Psalm 85:1-13; Matthew 5:1-12
4th Sunday of Epiphany
Rev Jeremy Bevan
Today we reach the halfway point in our sermon series on the beatitudes. And I wonder
how you’re feeling two weeks in? If the beatitudes are like a deep pool of whose surface
reflects, are you seeing something of yourself reflected back at you as we explore them? As
we look into that pool today, the blessings of being peacemakers, of being merciful, are our
focus. Now your first thought might be: I’m not so sure about these two. They don’t look
like qualities I could reflect any time soon. I’ll never be in the running for a Nobel peace
prize; I don’t have the power or opportunities to exercise mercy towards others.
Well, park those thoughts, and see I can persuade you otherwise. Because practising mercy
and being a peacemaker are not the qualities of saints or heroes alone: they’re marks of the
character of God, and so are meant to be part of who all God’s people are – and are
Let’s start with mercy as a mark of the character of God. Back in the book of Exodus, Moses
is bold enough to ask for a vision of God. What he gets is an overwhelming sense of God as
fundamentally merciful: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and
abounding in steadfast love and graciousness.” Being merciful is a bias built into God, if you
like, it’s how God is.
So what is mercy? The English word ‘mercy’ covers a number of Hebrew words in the Bible.
It’s a gut feeling, like motherly compassion; it’s the feeling we get when we’re moved to put
aside what we want so we can respond to someone in distress, even someone who deserves
nothing from us. God’s mercy is kindness, it’s the solidarity that shows up in the OT as God’s
steady, persistent refusal to wash his hands of Israel, despite everything.
What’s our own experience of God’s mercy? Can we remember a time when we received it?
What it felt like? If we’ve tapped into something, let it be the wellspring of mercy that flows
out from within us, letting what we have been shape who we are becoming. But let’s also be
honest and admit we sometimes find ourselves stuck, unable to be our best merciful self,
because someone or something terribly unmerciful in our life has robbed us of any ability to
reflect mercy back out to others.
When that happens, it can take a fresh injection of mercy to restore us. In the OT book of
Ruth, a widow called Naomi returns to Bethlehem from abroad after her life falls apart. In
poverty and depressed, it’s only when Naomi’s kinsman Boaz mercifully takes her immigrant
daughter-in-law Ruth under his wing that her depression lifts, and she testifies to a renewed
sense of God’s mercy at work: “Blessed be Boaz by the Lord, whose mercy has not forsaken
the living or the dead.” If you’re a bit stuck like Naomi, why not speak to a trusted friend, or
Tulo or me, and see what might help get your flow of mercy unblocked again?
Let’s not pass up opportunities for being merciful in even the most unpromising situations.
In 1776, The Revd. Humphrey Primatt refused to wash his hands of the widespread cruelty
to animals prevalent in England at the time. In his book The Duty of Mercy, he quoted
“blessed are the merciful” to argue that we should extend mercy even to animals. God
makes room for every work of mercy, he said, no matter who or what benefits. The book led
in time to the founding of the RSPCA. Does a seagull with a fishing hook through its foot
deserve our mercy? On holiday by the seaside in Yorkshire several years ago, we thought so.
It took a week to catch and free it. That was a wonderful moment, an opportunity to live this
beatitude. That’s the power of small opportunities to bless and be blessed in being merciful.
Mercy and peace-making go together. In our psalm reading, the psalmist appeals to God’s
past record as peace-maker in forgiving the sin of the Israelites, hoping God will again show
them mercy, restoring peace to their lives. God putting aside divine anger in favour of mercy
and keeping faith with Israel shows us what peace-making takes: standing in someone else’s
shoes, responding to need, not putting yourself centre stage.
At this point, I could reel off a long list of people who’ve done that and gone on to win the
Nobel Prize for Peace. But peace-making is an everyday thing for everyday people too. Let’s
not underestimate our God-given capacity for peace-making, right where we are. Psalm 85
has a word for peace, for the way of being Jesus has in mind: shalom in Hebrew means
peace, but so much more than just an absence of conflict or war. It’s a word resonant with a
sense of wellbeing, of flourishing, of everyone participating, joining in. It’s about all things
being in a just relationship with their creator, wherever and whoever they are.
As peacemakers bringing peace where we are, the Earlsdon Liveable Neighbourhood Pilot
Scheme is a real opportunity for us as followers of Jesus to bring that shalom to our area,
helping it to flourish. Do take part in one of the meetings or the upcoming walkabout street
audits if you can. Maybe your work offers you an opportunity to be a peacemaker: I once
stopped a strike at 10 Downing Street. Not the famous home of our Prime Minister, but a
grotty little factory the other side of Birmingham. The workers were up in arms because the
toilets and wash basins were filthy. What did peace-making mean in that situation? To do
my jo well, I have to standing in the other person’s shoes. As I did, I sensed they could not
possibly be flourishing when their basic needs were so badly neglected. It then also took a
little wise, merciful use of my powers as one of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Factories to get
the factory management to clean the facilities up, and ensure they were kept clean in
If you see an opportunity to sort out a squabble or a long-running dispute at work, between
friends, in the family, in the playground, ask God to give you the words and actions. It can be
tough standing in the middle, being misunderstood by both sides. So be sure to keep praying
as you go, and seek the wise advice and support of others before you plunge in.
Blessed are the merciful. Practising it is being like God: that’s why the merciful get mercy in
return, a share in a quality that is that bias in God’s nature I spoke of earlier. Blessed are the
peace-makers: they will be called children of God. Have we seen ourselves a little bit more
clearly again this morning in that deep pool that is the beatitudes? If so, great: that means
we’re growing in God’s family likeness, day by day.