God’s Calling In Our Lives

This was my very first sermon given way back in 1997 when I was just starting out as a Lay Reader. As I recall I was in my second year of training and preached not in our actual church but rather in the local primary school hall where our “planted” congregation met for worship each week. I remember I was extremely nervous and wearing my new robes for the occasion.

2 Corinthians 4:1-6; Matthew 9:9-13

St Matthew and the angel

Image via Wikipedia

Let me read to you again, the opening paragraph of our Gospel reading. “Jesus saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax office; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.” Not much of an opening paragraph, you might think, a bit short, just a couple of sentences made up of twenty four words in total. But words that are of huge significance and have great bearing in our lives.

For some reason as I was thinking about this sermon and about Matthew in particular, I found that I had the greatest difficulty in thinking of Matthew as anything other than a “Saint” with a capital “S”, a good man, an apostle of Jesus who did good works and wrote one of the synoptic gospels. It must, I think, have something to do with stereotypes. When we think of words such as “Saint” and “Apostle”, we are in danger of automatically assigning certain characteristics to people and putting them into certain categories that are associated with those words, and indeed of automatically associating certain meanings and descriptions with those very words. For example, if I used the word “gay” in todays parlance to describe someone, and you happened to be a homophobe, then you might well immediately associate various characteristics with that word and therefore with that person, that inspire feelings of distaste or even hatred. But you would be stereotyping that person without knowing the least bit about them as an individual. And so it is with “Saint”, “Apostle” and other similar words. The distance of time in history has created an injustice, an injustice that is done to God. Why? Because the reality of the true personalities and the subsequent good works and deeds of Saints such as Matthew is lost or forgotten. I say injustice because it seems to me that the significance of those good works and deeds of people like Matthew and others, is not fully realised without taking into account God’s action in calling them in the first place. Today we recognise Matthew as a Saint, but he wasn’t always such, and he would never have been so if it wasn’t for God’s call to him through Jesus that we’ve been told about in our Gospel passage this evening. A contemporary example would be Mother Theresa, whose excellent works in Calcutta and around the world were in response to God’s call to her.

“And he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.”

So what type of man was Matthew before Jesus walked into his life? Sadly, the New Testament gives us very little in the way of specific background information on Matthew, but we can make an educated guess as to his personality from a bit of research into his job as a tax collector, and the attitudes of the time.

Tax collector! Even today those words inspire dislike and instil fear into the hearts of many. Back in Jesus’ day the reaction to those words would have been far more severe. Then, as now, there were taxes. In the Bible tax collectors were the lowest of the low, the scum of the earth, often lumped together with prostitutes, gentiles and sinners. The Jews of the time had no regard for them whatsoever. Why should this be so? If you were a tax gatherer you worked for the government, and all they cared about was that they got the agreed sum, anything you could get over and above that sum you could keep. People didn’t know quite how much tax they should be paying and there was no right of appeal against a tax collector. Thus the system was open to terrible abuse. As a tax collector it was easy to become a rich man through extortion. The statutory taxes were ground tax, which meant you had to pay a tenth of your grain and a fifth of your fruit and vine to the government in cash or in kind. Then there was income tax, which was one percent of your income. There was also poll-tax, paid by every male from the age of fourteen until they were sixty-five, and every female from twelve to sixty-five. But as well as these there were other taxes which those of a corrupt nature could easily take advantage of. Import and export duty on all goods which could be anything from two and a half percent to twelve and a half percent. You had to pay taxes to travel on main roads, to cross bridges, to enter market-places and towns or harbours. There were taxes on pack animals, taxes on the wheels and axles of carts. Taxes on goods bought and sold. These people who gathered the taxes were highly corrupt, and as such were hated and despised. But there was another reason why they wouldn’t be top of the polls. Working for the government meant that they were working for the Romans, the hated conquerors. How could they work for the enemy and make money out of their country’s misfortune? The Jews were fanatical nationalists so no wonder then that these tax collectors were so disliked. Furthermore, these people were going against the faith, the faith that said that God alone was king, and paying taxes to a mortal ruler was an infringement of God’s rights and an insult to his majesty. Therefore Jewish law banned tax collectors from the synagogue. What kind of person would be a tax collector? They’d probably have to be greedy and corrupt, with little in the way of morals because they’re lining their own pocket with money coined from extortion. Perhaps they’d have very little in the way of honour and probably fairly mercenary in outlook, they’d have to be to sell out their own countrymen. In fact, however you look at it, that person would be pretty featureless in the way of saving graces. And how would that person feel? Bitter, maybe. Low self-esteem. In their own turn angry at how they’re treated. No friends, save for others like themselves. Perhaps full of resentment at the Jewish authorities. Uncivil, loud-mouthed, disrespectful. All of these things and more. Not quite the personality traits you’d expect from someone likely to be canonised! And yet Jesus walked into the life of one such as this.

“And he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.”

So what’s the huge significance of these words and their great bearing on us? It’s important to say at this point that in many ways I think Matthew is a symbol for each of us, that he represents us. Firstly, the fact that Matthew was a tax collector, someone who was classed by the Jews among the sinners; whose work for the Romans, and the dishonesty of his methods, cut him off from Israel. He was an outcast. People didn’t voluntarily have anything to do with tax collectors. They were unclean. But Jesus took the initiative in calling this man to be his disciple. Perhaps for Matthew it was the first time that anyone had approached him without fear or hatred in their eyes. Instead, here was someone who showed love and mercy. I’m sure that Matthew knew of Jesus, and had probably even listened to him from the edge of a crowd and perhaps been struck by his words. He must have, otherwise, if we’re right about his character, he’d have had no hesitation in saying, “On yer bike, mate.” What kind of person volunteers to be one of the most hated people in the land? What kind of person voluntarily puts them self outside of the Law? Some of those characteristics and those feelings we can recognise in ourselves from time to time. Yet the calling of a tax collector into the company of those who followed Jesus is a sign that the kingdom of God can be given to those who put themselves outside the Law. Jesus is calling to us.

Secondly, this is a fabulous example of Jesus’ ability to see through all the hype to the man underneath. And not only that, he sees Matthew’s potential, what he could be, and not only what he was. He doesn’t let prejudice stand in his way, neither does he stereotype the man before him. Where everyone else had given up, Jesus demonstrates faith in the possibilities of human nature. Jesus is calling to us.

And thirdly, although he left his job, Matthew found all those things that were missing in his life. Love, friendship, honour, self-esteem, someone he could believe in and more importantly, who believed in him. He abandoned his money but in following Jesus gained a far greater wealth than he could have amassed before. Jesus is calling to us.

“And he said to him, “Follow me.” And he rose and followed him.”

“And as he sat at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and sat down with Jesus and his disciples. And when the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard it, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.””

We’re all familiar with the description of Jesus as “Jesus the physician”, the healer. Those words of his imply that he has come to heal the sick: and those who are outside the Law are most obviously the sick. Sickness being a euphemism for sin. And as Matthew found out, that when we meet God (and by the way, Jesus came to where Matthew was at, and in the same way God meets us where we are at), that when we meet God, he can see right through to our hearts and into our souls, and he brings healing. But the healing is not for those who think they are in good health and strength as the Pharisees did. They saw no need for the physician, in principle they had no need of him, and in practice did not make use of him; and therefore it was to no purpose to attend them. I think Matthew understood that he was sick, and that he was indeed a sinner, which is why he got up and went with Jesus so quickly. Do we understand our state of health, spiritually? Do we realise how sick we are; or are we like the Pharisees who see no need for the physician? Jesus calls those who are aware of their spiritual health; those who are conscious of their sin and realise their need for a saviour. Are you one of those people tonight? One of the things that I believe about God’s calling of us is that it’s not just a singular event, that actually it’s something that’s continuous. God is constantly renewing that call to us. And in the same way we are able to renew our response to his call. This being the third Sunday of the month, I assume that you’ve all come to church tonight because this is a service for health and healing. So, if you’re feeling a bit unhealthy spiritually or physically, and feel that you’d like some healing then why not take this opportunity to answer God’s call to you tonight. In a short while we’ll be having our intercessions and prayers for health and healing. Could I encourage you to answer God’s call to you tonight and to accept his invitation. Come up to the rail at the front here and either Di or Derek will be here to pray with you.

“Go and learn what this means, “I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.” For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Let’s pray.

Collect.

Almighty God, who through your Son Jesus Christ called Matthew from the selfish pursuit of gain to become an apostle and evangelist: free us from all possessiveness and love of riches that we may follow in the steps of Jesus Christ our Lord; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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