Let me begin with an apology and a thank you. The apology is that I'm not Richard Coekin – he was due to speak today but is laid up with a ski-ing injury. Ironically, his title was, 'An Opportunity Not to Be Missed'…
And the thank you is: for coming, if you're here through an invitation – especially for the first time.
I heard the story of a 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 whispered, 'Dad, what are those names?' And his Dad whispered, 'They're all the people who died in the services.' And the boy's eyes went like saucers and he whispered back, 'What, the morning services or the evening services?'
Well if this is your first time, you'll be glad to know we have a 100% track record of people coming out alive.
And I don't know what you think about Christianity. But you might be thinking, 'Is this really for me?' You know, 'I'm glad for you Christians to have your belief, But I really don't think it's for me.'
Well, I'm married to Tess, and just this week we've each had a conversation with someone who might say that.
Mine was with a guy doing some work on our house. And he's a really lovely man, your classic good bloke. And when he checked the roofs of our bay windows, I told him how someone tried to nick the lead a while back. And he said, 'Oh that's awful. Mind you,' he said, they generally go for something bigger – like church roofs.' So I said, 'Funny you should say that, because someone tried to nick the lead off our church roof a while back, too.' And he said, 'Oh that's really awful. Some people…' And he told me what 'some people' could be like, and finally said, 'Well, we could spend all day putting the world to rights, but we better get on.'
So I guess the way he sees things (like many people) is that there are the 'some people' who do the wrong thing, and the rest of us who basically do the right thing. And I guess he might say, 'I don't think Christianity is for me because I'm already a good person.' And maybe you'd identify with that.
The other conversation was the one Tess had – with a woman who is in a really sad mess. She's had her children taken off her, she's pregnant again, and thinking about the possibility of another abortion.
And I guess she'd admit she's one of the 'some people' who've done the wrong thing. And she might say, 'I don't think Christianity is for me, either, because I'm too bad. God would have no time for me after the way I've lived.' And maybe you'd identify with that.
But what we're going to see in the Bible this morning is that actually there's no-one here that Christianity's not for: no-one here too good to need what Jesus offers, or too bad for him still to offer it.
So would you turn back to page 2 of your service sheet, and at the bottom of that page you'll see the Bible reading we had earlier (Luke 5.27-32). And let me run past you again the first line:
"After this he [that's Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth."
So if we'd been there 2,000 years ago we'd have actually seen and heard what we're reading. Because Christianity isn't make believe. This really happened. Jesus really lived and said and did the things written down here.
But if you'd been there on this particular day, you'd never have guessed he was God become human. Because that only became clear after he died and rose from the dead – which isn't something mere humans tend to do, as you'll have noticed. But this was before Jesus died and rose from the dead, before he'd given that clearest of all the evidence that he was God. So you wouldn't have recognised that he was.
It's a bit like the story of when the Queen went into one of the tourist shops near Balmoral. She was on her own (the bodyguard was outside in the Range Rover), and she was dressed down in everyday clothes and head scarf. And she picked up this plate with a picture of her on it and said to the woman in the shop, 'Do you sell many of these?' And the shopkeeper said, 'Oh yes, that's one of our most popular lines.' And then the shopkeeper said, 'You know, you could make a living as her double – you look very like her.' To which the Queen simply said, 'How very reassuring.' And it was only after she'd gone that the shopkeeper realised who she was.
And here in this incident from Luke's Gospel, we have God's Son, come down from his Father in heaven, dressed down in humanness, to offer us the opportunity to come back into relationship with him. So let me run verse 27 past you again:
"After this [Jesus] went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, 'Follow me.' And leaving everything, he rose and followed him."
So Levi was a taxman. Which means your reaction to him might be less than sympathetic. But if you'd lived in Jesus' day, your reaction would have been even stronger. Because tax collectors were notoriously immoral.
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 this: 'I've been unable to sleep properly because of my conscience about tax evasion, so I enclose £2,000 in cash. 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, extracting more than people owed, to line their own pockets. So they were seen as the lowest of the low – like sex offenders today. Which is why some of the people there reacted as they did. Let me read on in verse 29:
"And Levi made [Jesus] a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, 'Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?'"
So the Pharisees and scribes were the most religious people of the day – for whom reading the Bible was their idea of fun, and who took being good very seriously indeed. Which was why they couldn't cope with what Jesus was doing here. Because he'd apparently just accepted someone who was morally the lowest of the low.
And the reason they couldn't cope was that they thought you could divide the human race into two groups –those who were trying to be good (like them) and those who weren't (like Levi). And they thought that God would ultimately accept those who tried hard – but that people like Levi didn't have a hope. So they said to themselves, 'Jesus can't be from God in any way – because if he was, he'd never accept a person like Levi.'
Well, let me read on into verse 31:
"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. And last time that happened, I was just on my way out through the waiting room of my doctor's surgery. So down I went. And I woke up lying on my back with this toddler's terrified eyes staring into mine. And you can reconstruct the scene. Mum had spent the whole morning explaining that going to the doctor was nothing to be afraid of. And now he's arrived, the first thing he finds is a dead body. But while I was down there being kept under surveillance by the nurse, I had time to 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 all need. And I wouldn't have done the 'call out' from heaven to earth, to die for you and pay for your forgiveness, if you were all right as you are. But you're not. You're all spiritually sick – even if your individual symptoms seem less bad than others'.'
That's what Jesus is saying to all of us. And the name he gives our sickness is 'sin'. And this is where people who feel they've lived a good life can get offended. Because they think that by calling them 'sinners', Jesus is talking about their behaviour, and that he's saying we've all lived as badly as one another, and might just as well have gone stealing the lead off church roofs, for all the difference it makes in God's eyes.
But Jesus isn't saying that at all. Because sin isn't the word for our behaviour. It's the word for our attitude to God. It's the attitude that says to God, 'I don't want you in charge of my life. I want to define for myself what's good and what isn't.'
So Levi would have had no problem accepting he was a sinner – because, for example, he'd been re-defining theft as good for years. And probably a whole lot else, too. And like Levi, you may have been living far enough from God's definition of good – in some parts of your life at least – that you have no problem accepting the label 'sinner', either.
It's those of us who feel we've lived a good life who have the problem. And that may be you, this morning. So maybe you'd point to the way you've been true to your husband or wife over the years. And that's a big good. But God's question is, 'Have you always been an absolutely truthful person in everything? For example, have you ever told a lie? Ever told a lie but passed it off to yourself as just a 'small one', just a 'white one'? Have you ever exaggerated the truth in your favour, or hidden the truth in your defence?' Because if so, God would say you haven't been living by his definition of good. Which shows that under the (mainly truthful) surface you've actually been saying to him, 'I don't want you in charge of my life. I want to define for myself what's good and what isn't – which includes being truthful depending on whether it suits me'
And Jesus is saying: that failure to give God his rightful place is the sickness beneath all the symptoms of our failures to be good. And having God in his rightful place once more is what Jesus came to call us back to. Just listen to verse 32 again. Jesus says:
"I have not come to call the righteous [in other words, those who think they're all right as they are. That's the one kind of person Jesus can't help], but sinners to repentance [which just means 'turning']."
So Jesus is calling us to turn to him for the two things we need if we're to come back into relationship with God.
And the first is forgiveness, because once you've admitted that you've failed to be good as God defines good, and that that's a symptom of failing to give God his rightful place in your life, it's a short step to realising you need him to forgive you. Because whoever else we've wronged and hurt along the way, we've offended God above all.
And this is the way a friend first explained to me how we can be forgiven. 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 there's nothing on your conscience – however big – that Jesus can't forgive. And 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.
But we need Jesus to do more than just forgive us. Because if you've really begun to see what's wrong with you, as Jesus diagnoses it, then you won't just want to be forgiven. You'll want to be changed.
And that's the other thing Jesus promises to do if we turn to him. Because having died and risen from the dead, the Jesus we're reading about is now alive in heaven. And he can come into our lives by his Spirit, and give us the desire and strength to change and become more what God wants us to be.
So those are the two things Jesus calls us to turn to him for: his forgiveness; and his Spirit living in us to change us.
I remember talking with a friend called James – who was on the brink of turning to Jesus. And I said to him, 'What do you think is stopping you?' And we'd talked over the previous months about all sorts of things – like, 'Would I have to stop sleeping with my girlfriend?' ('Yes – unless and until you marry her.'), and 'Would I have to tell people I'm a Christian?' ('Yes – but you'd want to, if you become one.'), and 'Would I have to become weird or boring like most of the other Christians you've introduced me to?' ('No – they were almost certainly weird or boring before they became Christians.') And so on. So I wondered if it was still one of those things.
But what he said was this. 'What's stopping me is that I'm not good enough, and couldn't change.'
But those are exactly the two needs Jesus can meet. We're not good enough – which is why he died to forgive us. And we can't change ourselves – but he, by his Spirit, can.'
So can I end by asking If you began today thinking, 'I really don't think this is for me', are you still thinking that? Now that you've heard Jesus – God himself – tell you that there's no-one here too good to need what he offers, or too bad for him still to offer it.
Imagine I were to draw a line of where everyone here stands in relation to God.
At one end there will be those who are saying, 'Well, I haven't turned to Jesus – I'm nowhere near that.' And if that's you I hope this bit of the Bible has shown you what Jesus offers, and why we need him, and why this is for you – however good or bad you think you are.
And then at the other end of my line will be those who can say you have turned to Jesus. And you know what it is to be forgiven, and to have his Spirit in your life, working to make you more the person he wants you to be.
But you may be 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 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 first, so you can think whether you'd want to make this your own, personal prayer. I'll say:
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, and don't need to begin all over again. 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 pray.
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.
I know I'm into extra time, but let me just say two things to anyone who's just prayed that prayer.
One is: tell another Christian you've done that. You'll find that helps you underline what you've done in private. And they can also suggest what would help you to go on from here. And feel free to talk to me or one of the other church staff, if you like.
And the other thing is to take away a copy of this Why Jesus? booklet. It's about the step of turning to Jesus. And whether you've just done that, or are still thinking about it, you'd find it really helpful to read.