Sermon for 06-03-12: “Sunday School Heroes, Part 1: Zacchaeus”

A sycamore tree in Jericho. I took this picture on my trip to the Holy Land last year.

Sermon Text: Luke 19:1-10

In Luke 18, Jesus warns his disciples that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it. What does it mean to welcome God’s kingdom like a child? In the story of this wee little tax collector named Zacchaeus, we find out. Let’s let Zacchaeus show us how to be a kid again.

Can you believe this good news? Salvation is here. Forgiveness of sins is here. The power to change your lives is here. Eternal life is here. Love beyond your wildest imagination is here. Jesus is offering all of this to you as a free gift here and now. If you’ve never received this gift for yourself, may Jesus say of you what he said of Zacchaeus so long ago, “Today, salvation has come to this household.”

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Some of you, I hope, will go with our church to the Holy Land next February. If so, one of the places you’ll go to is Jericho, the setting for today’s scripture. It’s 20 miles or so northwest of Jerusalem, and, according to the mosaic in this photo, it’s the lowest place on earth, at 1300 feet below sea level, which means, I imagine, you can do your best thinking because you have so much oxygen going to your brain. Jericho also claims to be the world’s oldest city having been in continuous existence since 8000 B.C.

You may recall from the Bible that Joshua fought a battle there when Israel was coming into the Promised Land. “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho…” We’re going to look at that text later in this sermon series, and I promise I won’t sing! Jericho is also mentioned in 2 Kings chapter 2 as the place where the prophet Elisha miraculously purified the city’s drinking water. Here’s a picture of me drinking from Elisha’s spring in Jericho. As I was drinking from this, of course I was thinking, “I hope this doesn’t make me sick.”  Elisha purified it a long time ago, which is no guarantee that it’s still pure today! But it was fine, of course! Earlier in Luke’s gospel it was also on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho where Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan was set. The wounded victim was headed to Jericho when he was beaten and robbed and left for dead.

In today’s scripture, Jesus and his disciples are headed to Jerusalem, and they’re passing through Jericho. Many people passed through Jericho on their way to Jerusalem, which is one reason why someone like Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, could make so much money. The Roman Empire had given Zacchaeus a license to collect taxes in the city. The way a tax collector made money was by overcharging taxes and taking his cut off the top. To make matters worse, Zacchaeus was also a “ruler among tax collectors,” which meant that he had other tax collectors working for him, and he was skimming money from each of them as well.

All this was perfectly legal, but unethical. Think of pay-day lenders as the nearest modern-day equivalent. Zacchaeus was loaded, but his fellow Jews would have considered his wealth ill-gotten gains. Besides, he was working for the enemy. He was a reminder to the people that they were under occupation by a foreign power.

To give you an idea of how disreputable tax collectors were, consider the parable that Jesus tells in the previous chapter of Luke’s gospel: Jesus says that a Pharisee and a tax collector went to the temple to pray. When the Pharisee prayed, he said, “God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else—crooks, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector.” In fact, one of the slanders against Jesus is that he is a “friend of sinners and tax collectors.”

To make matters even worse, we’re told in verse 3 that Zacchaeus was short! My children recently heard that Randy Newman song “Short People,” and were greatly bothered: “Short people got no reason to live.” I tried to explain that this was satire, a way of making fun of our prejudices. There’s nothing wrong with being short, and some of you know what this is like, don’t you? I frequently go to concerts that are standing-room-only, and Lisa hates those shows because she knows that it will mean that she won’t be able to see. I’m 5’11”, and for most of my life I thought I was adequately tall. Until I got in touch with my birth mother, Linda. I was adopted, you may recall. My birth mother, Linda, is tall: 5’9”. And although I don’t know my birth father, I do know that he was tall—6’2”. So I’m like, “What’s my problem? Why aren’t I taller!” But at least I’m not short!

But Zacchaeus was short. And given how despised he was, it’s not like people were going to move out of the way and make room for him at the front of the crowd, you know? So what does Zacchaeus do? Verse 4 says he runs ahead of Jesus and the crowd and climbs a sycamore tree. Here’s a picture of a sycamore tree in Jericho. I don’t know if it’s the sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed, but you can see the advantages of climbing such a tree: low branches.

There were few things more fun when I was a boy than finding a good tree to climb! My mom was a worrywart so I had to do it when she wasn’t looking, but it was fun! Climbing trees is something kids do, and so much about Zacchaeus—running, climbing, his childlike enthusiasm, his lack of inhibition, his lack of self-consciousness—reminds us of being a child. I think this is intentional. I think Luke wants us to make that connection to children. In the previous chapter, chapter 18, Luke tells us that people were bringing babies to Jesus so that he would bless them. This annoyed the disciples, who told  the people to knock it off. “Don’t you know that Jesus has more important things to do.” But Jesus said, “No… Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.”

What does it mean to welcome God’s kingdom like a child? How does a child welcome something?

Every summer when I was a kid, the highlight of the summer was when my friend Craig came to visit. I called him my cousin, and his mom was “Aunt Ann” to me. They lived in Savannah, and they would come each summer to spend a couple of weeks with us. To this day, Craig is one of my favorite people in the world. But when Craig came to visit when I was a kid, I would be watching from my bedroom window. When I saw Aunt Ann’s blue Chevrolet come down the street, I would run out of the house, run down the driveway, wait for Craig to get out of the car, and when I saw him, do you know what he and I would do? We would look at one another and laugh. We would laugh for minutes on end, until—inevitably—our mothers scolded us for being so silly. It was just pure, unadulterated joy. That’s how a child welcomes something!

By contrast, about ten years ago, when I was an adult, I went to the Variety Playhouse in Little Five Points to see a favorite rock band of mine, called Sleater-Kinney. I arrived early and went to the concession stand. And standing there at the counter, in street clothes, looking as normal and inconspicuous and down-to-earth as anyone else, was the lead singer of this band that I loved. Her name was Corin Tucker. There she was, a musical hero of mine, and she’s standing right in front of me. So what do I do about it? What do I say? Nothing. I wanted to talk to her, but I was too self-conscious, too embarrassed, too cool. I didn’t want to be a big dork and ask for an autograph or something. Meanwhile, as I was feeling self-conscious, wondering what to say or do, this big dork walked up to her and said, “Are you Corin? Can I have an autograph?” And then the moment was ruined.

I wish I was a bigger dork sometimes. I wish I weren’t so self-conscious. I wish I weren’t so easily embarrassed. I wish I didn’t care about what other people thought of me as much as I do. If I were still a kid in that situation, I would have been like that that little boy in the driveway, laughing uncontrollably, unable to contain my joy. To think that this woman whose music changed my life is standing right in front of me! Can I even believe my eyes? How awesome is this! What an opportunity! What a blessing!

Zacchaeus, unlike me, is like a kid, running and climbing the sycamore tree, so excited about the chance to see Jesus. When Jesus tells him to come down at once and that he must stay in his home today, what does Zacchaeus do? Verse 6: “So Zacchaeus came down at once, happy to welcome Jesus.” Zacchaeus was welcoming God’s kingdom like a child.

Isn’t it interesting that Jesus already knows who Zacchaeus is when he calls him out of that tree? Jesus knows all about him, including the fact that he’s a tax collector. This bothers the onlookers who scoff, “He’s gone to be the guest of a sinner!”

What does it mean that Jesus knows in advance the kind of person Zacchaeus is?

We were brainstorming last week at our leadership team meeting about how we as a church can be more hospitable to visitors, and you know how brainstorming is supposed to work… there are no bad ideas. Someone had a potentially good and interesting idea. She said, “Why don’t we provide free valet parking for visitors who show up close to 11:00 on busy Sunday mornings and can’t find parking anywhere? We know that sometimes visitors drive around in frustration looking for a space and end up driving away. Wouldn’t it be much better instead if they could drive up to the front door, and we’d take care of parking for them?”

Sounds good, huh? I can totally see the benefit of this. But you know what? I hate the idea! I hate valet parking. I avoid it like the plague. I will drive to the far end of any parking lot to avoid using it. Do you know why? It’s not the tipping of the valet. It’s not the waiting for someone to go get my car when I’m ready to leave. It’s not entrusting my car with someone who, as in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, might take it for a joy ride. It’s not any of that. It’s the seven discarded coffee cups in the floorboard… the trash from that lunch I ate in the car last week that never found its way into the trash can… the junk mail that never made it into the house… the crumbled up papers and magazines… the gum wrappers… the banana peel from this morning… I don’t want strangers seeing the inside of my car! I don’t want them to judge me! I don’t want them to see my trash!

Brothers and sisters, being a Christian means being willing to let Jesus see your trash. We’ve all got trash in our lives. You know that, right?

Imagine someone saying to you, out of the blue, “I’m going to come and stay in your home today. Right now. Let’s go.” That’s what Jesus says to Zacchaeus, right? I would be like, “Um, Jesus… I’ve been meaning to cut the grass for a few weeks now, but I’ve been really busy. So the yard is overgrown. I’ve been meaning to load the dishwasher, so there are dirty dishes on the counter. I’ve been meaning to straighten up the living room, and it’s a mess. So can you wait a couple of hours and then come over?” Now, as the father of three children, I know from experience that kids are completely unembarrassed to let visitors see their mess! And to his credit, Zacchaeus is also like a child because he isn’t too embarrassed for Jesus to see his mess… to see him as he truly is… to see his sin.

I honestly believe that many people don’t want to become Christians or live their lives as Christians until after they’ve cleaned up the mess in their lives. And, to be sure, before the end of the story, Zacchaeus will begin to clean up his mess—promising to give away half of his wealth and repay the people four times the amount he’d cheated them out of. But that’s after Jesus invites himself over, and after Zacchaeus accepts the invitation!

Friends, God’s grace is like that! I have a friend in AA, as some of you do, I’m sure. He tells me that one of the great things about AA is that everyone is so honest about the mess in their lives. They tell everyone, “I’m an alcoholic. My life, apart from God, is a mess. I’m completely powerless on my own to solve this problem.” I want us to relate to Jesus like that. I want us to relate to our brothers and sisters in Christ like that. “I’m a sinner. My life, apart from God, is a mess. I’m completely helpless on my own to solve this problem of sin in my life.”

My pastor friend John, who is not United Methodist, was pastoring a church in a small town in Texas, and he was complaining to me about the local First United Methodist church in town… First, he said, one group in the church was gossiping about this, and then another group was gossiping about that, and can you believe that still another group in the church did this other bad thing? And I said, “I know, John. Listen, the dirty little secret about Methodist churches is that they are filled with sinners.”

I mean, thank God our churches are filled with sinners, because that means that I will fit right in! Amen? There’s a place for me! What a relief! Church ought to be, in fact, a hospital for us sinners.

When Jesus calls Zacchaeus down from that tree, it’s as if Jesus were saying to him: “I already know you, Zach. I know exactly who you are. I know the kind of person you are. I know what you’ve done. I know you’re a sinner. I know that all these other people judge you. And they judge me because I’m reaching out to you. But I don’t care. I love you. You are the very reason I came into the world… to seek and save the lost. I want to save you.”

Maybe Jesus is saying the same thing to you this morning? Maybe you’ve resisted coming down from that tree that you’ve been hiding in. Maybe you’re too ashamed. There’s no shame in admitting you’re lost and you need help finding your way. Don’t be too cool for Jesus. Don’t be too cool to show Jesus your mess. Don’t be too cool to admit you need help cleaning it up. In fact, be a kid again! Your salvation is here. Forgiveness of your sins is here. The power to change your lives is here. Eternal life is here! Love beyond your wildest imagination is here. Jesus is offering all of this to you as a free gift here and now. Don’t leave here without receiving what Jesus is offering you. Let Jesus say of you as he said of Zacchaeus so long ago, “Today, salvation has come to this household.” Amen!

“Jesus, I hear you calling me, just as you called Zacchaeus so long ago. I come to you the way Zacchaeus did—recognizing my sin and resolving to change. I accept you as my King, my Savior, and my Lord. Forgive me for the ways I’ve turned from God’s path, and help me to follow you. Save me from myself, and help me to live for you. I receive you, Jesus Christ, and believe in your name. Make me your child, and bring me your joy. Help me to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you. In your name I pray, Jesus my Christ. Amen.”

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