2009-09-20 (pm) Mark 2.13-17 Jesus Calls
Growing up, I love reading books like Journey Through the Night, Scout and other series about the Second World War. I was always fascinated by the characters, the people who fought in the resistance and those who just went along. It seemed that there were always a few Nazi sympathisers who resolutely stood up for what the occupying government was doing. These sympathisers were hated by their fellow countrymen. They were seen as traitors. Sometimes, because of this, they were even more aggressive than the foreigners.
Levi, in our passage this evening, was like a Nazi sympathiser. He was a Jew working for the occupying forces, the Romans. He was expected to collect taxes on everything, and quite likely charged an exorbitant price. He was despised, not only because people thought he was a cheat, but because of his allegiance to Rome.
We don’t know anything about his character before he was called by Jesus. All we know is that, for whatever reason, he was working an awful job. Socially, he was at the bottom rung. He was lower than fishermen, lower than shepherds, lower than garbage men. He was probably considered worse off than the morticians who were always unclean, having to dispense with dead bodies.
There really wasn’t much hope for him. Sure, he probably made a pile of money, but he was excluded from integrating with any other believer. So you see, the attitude that the Jewish leaders had, also shared by most of their synagogue members was that that Levi was someone who had turned his back on God. He was purposely living a sinful life. He knew better and yet he persisted in his sinful living. They just dismissed him as a sinner.
It is a fine line, isn’t it? How long do you keep going after a person who seems to be running away from the faith? Now, we know that the Pharisee’s model of doing religion was not the best, but they weren’t totally devoid of the truth either. The biggest problem was that they taxed and burdened believers with more rules and regulations that what God laid out. They were program oriented, not relationship oriented. They sought to control people through outward commandments. They mocked Jesus and his disciples for not washing their hands before every meal and for doing things they made forbidden on the Sabbath.
The problem was that their method was religion. It dealt with the externals, sure, they had clean hands, but their hearts were not pure. How do we know their hearts were not pure? By their thoughts, seen in last Sunday morning’s sermon, by their words in our passage this evening, and by the actions we’ll see in the weeks to come. And finally, we can see it when they crucified Christ.
That Jesus would call a person like Levi would have been very shocking to the Pharisees. Clearly, he was not prime disciple material, at least not in their eyes. But Jesus doesn’t look at our externals. Jesus doesn’t look at what we do. If he did, none of us would be here, am I right? I know I wouldn’t be! In fact, I have no right to be standing here! I’m here because Jesus called me. As far as I’m able, I am trying to present Jesus’ words.
Jesus looks at our hearts, every time. Make no mistake; Jesus is very aware of our actions as well. But the actions, both good and bad, flow from the heart. And what Jesus looks for in a heart is softness. The Pharisees were hard of heart. Not all of them, but the ones that sought his death were. We know of at least two famous Pharisees who were not hard of heart.
One snuck out to see Jesus during the night. He was cautious. He didn’t want to ruin what he had. But after speaking personally to Jesus, he became a closet Christian. Then a friend of his became a Christian too. They kept working behind the scenes. Figured out who they are? You guessed it, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea.
Getting back to the Nazi sympathiser story. In our story, Joseph, Nicodemus and Levi are all sympathisers. All three of them have an encounter with the Truth, with Jesus. And all three of them act on the truth. Levi’s was public, immediate and powerful. Nicodemus’ and Joseph’s were also public, but they were not immediate.
We don’t know exactly what happened. They did not come out and profess their faith in Jesus immediately. They didn’t join the resistance, the disciples openly. However, they might have worked behind the scenes.
In those novels, the resistance always had people working for them incognito. They would have friends who would come up to them and admit that they were wrong, that the Nazi’s weren’t keeping their promises, that they were in fact guilty of all kinds of terrible things. And so they would ask what they could do. Some of them, like Levi, quit right away and joined the resistance. Others had the hard task of pretending to be something they weren’t.
Joseph and Nicodemus might have been like that. They might have been able to calm things down from the inside. Maybe God used them to keep Jesus’ timeline on schedule. Frankly, we don’t know.
But while they could have chosen to reveal their allegiance earlier, perhaps even during Jesus’ trial, they tipped their hand when the chips were really down. They demonstrated their faith when all seemed lost. Nicodemus helped prepare Jesus’ body, and Joseph gave Jesus his own grave.
But Levi chose a different route. He left everything he had in order to follow Jesus. He truly denied himself. He walked away from his lifestyle, his living, everything he knew.
He was not afraid to associate with Jesus. He invited him over for dinner. He invited all his friends. All of them. He invited sinners over to his house. He didn’t care. In the eyes of most people he was a sinner anyway. No, ne was more interested in sharing his experience with others.
He had met the living and true God. For once, someone accepted him even in spite of who he was. But did you notice something important? Levi didn’t stay the same. He completely changed his life. His encounter with Christ transformed him. There was another tax collector just like him.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man who had a heart transplant. His heart went from greedy and small to big and generous. How do we know he had a change of heart? He said to Jesus, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:8-10).
By his actions, Zacchaeus proved that he was a true son of Abraham, not in the physical sense of being a direct descendant, but in the spiritual sense.
Levi proved that he too was a spiritual descendant of Abraham. And that is true for us as well. We are showing, by our faith in Christ, through the transformation of our hearts that we are spiritual descendants of Abraham. We are heirs of God, children of God, brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ!
The Pharisees criticised Jesus, not to his face, but to his disciples. And this is what they were implying. Jesus was hanging out with the wrong crowd. If ever there was a case of guilt by association, this is it. In fact, they had a law that prohibited a righteous person from associating with an unrighteous person.
Jesus is blunt in his response to them. It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. A doctor is able to go among all manner of sick people and he is able to make them well. It is quite remarkable, isn’t it, that doctors don’t get the diseases that their patients have. Of course, doctors and nurses today wear gloves and masks and practise good hygiene. But Jesus needed no mask, he needed no gloves.
Nothing could contaminate Jesus. He was so clean; he made dirty things sparkle and shine. Whenever the sick came round, or if he went among them, he healed everyone.
The Pharisees didn’t recognise this. They thought that “birds of a feather flocked together.” They assumed that Jesus was hanging out with sinners because he was a sinner. They were so coloured by their preconceived notions that they couldn’t see Jesus as he really was.
Jesus did what they should have been doing. They were correct at identifying the tax collectors and others as sinners. They were! They were guilty of breaking the law, not just their laws, but also God’s laws! They were extortionists!
But they refused to condescend to their level in order to lift them up. They kept them purposely on the outside. They condemned them as evil, demon-possessed even, unclean, and untouchable. They refused to help them because they considered them terminal.
Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He still comes to seek and save the lost, but instead of coming in person, he comes through us. Jesus sent his Holy Spirit so that we would carry out his ministry of reconciliation. We are to go out and teach people how they can be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
We have the desire. Long before I ever came, this church has had the desire to tell others about Jesus Christ. That was an influence for rebuilding the church here instead of Peers. There are more people to evangelise here. More souls need to be reconciled here.
We have the desire. We just need to put it into practise.
We have to make decisions about how we spend our time. We have to look at and evaluate all our ministries. We have to consider the ways in which we can be more effectively communicate the Gospel to those around us. We have to look at people with God’s eyes.
We’re ready. You’re ready. The hunger is there. You’re already acting on it. You’ve invited people to church; you’ve shared the gospel with others. Keep up the good work!
And yet, I think we can work on being even more effective, what do you think? As a council, we’re trying to reach out to some who have left in the recent past, not for other churches, but who have left church altogether. It is too bad that we won’t be able to start a Coffee Break ministry this year, but perhaps we can use this time to start planning it for next year. We can use opportunities like the Day of Encouragement and a planning session with Pastor Karen Wilk to get ready for next year. And, as I mentioned, we can go through our ministries and evaluate them for the evangelistic effectiveness.
Honestly, I don’t think that our worship services need to change much. What we have to focus on is introducing people not to church, not to religious rules and regulations, but to Christ. Some will accept him, others will not. As long as we introduce them to Christ, they will have the opportunity to respond like Levi. Amen.