Why Christianity is for You

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Well, if you're here through an invitation – especially for the first time – can I say thanks for coming. I heard the story of this boy who was in church for the first time with his Dad and his attention wandered to a list of names up on the wall, which was a war memorial. And he said, "Dad, what are those names?" And Dad said, "They're all the people who died in the services." And wide-eyed this boy said, "What, the morning services or the evening services?" Well you'll be glad to hear that we have a 100% track record of people coming out alive. And whether you've been coming for months, or it's your first time, the idea of today's service is to help us each take stock of where we've got to in our relationship to God and his Son Jesus.

As an example of that, I was talking to a woman over in our church in Jesmond. She'd been coming for a while, so I said, "What are you making of it?" And she said, "Well, I don't really think Christianity is for me." So I said, "Why's that?" And she said, "Well, I haven't told you before, but I'm gay, I'm totally in the scene, I'm involved with someone – and I know that would have to change. And I just look round this church and think, 'I could never be one of them.'" That's why I want us to look at a bit of the Bible which says loud and clear that Christianity – i.e. Jesus – is for everyone, whoever you are. So would you turn in the Bible to Luke 5.27:

"After this he [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth."

Now as you can tell, I was recently in the clutches of the hairdresser. And she was new to me and asked what I do – so we got talking about God. And she said, "The thing is, sometimes I think he's there, and sometimes I don't – how can you know?" And I said, "Well, you can know because of Jesus, because he was God's Son come to earth as a man. And if you'd been there you could have seen him yourself." And we need to remember that's who we're reading about here: God's Son come to earth. He did really live and die on the cross, and rise again. And he is really alive today in heaven, which means that what happened between him and this bloke Levi can happen between him and you today. So it says (v27):

"[Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, "Follow me.""

And the bunch of followers Jesus already had would have thought, 'You're kidding.' Because back then, people thought that tax collectors were morally the lowest of the low. Today, it's the tax payer who's more likely to be immoral. So for example, one Inland Revenue office got an anonymous letter saying,

"I've been unable to sleep properly because of my conscience about tax evasion, so I enclose a cheque for £2,000. If my conscience continues to trouble me, I'll forward the rest of what I owe."

But in Jesus' day, it was the tax collectors who were notoriously immoral, ripping you off more than you owed to line their own pockets. So everyone else would have thought Levi was the lowest of the low – they'd have been thinking, 'Jesus, you don't want him.' But Jesus says to Levi, 'Follow me. I do want you.' And I reckon the number one reason why people think Christianity isn't for them is that they just think God could never accept them. Maybe that's you right now - and maybe because of something on your conscience from the past.

I was talking to another woman who's come to faith in Jesus recently. And for her it all began in the aftermath of having an abortion. She brought herself to church for the first time one Sunday, a complete wreck. And she told me she sat through it thinking, 'This isn't for me. No-one here has done anything like I have. As soon as it's over I'm out of here.' But at the end, the lady next to her introduced herself and said, "So what brought you along?" And she just blurted it out: "I've had an abortion." And when she was telling me about this, months later, she said, "I would never have come back to church but for what that lady who welcomed said", which was: "So have I."

You may be feeling God could never accept you because of something in the past, or because of a situation or relationship you're in right now. But the truth is: whoever you are, whatever you've done, Jesus is saying to us, 'I want you back in relationship with me.' And he doesn't say, 'Make up for the past, sort out your life and then I'll accept you.' That's not what happens with Levi is it? Jesus walks up to him in all the moral mess he's in and says, 'I'll accept you right now, just as you are. Now, will you accept me – will you let me take charge of your life from now on?' And part of you may be thinking, 'That's exactly what I need him to do.' While the other part is thinking, 'But… how can he accept me, after everything I've done wrong? Surely he can't just say, 'Let's forget it''. Well, that's true – he can't say, 'Let's forget it'. But he can forgive it through his death on the cross.

This is how a friend first explained the cross to me, when I was on my way to coming to faith. He held out one hand and said, "Imagine this hand stands for you or me. And imagine the light up there stands for God. Well, we were meant to live in relationship with God, but actually we've all turned away from letting him be in charge of our lives to living them our own way." Then he picked up his Bible and said, "Now imagine this is the record-book of everything you do wrong in your whole lifetime – everything God should hold against you in the end." And he laid it on the hand representing us, cutting it off from the light above, and said, "That's a picture of the judgement we deserve from God. That's why we feel God shouldn't accept us. That's why we feel he's against us as our Judge" (which he is – at the same time as being committed to us as our Maker). And then this friend said, "But now imagine my other hand stands for Jesus – God's Son come to earth as a man, who lived the only perfect life that's ever been lived. So he never did anything wrong like we've done, and he never deserved any judgement like we do. But what happened on the cross was that he took on himself the judgment our wrongdoing deserved [and here he moved his Bible from the hand representing us to the hand representing Jesus], so that on the one hand justice would be done on it, and on the other, we could turn and be forgiven."

And Jesus did that on the cross for all the wrongdoing of everyone here. So if you're thinking, 'This isn't for me – God could never accept me', you need to know that through his death on the cross Jesus can forgive anyone anything. That's how being a Christian starts: by being forgiven everything in the past, and accepted. And that's how being a Christian carries on. Because every day you blow it and don't follow Jesus as you should. But every day you're forgiven everything again, and still accepted.

Now I know some people here will be getting back into church after drifting away from Jesus. And you may be thinking, 'I don't just need forgiveness for blowing the last day of my Christian life, but for blowing the last ten years (or whatever)'. And you need to know that Jesus died to cover all of that, too – so that you can have a re-start. And maybe today is the day for you to ask him for that and get going again. So all of that's from verse 27:

"[Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, "Follow me.""

There's the fork in the road: either Levi just keeps living life his own way, or he lets Jesus take charge. And that may be the fork you're at right now. So what does Levi do? Well, verse 28:

"And leaving everything [including his job], he rose and followed him."

Now following Jesus doesn't always mean leaving your job. I do have a friend, Tim, who was brand manager of Smirnoff Vodka when he became a Christian. And Christians don't have to be teetotal and their work may involve making or selling alcohol, but Tim soon decided he would rather not be in a job pushing cheap shots and encouraging overdrinking. And he became brand manager of Colman's mustard instead. That's the kind of change that Jesus may bring about in your life! It doesn't always mean leaving your job. But it does always mean leaving behind the life where you live it your own way – where you decide what's right and wrong. It means leaving that behind and letting Jesus take charge and change you where he wants to.

That's a second big reason why people think Christianity isn't for them: it's because the changes Jesus would want to make just seem too hard, too much of a cost. If that's the big thing for you, I want to say: yes, it may be hard. But where Jesus wants to change us, it's always for the better. So, for example, a friend of mine, Patrick, turned his life over to Jesus at a point where he'd say he was on the way to becoming alcoholic. Being changed from that, and losing all his drinking mates in the process, wasn't easy. But I remember interviewing him in church – a bit like Ken interviewed Tony today – and I said, "Pat, wasn't it hard, leaving those habits and mates behind?" And he said, "Well, in my experience, non-Christian life is like vegetarian food: you can eat as much as you like, but it never really fills you up." He told me afterwards that he hadn't planned to say that, and from the look on his face you could tell he knew he'd just offended all the vegetarians in church. But he pressed on undaunted and said, "So I'd say that, yes, it's sometimes been harder – but it's definitely better – and what I've had to leave behind wasn't worth having in the first place."

And if you're thinking, 'But I couldn't change like that', I want to say that Jesus coming into your life by his Spirit can begin to change you where you know very well that you can't change yourself. That's my experience; that's Pat's experience. And that's true however messy or complicated your situation feels. I mean Levi's situation was messy, wasn't it – up to his neck in guilt and fraud, and owing a stack of money he'd already spent. But he just turned the whole mess of his life over to Jesus, and trusted Jesus to show him the way forward a day at a time. That may be what you need to do today. And Levi would have agreed totally with my friend Pat – that having Jesus where he belongs in your life is just so much better. Because, verse 29:

"And Levi made him [Jesus] a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them."

It's just so much better, he throws a party so that all his mates can find out about Jesus as well. But at the party, we meet a bunch of people who just didn't understand Jesus at all. Let me read verse 30:

"And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his [Jesus'] disciples, saying, "Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?""

So these Pharisees and scribes were the really religious people, who went to church a lot, and read their Bibles a lot, and tried really hard to keep all the rules they thought God wanted them to keep. And that's where they made their big mistake, because they basically thought that God would accept you if you tried hard enough, if you were good enough. So they looked at people like Levi and thought, 'How can Jesus accept them when he knows what they've done and what they're like?' And, as we've seen, the answer is: by forgiving them. But the Pharisees didn't understand that – or even think they needed forgiving. They thought they were OK as they were.

And that's a third big reason why people think Christianity isn't for them. It's because they think they're OK without Jesus. They look down on the Levi's of this world – the people you hear about in the news every day – and they think, 'I'm not like that. I'm a good person, and I try to live a good life.' And Jesus says: so long as you're thinking like that, you're the one kind of person he can't help – because listen to the punchline of this little episode in verses 31 and 32:

"And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician [or doctor], but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.""

I don't know about you, but I'm hopeless with needles. I almost always faint after injections. The last time that happened, I was just on my way out through the waiting room of my doctor's surgery and I came round lying on my back with a toddler's terrified eyes staring into mine. And I guess his Mum had spent the whole morning explaining that the doctor was really nice and that going to the doctors was nothing to be afraid of – and now he'd arrived to find (apparently) a dead body on the floor. But while I was down there being kept under surveillance, I read all the posters, one of which said:

"Are they really sick? Only call out the doctor if absolutely necessary."

And that's what Jesus was saying here. He was saying, 'I'm the spiritual doctor you need. And I wouldn't have done the 'call out' from heaven to earth to die for you, if you were alright as you were. But you're not. You're all spiritually sick – even if the symptoms of what you've done wrong seem much less worse than others –and you all need me to forgive you and come into your life to change you.' That's what Jesus is saying to us.

Well I said that the idea of today's service was to help us each take stock of where we've got to in our relationship to God and the Lord Jesus. So imagine I were to draw a line of where everyone here stands with God. At one end there will be those who are saying, 'Well, I haven't yet turned to Jesus like Levi did.' And if that's you, I hope this bit of the Bible has shown you what Jesus offers, and why you need him, and why this is for you, whoever you are. Then at the other end of my line will be those who can say you have turned to Jesus, like Levi did. And you know what it is to be forgiven, and to have Jesus in your life, by his Spirit, working to make you more the person he wants you to be. And there's nothing better than that. Or it may be that you're in the middle of my line: you know it's true and you know that today and maybe over the past weeks and months, Jesus has been speaking to you and calling you to respond to him. And I want to say: wouldn't today be a great day to do that? So I'm going to end with a prayer which would be a way of turning to Jesus for the first time. Let me just read it out before I lead us in prayer, so that you can think whether you'd want to make this your own, personal prayer. It goes:

"Lord Jesus, I'm sorry for turning away from you and living my own way. Thank you for dying for me, so I can be forgiven. Please forgive me, and come into my life by your Spirit, and help me to live for you from now on."

Now you may be further back, and not ready to pray like that. Or you may already have begun this relationship with Jesus – in which case, you don't need to begin all over again, although you might like to use this prayer as a re-start today. But if you want to turn to Jesus for the first time, you could echo the prayer in your mind to him, as I lead us now. Let's bow our heads to pray.

"Lord Jesus, I'm sorry for turning away from you and living my own way. Thank you for dying for me, so I can be forgiven. Please forgive me, and come into my life by your Spirit, and help me to live for you from now on."

Let me just say two things to anyone who's just prayed that prayer:

  • Tell another Christian you've done that. You'll find that helps you underline what you've done, and they can also suggest how to get going from here.
  • Take away a copy of this 'Why Jesus?' booklet which is all about the step of turning to Jesus. Whether you've just done that, or are still thinking about it, you'd find it a really helpful thing to have.
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