In a recent poll in the US, people were asked if they believed in heaven and whether they thought they were going there. 76% said they believed there was a heaven. And 75% gave themselves 'a good to excellent chance of getting there'. Which shows that optimism is alive and well, and that 1% were having a bad day.
But that's how people the world over think. They think: you live a good enough life and at the end of the day, God'll let you in. That's Islam and Judaism and Sikhism. That's basically Hinduism and Buddhism. And it's what the many Brits thinks whose religion is nothing more than being a decent person. And that belief divides people – into those who think they are good enough for God and those who know they're not.
Well, tonight we're going to listen to some of the most important words Jesus Christ ever said. For people who think they are good enough for God, these words are very bad news. But for people who know they're not, they're very good news indeed. So would you turn to Mark's Gospel, 2.13.
The words in your hands were written 35 years at the most after Jesus' death. This incident was witnessed by the apostle Peter and written down by his right hand man, Mark. And if you read to the end of Mark, you find that Jesus so clearly claimed to be God that he got put to death for it. And you'd have thought that would be the end of the argument. For the average human being, there's no answer when the opposition crucify you. And Mark's Gospel would never have been written if Jesus had been the average human being. But according to all four Gospels, three days after his death and burial, Jesus' tomb was empty and he was seen alive from the dead. Which is why those first eye-witnesses, like people for 2000 years since, came to the conviction that Jesus was God become human.
So as we read this, we're not reading about a figure of the past who's been dead for 2000 years. We're reading about God - and how to meet him in this life, so that we're ready to meet him in the next. And I hope we'll see two things: 1) Who Jesus came for, and 2) What Jesus came to do.
First, WHO JESUS CAME FOR
As [Jesus] walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. 'Follow me,' Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
15While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him. 16When the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the "sinners" and tax collectors, they asked his disciples: 'Why does he eat with tax collectors and "sinners"?'
Our trouble is that the shock of what Jesus does here is lost on us because we don't appreciate what tax collectors were like in those days. Obviously the modern tax man is still unpopular – witness all the humour directed again them. You may know the story of the little boy out shopping with his parents. He's messing around, trying to catch a coin in his mouth, when he accidentally swallows it and starts choking. And the parents are desperately thumping him on the back when a man in a grey suit comes quietly up and says, 'Allow me.' And he gives the boy one well-aimed whack, and the coin shoots out first time. And the Dad says, 'How did you know where to hit him in just the right place to make him cough up? Are you a Doctor?' To which the man says, 'No. I work for the Inland Revenue.'
The modern tax man is unpopular. But in addition, in Jesus' day, these tax-collectors were complete crooks. They ripped everyone off. So they were the obvious "sinners", the obvious worst people you could mention of the day. The people that made you feel good, by comparison. I guess today it's the sex-offenders and drug-dealers who are in that 'lowest of the low' category.
And Jesus, v14, walks along and sees one of the lowest of the low, and says, 'Follow me.' And then he goes and has dinner with a whole crowd of them. And the religious people of the day, v16, are completely shocked: 'Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?'
And what lies behind that question is this. They thought of God as a Judge – which of course he is. So when God sent his Messiah into the world, they were expecting a kind of external Examiner – who would reward the good people with a 'Pass' and send the bad people down with a 'Fail.' Good people to heaven. Bad people to hell. That's how they saw things. They divided the human race into two groups. The good –like them. And the bad – like the tax-collectors. And as far as they were concerned, if Jesus was anything to do with God, he wouldn't be treating the bad as kindly as he was. If he was anything to do with God, he'd be tough on sin and tough on the causes of sin. But, v17:
On hearing this, Jesus said to them, 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'
Ie, Jesus is saying, 'Change the picture in your minds. I'm not an Examiner. I'm a Doctor. And I would not have bothered coming into the world if there wasn't something badly wrong with the whole human race. Because it isn't the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.'
I was round at the doctors' the other day for some injections. And I am the world's best fainter when it comes to injections. The nurse asked me if I was OK with them and I said, 'I generally pass out about 5 minutes later.' She said that often happened to very tall people – whether that's true I don't know, but it was very sweet of her. So they kept me under observation back out in the waiting room and sure enough out I went. And I came to flat out, with this terrified looking toddler staring at me lying on the floor. You can imagine that his mother had probably spent the last hour telling him all the usual parental lies - 'It'll be all right… It won't hurt…etc' - and the very first thing he sees is a corpse on the floor. But while I was recovering I had plenty of time to read the posters. And there's that one of the cartoon man with blotches staring at himself in the mirror, with the caption, 'Do you really need to call the doctor out?'
And that's the point Jesus is making in v17. He wouldn't have come if we were OK or we could make ourselves OK again. But from God's perspective we're not OK. We're sick.
You know how, when people are sick, they say things like, 'I'm really not right,' or, 'I'm not myself,' or, 'I'm not how I should be.' That's what Jesus means. In God's eyes, we are all not right. We're all not ourselves – ie, how we were created to be. We're all not how we should be.
How we should be is: living consciously, moment by moment, for God. Looking up to him and finding out from him what's right and wrong and how to live, and then doing it. Because he made us. But in practice, all of us, consciously or subconsciously, have pushed God out of his rightful place and said, 'I want to live as I please without reference to you.' And that attitude to God is what the Bible calls 'sin'. And it is almost impossible for us to imagine how offensive to God that attitude is. I came to faith as a teenager. And I still remember the moment when I woke up to the fact that I'd lived in God's world for 16 years and not given him a single thought. And suddenly realised that it wasn't the list of bad things I'd done and good things I hadn't done that was most offensive (although that's offensive enough). But that I had ignored God and lived as if my life was my own and I was accountable to no-one but myself. That's what we all do by nature.
And you can do that whilst being quite nice, decent and good - in the eyes of society or in the eyes of our friends or even in our own eyes. Or you can do it by being quite nasty, bad or one of the lowest of the low. But in the eyes of God it's exactly the same offence of living as if he wasn't there. Our relative goodness or badness is an irrelevance. God is offended by being ignored nicely as much as he's offended by being ignored nastily.
That's what's wrong with us. And Jesus says, v17:
'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'
And he doesn't mean that some people are OK ('righteous') as they are. He's being ironic. He's saying, 'I haven't come to call people who think they're righteous, who think they're OK. I can't do anything for them because they don't think they need anything. No I've come to call sinners – people who realise they've offended God and are heading for judgement. Those are the only people I can help.'
So can I ask a first question? Will you admit you're a sinner? Whatever society thinks of you, whatever friends think of you, whatever you think of yourself, will you admit that in God's eyes you've lived as if he's not there? Will you admit that you've ignored and offended God and are heading for judgement?
That's who Jesus came for.
Secondly, WHAT JESUS CAME TO DO
Look at the end of v17. Jesus says:
'I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'
And what happens to this man Levi is the perfect example of what it means to be 'called' by Jesus. Let me read from v14 again:
As [Jesus] walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector's booth. 'Follow me,' Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him.
What Jesus did here was to call a person to stop living as if God wasn't there, and to start a new life with him in charge. And that's what he's still doing today all over the world, wherever this gospel is heard. That's what he's doing here tonight as his words go out on the airwaves again. He is calling you, if you don't already, to follow him. And I want to dwell for the rest of our time on those two simple words, 'Follow me.'
'Follow me.' Just think on the one hand what that says about Jesus. He walks up to this notorious "sinner", this bent, crooked, cheating, lying, extorting, tax-collector and says, 'Follow me.' What does that say about Jesus? It says he'll have people back just as they are. He doesn't say, 'Clean your life up and then you can follow me.' Or, 'Make up for everything you've done and I'll come by again in 6 months to see if you're good enough.' He says, 'Follow me. As the person you are now, with the track-record you've got, with all the things on your conscience, and in whatever messes you've got yourself in. I'll accept you back just as you are, exactly where you are in life right now, and we'll take it from there.'
And you can sum that up in two words: unconditional acceptance.
You see, when Jesus calls a person – Levi, you, me – he knows the score. Being God, he knows our past. And being God, he also knows our future. He knows every sin we have ever done or will ever do. He knows everything for which we should be judged. Everything that should make it impossible for him to live with us even for a moment.
And that's why he became human. He became one of us so he could take our place when he died on the cross and face the judgment that we deserve for everything. At the cross, he added up the total penalty of the sins of the world and paid for them, so that he could then forgive us them - without anyone turning round and saying he'd been soft on sin.
So can I ask a second question? Will you believe that Jesus died for you and will therefore have you back as you are? You may not think he ought to do that. You may not think very much of yourself and therefore may not think anyone else should either. But Jesus thinks enough of you to die for you. And I want to call on you to believe that.
'Follow me.' What it says about Jesus is that he offers unconditional acceptance. But just think on the other hand what it says about Levi, or you or me who are on the receiving end of that call. It says that if we respond, Jesus takes charge. He leads, we follow. He becomes Lord. It means unconditional surrender. That's what happens the moment Levi gets up in v14 and leaves his tax collectors booth behind.
Now people often ask me, 'Does that mean you have to give up everything?' To which the answer is: No. But you do have to give over everything. Imagine your life is like a kingdom with different regions – friendship, marriage, sex, work, sport, ambition, school, music, money, home, and so on. To follow Jesus is to give over the whole of that kingdom to him, and to start to learn how he wants you to live in every one of those regions.
So some things will have to be given up under the new management. Eg, in Levi's life, ripping people off had to stop. And for any of us here tonight, there will be things that'll have to go – maybe bitterness, unforgiveness, pride; maybe drunkenness; maybe some wrong relationship or wrong ambition. If we're getting into bed with people outside marriage, that's got to go until we are married, which is what God designed sex for. That 'giving up' isn't easy, and in some of those areas it pitches you into a life-long struggle over old ways. But the things Jesus calls us to give up are only the things that do us and other people no good in the first place. It's no real cost when you think about it with a clear head.
So, some things have to be given up. But plenty is given over – to be done for Jesus from now on. So, eg, most people don't have to leave their places of work as Levi did – because they're not immoral lines of work.
And there's one crucial thing to mention that gets added in to life that wasn't there before: making Jesus known to others. Look at v15:
15While Jesus was having dinner at Levi's house, many tax collectors and "sinners" were eating with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.
Levi may have left his tax-collecting days behind but he hasn't left his tax-collecting friends behind. Following Jesus doesn't mean pulling out of the places and people where you belong. And if you've seen Christians doing that, can I apologise on our behalf and say we're at fault. Because Jesus intends his followers not to pull out of where they belong, but to make him known where they belong. Which is exactly what Levi did. And, just like the disciples in v16 got caught in the cross-fire of the Pharisees' objections to Jesus, so will you, at least sometimes, get caught in the cross-fire from those to whom you try to make Jesus known. That gets added in.
So that's what 'Follow me' says about us. It means Jesus is asking for unconditional surrender. My life in his hands for his purposes.
And you may well be thinking, 'I couldn't do it. I couldn't change. I've tried turning over new leafs before and it's never lasted.' But this isn't a new leaf. This is a new relationship with someone who died to secure you a place in his unconditional love.
I remember a friend on his wedding day saying to his wife in his speech, 'I'm amazed that you know me to be the idiot I am, and still want to live with me. You make me want to be a better man.' Unconditional love is the most amazing thing, and the most amazing motivator. It changes people. It sustains people in commitments that are humanly speaking impossible. And that's how it is with Jesus. The fact that he'll never give up on you is the thing that keeps you getting back up every time you fall flat on your face.
So can I ask a third question? When Jesus says, 'Follow me?', will you come?
I'm going to end in a moment with a prayer for anyone who would like to do that for the first time tonight. But I realize there will be a whole range of people here tonight. For some of us, the issue is, 'How can I know any of this is really true?' If that's you, please do take away this copy of Mark's Gospel and give it a read, maybe for the first time as a thinking, critical adult. You can't decide on the evidence without looking into it. And if you're wondering about the reliability of the Gospels, you could pick up this booklet from the Welcome Desk – Why Trust Them? (A friend of mine saw it and she said, 'I see you've written a booklet about men.' It is in fact about the four Gospels.)
For others, we know it's true. And some of us in that category know enough to make a start and follow Jesus. And if that's you, I want to re-ask the three questions I've asked on the way through:
1.Will you admit you're a sinner – that you've ignored and offended God, however relatively good or bad you are?
2.Will you believe that Jesus died for you and will therefore have you back as you are?
3.Will you come to him and ask him to be Lord of your life?
That, if you like, is the 'ABC' of starting to follow Christ. Admit. Believe. Come.
I'm going to end with a prayer which you could echo to God if you want to make that start. Why not read through it and think whether it would be appropriate for you to pray now:
Lord God, I admit that I have offended you by living as I please, as if you were not there.
Lord Jesus, I believe you died for me so I can be forgiven.
I now come to you. Please forgive me. And please come into my life by your Spirit to be my Lord from now on.
If that's not appropriate for you right now, why not pray something else that is? But if you'd like to make that start, you could say that prayer in your mind to God.
Can I say: if you've just prayed that prayer and meant it, then God has heard your prayer and answered it. Jesus once said:
'Whoever comes to me, I will never drive away.' (John 6.37)
Which I take it means 'Whoever comes to me, I'll accept them the moment they do, and then I'll never give up on them.' And if you've just prayed that prayer you can put your name to that promise. You came here unforgiven, and you're now forgiven – and Jesus has pledged to keep you forgiven as and when you need it. You came here with your life in your own hands, and you're going away having put it back where it belongs – in Jesus' hands. That's quite something in the space of an hour. And I want to encourage you to tell someone that you've taken that step. Partly to underline it, by being public about where you now stand. But partly so they can give you some suggestions about getting going in following Jesus.
And if you have prayed – or would like to, but didn't feel ready just now – do pick up a copy of The Choice We all Face from the Welcome Desk. It goes over Jesus' call to us, and how we can respond to him.