Today was the first time I have preached since I started my treatment for cancer some six months ago. Although the treatment finished three months ago, I felt it right to have a good period to recuperate.
So today I preached at Becontree Avenue Baptist Church as the pastor is enjoyed a well deserved holiday.
Luke 19:1 – 10
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. 5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ ” 8 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.” 9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
How many times have you heard the phrase “Leopards can’t change their spots”?
Perhaps you’ve said it yourselves about someone.
We know what it means – people’s nature doesn’t change. How you are is how you’ll stay.
We tend to think that people cannot change their ways. If you start off life bad you’ll live life bad.
We may even misquote scripture to prove our point after all didn’t Jesus says in Matthew 7:18 “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.”
I’m sure that we’ve met people who are permanently bad or villainous.
On the other hand we’ve all heard of good people who’ve gone bad. The news is full of them from TV evangelists who can’t tell the difference between their wife and their secretary, to the recently disgrace head of the Co op bank. Let alone politicians caught with their hand in the till.
But can men and women change from bad to good? Where society says its in someone’s genes, or its their upbringing that makes them bad, can people change?
In Luke 1:37, the angel Gabriel tells Mary “ For nothing is impossible with God.” when she says how can I have a child when I’m a virgin. If God can cause a miracle to happen so that a virgin conceives he can and does cause miracles to happen in the lives of men and women.
In 1 Corinthians 6: 9 & 10 Pauls gives us a list of those who won’t get into heaven. But then in the following verse we read: “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
So there is hope, because on our own we can never be good enough to get into heaven. The prophet Isaiah put it this way in Isaiah 64:6 “all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”.. The original Hebrew is more graphic than that and I leave it to you to check it out.
Many times I have been told by people that they are not good enough to go to church. You have to be a good person to go to church, and God certainly won’t want the likes of me.
A bereaved lady I visited recently told me that she had been going to church for years and was her church’s secretary. Her recently departed husband had been the church treasurer. And yet this dear lady had no idea of salvation or of God’s forgiveness through Jesus Christ. She was convinced that her only chance of getting into heaven was to live as good a life as possible.
She was by the way a member of a spiritualist church and clearly had never read the bible. Instead she had been fed all sorts of false comfort by the church leaders along the lines of it will all be alright at the end, and everyone will get into heaven.
As for people not being good enough for church or good enough for God to want them, its as daft as me saying last year that until I’d cured myself of cancer I was too ill to go to hospital to see the oncologist. Had I come out with that sort of statement you’d have said I was stupid and needed to get myself to hospital to be cured. You can’t cure yourself!
Jesus is the cure for our sins, our bad attitudes and our bad lifestyles. We can’t do it ourselves. Yet we want to.
Today’s Bible reading is the story of a bad man turned good through his encounter with Jesus.
Zacchaeus was not a good man. He may have started off good but we are not told. I can’t imagine that the nice folk at the Jericho synagogue would have welcomed Zacchaeus let alone invite him home for dinner.
He was a chief tax collector and very rich. That’s all we know about him. But he worked for the occupying Roman Empire collecting taxes.
The Romans had effectively put the tax collection system out to franchise. As long as they got what was due to Caesar, they didn’t really care what extra the tax collectors claimed from the people. Most people couldn’t read or write and so they had no easy way of telling whether the amount demanded was correct or not. And it would seem that Zacchaeus was not adverse to bumping up the tax demand.
A bit like the cowboy builders who prey on the elderly and vulnerable charging them thousands of pounds for simple little jobs .
So Zacchaeus had made himself a fortune, no doubt backed up by the Roman soldiers if anyone started to ask too many questions.
We are not sure, but is doesn’t seem that Zacchaeus was a popular man. He might have had wealth but did he have friends? There are other tax collectors mentioned in the Bible and they certainly were not popular men.
We don’t know what prompted Zacchaeus to leave the office that day to go and see Jesus. Having said that, the Holy Spirit does prompt people in various ways and perhaps Zacchaeus felt that emptiness in his life that we all feel when we are far from God. We try and fill that void with all sorts of things but in the end only a relationship with God through Jesus will fill the gap.
Zacchaeus has this desire to see Jesus. So he leaves the office and finds he is unable to see through the crowds as he is described as a short man. But he wants to see Jesus and so he climbs a tree. Not a very dignified thing to do, and I am sure he came in for a certain amount of ridicule from the crowd as he climbed to his vantage point.
Meanwhile the great and the good and others line the streets as Jesus walks into town.
No doubt the nice religious people hope that Jesus will speak to them. Perhaps they hope they can invite them to dinner.
Jesus stops. Who is he going to speak to?
The crowd must have been shocked when they heard Jesus talking to Zacchaeus. Perhaps they hope Jesus will lay into him and tell him what an awful man he is.
But no. Jesus calls him down from the tree and invites himself to dinner.
This is one of the reasons that the Pharisees hated Jesus. He eats with sinners was their complaint. He doesn’t spend his time with the nice religious people.
That short meeting with Jesus has transformed Zacchaeus’ life. He shows how changed he is by the way he not only recompenses those he has swindled but also by giving half his possessions to the poor.
Although Zacchaeus may not have been welcomed by religious people he is definitely welcomed by Jesus.
Jesus comments “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”
[At this point I read a story from Jim Cymbala’s book “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” to illustrate that Jesus came for all men and women, even the ones who we might be tempted to reject. As I am not sure about copyright, I am not reproducing the story here. However the book is a good encouraging, challenging read and I would urge you to buy a copy and read it your self.]
Many people want to see Jesus. They want to know about Jesus. But when Jesus calls them to come out of the tree or where ever he finds them, its their choice to answer his call. If you answer that call, life will never be the same again and you can be assured that your future in heaven is secure. Amen.