The Gifts of God: Mercy

christmas-presents

As a student of history and culture, I have studied many eras of the human existence and found that I have a certain affinity for some more than others. Studies about biblical lands and empires hold an obvious fascination for me and tend to gravitate to certain eras of America history. But the one area that I find myself reading about over and over is Jewish history leading up to and during the second world war. I find it easy to be engrossed in the tales of survival against horrific odds but more than that, I find that I love reading about the heroism and courage of those willing to risk everything to help a people not their own; stories about people we are familiar with like Oskar Schindler and those that we may not be so familiar with like Jan and Antonina Żabiński.

“It was World War II, Warsaw was under German occupation, and the wife of the director of the Warsaw zoo spotted Nazis approaching the white stucco villa that she and her family inhabited on the zoo grounds.

According to plan, she went straight to her piano and began to play a lively tune from an operetta by Jacques Offenbach, a signal to Jews being sheltered in the house that they should be quiet and not leave their hiding places.

That scenario, repeated over years of war, was one of the tricks that allowed Jan and Antonina Zabinski to save the lives of dozens of Jews, a dramatic chapter in Poland’s wartime drama that was virtually unknown until an American author, Diane Ackerman, published a book about the Polish couple in 2007 called “The Zookeeper’s Wife.”

The Zabinskis’ remarkable wartime actions — which included hiding Jews in indoor animal enclosures — seem certain to gain even more renown with the inauguration Saturday of a permanent exhibition in the villa, an attractive two-story Bauhaus home from the 1930s still on the grounds of the Warsaw Zoo.

…78-year-old Moshe Tirosh, who sheltered there for three weeks in 1943, when he was just six…[is one of those saved by the Zabinski’s courage]. There is only one other known living Jewish survivor, Tirosh’s sister Stefania, who lives in Canada.

Tirosh can still recall details, even though his time there amounted to just a short spell in a long and dramatic struggle for survival over years of Nazi occupation. He remembers being taken there by a horse-drawn carriage that carried him over the Vistula River to the green gardens of the zoo. He remembers squatting in the cellar with his sister while his parents hid in animal enclosures. He said he was always putting his hand over his sister’s mouth when she cried to stifle the sound, which could have given away the hiding place. He also remembers being well fed, compared to periods of near starvation during other periods of the war.

When it was time to move on to another hiding place, Antonina brought him upstairs to dye his hair blond, hoping to help him pass as an “Aryan.” But the color turned out red instead, the inspiration for a secret code name for him: squirrel.

He also remembers Antonina using her piano to send the secret messages, with one melody to warn of danger and a different one to signal that danger had passed. He can’t identify the tunes, but other witnesses say that the warning was “Go, Go, Go to Crete!” from Offenbach’s “La Belle Helene” — a piece that a pianist is to play at the inaugural ceremony Saturday.

Though he is grateful to both Zabinskis, his fondest memories focus on Antonina, who had closer contacts to the Jews in hiding than her husband, who was more active out of the house in his underground anti-Nazi activities, including by helping Jews escape from the Ghetto. By helping Jews the Zabinskis risked not only their own lives but that of their children, with the dealt penalty in force for Poles caught helping Jews.

“Antonina is a great woman, a hero…She was also beautiful, smart and wise.”

The couple is credited with saving dozens of Jews; though the exact number isn’t known it is believed to range from over 100 to 300. They were both honored in 1965 as “Righteous Among the Nations” by the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.”[1]

As I look at this and other stories like it, I find that a certain word comes to mind: mercy. In the face of uncertainty and fear, people like the Jan and Antonina showed mercy and compassion to a people that they owed nothing. In fact, if you look at the those who are honored with the title Righteous Among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, you will find that the list includes over six and half thousand Polish men and women, more than any other nation in the world.

As we look at the words from the prophet Joel this morning and consider the second gift in our series I want to think on this idea of mercy or as some may say, compassion. As God has given, gives now, and will continue to give mercy, I wonder what should response to God be? To others?

A Bugged Life

Let us begin by considering that Joel hates bugs. Joel especially hates locusts, as do most people living in an agrarian setting, because they can undo several years of hard work and destroy enough food to feed a country for several years. Such a plague of locusts acts as the main opposition to the Jews in this little prophetic book. And just any plague of locusts, locusts like no one had seen in recent memory.

2 Has anything like this ever happened in your days, or in the days of your ancestors? Tell it to your children, and have your children tell their children, and their children tell their children. What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. what the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten. And what the hopping locust left, the devouring locust has eaten.[2]

This band of bugs did exactly the kind of damage that we have just mentioned: it destroyed everything or as Joel says in 1:6-7, “Its teeth are like lions’ teeth; its fangs are like those of a lioness. It has destroyed my vines, splintered my fig trees, stripped off their bark and thrown it own; their branches have turned white.” In verses 16-18 the damage is described in further detail: grain shrivels before the shovel, granaries are emptied out, barns are found desolate, and the animals wail for hunger in the field. It is complete agricultural meltdown.

It is also complete social meltdown as well. The first part of the Joel story goes on to say that the people “who drink too much” need to “wake up” and “scream over the sweet wine” that has been lost. Joel calls on the people to go into mourning and lament or wail “like a woman…who has the husband of her youth.” Later on, we read where the “priests and the Lord’s ministers morn” for lost offerings of the field, offerings that cannot be brought before God. The prophet calls on the people of God to “Dress for a funeral and grieve” and to “spend the night in funeral clothing” and the prophets cries for the burning pastures and fields. Eugene Peterson puts it like this,

“There is a sense in which catastrophe doesn’t introduce anything new into our lives. It simply exposes the moral or spiritual reality that already exists but was hidden beneath a layer of routine, self-preoccupation, and business as usual.”[3]

Like many Old Testament authors, Joel uses the physical catastrophe to highlight a spiritual catastrophe in the hearts of the Jews. The writer makes a contrast between what is going on in the field (a plague of locusts destroying the agriculture), and what is happening in the temple (a moral plague of indifference and silence before God). The people of God have apparently turned away from God and forgotten what it means and what it looks like to follow God. “…return to me with all your hearts, with fasting, with weeping, and with sorrow; tear your hearts and not your clothing” the writer says, “return to the Lord you God, for He is merciful and compassionate.” It is this idea, “merciful and compassionate” that I want to consider this morning as we continue to reflect on the gifts that God has given us.

The Hebrew idea of mercy is wrapped up in a word we have talked about before, chesed, This Hebrew word is used for the idea of the lovingkindness of God directed toward all God’s creation, and especially toward those who seek after God. But it is a far-reaching concept that includes not only lovingkindness but also the favor of God, the redemption of God, and the active expression of these things toward those loved by God. Joel is calling the people of God back from their own path to a merciful God who seeks to walk with them again and we see in verse eighteen that God shows Israel that kind of mercy.

 Then the Lord became passionate about this land, and had pity on his people.

This gift God offers is mercy, the gift given only when the people are ready to receive it. Being ready reminds me of a story from my childhood where I got a present that I couldn’t have. When I was about ten years old, my father’s older brother decided that I needed a pocket knife to carry around with me. This knife he decided to give me wasn’t a pocket knife but a six-inch folding knife that I couldn’t even get into my pocket. He called it a ‘frog sticker’ and the blade was longer than my hand. I had never had anything like that and the truth is I was such a clumsy kid that I would have most likely hurt myself with it, that is if my father hadn’t intervened. The obvious truth of my being a suburban kid, too young to have what was essentially a weapon, was not lost on my father. He allowed me to accept the gift and as soon as my uncle drove away, he took it away from me and put it in his closet. “I’ll give it back when you’re ready,” he told me. It would be two years and a couple of pants sizes later before I would be ready to handle the responsibility and even then, it came with a lot of instruction.

In the Joel narrative, the people of God experience this plague and God is willing, waiting to offer them mercy. But mercy doesn’t come to them until the turn their hearts back to God until, as the prophet says, they are ready to return to God. Their repentance happens just before God abruptly “has pity his people.” According to the text, the people,

Blow the horn in Zion; demand a fast; request a special assembly. Gather the people; prepare a holy meeting; assemble the elders; gather the children, even nursing infants. Let the groom leave his room and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the Lord’s ministers, weep. Let them say, “Have mercy, Lord, on your people, and don’t make your inheritance a disgrace, an example of failure among the nations. Why should they say among the peoples, ‘Where is their God?’”[4]

Notice that the text uses the word, then, to begin verse eighteen, as in God responded immediately after the people responded. God is wanting to respond to the need but the people are not ready yet to accept that response. God does not force mercy on us. God waits until we are ready to accept it and to know how to live with it before mercy can be given. God doesn’t leave mercy on the porch like a mailman leaving a package of chocolate in the sun. God waits until we are there to receive the gift.

The Gift in the New Testament

The idea of chesed finds its way into the New Testament and the teaching of Jesus in the word eleos, the equivalent word used in translating the Old Testament into the Greek Septuagint. The same intensity that was present in the Hebrew is still present in the Greek, shown as lovingkindness, favor, and with redemptive qualities as well. Jesus uses this idea taken directly from the Old Testament, where God speaks to Hosea saying, “I desire faithful love (another translation of chesed) and not sacrifice.”

Jesus reiterates this Old Testament statement saying, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy not sacrifice”[5] during the stories of the calling of Levi and the disciples picking grain on the Sabbath. In both cases, Jesus is saying that the law of showing mercy is greater than the law of Moses as they have interpreted it, that the godly treatment of those who are in physical or spiritual need supersedes religious rules that are meant to control the external behavior while ignoring the internal aspects of godliness.

It is a mercy that the Pharisees cannot see for their blindness and cannot hear for their deafness. It is a teaching that seems incomprehensible to them because they are so focused on keeping order and keeping the Romans disinterested that they have adapted the Law of God to serve the Law of Need. It is an interpretation based in comfort and safety not in the kind of extravagance and abandon that God wishes to offer it. Again, they simply are not ready to receive the mercy that God offers.

The question for us as we consider the Advent season is, are we ready to receive Emmanuel, God with us, into our hearts and lives this season. He is the gift that God has given but are we able to receive that gift, are we able to put self aside, put brokenness aside, and embrace the gift given to us. It is gift that can be accepted and re-gifted as we offer mercy, lovingkindness, and redemption to others who are in need. But we cannot give what we do not have and we cannot receive unless we are ready to do so.


[1] http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/features/1.651285

[2] Joel 1:2-4

[3] Eugene Peterson, The Message Bible. NavPress, Colorado Springs, CO, © 2012, p.1383

[4] Joel 2:15-17

[5] Matthew 9:13, 12:7

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