It is well known that our mission statement ends with the phrase “…to extend the kingdom of God among all nations.”
Over the last three years the JU community has studied what the Scriptures say about extending the KINGDOM (2011-’12), as well as our unique roles in relating to others through our STORY (2012-’13) and our SOJOURN (2013-’14). This year, we are turning our attention to what is undoubtedly the most important word in the phrase: GOD.
Perhaps we start with the most basic, yet profound question: Who is this God? There are many answers throughout Scripture. The shortest is given by John –“God is love” (1 John 4:8). The longest may be the description given by Elihu in the book of Job, as his explanation goes on for the better part of four chapters about God’s infinite power and might (chs. 34-37).
In Exodus 34:6-7a, God answers the question himself in a beautiful portrayal of his character and who we are called to be in relationship with him and his kingdom.
This passage famously includes the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. Many scholars believe it is among the oldest Jewish liturgical texts in existence, as supported by its repeated appearance throughout the Bible (i.e. Numbers 14:18, Nehemiah 9:17, Psalm 86:15, 103:8, 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2). The passage falls within the narrative of the Exodus account. God has called Moses to lead his people out of Egypt. God has shown his power through the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea. In all of these things, he continuously shows his love and ardent desire to dwell with his people through the covenant he made with them.
However, these attributes of love and power aren’t accessible without God’s mercy. It is evident in light of the Golden Calf incident, found in Exodus 32, that the Israelites were tarnished by their actions and in need of God’s restoration. They experienced the limitless bounds of his grace and we too share in it. God’s love forgives those distorted from him, and his power justifies the repentant heart. Therefore, God’s mercy means everything to us. God’s mercy allows us to be free from our fallen state and puts us in a right relationship with God. In this passage, God explains to Moses that he is merciful. That is good news to Moses; and it is the Good News to us, for we have been saved from our bondage and invited into the new covenant relationship with God by the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ—God’s mercy incarnate.
In an attempt to understand God’s attributes, we will look at them in action. God’s merciful attributes are not disembodied concepts to be studied; we know of them only as he has revealed them through his activity within our world. Therefore, instead of studying concepts, we will step into stories. These stories will either be stories of God’s direct interaction with mankind or biblical parables/stories that picture the divine attributes as displayed through his people.
Each story has a giver and a recipient of mercy. Our call is to be both—to be always aware that we are unworthy and are daily in need of receiving God’s great mercy, and, in response, to put the mercy we have received into action—to live merciful lives.