All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6)
I recently bit the bullet and did something I hadn’t done in six years. Something I hadn’t done since my bachelor days, even. I knew I needed to do it, just get it done, but it took a lot of willpower to accomplish the feat.
I went to the dentist.
It had been 2003 since I had my teeth cleaned professionally and allowed the dentist to probe and prod. My fears of cavities upon cavities were allayed only by the words of a dentist-friend of mine who lives out of town: “I’ve had folks who came in after not having had a cleaning in 20 years!”
So the only way I could push away the reality of my own dental health – or lack thereof – was to repeat this saying: “At least I’m not as bad as that guy ... .”
And that is how you and I hold down the truth about our sinful condition and run from the Lord Jesus Christ, from the truth about who he is (Savior and Judge) and who we are (heinous sinners in his sight). No, you and I don’t always think the thoughts we should – we admit that much. And we don’t visit shut-ins as we ought. But look at that person dying of AIDS over there, or that woman living in sin over here. At least I’m not as bad as that person.
Jesus issues a call this morning in St. Mark’s gospel, at chapter 2 and verses 13 through 17. It is an outward and inward call to a specific sinner; it is a call to a sinner in the lowest ranks of society; but it is a call that is foolishness to fools, who fail to see their own sickness.
Pray, then, for wisdom and understanding in diagnosing yourself by the Word.
We see in this morning’s passage, first, that Jesus issues both an outward and an inward call to his followers.
Again you and I read of crowds coming to Jesus near the sea shore. Again we read of him teaching these crowds as the people came and went. We cannot therefore emphasize too much the importance of the sound preaching of God’s Word.
Contrary to popular sentiment, Jesus is not a “feeling.” He is a Savior, and your personal knowing of him as your Redeemer depends on your knowing and believing – from your heart – the truth and facts about him and his work on earth. Theology matters! And the truth is that every one of you, and everyone you encounter, has a theology – or, at least, a way of explaining the world around him and things seen and unseen. You and I, then, would do well to emulate our Savior and spend time in his truth rather than dwelling on our own emotions or conjectures.
Later, Mark tells us, Jesus was walking and saw Levi (or Matthew, later the evangelist) the son of Alphaeus sitting in his tollbooth. Leaving Matthew’s profession aside for the moment, notice Christ’s call to Matthew and Matthew’s immediate response: “Follow me.” And that’s exactly what Matthew did.
Clearly, this is the “effectual” or “inner” call of Christ on one whom his Father had given him from all eternity. Jesus didn’t simply happen upon Matthew; the Savior purposefully went to him, just as He does for all who are the elect and therefore come to faith in him. You and I are commanded to issue the “outward” call of the Gospel indiscriminately to those we meet, but that outward call will be of no effect unless the Lord also issues His inward, effectual call that draws a sinner to him. Unless the Lord regenerates the hearts of your hearers and draws them to Christ, your words will fall on deaf ears.
Receive, then, the Word with faith. Why did so many Israelites fall in the wilderness? Because they did not receive the Word of God through Moses with faith. And as you spread that Word, pray the Lord will issue His powerful, personal call to those who hear you. Proper reception of His Truth depends finally on His powerful working, so that He alone deserves the glory.
Note secondly that Jesus calls his followers from all ranks of society – even the “very worst of sinners.”
Matthew, as we already have noted, was a tax collector, probably of goods transported both by land and sea (given his location). He worked for Herod Antipas and not directly for Rome; yet his fellow Jews still would have scorned him for two primary reasons: his work brought him into contact with unclean Gentiles, and his work was to extract taxes from the populace. (When, incidentally, was the last time you thanked your IRS agent?)
The Pharisees referred to them as “tax collectors and sinners” collectively, because these men usually levied heavy, and unfair, taxes on them. According to Jewish law they were unclean for a number of reasons and therefore rated among the lowest dregs of society. Indeed, they were not allowed in temple worship according to some scholars.
Yet here is Jesus, calling such a sinner to follow him. Then that changed sinner, Matthew, threw a feast for Jesus, and Jesus expressed a remarkable intimacy toward his new followers by eating with them (a sign of acceptance and fellowship in those days). So, the scribes of the punctilious, hyper-legalist, super-“clean” Pharisees asked Jesus’ disciples, “How is it that he eats with these ‘sinners?’”
The answer is that Jesus draws only one distinction among men: those who cast themselves on him for salvation, and those who don’t. His definition of “clean” – the full definition of “clean” – doesn’t square with that of the Pharisees, because he sees cleanliness as a matter of the heart, not of the hands. Either you are sick or whole, righteous or a sinner. Such a distinction shocked the scribes that day!
You and I have a tendency to draw unbiblical lines of demarcation between sinners such as ourselves. (More on this point in a moment). We stay away from those with certain “unmentionable” sins, yet we invite “folks like us” to church. But Jesus’ calling of a hated tax collector, who surely knew he was a low-grade sinner, means two things to you this morning: no sinner is beyond Jesus’ transforming power and inward call (see St Paul), and if you, Christian, think you should not be going to certain people because “God can’t save them” or “they don’t deserve it,” then you need to repent. Immediately.
The call of Christ is to sick sinners, and the work of Christ saves all types of sick sinners.
Note thirdly, however, that Jesus’ call to his followers is foolishness to fools, who think they have no sin.
The scribes of the Pharisees probably were trying to rattle Jesus’ disciples when they asked them, “How does he eat with ‘sinners?’” Hearing their question, Jesus told them a proverbial truth: those who have it bad, not those who are strong, need a doctor. And he – the doctor, coming to cleanse the penitent of their sins and make them spiritually whole by his life, death, resurrection and ascension – came to call sinners, not the righteous, to repentance.
Who is sick? Who are sinners? All of you.
Who is whole, naturally? Who is righteous, in and of himself? None of you. This is the irony of Jesus’ statement.
I have witnessed dramatic conversions in my lifetime, and the Lord deserves all praise, honor and glory for them. Some of those conversions have come to those who were at rock-bottom. They, and everyone around them, knew they were sinners. Everyone knew their sordid past. Jesus made their sin abundantly evident to them.
What is far more troubling, though, is that so many of us here in Leakesville go to such pains to look “healthy” on our exteriors that we refuse to see our rottenness within. It’s the whole, “I’m not as bad as that person” routine.
You might fool the person to your left or right. You will not fool the searching Spirit of God, gone into all the earth.
The sin-perverted human mind, St Paul writes in Romans 1, holds down the truth of God with every measure of energy it has. You and I hate the claims of God, naturally. We detest the fact that we are rotten within, given to worshipping foolish idols and consoling ourselves with the fact that “at least I never lived with someone out of wedlock” or “at least I don’t have AIDS” or “at least I’m not a drug abuser.” You and I even tailor our speech carefully, avoiding foul words in an attempt to show God and the world that “we’re not that bad.”
Ah, but you are that bad. Every sin, every violation of God’s law, is unrighteousness. It is lack of shalom, or wholeness. It is evidence of a deeper spiritual condition: death. And the fact that you attempt to hide your sickness with religiosity further demonstrates that you in fact are no better than that drug abuser or prostitute.
The Pharisees failed to grasp Jesus’ irony. Do you?
Now, I am not advocating that you throw your life into a tailspin.
I am not for a moment advocating that you delve into sordid affairs to prove that you are a sinner. Nor am I encouraging you to forsake your church attendance and mostly clean speech and decent behavior toward your next-door neighbor.
Rather, the Lord in His Word asks you this morning: why are you, good Greene County professing Christian, here today? Is it out of reverence to God and thankfulness for His mercy to you in the Savior? Or is it to quiet your conscience, so that you might –foolishly – plead with God that “at least I’m not as bad as that person”?
Because of Adam’s sin, your mind from conception, and apart from the Spirit’s renewing work, is adept at fatal self-deception. So don’t worry about “that person.” Concern yourself today with yourself, with your own sickness before God.
And be of good cheer: the Physician has come to heal all those who turn from their sin and cast themselves on him.