Posted by: Johnold Strey | September 22, 2008

Sermon for the Commemoration of St. Matthew

I was out of town on Sunday (9/21/2008), and so a guest preacher filled in for me.  September 21 happens to be a minor festival on church calendars, a day set aside to remember St. Matthew, one of Jesus’ apostles.  Our guest preacher delivered a sermon based on Matthew 9:9-13.  Since I preached a sermon on that same reading earlier this year, I have posted that previous sermon here.  Although it wasn’t technically a “St. Matthew Commemoration” sermon, many of the thoughts in this sermon fit the occasion well.

I also want to acknowledge one of my former college professors, Prof. Daniel Deutschlander, for some of the content here.  I have audio files of some of the lectures he has given since I entered the ministry.  In one of those lectures, he made the statement that I used several times in this sermon: “There are two kinds of people in church; one is in despair, and the other one ought to be” — a spot-on observation, especially when you consider this account!

THE TWO KINDS OF PEOPLE IN CHURCH

Text: Matthew 9:9-13

I.

There are two kinds of people in church.  One is in despair, and the other one ought to be.  Matthew was the first kind.  You probably would have never guessed that about him.  He had a fairly decent job working as a customs officer collecting revenue from the ships that arrived in Capernaum.  In a position like that, we know that Matthew was (at least) bi-lingual, and certainly well educated.  He made a decent salary.  But I’m still fairly sure that Matthew was in despair.

Most people in Capernaum – or all of Galilee, for that matter – didn’t care for Matthew.  It wasn’t just Matthew.  It was anyone who worked as a tax collector for the Roman government.  The Jews hated the Roman government, and they really hated Jews who worked for the Roman government.  And most Jews had double reason to dislike their countrymen who worked as tax collectors: Not only did they work for the Romans, but they were permitted to charge whatever they wanted, send the prescribed amount to Rome, and keep the rest for themselves.  If you think that the IRS extorts money from people today, you ain’t seen nothin’!  That doesn’t mean every tax collector was a necessarily cheat, but the job alone was enough to make you an outcast in society.  And that meant Matthew was an outcast.  And that was reason enough to be in despair.

Matthew must have had some prior contact with Jesus.  We don’t have any record of that previous contact, but you can tell from the way that this incident plays out that Jesus must have spoken with Matthew previously.  “As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ he told him, and Matthew got up and followed him.” People in despair seemed to do pretty well around Jesus.  Jesus didn’t rub salt into their wounds.  He talked to them about the kingdom of God, the forgiveness of sins, and the gift of God’s grace.  And at some prior point, Jesus must have talked to despairing Matthew about these things.  Can you believe it!  A respectable Jewish rabbi, let alone the Son of God, has serious and sincere interaction with a man whom no decent person would associate with!  And after those prior contacts and discussions, Jesus now calls Matthew to leave his old job behind and follow him as one of his hand-picked disciples!

We’re reading this account from Matthew’s Gospel.  Matthew describes Jesus’ call rather matter-of-factly.  But if we look at Luke’s Gospel, Luke gives Matthew a much more glowing report.  The specific details are the same, but Luke mentions that Matthew (he’s called Levi there, another name by which he was referred) got up immediately.  There is a strong sense of eagerness and willingness.  In verse 10, Matthew merely mentions a meal with Jesus at his house, but Luke plays the meal up a little more.   Luke tells us that Matthew hosted “a great banquet” (Luke 5:29) at his house for Jesus.  Matthew is so astounded that Jesus would not only associate with him, but actually want him for a disciple, that he throws a feast in Jesus’ honor.  And who gets invited?  Matthew’s associates.  Other tax collectors and their friends.  In other words, more people who were considered unrespectable in society.  No doubt Matthew wanted his friends to hear what Jesus had to say so that they would not fall into despair over their status as outcasts or their condition as sinners.  Jesus had a message of forgiveness for those people who couldn’t even go to church in despair because the rulers of the temple wouldn’t let them in!

Some of you are here today because you are in despair.  As strange as this will sound, I hope that to a greater or lesser degree, we are all here because we are in despair.  The reasons may be different, but the result is the same.  The family has fallen apart.  A relationship ended on a sour note and with a bitter taste.  You planned your life to go one way and it seems that you’ve hit every red light and wrong turn imaginable.  The people you work with couldn’t be more difficult to work with even if they tried.  Bad decisions come back to haunt you.  Health is in decline and the future is uncertain.

But the bottom line underneath it all is sin.  Sin in our hearts shows up in broken families, bitter relationships, and bad decisions.  Sin in our world shows up in unrealized plans, unwanted sickness, and uncertain futures.  And all those manifestations of sin point out the reality we all know but would rather not acknowledge.  Our sin not only brings disappointments into life now, but it brings God’s damnation for eternity, and that’s enough for anyone to be in despair.

But the same Jesus who called Matthew to follow him now calls you to follow him.  Follow him and watch as he takes all your sin on himself and as he takes away any reason to stay in despair.  Follow him as he executes his Father’s plan perfectly on the way to the cross.  Follow him as he goes to the cross and sheds his blood to wash away your sin.  Follow him as he goes to the cross and replaces your hellish despair with heavenly delight.  Follow him as he rises from the dead and promises that you will do the same one day.  Follow him, and not only will Jesus show you that you have no more reason to despair, but he’ll take all your sin and despair away, and give you forgiveness, hope, and peace in return.

II.

There are two kinds of people in church.  One is in despair, and the other one ought to be.  The Pharisees were the second kind.  You wouldn’t have guessed that about them, either.  The Pharisees were the respected religious leaders among first century Jews.  They were the experts of “the Book.”  They set high standards for moral living.  They had earned the respect of just about everyone.  And all of that contributed to their problem.  They weren’t in despair, but they should have been.

The Pharisees commented negatively about Jesus’ association with Matthew and company.  “While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples.  11 When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, ‘Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and “sinners”?’  12 On hearing this, Jesus said, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  13 But go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”  For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.'”

People who were confident in themselves didn’t do so well around Jesus.  This incident is one of many in which Jesus and the Pharisees clash.  The Pharisees couldn’t understand why any man who claimed to be religious would associate with people who appeared so irreligious.  And that was their big mistake.  The Son of God didn’t enter into this world to pat all the good people on the back and feed their egos with a little divine approval.  The Son of God came into this world to bear the sins of the world on his back and feed our faith with his forgiveness.  But the Pharisees didn’t see it that way.  Spiritually speaking, they thought they were healthy.  They thought they had no reason to despair.  But Jesus came to help those who knew they were spiritually ill.  He came to those who are in despair.  He came to show mercy to those downcast by sin.  He didn’t come to show approval to those who made the right sacrifices and followed the right rituals.

I’ll be honest.  It is all too easy for members of a church like ours, a church that is known for holding firmly and faithfully to God’s Word, to become the Pharisee.  Yes, we should hold firmly and faithfully to God’s Word, because his Word nourishes our faith and proclaims his forgiveness in Christ.  But there can come a point when our pride is no longer centered in God’s grace.  There comes a point when we walk into this building thinking what nice church-going, hymn-singing, offering-giving Lutherans we are.  There comes a point when we stop despairing of ourselves and start to think that we’re not all that bad.  And it is to that group that Jesus says, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.” That’s when God will do us the greatest favor if he shatters our pride with his law and knocks us to our knees in repentance.   God shatters our pride and brings us to our knees that so we learn once more to despair of ourselves and to delight in his Son’s saving work at the cross.

Conclusion

There are two kinds of people in church.  One is in despair, and the other one ought to be.  This historical account of Matthew the tax collector and the Pharisees shows us that reality.  But I can’t help but think of another section in the Gospels where a Pharisee and tax collector are involved.  I can’t help but think of the parable Jesus told about a Pharisee and tax collector – the former who should have been in despair, and the latter who actually was.  And I can’t help but think about Jesus’ conclusion to that story.  We usually hear that account read in church on Ash Wednesday, the day we emphasize confession and repentance.  But it ties in so well with today’s sermon, so let’s listen to that parable and consider it through the lens of this account in Matthew’s Gospel.

“To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: 10 ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men-robbers, evildoers, adulterers-or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”  13 But the tax collector stood at a distance.  He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”  14 I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted'” (Luke 18:9-14).

If you want to know the sweetness of God’s grace and the depths of his forgiving love, then despair of yourself.  Despair of yourself just as the tax collector did in Jesus’ parable. Acknowledge, as we do each week, that you are by nature sinful, and that you have sinned against him in your thoughts, words, and actions, and that you deserve his punishment both now and in eternity.  The person in despair won’t be in despair long if Jesus has anything to say about it.  And Jesus has everything to say about it!  His Word declares you his forgiven child!  Your baptism made you his forgiven child!  And his holy Supper keeps you his forgiven child!  And with a status like that, you have no more reason to despair, but every reason to rejoice now and in eternity.

There are two kinds of people in church.  One is in despair, and the other one ought to be.  Which one are you?  Amen.

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Responses

  1. I understand your point, but I disagree with your “sound bite” – people in church should be full of joy, because they know they are forgiven (which, yes, you tagged on briefly at the end). This is another problem with the whole visible/invisible church distinction. Before you know Christ, you are in despair. If you go to church, but don’t love Jesus, you should be in despair. But if you are in the Church (invisible) you should be so full of joy that people wonder what’s different about you.

    Perhaps you won’t want to post this publicly, and that’s fine. I just have concerns when I see sermons preached to believers that speak as if they were unbelievers. Do you really have a seeker-sensitive church? (I shudder at the thought) Do you really have many people attending your service who don’t know the basics of sinfulness and repentance? Of course, we should always remind people of the simple truths, but I don’t agree with the idea of pounding saved people with grief over the sins that have already been washed away. Isn’t that analogous to what Paul says in Romans? Don’t shackle yourself with the Law when Christ has set you free? So don’t try to make people despair over sins that Christ has already taken away!

    This kind of thing (in my humble opinion) is harmful to the church – it perpetuates the feeling that Christians are all somber, serious pietists, condemning everyone to hell. The love and joy of Jesus should not be merely tacked on the end, it should be the pith of the whole message!

    I’m probably over-reacting here, but it really struck me. There SHOULD be only one kind of person in church – those rejoicing over their salvation.

  2. In order to respond more specifically to your points, I’ve copied them here and will reply under each section.

    I understand your point, but I disagree with your “sound bite” – people in church should be full of joy, because they know they are forgiven (which, yes, you tagged on briefly at the end). This is another problem with the whole visible/invisible church distinction. Before you know Christ, you are in despair. If you go to church, but don’t love Jesus, you should be in despair. But if you are in the Church (invisible) you should be so full of joy that people wonder what’s different about you.

    I disagree that the gospel is only “tagged on briefly at the end.” It is the predominant message in part one. In the exposition (first half) and application (second half) sections of part one, spiritual despair is addressed; the “solution” (for lack of a better term) offered is the gospel—for Matthew then and the modern audience now. The second part doesn’t apply the gospel like the first part did because that part deals with the Pharisees; the natural application of Jesus’ statements to a modern congregation is that we need watch out that we do not fall into Pharisaical thinking, and that warning is properly law, not gospel. Rather than artificially moving things around in the text, I preached on it in the sequence of events, which meant ending with the warning to the Pharisees. Because part two was pretty much all law, I chose to state the gospel again in the conclusion.

    I know plenty of people who don’t know Christ and who aren’t in despair. They should be, but they aren’t. I know plenty of people who believe in Christ and trust in him with all their heart, but sin’s effects have hit hard in their lives—whether it be unemployment, family tensions, difficult bosses, tight finances, failing health, sinful mistakes and their consequences, or something else. They may have the joy of faith in their hearts, but many days they hardly feel joyful. I would not want to go so far as to say that Christians “should be so full of joy that people wonder what’s different about [them].” At best, people will confuse the “joy of faith” with feeling happy all of the time. At worst, that message would lead them to think that they have no faith when they feel crummy.

    I’ve seen beautiful examples of faith from people who hardly felt joyful. Even Scripture suggests this, which is the bottom line in this discussion. Look at the complaint psalms. Look at Paul’s own cry of despair in Romans 7:24, “What a wretched man I am!”—and this comes after he has already beautifully expounded on the gospel in the previous chapters. Why should Paul feel this way after he himself has just exquisitely explained the gospel? One can have the joy of faith (cf. Philippians) even while not feeling particularly joyful (cf. Romans 7; 2 Timothy 4).

    Perhaps you won’t want to post this publicly, and that’s fine. I just have concerns when I see sermons preached to believers that speak as if they were unbelievers. Do you really have a seeker-sensitive church? (I shudder at the thought) Do you really have many people attending your service who don’t know the basics of sinfulness and repentance? Of course, we should always remind people of the simple truths, but I don’t agree with the idea of pounding saved people with grief over the sins that have already been washed away. Isn’t that analogous to what Paul says in Romans? Don’t shackle yourself with the Law when Christ has set you free? So don’t try to make people despair over sins that Christ has already taken away!

    I generally don’t have a problem posting people’s comments when they disagree with something I have written. Sometimes it provides an opportunity to clarify something that I wrote in a post or said in a sermon. Sometimes it leads into another good theological thought, which is the main purpose for this blog (apart from the occasional Packer post!).

    Why ask if I have a “seeker sensitive church” (one that merely gives people what they want, not what their souls need) if you know that I don’t? And why ask if my people know the basics of sin and repentance (and grace) if you know that I preach it regularly?

    I don’t agree with your assessment that this sermon pounded people with grief over their sins. Preaching the law to Christians does not result in “sermons preached to believers that speak as if they were unbelievers.” If our sinful nature didn’t exist after conversion, I could agree with your statement. But don’t believers still have a sinful nature? To paraphrase Luther, although our sinful nature was drowned in baptism, he’s a good swimmer. Do Christians continue to sin? Can Christians, especially conservative Christians, end up with a self-righteous attitude rather easily? Can Christians fall into “once saved, always saved” thinking? If guarding against our sinful nature and its threat to our faith weren’t a concern, how would one explain verses like 2 Peter 1:10 or 1 Corinthians 10:12, or even Judges 2:10?

    2 Peter 1:10. Therefore, my brothers, be all the more eager to make your calling and election sure. (Comment: This encouragement would not be necessary if Christians didn’t need to concern themselves with sin’s potential to take away their faith).

    1 Corinthians 10:12. So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall! (Comment: Ditto).

    Judges 2:10. After that whole generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation grew up, who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. (Comment: This is perhaps one of the saddest statements in the Bible. After only a generation, the faith is lost. Isn’t a warning in place, then, lest God’s people let their sinful natures get the best of them and rob them of the faith given them by the Spirit?)

    I honestly don’t think anyone who heard this sermon felt that I drove them to despair for past sins for which they had already received God’s forgiveness. I don’t remember most of my past sermons all that well, but I do remember this one and especially the way it was received. Several people really related to this sermon and said as much. They related to the point that a Christian can fall into despair easily enough without anyone pounding the law into them. They have a conscience. They have a memory. Consequently, they have guilt, regret, remorse, despair—whatever you want to call it. Why not acknowledge the struggle and point out its solution in Christ? To bring it up is not to unnecessarily pound the law into them. To bring it up is to recognize that spiritual despair can be a real problem and that its solution is found in the wounds of Jesus.

    This kind of thing (in my humble opinion) is harmful to the church – it perpetuates the feeling that Christians are all somber, serious pietists, condemning everyone to hell. The love and joy of Jesus should not be merely tacked on the end, it should be the pith of the whole message!

    I addressed the gospel content comment earlier, so I won’t readdress it here.

    As for impressions of pietism, I think your definition of pietism and mine are different. Historically, pietism was a movement that downplayed the preaching of law and gospel. Pietism is, in many ways, the predecessor of modern American Evangelicalism, which is more concerned with preaching the law as Christian advice for moral living than for preaching it in its primary use: “No one will be declared righteous in [God’s] sight through the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). The area of pietism that I think you have in mind was its tendency to preach harsh law to people and virtually bring them to tears before receiving the Lord’s Supper, lest someone receive it without being really repentant (I have heard stories of that from early WELS history; unfortunately, I don’t personally have any way to document that).

    Doesn’t everyone deserve to be condemned? “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). To preach the law sternly is not to deny the gospel. It is to prepare hearts for the gospel. If some skeptic wants to sling mud because I preach condemnation when the text calls for it, so be it. Preaching Christ without the law is akin to saying, “Jesus loves me this I know, and this is all I want to know” (another phrase stolen from Prof. Deutschlander!).

    Finally, a pastor has to let a text be what it is. The selection ends with Jesus’ stern warning for the Pharisees. It is a warning that has great application to Bible-believing Christians today. If the text ends that way, I’m going to preach the text. If the text is 80% law and 20% gospel, that’s how I’m going to preach the text. If the text is 5% law and 95% gospel (such as the typical readings for festivals like Christmas and Easter), then that’s how I’m going to preach the text. I’m not comfortable coming in with a template and saying that I’m going to artificially insert law or gospel where it doesn’t naturally fit. The gospel is so prevalent throughout Scripture that one doesn’t need to insert it artificially. But that doesn’t change the fact that some texts will end with a law note.

    I’m probably over-reacting here, but it really struck me. There SHOULD be only one kind of person in church – those rejoicing over their salvation.

    That church will be the church triumphant. Life in a sinful world filled with sin’s effects and complications isn’t always so cut and dried.

    Let me close with something that’s becoming more and more typical for me—a book plug (there he goes again!). I recently came across a devotion that touches on some of the aforementioned thoughts. The devotion appears in a book called His Word, Our Delight, available from Northwestern Publishing House (NPH) in Milwaukee. The devotion is titled, “Tough Question: How Can I Know God Loves Me?” (pp. 213-215), and is authored by Paul Wendland, who now serves as President of Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary in Mequon, Wisconsin. The book contains the chapel devotions that were preached by the faculty of Northwestern College (Watertown, WI) during the last year of its existence (1994-95) before it was merged into the new Martin Luther College (New Ulm, MN). Unfortunately, I can’t find it on NPH’s website, so if someone is interested, he/she will have to hunt for a copy of it somewhere else on the web (or your pastor’s library).


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