A few years ago, one of our students promised to take his girlfriend - now his wife - out for a romantic Valentine's Day dinner. He booked the restaurant, arranged to meet in town, and the evening came when his young lady was waiting eagerly. Only he forgot. And about 8pm, his phone rang. The conversation went something like this:
'I've been at the Monument half an hour.'
'Waiting for you.'
'We're going out to dinner, remember?'
Awkward silence. Well, where do you go from there? The answer is: you drive round desperately looking for a flower shop that's still open. He saw one with lights on. Hammered on the door until they opened up. It turned out they were preparing funeral wreaths for the next day. So after parting with a small fortune, he set off with the world's biggest-ever bunch of pale lilies to rescue the evening.
Well tonight we're going to look at another story of one person who wanted to show their love to another. It's about a woman who wanted to show her love for Jesus. And like the Valentine's story, it's a true one. Would you turn back to p3 of the service sheet, and there you'll find that reading we had from Luke's Gospel (Luke 7.36-50). Luke's Gospel is a factual record of Jesus' life, death and coming back from the dead. It's not fiction. Jesus really existed. And this incident really happened.
What the Bible claims is that Jesus was God's Son become human. So the claim is that as you see Jesus recorded in the Four Gospels, you're seeing what God is like. And how he wants to draw you into relationship with himself. I don't know what you think of that claim. But the only way to check it out is to look into it. So would you follow along in that Bible reading and see what you make of it.
Now one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, so he went to the Pharisee's house and reclined at the table. (v36)
The Pharisees were some of the religious people of the day. They went to church, said their prayers and lived their lives by rules based on the Bible. And one of them, called Simon, invited Jesus to dinner - to check Jesus out. And it was the dinner party no-one would forget.
When I was at university, a friend of mine called Ed laid on a dinner party. He particularly wanted to impress the young ladies, so he phoned up his mother to get a classy recipe. But the phone connection wasn't too good so that while at her end she was saying 'a clove of garlic', he at his end was writing 'eight cloves of garlic'. Next day you could tell from about 50 yards who'd been to dinner with Ed.
Well, this was also the dinner party no-one would forget. Not because of the garlic. But because of this woman:
When a woman who had lived a sinful life in that town learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee's house, she brought an alabaster jar of perfume, and as she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (v37-38)
In those days, you didn't sit on chairs. End of v36 - you 'reclined at the table'. Ie, you kind of lay down at a low table, propping yourself up on your elbow and with your feet sticking away from the table so that there wasn't cheese in all three courses. So when this woman came in, she would have been greeted by this circle of feet. And all she wanted to do was to show her love for Jesus.
When the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, "If this man were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is - that she is a sinner." (v39)
We don't know what kind of life this woman had lived. But v37 says she 'had lived a sinful life in that town'. Whatever it was, she was notorious - the kind of person whose story makes it into the News of the World. And in v39, Simon said to himself, 'If Jesus really were a prophet - ie, if he really was from God, if he was anything to do with God - he wouldn't let this woman within a hundred miles of him.'
You see the way Simon was thinking? He was thinking that you can divide the human race into two groups. The sinners - like this woman. And the good people - like him. And he thought: if you're good, God will accept you - give you the 'thumbs up'. But if you're a sinner, God will reject you - give you the 'thumbs down'. He thought that if Jesus was from God he would give this woman the 'thumbs down'. But instead, here was Jesus accepting her as if she had no past. So Simon reckoned Jesus couldn't be anything to do with God.
And can I say that is how we all naturally think about God. We naturally think that God's love is conditional. Ie, that he'll accept us if we're good enough.
The following advert appeared a while ago in the country newspaper, The Evesham Advertiser, in the 'Personal' columns: 'Young man with 500 acres seeks relationship with young lady with tractor. Please send photo of tractor.' That's conditional love, isn't it? 'I will love you if you bring a tractor into my life.' That's the natural way with human love. 'I'll love you if you'll sleep with me.' 'I'll love you if I keep feeling the same way about you.' 'I'll love you if you love me.' 'I'll love you if you change'. 'I'll love you if…'
And we naturally think that God is like us - and that his love is just a slightly bigger, inflated version of our feeble love. That he says to us, 'I'll love you, I'll accept you if you bring me a good life. I'll love you if you clean up your life first. I'll love you if you make up for what you've done in the past.'
Can I say as loud and clear as I can: that is not true. God's love is not conditional like that. It doesn't have to be earned. Which is just as well, because not one of us has done or possibly could do enough to earn it. And in the rest of this dinner party, Jesus set about explaining that to Simon.
'Jesus answered him, 'Simon I have something to tell you.'
'Tell me, teacher,' he said.
'Two people owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him [£]500, and the other [£]50. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now, which of them will love him more?'
Simon replied, 'I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.'
'You have judged correctly,' said Jesus. (v40-43)
It's a very simple, but very clever story. Jesus was dealing with two people - Simon and this woman. And Simon thought that in God's eyes, she was a sinner, but he wasn't. He thought she was morally in debt to God - and should get the 'thumbs down'. Whereas he was morally in credit - and would get the 'thumbs up'. But Jesus says, 'No,' v41 - there are two people here in debt. The money-lender stands for God, the big debtor stands for the woman, and the smaller debtor stands for Simon. Simon might have lived a better life than this woman. But he hadn't lived the life that God expected of him. And nor have you. And nor have I. We've all sinned, says the Bible, and fall short of the glory of God Romans 3.22-23). We've just done it differently, that's all. So Jesus said to Simon:
'Two people owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him £500, and the other £50. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now, which of them will love him more?' (v41-42)
Have you ever had a debt cancelled? Or had a friend or parents help you out of debt? The bigger the debt you've had cancelled, the more relief you feel, the more gratitude you feel, the more love you want to show that person who got you out of it. And Jesus says that explains the difference in the way Simon and this woman treated him.
Then he turned towards the woman and said to Simon, "Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. (v44-46)
Ie, 'Simon, you haven't even shown me any of the basic courtesies of our culture' - in 21st century terms, 'You didn't shake my hand or take my coat, or offer me a drink. But this woman has blown a bottle of Chanel No 5 on me.' Verse 47:
Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven - for [ie, as shown by the fact that] she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.
Do you see what Jesus is saying? He was saying that this woman had come to show her love for him because he'd already forgiven her. So this can't have been the first time that Jesus and this woman had met. What Jesus is saying in v47 is that her many sins have been forgiven - ie, they've already been forgiven in the past, before this dinner party. Somewhere she'd already heard Jesus and responded to him. She might have been at the dinner-party back in Luke 5 (5.27-32) where the Pharisees complained about the way Jesus befriended the worst kind of people. Jesus said:
'It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance [ie, to turn back to God].' (Luke 5.31-32)
Ie, 'I can't do anything for people who think they're OK, who think they're in the right with God. But I have come to call people who know they're not OK, who know they're in the wrong with God. I'm saying, Come back to God, and he'll forgive and accept you just as you are. Trust me.'
That's what she heard Jesus say. That through him, God would have her back just as she was. So she discovered that the Pharisees were wrong. That God was not saying, 'I'll love you if you're good enough. I'll love you if you clean up your life first. I'll love you if you make up for the past.' But that God was saying, 'I'll love you as you are. Trust me. And come back to me.' That's unconditional. And that's why there were all the tears that night when she gate-crashed this dinner-party.
I preached at the wedding of a friend called Patrick yesterday. Pat came to trust in Jesus about 4 years ago. I first met him on a Sunday night like this and got talking. He was still thinking the Christian message over, and I asked if he'd like to meet up and talk. He said let's leave it a week and arrange something next Sunday. Next Sunday I saw him and I guessed just from his face that since I'd last seen him, he'd come to Jesus. And he said, 'Can I talk to you now?' And we came up the front here, and I don't know if I was the first person he'd told, but there were tears in his eyes as he said how he'd finally asked Jesus to forgive him and become Lord of his life. And I remember him saying, 'I can't tell you what a relief it is to know I'm in the right with God at last.' And he dried his eyes and said, 'Do you always have this effect on people?' And I said I thought it was probably God who was having the effect.
Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." (v48)
Those are the four most important words she'd ever hear. Not everyone is as emotional as Patrick. Or as this woman. But can I ask: do you know what it is to be forgiven? Because that's the very heart of what it is to be a Christian. Do you see that you're a sinner who needs to come back to God and be forgiven? That's one question. And when you can say 'Yes' to that, the other question is: 'Do you see that Jesus is the only way to be forgiven?'
Then Jesus said to her, "Your sins are forgiven." The other guests began to say among themselves, "Who is this who even forgives sins?" (v48-49)
What they're getting at is that only God can forgive sins. All sins are ultimately offences against God. So these other guests at the dinner were saying, 'How can this mere mortal forgive sins?'
To which the Bible replies: Jesus wasn't a mere mortal. In the bit of Luke's Gospel just before this (7.11-17), Jesus stopped a funeral procession. He told the dead man in the coffin to get up. And he did. End of funeral. In the chapter after this (8.22-25), Jesus got caught in rough weather out to sea. He got up in the boat and told it to be quiet - just like you'd tell a puppy to sit. End of storm. At the end of Luke's Gospel, Jesus was crucified for claiming to be God (22.66-71; 23.32-43). Three days later his grave was empty and he was seen alive from the dead by multiple witnesses (Luke 24). End of death. But not end of Jesus.
This man can forgive sins, can do what only God can do, because he is God's Son become human. And the very reason he became human was to forgive sins. Just look back at that story Jesus told in v41:
'Two people owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him [£]500, and the other [£]50. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both.' (v41-42)
The money-lender stands for God. He has 'lent' us our lives. So we owe our lives to him. We owe it to him to give him his rightful place in our lives. To look up to him and live the way he wants us to. But in fact, we've all 'spent' our lives on other things, in other ways, and we're all morally in debt to God. And it says, v42, none of us has the money to pay him back. There's nothing we can do to make up for the past. Doing something right doesn't pay for something I've done wrong.
The only way out of debt is if there's someone who's not in debt who's willing to pay off your debt. And the only person who's not in debt with God is God himself. So it had to be God himself who would pay off our debt for us. Which is why God sent his own Son to become a man and to die on the cross for us. And as he died he was paying the penalty we deserved in one, concentrated period of hell. Paying off our debts so they could be cancelled. Ie, so we could be forgiven. Elsewhere the Bible say this:
God demonstrates his own love for us in this, while we were still sinners Christ died for us. (Romans 5.8)
Ie, it's unconditional. He gave his Son to die for our sins and meet us with forgiveness just as we are - before we made any move in his direction, before we'd even given him a thought. And that's what this woman in Luke 7 discovered. In fact, she's a picture of what it means to become a real Christian:
She starts - as we all do - out of relationship with God, living her own way. She hears Jesus calling her to come to him, trusting that he'll forgive and have her back as she is. And that's what changes her. There's nothing like being loved to change a person. And she wants to love Jesus in return.
Well, how about us here, tonight?
Many of us here have come to trust in Jesus, as this woman did.' And if you are, you can take those words in v48 to apply to you as well: 'Your sins are forgiven.'' And that's not just your sins before you came to faith. It's all your sins. If you're trusting in Jesus right now, then it's true of you right now that your sins - up to the present moment - are forgiven. And it may be we need to grasp that afresh tonight. It may be that you are increasingly aware of 'your sins' as you go on as a Christian. So can I encourage you to grasp again the whole picture: 'your sins are forgiven'. Be aware of them. But know they are forgiven.
But there will be others who haven't come to trust in Jesus, yet. And if that's you may I ask you the question: Why?
It may be that you need to investigate more. Maybe you doubt that what I've been saying is true. Or maybe you don't know enough about what it would mean to be a Christian - how Christ would want you to live. Well, if you need to investigate more, here are some suggestions.
Take a copy of Luke's Gospel and read it for yourself. Do come back and hear some more on Sundays. You're always welcome. If you're a student - why not come and try the Tavern? For the next 5 Thursday evenings, we take over the upstairs of a pub in town so you can come for a drink and hear a short talk on some part of the Christian message. Or for others, there's something similar over a sit-down meal, called Food for Thought.
It may be you need to investigate more. But you may know enough. And there's another reason why you haven't yet come to trust Jesus.
It may be that like Simon the Pharisee, you think you're good enough as you are. If so, can I ask you: Do you live up to your own standards? Unless your standards are zero, you have to be either proud or blind to say, 'Yes'. And we have to be even more proud or blind to think we've lived up to God's standards. And anyway, do you really think God have sent his Son to die if he thought we were basically OK?
But it may be that you're the very opposite of that. You know you're not good enough. And you think you couldn't possibly just come to Jesus and trust him right now. Not as the person you are. Not with the things you've done. Well, why not? The whole point of this story is to show you can. This woman plays us all on-side. If Jesus would have her back just as she was, he'll have you, he'll have me, he'll have anyone.
At the end of the day, the question is not, 'Will he have us back?' His death on the cross says, 'I will', unconditionally, loud and clear. The question is: will we come back? And I understand that's a big question.
The thing about unconditional love is that it not only gives everything. It asks everything as well, doesn't it? That's why it's so scary when we realise someone else seriously loves us. It's great, as well. But you know you can't just receive love like that and not love in response. If you let it, love like that draws you in and turns your life upside down. As happened to Patrick and Sarah yesterday here, as they got married.
And that's what happens when you come to faith in Jesus. He'll have you back just as you are. But he won't leave you just as you are. He'll turn your life upside down as he becomes Lord of it, and by his Spirit living in you gives you the strength to live for him. Receiving his unconditional love involves unconditional surrender. And I understand: that sounds scary. But what have you to fear from surrendering your life to someone who's loved you like he has?
I'm going to end with a prayer for anyone who wants to come to Jesus tonight. Let me tell you what I'll pray so you can think whether it would be appropriate for you:
I admit that I am a sinner and deserve your condemnation.
I believe you died for me so that I might be forgiven.
I come to you now just as I am. Please forgive me, accept me, and help me to respond to your love from today on.
If that's not appropriate for you - if you're further back or further on, why not pray something else that is appropriate? But if it is, and you want to come to Christ tonight, you could echo it in your mind as I say it.
If you've just put your faith in Jesus, then Jesus' last word to that woman is also his word to you tonight:
'Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.' (v50)
Ie, if you prayed that prayer and meant it, you can head off from this place tonight knowing you are forgiven and at peace with God from now on.
If that has just happened to you, it's the biggest thing that will ever happen to you. Far bigger than marriage - because that's only 'till death us do part'. It's the beginning of a new relationship with Jesus. And I want to encourage you to do two things. One is to pick up from the Welcome Desk a copy of this booklet, The Choice We All Face. It goes over the step of coming to trust Jesus and you'd find it helpful for your confidence about what you've just done. The other thing is to tell a Christian you know that you've begun. That way, they can make some suggestions about going on from there. And if you wanted to tell me, that would be great to hear, and I'd be able to pray for you this week.