The Mark Gospel text is Chapter 2, verses 13 to 17. Last week's sermon was on the first 12 verses of chapter 2. The Second Epistle Lesson is 1 John 3: 1-7, which is helpful to know because I reference it in the sermon. Thank you for reading it. I am open to constructive criticism. A couple last things. The prayer is from the movie "First Knight" and we use it when we hold a Knighting ceremony for our youth. The song we were going to sing following the sermon was "Just As I Am." As you can tell, there was a baptism scheduled. Here it is.
MATTHEW LEVI IS CALLED IN MARK
Please pray with me: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be holy and acceptable to You, King of the Universe, and Dearest Friend. Amen.
Jesus called the strangest people. Last Sunday morning I mentioned that in the early part of Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had been very busy. Our lesson this morning follows immediately after our lesson from last week, the healing of the paralyzed man. But first Jesus had called four fisherman to be disciples: Andrew and Simon (who we know as Peter), and James and John. Fishermen. Now, I love fishing; I’m just saying that they make an interesting (translate strange) first choice. Now, immediately after healing the paralytic, he went back to the lakeshore – the same place where he had called the four – and he taught the people.
Now the sermon is over, and Jesus and the four are walking back into town. As he’s walking back into town, Jesus approaches the tax booth where Levi is sitting, assessing and receiving tax money from the people of Capernaum. And Jesus slows. It’s like in a horror movie, where you want to yell at the screen, “Don’t open that door!” But then she inevitably opens the door. Walking with Jesus we want to warn him, “Don’t do it Jesus! Not Levi! For the love of God, not Levi!” And he stops. You shake your head. “He’s going to do it. I can’t believe he’s going to do it.” And he does. “FOLLOW ME.”
And Levi stands up, pulls the curtain, and immediately follows Jesus. So strange. Jesus calls Levi precisely “for the love of God.” But…
“He’s a tax collector!” Of all the people to call.
Tax collectors in Judah (the southern half of what was Israel) were Jews, hired by the Romans to collect taxes for Rome. So, first of all, they were collaborators with the enemy, the occupying army. Second of all, the way they became rich was to impose rates much higher than the Roman tax, collect it with armed Roman soldiers at their back, and keep the difference. Today, we have a word for that. Extortion. Tax collectors were slime. Tax collectors were not allowed in the Temple in Jerusalem. They were not allowed in the synagogues, the churches. They were more than excluded. They were hated.
You know that one of the things I love about studying the Bible is that I continue to learn new things as I read it and prepare to preach it. I am enjoying using The Gospel of Mark during the Easter season instead of the assigned Gospels this year. I shared with you three years ago my characterization of The Gospel of Mark. MARK IS STARK! But I’m seeing how strange it is in places, like this one this morning. What’s strange?
The story doesn’t end with Levi following Jesus.
Levi “follows” Jesus…to Levi’s own house! That’s strange. The next scene is Jesus reclining at table with Levi and his friends. Not surprisingly, the tax collector’s friends are, well, tax collectors. So now we’re up to our armpits in tax collectors! I say “reclining” because people back then did not sit in chairs at the table to eat. They leaned on pillows on the floor with a low table in the middle.
Now the church leaders are upset: the scribes and the Pharisees. They are experts in The Hebrew Bible, what we have as The Old Testament. They also feel called. They are called to keep and impose The Rules. Now notice, they don’t go to Jesus with their complaint. They take their complaint to the disciples:
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
“Tax collectors” in this complaint is redundant, because they are the worst of sinners.
I shared last Sunday evening the influence that the work of Dr Leonard Sweet has had not only on my preaching, but on my understanding of the culture in which we live, and where this is heading. He has a pretty great summary of The Gospels: Jesus ate good food with bad people. There you have it: our lesson today from The Gospel of Mark. Eating is actually a bigger deal in The Gospel of Luke. I like to think of Luke as The Lutheran’s Gospel. There is always food involved in Luke. But in our Lesson today from Mark, Jesus is eating good food with bad people. Why? He told them. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Now this is as strange to Levi as it is the church people.
“Jesus wants me?” ME? It is a strange and wonderful thing to be called by Jesus.
But…it’s at this point that commentators and pastors are tempted to get warm and fuzzy. This morning, let’s take a closer look at The Call. First, what were they called FROM? Peter and Andrew left their business, their livelihood, their future security, and followed Jesus. James and John, fellow fisherman, did the same. They left the security of the family business. Remember, the call of the disciples is eerily similar to the call of God to Abraham. Abraham was called by God. “Go that way. Not telling you where you’re going. Not telling your when you’re going to get there. Not telling you what you’re going to do when you get there. That way.”
And the Apostles? “Come this way. Not telling you where you’re going. Not telling you when you’re going to get there. Not telling you what you’re going to do when you get there. Come follow me. This way.”
Levi was hated, and excluded from the synagogue and Temple. But…he was rich. He left it all. He left with nothing but The Call. Over a three-year period he would come to learn what that meant. Jesus taught them:
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”
And what were they called FOR?
Some of us are old enough to remember Paul Harvey. Hear now, “the rest of the story.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor and martyr in Germany in World War II wrote the powerful book, “The Cost of Discipleship.” The subtitle of the book I have shared with you before: When Christ calls a man, He bids him, ‘Come and die.’ Christ called Levi and Levi did.
Levi is better known to us as Matthew. Matthew wrote the Gospel which appears first in our New Testament. Only Matthew shared the Marching Orders Jesus gave before ascending into heaven at the right hand of the Father: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus called Matthew and chose him. Matthew went, and taught, and died sharing the truth of Jesus. He was executed for following Jesus’ call.
Why did Jesus call such a motley crew? Again, I have gained direction and focus from Dr. Leonard Sweet. Jesus did not call leaders. Jesus did not call them to be leaders. Jesus did not call me to be a leader. He wasn’t looking for leaders. He’s still not. Then, as now, Jesus is looking for followers. Dr. Sweet makes this point in his book, “I Am a Follower.” He leads. I follow.
Jesus came to establish a kingdom. It is a kingdom where all are loved; all are welcome; all are included. But it is a kingdom with a King. Following includes leaving. It is and will always be Good News, that Jesus wants us as His subjects in the new kingdom. He chooses us. But when we answer the call, we become MUCH more than Jesus’ subjects. We never stop being subjects of the King. But we receive much more. We become His brothers and sisters, adopted into the family of God. This morning God adopted Jerret into that family. As he grows in years, we the family of God gathered as Eleva Lutheran Church, will help place in his hands The Holy Scriptures and help to provide for his instruction in the Christian Faith. That is from the Rite of Baptism in the Green Hymnal: The Lutheran Book of Worship.
God brings us into the family of God.
The choice for us – is to live in it.
Just as we are – we come. But God does not leave us as we are. Love works. Love works on us.
We offer not only what we have, but what we are, in grateful devotion for all that He is making us to be.
We are his subjects. We are his children. WE ARE HIS.
Did you hear it as Alyssa read it? The amazing promise?
See what great love the Father has for us, that WE should be called “children of God.” And we are God’s children now. It does not yet appear all that we will be. But this much we know. When he returns, and he will come back, we will be like him, for then we shall see him just as he is.
Let us pray: God grant us the wisdom to discover the right, the will to choose it, and the strength to make it endure. Just as we are – we come. Amen.