Fuller

The Tender Mercy of Our God

December 20, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Luke 1:72-79 (NRSV)

Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors,
+++and has remembered his holy covenant,
the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham,
+++to grant us
that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies,
+++might serve him without fear,
in holiness and righteousness
+++before him all our days.
And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
+++for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
+++by the forgiveness of their sins.
By the tender mercy of our God,
+++the dawn from on high will break upon us,
to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
+++to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Focus

In the season of Advent, wombs and babies play a prominent role. The experiences of Elizabeth and Mary fill our minds and hearts with wonder and joy. Yet, as we think about the babies born from the wombs of these mothers, let us also remember that, through Christ, we are born of God. You belong to God as a cherished child belongs to a mother. God holds you with God’s own tender mercy, embracing you with a womb-like love that will never let you go.

Today’s devotion is part of the series Following Jesus Today.

Devotion

If you’re like me, there are certain phrases in the Bible that captivate your heart in a special way. For me, one of those phrases is the first line of Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd.” Or I remember Jesus’s closing words in Matthew, “I am with you always.” Short phrases like these live within me. I’ve brought them to mind hundreds of times throughout my life, especially in times of stress, loss, or fear.

There’s a brief phrase in Luke 1 that fits into my heart-captivating category. When I read it and reflect upon it, I am deeply moved, sometimes with gratitude, often with wonder. This phrase comes in the prophecy of Zechariah, which is called the Benedictus (from the first word of the prophecy in Latin). It comes near the end of the prophecy when Zechariah proclaims, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). The phrase of which I speak is “By the tender mercy of our God.”

Mercy shows up a lot in Luke 1. The standard Greek word for mercy (eleos) occurs five times in this chapter (1:50, 54, 58, 72, 78). You may find it interesting to know that eleos occurs more often in this one chapter of Luke than in any other book of the New Testament. We could rightly say that Luke 1 is merciful . . . mercy-full, full of mercy. The standard New Testament Greek dictionary defines eleos as “kindness or concern expressed for someone in need, mercy, compassion, pity, clemency.” Luke 1 repeatedly underscores the fact that God is moving to save us as an expression of divine kindness, concern, compassion, and mercy.

But Luke 1:78 refers, not just to God’s mercy, but to God’s “tender mercy.” The Greek phrase behind this translation literally means “the inner organs of mercy” (splagchna eleous). This unusual phrase, which appears only here in the New Testament, is Luke’s effort to represent a special Hebrew word in Greek. That Hebrew word is rachamim, which is translated as “compassion” or “mercy” in many modern English Bibles. In the classic King James Version, however, it was translated as “tender mercies.”

That older translation was attempting to represent something wonderful about the word rachamim. You see, in Hebrew, it’s a plural version of the word racham (or rechem), which is the Hebrew word for womb. What a powerful and moving way of envisioning God’s mercy! If you imagine a mother with her infant child, you get a picture of God’s mercy toward us. God’s mercy is womb-like, mother-like, or, as the King James puts it, tender.

When I think of when I’ve experienced such womb-like mercy, I travel back in time to the deepest recesses of my memory. When I was a very young child, I had terrible nightmares. I’d wake up screaming and crying, for a while inconsolable. But my mom would pick me up from my bed and carry me to a rocking chair in my room. There she would hold me close, rocking me and singing softly. In time, I would calm down and, finally, fall asleep in her arms. I can still remember the feeling of being held and loved so tenderly. That was womb-like mercy, to be sure. (I thought you’d enjoy my favorite photo of my mom and me, during the daylight, in happy times.)

According to Zechariah, and according to the wider teaching of Scripture, that’s how God cares for us. God’s mercy for you and me is tender, like that of a mother holding her own child. God is compassionate and gentle with us. God loves us with a love that comforts, reassures, and claims us. Through Jesus Christ, we belong to God as God’s own beloved children.

In the season of Advent, wombs and babies play a prominent role. The experiences of Elizabeth and Mary fill our minds and hearts with wonder and joy. Yet, as we think about the babies born from the wombs of these mothers, let us also remember that, through Christ, we are born of God. You belong to God as a cherished child belongs to a mother. God holds you with God’s own tender mercy, embracing you with a womb-like love that will never let you go.

Reflect

When have you observed tender mercy in human relationships?

Can you think of a time when you received tender mercy from someone? What was that like for you?

Have you experienced God’s tender mercy? What happened? What did you think? How did you feel?

Are there ways in which you need to know God’s tender mercy today?

Act

I know it’s a busy time of year, but see if you can set aside a few quiet minutes to reflect on God’s tender, womb-like mercy and love for you.

Pray

Gracious God, thank you for the abundance of your mercy. Thank you for seeing us, knowing us, and having compassion for us. Thank you for reaching out to us in mercy in so many ways that we couldn’t count them, and, most of all, in Jesus, your Son.

Thank you, dear Lord, for the tenderness of your mercy, for the way in which your compassion for us is like that of a mother for her baby. Help us to know you and your mercy in this way. Amen.

P.S.:

The picture of God’s womb-like love is indeed wonderful. But I would not want to imply that such love is only to be found in mothers and the children to whom they have given birth. Mothers have tenderness within them whether they are the birth mothers or not. I know this from what I witnessed in my family growing up. After I was born, my mother had a hard time giving birth again. So she and my dad adopted my brother, Gary. My mother’s love for him was just as intense, just as deep, and just as tender as her love for me. This was true, by the way, right to the very end of her life. In her last days, my mother lived with Gary and his wife. Gary took care of her much as she once took care of him, with tenderness and deep affection. So, as my mother showed how one can have “womb-love” for an adopted child, Gary showed that a man can also have such “womb-love” for others, including his own mother.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the High Calling archive, hosted by the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Advent Reflection: God’s Tender Mercy


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