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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 30, 2016

 Guess Who Is Coming to Dinner!

Habakkuk 2:1-4;Luke 19:1-10

            Every Thursday, for as long as I have served as the Pastor of this church, one of the joyful activities of each week has been to lead a Bible study.  This year the Bible study is on the Gospel of Luke.  As I have been reading and studying this masterfully told Gospel, or Good News story, it suddenly occurred to me that one of the great gifts that Luke offers to the church is that the author of Luke and Acts, was the David McCullough of his era.  If you were going to list the most accomplished and popular historians, in the sense of people who write history for the masses, David McCullough’s name would be first and foremost.  And how blessed the Church of Jesus Christ has been for over two thousand years that Luke, a master historiographer of his own Greco-Roman world, applied his considerable gifts of mind and heart, and even of the art of narrative, in order to construct for us the Gospel of Luke, then the Acts of the Apostles.

            Today we turn to another one of those incredible stories that is found only in Luke’s Gospel.  It is the story of Zacchaeus.  I never read it that I am not a child again in Miss Mcllvane’s third grade Sunday School class, climbing up the back of my chair with all of my classmates, singing that wonderful song, “Zacchaeus was a little man, a wee little man was he….”  What I didn’t know then was that the name meant “innocent” or “pure,” and that Luke was using irony, adding to the meaning of this story. 

            Let’s begin with just that the sheer physicality of the story.  Zacchaeus contains the Gospel in miniature, as Luke so often does with his stories.  We are told a lot about Zacchaeus.  First of all, he is a chief tax collector in Jericho.  We know today that means he was despised by the Jews who lived in Jericho, because Zacchaeus was a traitor by virtue of being a tax collector.  We know Zacchaeus was rich, because all tax collectors in Rome became rich, the chief tax collector even more so.  And we know that Zacchaeus was short in stature.  Actually, the Greek word is “mikrós” from which we get the word “micro.”  He was tiny, and because of that, as Jesus was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus ran out ahead and climbed up into sycamore tree in order to catch a sight of Jesus.

            Ken Bailey spent his life as a Presbyterian missionary and New Testament scholar living in the Middle East.  He makes the point that no tree had leafier branches than the sycamore fig tree, that still grows in places like Jericho.  Not only was Zacchaeus looking for a good place to see Jesus, because he was curious, but he also selected a very good hiding place so that others might not see him.  We are told Jesus, while passing by, stops at the base of the tree, looks up into it and says, “Zacchaeus, make haste to come down because I am coming (or lodging) to your house today.”  And Zacchaeus “makes haste,” and he clambers down, and “received Jesus joyfully.”

            The first thing I want you to notice about this incredible encounter of Jesus with Zacchaeus is how the thread of divine extravagance and generosity winds itself through the entire story.  Jesus is extravagant in stopping in His tracks when He is the biggest news to come to Jericho, in order to look up, and not just to focus upon Zacchaeus, probably knowing in an instant how hated by others he was, likely knowing Zacchaeus’ name because He heard people disparaging Zacchaeus, and suggesting that “today I am coming to your house.”  It is an extravagant gesture of friendship by Jesus for someone He knows is hated by his own Jewish people.  Then there is the extravagance of Zacchaeus’ response: “He makes haste” to climb down the tree and to “receive Jesus joyfully.”  And then when people begin to grumble about this act of grace and generosity on the part of Jesus, because he is a sinner, Zacchaeus says, “Lord, the half of what I have I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone” (And indeed a tax collector would have defrauded many people given the way Roman taxes worked!), “I will restore them four-fold.”  It is in fulfillment of the Law of Moses found in the Book of Exodus.  He is received generously by Jesus, and Zacchaeus responds in kind, extravagantly and generously.

            Note second, how this story speaks of God’s persistent love for, and longing for relationship with sinners.  Especially, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus seeks out people like Zacchaeus, people others were not sure they like so much, people whose status and standing was in question, or marginal at best.  Here are the two of them, standing face-to-face – on Reformation Sunday, let’s be utterly clear about this – it is Jesus who initiates the relationship with Zacchaeus.  It is Jesus who starts the ball rolling on what He will come to call “salvation,” that has come to his house that day.  One of the clarion cries of the Reformation by Martin Luther was captured in two Latin words, “sola gratia,” “by grace alone,” are we saved.  We see here the gracious initiative of Jesus with Zacchaeus.  Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name, and joins him as a guest in his home.

            I think sometimes we read these stories and we simply forget how good the Good News is.  I made myself a promise that for as long as I live, I would never forget how wonderful, how life-giving, how incredibly great, beyond my imagining, the fact that Connie loved me was.  It is a memory, a feeling, that I don’t ever want to lose.  I have never felt so humanly blessed as I felt when I realized that she loved me too.  And if that is true of a human relationship of love, and I don’t know a deeper truth that I can share with you than that, how much truer and more wonderful is it that Jesus loves me, that Jesus loves you!  This is a story of a gracious God who seeks relationships with sinful people like me and like you.  Zacchaeus, who is anything but innocent or pure, is the one to whom Jesus says, “Today I am coming to your house; make haste to come down.”

            One more word on this Reformation Sunday.  It is really Jesus’ word.  He said, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  What did Jesus mean by that, and when did salvation come to the house of Zacchaeus?  The Reformed theologian in me wants to say that salvation came when Jesus stood in front of Zacchaeus and called him, because Jesus is the Savior, and we are saved, if we are saved at all, every last one of us, by the grace of God alone.  But let’s not forget how Zacchaeus responds to that grace.  Is it fair to say that he was changed by it?  Is it fair to say that his life was transformed by the sudden recognition that not only was Jesus calling him by name, but Jesus wanted a friendship, a relationship with him?  The fact that Zacchaeus is changed is evidenced in what he finally proclaims.  He says, “Lord,” (Which is the earliest confession of the Church: ‘Jesus is Lord.’) “the half of what I have I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I will return four times to them the wrong I have done.”

            John Calvin says that it isn’t just the case that Zacchaeus went from being a wolf to a lamb; it might be the case that Zacchaeus went all the way from being a wolf to becoming the shepherd, because he allows the grace of Jesus to change his heart and to change completely his life.  He says, “Today salvation has come to this house.”  I love that word, and so I will say it to you, “Today salvation has come to this house, to this house of prayer!”

            In a moment we are going to come to a table that we believe literally is our Lord’s Table.  I hope that as we eat the bread, and drink the cup, like Zacchaeus, we will “receive Jesus joyfully.”  Because if we do, I promise you there is no telling where that joyful welcome of Jesus is apt to lead!



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