A brief lesson in mercy from one who knew it…
Below is part of a sermon preached by the great priest, poet, preacher, and erstwhile sinner, John Donne (1572-1631). This passage, from a Christmas Day sermon, explores the breadth of God’s mercies to us, and the fact that we cannot speak of God or live our life in faith for a single moment without being the recipients of divine mercy. Only one conscious of his or her own failings can grasp that truth and live it out with God and with others.
Holy Name day commemorates, in part, Christ receiving the name “Jesus” (“God saves”). It is this basic assertion—that God has, is, and will save us in Christ—that supports everything else Christianity is about as a way of living. An intellectual agreement with this is one thing; knowing it is quite another. And it is only when we know that we are the continuous recipients of mercy, love, salvation, and reconciliation, that our faith really becomes a gift and not yet another law or burden to us and others. John Donne knew this from his own personal journey of repentance and humility, showing once more how valuable understanding our own spiritual journey is. May this New Year, begun on the Feast of the Holy Name, draw you closer to the truth that is from God and yet may dwell within us by "the implanted word" (James 1:21).
The air is not so full of motes, of atoms, as the church is of mercies; and as we can suck in no part of air but we take in those motes, those atoms; so here in the congregation, we cannot suck in a word from the preacher, we cannot speak, we cannot sigh a prayer to God, but that that whole breath and air is made of mercy. But we call not upon you from this text to consider God's ordinary mercy, that which he exhibits to all in the ministry of his church; nor his miraculous mercy, his extraordinary deliverances of states and churches; but we call upon particular consciences, by occasion of this text, to call to mind God's occasional mercies to them; such mercies as a regenerate man will call mercies, though a natural man would call them accidents, or occurrences, or contingencies….
If I should declare what God hath done (done occasionally,) for my soul, where he instructed me for fear of falling, where he raised me when I was fallen, perchance you would rather fix your thoughts upon my illness, and wonder at that, than at God's goodness, and glorify him in that; rather wonder at my sins than at his mercies, rather consider how ill a man I was, than how good a God he is. If I should inquire upon what occasion God elected me, and writ my name in the book of life, I should sooner be afraid that it were not so, than find a reason why it should be so. God made sun and moon to distinguish seasons, and day and night, and we cannot have the fruits of the earth but in their seasons; but God hath made no decree to distinguish the seasons of his mercies; in Paradise, the fruits were ripe the first minute, and in heaven it is always autumn, his mercies are ever in their maturity. We ask our daily bread, and God never says you should have come yesterday, he never says you must again to-morrow, but to-day if you will hear his voice, to-day he will hear you.
If some king of the earth have so large an extent of dominion in north and south, as that he hath winter and summer together in his dominions, so large an extent east and west, as that he hath day and night together in his dominions, much more hath God mercy and judgment together; he brought light out of darkness, not . out of a lesser light; he can bring thy summer out of winter, though thou have no spring; though in the ways of fortune, or understanding, or conscience, thou have been benighted till now, wintered and frozen, clouded and eclipsed, damped and benumbed, smothered and stupified till now, now God comes to thee, not as in the dawning of the day, not as in the bud of the spring, but as the sun at noon, to illustrate all shadows, as the sheaves in harvest, to fill all penuries, all occasions invite his mercies, and all times are his seasons.
-- John Donne, from
A Sermon Preached
In the Evening of Christmas-Day, 1624.
The full text may be found here.