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Desiring mercy not sacrifice. Matthew 9.9-13

Matthew 9.9-13,18-26

 

Jesus says, 'Go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy, not sacrifice'.

 

The Pharisees are criticising Jesus because he has called Matthew, a tax collector, to come and be one of his disciples – and no doubt Matthew has invited all his friends, his mates, to come and meet Jesus, and now Jesus is eating with ‘tax collectors and sinners’.

 

This was not respectable company. Tax collectors were collaborators with the Roman occupying forces. They had sold out whatever faith they had, and broken the law of God for power and wealth. There are many stories of how they abused their power and exploited people.

And they are put here together with 'sinners', which usually refers to prostitutes.

This was not respectable company. Today it would be as if Jesus was calling a known paedophile to follow him and was associating with drug pushers and gangsters.

 

It is not that Jesus condones the sort of tax collection that was going on then – although he does tell people to pay their taxes;

And of course he does not condone cheapening your body by turning it into a commodity, or in abusing others for our own gratification, especially those who can be exploited.

But Jesus came to bring hope to people who know that they are lost and change to people who know that they need to change.

 

People do not go to a doctor if they think they are well.

The people who go to a doctor are the people who think that they are ill.

Jesus came for people who knew that they needed a spiritual doctor; who knew that things were not well, who were looking for healing, a new life

 

And Jesus sees Matthew and he calls Matthew. He offers Matthew a new life: ‘Follow me.’

 

That is unusual.

Rabbis were like our doctors. They did not usually call people. They waited for people to come to them, to choose them.

But not so with Jesus.

For a start, nobody in their right mind would choose to follow Jesus! He was far more demanding than the other rabbis. He talks about denying ourselves, giving up everything to follow him, going to the cross with him. He promises hardship and persecution. Why would you choose crucifixion!

Indeed, when people did come to Jesus and ask to become his disciple, his follower, Jesus often put them off.

 

No, we do not choose Jesus, but Jesus chooses us.

He is the doctor who comes to us – often before we realise that we need a doctor!

And he is the spiritual doctor who calls people like Matthew: people who need a new life.

And he offers whoever hears his call a new way of thinking, relating, being. He offers us life.

 

The Pharisees could not see this.

All they could see was Jesus eating, associating with people who did despicable things.

And they expected a Messiah who was going to crush the sinful and support the righteous.

They certainly were not expecting a Messiah who would accept and transform the sinful – and who would dismiss the ‘righteous’ as hypocritical.

 

And Jesus tells them, 'Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice'

 

In the passage from Hosea which Jesus is quoting, he says 'I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings' (Hosea 6:6)

Hosea is criticising those who are part of the religious establishment, who do the religious rituals but who have lost the heart.

They are going through the rituals, but they have lost sight of the God who loves them, who called them to be his holy people, and to show his love and his mercy.

 

This verse from Hosea is very important for Jesus. He refers to it on at least three occasions.

Once here; once when he rebukes the Pharisees for criticising his disciples for breaking the law by eating grain they had taken from the fields on the Sabbath - because they were hungry (Matthew 12.7); and once when he challenges them for being meticulous in giving their tithes but in neglecting the ‘weightier matters of the law, showing justice and mercy’. (Matthew 23.23)

 

Go and learn what this means, says Jesus: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.

 

We could do far worse than make that the purpose of our life.

If when we die, they say of us, this is a person who learnt what God meant when he said, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice’, not just here (head), but here (heart), then we will be people like Jesus. We will be people who can speak a word of God and bring healing to a woman who had suffered with life long inner bleeding. We will be people who bring life to the dead.

 

And the starting point of how we learn what it means when God says that he desires mercy and not sacrifice is to realise that everything that we are, everything that we do is dependent on mercy

 

It is when we begin to become aware of our need for God - of our need for a new life - and of our inability to save ourselves, that we begin to become aware of what mercy really is.

We encounter the call of Jesus; We hear the knock of the doctor on the door. And we come to him – we receive all that he offers us: his forgiveness, acceptance and new life.

 

But then we forget. Having started with grace, having started with God’s unconditional love, we move back to works.

We think that if we are to continue in God’s love, then we have to somehow make ourselves ‘worthy’ of him. We have to do the religious stuff and follow the rules. We think that we have to earn God’s favour.

 

I have spoken several times of how for me, as a young church leader, I found that I could not pray. Whenever I prayed my head went all whizzy and strange - well, more whizzy and strange than it is normally. And it was a revelation when I realised that in my mind I had turned prayer into something that I had to do in order to get God to love me, or in order to get God to bless the work that I did. So of course, my head went whizzy. Prayer had become a big pressure: I had to pray right, in the right way, for the right time, for the right things. And if I didn’t pray right then things would not go well or God would not be pleased with me.

And then one morning, lying in bed, I had this sudden thought. It was so counter-intuitive and yet so simple, so right and so releasing that it had to come from God. It was the thought that if I never prayed another prayer in my life he would still love me and he would still bless the work.

And instantly I was set free to pray - because prayer stopped being a burden that I had to do and was rather a response to God who first loved me.

 

I had turned prayer from something that was a gift of God’s mercy, into a sacrifice that I had to give God

 

If we turn Christianity into something that is all about sacrifice; if we think that we have to earn God's love, then we will end up either being crushed because we know we cannot do it, or we become become proud and judgemental of others, because we think we have done it.

 

We've followed the rules. We have come regularly to worship and communion. We've given our tithe. We’ve followed the regulations of the church. We are somebody in the church or in the community.  

And we begin to think that we are better than others.

And we think that because we have done it, others should also do it.

We become judgemental.

 

We forget that we are sinners who have been saved by grace, and who are being saved by grace. And we begin to look down on others.

 

To learn what it means when Jesus says that God desires mercy and sacrifice begins when we recognise that we have first received mercy.

 

Paul in Romans’ lists a whole load of sins that the pagans commit: having talked about sexual sin, of how our desires are twisted, and how we abuse our own bodies and the bodies of others, he goes on to talk about envy, murder, strife, deceit, gossip, slander, hating God, rebellion against all authority, ruthlessness. He says that the pagans know that these things are wrong, but still do them and applaud others who do them.

But then he continues, and turns to his listeners, to the people in the Church. 'Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things'.

 

Have you noticed that the things that another person does that really wind you up, are often the things that you do and that you hate in yourself.

 

Jesus tells the story of the person who tries to take a speck of dust out of another’s eye while having a plank of wood in their own.

 

Never think that you are superior to the person who you might consider to be a sinner.

Indeed, if you are shocked by their sin, by their weakness, by their cruelty, by their lusts and desires, by their inhumanity - you do not know yourself well enough.

 

John Stott, who was an Anglican priest, an immensely godly man and a world-renowned teacher was, on one occasion, introduced to an audience he was about to speak to. The person spoke of him in glowing terms, of his achievements and of his godliness. At the end, John Stott thanked him, but then said to the audience. ‘If you could look into my heart, you would spit in my face’.

 

Before you stand over another person in judgement, look deep into yourself. Look beyond the image of niceness that we portray to others and to ourselves and see the seething snakepit of the fears and angers, the hatreds and grudges, which are here – in our heart – and which from time to time flare up through the niceness.

Perhaps you might be someone who has begun to realise that if others could look into your heart, they would spit in your face.

 

But then you realise that there is one who can look into your heart. And he has seen the cesspit that is deep within. And he is perfect. And if anyone could spit in our face, he would be that person.

But he does not spit in our face. Instead, he looks at us with deep impassioned love: not a love that is blind to our sin, but a love which would set us free from our sin. He looks at us with a love that says if I have to die to set you free from sin, then I will.

 

I was talking with someone this week who was saying to me that, as Christians, most of our values are shared by other religions. But there is one value that is unique to Christianity, and that is the value of forgiveness.

To receive forgiveness or to show forgiveness in most cultures and in most religions is a sign of weakness.

But forgiveness is at the heart of the Christian faith - and it is first about us receiving mercy, forgiveness, from God

Romans 5.10: 'God shows his love for us in this. It was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us'.

 

If we are to begin to learn what it means when God says, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice', then we need to begin to realise that we can stand tall before God only because of God's love and mercy for us.

 

I always thought that the purpose of the spiritual disciplines: daily prayer, regular worship, fasting, giving – was to make us spiritually strong.

No. The purpose of the spiritual disciplines is to call us back to the truth – daily – that we are dependent not on our own works but on the love of God

They are there to bring us back to that child like trust in and dependence on the God who loves us.

 

And it is as we realise that: that everything we have is of God’s grace and mercy, and as we throw ourselves completely on him, as we deny ourselves, and trust him - that we will be released to show mercy to others.

We will look at others in a different way

And in our weakness and emptiness and brokenness and vulnerability we will throw ourselves on the mercy of God

 

And that is when the miracles will happen.

 

Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice.  

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