Sermon 10-30-2022: “Imitate the Wee Little Man”

November 7, 2022

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

Friends, I think I’m getting a reputation. Not in a bad way. But I think I’m getting a reputation around town as the “skateboarding pastor.” Technically, my skateboard is called a “longboard,” because it’s built for riding, not for jumping and doing stunts… But as far as I can tell I’m the only skateboarder in town, and more than a few people know that I’m also a pastor at Toccoa First Methodist. If it promotes the church around town, I’m all for it. But it’s a scary reminder to me to be on my best behavior when I’m on my skateboard—since people are beginning to associate me with our church… So, for instance, if someone driving a car veers too close to me, or someone runs a stop sign in front of me, or someone pulls out in front of me without giving me ample room to maneuver, causing me to swerve—I need to be careful not to give the driver a dirty look, or yell at them, or gesture at them in a rude way! Not that I would ever do that

But… I don’t want to risk giving our church a bad name!

One of you told me that when I’m on my skateboard—in my helmet, in elbow pads, in knee pads—you told me I look much, much younger. At least from a distance, you said, I look like a teenager. So as a result, I think I might start wearing skateboarding gear all the time. Because I want to look younger. One of you also told me how proud you were of me for learning to ride a skateboard—you know, “at your age”!

But I get it… Riding a skateboard is a behavior that’s usually associated with young people… and with children.

Much like climbing a tree in today’s scripture. There is something childlike about Zacchaeus. Which is in part why the story of Zacchaeus remains one of the most popular Bible stories among children. [sing:] “Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he/ He climbed up in a sycamore for the Lord he wanted to see…”

Kids love Zacchaeus; they relate to Zacchaeus. In fact, I think Luke wants us to associate Zacchaeus with childlike qualities—I’ll say more about that later.

But let’s not get carried away. Just because Zacchaeus seems childlike doesn’t mean people who knew him considered him harmless or innocent like a child! Not at all! He was threatening. Intimidating to people.

I mentioned tax collectors last week: Tax collectors were given licenses by the Romans to collect taxes. One of the fringe benefits of the job is that they could collect as much money as they wanted, so long as they gave the Romans their required share. So tax collectors were frequently extorting people for money—charging much more than they needed to—and then using Roman soldiers to force people to pay. And since Jericho was a border town on a busy trade route, it was an ideal place to collect taxes.

Tax collectors were also considered traitors to the Jewish cause; they were collaborating with an occupying enemy army and its leaders.

And Zacchaeus wasn’t merely a tax collector. Luke says he’s a “chief tax collector,” which meant that he had tax collectors working underneath him—he was taking a percentage of everything that they were collecting, too.

So Zacchaeus was very wealthy… And very much hated. 

But over the course of these ten verses, Zacchaeus changed—dramatically—in response to Jesus’ invitation. Let’s talk about that change. And let’s talk about how Zacchaeus’s example and his experience can teach us three important things about following Jesus. First, our task. Second, our treasure. And, third, our test.

Task, treasure, and test… That’s what today’s sermon is about.

First, our task… Why are we here? What’s our purpose? One of the most important verses in this regard is the very first verse: “He”—Jesus—“entered Jericho and was passing through.” Let’s pay attention to those last two words: passing through.

Where was Jesus going? Well, Jericho was only about twenty miles northeast of Jerusalem. Jesus was on his way up to Jerusalem, and he was almost there… Ultimately, he was on his way up to a hill called Golgotha five days later… He was on his way up to die on the cross… He knew it. For all the good and necessary work Jesus had done for the gospel and for God’s kingdom during his three-year public ministry, the most important and most difficult work—by far—lay ahead of him. So he is just passing through—not intending to stay in Jericho for long—because, after all, his time is precious, his time is urgent, his time is running short

Yet look at the way Jesus chooses to spend his precious time: With this one outsider. With this one despised person. With this one notoriously bad man. Even though Jesus was just “passing through.” Even though, as far as we can tell, spending most of the day with this one man was not part of Jesus’ original plans.

I’m reminded of that great song by John Lennon from 1980. “Beautiful Boy.” He sings, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” And sometimes, God’s most important work is what happens to us when we’re busy making other plans. But we should always be willing to change our plans when God wants us too. Especially when God’s plans include helping to bring someone into a saving relationship with with God through Christ!

Whatever plans we make, on our own, they are never more important than God’s plans to save the world—which he does by using us, the church, the Body of Christ in the world.

Jesus’ own example demonstrates this truth: in this moment, there was no one more important in the eyes of God Incarnate, the Second Person of the Trinity, Israel’s Messiah and the world’s Savior—no one more important than Zacchaeus himself; and in spite of the fact that Jesus seemingly had far more important tasks to accomplish elsewhere,there was no task more important—right then and there—than doing what? See verse 10: “Seeking and saving the lost”… specifically this one lost soul… inviting this one lost person, Zacchaeus, into a saving relationship with God.

If that’s true for Jesus—and we are his Body in this world—how is that not true for us?

A few years ago I had the pleasure of making the acquaintance of a young pastor named Trey Hildebrandt. He’s the campus pastor of the Snellville branch of the 12Stone Church. A lot of you have heard of 12Stone… it’s a multicampus megachurch, affiliated with the Wesleyan Church denomination. Trey was telling me that not long after he came on board at 12Stone, he got a call late one night—I’m talking 11:00 or 12:00 at nightfrom his boss—the senior pastor of 12Stone Church… Kevin Myers. Kevin asked Trey and all the other pastors to come to his house, that it was an emergency. And when they got there, Kevin was in tears. He was just overwhelmed with sorrow, and he couldn’t get a hold of himself. And he explained that it was because his heart was brokenbroken… as he thought about all the lost people all around their churches who needed the gospel… and could they just get on their knees right then and there and pray for the lost… and pray that the members of their churches would be used in powerful ways by the Holy Spirit to reach the lost.

It’s a powerful testimony, and a reminder of the most important reason our church is here! 

Listen, I know from personal experience how difficult it is to stay focused on our mission to “seek and save the lost.” And I think it’s because there are so many other important, urgent matters for a church to attend to. Church members in need of pastoral care. Problems to solve. Fires to put out. And for the sake of the health of the local church, we can’t ignore these other important tasks… But at the same time, Jesus is giving us an example in today’s scripture of what’s most important.

With that in mind, tomorrow night we’re going to have maybe a thousand people—no exaggeration—on our church property for “Light in the Dark,” a trunk or treat event, but it’s much more than trunk or treat. The last time we did a Trunk or Treat, in 2019, we had 700 visitors, and it was raining that night, so we had to move everything inside. I think we’ll have many more this year.

And as always with these events, my strong conviction is that we don’t host events like this simply because we’re nice Methodists and we want to give families a good time, we want to feed them and enable them to have fun, and give their children more candy: No! We host events like this in order to “seek and save the lost.” I can think of three ways that we’re doing this tomorrow night: First, we’re having all our trunks decorated with biblical themes… Second, we’re even having a “prayer trunk,” in which we will invite our community to share prayer needs, and we will pray over them. Third, we’re having a Christian magician come and perform—two shows—and at each performance not only will he do some great magic tricks, but he will also deliberately share the gospel with the kids.

I know many of you are participating and volunteering, but even if you can’t attend, your generous financial giving makes events like this possible. And since I’ve been preaching and teaching about prayer a lot recently, everyone in our church can also pray that this event will play a role in “seeking and saving the lost.”

At Admin Board last Tuesday, Janet Kaup, our Invite chair, put it well when she said, “Our plan and prayer would be that when someone leaves this event they will know they have been in the Lord’s house.” And I say, “Amen, sister!” That’s exactly right!

But it’s hard to stay focused on our main task!

Years ago, I was at our Annual Conference in Athens, Georgia. This is our annual business meeting with a couple thousand clergy and lay leaders in attendance at the Classic Center in Athens. During the conference, an ordained clergy couple were talking, with great enthusiasm, about this inner-city church that they planted. They were telling us about all their efforts to get to know people in their community, to love their community, to serve their community, to meet important needs in their community—which was wonderful, of course. But I’ll never forget something else they said. They said, “We’re doing all this because we love people, not to somehow save them”—and they literally used “air quotes” when they said “not to somehow save them.”

Why on earth would they put “save them” in air quotes? I don’t want to somehow save people. I want to actually save people, if possible! I sure want to try!

But I wanted to say to these clergy colleagues, “You’re talking about loving people… But don’t you see? We simply don’t love them enough, unless or until we love them enough to want to save them!” If we say we love them, but we don’t love them enough to do whatever is necessary to bring them into a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we’re not really loving them very much, are we?

My mother-in-law, Anna Lee, is in the final stages of a long battle with Parkinson’s Disease. She is ready to meet Jesus, as she has told us, her family. And she will very soon meet Jesus face to face. Thank God that when she was a little girl, she had neighbors and Sunday school teachers and pastors and churches in her community that loved her enough to somehow save her! Because the eighty-plus years she’s been here on earth are just a blink of the eye in light of the time she’ll spend in eternity!

Don’t misunderstand: I want us to love, and serve, and meet the needs of our community, too… By all means. But as we do so, we recognize that the greatest need of all is the need that we all have for salvation through Christ! And Jesus tells us that this must be our primary mission!

I’m afraid that that clergy couple imagined that somehow, simply by showing love—apart from deliberately sharing the gospel—lost people will get saved… naturally, by osmosis or something. We don’t have to be deliberate about doing evangelism.

I disagree… But who cares what I think? Look at the example of Jesus in today’s scripture. He doesn’t invite himself over to Zacchaeus’s house simply to be his friend, or because he wants a good meal, or because Zacchaeus is such a great conversationalist. Jesus goes to this trouble for one reason only: He wants to save Zacchaeus.

How can we as a church do any less?

And as I say, that’s what we’re doing tomorrow night…

And that’s Point Number One: our ultimate and most important task… is to seek and save the lost.

Point Number Two: our treasure

Preachers often preach today’s scripture during stewardship campaigns. I’m sure I’ve done that before. And we do so because we look at how generous Zacchaeus is in verse 8: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.”

As I’ve said, Zacchaeus is a wealthy man. But his generosity here goes so far beyond what God’s law requires. The Old Testament required him to give a tithe—which is ten percent. Is that what Zacchaeus does? Nopefifty percent! Also, when you extort money from someone or defraud them, the Old Testament requires the wrongdoer to pay back the full amount plus one-fifth—an extra 20 percent—as restitution. 1 Is that what Zacchaeus does? Nope! He pays his victims back four times what he stole from them!

I know Zacchaeus is a wealthy man, but you don’t give away that kind of money without feeling it! This kind of generosity can’t help but make a huge dent in one’s standard of living. 

So the temptation we preachers face is to admire the generosity of Zacchaeus and say, “Be generous like him!”

But I don’t know… 

I now think the story of Zacchaeus makes for a lousy stewardship message. 

I don’t think it’s helpful to tell anyone, “Be generous like Zacchaeus.” First of all, who among us is as generous as him? I haven’t given a “tithe” of 50 percent of all of my wealth and possessions! Have you? I also don’t think God is asking us to do that. If I did believe that God wanted me to give as much as Zacchaeus gave, I would be filled with guilt for failing so badly to do it!

Besides, even if I succeeded to give as much as Zacchaeus, I’d be scared, anxious, full of resentment. I’d be resentful at and probably look down on my brothers and sisters in the church who, unlike me, were not being as generous with their money as I am! I’d become self-righteous… I’d be full of self-pity. “Woe is me!” I’d think. “Why is God punishing me by asking me to give all of this? Why doesn’t anyone appreciate what a sacrifice I’m making?” Wah-wah-wah!

And please notice, feeling guilty, feeling resentful, feeling sorry for oneself, feeling anxious and worried…These are the very last things that our brother Zacchaeus is feeling in today’s scripture!

Look at verses 5 and 6:

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.” So he hurried and came down and received him joyfully.

Notice that word: joyfully. Zacchaeus hurries down that tree because he’s so excited to be with Jesus. By the way, in today’s culture we would think it’s rude for someone to invite themselves over to our house. But not in Jesus’ day! It was considered a great honor for Zacchaeus to play host to such a great and important rabbi as Jesus by having him for dinner in his home! Zacchaeus was filled with joy!

And even in verse 8, when Zacchaeus says, “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor,” he is expressing joy. We don’t use the word “behold” anymore. Years ago, the dairy farmers’ association sponsored an ad campaign in which an announcer said, “Behold, the power of cheese.” I think that was the last time that word was used outside of the Bible. But these are words that should be read with a note of excitement—as if Zacchaeus were saying, “Look what I’m doing! Isn’t this great!”

Again… No emotion characterizes Zacchaeus more than joy. Everything he does, he does from a place of joy.

I said earlier that Luke wants us to see Zacchaeus as a “childlike” figure: He’s small like a child; he climbs trees like a child. In fact, I think Luke wants us to make a connection to what Jesus says in the previous chapter—the scripture I preached on last week. Jesus says that in order to enter God’s kingdom, we have to receive it like a child. Chapter 18, verse 17.

How do children receive things?

Well, I’m reminded of when I was a kid. Every summer, between the ages of five and fifteen, the highlight of my summer was when my friend Craig came to visit. I called Craig 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. Whenever Craig came to visit, I remember 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 the way children are! That’s what joy feels like!

Zacchaeus has joy. Jesus wants us to know joy! If we’re Christians, we have the Holy Spirit within us, and he is working in our hearts to produce joy!

Since that’s the case, I have no interest in telling you, “Be generous like Zacchaeus!” I want to say, “Be joyful like Zacchaeus!” Start there. Start with joy. Be joyful andgenerosity will take care of itself. If we’re not generous, then it’s probably because we’re not joyful in the Lord!

Be joyful! God’s Word commands it! “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.” 2 Joy is a fruit of the Spirit, which means it’s something that should be growing within us all the time.

One of my favorite scriptures of all time is Matthew 13:44-46:

The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, went and sold all that he had and bought it.

The two men that Jesus describes in these short parables, they are not reluctantly selling everything they have in order to buy this great treasure—they are gladly doing it… “Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys this field.”

I like these parables, though, because they make the connection between experiencing joy and treasuring Christ—finding our treasure in Christ. Joy and treasure go hand in hand. And that’s Point Number Two: When we find our treasure in Christ, we find joy… just like Zacchaeus.

Joy, of course, isn’t only an emotion—although it will often makes us feel happy… happier than anything else. But joy, unlike happiness, doesn’t depend on circumstances.

For example, in Philippians 3, Paul is writing his most joy-filled letter, from prison of all places. And in the letter he describes losing nearly everything… except his life. And he may soon lose even his life, but he hasn’t lost it yet. But it doesn’t matter to him very much if he does. He writes, in verse 8, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish in order that I may gain Christ.”

In other words, Paul says, “In comparison to what I have gained in ‘knowing Christ,’ everything else—including all these things I no longer possess, which I used to treasure—all these things seem like garbage now, at least in comparison to the treasure that I have in knowing Christ. So of course I can gladly give them up; of course I can gladly live without them.”

The reason why Zacchaeus can so gladly and happily sacrifice so many of his worldly possessions, and so much of his money, is because he no longer treasures them the same way. I mean, think about it: At some point in Zacchaeus’s life, he treasured money and possessions so much that he was willing to considered the scum of the earth in the eyes of his countrymen—the absolute worst kind of person that anyone in first-century Jewish society could name… He’s like, “Eh… Who cares about my reputation? Who cares what other people think of me? I’ve got all this money, all these fancy houses, all these amazing possessions… You can insult me and call me all the names you want, I’m crying all the way to the bank. But when I get to the bank—and I’m reminded of the treasure that I have there, I’ll get over this pain.”

But now that he knows where his true treasure is—in his relationship with Christ—all the money, all the possessions, all the houses… “because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” those things are “rubbish” in comparison. So I can live without them… so long as I have Christ.

And that’s the test… That’s Point Number Three: Where do we find our treasure?Do we find it in money and possessions? In our families or children? In our spouses? In our romantic relationships? In our business success? In our academic achievements? Do we find it in the opinions of other people—what other people think of us? Do we find it in the fortunes of 18 to 22-year-old men playing football on Saturdays? Do we find it in hobbies? Do we find it in physical fitness, or personal health, or physical attractiveness? Do we find it in alcohol or drugs?

If we find our treasure in Christ, we will show through our actions that suddenly other, lesser “treasures” don’t matter as much. In Point Number One, I said that we need to be deliberate about evangelism. But the one thing that so often prevents us from witnessing is our fear of what others think of us—our reputation. If Christ is our treasure that won’t matter so much. While I disagree that this scripture makes a good stewardship text, you’ve got to admit that it would be easier to give away money if we treasured Christ more than money!

Finally, notice Zacchaeus is going to make amends for harming others… by going to them, confessing his sin, and paying them back for the harm he’s caused. That means he’s going to swallow his pride. Because his pride is far less valuable to him than the treasure he has in Christ.

So in closing, here’s the question I’ll leave you with: If I treasure Christ above all, how will my life look different this week?

  1. Numbers 5:7
  2.  Philippians 4:4

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