Why Follow Jesus?

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Heavenly Father, thank you that in the pages of the Bible we can meet with your Son Jesus. Help each one of us, by your Spirit, to do that – and to hear his voice speaking directly to us. In his name we ask it. Amen.

Why follow Jesus? That's my question this evening. And I want to answer it with reference to the record of a rather startling encounter that Jesus had with a tax collector, of all people.

This account comes from Luke's Gospel. It's chapter 5 verses 27-32. We heard it read earlier. You can find it on page 861 in the Bibles that are spread around the pews. There should be one for everyone. It's the section headed 'Jesus calls Levi'. But you can also see the passage printed out in your service sheet, if you'd rather refer to it there. Either way, please have that section of the Bible in front of you: Luke 5.27-32.

In the end it is what's in the Bible that's important, rather than what I say about it, because the Bible is the Word of God and it has the power to change your life. My purpose is to help you take in and hear for yourself what goes on here. Because – and let me be quite clear about this from the outset – my prayer is that this evening you will start to follow Jesus yourself, in a way that will end up changing your whole life for ever. That's what the tax collector Levi does in this passage, through the encounter he has with Jesus.

That means, of course, that what I have to say is only aimed directly at some of you. Not all of you. I'm assuming, in fact, that there are three kinds of people here this evening. Which kind are you?

First, there are those of you who have already started to follow Jesus. With God's help you are trusting him and obeying him as your Saviour and as your Lord. Well, this evening is a good reminder to you. It's also an opportunity for you to be asking God to help others find for themselves what you have already found in Jesus. So if you're already following Jesus, please be asking him to help others learn to do the same.

Secondly, there are those of you who have come along here this evening who are not following Jesus, and who have no intention of starting to do so, because as far as you're concerned, you have no need of him. You probably have some notion that there's a God out there, or otherwise most likely you wouldn't have come. But you're getting on relatively fine without him. Or maybe you don't even think he's there. Or you haven't really thought about it..

Either way, if you're this kind of person, you won't have any great sense of shame for wicked things you've done. You won't feel any burning need for forgiveness from God because of your failures and what the Bible calls our sins. You're fairly comfortable with yourself, and with the way your life is going, and with the place that God has in your life – or the lack of a place. You think you're headed in the right direction, and see no need for any significant change of course. If that broadly describes your thinking, then what Jesus has to say here in this encounter with Levi is not for you. As Jesus says here:

"Those who are well have no need of a physician …"

Why would you go to the doctor if you think you're fit and healthy? Of course, if you were willing to give him a hearing, Jesus would say to you that in reality, under the surface, maybe completely unbeknownst to you, you're far more sick than you realise. Like someone with undiagnosed and so far symptom free cancer, or heart disease. So I would urge you in any case to listen in. Jesus would say that you need to think again, and I pray that you'll be willing to do that.

So there are those who are already following Jesus, and those who have no intention of following Jesus. And then there's a third kind of person here. There are those of you who are well aware that all is not fine with your life. You're dogged by guilt and shame. We could even go so far as to say that at times you're disgusted with yourself because of things you've thought and said and done.

You know all too well that you are, as we might say, spiritually sick. You hate what you've become. But you don't see a way out. There seems to be no light at the end of the dark tunnel for you. You long for things to be different – for you to be different – but you can't see how that could ever be. You're realising that you're powerless to change yourself. All the self-help books and agony aunt columns ever written can't help you – because you know in your heart of hearts that you can't help yourself. So in your darkest and most bitter moments, you could almost despair.

If you identify with that description even somewhat, then what Jesus has to say here is especially for you. You're right that you do have a spiritual sickness that if left untreated would be terminal. But Jesus has the remedy. Jesus is the remedy. If, that is, you're prepared to listen to him, and let him do radical spiritual surgery on you. Jesus says:

"Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick [that's you and me]. I have not come to call the righteous [that's those who think they're fine] but sinners to repentance."

Now that's really the climax and end of this encounter between Jesus and Levi the tax collector. So let's go back to the beginning and look at what leads up to it. The whole thing is quite short, so let me read it through to remind you, and then we'll go back over it and take a closer look at what happens. This, then, is Luke 5.27-32:

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.
And Levi made him 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?" And Jesus answered them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance."

So let's think about what's going on here. Back to the beginning:

After this …

After what? What's Jesus been doing up to this point? Well in a nutshell, Jesus has been demonstrating that he is more than only a man. He is God. God and man. If you're looking at one of the Bibles you can see the headings in the couple of pages leading up to this incident. Jesus has healed a man with an unclean demon and set him free from the power of evil. He has healed many. And how! 4.40-41 has this astonishing account:

Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid hs hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many, crying, "You are the Son of God!"

If there'd been an NHS in Galilee it would be have been out of a job for that period. Jesus effectively cleared sickness and disease out of that area. And even the powers of evil had to acknowledge that they recognised in him the Son of God himself. Then chapter 5 records how Jesus called those first disciples from their fishing, and …

… they left everything and followed him.

Then he cleanses a leper, and heals a paralytic, and on top of that forgives him as only God can forgive. No wonder, as 5.26 says just before our passage, that those who were witnessing all this …

… were filled with awe, saying, "We have seen extraordinary things today."

So, verse 27, "After this …" After what? After showing clearly that he was none other than the Son of God – fully God and fully man …

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

Who was this tax collector? We need to understand what kind of man he was. Tax has to be collected of course, but back then the opportunity to collect tax was taken as a chance to rip off the whole community big time. Tax collectors were collaborators with the occupying power, corrupt, exploitative and wealthy. They were notoriously bad people, who no respectable person would want to have anything to do with. And here he was, in his element, in this tax booth, on his own territory where he would expect to be saying to those going through, "Pay me!" And instead he hears this:

And [Jesus] said to him, "Follow me."

How does he react? Verse 28:

And leaving everything, [Levi] rose and followed him.

When Jesus says, "Follow me," of course he isn't merely inviting Levi to join him on a ramble in the countryside before returning to his life of corruption and extortion. No. He's calling him literally to follow him there and then, as a sign that he is becoming a follower for life - a disciple of Jesus, living a totally new life centred on Jesus, leaving his old life, listening to Jesus, learning from him, obeying him and trusting him. Not for a day or two. But for good. He was being called to a decisive break with his old life, and to a continuing life of discipleship. And that's what he did. He left. And he followed.

Had there been any history between Levi and Jesus before this? We're not told either way. Levi had presumably heard something of what Jesus was doing. But up to this point he was still carrying on in his old ways. Is that you too? You've found out quite a bit about Jesus, but you're still carrying on in your old, frankly spiritually and morally corrupt ways.

This might have been the culmination of a process for Levi. It might have been an almost instant turnaround. So it can be for you. Turning to Christ might be something that's been coming up on you for years. It might be a call that you're hearing for the very first time this evening. It doesn't matter.

I wonder what Levi would have said if you'd had the chance to ask him, "Why follow Jesus?"

Perhaps he would have said it's because of who he can see Jesus is and because of what Jesus has done. And we know so much more than Levi did at this point.

Because we can look back and see how Jesus went on to give his life up to brutal execution and death, paying the price for our sin and taking the punishment that we deserved, so that we could escape the just judgement of God and find forgiveness.

We can look back and see how Jesus was raised from the dead, defeating death once for all and taking his place at the right hand of his Father in heaven to rule all things. We have so much more reason to follow even than Levi did. Why would we not follow?

Why follow Jesus? Perhaps Levi would also have said it's because of who he, Levi, was and because of all he'd done. For all his bluster and bravado and bullying up to now, he was sick of himself, sick at heart, spiritually sick, heading for despair. Do you understand how Levi might have felt, beneath his well-defended hardened surface show?

Perhaps Levi would also have said that it's because of the hope and the promise of new life that he heard in the voice of Jesus and saw in his eyes - in the look that Jesus gave him across his tax booth, like no look anyone had ever given him before.

He was no doubt used to people looking at him with some combination of contempt, condemnation and fear. And Jesus could have been contemptuous. He could have been condemnatory. But instead his look was one of compassion and challenge. It was a look that communicated hope and the possibility of forgiveness and new life. Perhaps that's why Levi followed Jesus.

But in the end this wasn't a cost benefit analysis. This wasn't a merely rational weighing of pros and cons. This was a personal encounter between a sinful man and his maker and redeemer, between Levi and Christ. Perhaps Levi would have said, "When Jesus calls, you have to follow. How could I not?"

Verse 29:

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

Why did Levi do that? He had a new found desire to put Jesus first rather than himself; and to use what he had, both finance and social opportunity, to honour Jesus, to praise him publically, to serve him and to share him with those who he knew needed Jesus no less than he.

And as and when you do the same as Levi and follow Jesus, the same will happen to you. Our homes, our money, our networks of relationships all of a sudden delightfully and joyfully become means with which to serve and glorify Jesus. And there were so many all around Levi who needed Jesus! And there are so many all around us! So many are sick at heart. So many need a new life. Will you do as Levi did?

Verse 30:

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

These people were the religious elite – the Bible scholars and 'experts', righteous in their own eyes through their obedience to God's law as they understood it, but hostile to Jesus the author of God's law – so showing that underneath their superficial obedience was a proud self-satisfaction that was actually a rejection of God.

Those who regard themselves as holding the high moral ground can be furthest from the truth – and from Jesus who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. In our world they may be Islamists. They may be secularists. They may be nominal Christians.

The irony is that they miss the heart of the law of God and end up immoral. They looked at the tax collectors and sinners who were drawn to Jesus, and they despised them. The implication is that they thought they were not like them, because they were righteous. They thought the company of these sinners contaminated them.

But the disciples of Jesus were learning a different attitude. They too were not like these tax collectors and sinners, not because they were righteous but rather because they were rescued. So the disciples of Jesus saw being in the company of sinners as an opportunity for more to be rescued.

Verses 31-32:

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

Who are "those who are well"? Actually no one – except that some people think they're well, when they're not, as did the Pharisees. Please don't be like that. When you've got a condition that's terminal if left untreated, it's lethal to think you're well.

So who are "those who are sick"? Everyone. The Bible says:

… for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.

That's Romans 3.23-24. The so-called "righteous", who are really only righteous in their own eyes, are not interested in the call of Christ because they think they don't need Jesus; they don't want to follow him; and consequently either passively or actively they reject him. And that leaves them without hope. Please don't be like that.

Jesus calls us all. And those who hear and obey the call are those who know enough of themselves and enough of Jesus to know that they need a new life and that Jesus must not be rejected. They dare not turn away from him.

Will you hear the call of Jesus? He calls us to "repentance". That is, a total turnaround; new government of our lives; an absolute majority for Jesus in the government of our lives, you might say. And this is not something we do alone. Repentance is God's gift. He helps us to turn to Jesus and to follow his call by the power of his Spirit at work in us. He is with us.

So will you turn to Jesus? Will you turn away from your old life? Will you follow him? Around at the back of church and up here at the front are copies of this very helpful booklet called "Why Jesus?" It could have been called, "Why follow Jesus?" If you are wanting to follow Jesus, or you're thinking about following Jesus, we'd like to give you a copy. So please take one before you go. It's bright red, so you can't miss it.

At the back of it you'll find a prayer that you can pray as a simple first step in turning away from your old life and setting out to follow Jesus. If you're wanting to do that, does it feel lonely to you as you contemplate taking the plunge? Know that you're not alone. God is with us by his Holy Spirit, who is our helper. And fellow followers of Jesus are beside you too. Talk to one of us. Tell someone that you're setting out to follow Jesus.

If you are one of those who's ready to follow Jesus now, then let me pray now the prayer that's at the back of this "Why Jesus?" booklet. There's no need to wait any longer. Start now. Today is always the best day to start following Jesus. You can join with me in praying this prayer in the silence of your own heart. Let me read it first so that you know what's in it. As the booklet says, it's a prayer that can be summed up in three very simple but profound words: sorry; thankyou; please. Here it is:

Lord Jesus Christ,
I am sorry for the things I have done wrong in my life. Please forgive me. I now turn from everything that I know is wrong.
Thank you that you died on the cross for me so that I could be forgiven and set free.
Thank you that you offer me forgiveness and the gift of your Spirit. I now receive that gift.
Please come into my life by your Holy Spirit to be with me forever.
Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.

So if you're ready to start following Jesus and to pray that, then make these words your own in the quiet of your own heart, as I repeat them. Let's pray:

Lord Jesus Christ,
I am sorry for the things I have done wrong in my life. Please forgive me. I now turn from everything that I know is wrong.
Thank you that you died on the cross for me so that I could be forgiven and set free.
Thank you that you offer me forgiveness and the gift of your Spirit. I now receive that gift.
Please come into my life by your Holy Spirit to be with me forever.
Thank you, Lord Jesus. Amen.

If you've prayed that prayer for the first time, know that you're not alone. God is with you by his Holy Spirit, to help you. And fellow followers of Jesus are beside you too. As I said, talk to one of us. Tell someone that you're setting out to follow Jesus. And be sure to take home a copy of "Why Jesus?" as a reminder of what you've prayed, and as a reminder of the answer to the question, "Why follow Jesus?"

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