'Have you heard the news? Jo - that girl in the third year - she's become a Christian!' That was the word that went round the Christians in one of the Cambridge colleges, while I was working there. Jo was well-known as someone who slept with her boyfriends and lived a decidedly non-Christian lifestyle. And halfway through her final year, she turned to Jesus. And she had the courage to give her testimony of this at a student mission event in front of 800 people or more. And it came across with great joy as she described what it was like to be saved out of all the insecurities of her sexual past into the security of being loved by God and forgiven. 'Have you heard the news? Jo - that girl in the third year - she's become a Christian!' There was certainly joy behind that comment. But I think there was also a note of surprise. Surprise that someone like Jo had become a Christian. Because normally it was the nicer people who became Christians. What does that note of surprise say? It says that keen Christians, committed to sharing the gospel, can lose sight of what the gospel is all about. They'd been believers, some of them for a year, some of them 2 years, some 5 years; some were from Christian homes. And God had changed them. However, some of them had been in bed with boyfriends or girlfriends, but God had straightened them out on the big things like that. And they were now serious about living Christian lives. But they'd forgotten, perhaps, what they'd been like when God first took them on. And they'd forgotten, perhaps, that for all the change so far, they were still sinners. So that when Jo - the sinner of the third year - turned to Jesus, there was a note of surprise. Because they'd forgotten that Jesus comes to call sinners. Sinners like Jo. Sinners like them. Sinners like us. And in this morning's passage, Matthew 9.9-17, Jesus causes exactly the same kind of surprise by the kind of people he chooses to call. He doesn't behave the way we expect him to. So, firstly, fellowship with God rests on mercy, not merit (verses 9-13) Verse 9:
As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at a tax-collector's booth.
And Matthew was well-off because he ripped people off, as their tax-man. He was the equivalent sort to Jo, the sinner of the third year. Not the kind of guy you'd ever dream of seeing in church - let alone inviting to church. (And, by the way, he was probably the eye-witness writer of this Gospel.) As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew, [Matthew the notorious sinner]... 'Follow me,' he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him. While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" came and ate with him and his disciples. (verses 9-10) And the religious people don't like it. Because that isn't the way someone sent from God is expected to behave. Verse 11:
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?'
And you can see the expectation of these Pharisees - these decent, religious people. Someone sent from God won't come to be friendly towards sinners. He'll come to condemn the sinners, and to pat the good people (like them) on the back, and say, 'Well done. You're OK. You've made the grade.' Last Thursday my house was broken into. And my landlord sent Bob, his builder, round to replace the broken window. And Bob asked me what had been taken, and talked about 'what the world is coming to', as people do on these occasions. And then he said, 'Well, Ian, I'm afraid there are just some people who'll do this sort of thing.' Implication: we're not that sort of people. Not Bob and me. That's how we naturally think. That's how these decent, religious people in verse 11 thought. Their thinking went like this. The human race is divided into two: the good people and the bad people. And at the end of the day, when we come before God for judgement, he'll condemn the bad people - the people like the ones who broke into my house - and he'll welcome in the good people - the people like Bob and me, the people who are good enough to make the grade. That's what we like to think will happen. But what will actually happen when we meet our Judge will be totally different. And we can know what will actually happen because our Judge has been here and has shown how he divides people. Because this incident in Matthew 9 is like a foretaste of judgement day. And it's a great kindness on God's part, so that none of us is taken by surprise by the way he operates. Here is Jesus, God become man, showing us ahead of time how he will divide the human race. Not into the good and the bad. But into the forgiven bad and the unforgiven bad. All of us will be in one of those two camps on the judgement day: the forgiven bad, or the unforgiven bad. Verse 11 again:
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, 'Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?' [In other words, 'Why doesn't he condemn the bad people and give the good people (like us) a pat on the back?']
On hearing this, Jesus said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: 'For I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.' What does that tell you about Jesus? It tells me he came a first time not as a Judge, but as a Doctor. And doctors don't do call-outs to people who are well. Read the poster in your local surgery, and they are very stern about that. 'Do you really need to call out the doctor?' they ask. Doctors only do call-outs to people who are sick. And God did a call-out to the human race that first Christmas not to pay us a social visit, but because we are sick. And that is how Jesus regards the human race: sick. He doesn't divide us into two: the good and the bad. He looks at the whole human race, everyone in this building this morning and says: 'You're sick. Morally and spiritually, you're sick. In the bad you do and the good you don't do, you're sick.' In his eyes, none of us is righteous -that is, living a life that's right in his sight. We're all sinners: rebellious in nature against God, failing to live how he wants us to, and often not even wanting to. That's what we look like in Jesus' eyes. But we look very different in our own eyes. There will be some of us here who do not yet see ourselves as sinners. Well, if that's you, you're picking an argument with God, and it's a case of his word against yours. And listen to what he says, verse 12:
Jesus said, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.'
So until you realise your need, you won't think that Jesus has anything to offer. Christianity will be a mystery to you because it offers a solution to a problem you don't believe in. And if you don't believe in the problem, can I suggest a project for you? The project is to read the sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7, and to try to put it into practice. Where Jesus says things like, 'I tell you the truth, anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.' (You can always tell the people who've never read the Sermon on the Mount. They're the ones who say what marvellous teaching it is and how much they agree with it.) Until we realise our need, Jesus has nothing to offer us, except judgement. Verse 13:
But go and learn what this means: [And he quotes some words of judgement that God spoke originally through the prophet Hosea in Old Testament times:] 'For I desire mercy, not sacrifice.'
Hosea had also been speaking to people who thought they were OK. 'After all,' they thought, 'We go to the temple regularly and do the sacrifices we're supposed to do.' So what was the problem? Well, like these Pharisees in Matthew 9, they had no sense of sin. No sense, as they saw those sacrifices killed at the temple that they were a visual aid of the punishment their sin deserved at God's hands. No sense that they needed mercy from God. No prayer, asking for forgiveness. No reality in their dealings with God. And God said to them: 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice.' It's as if he was saying: 'I don't want your sacrifices. I want you to stop hiding behind them as if there was no problem with you. I want you to recognise your need and admit it to me and ask me for mercy so I can show you mercy. I desire mercy, not sacrifice: I desire reality, not covering-up.' Jesus applied that word from Hosea to these Pharisees (whom he later called 'whitewashed tombs', Matthew 23.27), and he applies it to us.
Some of us may never have faced up to the problem of our sin. We hide behind slogans like, 'I've always tried my best'. But our best is wretched failure in God's sight. And he's telling us: stop kidding yourself. You need mercy.
Many of us have come to terms with the problem of sin and we've turned to Jesus in the past for mercy. And we knew then that the relationship rested on his mercy, not our merit. But as we've gone on in the Christian life, we've slipped into thinking that his continued acceptance of us depends on how well we're doing day by day. We begin with mercy, but then live as if the relationship depended on our merit.
I don't know if you ever take any notice of those magazines at supermarket checkouts: Deep Freeze News, and so on. I was reading the cover of one the other day. It advertised a feature for women: '10 tips for keeping your man.' Implication: your man might give up on you if you don't do the right things, wear the right things, look the right way, and so on. We sometimes think of God similarly: the Christian life rests on '10 tips for keeping your God': read the Bible, say your prayers, do this and that... or God might give up on you, because you're not doing enough, or not doing well enough. And God tells us to stop kidding ourselves. We need mercy every day of our Christian lives. The whole thing rests from start to finish not on me being good enough for him to accept me for another day, but on him being good enough to forgive me and bear with me patiently for another day. Then others may be all too aware of their sin problem, but haven't turned to Jesus for mercy, or at the moment think they can't turn to Jesus for mercy - because they're not good enough. I was talking to someone a while ago whose background was fairly deeply in drugs and drinking. And we looked at this passage together so that he realised he didn't have to become better before turning to Jesus. He didn't have to come back in three months a more decent person, more presentable, and then turn to Jesus. You don't have to get better in order to see the doctor. You ask the doctor to come to you just as you are, in order to get you better. Jesus does not affirm any of us as we are. Jesus will not leave us as we are. But he does promise to accept us as we are. He finds us in sin of all sorts. We've all sinned differently, but we've all sinned. That's where he comes to us, and is willing to accept us, if we are willing to ask him in as Lord to take the mess we've made and rebuild it under his control. He won't leave us as we are. But he will accept us as we are. Listen to an old hymn:
Come, you sinners, poor and needy,Weak and wounded, sick and sore;Jesus ready stands to save you,Full of pity, love and power;He is able;He is willing; doubt no more.Let not conscience make you linger,Nor of fitness fondly dream;All the fitness he requiresIs to feel your need of himThis he gives you -Tis his Spirit's rising beam.
Fellowship with God rests on mercy, not merit. It rests on mercy at the start. And it rests on mercy every day between the start and heaven. Secondly, fellowship with God is joyful, not miserable (verses 14-17) Verse 14. Here is Matthew, the new Christian, feasting away, and like that girl Jo, full of the joy of forgiveness and a new relationship with Jesus...
Then John's disciples came and asked Jesus, 'How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?' (verse 14)
Jesus tramples over all our expectations of him. The expectation in verses 9-13 was that Jesus would divide the human race as we do, into the good and the bad. He doesn't. He says we're all sick. In verses 14-17, the expectation is that Jesus will call people into a life that is basically negative, basically obsessed with the problem of sin, basically guilt-ridden and neurotic. And once again, he doesn't. Verse 14: fasting came from the Old Testament. You'd use it as a sign of being conscious of your sin, and of the fact that you ought to be judged for it. It was a way of saying to God, 'I am at your mercy.' And it had a note of uncertainty about it, a note of insecurity, a note of waiting to hear whether God would forgive. So, verses 14-15:
Then John's disciples came and asked Jesus, 'How is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?' [In other words, 'Don't your disciples take sin seriously?']Jesus answered, 'How can the guests of the bridegroom mourn while he is with them?'
What does that tell you about Jesus? In verse 12 he says, 'Think of me as a Doctor.' Here in verse 15, he says, 'Think of me as a Bridegroom, as a Husband-to-be.' And unless we know our Old Testament, that one's a bit harder to understand than the one about the doctor. Back in verse 13, Jesus quoted the Old Testament prophet Hosea. And Hosea used marriage as a picture of the relationship between God and his people. God is the husband, and his people are the bride. They marry at the start of the Old Testament; God is faithful, his people are not. That's basically the story of the Old Testament. And this is what God said through Hosea to his people when they were at their very worst. Hosea 2.19:
'I will betroth you to me forever;I will betroth you in righteousness and justice,in steadfast love and compassion.I will betroth you in faithfulness,I will betroth you in faithfulness,and you will acknowledge the LORD.'
And Isaiah, preaching about the same time, says this:
No longer will they call you DesertedFor the LORD will take delight in youas a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,so will your God rejoice over you.' (Isaiah 62.4-5)
It's a picture of God, the perfect husband, committing himself to be faithful, even though his people are not faithful, and don't have it in themselves to be faithful. Some of you will probably have read something by the Christian author, James Dobson. He writes on the family and marriage, and in one book he quotes a letter written by his father to his mother and sent the week before their wedding day. Let me read some of it:
My love, I want you to know that I regard the covenant we are to make before God as something utterly inviolable, and binding so long as I live. At no stage from the day of our marriage will I allow myself to contemplate the possibility of separation from you. I want you to know that with God's help I intend to keep the vows I shall make to you, even if that should involve extremes of suffering or mental anguish.
And so he goes on. It's an extraordinary letter. And it's no wonder that their marriage was extraordinarily secure and happy. So back to Matthew 9. Verse 12: Jesus says, 'I am God the Doctor, who takes sick people on just as they are.' Then in verse 15, Jesus says: 'I am God the perfect Husband, who will stick with the people I call, even though they fail me every day of their lives this side of heaven.' If you know that that's what Jesus is to you, personally, you cannot go about fasting (verse 14) and mourning (verse 15). It's not that Jesus tells his people not to take sin seriously. Real believers do mourn over it (see Matthew 5.3-4), and fight it (see Matthew 5.6) and regret it when they let the Lord down, which they do every day. But they know that although their sin may spoil the relationship, it will never split it. The Lord Jesus will never walk out on them. 'I will betroth you to me forever,' he says. But I guess verse 14 is how many people view Christians: they fast, they're terribly serious with all their talk of sin, and they don't seem able to enjoy life. And in an age when everyone's trying to feel good about themselves, who wants anything that makes you feel bad about yourself? But that's not the picture Jesus paints. Christians do feel bad about their sin. But sin isn't the biggest reality in their lives. God's unfailing love, based on the forgiveness of our sins, is the even bigger reality. And that's the point of those sayings in verses 16-17. The old garment and the old wineskin stand for the Old Testament. And the Old Testament period was basically designed by God to show up the problem with the human race: that we are sinners, incapable of being faithful to God, just like Hosea said. And when Jesus came, he didn't come just to 'patch up' the Old Testament by ordering a few more fasts. He didn't come to 'top up' the Old Testament by ordering a few more sacrifices. All the sacrifices and fasts could do was to teach the human race what their problem is. Jesus came to do something entirely new: to die on the cross - God-become-man, the only sinless man taking the punishment for all other sinners, so they could be forgiven. The Old Testament spells out the problem: our sin. The New Testament spells out the solution: Jesus, and his death on the cross. And Jesus is calling us to do two things. He calls us to admit our problem. Christian, or non-Christian: will you, today, deal honestly with God and admit your sin to him? And he calls us to trust his acceptance of us, as we are. The Old Testament spells out our sin-problem. Jesus came to solve it. He died on the cross for the forgiveness of our lifetimes' sins. So he can be the Doctor who takes us on just as we are, and forgives our entire, pre-Christian past at a stroke. And he can be the perfect Husband, who takes us on from that beginning, and sticks with us, and as we fail him in trying to live for him, he forgives and forgives and forgives and forgives... all our way to heaven. He knew what he was getting when he took us on- just as he did with Matthew, just as he did with that girl Jo. He knew it was 'for richer, for poorer, for better, for worse', and he knew just how poor and bad we can be. Only, in this case, it's not 'till death us do part', but 'till death us do meet'.