Written Sermon

Four Pages: Living Signs

John Rottman

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Later today and continuing tomorrow, the church at Handlon Prison is holding a revival.  The chaplain at the prison asked Celebration Fellowship (a church in the prison across the street from Handlon) to plan and host a revival weekend.  Invite people to worship.  Tell people about Jesus.  Ask God to change people’s lives.  You know…that sort of thing.  So Mark, one of the guys on the Celebration Steering Committee, arranged to print up some fancy signs.  Old Fashion Revival.  Gospel Preaching.  Soulful Music.  Dynamic Testimonies.  Signs of the Kingdom.  Come and Meet Jesus.

But prison officials said the signs were too big.  I guess anyone who saw Shawshank Redemption knows that large posters can pose a certain threat.  So Mark printed up some smaller signs, 8 ½ by 11s.  This time the size was right, but the chaplain hadn’t approved them.  So again, no go.  Everyone hoped that the chaplain eventually would approve the signs.  There were  just so many people who needed to meet Jesus.

Matthew in our Bible reading for today was one of those people.  Now you might suppose that Matthew is doing just fine without Jesus.  Plenty of people seem to be.  This morning Mathew sits once again at his tax collecting franchise on the main road outside Capernaum.  His richly tailored robe and heavy gold chain strike most of those lined up at his kiosk as tastelessly overstated.  But like it or not, there is no denying Matthew’s wealth and power.  His cut from collecting Roman taxes has left him with more money than he knows what to do with.  Well, in truth almost nobody feels like they have more money than they know what to do with, but let’s just say that Matthew is more than comfortable.  He’s purchased a wonderful home overlooking the Sea of Galilee perfect for entertaining.  Twice divorced, he’s in his late thirties.  But nobody seriously supposes that one of the beautiful twenty-somethings with whom he associates will become wife number three.  And while his mother shudders even over the little she knows, the fast crowd in Capernaum rates Matthew’s parties as among the best.

Now, while from a certain perspective Matthew seems to have it all, life is not without its pressures.  The Romans for whom he works always seem to be demanding a bigger cut of his collections.  And over the years he’s seen less compliant associates end up with broken arms or worse.  Those from whom he collects hate him.  Everyone thinks that his collections rates are little more than legalized extortion and they are right.  He squeezes every last shekel, and resentment runs high.  The religious, and too many in Capernaum are religious, despise him.  Just that morning an outraged fellow citizen had cursed Matthew: “God damn you to hell for stealing from us and helping the Romans,” he exploded.  And Matthew had calmly doubled his assessment and called over several Roman soldiers to complete the shake down.

But lately Matthew has begun to feel unsettled.  Maybe it’s guilt or maybe it’s some kind of dawning mid-life crisis.  But this morning when that man had cursed, for just a moment Matthew felt dirty.  And while he normally laughed such incidents off, this morning he paused to wonder if a day was coming when there would be hell to pay.  Maybe.  But you can’t go back and redo your life, can you?  And yet despite the occasional sense of emptiness, Matthew was busy enough these days just surviving.

Now most of us may at one time or another long for a deeper purpose in life, a purpose that goes beyond just surviving.  Religious or non-religious, no one wants to live his or her life superficially.  Some years ago when I still ran regularly, I got to know a guy named Conrad.  Conrad was seventy-something years old and he had given up running for walking, just after his second heart operation.  After my run, I often walked a lap or two with him just to warm down and to chew the fat.  We had gotten to know each other a bit over the years.  He knew that I hated running about as much as he hated walking.  I do it for my health, he says.  Me too, I tell him.  I learned that he ate bacon, but only during the two weeks each year that he spends at the cottage.  I don’t know why my parents named me Conrad, he confided, we’re Italian.  How many Italians do you know named Conrad?  I knew that Conrad was retired; he discovered that I had worked at a church.

Say, where is your church again, he asked me one day?  So I told him.  You ought to stop by sometime, I added.  Oh, no, he responded, I’m not religious.  I grew up Roman Catholic, but I’m agnostic now.  I don’t have anything against religion; he added probably not wanting to sound critical.  My girlfriend goes to church.  Oh, I said, I know a lot of people don’t go to church.  But sometimes I wonder, if you don’t go to church or have very strong belief in God, what do you suppose the purpose of life is?  Conrad thought for a moment.  “Well, I think that we are here to survive,” Conrad said breathing hard, “to go on for as long as we can.”  “You mean our purpose as human beings is to survive, to keep going,” I asked.  Yeah, he said, his arms pumping as he began yet another lap.

Just surviving.  Life can often feel like we are mostly just putting down one foot after the other, not just people less connected to God, but church people too.  We can lose our focus as we struggle to do our jobs day after day.  Provide for the kids, pay off the mortgage, or scrape together enough for retirement.  Jesus said that he came to bring us abundant life, but life can too often seem like one giant rat race with us as the rats.  And sometimes when we look at people who seem to be less connected to God than we are, they seem to be living at about the same hectic pace and superficial level.  Too many seem mostly focused on just surviving.  Of course church people would say that we look forward to heaven at the end of the rat race, but otherwise our lives and those of our neighbors can seem…well…. a lot the same.  We look at our lives and wonder if there could be a deeper focus, more abundant vitality.

Matthew must have been sensing the need for something more.  I don’t know precisely how Matthew drifted from his God-given focus and purpose.  Did he drift away from God in his teen years?  Did his longing for money press him to make compromises that pushed God off to the side and then mostly out?  I don’t know how a nice Jewish boy like him ended up collecting taxes for the pagan Romans and in the process putting the boots to God’s people.  But I do know how Matthew found the purpose and focus for which he longed.  Again, we don’t know a lot of the details, but it all happened one day as Matthew was staffing his tax collecting/extortion booth.  As he stands there, this man named Jesus comes down the road.

Now the Bible makes what happens next seem almost weirdly cut and dried.  Jesus doesn’t even introduce himself.  Jesus doesn’t discuss his work with Matthew.  Invite him into a deep relationship with God.  The Bible doesn’t even say that Matthew knew Jesus prior to this fateful day.  Jesus simply strides up to the tax collection booth, looks Matthew straight in the eye and speaks two words: “follow me.”  And almost as if he’d had a spell cast upon him or piped music from an enchanted flute, Matthew up and follows Jesus.

Some say that Matthew wrote the part about how Jesus called him in as pure and simple a way as he could.  They say he wanted to emphasize the power of Jesus’ words to change a person’s life.  Others say that Matthew must have known Jesus before the day Jesus called him or he would have been crazy to leave his work and just up and follow this strange rabbi.  Who knows?

What we can say for sure is that however it happened, Matthew heard God speaking to him in the words of Jesus.  Matthew heard God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus’ call.  And Matthew felt the unconditional love of God inviting him into a saving and life abundant relationship.

The Bible doesn’t say all this in so many words, but you can guess as much by taking a look at the party Matthew throws after Jesus invites him to follow.  Matthew is so excited and energized by meeting Jesus that he invites all of his shady friends to meet Jesus too.  He invites his fellow tax extortionists and all the usual groupies from the fast crowd.  And Jesus seems to be having the time of his life.  Some people suppose that Jesus left in a huff the second time someone used racy language at a party, but Jesus is all in with this entourage of organized crime.  He talks to them about the love of God, invites them to accept God’s forgiveness.  As he radiates the love of God, Jesus welcomes them to embody God’s love and forgiveness by following him.

Some of the religious leaders complain to Jesus’ disciples about the company he keeps.  Why does your teacher waste his time with tax collectors and sinners?  And when Jesus hears about the complaint, he responds with a shrug: “Look” he tells them, “healthy people don’t need a doctor, sick people do.  I have not come to call righteous people into relationship with God.  I’ve come to call sinners.  I come to offer people who’ve lost their focus, abundant life.  I have come to invite people into relationship with God and then to empower them to live their lives praising God and helping other people.”  Praising God and inviting other people into the revival relationship of following Jesus.  God invites us as we follow Jesus to live our lives as signs that point others to Jesus and the abundant life that he brings.

A guy that I know in Canada lived his life as high energy lawyer.  When he wasn’t working long hours, he spent time with his family.  Whatever extra time he had, he spent cheering on his daughter in her dancing and acting career or supporting his son in his rock and roll career, one of the only things he seemed to do well.  Slivers of his time also went to his aging parents and close Christian friends.  So when he neared his sixtieth birthday, a party with family and friends seemed only natural.  I thought he was extending himself a fair bit in inviting the pastor.

But when we got to his giant house, we found it filled with so much more than a swirl of family and close friends.  He had invited neighbors who’d never set foot in church.  He’d included people from work who might not naturally mix with church people.  There were somebodies and nobodies at the sixtieth birthday party, enjoying beer and wine and shrimp and cheese and pita bread, samosas, and spring rolls… a whole buffet of generosity.

And when I’d asked him a few days later how he’d decided on his odd ball guest list, he said he’d noticed in the Bible how Matthew had invited a whole whack of friends and acquaintances to meet Jesus.  “I wanted my non-believing friends and neighbors to meet people who know and love Jesus too.”  And so he invited an unusual crowd.  You see when you have experienced the love and generosity of Jesus, God prompts you to want others to follow Jesus too.  To experience the life that he pours into those in need of a renewed focus and deeper purpose.

This morning Jesus again voices his call to us.  Same two words: Follow me.  As I pour my life into you, I am making you into living signs of my kingdom.  Living Revival posters.  And as the word reach our ears, he also gives us the grace to respond as Matthew did.  To allow Jesus to bring our lives those he is bringing into his kingdom.  To invite his Spirit to move us to praise and service.  In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.


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