Sermon 03-12-17: “Calling All Tax Collectors and Sinners”

March 21, 2017

If you’re a Christian, witnessing should be one of your top priorities in life. If you’re like most Christians, however, it isn’t. As much as I want to say, “Try harder,” that message won’t work. As I say in this sermon, what we need to become more deliberate, more effective witnesses is to fall in love with Jesus—again or for the first time.

Sermon Text: Matthew 9:9-17

Do any of you have an ichthus or fish decal on or near the bumper of your car? I have often said that I wouldn’t have one of those because I’m not a considerate enough driver—or a careful enough driver—to have a symbol of my loyalty to Jesus on the back of my car: I don’t want to cut someone off in traffic and thereby give Jesus a bad name! I don’t want to be a bad witness.

A satirical article in the Babylon Bee purports to have just the answer for Christian drivers like me: a “retractable fish decal.” The article describes a modification kit for your car that allows you, with the press of a button, to hide the fish symbol when you do something wrong while driving. In the article, a spokesperson from LifeWay Christian Resources puts it like this:

“Want to cut someone off, but worried you’ll be a bad witness? Now you can slap the red button on your dashboard and a small panel will rotate on your bumper, hiding the fish from view… Flip people off on the freeway, [drive] down the shoulder [of the interstate] during a traffic jam, all without worrying about marring the good name of Christ.”

The article continues:

The kit ships with several options, such as the ability to instantly replace the Christian fish decal with an atheist “flying spaghetti monster” silhouette or a Coexist sticker, or else the bumper sticker from a competing church in your town or city.

[The spokesperson added:] “Not only will your terrible, aggressive driving not be a bad witness for Christ, but you can also make atheists or any other church or religion you want look bad instead!”

If only that were real!

Still, there is one thing about the article that is completely truthful—one thing that we need to hear—which is this: Whether we have a fish decal on our car or not, we ought to be deeply concerned about bearing witness to Jesus Christ and his love. Witnessing ought to be very important to us. Witnessing ought to be a top priority.

Today’s scripture has much to teach us about witnessing. For instance, notice that Jesus goes to Matthew’s workplace—his tax booth where he’s collecting taxes—and calls him to become a disciple. And Matthew follows him. Earlier in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 4, he does the same thing with four other future disciples—the fishermen Peter and Andrew, James and John. They’re in the middle of their work—James and John are said to be in the middle of mending their nets. Jesus passes them on the seashore and says, “Follow me, and I’ll make you fishers of men.” And they drop what they’re doing, literally, and follow him.

Notice that for Jesus, this work of evangelism doesn’t take place in the Temple; it doesn’t take place in a synagogue; it doesn’t take place in church. It takes place out in the world. In a secular setting. At work. Unless we’re retired, we spend most of our time at work. And brothers and sisters, if we’re not using our workplace as a place to witness, I believe we are not only missing out on a good opportunity to witness, we are failing to follow Christ’s example, and we are disobeying our Lord Jesus Christ! You know this, right? You know you made a promise to be a witness when you joined this church. It’s the fifth of five promises—to serve Jesus through our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. But we don’t promise to do it simply because the United Methodist Church tells us to: we do it because Jesus tells us to. In the Great Commission in Matthew 28: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”[1]

Similarly, before he ascends to heaven as described in Acts 1, he tells his disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”[2] Hampton, Georgia, from the perspective of the disciples who heard this commission, was the “ends of the earth,” so this work of witnessing must continue through us present-day disciples.

Our church can’t do most of the work of evangelism on Sunday morning. For one thing—look around—church is filled with people who already believe in Jesus. So most witnessing can’t happen at church—and we certainly can’t outsource the work to the pastor. I’ll do what I can, but unlike you, most of my work days and work nights are spent, not surprisingly, with church people—people who already believe in Jesus!

So if witnessing is going to happen through this church—which is another way of saying, “if we’re going to be faithful to our main mission, the main reason God has put Hampton United Methodist Church here”—it’s going to have to happen through your efforts—outside of the walls of this church. In the so-called “secular” world.

But you might say, witnessing is hard, right? Doesn’t that explain why we mostly don’t do it? I’m sure that’s what we tell ourselves, but let me explain from today’s scripture why it really isn’t as hard as we might think.

You’ll notice in today’s scripture, as well as the call of the four disciples in Matthew chapter 4, as well as in the gospels of Mark and Luke, whenever Jesus calls people to become disciples, there’s an abruptness to their response. He calls them, they stop what they’re doing immediately, and follow—like Matthew in today’s scripture. It may remind us of the cantina scene in Star Wars. Remember just before Obi Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker, C3PO, and R2D2 go to the cantina, they drive their Landspeeder through an imperial checkpoint, with stormtroopers? The stormtroopers are looking for the droids. The stormtroopers stop our heroes and ask for identification. And it seems like the good guys are about to get caught: And Obi Wan says, “You don’t need to see identification.” And the stormtroopers repeat back, “We don’t need to see your identification.” And Obi Wan says, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.” And the stormtroopers repeat back, “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.” Obi Wan: “We can go about our business.” The stormtroopers: “You can go about your business.”

See, Obi Wan is playing some kind of Jedi mind trick on them. And when we read the call of the disciples, we may think that Jesus is doing something similar. Now, when we read John’s gospel, we learn, for example, that Peter, Andrew, Philip, and Nathanael were already disciples of John the Baptist. And before Jesus called them, John had told them about Jesus. So they, at least, were already familiar with Jesus. They may have met him already, and known him a little. And given that Jesus’ fame had spread around Capernaum where Jesus had begun his ministry, Matthew the tax collector had certainly already heard of Jesus. He had probably heard and seen him teach, preach, and heal. He had heard about him. So these future disciples’ decision to follow Jesus wasn’t completely out of the blue.

And while that’s true, I think it misses the point that Matthew and the other gospel writers want to emphasize: that the call of Jesus has the power to change people’s hearts and minds. That’s what’s happening here. If you zoom out and look at Matthew chapters 8 and 9, you’ll notice that today’s scripture takes place in the midst of miracles: Chapter 8 is filled with miracles. In chapter 9, immediately before today’s scripture, Jesus heals a paralytic. Immediately after, he heals a hemorrhaging woman and raises a dead girl back to life. Matthew wants us to know that this call of Jesus Christ to a tax collector named Matthew, who immediately repents of his sin and follows Jesus, is a miracle every bit as much as those more conspicuous miracles that surround it. When Jesus calls Matthew, something supernatural is taking place. The Holy Spirit was already at work in Matthew’s life prior to this call from Jesus, preparing him for the call, and the Holy Spirit was at work through the call. So it’s not a Jedi mind trick, but it is a supernatural power!

And the rest of the New Testament teaches us that that same supernatural power is at work in people’s lives through us when we step out on faith and offer people the gospel of Jesus Christ! This power is at work in people’s lives before we even start to witness: Jesus has already been tilling the soil of someone’s heart before we get there.

In this month’s Christianity Today magazine, an evangelist who works for Billy Graham, Dr. Jerry Root, makes this point with concrete personal examples: In one, he describes being stuck in the Vienna airport after his flight was delayed. A young woman wearing a lanyard with a name tag and carrying a clipboard approached him. She was taking a survey on behalf of the airport. He said, “When she came to me I asked what her name was. ‘Allegra,’ she replied. ‘Allegra, are you from Vienna?’ She answered, ‘No, I grew up in southern Austria.’ With that answer came the permission to ask, ‘What brought you to Vienna?’ She said she was a student. This opened the door to more questions. Where did she go to school? What was she studying?

This started a 20-minute conversation. Allegra went on to describe her parents’ break-up, that her mother abandoned her and her family when she was young, and that she was estranged from her brother. She told him about a recent break-up with a long-time college boyfriend. And she’s telling all of this to a stranger from another country in an airport—while she’s at work!

Dr. Root said that he sensed that God was wooing her. After she described feeling abandoned by so many people who were supposed to love her, he told her, “Allegra, the God of the universe knows you and loves you; He would never abandon you or forsake you.” I said it to her again: “Allegra, he loves you!” He wrote:

Sometimes, it takes three times before the words sink in, so I said it again: “Allegra, he loves you!” After the third time she burst into loud sobs. Everyone in the gate area was looking in our direction. Through her tears, Allegra blurted out, “But I’ve done so many bad things in my life!” I responded, “Allegra, God know all about it and that’s why he sent Jesus to die on the Cross for all of your sins and to bring you forgiveness and hope.” I was explaining the gospel to ears willing to hear and a heart willing to receive.

When we witness, he says, we’re not “taking Jesus to someone”; Jesus is already there. Jesus is already working in the person’s heart. We’re following his lead. Then he says we ask them what he calls “public” questions—non-threatening questions like, “What’s your name?” “Are you from here?” Then we “listen to the answers and find in them the permission to go deeper. Eventually, we connect the gospel at the very point of deep felt need.”[3]

And you may say, “I couldn’t do that!” But you miss the point: The point is it’s mostly not something you do! As Dr. Root says, “Evangelism is harvesting where God has already plowed, sowed, cultivated, and nurtured. We go where He has gone before us.” Jesus Christ does the work… through the power of the Holy Spirit. The “call” of Jesus Christ has power. It had power when Christ called Peter, Andrew, James, and John; it had power when he called Matthew; and it has power when Christ calls people today through us!

But it’s a power we’ll only experience when we take that step of faith to witness; when we dare to open our mouths and say something.

Have you witnessed to someone with words in the past week? How about in the past month? In the past year? 

A part of me is tempted to say, “Let’s do better! Let’s work harder at it. Let’s put these principles that Dr. Root shared to work. Let’s get out there, team, and witness!”

But I don’t think that would do much good. I don’t believe that’s what you and I need to hear this morning. What you and I need to hear is this: We don’t need to witness more so much as we need to fall in love with Jesus more! We don’t need to witness more; we need to fall in love with Jesus more!

If we fall in love with Jesus, I believe the witnessing will mostly take care of itself!

When I say “fall in love with Jesus,” I mean that quite literally. We preachers often make a mistake when we talk about love—and by love I’m talking about what the Bible calls agape love, the fullest expression of sacrificial, Christ-like love. We preachers often emphasize that love isn’t a feeling; it’s an action. Love is something we do. Love is a choice. “We need to love whether we like it or not.”

I’ve preached that message at some point in the past thirteen years, and if you’ve heard me say that, I apologize. I was wrong. We don’t need to simply love Jesus; we need to like him, too. We need to feel affection for him. Our love for him needs to penetrate our emotions at the deepest level. We need to desire him more than we desire anything else. Above all else. There’s nothing we want more than Jesus. There’s no one we want more than Jesus—there’s no wife or husband, no girlfriend or boyfriend, no treasure, no award, no trophy, no amount of money, no material thing, no glory, no praise that we desire more than we desire Jesus.

I’m tired of preaching this useless message that says, “Work harder!” Work harder, church. Roll up your sleeves and get to work. It’s not what we need. What we need is to fall in love with Jesus so that what we do for him doesn’t seem like work at all!

Do you remember what it’s like to be in love with someone—I mean, deeply in love? What wouldn’t you do for the one you love? It’s not work! It’s not sacrifice. You’d give anything for the one you love. You’d take any risk. You’d pay any price. You’d spend all your money. You wouldn’t care! What is inconvenience, what is fear, what is time, what is money compared to the one you love? It’s nothing! If you have nothing else except the person you love, that’s enough. “I’ve got plenty of nothing/ Nothing’s plenty for me.” Why? Because he’s got his girl, he says. Or remember one of the greatest love songs of all time?

But I would walk 500 miles
And I would walk 500 more
Just to be the man who walks a thousand miles
To fall down at your door

We would do anything for the one we’re in love with—without giving it a second thought.

And make no mistake: This is the kind of love that we are meant to have with Jesus. And this is the kind of love that he has for us. It is not a cold, detached, cerebral, intellectual, dispassionate kind of love. Notice what he says in verse 15. Jesus says he is the bridegroom. We are his bride. We are meant to be in love with Jesus.

And when we’re in love, we want to tell everyone about it. That’s witnessing. That’s evangelism.

But there’s another kind of evangelism that we can do. In fact, I’m inviting you to join me in doing it over these next two weeks. It’s the kind of evangelism we see Matthew himself doing in between verse 9 and verse 10. And you may say, “Wait. Ten comes immediately after nine. There isn’t a verse in between 9 and 10.” And of course that’s true. But we can infer what Matthew does after he answers Christ’s call and follows him: because in verse 10, notice what’s going on: “And as Jesus reclined at table in the house, behold, many tax collectors and sinners came and were reclining with Jesus and his disciples.”

Wait. Where did all these tax collectors and sinners come from? They came from Matthew… From his invitation. Do you see that? We can imagine that there’s a verse 9.5, and it reads something like this: “Then Matthew went to each of his friends, his fellow tax collectors and sinners, and invited them to experience the love of Jesus Christ for themselves.”

Matthew left out a verse. But just because Matthew left this verse out of his gospel doesn’t mean we should leave this action out of our lives. We must invite!

[Describe the opportunity to invite people to Yellow Pollen Festival and First Responders Sunday.]

1. Matthew 28:19-20 ESV

2. Acts 1:8

3. Jerry Root, “When Evangelism Isn’t That Hard,”, 17 February 2017.

4 Responses to “Sermon 03-12-17: “Calling All Tax Collectors and Sinners””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I think you are on target here. But I am reminded of Paul saying, “Pray for me that I will speak boldly, as I ought to speak.” Thus, apparently even Paul felt some “timidity” about speaking (though that seems hard to believe in his case!). I like the illustration of having a conversation that “leads up to” having an “opening” to saying something about Jesus (as opposed to, for example, “stopping someone on the street”). I think it “takes time” for the plowing of the field before the “seed can be dropped,” and even considerable time after that before anything can be “harvested.” As you indicate in the instances of the disciples, they were likely already “familiar with” Jesus before he called them to follow and they immediately did. Anyway, I hope I am not just “making excuses” here, but I do think that even when “in love” with Jesus, we still may need to “use tact,” or “have a plan,” or the like in our approach, and sometimes even the “fear” may, in effect, be an indicator of “not time yet.” But basically I agree that we (including I) are more reluctant than we ought to be about “sharing with others about him with whom we are in love (or ought to be).”

    • brentwhite Says:

      I hear you, and I agree. At the very least, we should pray frequently for opportunities to witness. I don’t think it’s even on the radar of a lot of Christians, not least of which those Christians who are called Methodists!

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I believe that being able to just walk up to someone and witness verbally is an ability that few have.

    However, we can all witness by our actions. It’s just the reverse of the person with the fish on the back of their car that acts in an unchristian way. Like the Good Samaritan, we can show Christian love and compassion in everyday circumstances. It might be as simple as how you treat someone in the checkout line, or it might be more dramatic like taking the time to visit a shut in, or someone in hospital.

    Certainly there are opportunities that our church can make available, and there are opportunities that just happen in the course of a normal day. And, there is often the bonus of getting an opportunity to give the credit to Jesus; to point to Him as the reason for the kindness.

    I know that I probably miss more of these opportunities than I realize. How about you?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m sure I miss many opportunities. But even last weekend, our church did some low-key witnessing at a spring festival that the town puts on. We handed out little packages of Kleenex (it’s called the Yellow Pollen Festival, after all) with a gospel tract and a gospel of John. I know this isn’t a big deal, except it was a deliberate action that our church was doing to share the gospel—rather than simply trying to get them to come to church.

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