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A Kingdom of Sinners

Date: 24 April 2022

Sermon Text: Luke 5:1– 6:16

Speaker: Ps Luwin Wong

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If you enter the concourse of the SMU campus in town, you would come across a fitness centre with state of the art equipment. It’s floor-to-ceiling glass walls, so this wonderful gym is clearly visible to anyone passing by. Now, as a student in SMU, I must have walked pass that gym hundreds of times, and on more than a few occasions, I thought to myself, that gym is built for guys like me. Who needs to bulk up, beef up, put on some muscle, that’s the whole purpose of a gym.

But as you can tell, I never did enter the gym, not once in four years. Because the glass walls meant you could clearly see the sort of guys who were in it. And those guys are ripped, biceps the size of my thighs. I’m going, “What are you in the gym for? How heavy are your textbooks? What, in your day-to-day life, are you lifting, that requires that much of strength? Are you preparing for the off-chance scenario that if the world returns to a hunter-gatherer way of life, you will be able to catch the biggest bison?”

I don’t have the answers, but the implicit message was clear. The guys you find in the gym, who occupy the gym, the guys who belong in the gym are those who are strong and fit.

It made me feel like if I ever wanted to enter the gym, I had better look like them first, you know work out first, on my own at home, I guess. Now, of course, had I actually entered, I have no doubt that the student volunteer behind the front desk would welcome me, and tell me that gym is open to one-and-all, to all shapes-and-sizes, and they’re glad I came.

But that’s besides the point. Regardless of what they say, I would not feel like I belonged. Why would I, when everyone else in there looked a particular way, which is different from me?

And friends, I wonder if that isn’t the way that those outside, the unchurched, see the church. That that they see the church as a place where the well-behaved, the held-together, the bible-knowing, the law-abiding, temptation-resisting, sin-overcoming, Jesus-loving, others-serving, tender-hearted, Spirit-filled people of God gather.

And therefore, it is not a place where sinners belong. It’s not a place for the wayward, the sin-struggling, the temptation-succumbing, the religion-skeptical, the doctrine-doubting, the faith-questioning, the broken-hearted, soul-fractured, regret-filled, sad and angry, lonely and empty person who is hanging on to life day-by-day by the thinnest of threads.

On one of our Christmas services, I met a young adult who hasn’t been to church for a number of years. And I asked her, “Ever thought of coming back?” She said, “Maybe, there are some things I need to work on first”.

It’s me thinking: “Maybe I need to work out first before I enter the gym”.

In today’s passage, the Word of Christ to calls out to sinners. His kingdom is a kingdom of Sinners. That is our starting point this morning.

A kingdom of sinners.

The Twelve Apostles

12 In these days he went out to the mountain to pray, and all night he continued in prayer to God. 13 And when day came, he called his disciples and chose from them twelve, whom he named apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter, and Andrew his brother, and James and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, 15 and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 and Judas the son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.

What I want you to notice at the onset about today’s passage is that it opens with Jesus calling Peter, followed by Levi, and ends with Jesus naming the full Twelve. Why Twelve? Because there are twelve tribes in the kingdom of Israel. Jesus is calling together his new kingdom.

He is re-constituting God’s covenant community. He is re-defining the identity of God’s people. And this new community, this new people, this new kingdom, will be a kingdom of sinners.

Why, because everyone he calls, and meets and heals in today’s passage, beginning with Simon is a sinner.

8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Peter, the sinner.

And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.”

The paralytic with sin.

12 While he was in one of the cities, there came a man full of leprosy. And when he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” 13 And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.”

The unclean leper.

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.

The sinful tax-collector.

The message is clear, Jesus is calling, and healing and fellowshipping with the unclean, the unwanted, sinners. He is constituting a kingdom of sinners.

But not just sinners per se, but sinner who embody certain characteristics.

First, it is a kingdom of Confessing sinners.

A kingdom of confessing sinners.

8 But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus' knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

When Jesus told Peter “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.” Peter initially protested. “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing!” In other words, “Hey, erm, I don’t advise you on how to build furniture, or on how to preach, maybe you leave the fishing to me?” I’m sure that thought crossed his mind.

But Peter had witnessed one of Jesus’ miracles, when he cured Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, as Luke recorded for us in the preceding chapter.

Now Simon's mother-in-law was ill with a high fever, and they appealed to him on her behalf. And he stood over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her, and immediately she rose and began to serve them. (Luke 4:38-39)

So he knew already that there is more to Jesus than meets the eye.

This guy rebuked a fever. You a scold a fever. Who does that? But it worked. There is authority and power in his word. And Peter saw that.

So he said, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.”

And he did. And there came a catch of fish so great, he need help from James and John. And in that moment, Peter had an epiphany that Jesus was uniquely related to God.

And if there is one common response we see in the bible, of people who find themselves in the presence of God, it is that they are struck by a sense of their sinfulness.

And so Peter confessed: “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.”

Have you confessed that you are a sinner? Are you a confessing sinner?

There two big messages being communicated by social media to impressionable youths these days.

You have to look better and you have to feel better.

You have to look better. You need this hair gel, that make up, this beach bod, these braces, that pair of shoes, this new look. You need to look better.

And you have to feel better. Don’t let anyone tell you that you are not good enough. Build up your self-esteem. Maintain a positive self-image. Don’t live by someone else’s standards. Believe in yourself. You have to feel better.

And as a result, so many people go through lives so anxious about their appearance but sp assured of their goodness. We have been taught by the world to measure our looks against the likes Bratt Pitt, but to measure our morality against the likes of Hitler. So everyone complains about their looks, but no one complains about their character.

As if it’s only possible to have an ugly face, but not an ugly soul.

And that’s simply not true. And the reality is that we are all sinners, we know that if there is a perfectly holy God, whose very being demands absolute perfection, we would not be able to bear his presence. And like Peter we would all beg him to depart.

But that is who Jesus has come to call. Sinner who know they’re sinners. The admission and confession of our sinfulness, far from disqualifying us, is in fact a necessary condition to be called into his kingdom.

And the reason why confessing sinners do not become condemned sinners is because Jesus has come to forgive sinners. His kingdom is a kingdom of forgiven sinners.

A kingdom of forgiven sinners.

17 On one of those days, as he was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem. And the power of the Lord was with him to heal. 18 And behold, some men were bringing on a bed a man who was paralyzed, and they were seeking to bring him in and lay him before Jesus, 19 but finding no way to bring him in, because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down with his bed through the tiles into the midst before Jesus. 20 And when he saw their faith, he said, “Man, your sins are forgiven you.” 21 And the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, saying, “Who is this who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” 22 When Jesus perceived their thoughts, he answered them, “Why do you question in your hearts? 23 Which is easier, to say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you,’ or to say, ‘Rise and walk’? 24 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the man who was paralyzed—“I say to you, rise, pick up your bed and go home.” 25 And immediately he rose up before them and picked up what he had been lying on and went home, glorifying God. 26 And amazement seized them all, and they glorified God and were filled with awe, saying, “We have seen extraordinary things today.”

A man, lying paralysed on a bed, literally breaks through the roof of a building just to see Jesus, and Jesus says, “your sins are forgiven you”.

“Well, thanks, but erm, did you really think my friends carried me all the way here and lowered me down the roof because I had problems with my conscience? I don’t know if you’re notice, but the reason I’m on a bed, isn’t because I’m sleepy. I can’t walk.”

I came to see you, in order to be healed of my paralysis. If I wanted to have my sins forgiven, I would have gone to the temple.

Which is precisely the point that Jesus intends to make. Sins up till then, could only be forgiven by God on the strength of an atoning ritual performed in accordance with levitical system in the temple at Jerusalem.

Jesus bypasses all of that and simply says, “you are forgiven”. Forgiveness is now no longer based in Jerusalem, no longer bound to rituals, it’s rather found in Jesus Christ. Jesus forgives sinners.

Jesus sees the deformity of the man’s physical body, and heals instead the deformity of his soul. Simply by saying “your sins are forgiven”. And it works.

To prove it works, he says to the man, “Rise, pick up your bed and go home.” And the man does exactly that. Immediately. Jesus proves an invisible act of grace, by performing a visible act of healing. Jesus can truly forgive a person.

You see, one of the reasons we are afraid of acknowledging that we are sinners is because it leads to guilt and shame, and that is no fun. As John Calvin said, “the torture of a bad conscience is the hell of a living soul.”

Our conscience, if it’s alive and well, will not give us peace the moment we acknowledge that we are sinners. Which is why when confronted of our wrongs, our first instinct is to justify ourselves, to point blame away from us, to focus on our good works instead, all to avoid coming to that awful conclusion, and voicing that humble confession: “I am a sinner”.

It’s a terrible realization to live with.

But the good news of the kingdom is that confessing sinners do not become condemned sinners, but forgiven ones.

In Christ, confessing sinners are forgiven sinners.

And as a result, the kingdom of Christ, is a kingdom of positive sinners.

A kingdom of positive sinners.

33 And they said to him, “The disciples of John fast often and offer prayers, and so do the disciples of the Pharisees, but yours eat and drink.” 34 And Jesus said to them, “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?

The Pharisees are telling Jesus. The traditionally religious fast, they deprive themselves of things. That’s the traditional hallmark of spirituality. You guys however, eat and drink. What’s that about?

And Jesus reply is this: “Can you make wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?

In other words, the reason for fasting is to seek God’s presence and favour and liberation. When God shows up, you rejoice. To remain fasting is to miss the point. And because I’m here, bringing the good news of liberation for mankind, fasting gives way to feasting.

Because Jesus has arrived onto the scene of human history, everything takes on a different complexion, as different as grape juice will taste compared to fine wine.

Prior to 2020, positive in popular usage is always taken as a good thing. You meet someone, you go, that guy is a positive person, let’s hang out. In the recent years, you go, are you a positive person, “yes, ART positive”. Alamak, let’s not meet.

Here, I’m using positive and negative, in a mathematical sense. Addition and subtraction. And the question is this: Is your Christianity characterized more by the absence of things or by the presence of things? Do you normally think in terms of what you lose out on, as a Christian, as opposed to what you have gained? Do you normally think in terms of what you cannot do, rather than what you ought to do.

In other words, do you practice a negative Christianity or a positive Christianity?

Jesus uses two Sabbath incidents to make the point. Here are the two epidodes:

6 On a Sabbath, while he was going through the grainfields, his disciples plucked and ate some heads of grain, rubbing them in their hands. 2 But some of the Pharisees said, “Why are you doing what is not lawful to do on the Sabbath?” 3 And Jesus answered them, “Have you not read what David did when he was hungry, he and those who were with him: 4 how he entered the house of God and took and ate the bread of the Presence, which is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and also gave it to those with him?” 5 And he said to them, “The Son of Man is lord of the Sabbath.”
6 On another Sabbath, he entered the synagogue and was teaching, and a man was there whose right hand was withered. 7 And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, to see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him. 8 But he knew their thoughts, and he said to the man with the withered hand, “Come and stand here.” And he rose and stood there. 9 And Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?” 10 And after looking around at them all he said to him, “Stretch out your hand.” And he did so, and his hand was restored. 11 But they were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus.

In this first Sabbath controversy, the disciples of Jesus plucked grain and ate them as they were going through a field. And the Pharisee accused them of “doing that is not lawful to do”.

In the second sabbath controversy, the Pharisees was again seeking to accuse of “breaking the Sabbath law” by waiting to see if he would heal a man with a withered hand.

In both cases, Jesus never said, “I’m not breaking the Sabbath law”. Whether that was the case or not, was for Jesus, quite besides the point. Instead, he chooses to focus on the point of the law.

In the first Sabbath episode, Jesus quotes from 1 Sam 21. He says, remember when David, the Lord’s anointed was fleeing the murderous Saul, he made a pit stop at the temple to stock up on fuel. But there was no bread to offer him, but the Bread of the presence, which was reserved for the priests to eat? And David was not a priest.

But the priest gave it to David, and David consumed it. Is that sinful, is that blameworthy? Knowing God’s heart, are you really going to argue that it was more important to keep that ceremonial law concerning the Bread of the Presence, and ignore the moral obligation to feed the needy, especially if that someone was David the Lord’s anointed?

In other words, is the law of God given so that your conscience would be more sensitive towards rule-keeping or towards need-meeting, neighbour-loving and live-saving?

The second incident elaborates on this.

Jesus, knowing that his opponents were fishing for a healing on Sabbath, took the bait, and healed the man with the withered hand, and Jesus said to them, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to destroy it?”

In other words, what is the point of the law if not to do what is good? The law was given in love for the good of mankind. The law is meant to serve human beings, not the other way around.

You see, if you ask the law, “what are you here for”, it does not say, “I’m here for me”, no it says, “I’m here for the flourishing of humanity”.

I read an article recently, about how man and his handicapped friend went to eat at a Denny’s restaurant. And his wheelchair bound friend wanted to use the restroom, but handicapped stall in the men’s room had no door. So they asked to use the handicapped stall in the women’s restroom. And the Denny’s staff said no, because the handicapped friend was a man.

But after making sure that the women’s restroom was empty, the friend wheeled him in anyway. And the staff at Denny’s called the cops. And the cops came, but they didn’t do anything, and rightly so isn’t it?

Imagine if the cops came and said, you’re under arrest for violating the law on the use of gendered toilets. Would that be justice or not? The point of restroom laws is to protect the dignity of individuals not deprive them of it.

And if you are the Denny’s staff that called the cops, and your argument is simply “but the law is the law, but the law is the law”, you have missed the point of the law. And your moral reasoning is in need of development.

While this has implications for our use of Henderson, I will not go into that.

I would rather ask, what is the place and the role of the law of God in your Christian living?

You see, the Pharisees viewed the law essentially as a fence, which places boundaries on behaviour. You’re on this side of the fence, you’re dandy, you’re on that side, you’re doomed.

I’m sure that many of you who grew up in Sunday school likely had the Ten Commandments either as bookmark in your bible, or as poster on the wall of your room, or as a magnet on your fridge.

And it all begins with “Thou shalt not, Thou shalt not, Thou shalt not”. And if that’s your dominant framework of the law, it will lead inevitably into a “the law as a fence” mentality.

And this mentality shows up in this way, when you decide whether or not to do something, you ask “Is it wrong to… do this or that?”

Is it wrong to desire a good salary? Is it wrong to date a non-Christian? Is it wrong to go to vacation in Europe? Is it wrong to want my kids to excel in school? Is it wrong to buy a beamer? Is it wrong to not donate to Ukraine? Is it wrong to not be a member of a local church? Is it wrong to binge watch Netflix every evening? Is it wrong to not attend in-person worship service? Is it wrong to not be part of a CG? Is it wrong if I don’t live stream church services anymore? In other words, where’s the fence at? Am I on the right side of it?

This “law as fence” negative approach to the law and misses the point of the law.

The way Christ isn’t to ask “is it wrong to”, but to ask “is it good? or “is it loving?” Is it good to date a non-Christian? Is it good to spend unnecessary money on a vehicle? Is it loving to not donate to the needy? Is it good to spend inordinate amounts of time on watching TV? Is it loving to avoid gathering with your spiritual family regularly in a CG? Is it good to skip services on Sunday?

The other problem with fence gazing, is that your horizon is always going to be filled by what you cannot do, the things you cannot have, the people you cannot be with, and the places you cannot go.

Jesus is not going to be found sitting on the fence, it’s when you turn around, and turn away from the fence, away from what you should avoid, and Him who you should aspire to become, that your Christian living transformed from negative to positive. From being characterized not by what you cannot do, but should do, from what is wrong to do, to what is good to do, from what you have lost, to whom you have gained.

And then your life, will be marked more by the abundance and joy of a wedding feast than by the solemness and deprivation of a fast.

This is the kind sinner that we find in the kingdom of Christ. A confessing sinner, a forgiven sinner, a positive sinner.

But there is final characteristic that is perhaps the most essential of all. The key message of the passage. Let me read:

A kingdom of repentant sinners.

29 And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. 30 And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” 31 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. 32 I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

It is true that Christ to call sinners.

O come, all you unfaithful Come, weak and unstable O come, bitter and broken Come with fears unspoken

If you are a sinner, come. Christ as come for you. Christ has come to call you.

But he has called you to himself, the sinless one.

Which means that though the call is come as you are. The call is to not stay as you are.

You see, Jesus loves us enough to receive us as we are with our sins, but that same love will not leave us as we were, in our sins.

Make no mistake about it, the call to come is a call to come and be transformed. Just like Peter, James and John, who left their fishing nets behind to follow Jesus; just like Levi tax collector who left his booth behind to follow Jesus.

Life will never be the same again. Repentance entails a U-turn, it’s a complete correction of course, it’s an abandonment for an old way of life to a new way of living.

It is call to repent, to turn from darkness into light, from anger into love, from death into life. From the emptiness of this broken world into the abundance of his glorious kingdom.

For all who hear the call, are you prepared to heed the call and make the change? The sinners whom Jesus calls are repentant sinners.

But do not be afraid, we are in the same boat. You don’t develop spiritual six-packs the moment you answer the call of Christ to follow him.

Your temptations won’t suddenly lose all appeal, your anger and hatred won’t magically disappear, you won’t simply emerge from depression when you wake up the morning after you believe.

But there no more condemnation. No more guilty stains, no more painful shame. There is forgiveness for all your sins the moment you trust in Jesus. And what’s more, you’re now in the gym. And so long as you’re here, there is resources and hope for growth and change.

We are together in this; we will help each other change. And what is more, Jesus Christ himself who calling us, is also committed to changing us. He is in this together with us.

For it is his kingdom, to which we sinners are called to belong. And he is a good and loving king. This is the good news for sinners. The confession of our sinfulness leads to a complete forgiveness, and into a positive way of living, that is transformed for our eternal flourishing the everlasting glory of our king.

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