The Call to Follow Jesus
Topic: Discipleship Passage: Mark 2:13–2:17
A story is told of a tourist who went to the famous Louvre in Paris and when he came to the painting of the Mona Lisa he stood in front of it with his arms folded for a long time, staring at it so intently that it caught the attention of a guard standing nearby. Finally the man stepped back and declared in a loud voice, “I don’t like it!”
“Sir,” the guard replied, “the Mona Lisa has stood the test of time. When a person stands in front of it, they aren’t judging it, it is judging them.”
We are looking at the second of five consecutive stories in which a delegation of religious leaders begin to scrutinize and examine Jesus in order to assess the legitimacy of his ministry. And like the guy who didn’t like the Mona Lisa, the Pharisee’s don’t like what they’re seeing.
The sad thing is that as they stand there with scowling faces and arms crossed, judging Jesus, they really weren’t judging Jesus – they were judging themselves! Luke 7:30 gives this verdict on their lives:
“…but the Pharisees and the lawyers rejected the purpose of God for themselves…”
As the spiritual leaders of Israel they should have been the first to follow Jesus and point others to follow him as well. But they chose not to follow Jesus but to judge him, and so ironically in this story we see it’s the worst of sinners who embrace God’s purpose for their lives and the religious leaders who miss it by a mile. Let’s read…
This story has three simple movements:
1. The calling of Levi to follow Jesus
2. The contempt of the Pharisees
3. The qualifications necessary to hear Jesus’ call
1. The call of Levi to follow Jesus
As Jesus is walking beside the sea, and teaching large crowds of people, he sees a tax collector named Levi sitting at his IRS station and he calls him to follow. Jesus could not have chosen a more unlikely candidate to be his follower. As a tax collector, Levi (also called Matthew) was a hated man because he collected taxes for Rome – he would have been looked at as a traitor because he collected taxes for the enemy. But tax collectors were also despised because they would overcharge their own people in order to line their own pockets.
Tax collectors were social outcasts – respectable people did not associate with them, they were excluded from the synagogue, they were even forbidden from serving as a judge OR as a witness in a court because they were looked at as liars that could never be trusted to tell the truth. But with two words, Jesus changes all that. In a moment Levi went from the outskirts of everything to the inner circle of the Messiah. He was chosen by the Chosen One!
Levi immediately leaves everything else to follow Jesus. Peter, Andrew, James, and John left everything to follow Jesus too- but they were all fishermen, they could always go back to fishing if things didn’t work out as disciples of Jesus. But Levi, once he left his booth, could not go back. And yet for Levi, there’s no hesitation – leaving everything behind is a no brainer for the joy of following Jesus.
When we boil down what it means to be a Christian to its simplest form, I think it means to follow Jesus. Being a Christian means reading and believing the Bible – but it’s more than that. Being a Christian means being joined to the community of God, the church – but it’s more than that. Being a Christian means trusting that Christ’s death on the cross and resurrection from the dead was sufficient for the forgiveness of sin and the purchase of eternal life – but with all reverence for those precious and foundational truths I want to submit it’s more than that, in the sense that we don’t just believe that those things happened or that those things are true and then continue on alone. Believing Jesus accomplished those things then moves us to call on Him to be our Lord and Savior now and to follow him.
Every aspect of the Christian walk involves following Jesus. The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He guides us into all truth so that we am not led astray but cling to the great and precious promises of God’s word with all our hearts. As you walk through times of adversity and darkness, he walks beside you as your great and faithful friend – “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” He leads us with the authority of Lordship away from the paths of sin and in the paths of righteousness. The Christian walk begins when we hear the Savior’s voice say “follow me” and it doesn’t end until we are standing face to face in his presence.
In some sense for all of us it requires “leaving everything”. We don’t add Jesus to our lives, he becomes our life when we choose to follow him. But if you’re like me, your heart is constantly seeking other things to make your life – I know my heart does. How busy and cluttered our lives can become – filled with other things until there’s little room for Christ. As I was working on this message I was convicted of how far short I fall. At the same time there is a longing in my heart to declutter, to surrender, to follow Jesus. Maybe that’s true for you as well.
The answer is surrender, repentance, leaving everything to follow Jesus. And even that we don’t do alone – surrender isn’t just letting go, it’s holding on to Jesus. Repentance is never just turning away from sin – it’s also turning towards Jesus. Following Jesus isn’t just hitting the “stop” button on a life lived for the wrong things, it’s also hitting “go” on living for what God created us for! Our walk begins and continues every day with the call to follow Jesus. Asks us the question: what am I living for? Who am I living for? And Jesus renews his call to us even this morning, follow me.
2. The contempt of the Pharisees
In the next scene we see the contemptuous judgment of the Pharisees. When Jesus called Levi to follow, Levi got so excited that he threw a banquet for all his friends and family so they could meet Jesus too. The problem is that all Levi’s friends were losers too. Three times in two verses this crowd is described as tax collectors and sinners. The term sinner used here isn’t used to describe the generic, everyday, run of the mill sinner. It described a group of people who were living in flagrant sin but also who had no regard for the ceremonial traditions that meant so much to the religious leaders. They ate without the proper ceremonial washing of hands. Some of them even hung out with Gentiles. In other words, they were morally and socially toxic – to even associate with the likes of these people would contaminate a God-fearing Jew.
And here is Jesus reclining at table with them! The question the Pharisees ask the disciples in verse 16– why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? is a loaded question. It implies, why, if Jesus is a spiritual leader and teacher of the law, is he violating the law and making himself unclean. To the Pharisee, keeping their distance from these sinners kept them pure for God. They were actually serving God by distancing themselves from these sinners.
Be on your guard against Pharisaical creep
I want to pause here and say there is a kind of Pharisaical creep that we need to be on our guard against. And it’s deceptive: it’s easy from our vantage point to see the Pharisees were missing the boat, but we need to remember that in their eyes they were being the guardians of holiness, purity, and fidelity to God’s laws and His word. Pride and jealousy twisted their religion into a hard, cold, dead thing, but in their minds they were serving God.
The danger is that the Pharisaical spirit has the appearance of rigorous godliness. There can be an intoxicating illusion that we love God more than others, we take the things of God more seriously than others, we are “no compromise” kind of Christians. And we become proud of our zeal and critical of those who don’t measure up to our (impressive) standards.
Recently I heard from a friend about a family who attended a church for 3-4 weeks and then invited the pastor – who is a friend of my friend – over to their house. Although this pastor had heard that they had a history of fragmented relationships in churches behind them, since it had only been a few weeks that they had been attending his church he figured they just wanted the chance to get to know him. When he got to the house the man met him with 17 pages of notes outlining everything that was wrong in the church and this pastor’s ministry. This pastor sat there for two hours listening to these criticisms. At the end, all he could think to say was, how could you have so many pages after just a few weeks? But to this man, these 17 pages represented his zeal for God and intolerance for worldliness or compromise. Pride can twist our zeal into a terrible thing.
Evidences to watch out for:
• People are far more aware of what we’re against than what we’re for
• Our idea of love for God expresses itself more in criticism of others than grace towards others – we may not write actual legal pads of notes but our thoughts are filled with criticisms and judgments about others
• Our unity with other brothers and sisters in Christ is shattered by differences in peripheral doctrines and methods:
o We are willing to separate from others who claim Jesus as their Savior because they “speak in tongues” or don’t speak in tongues; because they lift their hands in worship or don’t lift their hands up in worship; because they use a version other than the KJV or they don’t use other versions than the KJV.
o Slice believers up into categories: Calvinists, Arminians, charismatics, cessationists, denominational, non-denominational and on and on – and we become suspicious of anyone who’s not in our “category”.
o Our unity is based on Christ and the big things like his atoning death and resurrection. His deity, the inerrancy of God’s word.
The mystery of God’s expression
How did the Pharisees miss it by so much? How could their zeal for God lead them to hate the Son of God when he came? At the root the Pharisees misunderstood who God is and what He is like.
One of the great mysteries of the Mona Lisa is the mystery of her expression. When you first look at her you see her smiling. But look again and the smile is gone. Then it reappears. Then it’s gone. It’s a mystery that has puzzled artists for centuries and drove at least one painter to his death. In 1852 the French artist Luc Maspero jumped four floors to his death from a hotel in Paris. His suicide note explained that he preferred death after years of struggling to understand her smile.
What’s God like? Is the expression on His face smiling? Or sad? Or angry? Is He repulsed by sinners? Or is He unequivocally accepting of sinners? If God were to stand among us, what would He be like? What would the expression on His face be?
We don’t have to guess: God the Son came to earth – when we see Jesus we see the Father. And Jesus tells the Pharisees what he’s like, what he came for, and what the qualifications necessary to hear his call are.
3. The qualifications necessary to hear the call of Jesus
Jesus didn’t come to condemn sin, nor did he come to condone it. Those who paint God as repulsed by the world and ready to destroy the world miss the heart of God. Those who think Christianity endorses a do whatever you want kind of freedom (which the Bible calls licentiousness) reduce God to a bobble head figure who’s always nodding yes to everything they do. Both miss the real God by a mile.
Jesus drew so close to the worst of sinners, but he was never careless about his conduct. He hung out with the immoral and impure, but we don’t ever see him doing anything that was immoral or impure. He hung with drunkards – he didn’t get drunk with them. He hung with prostitutes, he didn’t condone prostitution. He hung with cheats and liars and thieves and cowards, but he didn’t become any of those things. Instead he forgave them, lifted them up and out of their pollution and set them on a life of serving God. He redeemed their lives. They were liars and cheats and prostitutes and drunkards when they met him, but after they met him…they weren’t. They heard him call them to a different life, a life of following him.
What are the qualifications necessary to hear this call? Jesus says in verse 17 it was to be sick and sinful. I used to be confused by Jesus’ answer: was he saying the Pharisees were well? Righteous? No, but they thought they were and that kept them from coming to him for help. He came to call the ones who knew they were sick, the ones who knew they were sinners. So tax collectors were more likely to hear Jesus’ call than Pharisees because they were more likely to know they were desperately sick and needed a physician.
Yesterday as I was working on this message, I got angry at one of my kids and I didn’t handle it well. Oh, I didn’t throw things or scream or anything, but I spoke in anger and my heart was angry. After we finished dealing with the issue, I went back to the message – but my heart was heavy and sad and not a little convicted. How easy it is to look like we’ve got it all together for a few hours on a Sunday morning, but none of us do. I’m not saying there isn’t much grace and evidences of God’s hand in our lives – but there’s also much sin and evidences of the old man in our lives. Let’s be honest.
I asked my son to forgive me. He did. I am qualified to follow Jesus, I am qualified to preach this message because I am not well, I am sick. I am not righteous, I am a sinner. I need Jesus. I did 37 years ago when I first began to follow him, and I do now. And so do you – or you’re not qualified.
Jesus doesn’t leave us in our sin. He picks us up, he sanctifies us, he sets us on a course to serve God and glorify Him through our lives. He makes us saints. But we are still sinners and we still need a Savior and we always will this side of eternity. And knowing that qualifies us to be called, because its for us – the sick- that he came.
Sum up: the Pharisee’s missed it big time! They didn’t think they were perfect, but they thought their lives were righteous enough to please God with a little help from atoning sacrifices. So they judged Jesus for getting close to vile, despicable sinners like Levi. Never realizing that they were just as vile and despicable in God’s sight – if they had, they would have longed for Jesus to draw near to them as well. Jesus didn’t come to be judged, and he didn’t come to judge. He came to save us from judgment.
For those of us who are trusting in Jesus as our Lord and Savior – who are following Jesus, he has saved us from judgment and he calls us to a life of serving the purposes of God. We come sick, we get saved. We come sinners, we become saints. We come to the One who is Lord of all things and he says, “follow me” and we are offered a life lived, not like the Pharisees jealously guarding their small, petty turf but like Jesus for the glory of God in this sin-sick world.
I believe the Lord is renewing his call to leave everything and follow – and the question for each of us is, how will I respond? Let’s stand and pray.
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