A Fresh Start

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INTRODUCTION

Tonight’s service is what we call an ‘Invitation Service’ – when those of us who are regulars try to invite friends who are just giving Christianity a first or second thought.

So, if you’ve been invited, let me say thanks for coming. And let me say what I’m aiming to do. I’m aiming to explain what Christians believe about God, and how we can make a fresh start in life with him. And I’m going to do that by looking at a story about Jesus in Luke’s Gospel (one of the four records of Jesus’ life, death and rising again from the dead). And when I say ‘story’ I don’t mean it’s fiction. This incident really happened. Let me re-read it, so we’ve got it fresh in our minds. Luke 19.1-10:

1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today." 6So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.' "
8But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."
9Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost."
(vv1-10)

Now you may be thinking, ‘But what’s that got to do with explaining what you believe about God and how we can make a fresh start with him?’ And the answer is: that’s exactly what this story does. Because the no.1 claim of Christianity is that this person Jesus was God become human – God become as visible and audible as I am now. In fact Jesus makes that claim in this very story. Have a look at the last line – v10, where Jesus says:

10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (v10)

He’s talking about himself. But instead of saying, ‘I came…’, he calls himself ‘the Son of Man.’ Which is a title that Jesus lifted from an Old Testament (OT) book called Daniel, where God gave Daniel a vision of what heaven is like. And in heaven, Daniel saw not just one person, but two. Let me read what he wrote:

13 "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.
14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
(Daniel 7.13-14)

Now, the ‘Ancient of Days’ is obviously God. But this figure ‘the Son of Man’ is obviously fully God as well – God’s ‘right hand man’ – God’s Son, as we now know. And here in our story Jesus says, ‘that’s me. I am God’s Son come to repair the relationship with God that you’ve lost.

So, if you hear people say that Jesus never actually claimed to be God, that is quite simply not true. That was his claim repeatedly.

Now I don’t believe people just because they say things. I need evidence. And the evidence that backs up Jesus’ claim is there in the four Gospels, Matthew Mark, Luke (the one this story comes from) and John. There’s the evidence of his miracles. And above all, there’s the evidence of his rising from the dead. There isn’t time to go over that evidence now. All I’m saying for now is that there is enough evidence, if you’re prepared to look into it, to believe that Jesus was God’s Son. And not just was. Is. Because since this incident, Jesus has died, has risen from the dead, and is back in heaven with his Father. And the point is: even though we can’t see and hear Jesus now, as Zaccheus did, we can come back into relationship with him now, as Zaccheus did. And since Jesus and his Father are ‘like that’ – two people united – to come back into relationship with Jesus is to come back into relationship with God the Father at the same time.


THE STORY OF JESUS AND ZACCHEUS

So let’s give this story a look to see what God is like and how we can make a fresh start with him. Look at how it begins – v1:

1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.

Tax collectors today are unpopular because they take away our money legitimately. Tax collectors in Jesus’ day were unpopular because they took away your money illegitimately as well. And they were notorious for it. Zaccheus would have had a franchise from the Roman government to collect taxes. And it was basically a licence to rob. And later in the story, that’s exactly what he owns up to (v8). So he’s rich: he lives in a ‘des res’ in Jericho, he’s probably got a luxury yacht on the Dead Sea, and there’s a top of the range camel in the drive with alloy hooves and leather upholstery.

And all through robbery. And despite the fact that he’s a Jew: he’s been brought up in a religious home, he knows about God and right and wrong. But he’s kicked it all over and for all his adult life he’s just blatantly ignored God. Like the person with Christian parents or background, who’s just left it all behind. Which may be you, here tonight.


TWO SURPRISES

And yet here comes the first surprise of the story. He’s curious about Jesus. Look at v3:

3He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. (vv3-4)

So this is the man you wouldn’t expect to see dead at this Invitation Service. But there he is, up in the back row of the gallery. He’s living as if God wasn’t there, but like all of us, he knows deep down that God is there. And keeping that truth buried in your heart is a bit like holding a football under water – all the time you feel the upward pressure of the truth and of conscience. You have to work to keep it down. And on this day for some reason, the upward pressure meant that the issue ‘broke surface’ and Zaccheus ended up there in the gallery. And maybe that’s you, here tonight. Maybe you’ve come because deep down you doubt your unbelief. Well I’m glad you’re here.

It’s surprise enough that Zaccheus is interested in Jesus. But the biggest surprise of the story is that Jesus is interested in him. Look at v5:

5When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today. (v5)

So Jesus – ie, God – wants relationship with Zaccheus - despite the fact that he’s blatantly ignored him. And he says, ‘Today.’ He doesn’t say, ‘Zaccheus, you’ve lived a pretty bad life. So I’m going to give you 6 months to clean up your act and then I’ll come back and see if you’re good enough.’ He says, ‘I will accept you as you are, right now.’

Which I think is the most mind-blowing thing of all about Christianity. We spend our lives looking for people, friends, that one friend - who’ll really accept us as we are. That’s the story of every start in a new school or uni or place or romance. And here we see that Jesus – ie, God – comes looking for us and says that’s exactly what he’ll do.

For some of you here tonight, your sticking point with God is that you don’t think you’re good enough to start in on this relationship with him. Maybe you’re trying to make up for the past, trying to be a better person. This is certainly often the sticking point for people with Christian parents, who’ve grown up with it all. Because you hear so much about good behaviour and you think you have to be as good as some Christian friend or youth leader who just seems impossibly perfect. And you need to hear that Jesus – ie, God – will accept you as you are. Now. So it’s no wonder how Zaccheus responds. Look at v6:

6So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. [But the on-lookers are completely scandalized, v7:] 7All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.' " (vv6-7)


JESUS’ ACCEPTANCE

Now notice how these on-lookers are thinking. They’ve divided the world into two groups – the ‘sinners’, whose behaviour is bad enough that God couldn’t possibly accept them; and the ‘non-sinners’, whose behaviour is good enough that God must accept them. And they put Zaccheus in the ‘sinner’ group and themselves in the ‘non-sinner’ group.

And they’re scandalised that Jesus – who claims to represent God – accepts Zaccheus as he is. Because surely, that is to accept his behaviour - to accept wrongdoing as OK - and surely that is something that God cannot do.

That was their thinking. And they were right on one thing, and wrong on everything else.

The one thing they got right was that God cannot accept wrongdoing as OK. Here’s what another part of the Bible says about God. It says:

13 Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
(Habakkuk 1.13)

So as God had looked down on Zaccheus’ life to this point, he’d found it utterly offensive. Not primarily because Zaccheus had hurt a lot of people – that was just a symptom of the root problem. The root problem, and the most offensive thing to God, is that Zaccheus had ignored him. He’d basically been saying to God, ‘I am going to live as if you weren’t there, because I don’t want to be bound by your standards. I’m going to live as if I was God and make up my own standards, so I can live as I please’ – and in his case, make money as he pleased. And to say that to God is the most offensive thing you and I can possibly do. There is nothing worse. And he won’t tolerate it.

So these onlookers were right on that. But wrong on two other things.

On the one hand, they were wrong to divide the world into the ‘sinners’ and the ‘non-sinners’. Because listen to something else the Bible says. It says:

There is no difference [between people], for all have sinned and fall short of the character of God. (Romans 3.22-23)

Now you may be leaping to your own defence and saying to yourself, ‘But I’m a far better person than Zaccheus – or plenty of other people.’ And I’m sure you are. But that’s not the point. The point is: have we or have we not ignored God so as to live as we please? Because sin is not primarily about what we have and haven’t done – those are just symptoms. Sin is primarily the attitude that says to God, ‘I am going to live as if you weren’t there; live as if I was God, and make up my own standards, so I can live as I please.’ And according to the Bible, unless you’ve come back into relationship with God through Jesus, that’s what you are saying to him right now.

And if you don’t believe that, just take one example – the area of truthfulness. Let me ask: have you ever told a lie (eg, to cover up for something)? Or have you ever broken a promise (eg, because frankly you just wanted to do something else)? Or have you ever exaggerated the truth (eg, to make yourself look better)? If we’re prepared to admit that the answer is yes – which it is – then the fact is: we’ve been operating on exactly the same lines as Zaccheus. The only difference is that we haven’t taken it to the same extreme. Sure, the consequences are different at a human level – it is relatively worse to rip someone off £1000 than to tell what we like to call a ‘white lie’. But as God looks down on it, there’s no absolute difference in what’s going on in our hearts between those two behaviours: Zaccheus was untruthful; we’re untruthful; he ignored God, we ignore God.

So just like there’ll be people here tonight who think they’re not good enough for God, there will also be people who think they are. And if that’s you, you need to hear that you’re wrong. That there’s only one group – the ‘sinners’ – and that includes Zaccheus, and me and you.

So these onlookers were wrong to divide the world into ‘sinners’ and ‘non-sinners’. And on the other hand, they were wrong to think that God couldn’t accept sinners.

If Jesus is God, it’s pretty obvious, from this story alone, that God does accept sinners just as they are. And he does it by forgiving us. Now, he couldn’t forgive us by just overlooking our sin. In God’s book, justice has to be done on sin – and seen to be done. So God’s dilemma, if I can put it like that, was how to save us from his justice without compromising his justice. And his solution is breath-taking. It was to substitute himself for us, and take on himself the judgement we deserve. That’s what was happening when, just days after this incident, Jesus died on the cross. This is how one writer explains Jesus’ death:

"Substitution… is at the heart of both sin and salvation. For the heart of sin is man substituting himself for God, while the heart of salvation is God substituting himself for man. …. Man claims a position which belongs to God alone; so God accepted a penalty which belongs to man alone." (The Cross of Christ, John Stott)

That’s what Jesus was doing when he died on the cross. So he knew he could forgive Zaccheus’s sins without any compromise. And he can forgive yours and mine likewise – whatever they are.


JESUS’ LORDSHIP

So you can be forgiven and accepted as you are. And the thing is that being forgiven and accepted just as you are changes you. Look at v7 of the story again:

7All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.' "

[ie, ‘He’s compromising with sin - overlooking Zaccheus’ past; and let’s face it, Zaccheus isn’t going to change his spots in the future, is he? But read on.]

8But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, "Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount." (vv7-8)

And the biggest change there is not his behaviour – again, that’s just a symptom. The biggest change is who is Lord of his life. Because twice he calls Jesus ‘Lord’. Ie, Master. God.

So up to the moment he met Jesus, Zaccheus was his own Lord. Because he didn’t trust God with his life. He thought that having God as Lord of his life would spoil the fun and that he’d constantly be looking over his shoulder thinking the world was having a better time. And that may be where you are right now. Unwilling to obey God because you don’t trust him; you don’t believe he’s got your best interests at heart.

Well, up to this meeting, Zaccheus was Lord. But then as a result of this meeting, Jesus becomes Lord. And Zaccheus now wants to please Jesus, wants to obey him. And that’s the biggest change.

Now your sticking point with God may be thinking that you could never change in the way he’d want. But that’s not true. What changed Zaccheus, and can change you, is being forgiven and accepted – loved by God - just as you are. And when that happens, it wins your trust, and it makes you prepared to change and want to change.

They say that for army officers in training, the no.1 thing is not so much to win the respect of your men, but to win their trust. As a friend of mine put it, who went through Sandhurst, ‘If they know you’d die for them, they’ll follow you anywhere.’ And when you know Jesus died for you, it wins your trust to follow him wherever he leads.

Now your question may be, ‘But where will he lead? What will have to change in my life?’ Well, some things you probably know right now. For Zaccheus, it was money. He knew straight off that if Jesus was Lord, he must be Lord of his money. And that meant starting certain things – like generosity – and stopping certain things – like robbery. For some of us, it may be a sexual relationship. If Jesus is Lord, he must be Lord of our bodies. And he only intends them to be used for sex inside marriage. So that’ll mean stopping certain things - like sleeping with a girl or boyfriend; and starting certain things - like learning about marriage and looking for marriage. And you could multiply examples.


TOO COSTLY?

Now it may be that you need more time to find out what having Jesus as Lord would mean. And I know that ‘from the outside’, it can look really costly. And that may be your sticking point with God right now. So can I mention three facts to offset what appears to be the cost.

Fact no.1 is that God made us. So he does know what’s good for us. So any change will always be for the best – even if it’s hard. Fact no.2 is that God isn’t expecting perfect change – or anywhere near it, this side of heaven. And Jesus died not just for all our past sins, but for all our future sins as well. Because he anticipated that even after making a fresh start with him, we’d let him down time and again. But he’s committed to forgiving us not giving up on us.

But fact no.3 is the biggest one. Fact no.3 is that there’s a far bigger cost the other way. Just look down to the story one last time, to v9:

9Jesus said to [Zaccheus]: "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (vv9-10)

And that word ‘lost’ is a very strong one. Jesus used it just earlier in Luke’s Gospel to talk about people being swept away by God’s judgement. So he doesn’t mean ‘lost’ as in not quite sure where I’m heading in life. He means ‘lost’ as in heading for certain disaster at the end of life. And the certain disaster is that if we go through this life ignoring God - saying ‘No’ to Jesus - then when we die and meet him as Judge, he will have to say ‘No’ to our entering the kingdom of heaven. Because you can’t enjoy the benefits of a kingdom if you won’t become subject to the King. That would give him no pleasure; and it gives me no pleasure to talk about it. But according to Jesus, it’s a fact. So I’m obliged to.


WHERE ARE YOU?

I’m nearly done. I wonder how you relate to this story? I wonder where you see yourself in it?

You might be very much at the beginning - metaphorically ‘up your tree’, giving Jesus a first or second look. If that’s you, I’m glad you felt able to come; and you’d be welcome back any time. Some people find that just coming on Sundays is a good ‘tree’ to look from – where you can just stay anonymous if you want to. Many others have gone from Sunday to another really helpful ‘tree’ which we call Christianity Explored. It’s the chance to meet with a few others at the same stage over a few weeks to ask questions and get them answered. And there’s a leaflet about that on the Welcome Desk at the back.

On the other hand, you might be at the end of the story – you’re able to say, ‘I know I’m forgiven and accepted, and I now live – albeit imperfectly – for Jesus as Lord.’

But you might be at the turning point of this story right now. You’ve been ‘up your tree’ long enough. You’ve been reading, thinking, coming along to things, talking to Christians, brought up in a Christian home – whatever. And you’ve come to realise this is all true, that Jesus is not just a figure of the past, but he’s alive, he’s there and that, metaphorically speaking, he’s looking up into your tree and saying to you, ‘I must stay at your house today.’ In fact, there’s another part of the Bible where Jesus says this, after he’s risen from the dead:

20Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3.20)

And my question is: are you ready and willing to ‘open the door of your life’ to Jesus as your Lord tonight? I’m going to end with a prayer that would be a way of doing that. Let me read it out first so you can think if you’d want to use it. I’ll say:

Lord Jesus Christ,
I have ignored you and lived as I have wanted to. And I now confess that as sin.
Thank you for dying for me so that I might make a fresh start.
Please forgive me, and by your Spirit come into my life as Lord.
Amen

If that’s not appropriate for you, if you’re further back or further on than that, then don’t pray it – pray something else. But if you want to make that your prayer to the risen Lord Jesus in heaven tonight, then you can echo it in your mind as I lead us. Let’s pray:

Lord Jesus Christ,
I have ignored you and lived as I have wanted to. And I now confess that as sin.
Thank you for dying for me so that I might make a fresh start.
Please forgive me, and by your Spirit come into my life as Lord.
Amen

Jesus promised:

If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3.20)

So if you’ve prayed that prayer and meant it, he will have heard and kept that promise. And if you’ve prayed it, the best thing I encourage you to do is to tell another Christian you know, and ask them where to go from here. And if you’d like a copy of a Gospel to read, or this booklet Why Jesus? - which goes over the step of how to respond to Jesus - please do pick up a copy of either or both on the Welcome Desk.

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