“God’s Success”

Luke 19: 1-10

“He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 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.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Luke 19: 1-10

In November I saw an old, famous Sycamore tree on the main road between Jericho and Jerusalem, known as the Zacchaeus tree. It had low, spreading branches which would make it an ideal perch for watching a parade. Maybe that was the tree I had sung about in my all-time favorite Sunday School song, “…He climbed up in a Sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see.” Zacchaeus, the wealthy chief tax collector, was searching the crowd for Jesus, straining to see him. There was something missing from his life that caused his eyes to search the crowd for Jesus.

There was a young violinist just like Zacchaeus who searched a crowd once. The violinist was known to be the best in London but terrified of large crowds. He only played small venues like homes of friends. The critics were extremely frustrated by this, proclaiming that if anyone was to be taken seriously on the London musical scene, a concert in a large hall was the first step. Finally the young violinist agreed, and the largest hall in London was booked. The first row was filled with critics, their pens and pads ready to finally review the violinist. He walked onto the stage with no accompaniment. After he began to play, the critics put their notebooks away and their pens down. They were mesmerized. He played for an hour and a half without intermission. When he finished, the crowd rose to their feet with thunderous applause. But the young violinist remained on the stool and looked across the crowd for several minutes. The cheering continued! Finally as he looked into the balcony his face lit up. He stood and with a big smile began to bow to the cheering crowd. Backstage afterward, the critics raved and were interested in why it took him so long to acknowledge the applause. He told them that he learned his teacher was going to be at the concert, and he didn’t feel good about the performance until he saw his teacher in the balcony cheering and clapping. Imagine that. He didn’t even hear the applause until he saw the affirmation of his teacher.

Where do we look for affirmation in our success? Do we have someone who really counts in life? Is it our friend, our children, our spouse? Is it our parents, who even if they have passed away can somehow affect the way we measure our success? Tony Campolo has termed these people in our lives our “significant others.” Just like the violinist, no matter what acclaim we may receive from the business deal, the art show, the final report, the project results, if our significant others are not there cheering for us, we feel little success. Someone can be very talented and achieve great things, yet feel very empty if the significant others are not in the picture. Success never should feel empty. It is all right to pursue success, to climb the ladder, to provide for your family, to be all that you can be in business, to pursue the American dream of home ownership and a future retirement; these goals are not bad. There is nothing wrong with trying to succeed- and succeeding! So how can something so good cause someone to feel empty?

Success is usually measured by wealth and prestige. Have you heard the saying, “In and of themselves, material gains are immaterial,” or, “If earthly treasures are our only goal, how empty life would be.” If God is in the picture of our success, it is viewed differently. And success will not be empty if God fills it with his grace. This is because God’s ways are not our ways, as the Scripture teaches. If God is involved in our lives as a significant other, we have a judge of our success that is much different than the rest of the world. Isaiah teaches, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8 -9). God created us for more than the success that we can see and measure. Ecclessiastes 3:11 says, God has “set eternity in our hearts.” Because of that, the temporal world will never truly satisfy. Whether we do or not, deep down, we will seek the everlasting. Wealth, power, prestige will not complete the part of us that we are hoping to fill. When we act as if they do, we are like the broken cisterns that Jeremiah said cannot hold the living water of God.

When you look from the stage out into the cheering crowd, who are you looking for? Zaccheaus knew that a famous, miracle-working rabbi was coming to town. He looked for Jesus, and the Scriptures say that he ran to climb up into that tree. I am certain that he never expected Jesus to invite himself over to his house to eat. Imagine the pressure! I can. This past Friday evening at a benefit I sat down next to a woman who identified herself as someone who taught etiquette. As she explained her business of teaching executives manners and conversation, I watched the little forks, knives, and spoons multiply on the table, and then I felt tongue tied and almost couldn’t remember which end of the fork to use. But she turned out to be a delightful lady, and I enjoyed the dinner immensely. Zaccheuas may have felt that same way at first, but soon he realized how accepted he was by God. Jesus blessed him. Zacchaeus responded by opening his heart and giving generously to the poor.

God loves us for who we are- children of God- not for what we do. That means God loves us even if we fail in life. We may fail in business, in a relationship, in an important, vital matter, but God’s love calls us to try again. Sometimes it takes many failures to make one small success. We’ve heard of many inventors who failed a thousand times before that one time when the idea finally worked. Knowing that God is cheering for us even when we fail can be encouraging. We can dust ourselves off and try again and again. The disciples failed many times as they learned how to practice their faith. They didn’t understand the message that Jesus was teaching. They totally underestimated how Jesus could inspire a crowd to share with one another. The disciples could not grasp how Jesus could accept and care for someone who was devalued in society. When Jesus asked them to stay awake and pray, they fell asleep. They seemed to learn that failure comes with faith. Success in God’s eyes is not an absence of failure. Success in God’s eyes is being able to have faith in the midst of failures, and to keep on, or even start again if necessary.

This weekend a wedding couple arrived at the church to walk through their ceremony. The bride was very tall and slender- the groom pointed out, “She’s an athlete!” As she ran and hugged her father who walked in minutes later, I immediately noticed that he was also tall and skinny. I said, “You two are so tall. You really look alike!” We walked into the church and began to walk through the ceremony. I said to the father, “You will walk her up the aisle and wait for me to ask the question to you, then you can respond and be seated.” He asked, “You want me to walk her down the aisle and be seated?” I said, “Yes, that’s your job, you walk her down the aisle and be seated.” He answered, “I guess everybody does it differently.” “That’s the way we do it here!” I proclaimed as he shrugged and sat in the pew silently. I thought of how sweet it was that he didn’t want to give his daughter away. Then I proceeded to go through the entire ceremony with the couple. When we finished the groom said, “I can’t wait to play golf, it’s going to be good weather this weekend.” The bride said, “Yes, I need to call my father and remind him that he’s supposed to play.” “Call your father?” I said. Then it hit me- I suddenly remembered that the man sitting in the pew was not her father. It was her family’s visiting Catholic priest who was supposed to participate in the ceremony with me. My instructions to him echoed in my mind, “Walk her down the aisle…then sit down…that’s your job…” I had unintentionally set Protestant/Catholic relations back hundreds of years! We were able to completely start over and begin again after I finished laughing at myself.

Zacchaeus had failed, too. He had offended everyone deeply and was not well liked in the community. Yet he decided to make amends. In fact, Zacchaeus said that he was going to pay back four times what he had defrauded. Jesus sought to teach that life is more than the abundance of possessions, and Zaccheuas learned that lesson pretty quickly. Finally he had seen that approval in the crowd. It was the face of Jesus, and it brought life into focus.

Mother Teresa was known to have said, “I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness.” Though our culture may content itself in defining success in terms of external things, money and possessions, status and popularity, power and influence, appearance and beauty – Jesus defines success in terms of the heart. It starts inside the heart. It begins with acknowledging a loving God who wants to help us in our lives, who is willing to lead us toward true meaning in life. This is a higher spiritual reality of making God’s goals our goals. Knowing God’s love is the greatest success of all. It leads toward telling the truth with yourself and with God. It leads to better relationships at home and at work. It leads to managing success in a way that honors God and does not let the material world anchor you down and become your only reality. With God’s goals, real opportunities to serve God and to give back to others emerge. God wants us to feel like a success in the way we treat others, and ourselves, and God. God wants real success to come into our lives and pick us up whenever we fail. Like Zacchaeus, let us strive for Jesus to bless us. Then when we respond, Jesus can say, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” That is God’s success!

Amen.