His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:50-53)
Our scriptures often refer to “the fear of the Lord,” and in our modern Western vernacular this may seem a strange and somewhat misleading command. We generally think of fear as terror, horror, dread, or despair. In Jewish culture it held a slightly different, though related, set of meanings. One sense of fear meant "to be fearing," or to be humble, respectful, and deferential. Another sense, "to fear" meant to stand in awe, amazement, and wonder. A third sense is interpreted as "fearful," which is closest to our modern meaning – to tremble, quake, avert the eyes, bow the knees, prostrate oneself. The core thread running through all these definitions is respect and an admission of who holds the real power: God.
The concept of mercy reflects this. Mercy is granted by the powerful to the powerless. The weak don’t show mercy to the strong. Only those who can condemn and punish can show mercy, so it is always God who shows mercy to human beings. Biblical mercy is a one-way street from God to us, but for us humans it is a special challenge to understand the power we do possess, and the ways we can show mercy to one another.
You might not feel powerful or stronger than others. Yet, we all have the power to do harm to others. We can say hurtful and hateful things. We can make unfair judgments and condemnations. We can treat others as inferior or defective or sinful. We can mistreat others in word and deed. This is one of the reasons that John Wesley began his General Rules with, "First, do no harm." Often, when we feel least powerful is when we lash out at others. The tired cliché of the browbeaten man at the office coming home and kicking the dog comes to mind; when we feel we lack power in one situation we abuse power in another.
God calls us to be merciful. As we receive mercy from God, so we should extend and show mercy to others (read the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18: 21-35). This demands that we become Christian experts in the ways of humility, respect, civility, kindness, forgiveness, and unconditional love. This means that we begin to think of others more highly than ourselves (Philippians 2:3), that we live in harmony (Romans 12:16), and that we set aside all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander and malice (Ephesians 4:31).
Truly, fear of the Lord is love of the Lord. It is acknowledgement of God’s power and might, but also of the divine mercy God grants generation after generation. We are so fortunate to be loved by God, to be forgiven by God, and to receive unmerited and undeserved mercy. As we have received, so must we give. During this waiting time in Advent, prepare your heart for Jesus by cleaning out every dark corner and crevice. Make room by throwing out your anger, your resentment, your grudges, your hurt feelings, and your jealousy. Sweep clean the residue of bitterness, guilt, selfishness, judgment and condemnation. Let the light of God’s glory in to dispel the darkness and the fresh air of the Spirit in to blow away the stale air of the past. God’s mercy shows us how.
Merciful God clean us out. Destroy everything we hold inside that hurts us or others. Wipe away our tears, wash clean our weary souls and make us new people, redeemed and restored and ready to receive the gift of Christ you long to give. We ask in humility, respect, and a healthy fear. Amen.
May this devotion provide you with a moment of faithful reflection and care. You are involved in ministries of justice and witness, in ministries of standing up and standing with people working to create better systems and communities, in ministries of learning and searching and researching to become more aware and awakened, more technologically savvy and proficient, more virtually and personally present in your churches and communities and world. Each of us who serve as members of your Wisconsin Cabinet write these devotions in grateful prayer for you – for sustenance and buoyancy, for strength and courage, for safety and just actions, and for faith and love to be full and fulfilled in your daily lives. God’s grace and blessings, God’s challenge and healthy discomfort, God’s Spirit and energy be with you, in the hope Christ offers us all.
Bishop Hee-Soo Jung has served as resident bishop of the Wisconsin Annual Conference since September of 2012. Prior to leading the Wisconsin Conference UMC, Bishop Jung served eight years as bishop of the Northern Illinois Conference (Chicago area).