Imagine that instead of asking you to sit down, I’d asked you to arrange yourselves in a line from the front of the building to the back. Imagine I’d said come to the front if, like Mike said in that interview, you’d definitely say you are a Christian; head to the back if you’d definitely say you’re not; and make for the middle if you’re not sure. Don’t panic: I’m British and would never ask you to do anything so embarrassing. But I wonder where you’d stand?
Most of our Sunday services are geared for people towards the front of that line. But from time to time we have one like this that’s geared for you if you’re a ‘not sure’ or a ‘definitely not’. And the aim is to take a simple look at what Christianity’s all about.
Now it’s impossible for me to guess and answer all the questions in peoples’ minds tonight. Which is why we run a thing called Christianity Explored. You’ll see Christianity Explored leaflets around and tonight is a bit like a ‘shop window’ for it. And my hope is that some of you will decide to come in and browse further.
So let me say what we’re going to do. We’re going to look at a short bit of the Bible: a bit of Luke’s Gospel, one of the four records of Jesus’ life, death and rising again from the dead. And the reason for doing that is that Christianity is all about this person Jesus Christ.
Someone said to me recently, ‘The trouble with Christianity is there’s nothing to see. You can’t show me God.’ And I said, ‘I agree I can’t show you God. But I can show you what the people wrote who saw him in human form 2000 years ago.’ And that’s the main claim of Christianity: that this person Jesus was God’s Son become human.
So making your mind up about Christianity really boils down to making your mind up about Jesus and his claim to be God. If it’s not true, the implication is that you need to talk your Christian friends and family - and people like Mike and me - out of it. But if it is true… well, we’ll see the implications in this bit of Luke’s Gospel.
So would you turn back to p2 of the service sheet and that Bible Reading that’s printed out half way down. Let me re-read it first:
27After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him, 28and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?"
31Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5.27-32)
Now it’s beyond all reasonable doubt that Jesus really lived and really died by crucifixion around AD 30, 2000 years ago. It’s also beyond reasonable doubt that we would never have heard of him if his death had been the end of the story. But if you read to the end of any of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke or John – you’ll find the eye-witnesses say he also rose from the dead. And that’s what finally convinced them that he was the Son of God.
So Luke, who wrote these words we’re going to look at, was convinced that Jesus had risen from the dead, and is alive, and can be related to - just like Mike was saying earlier. And Luke wrote this perhaps as little as 30 years after the events, when plenty of eye-witnesses were still alive to be interviewed (see Luke 1.1-4).
And this incident in Luke’s Gospel is basically about someone coming into relationship with Jesus, becoming a Christian - however you want to put it. And I hope as we look at it, you’ll see more clearly what a Christian is, and whether or not you are one, and what if anything you want to do about it.
So, Luke 5.27 again:
27After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. (v27)
Now to feel the impact of what happens next you need to know that in those days, tax collectors were regarded as morally the lowest of the low. Because they basically ripped everyone off. I once asked a member of our church what he did for a living and he said, ‘I lie, I cheat and I steal.’ There was an uneasy silence as I tried to work out what to say next, but thankfully he spared me by adding: ‘That’s to say, I’m an estate agent.’ And in Jesus’ day, tax collectors had that kind of stigma - plus, plus plus. They were the really bad people who made you think how good you were by comparison Perhaps the nearest equivalent in our society would be sex-offenders. So, v27:
27After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him. (v27)
i.e. Jesus says to the really bad person, ‘I want you to be in relationship with me, and I’ll take you just as you are.’ And that’s a shock because most people think Christianity is just for good people. Verse 28:
28 and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.
29Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30 But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to [Jesus’] disciples, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and 'sinners'?" (vv28-30)
These Pharisees were basically the churchgoers of Jesus’ day. And if you imagine them drawing a line to stand for the whole human race, they thought you could divide it in two: the good people like them at one end, and the bad people like Levi at the other. And they thought that when God stepped in to judge at the end of time, he’d condemn the bad people but say to the good people, ‘Well done. Come in. You’ve earned it’ So they thought you’ve got to try to work your way up that line to be good enough to get in.
But here’s Jesus going to someone right down the bad end of the line and saying, ‘I want you to be in relationship with me, and I’ll take you just as you are.’
And the churchgoers don’t like it. So Jesus has to tell them they’ve got it completely wrong, v31:
31Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (vv31-32)
I don’t know about you, but I’m hopeless with needles. I almost always faint about 5 minutes after having an injection. Last time I did it, I keeled over in the waiting room of my doctor’s surgery and I woke up lying on my back with a toddler’s terrified eyes staring into mine. I guess his Mum had spent the whole morning explaining that going to the doctors was nothing to be afraid of - and now he’d arrived to find there was a dead body on the floor. And as I was kept under surveillance I read all the available posters one of which said:
ARE THEY REALLY SICK?
ONLY CALL OUT THE DOCTOR IF ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY
And that’s the point Jesus is making. He’s saying, ‘Look, just like a doctor, I wouldn’t have ‘come out’, I wouldn’t have stepped into my own creation, if you lot were all right - or could put yourselves right. But you’re not. You’re sick.’
That’s what he’s saying to us. He’s saying the human race is not divided into two – into some who are good enough for God and some who aren’t. He’s saying we’re all on the same, undivided line and we’re all sick – i.e. not what we should be, not what God created us to be. Now, sure: there are different symptoms along the line – eg, Levi’s symptoms were more blatant than a Pharisees’ symptoms. But do you think no Pharisee ever lied, cheated or stole in his own less blatant way? No of course not. Any more than you and I haven’t lied, cheated, stolen and committed a 101 other sins in our own particular way. ‘Sin’, by the way, is the Bible word for living without reference to God anywhere along that line from ‘relatively good’ to ‘relatively bad’. And Jesus is saying that though we’ve all sinned differently (we’re at different points on that line), and we can all point further down the line to people whose sins we think are worse than ours, the fact is; we’ve all sinned. We’re all sick.
Now you may say, ‘I disagree. I think we’re all basically good.’ To which I have to say: no you don’t. I mean, if we’re all basically good why did you lock your room or your house or your car behind you tonight? You don’t really think we’re basically good. And nor do you think you’re basically good. e.g. imagine we had a machine here that could play the video of your life up on a big screen. And there’s a sound-track and a thought-track and a motive track – it shows everything. Would you stay for yours? And what wouldn’t you be prepared to do to stop us showing it? And that’s just the shame we’d feel in the light of human judgement. Just think how we’ll feel when we face God at the end of our lives.
We’re none of us basically good, are we? And Jesus has nothing to offer us until we admit that. So I wonder if you’ve reached the point when you’re prepared to admit that? Admit you’re not the person God intended you to be. Admit you’re sick. You can’t become or be a Christian without that step. But then what? Look at vv31-32 again:
31Jesus answered them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (vv31-32)
My old Irish grandmother lived to be 101. She was amazingly healthy into very old age, and on the rare occasion when she wasn’t, it was impossible to persuade her to let the doctor visit: ‘I’m not seeing him in this state,’ she’d say indignantly. She believed in getting better in order to see him. And she did. He’d be summoned round for tea when she was bright as a button.
And most people think that way about God. Even if they are prepared to admit they’re sick, they go straight on to think they can make themselves better.
But Jesus is saying we can’t. He’s saying that just like a chronically sick person can’t get himself out of that position, nor can we get ourselves out of our position of being in the wrong with God. And Jesus is saying we need him to do something for us - just like a patient needs a doctor to do something for him. Which is why Jesus says right at the end there, v32:
32 "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance."
And ‘repentance’ is simply the Bible word for turning to God. It doesn’t mean ‘turning over a new leaf’, trying to make ourselves better. It means turning to God - to Jesus - and letting him do something for us.
And what we need him to do for us is: to forgive us, and then to motivate us to change. And you can see both those things in this incident with Levi.
You see the forgiveness right at the start. Jesus walks up to this person with a sin-list as long as your arm and says, ‘Follow me.’ Ie, he forgives Levi his entire past. And he commits himself to forgiving Levi whenever he needs it in the future. Because he knows Levi’s not going to be sinless from then on. And Jesus has the right to forgive sins that should be held against us - because of his death on the cross. Where he took the judgement we deserve for all our sins – past and future - so that we could be forgiven and yet justice was still be done.
So there’s no-one here tonight whom Jesus can’t forgive. The Jesus who died on the cross and rose from the dead and is back in heaven is still saying to you - whoever you are, whatever you’ve done: ‘Follow me. I want you to be in relationship with me, and I’ll take you just as you are.’
And I wonder if you’ve reached the point where you’re prepared to trust that? Trust that you don’t have to work your way back into relationship with God; but that Jesus’ death has paid your way back. That you can be forgiven everything, beginning tonight? That Jesus comes to you wherever you are on the line right now and says, ‘I want you to be in relationship with me, and I’ll take you just as you are.’
Which simply leaves the issue of how we’ll respond.
Some of us might be thinking, ‘Well, I’m not going to respond because quite frankly I don’t even believe there is a God.’ To which the Bible says: yes you do. You know God is there; we all do, because we’re all created in God’s image and created with a conscience which is like a ‘sixth sense’ which picks up spiritual realities. What you’re really saying is, ‘I don’t want God interfering in my life.’ Well that’s where Levi began life; that’s where we all begin life.
Others of us may be thinking, ‘I can’t respond because I don’t know enough. I know God’s there, I basically know all this is true, but I don’t know enough about Jesus and forgiveness and how my life would need to change.’ Well, you may be right, which is why, as I said at the start, this is like a ‘shop window’ for Christianity Explored. If you don’t know enough, the way ahead is to find out more. And we’d love to have you join us in Christianity Explored.
But it may be you do know enough. And your problem is that coming back into relationship with God just looks impossible. Just look back to the beginning of this incident, v27:
27After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. "Follow me," Jesus said to him…" (v27)
I mean, that is just an absolute and total claim on our lives. Jesus is saying,, ‘Follow me. From now on, I am your leader (or Lord to use the Bible word). From now on, you live to serve me, to please me.’
28and Levi got up, left everything [you can imagine the bank notes just blowing away off the desk - goodbye old life] and followed him [hello new]. (v28)
Being a Christian means letting Jesus have the final say over every area of your life. It means letting Jesus be God – which is, after all, who he is. And that means giving up some things. Levi had to give up stealing among other things. You may have to give up a longstanding refusal to forgive someone; you will have to give up being popular by just going along with everyone; you may have to give up a relationship – or at least the way you’re currently conducting it. It means real, hard, specific giving up of some things.
But it also means giving over every part of your life to Jesus. It means learning to play sport in a way that pleases him, learning to work, to handle your money, to make career choices, to drive your car - to do everything in a way that’s in line with his will.
Just to reassure you: you may not have to leave your job like Levi did. On the other hand, just to disturb you: you might. A friend of mine became a Christian when he was brand manager of Smirnoff vodka. I think it’s possible for a Christian to be in the alcohol trade. But 6 months after asking Christ into his life, Tim left Smirnoff because when he asked himself, ‘Is this the best I can be doing with my life for Christ?’, the answer he came to was: no. (He’s now brand manager of Colman’s mustard. Such is the change that Christ brings about in peoples’ lives!)
And you may be thinking that kind of change in your life just looks impossible. It’s just too costly.
Well, it certainly does cost. But anything worthwhile in life does, doesn’t it? Especially relationships. The first wedding I ever preached at was for a friend, Phil, who married a vegetarian, Jane. Jane cost Phil his meat. But he couldn’t have both. Just like you can’t have both Jesus and certain things: sex outside marriage, drinking to drunkenness, continual popularity – whatever. And you’ve got to decide what really matters in life.
Now you might say, ‘It still just looks crazy to take this step. I mean, everything I’d have to give up or that would need to change. And wouldn’t I be looking over my shoulder all the time thinking that the rest of the world was having more fun and I was losing out?’ Well let me give you two reasons why it’s not crazy.
One reason is that if Jesus is God, he knows better than you do - and certainly better than the world does - what is best for you. I mean, eg, the fact that he invented sex is pretty strong evidence that he’s committed to our enjoyment of life. And the lines he draws around the use of sex, just like the lines he draws in every other area of life, are to protect the fun, not to spoil it.
The other reason it’s not crazy is that the cost of not coming back into relationship with Jesus is massive. There’s a cost both ways. If you walk away from Christ, it doesn’t make Christ go away. Even if you say you don’t believe in him, it doesn’t change the fact that he really lived, really died, really rose from the dead and that you will really meet him when you die. And Jesus himself said that if up to that point we’ve said ‘No’ to him, he, with deep regret, will say ‘No’ to us coming into his heaven. Because you can’t be part of the kingdom if you’re not prepared to recognise the King. So, like Mike said in that interview, it is possible to be happy in this life – at least for a time – without Christ. But there is more than this life to put into our calculations.
So it’s not crazy. But you might still feel it’s impossible. You might be saying to yourself, ‘There’s just no way I could change myself.’ And you’re absolutely right. We can’t change ourselves. We can’t root out of ourselves that sinful side of us that doesn’t want God interfering. It’s impossible. And yet… the impossible happened to Levi, v28:
He got up, left everything and followed [Jesus].
And there are today about 1.2 billion people around the world who’d say they’ve done the same. So the impossible does happen, can happen - can happen to you. Because what changes you is, very simply, being loved. What changes you is when you realise that Jesus comes to you as the grotty failure you are and says, ‘I want you to be in relationship with me, and I’ll take you just as you are.’ What changes you is when you realise he died on that cross for you - to forgive you. What changes you is when you realise that, like a doctor, he’s prepared to take you on his list and then never give up on you until he gets you safely to heaven. With as many repeat prescriptions of forgiveness and encouragement as it takes along the way.
I wonder if you remember those sports lessons at school where you lined up and two captains chose teams. I remember once I was one captain and Neil Carter was another. I had first choice and went for the best footballer of the lot. And Neil Carter then did something utterly extraordinary. He made William Hogg his first choice. The most unathletic no-hoper ever to have pulled on a football boot (almost certainly pulled on the wrong foot, as well). I’ve never understood why Neil Carter did that. But needless to say, William Hogg played his heart out that day. Because that’s what unconditional acceptance does for you.
And that’s what Jesus is offering. He calls us to unconditional surrender: ‘Follow me.’ But he offers unconditional acceptance. And that changes you. That makes you want to play your heart out for him (when you’re in your right mind as a Christian, anyway – which you aren’t always).
I know that when you’re on the outside looking in, you can think, ‘I bet it’s miserable. I bet they really want to be living how they used to – but they’re ‘not allowed’ to.’ Well, can I say it’s not like that at all. My frustration as a Christian is not that I want to live the old way, but can’t. But that I want to live the new way – for Christ – but can’t do it as I would like, as he deserves.
Time to end. Just go back to that line that we started with. ‘Definitely a Christian – not sure – definitely not.’ I wonder if it’s clearer to you now where you stand, and what if anything you want to do about it?
Maybe this has clarified for you what is your ‘sticking point’ with Christianity – what, for you, is the obstacle that stops you moving further up the line towards becoming a Christian. Perhaps it’s the question, ‘Can I trust these Gospels - like Luke’s Gospel?’ It may be, ‘Why did Jesus have to die for me to be forgiven?’ It may be, ‘I can’t believe in people coming back from the dead.’ It may be about what would need to change in your life, or just wondering what it’s really like to be a Christian. Well, Christianity Explored is a great way to pursue those questions. The ingredients are a video with a short Bible talk; some Christians leading a group discussion where you can ask anything - or say nothing; a group of people at the same stage as you, probably asking most of the same questions as you; and just a good social time, apart from anything else.
If you want to know more about Christianity Explored, do please pick up the leaflet or talk to one of the church staff.
But it may be that some people here know enough to respond to Christ tonight - and want to come back into this relationship with him, as Levi did. So I’m going to end with a prayer to the Risen Lord Jesus which would be a way of doing that. Let me tell you what I’ll pray so you can work out if you’d want to make it your prayer tonight. I’ll pray:
I admit that that till now I’ve been living as I please.
I have ignored you, offended you and deserve your judgment.
But I also believe you died to forgive me and are willing to have me back as I am.
Please now forgive me, come into my life by your Spirit, and change me to live for you from now on.
If you want to turn to Christ tonight, you could echo that pray in your own mind. If it’s not appropriate for you, why not pray something else?
If you have just prayed that prayer and meant it, rest assured that the Risen Lord Jesus has heard and answered it. If you have just prayed that prayer, you’ve just begun a new life with Christ, and the best thing to do next is to tell a Christian you know, and ask them how to go on from here.