Mercy is not exactly a word that you hear every day. If you were walking down the street and heard someone exclaim, "Lord have mercy," you might see more than a few people turn to see just what kind of person would use that word out in public.
On the other hand, we use it in church all the time, "Lord, have mercy upon us," "In Your mercy, hear our prayer," and so forth. When we use these words, we echo the blind men who came to Jesus to receive their sight (Matthew 9; Luke 18). We all come into this world with spiritual blindness because of our sin. When we praise God with our cry for mercy, we ask Him to forgive our sin and restore our spiritual sight.
When we come to God for mercy, we are confessing that Jesus Christ is our Lord. He is our Lord because we belong to Him, bought and paid for with His blood, ransomed and redeemed out of the kingdom of darkness to live under Him in His kingdom of light.
The words: "Lord, have mercy on us" are both praise and prayer, acclamation and petition. With these words we welcome Him, confess Him as Lord, and pray for His gracious help. So also in the final line of our Lenten hymn: "Have mercy on us, O Jesus."
We have come to the right place tonight to welcome Jesus, as He comes in both Word and Sacrament. We have come to the right place to receive His mercy, since He has plenty of it to give. On this special night, we remember how He gave His mercy to His beloved church in an exceptional way. Tonight we commemorate the night that Christ founded the Sacrament of the Altar, in which He feeds us with His broken body and gives us His holy precious blood to drink.
This night then is the beginning of the last phase of our deliverance, the beginning of our three-day journey with Jesus from His arrest in the garden, to Pilate's judgment hall, then to the Place of the Skull, through His cross and death, to His glorious resurrection. Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Day—it sounds like four days, but by biblical reckoning it is really only three. The Jews begin each new day at the setting of the sun, and anything that happens after sundown is part of the next day. By that calculation, then, it is a three-day journey we commence this Maundy Thursday evening. By that calculation, then, it is the beginning of the day that would end in our Savior's death. And it all started with a meal.
We have heard the words so often we can almost recite them in our sleep: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed, took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to the disciples and said: 'Take, eat; this is My body, which is given for you' " (LSB, p. 162).
In a few minutes we will once again approach the altar and receive with our mouths the very Bread of heaven. Under this earthly bread we break - and the cup we bless - we will eat and drink the flesh and blood of Jesus. And when we do, we will follow His last will and testament: "Do this in remembrance of Me" (Luke 22:19). In this Sacrament, the Lamb of God has left us a memorial of His mercy.
It is a memorial far different than any other. Visit the great battlefields of the world, and you will find elaborate monuments to celebrate the valor and the sacrifice of the soldiers who died there. Visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC and you will be dwarfed by the impressive image of the Great Emancipator. But these are all memorials to the dead. The Lord Jesus is the Lamb who once was slain but now is alive forever. And the memorial He instituted is not a monument, but a meal. In this eating and drinking we actively recall, recite, and rehearse His saving mercy.
Now we might ask, "What good is that? Give me something I can use, Jesus. I could use some pointers on how to get along in this world. I could use some advice on how to be happy and successful. I could use some instructions on how to find my way through the confusion and turmoil, since my life has become a mess. But mercy? What good is that?" And that is our problem. God sends us His gifts and we keep trying to mark them "return to sender"—or take them back ourselves and exchange them for something we like better.
But there is nothing better than mercy. It is in His mercy that God opens up His heart to the world, sending forth the pure and holy Lamb of God - to be slaughtered in our place - which is mercy in action. As a result of His mercy, you and I do not receive the penalty we deserve; instead, God's own Son took it upon Himself. That substitutionary gift of Jesus and His death is at the heart of the New Testament Meal, the Sacrament of the Altar, the remembrance of God's mercy to end all other remembrances.
There had been memorial meals before this one. The night that Jesus was betrayed He gathered in that Upper Room with His disciples to commemorate the exodus of God's people Israel from their slavery under Pharaoh. It was the Lord's Passover. God had given elaborate instructions to His people for the preparation of this feast. The entrée was lamb, but not any ordinary lamb—a lamb without blemish or defect.
Every time they ate that meal, the Israelites ate it in remembrance of the Lord and His mercy. It was a meal full of hope and promise, but hope and promise under the very threat of death. That first night in Egypt when God set His people free, it was in the midst of imminent danger. In every household in Egypt the firstborn of man and beast would die, except where the blood of a sacrificial lamb marked the door. At those houses the deadly plague passed over, sparing all within.
On the night of their deliverance, God's people Israel ate that first Passover with mixed emotions: with gratitude and joy, to be sure, but tinged with dread—for the angel of death was passing overhead. Imagine a banquet given in your honor but with live ammunition whizzing over your head. These people knew they had received mercy; they had been miraculously delivered from sure and certain death.
This, then, was Israel's Passover, the Old Testament sacramental meal of deliverance. In that meal God's people dined on the body of the very animal that gave them life by dying in their place. It was a communion of sorts—a communion in the body that died to save.
In the Meal we eat this night there is a communion as well. But it is a communion in a living body, the body of the Lamb of God who has mercy on us. Jesus intervened to rescue us from slavery to sin and death. He became a curse for us and died upon the cross, giving His body and shedding His blood for the remission of our sins. Jesus, too, was a Lamb without blemish or defect. He had no sins of His own but took upon Himself our sins so that He could die to bring down the ancient curse of death and to end the Father's wrath against all sin and every sinner. That body of His was the sin-offering. His blood is the sign and seal of our redemption. And when we eat the bread and drink the cup of this Supper, it is a communion in the body and blood of Christ, the Lamb.
As Israel once dined on the flesh that revealed God's mercy and gave them life for death, so the Church continually dines on the flesh and blood that rescued us once and for all. St. Paul drives this home when He calls the Lord Jesus our "Passover Lamb" (1 Corinthians 5:7b). Those lambs who gave their lives as the antidote to death in Egypt were only a dress rehearsal for the real thing. At the cross, the true Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world gave His body and shed His blood as the ransom price of the entire world.
And so at the Lord's Table this night you and I are given yet again a front-row seat in the great drama that won our salvation. The old song that asks "Were you there when they crucified my Lord?" is a sweet thought, but it must remain forever figurative, for the plain fact is that you and I weren't there. We can't go to the cross, but tonight the cross comes to us. While we cannot go to Jesus, He comes to us. First at our Baptism and now repeatedly in this holy Supper, the Lamb who shed His blood that we might live says to us, "Drink of it, all of you; this cup is the new testament in My blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins" (LSB, p. 162, emphasis added). In this sacred memorial Meal, He does more than ask us to remember Him. He Himself actively recalls and gives us once again the fruits of His love and all the benefits of His saving death as He says to us: "Take, eat; this is My body, which was given for you" (LSB, p. 162).
And those two little words "for you" bring us confidence and consolation in this hour. For God's love is no shadowy abstraction, some warm fuzzy feeling. It is concrete reality. Now sin, death, and hell have been overcome, since Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us. Now we may know for certain that we are not alone in this world, that all the burdens and sorrows of life that threaten to overwhelm us can never rob us of the love of God in Christ our Lord.
His love, you see, is big enough to include the whole sorrowing, hurting world, but it is exact enough to address each and every one of us personally and individually. God's love is not a generic "to whom it may concern" message, some sort of vague "have a nice day" bulk mail flyer or electronic spam memo. In this Supper His love has your own name on it.
In this Supper the Lord of heaven and earth hands you His love on a platter. He doesn't give you a symbol or emblem of His love but the true substance of His love, the very flesh once offered on the cross, the Lamb without blemish or spot who freely laid down His life so that you might live. His is a love you can sink your teeth into in this Supper. His blood, which cleanses you from all sin, He gives you to drink in His cup of salvation.
Mercy - That is what we need, and that is what the Lamb of God brings us now in His Banquet that He spreads before us and that we eat in His remembrance. "For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He comes" (1 Corinthians 11:26).
So take heart this night. Death and destruction may loom and lurk on every side, but everything that troubles you and all that robs you of your joy is eclipsed tonight in this banquet feast of love. Now are vanquished sin and death and hell. Heaven intersects with earth at this altar, and in this eating and drinking we have a foretaste of the feast to come, the wedding banquet of the Lamb and His beloved bride. "Yes, I am coming soon," He says (Revelation 22:20).
"Amen. Come, Lord Jesus," we reply. "Come soon."
Lamb of God, You take away the sin of the world. Have mercy on us. Amen.
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