Have You Been Changed By Christmas?
Dr. Jim Denison
Time magazine recently named SpaceShipOne the “Coolest Invention of 2004.” This is the privately built and operated aircraft that made world headlines when it traveled into space last October. Now its inventors are planning to be in the space-tourism business by 2007. All with a craft which fits in your two-car garage. Perhaps you cannot afford to give the $190,000 flight as a Christmas gift. But don’t despair. Here are other presents you might consider:
The “Bambino” is a newly-created watermelon about the size of a cantaloupe. It took ten years to breed, and is sweeter than its larger cousin. Think of it—a watermelon stocking stuffer.
The “Jawbone” is an electronic device which attaches to your cell phone. Its sensor picks up vibrations emitting from your head when you speak, making for clearer calls. At least that’s the theory.
You can now buy a television which becomes a mirror when it is turned off; a ski watch which contains a GPS tracker, barometer, altimeter, compass, and (also) a clock; and a motorized crib which rocks for a minute if the baby in it cries for 30 seconds.
How many would change your life? Well, the last one probably would. But how many of the Christmas gifts you receive this year will actually change your life in demonstrable ways?
Will Christmas? If it doesn’t, it wasn’t really Christmas. That’s my thesis today. Let’s see if I can prove it to you.
This year we’re sharing Christmas with Matthew. We’ll begin with a message on “The Gospel According to Matthew.” I’ve never preached a sermon on the title of a book before. But then you’ve probably not heard one, either. Here’s the story which makes the title a sermon. And here’s the important question I’ll ask when we’re done: is this your story?
Matthew before Jesus
Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us how our subject came to follow Jesus. Let’s set out what they say:
“As Jesus went on from there [after healing the paralytic], 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” (Matthew 9:9).
Once again Jesus went out beside the lake. A large crowd came to him, and he began to teach them. As he walked along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax collector’s booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus told him, and Levi got up and followed him” (Mark 2:13-14).
“After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:27-28).
From these accounts we learn that Matthew had two names, both of them ironic. “Levi” was the priestly tribe of his nation. And “Matthew” meant “gift of God.” The people of his community would not have found the joke to be funny.
Matthew was a tax collector. In the ancient world, this profession was considered the most profane and immoral work a man could do.
Cicero listed as the two worst trades in the Roman Empire, a tax-collector and a lender (or banker) (De Officiis 1, 42). Lucian listed among those destined for hell the adulterers and tax-collectors (Menippus II).
And the Jews despised tax-collectors even more than did the Romans. These men were cheating traitors. Rome employed them to tax their own neighbors for the hated Empire, making them turncoats and traitors against their own people. Even worse, the government allowed them to demand as much taxation as they wished with the full support of the military, making them thieves.
Matthew could stop people anywhere, examined their possessions, and assessed whatever taxes he wished. If his victim could not pay what Matthew required, he could loan the money at an impossible rate of interest. It is no wonder that the New Testament ranks tax-collectors with gentiles (Matthew 18:17), harlots (Matthew 21.31-33), and sinners (Matthew 9:10-11; 11.19; Mark 2:15-16; Luke 5:30; 7:34; 15:1).
Matthew did his extortion in Capernaum, a fishing village on the northern coast of the Sea of Galilee. Capernaum was Jesus’ headquarters when in Galilee, so Matthew must have heard him preach and teach often. The Holy Spirit was obviously at work in his heart and soul. And so when the great call came, he was ready.
Here’s the good news: if Christmas could change him, it can change us.
Matthew following Jesus
Of all the disciples, I think Matthew gave up the most initially to follow Jesus. Luke’s account says that he “got up, left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:28). What did he leave and lose?
He left his career. Positions such as Matthew held were so lucrative that they were difficult to acquire, and guarded zealously by those who held them. Once Matthew abandoned his post, he could have no hope of ever regaining it. Unlike Peter, James, and John, who easily returned to their fishing trade (John 21:3), Matthew had to leave his profession forever.
With his career he left his wealth. He may well have been the richest person in his city, as Zacchaeus the tax-collector probably was in his (Luke 19:8). But what money he took with him was put into the disciples’ common treasury (John 13:29), with no hope of making more. Matthew abandoned both his position and the wealth it brought him.
And he risked his security and even his life as well. Tax-collectors were despised by their fellow citizens, as we have seen. They were protected by the Roman militia so long as they served the Empire at their post, but were fair game for taunts and ridicule when they ventured into society. For instance, remember Zacchaeus’s treatment at the hands of the people of Jericho (Luke 19:3, 7). And if they abandoned their position entirely, they forsook any protection Rome might give to them.
By following Jesus, Matthew left his career, his possessions, and risked even his life. But he considered the Christ of Christmas to be worth all of that. When he met him, he found the forgiveness, love, purpose, and joy he had searched for all his life. And he left his old life behind forever.
If Christmas could change him like that, it can change us like that.
Matthew serving Jesus
Christmas changed Matthew not just at the time, but for all time. As soon as he became Jesus’ disciple, he began sharing his faith. In fact, he was the first apostle in the gospel records to do this. Luke tells us that the first thing Matthew did as a disciple of Jesus was hold a party at his house for the only friends he had—fellow tax-collectors and outcasts—and invite Jesus to come. All so they could experience the forgiving grace and joy he had found.
Later he recorded the teachings of his Savior for the world to read. He gave us the Sermon on the Mount and other teaching sections which are at the heart of the Christian faith. For as long as people open the New Testament at its beginning, Matthew’s ministry continues.
Still later he engaged in global missions. According to early tradition, Matthew first preached the gospel in Judea among his fellow Jews. He later preached in Ethiopia, Persia, Parthia, and Macedonia. The Jewish Talmud records the tradition that he was condemned to death by the Sanhedrin and martyred for his faith, perhaps in Ethiopia. We know that Matthew was faithful to Jesus in his life, and by his death.
Along the way, he extended the love and grace of Jesus to his own family. This is an amazing part of the story.
“James son of Alphaeus” was another of Jesus’ disciples (Matthew 10:3). Most scholars believe that he was also Matthew’s brother. And that he had been a Zealot, an insurgent or terrorist against Rome.
No one in all of Palestine would be more despised by the Zealots than the tax-collectors, those traitors who stole from their own countrymen for the sake of the hated Empire. And so it seems likely that James and Matthew had been estranged from each other, probably for their entire adult lives. One worked for the government, while the other plotted its overthrow.
But the Christ of Christmas changed all of that. He turned a despised tax collector into an evangelist, a gospel writer, a global missionary, and a family healer. The joy of meeting Jesus so transformed his life that it changed his world.
If Christmas could change him like that, it can change us like that.
At Christmas the Son of God became a baby, born to a peasant teenage girl and her carpenter husband. He was laid in a feed trough in a cave, and worshipped by wondering field hands and shepherds. And the world has never been the same. We divide history into B.C. (before Christ) and A.D. (anno Domini, the “year of our Lord”). His birth changed everything.
But has it changed you? Has Jesus visited your tax-collecting booth? Have you heard him say, “Follow me”? Everyone in Galilee believed he existed; not everyone left their old life beyond to follow him personally. Have you? Do you know that you know him?
Has Christmas changed you recently? Have you met Jesus in a real and personal way in recent days? Have you made time just for him in this, the season of his birth? Have you given him the gift he wants most: your personal worship, prayer, listening spirit, and obedient heart?
Have his joy and purpose made you an evangelist, a gospel carrier, a global Christian, a missionary to your own family? How is your life really different from those of your non-Christian friends? When was the last time an experience with the Christ of Christmas so transformed you that anyone else noticed?
You know the story: Michaelangelo found an abandoned piece of marble at the city dump. It had been rejected by every sculptor who examined it. But Michelangelo saw obscured in the marble’s flaws the image and statue of King David. And soon, so did the rest of the world.
What the artist did for the marble, Christmas did for Matthew. Will it for you this year?