07/09/2003 at 9.30am / 11.15am
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
Many of you will remember Simon Price. He was on the staff here. And last year he went door to door visiting in one of the halls of residence - with a questionnaire and an invitation to a Christian event. Well, he knocked on one door. A voice said, 'Come in'. So in he went, to find a guy in bed with his girlfriend. Decent, but very much in bed.
What would you have done? You might have slipped away saying you'd call back later. Fair enough. But the temptation would have been to slip away thinking, 'I'll go and find someone more "likely".' Simon simply ploughed on. He said he was involved in the Christian Union; would they like to do a questionnaire? They said, 'Yes.' So Simon sat down and struck up a conversation about Jesus. Which shows that he understood this morning's Bible passage - Luke 19.1-10 - and in particular, v10:
For the Son of Man [ie, Jesus] came to seek and to save what was lost.Ie, Jesus came not for good people or "likely" people. But for lost people. To bring us back into relationship with God his Father. And Luke 19.1-10 is the account of how one man began that relationship. And v10 is the punch line of the story, where Jesus sums up why he's come and what he wants to do for anyone and everyone:
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.So we're going to re-read the Zacchaeus story in the light of that punchline and apply it to ourselves as we go. We'll break it down under three headlines - 'LOST', 'SEEK' AND 'SAVE'.
So first, LOST
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was LOST.Who was lost in this story? 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 collector'. And 'wealthy'. And for those two reasons people would have thought Zacc was a lost cause when it came to God. Because tax collectors at the time were notoriously crooked and thought of as the very bottom of the pile, morally speaking (see, eg, Luke 18.9-14). Today's equivalent would perhaps be a sex-offender. So people would have thought, 'No way would God want Zacc. And, because he's rich, 'No way would Zacc want God.' Look back to 18.24. Jesus had just challenged another rich man to follow him and the guy decided to walk away. And, v24:
24Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! 25Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."Ie, it's impossible, humanly speaking. Rich people don't by nature want relationship with God. After all, who feels they need God with everything money can buy? And when money seems to look after you so well? Be warned - because by the Bible's standard, many of us are rich or bordering on it.
So most people would have thought Zacc was a lost cause. God wouldn't want him; he wouldn't want God. So if Zacc was our next-door neighbour or work-colleague or family member, we'd find it very tempting not to invite him to a Christian event or not to try to get into conversation about Jesus - but to go and find someone more "likely". But we'd be wrong. And we need to get out of thinking of people as more "likely" or less "likely" to become Christians - as this story shows. Because Zacc was not a lost cause.
But he was lost (v10). Jesus last used that word back in chapter 15, in the parable of the lost sheep (see Luke 15.1-7), where a shepherd stands for God; and a sheep that ignores the shepherd and heads off its own way stands for each of us. And the point is that a lost sheep is ultimately a dead sheep. Lost means: ultimately heading for disaster. Witness the fact that there were several dead sheep under the cliffs on the beach I was surfing on in Ireland recently. And in v10 Jesus uses the same word about Zacc. Lost: ie, ultimately heading for disaster. Because if, in this life we say to God, 'Keep out. I want to go my own way,' then when we die, God will judge us by granting our wish forever. He will keep out of our lives forever - by keeping us out of heaven.
Now people then would have had no problem believing Zacc was lost, ie, ultimately heading for judgement. The problem today is that most people don't believe anyone's lost. People either don't believe there's a God and a judgement. Or they believe that if there is, then everyone will be OK because we're all basically good - with the odd exceptions like Saddam Hussein or the sex-offenders. But have it on the authority of Jesus that without him, all people are lost. If you've not yet accepted Jesus, that's what he's saying about you - however you feel about yourself and your life; he's saying you're lost. And if we have accepted Jesus, we need to remember where we were - lost - and never to belittle what Jesus has done for us. It's no small thing to be a Christian, rather than where we were before. And we need to look beneath peoples' success and their air of having all they need in life and remind ourselves that in the things that ultimately matter, they are lost without Jesus. Zacc was one of them. But he wasn't a lost cause. Which brings us to the second headline for this story:
For the Son of Man came to SEEK and to save what was lost.
3 [Zacc] 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."(vv3-5)Which must have been freaky for Zacc. There he is in the quiet anonymity of his tree. And Jesus knows he's there, knows his name and calls him.
It's that time of year when people get in touch with me and say, 'Someone I know is coming to Newcastle to study.' And his name's Fred and he dyes his hair blue and would I look out for him? So Fred unmistakably shows up at church one day and I go up to him and say, 'Hi. You must be Fred.' And Fred is slightly freaked. 'Is this the kind of church where God tells other people your name and all your secrets?' he wonders. Until I explain that it was a set-up.
Well, v5 has got 'Divine Set-Up' written all over it. And where Jesus says, 'I must stay at your house today', he uses that word 'must' on two other occasions, talking about his death on the cross (Luke 9.22, 24.26 ['have to' = 'must']). And both times he says, 'I must die,' as in, it's been planned, since before the mists of time. And in v5 he's saying, 'Zacc, this meeting has been planned. Since before the mists of time, my Father in heaven has wanted you back and so he's set up this meeting to call you back.'
So although in vv3-4 it looks as if Zacc is seeking God, the truth is that God is seeking Zacc., in Jesus. That's what v10 says:
For the Son of Man [ie, Jesus] came to seek and to save what was lost.People often have this picture in their minds that God is hiding and making himself difficult to know, and that the human race is busily trying to find him. But that's not the picture at all. The truth is that the human race has ignored God and headed off its own way and it's God who's doing the searching. It's God who makes all the running to restore the relationship between him and us.
But then you might say, 'What about vv3-4? Wasn't Zacc seeking God?' After all, v3, 'He was seeking [literally] to see who Jesus was…' Well, from the Bible's point of view, Zacc was only seeking Jesus because God was first seeking him. After all, like we saw in chapter 18, Jesus says it's impossible for Zacc under his own steam suddenly to start wanting relationship with God. But what we didn't read earlier was 18.27 where Jesus says:
27"What is impossible with men is possible with God."So I take it Zacc is seeking Jesus because God has first been at work in his life - in his circumstances, in his heart, in his conscience; perhaps a pang of conscience, perhaps the ache of emptiness - to get him into that particular tree at that particular time so he can meet Jesus.
A couple of years ago I had the privilege of being one link in the chain of people and events through which an international student came to faith. And we met up to read the Bible together after he'd received Jesus, and one of the first passages we did was this one. And I asked him what had most struck him from it. And he said, 'What strikes me is that I think God brought me from Finland to Newcastle so I could meet Jesus.' Ie, God was seeking me before I was ever seeking for him. And he was absolutely right (with the insight of the new-born believer).
And if you're a Christian, you'll be able to look back and see how God engineered a chain of people and events - including maybe painful events - which finally got you to the point where you met with Jesus and received him as your Lord. And we need to be thankful that he did that. And humble. Because we didn't go looking for him. It wasn't that we were more 'open' or more 'spiritually inclined' than the people around us, whom we long to see accept Jesus and who sometimes leave us saying to ourselves, 'Why can't they see it?', or, 'Why don't they want to know?' No, God made all the running. And we need to realise that God has engineered it that we are now in the families we're in and the friendship and work circles we're in so that through us he can seek others.
And if you wouldn't yet call yourself a Christian, it's no accident that you're here, sitting in the quiet anonymity of your pew rather than your tree. It's an opportunity - perhaps for some, yet another opportunity - that God has planned for you to hear about his Son and call you to receive him. Because he's not passively waiting for you to get interested in him - as if we ever would, left to our own devices. He's actively engineering all sorts of things in our lives to get through to us (including invitations to church reluctantly accepted!). He's doing the seeking. Which brings us to the third headline for this story:
For the Son of Man came to seek and to SAVE what was lost.The rest of the story shows what it means to be saved. V5 again:
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."Which shows Jesus' total authority - 'Zacc, I actually regard myself as the owner of your life. I have the right to say what you should do with it. And I'm coming into it today.' And as God's Son, he has the right to say the same to each of us.
Total authority. But what Jesus says also shows his total acceptance. Everyone else would have said Zacc was a lost cause, that God wouldn't have someone as bad as him back in a million years. And Jesus says, 'I'm coming into your life today, right now, just as it is.' He doesn't say, to Zacc or to us, 'Go away, make up for what you've done wrong, change your ways and come back when you're good enough for me to accept you.' He says, 'I accept you this moment, just as you are, and we'll take it from there.' So, v6:
he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.Literally it says, ' he… welcomed him with joy' - and I don't know why this translation didn't stick with the word 'joy' because in the Bible joy is one of the marks of a genuine and healthy believer. Weddings are great for joy, aren't they, as you see the joy of the couple entering the security of one another's unconditional love. It's great to be loved like that. And we need to take on board that that's the kind of acceptance we have from the Lord Jesus. Unconditional love - only absolutely secure and free from all the wobbles and failings of human love.
And that's the joy Zacc felt in v6. He knew Jesus had accepted him - and he was amazed. And the onlookers knew that Jesus had accepted him and they were also amazed - only amazed as in horrified, shocked, appalled. V7:
All the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a `sinner.' "And the unspoken question is: how can Jesus - if he's anything to do with God - accept a sinner? If he accepts the sinner, isn't he accepting the sin? Isn't he saying the sin didn't really matter - you know, let's forget it?
The answer is: Jesus can accept sinners because he's died for their sins on the cross. Jesus knew that he was on his way to Jerusalem to die - that's why v1 says he 'was passing through'. So Jesus knew that in a short time he would be hanging on the cross, in Zacc's place, facing the judgement that Zacc's sins deserved. So that he could forgive Zacc his sins without anyone saying that he hadn't taken those sins seriously, or that justice hadn't been done on those sins. So he could come into Zacc's life, forgive him his entire past, accept him, set about changing him and keep forgiving him in the future at any point he needed it - of which there would be many ( as well you know, if you're a Christian). And Zacc is just an example of what Jesus can do for anyone and everyone.
That's how Jesus can accept a sinner. Not by forgetting the sin, but by forgiving it through his death on the cross. So from v6 onwards, Jesus accepts Zacc as he is. And from then on, nothing good that Zacc does will make Jesus accept him more and nothing bad Zacc does will make Jesus accept him less.
I said that in a sermon a while ago and someone came up to afterwards me very offended. He said, 'I can't believe what you've just told us.' I said, 'Which bit?' He said, 'You just told us it doesn't matter how we live.' I said, 'No, I told you that if we're trusting in Jesus' death for our forgiveness, then nothing good we do will make him accept us more and nothing bad we do will make him accept us less.' And he said, 'But won't you just go out and sin if you know you'll always be forgiven?' And I said 'No, it doesn't work like that.' And he said, 'But what motivates you to lead a good life if not the fear of punishment if you don't?' And I said, 'Being loved.' I said, 'Knowing that Jesus died for me doesn't make it impossible for me to sin against him. But it makes me want not to.'
I've mentioned before how a friend in his wedding day groom's speech said to his wife, 'It amazes me that you know me best for the idiot that I am and yet you still love me. And it makes me want to be a better man.' And that's what being loved does. It changes what you want. And that's supremely true when the person who loves you is God and he's given up his own Son to die on a cross to get you back. And Zacc illustrates that change, v8:
8 But 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."
He's changed. He no longer wants to get, he wants to give. And whereas he was once happy with dishonesty, now he's unhappy with it. Some non-Christians I've talked to have the idea that the Christian life is a miserable business of doing what you don't really want to do and not doing what you'd really love to. Some of them have virtually said to me how hard it must be wanting to get drunk, or jump into bed with people - or whatever it is - and not being allowed to. But it isn't like that. When you're in spiritually good health and you've got some grasp of just how Jesus has loved you, you want to love him. I'm not saying you don't then struggle to do the new things you want to, and that you don't fail and sin. But I am saying that being loved by God changes you. And seeing the change in Zacc,
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." (vv9-10)So that's what it means to be saved by Jesus. On account of his death for your sins, he forgives your entire past, he accepts you just as you are, he comes into your life as your Lord and he starts to change you. But you're never perfect this side of heaven, so he's committed to keep forgiving your future sins as he works on you. And the final solution is that you die and he raises you from the dead in a sin-free body in a sin-free place, where you can finally be the perfect person he wants you to be and you've been wanting to be.
Let me end by saying something to a few kinds of people.
A word to those of us who've not yet received Jesus. For some, that may be because you don't think you're lost. You think that if there is a God and a judgement, you should be OK. Well, can I ask you: if there's really no problem, why do you think God sent his Son to die? On the other hand, there'll be some of us who've not received Jesus because we think we're not only lost, but a lost cause. Can I say to you: there are no such people. There are no sins Jesus cannot forgive and no lives Jesus cannot change. And if you're in that category and you need to know how to receive Jesus as Zacc did, please pick up a copy of the booklet, Why Jesus? from the Welcome Desk at the back of church.
Then finally, a word to those of us who have received Jesus. Can I ask: when you look at yourself, do you see those two marks of a healthy believer that we've seen in Zacc? Namely, joy; and the desire to please Jesus. If yes, it will be because we've got our eyes fixed on what Jesus did for us on the cross. And can I say, let's keep our eyes fixed there. But we're not always spiritually healthy, and a number of us may have to say the answer is 'No': we're low on joy and low on desire to please the Lord right now. If so, it may be that we've lost sight of the cross and are trying to earn God's acceptance so that life has become an impossible treadmill of 'trying to be good enough'. In which case, can I say: go back to the cross. Relationship with God from the moment we begin it is a free gift; it's not earned, and can't be. Or it may be not that we've lost sight of the cross, but that we've lost our amazement, our wonder, at the cross. Because we don't really see our sin as that big a thing, and therefore we don't see what Jesus did to save us from it as that big a thing. And we too need to go back to the cross and see both our sin and our Saviour more clearly. Because as one old Christian writer said, 'Dead is the soul that has ceased to be amazed at the death of the Lord Jesus Christ.'
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