Topical Scripture: Matthew 9:9-13
I was born on May 20, 1958. My parents were married in April and had me in May–it was the next May, but Dad didn’t tell people that, which made Mom mad.
Janet was born the next November 11. I’ve always been grateful to her parents for arranging her birth on Veterans’ Day, so the entire nation could celebrate and her future husband could be reminded of her birthday.
How much did you have to do with your birth? With its circumstances? With its date?
Nations are different. On this day 234 years ago, at 2:00 in the afternoon in the city of Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress of England’s 13 colonies in the New World declared themselves to be the United States of America. They did so by affirming a Declaration of Independence which has become our nation’s most treasured document.
For years the colonies had struggled with England’s King George III over what they called “taxation without representation.” Finally they gave up; in May of 1776 they appointed delegates to their Second Continental Congress to pursue independence. On June 11, they formed a committee to create a formal “Declaration of Independence.”
They appointed a Virginia delegate named Thomas Jefferson to head the committee. The other members were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston and Roger Sherman. On June 28, Mr. Jefferson presented his first draft to the Congress. They made 86 changes before adopting it on July 4.
The next day, copies were given to the public. On July 6, the Pennsylvania Evening Post printed it for the world to see. On July 8, the Liberty Bell was sounded in Independence Hall as citizens gathered to hear the first public reading of the Declaration.
The most famous document in American history begins:
When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
These words birthed the nation whose birthday we celebrate today.
Democracy requires morality
But the Declaration rests on a stronger, much older foundation–the morality of the citizens who adopted it.
In his farewell address (September 19, 1796), President George Washington told the nation: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. . . . Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.”
John Adams, our second president, claimed that “the general principles on which the fathers achieved independence were the general principles of Christianity.” He stated, “Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited. What a Eutopia, what a Paradise would this region be.”
Thomas Jefferson, our third president and principal author of the Declaration, was not a biblical Christian. He cut from the Bible every reference to the miraculous, and viewed Jesus as only a man. But he insisted, “Injustice in government undermines the foundations of a society. A nation, therefore, must take measures to encourage its members along the paths of justice and morality.”
Abraham Lincoln said of the Bible, “Nothing short of infinite wisdom could by any possibility have devised and given to man this excellent and perfect moral code. It is suited to men in all the conditions of life, and inculcates all the duties they owe to their Creator, to themselves, and to their fellow men.”
The greatest need in America is for her people to experience a great spiritual renewal. More people are coming to Christ than ever before in history: 82,000 a day, according to one expert. South Korea is one-third to one-half Christian; there have been a million new Christians in Cuba the last ten years. I was in Beijing in May, where I learned that the People’s Republic of China may be the largest Christian nation on earth.
But of the 82,000 documented by that expert, only 6,000 are in Europe and North America, combined. In Great Britain, four times as many Muslims go to mosque on Friday as Christians go to church on Sunday. In 30 years, France will be a Muslim-majority nation.
In America, the number of atheists and agnostics has quadrupled in the last two years. There are twice as many atheists in our country as Episcopalians. We celebrate political liberty–our great need is for spiritual liberty.
Jesus creates morality
In that regard, we’ll hear today the story of Matthew.
We’ve been discussing Jesus’ miracles this summer. We’ve watched him heal angry storms and diseased bodies. Today we’ll see the greatest miracle of all, when he healed a soul. Bodies would get sick again; storms would return again; but Matthew would never be the same.
From our text we learn that Jesus knew Matthew’s past.
“As Jesus went on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth” (v. 9a). Why does the Bible tell us where the man was sitting? What difference does that fact make?
All the difference in the world. Tax collectors were the most hated, despised people in the ancient Roman Empire. When Rome conquered a people, they found someone living in their midst who would betray his community for a price. They hired him to collect taxes for them, with the promise that he could keep anything he collected so long as he gave them their cut.
So Matthew was tax collector in Capernaum, the major city in that part of the world. He taxed fishermen on their boats, and nets, and the fish they caught. He taxed them on the carts with which they took the fish to market, on the wheels of the cart, and on the roads they used. He taxed them on the tables they used to show their fish. He taxed them on their houses and clothes. And there was nothing they could do about it, because the Roman soldiers in the area protected him.
Imagine that the Nazis captured your Jewish town in Poland, and one of your Jewish neighbors went to work collecting their taxes and stealing your money. That was Matthew. He had collected taxes from Peter and Jesus’ other disciples, and probably from our Lord as well. Jesus certainly knew his past.
Jesus called him in the present: “‘Follow me,’ he told him” (v. 9b). This was the official invitation of a rabbi to join his school, something like a college acceptance letter. And not just to any school–to join the disciples of the most popular and powerful rabbi their people had ever seen. This was an acceptance letter to Harvard or Stanford.
And Jesus used him in the future.
“While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and ‘sinners’ came and ate with him and his disciples” (v. 10). Through Matthew, Jesus was able to share his love with people he could never have known.
Then Matthew told us the story in the gospel that bears his name. Since the New Testament was first completed and organized, his gospel has always stood first. Since it was written for the Jews and quotes the Old Testament more than the other three gospels combined, it was seen as the best bridge from the Old Testament to the New. So, for centuries those who open the New Testament find first the words of this converted tax collector.
What Jesus did for him, he did for me.
I was born physically on May 20, 1958. I was born spiritually on September 9, 1973. Some friends had invited me to their church in Houston, where I heard the gospel of God’s love and came to accept its truth.
On that Sunday, my Sunday school teacher led me to ask Jesus to forgive my sins and become my Lord. On that day I became the child of God. He knew my past, called me in the present, and would use me in the future.
The same is true for you. Jesus knows your past; he calls you in the present; he will use you for eternity. He is part of your life or Lord of your life?
Today we celebrate the Declaration of Independence and the freedom it proclaims. Here is how the most famous document in American history concludes:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do. — And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
Let us join them.