Saturday, November 13, 2010
The Reformation of Zacchaeus
In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 19:1-10
October 31, 2010
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~
My very earliest recollections of attending Sunday school as a little boy are of Zacchaeus. Still too young to read or write, I was not too young to sing. And that song is still with me all these years later: Zacchaeus was a wee, little man—a wee, little man was he. He climbed up in a sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see. And as the Savior passed that way he looked up in the tree. And he said, “Zacchaeus, you come down, for I’m going to your house today . . .”
As I got a little older—and as I got a lot taller—it seemed that I had less and less in common with Zacchaeus. You see, I was always the tallest kid in the class. Whenever there was a group photo to be taken, I automatically knew that my place was in the center of the back row. “Wee” and “little” were two adjectives that were never used to describe me.
But in more recent years I’ve come to realize that Zacchaeus isn’t defined by his diminutive stature any more than I’m defined by my above-average height. No, the life of Zacchaeus is defined by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and by the repentance that flowed from that grace. Grace and repentance are the themes of this Reformation Day. And so I invite you to consider with me this morning the reformation of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector; and there was perhaps no better place to be a tax collector than in Jericho. Jericho was (and is) the oldest city in the world. It was a prime spot for collecting customs, levies, surcharges, fees, tariffs and all other manner of taxes on goods and produce being shipped east and west. Mind you, Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. That probably meant that Zacchaeus’ line of work wasn’t all that different from the typical mafia crime boss of today. Graft, corruption, kick-backs, money laundering, bribes, extortion—it was all in a day’s work when you worked as the chief tax collector in Jericho.
Then, one day the word on the streets of Jericho was that Jesus of Nazareth was coming to town. What Zacchaeus had heard about Jesus we don’t know, but it was evidently enough to trigger his curiosity. So Zacchaeus set out that day to be a spectator. He simply sought to catch a glimpse of the Savior as he passed that way. But being small of stature, he would have to perch himself above the crowd in the branches of a sycamore tree. From there he could take it all in as a spectator. But as the Savior passed that way He looked up in the tree—looked up at one little fan sitting in the stands. And Jesus did what every spectator in Wisconsin dreams about—did what can almost be described as a “Lambeau Leap,” only better!
Imagine it! Jesus hurtles a verbal volley directly up at Zacchaeus—draws him down from his safe and secure perch above the fray—announces that He MUST go to the house of Zacchaeus immediately. (Even Donald Driver wouldn’t dare to do that!) St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus came down immediately and welcomed Jesus gladly into his home.
And as a result of this surprise visit, Zacchaeus—greedy Zacchaeus, organized crime boss Zacchaeus, unclean, sinful Zacchaeus—he is made a new man, transformed by the amazing grace of God. He repents of his crimes, renounces his shameful ways, and promises restitution to those he has wronged above and beyond what the Law of God required. And Jesus gets the last word, declaring Zacchaeus to be a “son of Abraham,” saved by grace through faith alone.
Zacchaeus teaches us that Christianity is not a spectator sport. Zacchaeus would have been content to be just a spectator that day—perhaps to see Jesus from afar, perhaps to overhear a parable, or possibly even witness a miracle. But at the end of the day, Zacchaeus the spectator would have returned to being Zacchaeus the tax collector on the road to hell. And nothing would have changed. Filthy rich Zacchaeus would have continued on living in spiritual poverty.
Every Sunday the Savior passes right this way, here among us; and every Sunday we are tempted to see ourselves simply as spectators. We love being spectators. We pay good money to be spectators of sports and the arts in all kinds of beautiful venues. But this place is no place for spectators. What do I mean? Well, spectators come here hoping to glean a little good news, to be inspired, to hear beautiful music, to connect with friends—but doing all this with no serious thought about what needs to change in their lives.
It would have been unthinkable that Jesus should personally visit the home of Zacchaeus, only for Zacchaeus to go right back to his life of crime afterward. There was a part of Zachaeus that needed to be changed—that needed reformation. More accurately, there was a part of Zacchaeus that needed to be put to death. He was a lover of money who lined his pockets with all his ill-gotten gain. That pocket lining could no longer continue. It had to be stopped. It had to be put to death.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor executed by the Nazis, put it more succinctly than I ever could. Bonhoeffer famously wrote, “When Christ calls a man He bids him to come and die.” That striking sentence sounds a lot like the very first of those 95 Theses that Martin Luther nailed to the Castle Church doors at Wittenburg exactly 493 years ago today. Luther wrote, “1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent’, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.” The grace of God leads to this repentance. The grace of God leads us to put to death in us whatever will not conform to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
The account of Zacchaeus leaves us with but two choices—you can go on being a spectator, enjoying your carefully crafted complacency, living at ease with the normalcy of your sin—OR you can welcome the presence and power of Jesus into your life and radically reform your life through repentance. What is there in your life that needs to die? Where does your Old Adam express himself best? Is it your constant need to be in control, to call the shots, to be the boss? Is it the simmering anger that boils over far too often? Is it your love of money that causes you to be stingy and tight fisted—even toward God? What needs to die in you? Your gift for gossip? Your refusal to flee from sexual immorality?
Saying goodbye to the comfort of old sinful ways is never easy, but your help comes from the Lord—an ever present help in time of trouble. You can’t do it alone. Zacchaeus couldn’t do it alone. It takes the power and presence of Jesus to root out the rot for a meaningful reformation of life. You see, the parts of your life that need to be put to death have already been died for by Jesus. As we heard today in Romans 3, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” The blood that Jesus shed on the cross—that blood means that your scarlet sins can be made snow-white. In Jesus you are forgiven. In Jesus you are a son of Abraham. In Jesus you are justified.
Today what happened to Zacchaeus can happen to you. You may have come here today simply to be a spectator or simply out of habit. But your motive doesn’t matter now. What matters is that Jesus Himself is passing this way. Think of your padded pews as being big branches of a sycamore tree. And here and now today, Jesus does a Lambeau leap into your life. He engages the spectators, drawing them in, connecting His life to their life. In the waters of your baptism. In the comforting cadence of Holy Absolution. In the preaching and proclamation of His Word. In the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood—Jesus Christ is here FOR YOU. You are not just one of the crowd—not just a spectator in the nosebleed seats. You have a one-on-one encounter today with Jesus the Christ. He comes to our house today. He transforms sleepy spectators into saints who lead holy lives of service. He seeks out sinners. He eats with sinners. He forgives sinners. The sinners gathered in this house will one day be welcomed into His heavenly house.
Don’t think you can have this forgiveness without repentance. You can’t. Don’t think you have this grace while remaining a mere coffee-sipping, donut-munching spectator of the Christian faith. You can’t. Don’t think that Jesus’ forgiveness is permission to go on living the same old sinful patterns. It doesn’t work that way. “When Christ calls a man He bids him come and die.” The Christian life is one of repentance and cross-bearing. Just ask Zacchaeus. His net worth dropped like a stone after his encounter with Jesus.
His net worth dropped, but His Grinch-like heart grew three sizes that day. He was a wee, little man, but Jesus made him a giant in the faith. He went looking for Jesus, but Jesus found him and called him and loved him and saved him. And today, He is doing the same for you. Happy Reformation Day. Amen.