There were some people long ago who were asking just such a question. You see, they fully expected someone “from God” to arrive just anytime! In the two to three centuries before Jesus finally walked the Judean countryside, the people of Israel were looking for their Messiah. For example, if you read the Old Testament Prophets of Haggai and Zechariah, you would sense their expectation. Written after the people of Jerusalem had returned to Jerusalem after Exile in Babylon, according to their religious beliefs, things were supposed to make a turn for the good in their world. They had returned from Exile, they had rebuilt the Temple, they had rebuilt the city walls, they had reformed their worship, and now it was God’s turn! You see, throughout their past, when they returned to God, He blessed them beyond measure. When they had a good king like David, they were blessed. When they had an evil king like Manasseh, they were punished. When Abraham had faith in God, he was rewarded. But when David sinned, he experienced the consequences.
So, now, they sat back and waited for the blessings to start rolling in. Only this time, their expectation took on new form. They weren’t just waiting for good times; they were waiting for someone, someone who would rescue them from their enemies, someone who would revive the ancient throne of David. They were waiting for their Messiah. A day was coming when one would arrive to lead the people of Israel into battle. And they would win! Because God was on their side! Because the Messiah was leading the way! So, when the ancient people of Israel asked that question—Where would God be if He lived among us today?—They already knew the answer. He would be leading their army with power. He would be defeating the enemies of Israel with a strong arm. And one thing is for sure, this Messiah they were awaiting, He would not have patience for outsiders. He would surely punish those responsible for Israel’s suffering. This Messiah was the Redeemer of Israel, the chosen race, the people of God. He was not the Savior for those outside of Israel.
So, it should come as no surprise that during this period, Israel was more exclusive than they had ever been in their past. We read in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah that Israel separated themselves from foreign marriages. Israel built a wall around herself separating herself from the rest of the world, all the while anxiously awaiting their Messiah, looking under every rock for their coming general, waiting sometimes not so patiently for someone to arrive powerful enough to subject all other nations of the world under their feet
Is it any wonder that when He finally arrived, they failed to recognize Him?
They were looking for a king; but the Messiah finally arrived in the form of a servant. And I believe what was even more difficult for the people of Israel to accept was whom this servant associated with. Remember, they thought God would send an exclusive redeemer, for those on the inside, for the really religious! But when Jesus arrived, He had other plans. I want to read a very familiar passage this morning, but I want you to hear it in light of our present discussion. Knowing what kind of Messiah these religious folk were awaiting, what thoughts do you suppose went through their minds as Jesus began picking His friends?
As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.Understand first that a tax collector in the first-century was not a fine-upstanding officer of the IRS! A tax collector in the first-century was a crook. The Roman government placed a heavy tax on the people already. But these tax collectors were given free reign to add whatever they deemed necessary to the top of that already steep tax. This portion they kept for themselves. In the minds of Hebrews, two words came to mind when one thought of tax collectors: traitor and extortionist! So, here in our passage, Jesus is associating with a rough crowd: traitors, extortionists, and sinners! And not only does He associate with them here, He asks one of them, Matthew, to become one of His closest friends, an apostle.
And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:9–13, NRSV)
I have to tell you, when the people of Israel asked where would God be if he lived among us today, this is not what they had in mind! The Messiah should be in the Temple, or preparing His soldiers on the battlefield. He would most certainly not be dining with tax collectors and sinners! Do not overlook the magnitude of this portion of scripture. This, perhaps more than any other passage, exemplifies the great dissonance between their vision of God and the reality of God! In their minds, God was concerned with God’s people, Israel, the chosen race, the covenant people. But Jesus came proclaiming God’s interest in the entire world, not just Israel. Think of it this way…When John wrote his gospel, he made a claim that didn’t sit well with most first-century Hebrews, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Jesus’ people in the first-century would have been much more comfortable with John’s words if they had been a little different…“For God so loved Israel, that He gave His one and only son…” How I wish this were a mistake made only by ancient Hebrews! But sadly there are many Christians in the world who have their own version of John 3:16, Jesus did not only come because He loved Israel, for sure. But His love did not stop with the church either. God came out of God’s love for the world, and as children of this God we must in turn set our eyes in that direction as well.
There was a phenomenal movie that came out a few years ago called Sister Act. In that movie, Whoopie Goldberg plays a woman in a witness protection program. She spends the entirety of the movie disguised as a nun in an inner-city convent. The congregation she joins is like so many other congregations located in downtown areas…They had worked hard to separate themselves from their community. Out of fear, they had literally barred the gates with chains. They had no presence in the community whatsoever. They remained behind their gates and inside the four walls of their building where everything was safe and quiet and comfortable. When Sister Mary Clarence arrives, she forces them to rethink their agenda. There is a very pivotal scene where the sisters cut the chains off their gates and they move out into the community. They get to know their neighbors. They aren’t so concerned anymore about their image or their comfort zone and all at once, this historic downtown congregation becomes externally focused by extending their hands to the community. I do not think it’s a giant leap to see some continuity between Jesus’ actions in the first-century and this movie from the 1990s!
Jesus’ last statement in that passage ties the two together. “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” In two weeks, we will launch into a series called “Come As You Are.” As the title suggests, we are inviting people to “come as you are…” and people outside these walls are not exactly like us. Some of them do not dress like we do. Some do not think like we do. Some of them have different questions than we have. Here is my question for you: Are you ready to receive people like that?
Let me share with you a basic series outline.
WEEK 1: Come As Messed Up As You Are. Really… Come to church even though you might feel guilty because you have too many skeletons in the closet or you feel like your life is too messy. Come to church knowing we won’t judge you at Glenwood because we have our own issues (and lots of them). Come to church to hear something that Jesus said about this topic that many churches rarely talk about, and no, the roof won’t cave in and lightening won’t strike when you walk in. If that were the case the building would have collapsed years ago! And we won’t judge you because we look forward to seeing you.
WEEK 2: Come Dressed Up or Dressed Down. Really… Too many churches for too many years have made an issue of something Jesus didn’t. Come see what Jesus had to say on this matter and what his brother had to say about this. So please, guys, come in a suit, blue jeans, wearing tennis shoes, redwings, luccheses, or your wingtips. You can wear sandals and a t-shirt, polo, button down, popped collar, v-neck, or even a swimming suit (but no speedos please)! Ladies, whether it’s pants, jeans, or a dress…whether it’s your favorite worn out no-name sneakers, Uggs, or even high heels. It doesn’t matter. You can be dressed up or dressed down because we won’t be looking at your feet!
WEEK 3: Bring Your Friends Who Don’t Go to Church or Who Don’t Like Church. Really… We have created an environment at Glenwood for those who are hesitant or who have stopped going to church because they don’t fit in or because there is no room for their problems, questions, or doubts. If you envision church as a place where you can’t laugh, can’t smile, can’t question, can’t disagree, or can’t be yourself, then come to Glenwood where we explore the deepest questions without losing our sense of humor or excitement for life. Come listen to how Jesus responded to those who were nothing like him.
WEEK 4: Come Even with Your Bad Church Experiences. Really… This weekend’s message is for anyone who has had a less than desirable church experience, whether it has been many years ago at another church or even at Glenwood. A moment when the people in the room felt colder than a January blizzard, or a time when you felt invisible, were made to stand out for being different, or walked in as a guest only to feel there was a huge spotlight on you. You will be blown away by what Jesus had to say about this. Your last trip to church may have been years ago, and you may have sworn to yourself you would never return. Let me encourage you to give it a try this week. Maybe God has something special in store for you.
Do they know what to expect in worship? When to stand up? When to sit down? What communion is all about? How much cracker to take when the plate is passed? Should they take any cracker at all? Are they allowed? What is with the singing? Not just the a cappella singing, but also the singing itself…who does that? How long will we be here? Will people talk to me? Will I be singled out? Why does everyone appear so happy and put together? You might have asked those questions a long time ago, but most of us have forgotten those questions exist.
Church, if we invite people here, and they come, we need to remember what it was like to be a first time guest.
Here is where you can help. We have a ministry here called the Assimilation Ministry. It includes many things:
- Parking lot attendants
- Door greeters
- Worship center greeters
- Welcome Center (inside and outside)
- Class hosts
It’s amazing what God can do with a people who turn their sights to the world! With a handful of faithful disciples, God changed the world as we know it. What could God do with an auditorium full of faithful disciples?
Church, that thought alone excites me. Suppose Jesus did not arrive to this world in the first century, but instead in the twenty first century. Suppose He wasn’t greeted in a stable by sheep and shepherds, but instead by skyscrapers and the sound of honking horns during morning rush hour. If the Messiah finally arrived in our time, sometimes I wonder…Where would Jesus be this morning? Where would God be among us today?