Jesus meets us wherever we are but promises to never leave us there.
We’re talking about this idea of step and moving with faith. When it gets moving, something happens. What I want us to consider and see within this final segment of this theme, is that Jesus has this ability to come to us, to meet us where we are. What’s amazing about Jesus, is that He has the ability in a room and gathering such as ours, to meet us where we are. We might have many, many different stories, paths, and different ways in which we have entered this building. Yet He has the ability to meet every single one of us uniquely, where we are. He promised never to leave us there. He comes to us to meet us where we are. But He promises never to leave us there. This is so important for us.
In fact, this idea that He has the ability to move into our space to meet with us, and then to call us out of that place of the known, touches on the comfort zone. The decision that is laid at our feet is whether or not we are willing to leave what we know to follow Him. This comfort zone, every single one of us has one. Some of us might feel more adventurous, and that’s our comfort zone. Others of us may be a little bit more safe and conservative in terms of what we’re willing to experience. That might be our comfort zone. But every single one of us has one. This term was actually coined in 1908 by two psychologists, Robert M. Yerkes, and John D. Dobson. They’re the ones who discovered this reality that humanity operates in a zone in which they can take, assume, and rely on certain things and routines. They can rely on certain factors of their environment that creates stability.
What they discovered is that within a relative comfort zone, they can have relatively good steady performance. If you define your comfort zone in that place, people have the ability to perform at a certain cadence that is relatively steady. But as he continued to experiment and study this idea of the human psyche in relation to the environments they were in, they discovered something else, known as optimal anxiety. They said, “Yes, it’s true comfort zones create steady levels of performance, but we’ve discovered that if you add a little bit of anxiety, you toss a variable in there. You question whether or not certain things can be assumed and something happens to the brain. It awakens with levels of creativity that weren’t present before. Resourcefulness starts to come to the surface. There’s an ability to problem solve at a heightened level.”
Also, they said, “If we tip the scales towards anxiety, but not too much, that’s paralytic.” We know that. It says, “But if you just add a little bit of anxiety, bring them to the edge of their comfort zone, have them just step outside of it, we discovered that is where optimal growth and maximization of potential occurs.” Optimal anxiety is where growth occurs. Just outside of one’s comfort zone. It means that pushing too hard isn’t healthy. Inherently, faith will call us to step outside of what we defined to be safe and comfortable. It’s there that we discovered the reality that we love our routines and familiar settings. Maybe this is why traveling is such a privilege, a luxury that we can enjoy. It does something to us. It exposes us to other cultures, other ways of being, other ways of thinking, where epiphanies occur. This is why when we change the environment or the way we do things, something occurs within us.
It expands us, we feel it. It strengthens us. It increases our ability to see the horizon a little differently. I thought about this because this is exactly what faith is all about. I remember this first occurring to me when I was younger. I was in my early 20s, around 21, 22 years old. I had just started serving a couple of years prior to that in our youth ministry. I remember that the person who was leading our youth ministry had a burden, a desire to have these teens explore and expand beyond their comfort zones. We would go to different experiences. We would serve in different ministries in the city, in the inner city, in the Bay Area. She would have us interact with different peoples and cultures and do things to expand our horizons. I got to be a part of that because I was part of the team. She ended up saying, “You know what? Why don’t we go to Mexico and do a mission trip?” I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
I got to be the translator because I spoke Spanish. They said, “You can do it. We trust what you say, you won’t make things up.” I said, “All right.” So I became the translator. I remember going there the first year and meeting the person that was appointed to us. What would happen is this organization would bring in about 1000 students all over America into Baja California, Ensenada, Tijuana, and different parts of Mexico. We would serve there. Students would gather together. We’d have our meals together in the morning and in the evening. During the day, we’d go to different churches, organizations, rehab centers, and community gatherings where we could do things. Some of the things we would do is create a program for the students, the children VBS, or Vacation Bible School. We would make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or soup and hand it out to different people.
We’d create soccer games and things like that. We were assigned to a man named pastor Javier. He had a rehab center. He had a real tender heart for people. The first year we got there, I was really excited. Our students jumped in and we had a great week of being able to experience this different culture. Though I knew the language, I didn’t know the culture. The second year, we understood what we were expected to do. We felt a lot more confident stepping into this environment. We went ahead and served. The third year, the person who was in charge of our group said, “You know what? We’re getting a little bit complacent. We already know what to expect. So, I think I’m going to ask Pastor Javier to branch us out a little bit.” She says, “I want you to have a conversation with me the first day we get there.”
Okay, we get there, she says, “Pastor Javier, we’ve been doing this for two years, is there anything that we could do that’s a little outside of the ordinary? I want these students to still experience this.” He says, “You know what? Yeah, there’s something. A lot of groups do what you do, which is great. But if you want to do something that very few do, there is a local landfill and people who live there. No one really goes to them. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to go there.” I’m translating this. I heard this and double-checked with him. I said, “Are you saying that people live where all the garbage from Ensenada goes?” He says, “Yes, those are the people they’ve got. That is the bottom of the bottom because they have lost everything. That is the only destination they can go to.” I said, “Wow!” Here’s the thing about it. I remember discovering something about myself when he was saying this.
I didn’t know this about myself because I was a bachelor sharing a house with other bachelors. You wouldn’t know this if you stepped into my house. But I appreciated being cleaned. I liked sanitation. Part of me started feeling nervous. I was okay with a mess because well, I knew what was in the mess. I was okay with messy people because I was friends with a messy person, even if it was the person in the mirror. I remember feeling this comfort level with what messes look like. When I started being told, “You know what? I want you to come and bring these students to this landfill.” I started getting a little bit anxious. I translate and she says, “That’s great. Let’s do it.” I translated, “She says that’s great. Let’s do it.” We move on and I start getting more nervous. I start thinking, “What are we going to do? What are we going to give these people? These people live in the poorest of conditions.
We don’t have enough money. It’s what they need. We have no ability to give them housing. Clearly, that’s what they need. Our sandwiches and soup. What are we going to give them?” I still went back to this place of feeling unsafe in those environments. I said to Pastor Javier, I said, “Pastor Javier, let me ask you something. In America, in the landfills, they organize the garbage. Do they do that here?” I’m hoping against hope. He looked at me funny. Almost as if, “What! He says, “No. What! No. Organize garbage? No. They throw it away there. Sometimes they burn some of it.” I said, “Oh!” That didn’t help me. So then he says, “I was there a couple of weeks ago, if you want to see some pictures of some stuff, you want to see what it looks like?” I thought, “Yeah, that’s going to help me. Give me some known factors.” So he showed me the pictures. That didn’t help me. It made it worse.
I started asking, “Pastor Javier, what are we going to give them? What are we going to do? I can’t control how the students are going to respond.” He goes, “No, I want you to do exactly what you’ve been doing everywhere else, I want you to do it here. Have the students organize what they’ve been doing. You lead songs and provide them with sandwiches and soup. I want you, Luis, I want you to talk to them about Jesus.” I said, “Okay, wait, I’m the translator, so you’re supposed to talk to them about Jesus and I’m supposed to let the Americans know what you’re saying.” So, he said, “No, no, they need you to tell them.” I said, “I’m 22, what am I going to say? You know my home, I can’t. What am I supposed to say?”
“Well, Luis, I want you to think about what Jesus has done in your life and tell them that.” We showed up three days later. The students come and play soccer. They do this program, they feed them and people start coming out of the garbage. You start to see the silhouette of their homes. It is heartbreaking. I think, “Man, I just want to give you everything. But if we gave you everything, that still wouldn’t be enough.” We do everything we do, and we sing the songs. It was time and Pastor Javier says, “Now I want you all to know that God has sent this group of people from San Francisco to you. He has asked Luis to speak to you.” In my head, I said, “No, you have asked me to speak to them. I’m not sure it’s God yet.” He has me come up.
I said, “Okay. All I can tell you is that Jesus met me where I was at. He met me in the shape I was in, in the place I was in, in the mental state I was in. He met me where I was at, He embraced me, loved me, and accepted me. I can tell you that.” What I can tell you is that it’s been five years, and He hasn’t left me there. He has not left me there. He’s taken me out of that place. He’s leading me out of that place. That’s what I can tell you. I realized as I was saying it to a group of people that I felt powerless to help, that I actually believed this. Jesus can do what no other person can do, which is to address the deepest need of the human heart. Something rather beautiful happened after that. A wife came forward asking us teenagers and leaders if we could pray for her husband? A son came forward and asked, could we pray for his father. A girl came forward and said, “Can you pray for my family.”
We did the best we could. We prayed for them. We had very emotional moments with them. We walked away feeling like I don’t know if we did enough. We clearly didn’t do enough. We need to do more. But what can we do? I don’t know if we can undertake this project. I don’t know if we could do this. But we did the best we could. We went and talked with Pastor Javier. That was the final day we were there. The next day we drove home. All of us were impacted by this amazing experience. The following year, more people decided we wanted to go to Mexico. We go and talk to Pastor Javier. I said, “Pastor Javier, do you remember last year we went to the landfill?” He said, “Yes, I remember.” I said, “That was amazing. Do you do that with a lot of groups?” He said, “Oh, yeah, yeah. I take every group I possibly can there.”
I thought that’s funny because you told me very few people go to the landfills.” He says, “Very few people do. But I keep telling them that God so loves them that though their neighbors may not come to them, God keeps sending people from America to go to them to tell them that He loves them.” I said, “Wow!” He said, “I’ll tell you what Luis. Look, American churches, they send a lot of resources, they send a lot of clothing, a lot of food, a lot of money. That’s not the issue, that’s not what we need. What they need is to understand that they have gotten to the worst place in their life, but they don’t have to stay there. What they need is internal motivation and hope that allows them to realize they can move out of that place. You and your groups keep talking about this Jesus that is able to do what nothing else can do. No food, no clothing, no shelter, no job, nothing can give them the internal drive to move beyond what they know. Only Jesus can do that.” He said, “So, you remember that guy you met and we prayed for?” “Yeah.” “He’s now a part of our church community, he’s transitioning. He’s part of the rehab center. Remember that girl that we prayed for?” “Yeah, that’s her family. There’s stuff moving because there’s been a larger conversation that I’ve been having with them, that God has been having with them, and you got to be a part of it.” This is what I realized. I realized I was uncomfortable. I was shy, I was nervous. I was feeling incapable. But all the while, God was already there just asking me, “Will you go beyond your comfort and recognize what I’m doing?” This is why I love when Jesus interacts with people in the gospels. What He does to us helps us recognize he meets us where we are. He will always challenge us to step out as we put our trust in Him. In fact, if you open up your handout, we’ll take a look at this excerpt from this man’s life.
His name is Matthew. He wrote this gospel account. He’s writing about himself in the third person, but he’s writing about the first time he interacts with Jesus. We’re told in verse nine, that as Jesus was walking along, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth. Jesus said to him, “Follow me and be my disciple.” Matthew got up and followed Him. On the surface, it might seem like an amazing interaction in one sentence. That was enough, but in reality, this is Matthew’s way of summarizing a conversation that occurred. What we have to understand is that this conversation was in the midst of a cultural context that unless we appreciate it, we may miss actually what was going on. Matthew identified himself as a tax collector. What that means in his day, is that he was one of the most despised people groups of his day. He was a member of a tribe of people, the Israelites, who were oppressed by Rome.
Tax collectors in many ways were seen as traitors to their own people. They would team up with the Roman force, extract resources out of their own people, and send them back to the Emperor. That in itself would be bad enough. But a lot of times what tax collectors would do is they would recognize an opportunity. They would not only ask for what Rome was requiring. They would increase the taxes so that they could collect for Rome, but also enrich themselves while striking their neighbors poor. This was untenable. They were despised because of this. So when Jesus steps into the scene, and He goes to the tax collector’s booth, and looks at Matthew. He invites Matthew to follow Him. It’s not necessarily the same way we would think about it. It’s not. Listen, “Can you follow me, I want to show you something.” It’s not that.
It’s actually something of a cultural distinction in which rabbis and teachers had a practice in which they would come to people they saw potential in and they would say to them, “Listen, will you be part of an apprenticeship with me? Will you become my student? My way of life will be what you start to learn when you do that.” Which was a statement of value for the student, but it wasn’t just a statement of value for the student. The rabbis and teachers were always judged. Their reputation and quality were always judged on the quality of the student. The rabbis’ level of acceptance and admiration was always connected to the potential and fruition of the one they taught. So when Jesus goes to Matthew, the tax collector, embraces and accepts him, and then says, “Will you become a part of a relationship with me? “I believe in you. I believe in you. Not only do I believe in Matthew, I put my reputation on you. I believe I can trust you with that.” It was a statement of enormous worth.
Matthew understands exactly what’s happening. We’re talking in verse 10, that later, Matthew invited Jesus and His disciples to his home as dinner guests, along with many tax collectors and other disreputable sinners. It’s Matthew’s way of saying that he understood exactly what was happening and in his own way he wanted to return the gesture of embrace. The crowd Matthew is used to running with does not have the best reputation. In fact, you would say they have creative underground economic systems. That is how they operate. They’re made up of the marginalized of society. The ones who are despised and not seen as worthy. That would be Matthews group. The sense you get is that Matthew is accustomed to hosting gatherings, we would call them parties. Matthew does something remarkable. He decides he’s going to invite all of his tax collector friends, and others that are disreputable. That’s to say, they’re a little bit worse. He’s going to host them in his house. He’s going to say, “Now Jesus, I want you to come through.”
The way this works is that what Matthew is doing, is that if Jesus vouched for Matthew’s worth, Matthew is vouching for Jesus before his friends, which is an amazing statement, that Jesus was not seen as a threat by Matthew and his friends. It’s almost as if Matthew is saying, “I vouch for Him. I trust Him. I trust Him to treat you all as human beings and to be kind to you.” He hosts this gathering. We’re told that this party, this effort, this statement of Matthew vouching for Jesus to accept him there, in that environment ends up causing somewhat of a stir. The house party would be no different than what Matthew probably was accustomed to doing Friday nights; everyone goes to Matthew’s house. This is what happens. In his community, this was what was known. You could hear the music and songs, you could hear the ruckus of the crowd. But what was different about this time, is now Jesus was there. A man who is regarded as holy, who was given reverence, and elevated in society.
This bothered some people. We’re told in verse 11, that when Jesus heard this and the Pharisees (the religious leaders of their day) saw this, they asked His disciples a shocking question. “Why does your teacher eat with such scum?” It’s a statement that is shocking in its nature. Here’s what we can guess. I think it’s doubtful that Matthew invited the Pharisees to the house party. I think it would be doubtful that he would say, “Hey, guys, come let’s hang out, let’s do what we normally do. Jesus is coming. By the way, religious leaders who hate us come through, we’re good.” What’s more likely, is that word spread. Word spread like wildfire in a small, tight-knit community. All of a sudden, this man who was coming speaking about God was hanging out at Matthew’s house. When the religious leaders heard about this, they had a problem with this. “Well, this contradicts everything. Does He not know his kind, our kind doesn’t hang out with Matthew and his kind. This doesn’t happen. He’s violating cultural norms here.”
They go to His students who would know Jesus better than anyone else. They ask “Why is he having dinner?” Here’s the word, with such scum. They are not even worthy of being regarded as people. Which we would say, that’s the result of religious dogma. That’s fair. But I would say it’s a result of human nature. Because we’re reading this account now. 2000 years have moved, in the midst of a culture in which certain viewpoints mean they’re no longer human. If we disagree with each other, we’re no longer capable of having an honest dialogue with humility and mutual understanding. Now, you are less. This happens in religious circles. Sure. It happens in secular circles. It happens in scientific circles. It happens in political circles, where the discourse publicly lowers itself to a pitched battle. All of a sudden, one’s conviction becomes a point of elevating them above the other forgetting they’re human. Into that environment, Jesus steps in. What He says is remarkable.
We’re told in verse 12, that when Jesus heard this, He said, “Listen, they misunderstand what I’m doing. Healthy people don’t need a doctor, sick people do. He added, “Now go and learn the meaning of the scripture. I want you to show mercy. Tell them this, I want you to show mercy not offer sacrifices. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous.” It’s an interesting phrase. “But those who know they are sinners.” Jesus could have said a lot, but what He chose to say is penetrating. I love how G. Campbell Morgan said it. This is what he’s saying that Jesus is trying to articulate. “Go and learn what the heart of God is. Go and find out that according to your own writings, God is far more anxious to have mercy than He is to receive any offering that a man may give Him. When you have learned this, then you will understand why I sit down with publicans, that is tax collectors and sinners, why I recline and eat with them.”
You understand the heartbeat of God is dominated by mercy. Jesus, when He’s on the move, you know what He does? He makes us uncomfortable. He calls us to join Him in that space. This is what I love about Him. Do you know what He does to us, what he did to Matthew, what He did even to the Pharisees? He calls out the best of us rather than disqualifying us for our worst. Do you understand? Jesus calls out the best of people, rather than marginalizing. Do you know what He refused to do? He refused to say an entire group of people are exactly what the worst qualities of that group of people are. He refused to say that. He refused to say, because of the worst days in people’s lives, they are the comprehensive definition of that worst day. He refused to say that. Which is all too easy for us to do. What He would do is step into a person’s life, refuse to categorize, and define them not by their worst, but by the best inside of them.
He’d say, “Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, Matthew, I understand where you’re at in society, I understand how you’re treated by your neighbors, I understand how you’re looked upon, will you come and follow me? Will you discover what is better inside of you? Would you do that?” What He does is he calls the best out of us. If we are uncomfortable with Jesus in our lives, it is because a lot of times we want Him to accept and allow us to settle for less than our best. He refuses. He said, “No, no, you can do it. Come on Matthew, you can do it.” He says to us all the time, “You can do it, you could step out of that place that you’ve known and you think you can’t, but you can. You can step out, you can be better. I put it inside of you. I put that potential inside of you and I’m asking you to come alive. Will you become the man, the woman you’re supposed to be? Will you become the person, the human who is able to inhabit the best of your qualities?”
Jesus will meet us where we are. But you know what He also does simultaneously? He elevates the bar. He says, “Yes, I’m here, but we can go there. Let’s get moving.” When we start to sense Him, do this in our lives, it starts to speak of a different type of anxiety. The anxiety that hope breeds. The anxiety that courage pulls out. The anxiety that love speaks. You can do better, step out of that place. What does that look like? It looks like Him calling us out of our habits into stronger ones. It looks like Him calling us out of ways of being that harm us and those around us into ways of being that will strengthen us and strengthen those around us. It looks like us not being willing to be defined by our worst thinking we might as well lie down and give up.
Jesus is saying, “No, you get up, you step out. I put it in, you could do it. This relationship can do it.” Because a lot of times it is so important for us, and sometimes people in our lives define us by the worst of our days. Jesus never does that. Jesus defines us by the best of His days. I know that’s true. I can help you do better, be better, become better. When we understand this we start to recognize that Jesus invites us out of the burden of pretending we’re perfect. He’s the one who is able to set us free from the need to pretend. We have it all together. I love Matthew. Matthew was a man who was embraced in his occupation and vocation of low repute. Very low reputation. He doesn’t cut those people off. He throws a party for those people. Instead of dividing his life, he says, “I’m done, I’m done pretending. I’m done. You know, I’m going to do it, I’m going to invite Jesus. I’m going to do something that is amazing.” He removed the partition between the holy and the sacred and the secular.
He says, “I’m going to combine these two worlds. I’m going to have Jesus meet my friends. Friends, meet Jesus. I’m going to stop dividing my life into these compartmentalized sectors. I’m going to trust that when Jesus meets people, he would treat them better than they’ve ever been treated before in their lives. I’m going to trust Him with them. My friends, when they start to discover who Jesus really is, not the figment of who they think He is, or how He’s been misrepresented, but who He truly is, I’m going to trust. They’re going to discover they’ve never met a man like Him. I’m no longer going to pretend.” I understand, He calls us out of our comfort. Why? Because it’s there we’re set free. In a day and culture where there’s so much pressure to pretend everything is perfect and put together, He doesn’t condemn the one who’s doing that.
The Pharisees lived in that place where they had a face and a facade to uphold. Jesus was threatening it. They did not feel comfortable with what He was inviting them into. What He said to them, the kindest words He could say is, “Listen, healthy people don’t need a doctor, sick people do. I didn’t come for those who think they’re righteous, I came for those who know they’re not.” It’s the kindest thing you could say. He’s saying what is true of any of us who are following Jesus. It’s true in my own heart. It’s true in a community of faith. Pharisees, will you take a step out of your hypocrisy, out of who you think you’re supposed to be? Will you step into who I say you’re supposed to be? Who I say you are, created to be, who you truly are. Will you own that? We’re all in transition. Out of pretending, into owning who we truly are before God, who He says His love says we are.
When we discover that, what we discover is that mercy. This is so important for us to understand. The mercy of God is able to draw out the infection within our hearts. There is nothing on the planet that is able to do what Jesus does with us. When Jesus was trying to tell them, “Listen, I want you, Matthew, to be free. You Pharisees, I don’t condemn you. I don’t judge you. I’m asking you what you think about stepping out of that place and recognizing your need.” When we recognize our need, it becomes harder for us to condemn somebody else’s need. When we recognize our needs, it becomes harder to judge somebody else’s needs. Mercy has prevailed in our lives when we do that. Jesus was saying, “Don’t you understand?” The son of man stepped out of heaven, perfection, stepped into human history suspending judgment and condemnation. He stepped into humanity and had conversations with real people.
He doesn’t approach us condemningly or judgingly. No, He approaches us and says, “I want to heal you of what has infected your soul. I want you to embrace you. I want to accept you. I want to rub my love into your soul, breathe life into you, and have you understand. There is something inside of you that needs to be drawn out that nothing else can. There is anger that needs to be removed. There is bitterness that needs to be removed. There is a sense of desire for things being right. I want you to understand, I’m going to fill your soul with love that is incomprehensible. Grace, mercy, peace, and whatever it is that is inside of you that says, “I don’t think I can. It’s the coward inside me.” He draws it out. What does he put in? He encourages us. He instills courage into us. He is the only one who was able to do this, to remove the things that undermine the best of us. He fills us with the strength we need to step out. No one else can. Only He can. This is why the Pharisees had a hard time with Him.
I was reading this book called Unclean. I thought it described the mentality that Pharisees were operating under. It’s called the judgment of negativity dominance. The judgment of negativity dominance places all the power on the side of the pollutant. When the pure and polluted come into contact with the pollutant, it is the more powerful force. The negative dominates over the positive. The Pharisees never once considered the fact that the contact between Jesus and the sinners might have a purifying, redemptive, and cleansing effect upon the sinners. The logic of contamination simply doesn’t work that way. The logic of contamination has the power of the negative dominating over the positive. Jesus doesn’t purify the sinners, the sinners make Jesus unclean. I’ll tell you what, before Jesus stepped on to the stage in human history, this was true.
We know it to be true. There is something of a virus-like quality to pollutants that has the power to overcome. When Jesus steps into human history, things start to change. What is dead comes to life. What is weak becomes strong. What is broken becomes whole. What is rejected becomes accepted. What has low self-worth and low dignity ends up being fueled with a sense of embrace, power, and courage. Jesus, this author said, is to coin the term positivity dominant. Contact with Jesus purifies. If that’s the case, if stepping out of what we know with Jesus has the ability to remove the infection in our soul and impart His life and strength, that gives us the capacity to discover forgiveness for our neighbor, mercy, and grace in our home, in our neighborhood, in our work environments. It has the ability to transform. If we just step out, we’ll discover mercy prevails. Mercy always prevails with Jesus.
God, I thank you, that you are the one who steps into our lives along our path, who meets us where we’re at. You are both the strongest and the most tender. You are the one who is the cleanest and also the safest. You’re able to speak life into our soul, Speak mercy and grace over our lives. I pray that you would help us trust you enough to take one step forward with you. Discover what the psalmist says, “surely mercy, love, and kindness shall follow me all the days of my life.” I pray for that for all of us, God. I ask for this Jesus’ name. Amen.