Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.'” 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, will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
Today is Bible story Sunday. Our Sunday School program will be studying the story of Zacchaeus, too, so please remember to talk about the story with your children during lunch today, or ask for a rendition of the Zacchaeus song.
This is a story of someone feeling lost and being found. When you hear that word lost, what comes to your mind? Do you think about lost character, lost identity, loss of respect, loss of conscience? Do you think about loss of self, or loss of that very complex idea, the soul? Being lost is kind of like being thirsty. Not all drinks satisfy our thirst so when we are thirsty we look for something that will. What we are really thirsty for is God. That is part of the overall lesson in the season of Lent.
During Lent we consider things like our mortality and the fragility of life. We remember Jesus being tempted in the desert and consider our own temptations. We look deep within ourselves and ask God to weed out the bad and purify our lives. We may doubt that can be possible, but it is possible, that is the good news of the day. What has been lost can be restored. Our greatest thirst can be satisfied. God provides ultimate meaning, God satisfies ultimate thirst. That is the good news of the story today.
I have heard people say that they cannot change. “I am the way I am and can’t change.” “I’ve always been this way.” “I’m a lost soul.” Maybe they believe God is too busy doing other things to pay attention to them. I guess I can understand that thinking – that God is involved only in big, universal things. When you ponder the magnitude of creation and all of the parts that are set in motion- the galaxies, the planets, the burning stars, the movement of the tides and the moon, even the workings of the body at the cellular level, I can see how you would have a feeling of insignificance. Yet we should realize that God cares about small things, too, things that seem insignificant. Humanity does feel insignificant against the stars in the sky- even the Psalms admit that. Yet when life spins out of control, we must realize that God is still involved. God is not out of the picture working on the universe some great distance away. God is very close by, seeking, empowering. God wants everyone to realize that he helps change our human nature.
Some believe that God will never turn their way, but actually, God not only seeks each of us out, God calls us by name. The Bible is filled with examples of people who felt completely lost only to discover that God found them, turned their life around, and secured them for the future.
A minister was on his death bed being visited by a very young minister who asked if he would like to have Scriptures read to him. “Sure, that would be a great comfort to me. Would you please read the first chapter of First Chronicles?” The young minister turned to the passage and began to read the fifty four verses containing around 250 names, a listing of an Old Testament genealogy. Many were difficult Hebrew names, but he struggled through and finally reached the end. After a long pause the young minister inquired, “How did you find comfort from those verses?” and the older minister replied, “It comforts me to know that God knows each of them by name.”
Zacchaeus discovered that fact. When Jesus called him by name, a great change happened in his life. My theory is that Zach was so excited to hear Jesus call his name that he fell out of the tree onto the ground. Some scholars say that when Zacchaeus made those very public comments making amends for his dishonesty as a tax collector, he made them at a dinner, but I prefer to side with those who say that Zacchaeus made them as he rose from the ground after having fallen from the tree. When Jesus stopped and called the chief tax collector’s name that was enough to shake Zacchaeus right out of the tree.
The people around responded with disdain. They hated tax collectors and that hatred went back generations. There was a tablet found in Iraq that was over 3,500 years old that read, “You can have a lord, you can have a king, but the man to fear is the tax collector.” Now that is ancient hatred! Zacchaeus felt that hatred from his community. It was the source of his despair. He was living a terrible life of cheating his kindred. When the Persians conquered a people they found a local traitor to be a puppet governor. The Romans perfected this system. They made tax collecting a way to fund the empire. Natives were appointed to collect from their own communities. They were shunned, but the Romans made it worth their while. The betrayers became rich with commissions.
Deep inside his soul, Zacchaeus was desperate for redemption. The crowd was so thick around Jesus that he climbed a tree. Jesus stopped and called his name. Zacchaeus encountered the word of God that called his life into new relevance. Suddenly he was faced with a new reality. Someone holy, someone good, someone who lived a life of love cared about him and believed in him.
You may have heard the story about a tutor that went to a hospital to help a child. She was surprised to learn that the child’s room was in the burn unit of the hospital, and as she entered the room she immediately felt uncomfortable. She stammered out the words, “I am here to help you with your homework- it’s verbs and adverbs.” She hurried through the lesson uncomfortably.
The next day the tutor returned and a nurse stopped her in the hallway. “You were here yesterday…what did you do….” The tutor began to apologize profusely but the nurse interrupted her. “Don’t apologize….You did something really good. After you left, he began to turn around…to respond to treatment. It was as if he decided to live…”
They entered the boy’s room and he eventually told them that he knew he was getting better when the tutor arrived. “I knew they would never send a tutor to a dying boy!” he said in tears.
Yes, it makes a difference when we know someone believes in us. Yesterday we had half a church full of a family for a baptism. Four generations of a family were here – the family of a former minister of this church, Dr. Hodgson. Many of his family are leaders in our church today. Seeing that little baby surrounded by loved ones was a strong message that this child was privileged in a special way. She would always feel believed in, loved, and supported by a family. There is no better message that a child can receive than that. Nothing shapes a child’s life more than love.
The most troubled adolescents remark that they do not know whether anyone believes in them. Knowing that someone believes in you can make all of the difference in the world. Knowing that God believes in you can completely turn your life around, change your nature.
Invitation to Love, by Lloyd Douglas, features a failed actress that faces the dean at the depth of her disappointment. She tells him that she doesn’t even know if she even believes in God. God believes in you, he answers her, and one day “…the time may come when you can feel that you should return the favor.”
When someone believes in you, you feel revived, but when you realize God believes in you, your whole life is reframed. Everything can change. Some of those people muttered when Zacchaeus walked away with Jesus, . “See who Jesus walks with.” But isn’t it possible that there were some who were looking at Zacchaeus saying, “See who Zacchaeus walks with now. Our chief tax collector has turned his life around!”
We can change. We can leave our old lives behind and become something new. Even if we are hopelessly lost in the darkness and dying of thirst we should not lose heart. God is calling our name, seeking us out, offering living water, and bringing us safely home again. Amen.