The Wrong Type of People


MATTHEW  9:9-13

HOSEA 6:1-6

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                My advice to you today is not to listen to Jesus. Because it is clear from today’s passage that he doesn’t know what he is talking about. Jesus is having a fight with the Pharisee’s today. But he could as easily be having a fight with my mom or your mom. “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?” asks the Pharisees. Your mom might put it this way, “why are you hanging out with the wrong type of people?”

The Pharisees and your mom have a point. We all inherently know that you are defined by the company you keep. And if you get in bed with the wrong type of people we all know how that can go.  I like to believe in amazing grace. I like to believe that the grace of Jesus can change people for the better. But I, like you, have heard the stories to the contrary and felt the disappointment. The disappointment of people who say they want to change but never do. I have counseled parents who’s children have gotten into the wrong type of crowd and have suffered the consequences of it. I have heard of people who claim jail house conversions but are back in the slammer a couple of months after they get out.  As a society we claim to be a Christian nation. And one of our values as Christians we claim is forgiveness. But when folks with a felony conviction get out of prison have they served their time? Is there punishment done? We all know it isn’t. Because we believe that past behavior is a good indication of future behavior and some folks are just the wrong type of people.  If we believed otherwise our laws would reflect that belief but we don’t. Jesus is talking about repentance today. But it seems that Jesus got it wrong. Because how often do we see repentance? A turning around. A change of heart.  Not that often. And that is why we don’t want to be around the wrong type of people, whoever we think those people to be, because we actually don’t believe in the possibility of repentance. People may meet Jesus but apparently he isn’t as strong as he used to be because we don’t see a change in behavior.  There are dangerous people out there. We need to protect ourselves from them. We have a reputation to defend.

I’ve been thinking this week that perhaps an explanation for the lack of repentance that we see today in our society is because we truly don’t understand how repentance works. And maybe in this passage Jesus is showing us how repentance works.  In our passage today I see three steps to repentance;

  1. Jesus speaks
  2. We offer fellowship as Jesus convicts us of our sin
  3. Jesus redefines the wrong type of people.

First, we see that Jesus speaks and Matthew responds.  Jesus says, “follow me”, and Matthew leaves everything. Now Matthew’s situation is different than the disciples that came before him. The last disciples Jesus called were Andrew and Peter, fisherman by trade. Certainly, blue collar folk and respectable folk. And if things didn’t work out with Jesus, well fishing is a pretty easy trade to get back into. But Matthew is a tax collector for the Empire of Rome, an occupying government. He is a traitor to his people. He is also most likely a crook since it was common practice for tax collectors to take a little more for themselves. Imagine that Matthew is a cross between one of the corrupt Hedge Fund managers that ruined the American economy during the financial crisis and a home grown spy selling U.S secrets to the highest bidder. That’s the type of guy we are talking about. He may be hated. But I suppose in Matthew’s mind the money made up for being hated. Everyone hated the tax collector till a position opened up. Then most people would throw away their principles to get the job because of the money. Tax collecting positions were coveted patronage position. Matthew had to kiss a lot of feet and make a lot of deals to get where he was. So when he walked away from his tax booth he could never turn back. There was probably another person waiting in the wings to fill his spot. It was probably a person who had condemned him for selling out but when the opportunity came up was more than willing to sell out as well. Peter and Andrew the fisherman could go back to their old lives. There was no turning back for Matthew. He heard the voice of the Lord and he left everything. He knew there was no turning back.

The first step to repentance is hearing the voice of Jesus. Since Jesus isn’t around physically we as Reformed Christians believe that it is the Holy Spirit whom Jesus poured out on Pentecost, that convicts us of sin and reveals the Truth to us. We as Reformed believers believe that we cannot even see our own sin without the work of the Holy Spirit to reveal it to us. This is commonly known as the doctrine of Total Depravity. Perhaps you have heard of the slogan made popular by Ben Franklin, “God helps those who help themselves.” Biblically, this is not correct. Under our theology God helps those who cannot help themselves. God helps us because we are helpless without Him. Confession is not just a choice of our will. We don’t wake each day with a 50/50 shot of doing evil or good. Our hearts are bent towards evil and self deception. Only the Holy Spirit can bring us to repentance not our own Will. Change comes after the work of the Holy Spirit not before.

Now you may be thinking well if only God can change our hearts there is not much of a point to evangelism, not much a point to witnessing, not even much of a point to discussing our differences, since we can’t control what God will do. But I think the scriptures tell us that we can work with the Holy Spirit. He provides us inspiration. He guides us into moments where we can make a difference by the providence of God. And he can give us words to say that can make more impact than any theological or moral argument that we could ever make.

One of the few ministries where I have seen true repentance demonstrated is Tierra Nueva, which is Spanish for New Earth. It is a ministry in Washington State that ministers to ex-cons and illegal immigrants. I visited the ministry several years ago and I saw there more people who exhibited true repentance than I have ever seen in my life. For example, they run a coffee roasting business to provide employment for ex- offenders. Their chief coffee roaster used to be a meth cook. Now he has renounced his former life, is an active leader in the ministry, and is married. Bob Ekblad, a Presbyterian minister and the founder of the ministry, recounted in his newsletter another incident of repentance. He recounted how he prayed for wisdom as he was on the way to do a Spanish language bible study at a prison one day.  In Bob’s words he prayed, ““Here I am Jesus at an intersection.  Give me a word, give me wisdom that would open up the men to your love. “ Then something strange happened. Bob describes the experience, “Immediately I had a picture in my minds eye of a tattoo of a heart on a bare chest over someone’s heart and the words as coming from God: “people see you as having a black heart, but I see you as having a good heart and as being a noble man.”

Bob wondered if he was just making things up but he decided to give it a try at the prison. So after his Bible study he told the group of guys about the impression he had got from God and asked if anyone had a heart tattooed across their chest. A man to his left raised his hand. “I do,” he said in Spanish. He raised his shirt to reveal a heart tattooed on his chest. People gasped in shock. Then Bob told him what God said, “people see you as having a black heart, but I see you as having a good heart and as being a noble man.” Two weeks later Bob asked the man what the word meant to him. Bob recounts what the man said, “He told me that he is from a notorious street gang in El Salvador and has a long history of violent, criminal behavior and was viewed by people as having a black heart.  He said: “Lately I have been really doubting that people or God will ever see me as having a changed heart, even after all my efforts to follow Jesus.  That word really encouraged me, giving me hope that God sees my heart as good.”

Now you may be thinking to yourself, “Wow that is an amazing story but I’ve never seen that happen.” Well I think you have. You know I didn’t really want to preach on this text today. I  actually preached on this same text about nine months ago and I thought I could skip it. But I felt like the Lord wouldn’t even let my eyes move on to the next chapter. I felt I had to preach on repentance. That I had no choice in the matter.

I know this sermon series has been difficult for some of you. It has been difficult for me. Don’t you think I know that some of my sermons have been really hard to hear? Don’t you think I have thought many times about giving up preaching through this book and choosing a topic or series that is less difficult? But so many times as I have preached through these texts, my sermons have been very timely, applying to issues we are dealing with as a congregation, sometimes on the very same day we are dealing with them. And I have been preaching this series for eighteen months now. I don’t orchestrate these things. I have little control of events besides the words the Lord gives me.

Perhaps the strangest and funniest instance of this was the sermon I preached for Church in the Park Sunday last year. As you may remember I preached on “blessed are the peacemakers”, so I preached on war and peace. Now normally we would have had worship outside, both because that is the week we do Vacation Bible School, and the sanctuary is covered with props, and because well church in the park, as the name suggests, happens outside. But last summer it was so hot and humid that day that we decided to have church in the park inside. And it just so happened that the theme of VBS that year was from Ephesians 6, putting on the whole armor of God or being in the Lord’s army. Now I had no control over the weather that day or the VBS theme. But there I am preaching on war and peace surrounded by a mock military Jeep and other used military props, as well as a pretty cool set of armor courtesy of Marilyn Shaffer. Am I the only one that found that to be just a little unusual? And if you think back through the sermons I have preached that is not the only time where the subject I am preaching on is literally demonstrated to the congregation shortly before I preach, when I am preaching, or shortly after I preach.  I can’t explain it. I just know the hand of God has guided me through these scriptures. Christ is trying to speak to us.

So the first step to repentance is initiated by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Next, this passage shows us that we are to create fellowship that allows people to be convicted of their sins. Now some people think that Jesus being a “friend to sinners” means that he really didn’t think they were sinners. That he thought it was the religious people, the Pharisees, who were the true sinners, and he was fighting against what we would consider to be excessive moral standards.  The socially liberal person would say that Jesus said God is Love so as long as no one is hurting another person or infringing on their freedom let them do what they want. But listen to what Jesus says, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” And then he says, “ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”

Now we are told the Pharisee’s reaction to Jesus dining with tax collectors and sinners but we are not told the reaction of the tax collectors and sinners. Let me try to imagine a conversation between Matthew and one of his tax collector friends he invited to the party.

“Hey Matthew, Matthew…” (in a whisper)”

“Yeah what is it?”

“I thought you said this was a party?”

“It is.”

“But that guy just called us sinners. Why are you hanging out with a guy who disapproves of the way we make our living?”

“Because he loves us man. And he is right. I gave up my post.”

“You did what? That’s crazy man! You threw this expensive party and you don’t have a job anymore? How are you going to live?”

“I don’t know my friend. I just know I need to follow Jesus. And I am willing to lay my life down. I hope you will be as well.”  We as Christians have the fellowship part down, we have the love part down, but we don’t have the truth part down. Why would anyone come to a place where their sin is called out? Because they sense the love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit convicts them of their sin.

Finally, Jesus redefines the wrong type of person. He shows us that the only wrong type of people are those that are unwilling to admit their own sin. As 1 John 1: 8-10 declares, “ if we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”  Jesus points the Pharisees to Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” and he tells them to study that passage and to learn its true meaning. As I mentioned I preached on this passage over nine months ago in the sermon entitled, “The Fruit of Mercy”. At the time I was hurting because I had offered mercy to someone I loved and trusted and he rejected it. I don’t think then I knew what Jesus meant by, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” It has deeply troubled me since then. I have thought about that verse often and I just didn’t know what it meant.  But this week God spoke to me and told me what it meant. He said to me, “I love faithfulness more than fruitfulness.” Fruitfulness being growing in numbers, growing in clout, growing in power, growing in wealth. This verse in Hosea talks about all the things Israel tries to do to succeed, to change their fortunes, the sacrifices they make to God in order to change God’s mind. But he says to them that your love is like a morning cloud like a dew that evaporates under the heat of the sun. He doesn’t want any of those things. He just wants us to know Him and to love Him faithfully as He loves us faithfully.

Now it would be remiss of me if I preached a sermon on repentance and did not admit what I needed to repent of. My biggest and most persistent sin that I have committed since being here is that I have been a coward. When people are angry with me or I am angry with them I have ignored them. It has crippled my leadership and I know I have hurt people by doing it. And I repent. Also, in one sermon I referred to a local public official in an unflattering manner. I don’t know what I was thinking. I was deeply ashamed. And I repent. As for the rest of what I have said over the past eighteen months I have this to say. Before I preach I always pray that any words that are of the Lord’s Will embed in hearts and bear good fruit and anything that I say that is not God’s Will fall to the ground and be forgotten. Could I have done some things differently? Of Course. But to repent I have to believe that what I said was wrong in the eyes of God not the eyes of people. I don’t claim to be perfect with everything I have said. But I feel I have honored the Lord the best I can with the rest of what He has given me to preach.

It’s hard to do the right thing. It’s hard to confess our sins. It is hard to know the Truth. In confusing times most of us wish we had the courage of Matthew to do the right thing at whatever the cost. But sometimes we don’t know what that is. Other times we fail to live up to the courage of our convictions. One of the verses that defines my ministry is Ephesians 4:15, “ speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” My life goal is to preach the truth in love. Sometimes that means saying hard things that people don’t want to hear. I have a pretty personal reason I am so committed to doing so. I am committed to preaching the truth in love because my grandfather did not.

You all have been learning a lot about the Robert’s family history during my time here. Last week you heard the testimony of my mother. I have told you once about my memoires of my grandmother on my father’s side and how much I admired her. But I have yet to tell you about my grandfather, Millard Roberts. Millard Roberts was a Methodist minister first before he became a Presbyterian minister. He and my grandmother Louise, had a whirlwind romance, and married, before he shipped off to the Pacific as a Chaplain during World War II.  When he returned they had four children, one of them was my dad Robert Roberts. I am told by my father and I have read online that after he returned from the Pacific Millard Roberts lost his way. You see if you google Millard Roberts several articles will come up. My grandfather was the president of a small college in Iowa called Parson’s College. If you have never heard of it that’s because under my grandfather’s leadership the college engaged in a series of practices that lead to its demise. Some of the articles I have read called my grandfather a, “snake oil salesman.” He told people what they wanted to hear to get to where he wanted to be.  For his inauguration as president he had the college spend $10,000 which would be around $88,000 today. His inauguration was nicknamed, “the ascension” because it was so grandiose and over the top. My grandfather tried to adopt a more for profit college model before such a thing was in vogue. He recruited unqualified students, took out loans to expand the campus, offered professors extravagant salaries to poach talent from other universities, and grew the college at a rate that it could not sustain. During his 12 year tenure between 1955 and 1967 the college’s debt grew an average of $100,000 a month which is about $880,800 in today’s currency. It wasn’t long after he left that the college went under. I don’t remember my grandfather. He died when I was three years old.  My grandfather loved my grandmother with all his heart. And I am told by my older cousins that he was a loving grandfather and a good man overall. My grandfather was a good man who served his country. But he told people what they wanted to hear. And I believe part of my legacy is to undue that history. To the best of my ability I preach the truth in love. Love binds us together. And if we let it, the scriptures promise, that the Truth will set us free.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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