The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
February 5, 2016
Jesus was a fool for love. In a lunacy of warm and welcoming grace toward those He might have thrown the book at, Jesus embraced all sorts of sleazy characters and welcomed some sorry specimens of the human race with a crazy amount of kindness.
And He wants us to follow His example!
Many of us have very mixed feelings about Baptist pastor and political leader Jerry Falwell; but we have to admire how, at least at times, he followed Jesus’ example in reaching out to include all sorts into God’s blessing.
Falwell once engaged in public debate with the publisher of Hustler magazine, Larry Flynt, a man who violated many of Falwell’s core convictions. Flying back to Virginia afterward, the two sat beside each other on the plane, joined by Falwell’s son Jonathan. Jonathan stared in jaw-dropping bewilderment as the two “opponents” chatted and joked together like old pals.
Later, Jonathan asked his father how he could converse on such friendly terms with someone like Flynt. “Dad,” Jonathan exclaimed, “he stands for the opposite of everything you believe in; he does all sorts of things you preach against; and yet you treat him as if he were a deacon in the church. Why?”
“Jonathan,” Falwell said, “there’s going to be a day when Larry is hurting and lonely, and he’ll be looking for help and guidance. He is going to pick up the phone and call someone he trusts. I want to earn the right to be that someone!” Falwell was, in that instance, loving like Jesus.
In the circle of His concern, Jesus included people lots of people excluded, and loved those who lived opposite to what He preached.
In Jesus’ world tax collectors were about the most morally compromised people imaginable. Viewed by fellow Israelites as traitors to their own people, tax collectors collaborated with an illegitimate occupying power, Rome, to fund the oppression of their nation. Moreover, the collection system encouraged corruption and extortion – and tax collectors had a well-earned reputation for fleecing their fellow citizens and lining their own pockets at their neighbor’s expense.
Yet, something happened between Jesus and the tax man Matthew, and Jesus asked him to leave his job and come with Him – and he took Him up on the offer.
Not long after, Matthew held a dinner party in honor of Jesus. To it Matthew invited his friends. Since most decent people wanted nothing to do with someone like him, his friends were either tax collectors or in some other sense “sinners”, a term applied, not just to the most morally degraded folks, but also to those who were just sloppy in following up on their religious responsibilities or who simply relegated God to the periphery of their concern.
When the Pharisees saw Jesus eating with all those disreputable characters, they were scandalized that a self-proclaimed leader of God’s people would befriend such lowlifes. Because they believed that birds of a feather flock together, they soon dismissed Himself Jesus as “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners”. [Mt. 11:19]
When Jesus overheard the Pharisees question His disciples as to why their rabbi would embrace as friends those He should shun as degenerates, He explained His behavior with a proverb: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.” Jesus meant to befriend and heal people, but he could only take up with those who, unlike the “better” people, would own up to being sick. And just like any doctor who wants to heal the sick, He had to get intimately close with the sin-sick, exposing Himself to infection and getting their blood and bodily fluids on His hands.
Jesus went on to cite a scripture that commends compassion for the sin-sick: Hosea 6:6, in which God declares, “I desire mercy.” Jesus then put all His cards on the table and announced, “I have come to call” – or “invite” in an equally good translation – “not the righteous but sinners.” He invited “sinners”, not because He likes them best, but because they alone let Him do what He wants to do for everyone, including the so-called “righteous”. The self-righteous need mercy as much as sinners; but usually refuse to admit it – and no doctor can heal those who think they need no medical care.
Yet, Jesus reaches out to them all, just on the chance they might allow Him to help them, and Jesus invites everyone to know the blessing of His friendship. All it takes is being willing to be associated with such company as He attracts.
That means that if we choose to keep the company of Jesus, we cannot choose the company we keep – and we may not write off anyone as a lost cause. We must keep reaching out to everyone on the chance they might end up becoming someone who responds to Christ’s invitation. We must never say No for anyone before they do.
For the Savior refuses to give up even on those everyone else gives up on, and we just never know who might surprise us and allow Jesus to heal their sin-sick life.
A pastor named John attended a city-wide banquet and found himself at a table with one unoccupied seat. With complete presumption, this loud guy named Steve, smelling of several martinis, took the seat and right away started to “hit on” one of the women with obnoxious, crude comments. John tried to distract Steve by engaging him in conversation. When Steve discovered he was speaking with a pastor, he forgot about the woman and took the conversation in a spiritual direction. He said he’d been born into a Jewish home, but hadn’t practiced the faith since he was eleven. He’d attended a Unitarian church a few times. He’d been divorced three times.
John said to himself, “If I had to assess someone, on the basis of one conversation, as to whether they were far from faith in Christ, I’d judge this guy to be the poster child.” Nevertheless, Steve invited him to come to his church, though he felt sure he’d never see him again.”
The next Sunday Steve came to John’s church and sat in the front row listening to everything. Afterward, he asked John where he got the material for his sermon. John told him he got it from the Bible. Steve had never read the Bible. So he went out, bought one and began reading 20 pages of it a day. He kept wanting to meet with John to talk about who Jesus is and kept coming to church Sunday after Sunday.
Eventually, Steve said Yes to Jesus; and one Sunday he threw his arms around John and, with sparkling eyes and a broad smile, told him he never felt happier than he did after deciding to walk with Jesus.
And John almost missed the joy of that miracle by almost saying No for someone Jesus was still seeing He could win over to Himself.
Sometimes, in our eyes, it looks like God is a wild dreamer who has no standards in giving His heart to whom He does. I think we’re just learning to appreciate the crazy bigness of God’s love. Maybe we have nothing better to do than to embody God’s lovely lunacy! Let us pray.