched on. In fact, the church grew in the very face of the mess it faced! Paul found it necessary to confront Peter to the face in a very messy situation in Antioch (Galatians 2), and through it the church experienced mercy to continue its mission.
While we must persevere despite the mess, we must all be committed at the same time to minimising the mess. When a mess occurs, let us not maximise it. That is, let us not make the mess bigger than the available mercy. Peter was restored twice after messing up (John 21; Galatians 2). John Mark messed up badly, but he was restored to usefulness. Church history is replete with examples of those who have made a mess and have yet continued with great fruitfulness. Indeed, 2017 celebrates the five hundredth year of the Protestant Reformation, a period in which God rescued the church from a great mess.
Think about it: This psalm is asking for God to save the heathen; it is asking God to turn idolatrous pagans into God-fearers (v. 7). If God can do this (and He can, and He has!), then certainly God can restore His people who fall into a mess—even when the mess is of their own making.
We need to focus more deliberately and more deeply and more meaningfully on the mercies of God. We must realise our need for such mercies, which implies a more honest assessment of our lives. We must reflect on God’s willingness to grant such mercy, and reflect much on the mercy He has shown us in the past. We must consequently be committed to showing His mercy to others.
After all, is it not true that the mission of God is fundamentally about the mercies of God? Our message is a message of mercy. It proclaims the good news that God who is merciful has shown mercy to sinners. He has done this in sending His Son as the mercy seat, the propitiation for our sins—for all who will accept it. And He continues to show mercy at His throne of grace.
The Meal that Proclaims the Mercy
The final point is not in the text itself, but is implied by everything that we have said. The church, in need of such great mercy, has been given a meal to visibly portray such mercy. We read of this meal in 1 Corinthians 11:17–34:
Now in giving these instructions I do not praise you, since you come together not for the better but for the worse. For first of all, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you, and in part I believe it. For there must also be factions among you, that those who are approved may be recognised among you. Therefore when you come together in one place, it is not to eat the Lord’s Supper. For in eating, each one takes his own supper ahead of others; and one is hungry and another is drunk. What! Do you not have houses to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God and shame those who have nothing? What shall I say to you? Shall I praise you in this? I do not praise you.
For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.
Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgement to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. For if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are chastened by the Lord, that we may not be condemned with the world. Therefore, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. But if anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, lest you come together for judgement. And the rest I will set in order when I come.
(1 Corinthians 11:17–34)
The Lord’s Table reminds us of our mess before Jesus Christ found us. And, of course, it reminds us of the mercies that God gave to us in His Son. It reminds us of the message of mercy. In fact, it proclaims it: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes” (v. 26). The Lord’s Table reminds us of our need for mercy as we are on the mission of mercy. It is a meal that strengthens God’s army by humbling God’s army. That is countercultural! The Table reminds us that, in our messiness as a church, His mercies are new every morning and that, indeed, great is His faithfulness. It was in the face of a tremendous mess, brought about by the sin of God’s people, that Jeremiah wrote these famed words:
Remember my affliction and roaming, the wormwood and the gall. My soul still remembers and sinks within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. “The LORD is my portion,” says my soul, “therefore I hope in Him!” The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD.
O God, please, be merciful to us; shine Your face upon us that the nations might be glad. Give us mercy for our miseries, grace for our guilt, and power for our mission—for the glory of Your name.