Luke 19:1-10 “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, I 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.’”
“These . . . verses . . . describe . . . the . . . conversion . . . of . . . a . . . soul.” With these plain and moving words J.C.Ryle begins his study of this incident. Another story of Nicodemus, and also that of the Samaritan woman, and this story of the great change that took place in the life of Zacchaeus should all be familiar to every Christians. The Lord Jesus never changes. What he did for Zacchaeus and Nicodemus and the woman at the well he is able and willing to do for anyone reading these words.
Just a couple of things, firstly a word concerning the link with the preceding chapter. In chapter 18 Jesus has said that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (v.25). And when the disciples respond with incredulity saying, “Who then can be saved?” Jesus tells them that what is impossible with men is possible with God. In the story before us we have plain proof that this is so. It describes for us a notorious, corrupt tax-collector becoming a disciple of our Lord. In other words, this chapter is describing how a camel passed through the eye of a needle!
Then there is also this, that of all the population of the bustling town of Jericho all the disciples of Jesus who lived there would have judged that Zacchaeus would have been one of the very last men to have been converted. Yet here is proof of Jesus’ words that all things are possible to God. A mean, dishonest, chief tax collector becomes a generous Christian. Let us think of your superior at work, or the big boy in school, or the student at university who is the most anti-Christian, godless person you’ve ever met. Is someone like that coming to your mind right now? Then say now in your heart something like this, “Lord have mercy on that person,” and then ask God to work in providence and humble him or her and that God would bring a Christian into that person’s life, maybe even you.
The door of hope revealed in the Gospel is very widely ajar. Let us leave it as open as that, as we find it in the New Testament, to whomsoever would enter through it. The Lord has opened the life gate that all may go in: let’s not attempt to close it to a narrow crack. Fling it wide! We affirm with all our might that Christ is “able to save to the uttermost.” There is never a person whom Christ looks at and examines and then sighs, shaking his head, saying, “He’s too far gone . . . she’s too hard . . . they’re too defiant for me to change.” No one. The very chief of sinners is saved by him. The meanest, proudest, most cruel and most vile offender has already received a pardon from Jesus. Then for you and your acquaintances there is hope. Only repent and believe. “Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson they shall be as wool” (Isa. 1:18.) That is the gospel of him who transformed the life of Zacchaeus and made the money-grabber – for the first time in his life – a happy man. There are no incurable cases under the Christian gospel. Jesus has come to give life to the one most evidently dead, and in the incident recorded by Luke before us we find such encouragement. So those were my words of introduction.
WHAT TRIVIAL WORDS AND ACTIONS CAN BE THE MEANS OF SOMEONE BECOMING A CHRISTIAN.
We are back with the theme of the providence of God. I sometimes feel it is more precious to me than it should be, that it challenges the cross work of Jesus for first place in my life. In other words I feel that I can speak more warmly and passionately about providence – BIG WITH MYSTERY -than about the dying love of Jesus. I hope that is not the case. May it not be the case in any one of us! May the determination of us all be to speak first and foremost of Jesus Christ and that he loved us and was crucified for us as the Lamb of God, not our story but his.
But how precious the way God led us to know and follow him, and how wonderful the ways he has led us until now, and will lead us all the way to our heavenly home. The Lord Jesus entered Jericho and was on his way along a certain path. It was an important town with many streets, but our Lord chose one route, and it was on a certain day and it was at a specific time. We sing, “My times are in thy hands.” Zacchaeus the businessman was in town that same day, and he was nearby, and he was able to drop everything and go to see the famous rabbi and healer, Jesus of Nazareth. Someone told him, maybe a servant, explaining the buzz, and God had already planted in his heart a desire to see Jesus. So he dropped everything in the tax office and off he went. However, everyone else had the same idea, and there were crowds on the sidewalk and he couldn’t see a thing because, we are told, “he was a short man” (v.3), in fact he is the only person described as being of short stature in the whole Bible, Zacchaeus the little rich man.
Now I once heard a Bible scholar saying that he believed our Lord was also a short man, and the couple of reasons he gave for this, as I remember, were that he could sleep on top of a pillow, in a boat, as if it were a mattress – only a short man could do that – and then this incident before us. He said, if I remember it correctly, “If Jesus had been a tall man then little Zacchaeus would have been able to look over the heads of those in front of him, and see the head of Jesus above them all. But Jesus was also short and so Zacchaeus had to get some elevation and go up higher in order to look down across and over the heads of the people that came between him and the Lord Jesus.”
So what this frustrated, wealthy tax-collector actually did was to hitch his flowing cloak up and run down the street in the direction where Jesus and his followers were heading. He went the way that Jesus was taking, and so must you. Jesus makes his way here each Sunday and he meets with us and we come here because we know that this is so. Jesus is coming this way and we want him every Sunday. Zacchaeus actually climbed a sycamore tree in preparation for his arrival. Luke gives us that nice, precise detail that it was a sycamore that he ascended (have you seen that last house near Llangurig as you leave that little village and go for four miles or so and start to climb the mountain on the way to Aberystwyth? The house is called “Six Sycamores.” I’m sure you’ve noticed it; the sign is large and clearly written.). Zacchaeus climbed into the branches of a sycamore tree, the sort of thing only small boys do and they get told off for doing it! “Come down immediately!” Imagine Aberystwyth University’s Principal climbing any tree in order to catch a glimpse of an evangelist walking into town. That is the sort of extraordinary picture you must bear in mind, an important wealthy businessman running and then climbing a tree. It indicates the high degree of hunger and eagerness that God had placed in the heart of this avaricious man. A longing, a certain occasion, an opportunity, a place, even a tree all came together in this man’s heart just then, when he heard that Jesus was near. That is the providence of God, his most holy, wise and powerful preserving and governing all his creatures, and all their actions.
Doesn’t Scripture recount apparently trivial coincidences that affected the lives and destinies of people? I am thinking of one in particular involving the sister of the apostle Paul. “Paul had a sister?” We only know that from Luke mentioning her in Acts chapter 23 and verse 16, the only reference to her in the Bible. But the focus is not on her but on her young son, Paul’s anonymous nephew. Then the plot thickens . . . there had been a secret meeting of 40 Jews who made a vow that they wouldn’t eat until they’d murdered Paul. They told the chief priests and elders of this oath that they had made and that the priests were to help by sending for Paul the next day to interrogate him further, and then as he arrived at their meeting the assassins would strike, all forty of them, armed with daggers. Secretly overhearing all this Paul’s sister’s son took action. He reminds me of the boy called Jim in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island, hidden in the barrel listening to the plot of the pirates. Perhaps Stevenson got it from Acts 23. So this nephew of the apostle heard what they were planning to do to his dear uncle Paul, and off he went and told the soldiers on duty, “I want to visit Paul. He’s my uncle.” What harm could a child do? Yes, he was allowed into the prison. He told Uncle Paul everything about the plot. What did Paul do? “Then Paul called one of the centurions and said, ‘Take this young man to the commander; he has something to tell him’” (Acts 23:17). Isn’t it exciting? The young man (not the ‘boy’) told the commander and the commander rescued Paul taking him off to Caesarea that night at 9 o’clock guarded by 470 soldiers. That’s a bit of over-protection isn’t it? But that is how carefully God cares for his servants. So Paul’s life was spared, and one result for us is that we have Romans chapter 8 which we now are studying together each Sunday night, all because a teenager was in the right place at the right time and he loved Uncle Paul and his theology and was a brave, smart young man.
We’ve been studying the life of Joseph and seen the chain of coincidences that came into his life when he as a teenager was sent on an errand by his father, down to his brothers, then off to slavery in Egypt very far from home, bought by Potiphar, accused by his horrible, ugly wife (because beauty comes from our hearts), spending years in prison, interpreting the dreams of the butler and the baker, and finally the forgetfulness of the butler was reversed, Pharaoh was told of him and soon Joseph was exalted to the highest position in Egypt. How many links in that chain, how many little and large actions stretching from “Son, go to your brothers for me” right down to the throne of Egypt. It all began with a boy running an errand for his father and it ends with the seed of Abraham being preserved during seven years of famine so that Jesus Christ can be born, the son of Abraham. God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.
Zacchaeus began by being interested to see Jesus. Then Zacchaeus was quite anxious to see Jesus, and then Zacchaeus was determined to see Jesus. Nothing would prevent him from seeing Jesus, no inconvenience, no embarrassment and public humiliation. If it took running along a road in public and climbing a sycamore tree in order to see Jesus he would do it. Some of you don’t want your friends in school to know that on Sundays you go to church. You would be embarrassed for them to know this. You are a bit ashamed of Jesus Christ, but Paul says he was not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ, because it’s the power of God unto salvation. Imagine being ashamed of power! That is as foolish of being ashamed that your car has got an engine (“yes . . . I’m afraid our Aston Martin does have an . . . engine . . .”), or that your home has got a central heating boiler, or that you’re ashamed that as well as having bones and skin you admit you do have a few muscles. Who’d be ashamed of being helped by mighty power? We are pretty feeble if we don’t have power and pretty silly to be ashamed of power, especially the power of God! Zacchaeus was far more important than you or me and yet he so longed to be near Jesus that he climbed a tree. Imagine your headmaster climbing a tree in order to get a better look at a preacher! “Ooh look, there is Mr. Richards the head, and he’s up the tree to have a better look at . . . Pastor Thomas!”
How did we come to know the Lord? Many of us were favoured with parents who lived holy loving lives and they worshipped God and taught us, but even with that background there were strange coincidences. Maybe there was a friend in church who spoke to us and said, without knowing it, some very important things. There might have been a speaker who seemed to aim all he said at us. There was a camp we went to, a conference in Aberystwyth, a book we picked up, a conversation we listened to between two Christians. It could have been a very frightening dream we had. It could have been an illness we contracted; we suddenly learned we had diabetes. One day a friend out of the blue asked us would we like to go to church with him. One day we heard something on the radio. One day we discovered in an old box there were some cassettes and when we played them they were of a man preaching and we listened and afterwards everything was different. One day we saw a text on a board outside a church. One day on a holiday we were far from home and we climbed to the top of a mountain and we started to think about our souls and knowing God and saying a prayer to him. Whatever it was, behind it all there was the hand of God. One of you climbed a mountain, and one of you climbed the steps of Alfred Place, and Zacchaeus climbed a sycamore tree, and Jesus saw you in the place you had climbed to and everything changed.
These are days of small things for the Christian faith, yes, but they are not days of absolutely nothing at all. We wouldn’t be sitting here like this under the Bible’s message if they were nothing days. How rarely are things of no consequence at all. How infrequently we can say, “That was nothing . . . it was trivial.” It has changed our lives, the word, the action, the glance, the sight. The tiny ways in which God works to bring people into contact with Jesus Christ are wonderful and mysterious. Only you are realising that something different is happening in your life. No one else knows the significance of it. It’s just a beginning. Sitting in a Christian Union meeting at University for the first time, going to church for the first time and then returning, So we are gald to read of Zacchaeus and a new curiosity in his heart, even though he had very little knowledge of Jesus. So much came from that and thus we are always hopeful and longing. We meet someone and we talk to them and we wonder whether that person will start thinking about God and their own souls? Of course when they start attending he or she is a little baby in understanding. That doesn’t matter at all. I have never met a mother who said to me, “I must apologize that she’s is only 6 weeks old!” No one apologizes for that! It is better to be a living baby than be stillborn. It is better to begin your life than never to begin it. It is better to hear the gospel out of curiosity than not hear it at all.
We know one thing for certain, that Zacchaeus was not going to stay in that tree for very long. It was a means to an end and no one knew the full consequences of climbing that tree. But if you take a great risk like that, climbing the steps of a church, then who knows what will be the result? We do know a little about people who’ve never been into a church on a Sunday all through their lives that they feel it’s an enormous problem entering a place of worship. Will they be asked to do something? Will they have to say who they are, out loud, or be asked to sing by themselves, and be embarrassed? Horrors! That’s why some churches try to keep the back seats available for families with children and for visitors so that they feel they can come and go as they wish. What a chain of providences have brought you from where you first started to follow the Lord all the way to where you are today.
HOW KINDLY WILL THE LORD JESUS ENCOURAGE THOSE TAKING SOME STEPS TO SEE HIM.
When blind Bartimaeus wanted to make contact with our Lord then Jesus stood still at his shouts and sent some men to bring the blind man to him. When Zacchaeus was there in the tree looking down and Jesus reached the spot there was no shouts from up in the tree. He might have hoped he was camouflaged there, but we are told that first Jesus looked up and gazed at the tax-collector, and then he spoke to him calling him by name! He knew his name! “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (v.5). He calls his own sheep by name, “Lazarus, come forth . . . Mary!” Nearly every little boy and girl in the U.K. who once went to church knows this story, and they also know the chorus about it, “Zacchaeus was a very little man and a very little man was he,” and they sing out the last words of Jesus to Zacchaeus like this, “I am coming to your house for tea.” They don’t sing those words in America. They sing, “I am coming to your house today” which I guess is a bit more accurate!
What do we have here? Jesus taking the initiative to enter this man’s life. Zacchaeus isn’t saying anything to Jesus. He’s not shouting out, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me.” He is as mute as the leaves on the tree. What is he doing? Gazing down at Jesus. He is not looking at the crowds and noticing what the little boys or the pickpockets are doing. He surveys the Lord Christ silently. But he had no need to say anything because we know that Jesus knew what was going on in his heart, as he knows what is going on in your heart and in mine now and always. Everything is naked and open before the eyes of him with whom we have to do. So the Saviour said the most perfect words to begin the great change in Zacchaeus’ life: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today” (v.5). The journey up the tree has been effective. “You thought you were going to see me, but in fact you went there in order for me to pick you out and tell you what was going to happen. Now you can come down, right now, no delays at all, because I have much more to say to you, and your home is the place for all that, not with you stuck up the sycamore.” So the new relationship began then and there when Zacchaeus did exactly what Jesus told him to do. “He came down at once” (v.6); from that moment on he did what Jesus told him to do. Once we know and understand the will of God for us then we do it. There is nothing left to do but worship and adore. Zacchaeus “welcomed him gladly” (v.6). Everywhere Jesus went he was invited into people’s homes. There are feasts; there is joy and conversation; there is counsel and straight talk. When men felt unworthy of asking so great a person as Christ into their homes then Jesus did what he does here, he invited himself. “I am coming to your house for tea!”
He stands at the door and knocks. If any man welcomes him gladly then he will come in and eat with him. You are appreciating that Jesus didn’t say to this man, “I’d love to come to your home, but you’ve been a bit of a rotter, and it would give a bad impression if I visited you like that. You grow in grace first of all, and after you’ve changed your life and sorted things out, paid your debt to society, given your goods to the poor, then I will deign to visit you.” No. Let’s not wait in the vain hope that we can make our lives fit and worthy to be entered. Jesus doesn’t say that. Here is a man seeking for him, and that is enough for our Lord because no man naturally seeks for Jesus. Here is a man drawn to Jesus, and no man comes to Jesus except the Father has drawn him. It is enough for Jesus that this man is up a tree in order to gaze at him. That’s enough. It’s enough today that you are here and that the Jesus who is more full of grace than you of sin can read your heart. He is saying to you now, “I intend to come to you. I intend to stay with you. I intend to speak to you. I intend to be your friend and teacher and Saviour and protector for ever more.”
Zacchaeus didn’t have any opportunity to tidy up his house, for example, take down the Greek murals, and remove the statues of women, and the pagan idols from the hallway. He had no opportunity to clean it all up first. Just as he and his house were, without a single plea but that Jesus had chosen to come to his house, so Jesus came that day. If ever there was a man who was sought and saved without ever having done anything to deserve it, that man was Zacchaeus. You open the door of your life to Christ today, just as you are. If you wait until you papered and spring-cleaned and changed around your whole home first then you will never ask him into your home at all. It is grace that invaded this house and so it did not have to be worthy of the guest, because grace is the triumph of God’s love over our non-deserving. All the fitness he requires is to see your need of him but only his loved ones who have trusted in him understand this.
The world doesn’t understand it. The world says, “You are taking a terrible risk. Do you know what this man has done? Don’t you know what an evil man he has been? If you don’t know then you can’t be God, and if you do know and still go ahead and eat with him then you are not a holy, holy, holy God. So the people saw Jesus and his friends entering Zacchaeus’ house and the people who considered themselves the real sons of Abraham said, “We wouldn’t go in there. We wouldn’t be seen dead having anything to do with that man.” The people were very disappointed at the lack of discernment in Jesus. They muttered, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’” (v.7). They would have been horrified to think that two thousand years later millions and millions of people know just one man from Jericho of their generation – Zacchaeus! He was exactly the kind of man everyone despised, not only a tax-collector but a chief tax collector. He made money on the side and he made money from the tax-collectors working under him. As his house added another wing, and steam baths, and larger stables, and more slaves, as his food became richer and his family’s clothes more fashionable then how the people hated him the more. He had no right to that money. He was public enemy number one. What was Jesus doing buttering up to that quisling, taking good Jewish money and giving it to imperialist Rome and pocketing most of it for himself? They were just like the older brother disgusted that the father had taken such a risk in allowing his rebel waster of a son who had spent all his money in the distant country on wine, women and song, to come brazenly back into his life again. They don’t understand the power of grace to save, and grace to change, and grace to keep sinners who come to the Lord Jesus.
A TRANSFORMATION TOOK PLACE IN THIS MAN’S LIFE.
Some time later that day Zacchaeus stood up and he turned to Jesus, but now he addressed him as his Lord: “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (v.8). I must turn this in the first obvious and challenging way, by way of pointing out that these words indicated the reality of the change that had taken place in his life. His bank balance was greatly affected. He gave away millions of denari. The rich young ruler had been exhorted to sell all his possessions and give the money received to the poor but he loved his possessions too much. No one asked Zacchaeus to give away a penny but he has a new attitude to people immediately. It all came from a new love for Jesus Christ. Now he is loving his poor neighbour as his rich self. Half of everything to the poor and then fourfold to all those he had cheated. That far exceeded the law of Moses’ demands. He did not wait until the end and then left the poor large sums of money in his will, enjoying what he had until then, No! At that moment he gave half of what he had away. Extraordinary! What a sacrifice! There was reality here. When a wealthy man gives money away and an extortioner makes confession and restitution then this is a new man. He does it. He doesn’t tell the other tax-collectors to do it. He doesn’t organize a new movement of making wealthy men give their money to the poor. He says, “I give , , , I will pay back.” He has freely received a pardon from the Lord and freely he will give. He can’t begin to show who he belongs to and whom he serves soon enough.
It is not enough for you to talk the talk, to say that you are a Christian. You must walk as Zacchaeus walked. Our Lord Jesus one said, “These people follow me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” He also warned us of false professing Christians, and he said that by their lack of fruit we’d know such men. No one gathers grapes off thorn trees. But here is a man who has robbed other people and now he has been convicted of his sin and he pays back to men what he owes them four times over! His faith in this merciful Christ has purified his heart.
Let me turn this change of life this way. There have been times in the past when I have looked at such passages and I have thought of the people I have hurt, and I’ve wondered how they are doing today, and whether the way I treated them had a permanently damaging effect on their lives, and what should I do. I can see their faces. People have come to me, and with the greatest reluctance and guilt they have told me of incidents in the past, and shameful things that they have done, and what they should do. I find such time very difficult. You come, and you ask for advice, and you will discover my inadequacies and ignorance and uncertainty, but I will say to you that you have the same merciful and loving heavenly Father as I have, and he will guide you into what you should do. A lawyer who had been a womanizer and then became a Christian now reads my sermons on line each week and he uses them in leading weekly Bible studies. He told me of the women he had hurt and how guilty he is of having behaved like that, and that he got in touch with one or two of them again and apologized sincerely to them, telling him how ashamed he was, and how appreciative and curious they were that he had done this. That was the right thing to do for him.
I don’t know whether you should be going back years and years and doing that with everyone you have hurt. Is it a barrier between you now? Do you have difficulty in talking with them in this congregation? If so you ought to try to seek reconciliation and also to make restitution if that is necessary, but whether you should set out to try to discover the whereabouts of people you have not seen for years, and don’t know where they live and are likely never to see again, then I am dubious of the value of that, unless there are major crimes and large sums of money involved. Ask our Father to help you to know what to do. Take your guilt to God and tell him about it. He is a wonderful Counsellor, and just in telling him what you’ve done, and talking it over in his presence you’ll get help. Zacchaeus stayed in the community and he dealt with the people living there concerning what he had done wrong with them. He paid them back generously.
Finally the Lord Jesus Christ speaks to this man words of rich assurance. He says, “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” (vv. 9&10). This was Jesus’ answer to the murmurers who complained that of the company whose homes he entered, with whom he dined. That is why he came into the world. Yesterday this man was as damned as damned could be. Yesterday this man was as lost as lost could be. Today he is saved. Salvation was outside his house yesterday, but today it has arrived and is everywhere in his home where he was head and master. It is in his pocket and in his wallet and in his bank balance. This man has salvation written over everything he does and it was all because one day Jesus determined to go to Jericho and meet with him. This is why he came into the world; “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (v.10). He sought Zacchaeus and he found him in a sycamore tree and he saved him, for God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world but that the world through him might be saved, and that is the reason he has brought you here today. He has been looking for you and here he has found you. His purpose in speaking to you this day is that you might be saved. This man was the real son of Abraham, not his critics. He heard the word of the Lord just like the old patriarch and he believed it, and his faith was reckoned unto him for righteousness.
12th February 2012 GEOFF THOMAS