We're working our way through the Gospel of Luke on Sunday mornings here at St Joseph's, so it would be great if you could grab a Bible and open back up to Luke 19. Here's a question for you before we dig in: Out of all the people in your life – who do you think is the most unlikely person to become a Christian?
Is there someone you have just mentally thought 'I could never talk to them about Jesus'? Or as Dave mentioned those Christmas Services a moment ago – was there someone you thought 'there's no point inviting them, they'd never come'? Or maybe there's someone you've simply stopped praying for – they've dropped off your prayer list because, well… it's never going to happen, is it? Maybe it's actually you – Maybe you're the person who you think is the least likely to become a follower of Jesus. Who God could never love. Or who could never find it in themselves to love God.
We love surprises, don't we? But we struggle to trust that they might happen. I wonder who you would be most surprised to hear that they'd become a follower of Jesus this Christmas?
Well if you lived in Jericho 2,000 years ago, this guy Zacchaeus might have just have been that person. For do you see what the crowd call him in verse 7? "…a sinner." As Zacchaeus was a tax collector – and while no one has ever loved the taxman – Zacchaeus was even more hated than the Inland Revenue because he was collecting taxes not for his own nation, but for the enemy – the occupying Roman forces. And as he did so… he was taking a bit on the side for himself too. He was a traitor who had lined his pockets by ripping off his own people. And you can't sink a lot lower than that.
No wonder the crowd have written him off as a "sinner". Not just a sinner in the way that you and I are sinners – falling short of the glory of God, failing to love him and others as we were made to do – But more one of those capital letters "SINNERS", you know, like you find in the headlines of the tabloid newspapers. Too full of sin, too messed up – too far gone to be loved by God.
So let me ask you again: I wonder who you have written off?
Folks, if God can save Zacchaeus… he can save anyone.
Let's have a closer look at how it all came about. It's a simple story – well known, but oh so profound. The story of the Sinner, the Saviour, and the Son of Abraham.
So first up, let's meet:
1. The Sinner
That's not the only way he's described here in Luke 19. See how he's introduced to us in verse 2: "…there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a chief tax collector and was rich."
While even he admits later that he made his wealth by ripping people off – Measured by the values of our culture, Zacchaeus was a success, wasn't he? He had a good job and plenty of money... and yet that's what he's going to give away in a few minutes' time.
Because Jesus has also got a word to describe Zacchaeus – and it's very different – in verse 10, do you see it? "Lost".
Zacchaeus was wealthy... but lost.
You know there are up and outs as well as down and outs. In fact, according to Luke's gospel if you're rich you are likely to be lost. Riches of whatever kind – whether they are money or brains or reputation or good looks or a winning personality – blessings like that are very convenient things to hide behind. Because they seem to give security, status and hope for the future… however we've treated God.
Which is why Jesus says in the previous chapter to this: "How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!" It's difficult to see our lost-ness, when we are so well off.
I mean – I could put up on the screen here a picture of poverty and you'd spot it straight away. But you can't photograph the lostness of a human soul. You can't take a picture of the spiritual bankruptcy that comes from living at a distance from the God who we were not only made by… but made for.
Jonathan Miller is a playwright – who you probably have never heard of, but I suspect you might have watched his work at some point on the telly without even realising it – He is no believer, but he once admitted whilst standing in a church in front of a beautiful stained glass window that he didn't believe in the God of the Crucifixion – Jesus on the cross – but that he would be very impoverished if he didn't have any of it in his imagination. He said, "It would be a very thin form of life which didn't have those images."
I find that a fascinating word to use. "Thin" – for a life lived denying the God of love. "Thin" – as in undernourished.
And that's Zacchaeus. He may not be able to see it, but he can feel it! He's got the vibes – and he follows them. It's what makes him curious about Jesus and gets him up the tree – to see the man who can bring substance to living. The man who can fill the void and nourish hungry souls.
So he not only goes to see Jesus. He actually goes to ridiculous lengths just to catch a glimpse of him. Do you see in verse 3?
"And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small of stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see him, for he was about to pass that way."
All the best spots by the side of the road are taken and being, how should we put it… vertically challenged. He can't see. So what does he do?
He runs… and he climbs. Which might sound like a smart thing to do, but he would have been wearing a robe and hitching that up to run and climb trees would have been a bit of a nightmare. Can you imagine Alan Sugar – halfway up a tree, clinging on for dear life with his suit torn and his shoes scuffed? This was a desperate and undignified act.
But Zacchaeus would rather be thought of as a fool than to miss this opportunity to see Jesus. What about you? How far will you go to see Jesus? Let's face it, this is not a day and age in which going to church, or reading your Bible, or giving your time, effort, attention and affection to Jesus are considered worthy things to do.
But if you are never willing to look foolish and make an effort you are unlikely to ever properly see Jesus. So go on – let go of your pride and check him out. And as you do really give yourself to the quest and be through.
Well Zacchaeus runs and Zacchaeus climbs. And he looked a fool to every single person who saw him... except one... The one person whose opinion really matters…
2. The Saviour
Incredibly Zacchaeus finds that while he's been looking for Jesus… Jesus is actually looking for him. Have a look at verse 5: "And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, 'Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.'"
That's a bit presumptuous, isn't it?! If I was to come up to you after the service and invite myself to dinner round at your place, you'd probably be a bit taken aback. Even for someone as cheeky as I am – that's a bit rude!
But in Jesus' culture, this was a royal custom. It was the kind of thing that a King or a Prince would do. So by taking this custom on himself, Jesus is doing two things:
- Firstly, he is alluding to his royal identity – he is after all the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace.
- But also he is also bestowing an incredible honour on Zacchaeus.
Which is why the crowd are not happy in verse 7. This, remember, is the least loved person in all of Jericho! The taxman traitor!
"What are you doing Jesus? Don't you know who this is? Don't you know what he's done?"
But what is Jesus' mission statement in verse 10? Jesus didn't come to save the religious, or the morally upstanding – the people who would obviously be open to an invite to church. He "…came to seek and to save… the lost."
And so when Jesus singles Zacchaeus out for this incredible honour, this isn't a case of mistaken identity. It's not that Jesus was some doddery old vicar who was blind to Zacchaeus' faults. No! He knows exactly who Zacchaeus is.
"Zacchaeus, yes you, Zacchaeus – the one with a sharp eye for figures and fiddling sums. 'I must stay at your house today.'"
And this is as breath-taking as it is shocking – the perfect sinless Saviour… identifies with the Sinner. And not any old sinner – but this outrageous capital letter "SINNER".
This is one of the most precious moments in all of the New Testament. Jesus is surrounded by people who are favourable to him, but hostile to Zacchaeus. People who love him, but hate Zacchaeus.
And yet Jesus wades headlong into their shame and their scorn for the sake of Zacchaeus. Jesus takes dishonour upon himself so that he can bring honour to Zacchaeus. He loses favour with the crowd and sacrifices his reputation with all of those people – for the sake of a rotten sinner who doesn't deserve it and could never have earned it.
It is staggering!
And it is in doing things like this everywhere he goes…
- by healing the wrong people on the wrong day,
- by upsetting the religious elite,
- by siding with and showing affection to the prostitutes and tax collectors...
that Jesus turns the crowd against him so much, that rather than gather in delight to see him… they will eventually cry, "Crucify him".
To put it bluntly: Love like this will kill him.
But when do you think was the last time Zacchaeus was loved like this? At such a personal cost. When do you think was the last time someone said to him: "Zacchaeus, I know you. I know your past. I know your failures, your folly, your sin. And yet I'm willing to stand alongside you when no one else will. I'd love to come round to your house."
And do you realise folks – that's how much Jesus loves you?
I mean, where does this whole incident start – Back at verse 1 – Jesus is just "passing through" Jericho! He's heading for Jerusalem going to the cross where he will end his life standing alongside sinners. And the worst kind of sinners at that – murderous thieves on either die of him.
He will end his life nailed to the cross – identified as a sinner, treated like one, judged like one, damned like one. So that all we sinners might have a place where our sins might be taken, paid for, borne away.
The innocent Saviour identifies with the sinners like us. And when a Sinner meets the Saviour, and welcomes Jesus into their life, the sinner then becomes…
3. The Son of Abraham
Now don't worry, I know what you're thinking: "A what?! What on earth is a Son of Abraham? I don't want to be a Son of Abraham! Who would?!"
Well hold your horses for a minute, and look down at verse 9 with me – I mean you expect Jesus to invite Zacchaeus to become a Christian, but no, what does he say: "And Jesus said to him, 'Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham.'"
Now that is an odd phrase to our ears today – But it carries the sense of being a true Jew. A true member of God's people.
The crowd would be horrified to think of Zacchaeus as "one of us". But it's as if Jesus is saying that only through him – not your family or your bloodline, not by trying really hard to be religious – only through Jesus can you become "truly a Child of God".
Jesus could not – for the people he's talking amongst – make it any clearer that there is nothing "2nd eleven", nothing "B List" about Zacchaeus – Like he's going to need to sneak into church every week by the back door because of his past. No… Jesus puts him straight in the "1st team".
Folks, do you see? There is no such thing as a 2nd class Christian! And so we should beware the temptation to look down on brothers and sisters in Christ because of their past, or their lack of theological upbringing or Biblical awareness. If you accept Jesus into your life, you're one of God's family. It's as simple as that.
But… having said that, if that was all there was to this story just imagine how it would be if every time you were walking down the streets of Jericho and you saw Zacchaeus you were trying to hold together in your mind "Truly a child of God" and...
- "He ripped me off."
- "He put my dad out of business."
- "He's why the home got repossessed."
- "He's the reason my kids still don't eat properly."
Folks, that's why verse 8 is so important. Look at it for a moment – drink it in: "And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, 'Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.'"
Hey! This isn't quite the action of the sinner that was spoken of in verse 7, is it? And this isn't the actions of a man who has been found out and is paying off his debts and a fine, either.
There were laws – Zacchaeus had broken them, and fines were required to be paid also. We find them in the Old Testament in Numbers chapter 5 verses 6 and 7 – they tell us that people like Zacchaeus when he: "…realises his guilt, he shall confess his sin that he has committed. And he shall make full restitution for his wrong, adding a fifth to it and giving it to him to whom he did the wrong."
The law is clear, isn't it? And Zacchaeus isn't following it. He's going way beyond it!
- Add one fifth says the law.
- Pay back four times says the new believer.
Martin Luther the great German reformer used to speak about how a man or a woman needed three conversions in their life. He said we need our hearts converting, and our head converting and our pockets converting. And he said that it is often the last one that takes the longest.
Well Zacchaeus' conversion has already reached his pocket and it's the same day! He meets with Jesus, he welcomes him gladly – and as he sees the love his new master has for him he turns his back on his old one… his wealth which meant so much to him. Half to the poor, four times to the defrauded.
The Saviour lines up alongside the Sinner – Oh yeah. But then the son of Abraham – lines up alongside Jesus and willingly embraces not just his grace, but also his generosity. He takes his ways, he takes his values – Following Jesus affects every area of life from the financial to the relational.
So as I finish, let me ask the question: Have we faced our own idolatry and repented of it as Zacchaeus did? Is this morning one of those moments for you when Jesus is pointing out some area of your life for you to change?
I mean, maybe this is why our faith often seems so powerless? Because we're happy for the saviour to identify with us the sinner, for Jesus to stand alongside us in our weakness and our guilt and our failure – But were so slow to stand and live for him. To get infected by his grace.
You see the lesson of Zacchaeus is not to look at your money and be guilty. No, no, no – it's looking at Jesus and catch his generosity.
Towards others in our attitudes – not looking down on them. Branding them and writing them off. But going out on a limb for them, risking their scorn and our reputation for their sake – Just like Jesus does for us. "To seek and to save the lost."
You see this generosity isn't restricted merely to our finances, but it doesn't stop short of them either. Folks – I am so British that I am tempted to find it a little embarrassing that on the week we launch our Autumn Appeal here at church, I end up preaching on a passage like this. But we didn't plan for this – it's just happened to come up this Sunday as we work our way through Luke's gospel this term. God knows what he's doing!
And the Autumn Appeal is not about funding the church so that we can make it all nice and cosy for ourselves, but so that we can lay on all kinds of different events and activities to reach out to others with the gospel of Christ. So we need to be asking ourselves "How can we be giving to others... for the sake of their souls?" "To seek and to save the lost."
Why don't we ask for God to help us in that? Let's have a moment of quiet to pray this through for ourselves.