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Sermon blog: Zacchaeus; come on down!

July 13, 2016


Luke 19:1-10

It is always challenging thinking about what to speak about on these occasions.

More and more recently, I find myself being drawn back to some of the more familiar Bible stories, many which seemed to form part of my Christian upbringing in Sunday School.

And frequently what I find is that those stories have much more depth to them than I remember. And they are a reminder that although these stories were recorded so long ago, they still have a great deal to say to us today.

So when we come to the story of Zacchaeus I am instantly taken back to Sunday school and the song which told us all about him.

Well actually it didn’t tell us very much.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to sing.

We sang that he was “a very little man”, and that he climbed into a sycamore tree “for the saviour he wanted to see”.

And we remembered that Jesus said “Zacchaeus come down, for I’m coming to your house for tea”.

A good song for kids. It certainly did not attempt to give us the full dark picture of what was going on in Zacchaeus’ life before Jesus, and the change that Jesus brought.

Just a simple story about Jesus having tea and cupcakes with a little man.

The 10 verses we read give us significant extra detail, quite apart from the back story that sheds further light on the incident.

 

Our passage starts by telling us the place where all this happened.

In Jericho.

Interestingly it seems that Jericho is not Jesus’ planned destination. We are told that he was passing through. He had somewhere and something else in mind.

It would be an interesting study in itself to look at all the events recorded in the biographies of Jesus, written by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John, where Jesus met people while he was on the way somewhere else.

It might have seemed like an unwelcome interruption, but it was often in those circumstances that Jesus reached out to heal those who came into his path.

As followers of Jesus, I wonder how we compare. When you have got your plans, maybe even plans to do something for God, if you were interrupted would you view that as irritating, looking for an excuse to move on as quickly as possible, or an opportunity to be grasped?

A sick woman came and touched Jesus’ robe so that she would be made well, when he was actually on his way to attend to a dying girl. His journey delayed, the girl died. But Jesus had time for the woman, and indeed did an even greater miracle for the girl and her family in raising her from the dead.

5,000 men, along with their wives and children, turned up hungry for teaching and for food, when Jesus was trying to get away to spend some quality time with his disciples. And yet in his compassion he taught them all and fed them miraculously.

I wonder if you and I are open to the Holy Spirit’s leading when the uninvited guest crosses our path, when our own plans are frustrated. If we were more like Jesus we would more than likely see his plans in those circumstances.

Whatever Jesus’ plans, it seems one man in particular is going to meet with Jesus before he can move on.

His name is Zacchaeus. Luke fills in the gaps from the old Sunday School song.

Zacchaeus is a tax collector. And a wealthy man. You might think somebody of some standing in the community, but you’d be missing the whole story.

There are of course, it is said, two certainties in life – “Death and taxes”. We like neither of them.

Over Easter my wife and I visited a National Trust property in the Midlands and whilst I was in the second hand book shop I had an unsettling experience of a complete stranger attaching herself to me, convinced that she knew me from somewhere. Had I been there before? Did I used to live in Stoke-on-Trent?

I denied it all. Her final question shook me.

“Have you ever worked for the Inland Revenue?”

“Certainly not I replied”, horrified by the thought. Something instinctive in me wanted to distance myself? I did not want to be seen as a tax man.

Even though I have known some very nice tax men!

If you’re a tax man or tax lady this morning, you may have found not everyone is excited to see you. And even the Beatles moaned about the Taxman half a century ago!

To be fair, when I meet someone and tell them I’m a solicitor, that doesn’t always have the most positive effect either!

Unless they want a bit of free advice. Usually on something I know nothing about.

I guess it’s not so much the tax man. He’s just doing his job. But it’s the fact that he’s after our money that we don’t like.

So we try to keep our tax bills down, or we try to get away with paying it all together. Only in the past few weeks, Lionel Messi, arguably the world’s best footballer, and certainly one of the highest paid has been handed a prison sentence for tax evasion.

It seems that he signed documents without reading them, something I would not recommend, and will probably avoid prison. The fact that he paid a voluntary payment of nearly £4 million also helped!

But Zacchaeus was not an Inland Revenue inspector.

And because of what he was, he would have been reviled by those people he came into contact with.

Firstly, he would have been seen as a traitor. Because he worked for the Romans. The occupying enemy. Understandably the Jewish people hated paying taxes to Caesar. And it was one of their own who was taking the money.

So was it a well-paid job this being a tax collector? Perhaps not as much as we might think, considering Zacchaeus was a wealthy man. But we are told he was the chief.

But he benefitted from ill-gotten gains.

Tax collectors were notorious for not just collecting what the Romans required, but to demand extortionate sums of money on top of the taxes, to put in their own pockets. That’s how they got rich, and as Zacchaeus will later acknowledge, that’s how he got rich. And the Romans were more than happy with the system as long as Caesar got what was due to him.

So was Zacchaeus a man of great standing in the community?

You bet he wasn’t.

A traitor and glorified thief. Hated by everyone who saw him.

But there was another reason why he was not a man of great standing. Because as the Bible records it, and as the song goes, he “was a very little man”.

In verse 3 we read that he wanted to see Jesus. Or he wanted to see who he was. But he couldn’t because of his height. All he could see was the crowd that surrounded Jesus.

Why did he want to see Jesus? Who did he think he was? What rumours had he heard?

We don’t know.

But as so often Jesus is surrounded by people, whether he is passing through or not. Are these people who are following him on his travels or those even who have seen him arrive at their home town of Jericho?

Whatever the truth Jesus has a following, and one man cannot see Jesus, because his followers are all in the way.

May we as Christians never be guilty of stopping the people around us from seeing the real Jesus. Our calling is not to join in holy huddles with Jesus in the middle and our backs to our neighbours and colleagues, but is to bring Jesus to them, so that they can see him clearly.

As Zacchaeus walked by a third of the crowd may have not seen the little man, a third might have hurled insults at the traitor, and the rest might just have turned to ignore the bad penny.

Zacchaeus was not going to be denied. He climbed a sycamore fig tree. Maybe this had 2 purposes, a vantage point where he could see and hear Jesus, and a hiding place, where he would not be seen.

Physically insignificant and unpopular.

Maybe you feel a bit like Zacchaeus this morning.

Not important. No one seems to care. No one notices you.

Unpopular. Not surrounded by friends. Maybe even having done things which have turned people against you.

“So if that’s how people feel about me, how can Jesus be different? Why would he want me? Why would he care?”

Verse 5 is the turning point. Zacchaeus’ world is about to be turned upside down.

The one man who matters has spotted Zacchaeus.

Jesus.

And he calls him by name.

And he calls each of us by name.

This morning it is not just about all the other people. Jesus might have something to say to you. He wants you to know that you are noticed. That you are significant. That you are loved, not hated.

And Jesus did not tell Zacchaeus to come and join the crowd. He wanted to spend time with him. He wanted to visit Zacchaeus in his own home, his own space.

Zacchaeus was only too glad to do this. I guess he was not used to being wanted. He had wanted to see Jesus and now here he was sitting in the dining room at Chez Zac!

Jesus meets you where you are. Surrounded by the people and the things that matter to you. He doesn’t want you to be a someone else and yet when you meet with him it changes you forever.

But Zacchaeus’ happiness was not shared by everyone.

The grumbling started. What on earth is this Jesus doing staying with a sinner? There is no doubt that however bad those people thought they were, this man was far worse. An A list sinner.

You see, it was one of the greatest complaints that the religious people of Jesus’ day made about him. They would protest to his disciples, “why is this man spending so much of his time eating and drinking with tax collectors and sinners? How can a man like that possibly be a man of God, the Messiah?”

But those were just the people that Jesus spent so much of his time with. Maybe Zacchaeus had heard this and thought “he is someone, one man who might actually care for me. Maybe, just maybe, God is interested in me”.

One of Jesus’ 12 disciples was Matthew, formerly Levi the tax collector. There are many references to tax collectors in the gospels.

Luke records early in his gospel that “even the tax collectors came to be baptised”. This may have surprised the onlookers but these men were drawn to Jesus. “Even the tax collectors heard Jesus’ words”.

Jesus challenged the religious people that they did not believe in him as Messiah, but the tax collectors and prostitutes did.

Life was turned upside down. The religious people could not see him for who he was. But the tax collectors believed. People like Matthew followed Jesus gladly and threw parties so that their colleagues could discover Jesus for themselves.

I wonder if as followers of Jesus, our thinking needs to be turned upside down. Who are the people Jesus loves? Are they the people who are just like me? Are they significant people in society?

As Christians we need to be reminded again and again, as this story reminds us, that we cannot look down on anyone. We cannot view anyone as beyond the love of God. The Bible reminds us that all of us are sinners. None of us can approach God because of our own goodness.

Let’s not demand that people change to become more like us, before we invite them into our churches.

In Luke 18, a rich man turned away from Jesus, when the cost of following him seemed too great.

Jesus commented to his disciples “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God”. The disciples were stunned as they watched a great catch get away.

But Jesus went on to say “What is impossible with man is possible with God”. Something that is great to know!

So what about this wealthy man, Zacchaeus. Will he be the proof that God can do the impossible through Jesus?

Zacchaeus stands up and speaks to Jesus. He acknowledges 2 things.

His riches and his dishonesty.

For starters he is looking at his possessions and he promises to give half of them away.

Then he makes an offer to put things right. “If I’ve cheated anyone I will pay them back 4 times over”. He had met with Jesus and his life had changed. Greed had changed to generosity. Grasping hands had changed to open hands.

Zacchaeus has responded gratefully to a call from Jesus to a tea time meeting, and the result is a changed life, as Jesus exclaims “Today salvation has come to this home, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham”.

The religious people of the day claimed that they were children of Abraham, but Jesus dismissed this, insisting that their behaviour was not consistent with that claim, but here was one who showed it by his actions.

So what had happened? Did Jesus accept this man and give him salvation because of his generous acts? Did he buy his way into God’s kingdom?

The salvation and forgiveness and acceptance that Jesus offers never work that way.

It started when Zacchaeus discovered that Jesus actually was interested in him! But something had happened in that meeting to change him. And that changed life showed itself in a changed attitude to possessions and money.

We can never earn our way into a relationship with God. The religious people of Jesus’ day couldn’t do it by their religious acts and good deeds, and neither could the tax collectors by promising to change their ways.

Rather the changed behaviour was the result of Jesus’ salvation, the outcome of a changed life.

If you want to earn your way into God’s good books this morning, forget it now – that never works. Everything that is necessary for our salvation, for us to be children of God has already been done.

It is why Jesus came, as he reminds those who will listen, in verse 10, he came “to seek and to save the lost”.

Jesus seeks us. He came looking for Zacchaeus as he hid from the others.

And Jesus saves us. That is why he came into this world. That is why he died on the cross to purchase our forgiveness.

If you are lost this morning, then you can be found.

But it is never by trying to impress people or even God. Salvation is found as we recognise who we are.

Jesus had said about the difficulty for rich people in the previous chapter of Luke. But he also told another story in that same chapter that perhaps provides the key.

He told of two men, a fictional story maybe, but one with a large grain of truth in it. Two men go to the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a religious man, who is full of himself. He thanks God that he is not like other men. But Jesus comments that those who exalt themselves will be humbled – that man was not justified before God that day.

But the humble, he said, would be exalted. The other man was…

A tax collector.

You see people were always saying he was a sinner. But he didn’t need them to tell him. He knew he was a sinner. He knew that there was nothing that he could do or say to commend himself to God. He just knew that he needed God’s mercy.

“God have mercy on me, a sinner”.

Those could as well have been the words of Zacchaeus himself and now his life would never be the same.

None of us can offer anything to God to make him accept us. To sin is to fall short of his perfect standard – we all do that. But there is mercy to be found in Jesus. Amazing grace.

So this morning let’s be like Zacchaeus.

Seeking Jesus.

Responding to his call.

Recognising ourselves for what we are.

Falling upon his mercy as the only way to make things right.

Ready for him to change us from the inside out.

 

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