A sermon on Genesis 12:1-9 & Matthew 9:9-13, 18-26 by Nathan Nettleton
Have you ever noticed how when Hollywood attempts to film any of the biblical stories they go all funny. In movies like “The Greatest Story ever Told” which still seems to get repeated every Easter, the actors all sound like they’re trying to do Shakespeare or something. They do these strange speeches in weird voices with a sort of dreamy, over-dramatic affectedness. Hollywood seems unable to bring itself to tell the biblical stories the way the Bible tells them, in a street-level, warts and all kind of way. When the New Testament was written there were three major languages in use in the Roman empire. Latin, the language of politics and power; classical Greek, the language of literature and culture; and Koine Greek or common Greek, the language of the street and workplace. The New Testament writings were all written in Koine Greek, the sort of language spoken in the pubs, on the factory floor, round the dinner table. It was as different from Classical Greek as the way you and I speak is from Shakespearian English.
What the Hollywood over dramatisings do, and what the tendency among some Christians too keep using old translations like the King James Version of the Bible does, is to keep masking the fact that the stories in the Bible are usually about pretty ordinary people. Woefully ordinary people at times. The last people on earth you would have imagined were ever going to make it on to the lists of the heroes of the faith.
Take Matthew for example. We don’t know a great deal about Matthew, which is probably lucky for Matthew, because even the little we do know is not good. Matthew was a tax collector. A reasonably respectable profession in our day, but in his it meant he was a lacky for the Roman occupation forces in Judea. It is not surprise that tax-collectors are consistently portrayed as the lowest of the low in the gospel accounts. Traitors. Collaborators in the oppression of their own people. Cheats and swindlers of the widows and orphans. Matthew was a tax-collector. Perhaps today he’d have been a travel agent organising child-sex tours, or a strategist for the gambling industry putting three times as many pokies in the western suburbs as in the wealthier eastern suburbs. Actually that’s probably the closer equivalent, taxing the poor for the benefit of the rich.
Out of all of the possible choices for a disciple, why would Jesus have chosen Matthew? Don’t bother wondering about it for too long. The Bible hardly ever explains the choices God makes, it just reports them. God’s choices are unfathomable – and they are usually just as unfathomable to those who have been chosen!
What about Abraham and Sarah? Nothing too special about these two. Abraham was fairly successful in his business life – he was pretty wealthy. But his family life was mostly a mess. And Sarah was just as screwed up. We don’t have time to go into all their family problems here but perhaps a couple of edited highlights will give the picture. Apparently Sarah was a fairly gorgeous sort of a woman and Abraham kept panicking that someone would knock him off to get their hands on her, so on a couple of occasions he tried to pass her off as his sister, which only made things worse because then then every hormonally driven male in the area thought she was fair game. Later in life a fair bit of tension developed between them over their inability to have children and at one stage in desperation for a child, Sarah suggested that Abraham bonk the servant girl Hagar. Despite a promise from God for a child by Sarah, Abraham jumped at the chance of a bit of loin gratification with the servant girl. Then when Hagar got pregnant and had a son, Sarah got jealous and started knocking her around until she got jack of it and left the house. Let’s just say that Abraham and Sarah’s family saga would make quite a soap opera if you could just stop the actors from putting on the funny voices!
Why on earth would God choose Sarah and Abraham? Not only choose them, but guarantee that they would be a source of blessing for the entire world? Once again, don’t bother wondering. God’s choices are unfathomable – especially to those who have been chosen!
The thing that seems to be a clear pattern is that God doesn’t pick out the especially worthy or the especially pure. God seems to pick out people who are ordinary, often even ordinary to the point of pathetic. People with just as many marital and family problems, personal failings and skeletons in the closet as anybody else. People whose past lives are not all that unsullied and pure, people whose lives up to that point show little or no potential for future contribution. Ordinary garden-variety folk. Folk much like us.
Maybe God just likes a challenge. Maybe God uses utterly ordinary people so that when we see that extraordinary things that God is able to do through them, we’ll know it was God and therefore that there’s hope for us too!
Maybe God’s saying, “You see Mary Smith there, just an ordinary school teacher, grinding away trying to get a classroom full of rampant testosterone driven teenagers to take an interest in contemporary linguistic theory. Just wait to see what I can do with her when I touch her with my love and call her to follow me. Mary Smith and Jesus, now there’s a world changing team.”
“You see Joe Bloggs over there, just another mid-life male losing touch with his kids and with a tenuous grip on sobriety much of the time. Just wait to see what I can do with him when I stand in his path and call him to give up all the sham and abandon himself to the wind of the Spirit.”
This God is unstoppable. There is no-one who is so far gone and so screwed up that God’s love can’t reach them and transform them into unbelievably different people. I’m not saying that if you follow Christ’s call that all your problems will be over and that life will be all beer and skittles from here on in. I’m sure Matthew had plenty of days when he thought he’d have been better off back in the tax office in front of his computer than traipsing around the countryside with a maverick rabbi who was getting death threats from the department of internal affairs.
But what I am saying is that if you will turn from the idolatries of money, image and power, and follow the one who said that all that matters is loving God, yourself and others, then there is no telling how significant a contribution you may find yourself making to the future of this planet and its inhabitants.
If Jesus can take a slimy, scum-of-the-earth low-life like Matthew and turn him into one of the founders of the church, then what can he do with you? All Matthew had to do was stand up, walk out of the office, stumble along after Jesus and see what happened from there.
If God can take a cynical old sour-puss bitch like Sarah and a bumbling, lecherous, brain-dead old dill like Abraham and make them the source of blessing to all the world, then what can God do with you?