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Message for 1-26-14 CONNECTING WITH SINNERS

“CONNECTING WITH SINNERS”

Matthew 9:9-13

 

            It’s surprising enough to see the 4 fishermen get up and follow when Jesus calls them to follow him.  (Of course, in Luke we see that they’ve already seen Jesus’ power in action.)  But what’s even more surprising is to see Matthew get up and follow.  Matthew is a despised tax collector.  Now, you’ve probably heard how unpopular tax collectors were in Jesus’ day.  Some rabbis taught that if a tax collector walks into your home, everything becomes unclean, same as if somebody dies.  Some rabbis taught it was OK to lie to tax collectors or even smuggle pearls in a hollow stick as a form of tax evasion.  Only in 1 place have we ever found a Greek inscription in honor of a guy who was said to be a “good tax collector.”

            So, do tax collectors have a heart?  Apparently Matthew did.  (Mark and Luke call him Levi.  It would appear that Levi changed his name, which would not be a bad idea if you want to leave your old life behind.  Matthew is whom we believe to be the same person who wrote this Gospel.)  Both John the Baptist and Jesus found that quite a few tax collectors were open to their message.  Matthew works in Jesus’ adopted hometown of Capernaum, so he’s obviously heard reports about Jesus’ teachings and his power to cast out demons.  Now, Jesus himself is inviting Matthew to become one of his disciples!  (Of course, Jesus has also invited Simon the Zealot to be one of his followers, so the 2 of them ought to get along really great!)

            Imagine how excited Matthew must be!  At last, he says, I’ve found the way to be reconciled with God!  Nobody else would let me in – not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, not the Essenes, definitely not the Zealots, not even the poor. 

Pastor Bill Hybels pictures Matthew wondering: “What can I do to help my buddies find Jesus?  Should I invite them to the Temple?  No, they’re not ready for that.  Should I preach to them?  No, I barely know the score myself.  What do I do well that I could use to give my friends a chance to meet Jesus?  I know: I throw good parties.  Mine are always packed.  And I have the connections with tons of lost souls who need him.  Jesus, I know this sounds bizarre, but what if I throw a dinner party so that all my friends can meet you?”  We have the results in today’s scripture.  Sinners who would never darken the door of a synagogue get the golden opportunity to meet the Savior of the world.  And at the end of the evening, Jesus can say, “Matthew, that was a great party!”

Matthew’s strategy was both brilliant and totally against the standard wisdom.  Almost nobody back then (from all that I’ve read in ancient literature) seems to be proud of being the group that attracts sinners.  True, Jesus talked about a few Pharisees who were willing to cross land and sea to win one pagan convert into Judaism.  But nobody else threw the door wide open to sinners like Jesus did.

Jesus’ willingness to attend this party draws sharp criticism from Jewish opinion leaders.  Jesus (like John, before him) was the only Jewish teacher willing to eat with notorious sinners.  All of the other groups used to draw the line between the “good” sinners and the “bad” sinners.  Jesus drew the line differently.  All Jesus did is say “Follow me.”  And instead of “good” and “bad”, all sinners fell into 2 different groups.  One group says, “Yes, I need Jesus!  I need a Savior!  I’m lost without him!”  The other group says, “No, I don’t need a Savior; not this one, at least.  I can save myself.  I’m good enough for God the way I am.”

Later on in Matthew, Jesus tells a parable about a man who asks his 2 sons to go work in the field.  The first son says “I’ll go,” but doesn’t go.  The second son says “No,” but then changes his mind and goes.  Jesus then compares these 2 sons to the goody-goodies and the notorious sinners of his day.  Jesus says the goody-goodies didn’t follow John the Baptist, but the tax collectors and harlots did.  Jesus says those notorious sinners will get into God’s kingdom ahead of those who wouldn’t believe.

Now, it’s easy for us (looking back from our 21st-century perspective) to get the wrong idea here.  Some people today read about Jesus eating with sinners and get the mistaken idea that Jesus was saying sin is OK.  Jesus was not soft on sin.  Jesus sets the standard sky-high for those who think they can reach God by obeying the rules.  But Jesus had a heart for broken sinners, those who wanted to flush the sin out of their lives.  Those are the sinners whom Jesus is eating with at Matthew’s party.  How do we know that?  Look at Mark’s version of the story.  Mark says that at that party, “there were many who followed him.”  Does that mean they were following him perfectly?  No, but it means they had decided to follow.  Meeting Jesus had convinced them that this was the one who could restore their relationship with God.  Matthew’s party was the place where it all started.

What can we do, like the party Matthew threw for his friends, to help people find Jesus who have never had a relationship with him?  Bill Hybels says, “We need to find a strategy to reach people out there” is the wrong question.  What we need to ask is, “Who am I?  And how can I reach my friends?”  Our mission is different when it’s our friends we’re talking about, when we honestly believe we have a message that our neighbors need to hear.  And if we don’t have any non-church friends, then we’ve become too isolated from the community where God has placed us.  That goes for churches; that also goes for pastors.  Someone once said, “You pastors spend too much time with the sheep!  You need a little goat smell on you!”

Whatever we do, we need to break our relational isolation from those outside the church.  Some of you have non-church friends; all you need to do is figure out what you can do like Matthew did.  But for some of us, all the people we know belong to some church.  We need to break that isolation.  If we are the salt of the earth, we need to get out of the salt shaker and into the world.  We can’t expect the world to come to us.  We need to find ways we can bring God’s love and truth to them.

One of my fondest memories from college is the weekend my church brought the Resurrection Band to do 2 outdoor concerts.  Instead of having the concerts at our church, we arranged to have the concerts on campus right on the way between the dorms and the bars downtown.  Students heard the music, and came to hear what was going on.  A lot of students stayed.  A lot of them came forward to receive Christ.  And church on Sunday morning was full.  Instead of waiting for them to come to us, we need to find ways that we can go to them.

Now, a lot of the folks we’re talking about probably stay away from us because they’re afraid of us.  We need to find ways to break the ice.  Some of them have heard that we’re friendly; that’s a good start.  We need to spend enough time with them that we can go beyond friendly, to where we can go beyond light conversation and help them carry their burdens.

They may be afraid of us; we may be afraid of them.  Dealing with non-church people can get messy.  They may need money, they may have huge emotional or relational problems, and we may feel that we don’t have all the answers.  (Actually, we don’t; we just know Someone who does have all the answers.)  Plus, we may wonder what we should do about unresolved sin in their lives.  Someone once said that God gives this advice to fishers of men: “You catch ‘em, he’ll clean ‘em.”  I sure can’t fix or control people’s lives; there’s a lot that only God can do.

Reaching people outside the church will require us to spend enough time with them that we can come to understand their needs, and they can see Jesus in us.  Usually they don’t expect us to be perfect; they just expect us to be honest, caring, and consistent.  God does the rest.  Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village, NY had a ministry to AIDS patients.  The church was well-known for its Biblical stand on issues like the gay lifestyle, but the AIDS patients asked for people from that church.  They said, “You don’t treat us like charity cases.  Your people really care.”

Maybe you’ve heard about churches that do free car washes or give free bottles of water at parades.  When they get asked why they’re doing so, the people can say, “We want to share God’s love in tangible ways.”  Often that breaks the ice, to where people want to talk about God, if the church people are ready to seize the opportunity.

When we do a public event, like a dinner or a concert, our objective should be building relationships with people outside the church.  Having a food pantry or a support group or a preschool in your church is good, but it needs to become a springboard where outsiders can meet and get to know your members.  That’s what happened at Matthew’s party.  That’s what we want to see happen here.

Once again, think about the people you know who are lost – maybe they don’t have a church, or maybe they do but they’re not involved.  How can we build relationships with them?  How can we find ways to spend enough time with them to make an eternal difference in their lives?  How can we throw Matthew’s party for them?  Maybe God wants to use you to make that happen.

Lord, help us figure out how we can follow Matthew’s example.  Help us to find ways we can build relationships with lost people who need you, so that they may seek you and may find you.  We ask for Jesus’ sake.  Amen.       

           

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