The God who changes lives

St Michael’s 10th April 2016

Readings – Matthew 9:1-13; Acts 9:1-19

I was twelve years old when I committed my life to Jesus, and if you do the maths, that now seems a very long time ago. I was brought up by wonderful Christian parents, went with them to church every Sunday, even worked my way through the Bible reading notes they gave me. But it was when I was twelve I realised I needed to make my own decision as to whether Jesus would be Lord over my life.

My testimony is not dramatic or particularly unexpected. I was away on a youth weekend with my Sunday School teachers, and for the first time I understood for myself Jesus died on a cross to forgive me my sins. At the end of the meeting I asked for a copy of the booklet Journey into Life and later on, I prayed the prayer of commitment at the end.

But my actual conversion only took place about six months later. You see, although I prayed that prayer, I didn’t really grasp what difference Jesus would make to my life. I didn’t feel any different nor did Jesus seem any more real or personal than before, so for the next six months I carried around big questions about the Christian faith.

What made the difference was going away to a Christian holiday centre in Yorkshire called Scargill, a sister community to Lee Abbey. It wasn’t that the youth leaders there said anything new to me, indeed I can’t remember any of their teaching. But it was the love they showed to a precocious and rather obnoxious teenager which showed the reality of Jesus to me. So when I got home from holiday, I prayed that prayer again and this time I knew that Jesus was real and that He was my Saviour.

Why do I mention this? Very simply, because to me the most compelling evidence that Jesus has risen from dead is found in the simple fact He still changes lives today. He changed my life thirty-six years ago. He has changed the lives of many of you sitting here this morning. And I know He is in the process of changing lives even as I speak.

Of course when you hear other people’s testimony there is always the danger of thinking that somehow the good news of Jesus doesn’t apply to you. After all, you’d expect people like vicars or churchwardens or Sunday School teachers to have a story of how Jesus became real to them. But what about ordinary folk like me? Is it possible that the risen Lord Jesus can make a difference to my life? Especially when you consider what I’m really like and all the stuff I’ve done in the past?

Well, to help answer your questions, I’d invite you to turn to our readings this morning, which are all about three very different people encountering Jesus, or to put it more accurately, about the risen Lord Jesus meeting with them, and changing their lives for good.

First up, in Matthew 9:1-8, we have the account of what my Bible calls “Jesus healing a paralytic”. The word paralytic perhaps means something rather different nowadays, so for the purposes of this sermon I will call him the “paralysed man”. Matthew doesn’t give us a lot more information about him, only that he had to be carried by his friends – and we will return to these friends later on.

But even with this little information, we do know life must have been pretty miserable for this individual. For a start, he had to cope with a major disability and this in an age where there were no aids to make his life any easier. He was totally dependent on other people to meet his needs. No doubt there were some who saw him as a burden and a nuisance. And quite probably he himself struggled with the psychological effects of his disability, with all those issues of self-worth and identity.

However this unnamed individual had an even greater issue than his physical paralysis. How do we know this? For the simple fact that when Jesus meets him, His first words are not to tell him to get up, or to declare him healed. Rather He says to him: Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven (Matthew 9:2).

Now we have no idea what these sins were, or why the man needed such forgiveness. But one thing is clear. Here was someone who needed to be freed not just from a physical disability but even more importantly from some terrible burden of the heart. We don’t know if anyone else knew the secret this man was carrying, but that is beside the point. The moment Jesus meets him, He sees into his heart, sees all the wrong, all the pain, all the hurt, and He frees him with a simple, loving word. Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.

But the paralysed man is not the only person whose life Jesus changes that day. Later on, as He walks along the road, He finds Matthew sitting at his tax collector’s booth. Now the thing we need to realise is that back in those days tax collectors were not loyal, obedient members of the civil service. They were collaborators: they worked with the occupying Roman forces to collect taxes on their behalf. They made themselves extremely wealthy in the process and if offshore bank accounts had existed in those days, they wouldn’t have hesitated to deposit their funds there.

As you can imagine, Matthew wasn’t exactly the most popular individual in town. The ordinary people resented the money he made out of their misery. The religious authorities would have despised him and declared him unclean. We don’t know whether Matthew was happy with this state of affairs or not, but on the day when Jesus turns up and says Follow me Matthew immediately gets up and follows Him.

Why would anyone so suddenly and so dramatically leave everything behind at this point? The only answer can be there was something so attractive and so compelling about Jesus Matthew had to obey. He had no hesitation transferring allegiance from the Roman emperor to Jesus as His Lord, no second thoughts about leaving behind his wealth and security. Somehow Matthew knew that in following Jesus there was something more valuable to be gained than a healthy bank balance and a high-earning job.

So here are two very different people whom Jesus meets – an unnamed paralysed man and a tax collector called Matthew. In a moment we will turn to the book of Acts and look at the third person in our readings, a man by the name of Saul. But before we do so, it’s important that we gain a little background about him and understand exactly why he was so hostile to Jesus.

We know from elsewhere in the Bible, Philippians 3:5, that Saul (by then known as Paul) trained as a Pharisee. A Pharisee was a member of the religious ruling class in Jesus’ day and as we can see from our gospel reading the Pharisees and the teachers of the law constantly opposed Jesus.

Why? Well, for a start they had too narrow a view of God. They refused to believe this Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, could be in any sense the Son of God. Surely the Son of God had to be someone like them, someone with theological education, someone with position and standing, not some wandering preacher who came from – as far as they were concerned – the back of beyond. So when Jesus says to the paralysed man, Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven what is their response? Verse 3: At this, some of the teachers of the law said to themselves, “This fellow is blaspheming!” Even when Jesus proves His power by publicly ordering the paralysed man to get up, they still refuse to believe the evidence right there in front of their eyes. There is no sign they are rejoicing with the crowd as the man picks up his mat and goes home.

And there’s the question of the company Jesus keeps. It’s bad enough that Jesus invites tax collectors to follow him, but, as they are concerned, it is beyond belief that He actually goes and eats in their homes. Yet here is Jesus gladly following Matthew into his home and eating with his rather disreputable circle of friends. No wonder that, as we are told in Matthew 9:11, When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and ‘sinners’?”

In short, the Pharisees believed God could only use certain people and was only interested in certain people. They believed God was on the side of the rich and the respectable, and they only saw Jesus as a threat to their nice neat way of doing things. That’s why throughout the gospels they are the people who constantly fail to hear Jesus’ words. So when Jesus says I desire mercy not sacrifice in verse 13 they are unable to realise these words are addressed to them. They are more concerned with their sacrifices and their rituals than showing the love of God to those in need.

And it is as a good respectable Pharisee that a generation later Saul is on the road to Damascus, as Acts 9:1 puts it: breathing out murderous threats against the Lord’s disciples. You see, the Pharisees thought they had dealt with the problem of Jesus once and for all. They had arranged for Jesus to be handed over to the Roman authorities to be crucified, and they had witnessed his dead, cold body being placed in an empty tomb. Yet three days later His followers began to spread the message that this same Jesus was risen, and that He was alive. Even worse many, many people were believing that message and the news was spreading. That is why Saul is on his way to Damascus, full of rage and hate and violence, fully intending to stamp out the menace of this new faith.

But God has other ideas. Acts 9, verses 3-4: As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

Isn’t something rather wonderful about the way the risen Lord Jesus intervenes in Saul’s life? There is no note of anger or retribution in His words, just a simple, loving question. Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Jesus is showing that He already knows Saul by name and He knows the depths of his heart, so twisted and distorted by evil, violent thoughts. But instead of treating Saul as his sins deserve, He shows such overwhelming love that Saul can only ask, Who are you? And then the earth-shattering reply comes back: I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It’s perhaps little wonder that for three days Saul falls into some kind of trance. With a few simple words the risen Lord Jesus has turned his life upside down, and there is nothing he can do than turn towards him in repentance and faith.

So to sum up: in these readings we meet three very different people. There is the paralysed man who is carrying a hidden burden in his heart. There is the tax collector who is exploiting other people. And there is the religious teacher who hates Christians and wants nothing to do with Jesus. What do they all have in common? Simply this, that Jesus meets with them, and shows them such overwhelming love they can only respond in faith and trust.

The message to take away, therefore, is this: whoever you are, Jesus already knows all there is to know about you. He sees you as you really are, and He knows the depths of your heart. The words He spoke to these three people are words He speaks to you: Your sins are forgiven…follow me…why do you persecute me?

And if you want to know whether you can really trust these words of Jesus, you need only to look at the cross. Because the cross tells us that Jesus died in our place for our sins. That means the forgiveness He offers is real and available to anyone who trusts in Him. The cross shows He has authority over even death itself, which is why we are called to follow Him. And the cross reveals that no scheme of man can ever prevail against the purposes of God, and it is for that reason we need to make our peace with Him.

So let me ask: will you accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness to you this day? Will you leave everything behind to follow Him? Will you make your peace with God while you have the opportunity? Because as I hope you can see Jesus’ offer of new life is available to whoever will listen, no matter who you are, no matter your past.

One final thought: I know there are plenty of people here today who have already received Jesus as Lord. What message can you take away from these passages today?

This is where I want to go right back to the beginning of our reading from Matthew chapter 9, to the friends who brought the paralysed men to Jesus. Listen carefully to what is written in verse 2: Some men brought to him a paralytic, lying on a mat. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Isn’t that interesting? We don’t know whether the paralysed man wanted to come to Jesus or not, but these unknown friends believed Jesus was the one who could make a difference, and they did everything they could to bring about the meeting. Indeed other gospel writers talk about them opening a hole in the roof and letting their friend down by a rope.

Now of course we cannot physically bring people to Jesus in the same way, but we can and ought to be praying regularly for those who do not yet know the Lord. There is the story of the 19th century evangelist D.L.Moody who apparently prayed every day for 100 friends who were not yet believers. It is said that during his lifetime 96 of those friends turned to the Lord, and the other 4 were converted at his funeral. It seems to me that both in our private and in our corporate prayers our focus should be so much more on bringing our family and friends to the Lord and praying for real conversions.

After all, if Jesus is alive, then He will and does hear and answer our prayers. So what is the most important thing we should pray for? Very simply this: that those we know and love turn to Christ? That’s why one of the aims of this major prayer initiative we are holding in May is that we pray for just five friends to come to know the Lord. And surely that is something we can all do.

But one note of warning – if we are praying, don’t be surprised if sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers. I haven’t time this morning to look at the story of Ananias. I am pretty sure Ananias was praying hard when he heard Saul was on his way. But I am also pretty sure he didn’t imagine he would be the one to lead Saul to baptism, and ultimately set him on his way to a lifetime of ministry.

Yet since the Lord Jesus has risen from the dead and is alive, that means – as Paul would write later on in Ephesians – he is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine. He can give new life to all those who turn to Him in faith. He can answer our prayers for those who do not yet know the Lord. He can even use us in His service to fulfil His purposes.

So what is the risen Lord Jesus’ word to you this morning? And how will you respond?

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