The God who is not far from us

Passage: Luke 5:27–32 (2011 NIV)

27After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ʻFollow me,’ Jesus said to him, 28and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.

29Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. 30But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ʻWhy do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’

31Jesus answered them, ʻIt is not the healthy who need a doctor, but those who are ill. 32I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’”

Theme: The God who is not far from us. By John Hobson

 

Introduction

Over the past few weeks we have heard through the media words and phrases that have been given a new meaning such as: “social distancing”; “the invisible enemy” and “unprecedented”. When we go to the supermarket, if we are not self-isolated (another new phrase), then we have to keep the 2 metre distance from other shoppers and shop workers, although I don’t think that is entirely possible when moving about the shop. In Asda they are allowing only 100 people in the shop at a time so the doorman lets you in when someone else comes out. We understand the necessity for “social distancing” to prevent the spread of Coronavirus. But it is hard for those who have to be isolated in their homes, especially if they haven’t a garden to go out into, and if they have young children home from school itching to go out and play.

 

  1. Jesus didn’t “social distance”

In the passage in Luke 5 where the converted tax collector Levi (also known as Matthew) held a party for his colleagues and others the Lord Jesus mixed freely with them. He was frowned upon by the religious rulers for not keeping His “social distance” from them.

Why was this? Well it is clear that these people who were supposed to represent God looked down upon people like the tax collectors and “sinners” and regarded them as being diseased, as if they had a moral plague, and that they must keep as much distance from them as possible.

From what we know about the Pharisees and teachers of the law their religion consisted in keeping lots of rules. In fact in their effort not to break God’s rules they far exceeded God’s commandments by their extra additions, even nullifying God’s law by their own rules (Luke 11:42).

Their relationship with God  – if it even could be called that – was based on what they could do and it was all for outward show (Matt. 6:1–8; Matt. 23). Perhaps the greatest Pharisee of all was Saul of Tarsus. No doubt as a Pharisee he often went through the routine of saying his prayers but it was not until he met the risen Lord Jesus on the road to Damascus that we read in Acts 9 v. 11: he is prayingreally praying for the first time. As Paul (as he became known) later wrote to the Philippians (Phil. 3) his religion became, not a legalistic righteousness, but one of relationship where his supreme desire was to know Christ – yes he had already come to know Him, but he wanted to know Him more and more. John wrote that the essence of eternal life is to know God and the Lord Jesus Christ – that is to have a relationship with Him – a relationship that begins in this life and goes on into eternity: Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent (John 17 v. 3).

Jesus often interacted with these religious rulers and that trilogy of parables in Luke 15 – the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son – was partly to defend His social mixing with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 15 v 1). In fact the last of those three parables might be called “the lost sons” (plural) because there were two lost sons – the one who had openly rebelled against his father and squandered his inheritance and the one who had stayed at home but who protested that All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me …

I wonder if Jesus, in the picture presented of the son who remained at home, was actually reaching out to those proud Pharisees and teachers of the law and trying to show them that to truly be God-like is to be concerned for those who are lost – that is what heaven rejoices over (vv. 7, 10 and 32).

The very purpose that Jesus came, He says to another tax collector, Zacchaeus, in Luke 19 v. 10: For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.

Even Christian believers can be in danger of the yeast (leaven) of the Pharisees (Luke 12 v. 1) and we must look to see if there is any of that attitude in our hearts.

Jesus didn’t keep His social distance from these tax collectors and sinners because they knew that they were sick and needed a physician to heal their inward sickness (Luke 5 v. 31), the Pharisees and teachers of the law were just as sick but they were oblivious to the “enemy within”.

 

  1. The enemy within

Taking my permitted exercise in the Spring sunshine last week and enjoyed something of the wonders of the Creation, it is hard to believe that lurking within the air are deadly germs that in their worse form can kill us. We are reminded of the seriousness of the situation when we see people wearing masks or listen to the reports about how Coronavirus is spreading.

Yet, there is an even more deadly disease of which Coronavirus and other sicknesses are but a result of. My one-time pastor, now in glory, would sometimes say: “We don’t become sick and then die; but we become sick because one day we are going to die.” What I think he was saying is that as a result of sin coming into the world along with it came sickness and disease. They are warnings to us that one day we will all face the payment that sin brings: the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6 v. 23a).

This all began in the Garden of Eden when Adam listened to voice of Satan, through the serpent, and believed his lie. He believed, along with Eve, that eating of the fruit that God had forbidden, would make them like God. But we know the sad results – they were now afraid of their loving Creator; disharmony in the marriage relationship; and above all separation from God. They experienced what God had said would happen – Genesis 2 v 17: “dying you shall die” it can be translated.

Following in the train of this act of rebellion was pain, sickness and a disordered world (Gen. 3 v. 17–19). Beautiful though creation is, it is also subject to earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places and this things will increase until the Lord Jesus returns again (Luke 21 v. 11).

Before we turn to some better news, there is another effect of sin we should mention.

Theologians talk about the doctrine of “original sin” or “inherited corruption”. There are two aspects to it: firstly Adam acted as the federal head of the human race and when he sinned, we sinned in him – as one theologian put it:

“the universality of sin is the result of God’s judgment upon the race because of Adam’s transgression. Adam was the representative of the race. He stood before God for us so that, as Paul says [Rom. 5:12], when he fell we fell and were caught up inevitably in the results of his rebellion.

 

Secondly, “our nature includes a disposition to sin”. Those of us who are parents or grandparents probably don’t need this to be proved – however much we may love our children/grandchildren we know there are times when they can behave selfishly or want their own way and so on. But if we know our own hearts we know that they too are disposed to go their own way and as Isaiah says: We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way (Isa. 53 v. 6b).

David summed this up in his penitential psalm, Psalm 51, when he said: Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me (v. 5).

This does not mean that we will be as bad as we can be. We’ve seen only this past week how, through God’s common grace, many people have been willing to help the NHS at this time of crisis. But it does mean that every part of us has been affected by sin.

The American preacher and writer, A.W. Tozer, once took the opportunity to visit one of his congregation in Chicago who was in hospital. Tozer was not known for visiting members of his congregation, this was generally left to others. So when Tozer came to visit him the man was heard to say: “I’m not that sick am I?”

Yes, we are indeed that sick within. The tax collectors and “sinners” that Jesus mixed with knew they were sick – or in Jesus’ words they knew that they needed to repent of their sins. The religious rulers looking on didn’t realise how sick they were; they would put themselves among the righteous. Of course their righteousness was a self-righteousness, not the true righteousness that a forgiven sinner has – because those who have truly trusted in Christ have the gift of His righteousness “imputed” to them or “put to their account”. This is what Paul is talking about in Romans 5:12–20. We have sinned in Adam – as we said he is our federal head – but For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous (Rom. 5 v. 19). As the hymn says: “Jesus, Your blood and righteousness my beauty are, my glorious dress; midst flaming worlds, in these arrayed; with joy shall I lift up my head.”

This was the marvellous discovery that Martin Luther found – he called it an “alien righteousness” because it was a righteousness outside of himself.

This does not mean that we will become sinless for even Christians still struggle against sin within but we will have a new nature that wants to please God (see 1 John 1 vv 8–10; and 1 John 2 v. 29).

I mentioned Tozer above and he knew that the remedy for sin is found in the gospel which shows us God’s unprecedented love for us.

 

  1. Unprecedented love

I have lost count of how many times I’ve heard the word “unprecedented” used over the past days. Often it is referring to the Chancellor’s proposals to help people who will be financially affected by Coronavirus.

“Unprecedented” is not difficult to define: my dictionary has “unheard of”. So the answer to man’s greatest need is from the unprecedented love of God – something that no other “god” has done or ever will do to cure the sickness of man’s heart.

The “gods” of the ancient world, and maybe even still worshipped in places today, were really a projection of human beings – they were made in our likeness. And because they were made in our image they were “very human gods” with characteristics like us – they could fall out with one another; they were very territorial. And they vied for place in the pantheon of “gods”. Of course they were not real gods at all – just man-made idols of wood and stone.

Paul was greatly distressed to see Athens full of idols and when he saw an altar inscribed with the words to an unknown god he took an opportunity to proclaim to these superstitious Athenians the God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth… (Acts 17 vv. 24 and following).

But are modern “gods” in our materialistic West any more living than gods of wood and stone? Rico Tice the evangelist recently wrote about this when he was travelling on the Underground. He said this Coronavirus is exposing how our “gods” of sport, or entertainment, or wealth are being taken from us – the things we have looked to for satisfaction are broken cisterns that cannot satisfy. And should we not long that this crisis will cause people to seek the One who is the spring of living water (Jer. 2 v. 13).

This God is not socially distant from us. First He came to this earth in the Person of His beloved Son. He made His dwelling among us for those 33 years. He walked in our shoes. He lived in a poor home in Nazareth, with other brothers and sisters. His earthly guardian, Joseph, probably died before Jesus entered His public ministry so as the eldest son, He would have to take on responsibility for caring for the family. Hebrews 5:8 tells us that, as a human being, He “learned obedience”. This doesn’t mean that there was ever a time when He wasn’t obedient but rather as He grew, and as His responsibilities increased, so He learned obedience in each new situation. Again Hebrews tells us He was tempted in every way, just as we are – yet without sin (Heb. 4:15).

There must have been an attractiveness about the earthly life of Jesus as He grew up in Nazareth for Luke tells us And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.

But although He came and lived among us and gladly mixed with those tax collectors and sinners there was a shadow hanging over His life. One artist painted Jesus in His workshop and as He stretches after a tiring day’s work the outline of His arms formed the shadow of a cross. For the reason He came was not chiefly to set us an example – although He was that (John 13 v. 15; 1 Pet. 2 v. 21) –  the chief reason He came was to offer Himself on the cross for our sins. As John puts it: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10). Where the NIV has atoning sacrifice some translations have propitiation which is probably a better translation – it speaks of the Lord Jesus bearing the wrath of God against our sins on that cross so that we can be reconciled to Him.

As an old children’s chorus puts it: There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin; there’s a door that is open and you may go in; at Calvary’s cross is where you begin, when you come as a sinner to Jesus.

Yes, this is unprecedented love – it began in the mind of God before the foundation of the world; it was promised throughout the Old Testament – beginning in Genesis 3 v. 15 and becoming clearer as the Old Testament revelation went on – and it was fulfilled in the life and death of the Son of God when He cried from that cross It is finished.

 

Conclusion

Whoever may be reading this message, can I say that this God does not want to keep His distance from you. Paul again said to the Athenians, God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us.

Levi – or Matthew – found this when Jesus passed by his tax collector’s booth and called him to follow Him. He is still calling today – He may use disasters to get your attention; it may mean turning away from things that you have sought satisfaction in before; but He offers you life – you won’t be called upon to write a Gospel, as Matthew was – but He will give you a better, far more satisfying life, and then a home in heaven when you die, or when Jesus returns again.