I wonder if you’ve heard the story of the Queen visiting one of the village shops near her Balmoral estate in Scotland? She came in dressed in wellies and an old coat and headscarf, so the shopkeeper didn’t actually recognise her. And they passed the time of day, and the Queen looked at all the royal souvenirs for tourists. And she asked what they sold most of. And the shopkeeper said, ‘Oh, that plate with a picture of Her Majesty.’ And then the shopkeeper said, ‘Do you know, you look quite like her. You could almost be her double.’ To which the Queen, in her inimitable way, replied, ‘How very reassuring.’ And it was only after she’d walked out, and as the shopkeeper watched her getting into a spotlessly polished black Range Rover complete with security guard, that she realised who it was.
And at the end of an incident like that, you’d immediately replay the whole thing in your head, wouldn’t you? ‘Oh, my goodness! That was the Queen!’ And you’d get the significance of things in that apparently insignificant meeting – eg, that the Queen’s actually a remarkably humble lady – and got a great sense of humour.
Well, reading the Gospels – the accounts of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection – is a bit like that: you can only get the significance of the bit you’re reading once you’ve read on to the end of the story. Take the bit we’re looking at tonight – that apparently insignificant meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus: a guy climbs a tree, has Jesus home for lunch and gives a bundle to charity. So what? What’s the take-home message? Get more exercise? Do more entertaining? Be more generous? No. We’re only going to get the significance of this bit once we’ve got to the end of the story. So let me remind you where the story – by which I mean the true story, the historical story, of Jesus – ended. Would you turn in the Bible to Luke 18. Luke’s Gospel was written probably 35 years or so after the events it records.
And just look down at Luke 18, verse, 31:
31Jesus took the Twelve aside [that is, his twelve original followers] and told them, "We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man [that is, Jesus] will be fulfilled. 32He will be handed over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him, spit on him, flog him and kill him. 33On the third day he will rise again." (18.31-33)
And if you read to the end of Luke’s Gospel, that’s exactly what happened: Jesus had claimed to be the Son of God and the rightful ruler of every one of our lives; the leaders of the day rejected that, and got him crucified – which left him dead and buried in a tomb outside Jerusalem. And if that had been the end of story, you and I would never even have heard of him.
So how come we have heard of him? And how come, 2,000 years later, his name is known the world over and one in four people who live on this planet say they live for him? The answer Luke gives is that he rose from the dead. Read to the very end of Luke’s account, and you find that three days after Jesus was crucified and buried, his tomb was found empty and multiple eyewitnesses saw him bodily resurrected and alive.
Now you may not yet have given the evidence for that a decent look. But if it’s true, it’s another of those ‘Oh my goodness!’ moments, isn’t it? It means the person we’re reading about tonight is actually the Son of God, and is the rightful ruler of every one of our lives, and the person we’re going to meet as Judge at the end of them. And it means this meeting between Jesus and Zacchaeus is here to show us how we can come into relationship with God ourselves – because what went on 2,000 years ago between Jesus and Zacchaeus can go on between Jesus and you or me today, because he’s not just a figure of the past. He died, he rose again, he’s back with his Father in heaven, and everything we’re about to see him doing in this bit of Luke’s Gospel, he’s still doing today in peoples’ lives.
So let’s have a look at it, and whether you’re here for the first time or the umpteenth time, the idea is just to get a clearer picture of Jesus and of where we each stand with him tonight. So would you look on in the Bible to Luke chapter 19 and v1:
1Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. (v1-2)
... which, he admits later in the story, was through dishonesty. Now in our day, the dishonesty tends to lie with the tax-payers – like the person who wrote anonymously to the Inland Revenue, ‘Dear Sir, Last year I underpaid my tax and have become unable to sleep with it on my mind. I am therefore enclosing a cheque for £2,000. If I find I still can’t sleep, I’ll send you the balance.’ By contrast, in Zacchaeus’ day, the dishonesty lay with the tax-collectors – they were notorious for their immorality.
But measured by the values of our culture, Zacchaeus was a success, wasn’t he? After all, he had a good job and plenty of money. But look what Jesus says about him – and in fact about all of us – in the punchline to this story. Look down to v10, where Jesus talking about himself says:
10For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost." (v10)
So where the world sees success, Jesus sees lostness. So maybe people see you – and you see yourself – as a success: because of your exam results or degree, or your job, or the fact you’re captain of the 1sts, or got the most head-turning girlfriend in Jesmond. But if you don’t know Jesus, Jesus sees not success, but lostness. And earlier in Luke’s Gospel, he used exactly that word to describe those who are still on the wrong side of him when they finally meet him beyond this life. Because Jesus said: if we say ‘No’ to him in this life – ‘No, I won’t have you as my rightful ruler’ – then with no pleasure at all he’ll have to say ‘No’ to us in the next – ‘No, I can’t have you in my kingdom, if you won’t recognise me as the King.’ And to be turned away like that by Jesus is what it means to be lost. That is hell. And no amount of success in this life would compensate for that. And at the start of this story, that’s the trajectory Zacchaeus was on. And I have to say – because the Bible does – that unless you’ve said a definite ‘Yes’ to Jesus as your rightful ruler, it’s also the trajectory you’re on. I don’t mean by that that you’re living an obviously immoral life like Zacchaeus. It just means, as I was doing before I accepted Jesus, that consciously or subconsciously you’re saying ‘No’ to God, ‘I’m going to live my life how I want.’
But v10 says loud and clear: that’s not where God wants you to stay, and lost is not where he wants you to end up:
For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.
So let’s see how he did that for Zacchaeus. Look at chapter 19, v3:
3[Zacchaeus] wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. (vv3-4)
So he’s curious about Jesus. And that’s the first of three surprises in this story – because you’d never have expected that of a man like him, with a lifestyle like his. And yet here he is up his tree, and probably slightly surprised to find himself there. And, spiritually, you may be in exactly the same place – slightly surprised to be here tonight, or over the last few months, or even on the Christianity or Discipleship Explored course. And if you’re asking yourself, ‘Why am I here?’, the Bible’s answer is: because God has engineered it. Because he made you and loves you and wants to call you into relationship with himself. And that’s what you see in v5:
When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today."
And there’s the second surprise in this story – because having thought up to this point that he was the one in control of the situation, Zacchaeus suddenly realises: Jesus is. You see, maybe like you, Zacchaeus thought he was the one doing the looking, doing the Christianity Explore-ing – that he had Jesus under his microscope without Jesus knowing anything about him. But in fact, it’s all the other way round. Jesus is always the one in control. Jesus knew his name without needing to be told it – just like he knows your thoughts and deepest secrets right now. Jesus knew he’d be there up his tree in exactly that street at exactly that time – Jesus engineered it, because he’s the one really doing the looking. After all, if we’re honest, we the lost property don’t go looking for our rightful owner, do we? Mankind isn’t seeking God. Which is why even when we’re curious, we’re so reluctantly curious. That’s why before I was Christian, I kept saying ‘No’ to Christian friends who invited me along to things like this – even though I was curious. And I only said ‘Yes’ in the end because I was too embarrassed to say ‘No’ again. But deep down I was certainly saying ‘No’ to God and not wanting to face up to him. And I’m sure that Zacchaeus climbed up that tree with no intention of doing any more than giving Jesus a quick, anonymous look. Whereas Jesus’ intention was to take control of his life.
I remember reading this with an international student who’d come to church and then to our Christianity Explored course and then agreed to meet up once a week to keep looking at the Bible. And he hadn’t quite got to the point of opening his life to Jesus, but reading v5, he looked over at me and said, ‘I think maybe Jesus brought me all the way here to Newcastle to bring me to know him.’ And I told him all I disagreed with was the ‘maybe’.
Now, the call Jesus makes in v5 is obviously not addressed to us – it was said to Zacchaeus. But there is a verse later in the Bible which shows that Jesus is making exactly the same call to each of us. It’s in the last book of the Bible, where the apostle John has this inspired vision of the risen Jesus back in heaven. And the risen Jesus says this – to all of us:
Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me. (Revelation 3.20)
So you get the picture? Your life is a house. Jesus is the rightful owner-occupier. And he wants to come in, to live with you and relate to you – which is what you were made for. And that’s actually what he was saying to Zacchaeus in v5. He wasn’t just saying, ‘I want to come into your house as your guest today.’ He was saying, ‘I want to come into your life as your Lord from today.’
So that’s the second surprise in this story – the absolute authority Jesus simply assumes over us: ‘Zacchaeus, Andrew, Sarah, Mike, Jemma – whatever your name is, he knows it – I must stay at your house today. Here I am. I stand at the door and knock.’ And as C.S. Lewis put it, to say that sort of thing you’ve got to be mad, bad or God. To quote Lewis:
You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit on Him and kill him as a demon; or you can fall at his feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronising nonsense abut His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to. (C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
But then the third, biggest and most wonderful surprise of all is who Jesus makes this call to: Zacchaeus, this notoriously immoral person. I was talking to a new guy in church a while back and I said to him, ‘So what do you do?’ And he smiled and said, ‘Oh, I lie, I cheat and I steal.’ And it’s not easy to know what to say to that, is it? I think I said, ‘Oh that sounds interesting’ (like you do when someone tells you they’re an accountant) to buy myself time as I felt nervously for my wallet, as if I was on the London Underground. And then he said, ‘Ie, I’m an estate agent.’ So it was tongue in cheek. Whereas Zacchaeus would have said it in all seriousness. And Jesus walks up to him and says, ‘I want to come into your life today. I will accept you as you are, and I want you to accept me for who I am.’ So look down to v6:
6So [Zacchaeus] came down at once and welcomed him gladly. 7[And] all the people saw this and began to mutter, "He has gone to be the guest of a 'sinner.' " (vv6-7)
You see, in that culture, to go into someone’s house and accept their hospitality was the sign that you accepted them, that there was friendship. And the peoples’ question is, ‘How on earth can Jesus accept a man like this?’ And the picture in their minds is that we’re down here and God’s up there and between us is the ladder of moral effort which we have to climb up if God’s ever going to accept us. And that’s basically the picture of all the other religions of the world: be good enough and God will accept you. And maybe that’s your picture of Christianity. In which case,. You’ve got the wrong picture. Because it’s not the picture in v10, is it? Look down again at v10:
For the Son of Man [Jesus] came to seek and to save what was lost.
So we are down here and God is up there (morally speaking) and he knows we’re lost – knows we can’t climb up that ladder even if we try (which we don’t). And so in the person of his own Son, he came down – down from heaven to earth. Why? To die for us on the cross. Because the Bible says that above all is why Jesus came. He came to take upon himself, on the cross, the judgement that all our wrongdoing deserves, so that we can be saved from that judgement – so that we can be forgiven and accepted (even tonight), and live in friendship with God for the rest of this life, and then at the end of it, finally hear him say, ‘Yes, I will have you in my kingdom: I recognise you because you’ve recognised me.’ And that’s why there’s not even a hint of condemnation from Jesus over Zacchaeus’ wrongdoing. Because Jesus knows that in a very short time he’ll be hanging on a cross taking that condemnation on himself. And the risen Jesus is not speaking to you tonight to condemn you, but to seek you and save you – to call you into friendship with him.
So, I wonder if you’ve begun to see who Jesus really is? Or is he still in your shop in wellies and an old coat and you just haven’t recognised him yet? And I wonder whether you’ve understood his call to us, his lost property: ‘I must stay at your house today. Here I am. I stand at the door and knock.’ And he knocks with absolute authority, but also with total forgiveness and acceptance. And he says:
If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in... (Revelation 3.20)
But what would that be like? Well, at the end of this story, Luke gives us a little cameo of that. Look down to v8. The people are criticising Jesus for apparently accepting Zacchaeus’ sin – even condoning it; v8:
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."
And that’s a cameo of what it’s like to have Jesus as Lord, to be a Christian. It simply means: in every area of life, trying to please Jesus, because you now want to – because that’s what being totally forgiven and accepted does to you.
I still remember a friend in his groom’s speech on his wedding day turning to his wife and saying, ‘You know me better than anyone else for the idiot I am, and yet you still love me. And every day that makes me want to be a better man.’ And that’s just a tiny picture of what being loved by Jesus does to you. You don’t by any means change perfectly, this side of heaven – there’ll be much more for Jesus to forgive in the future, if you accept him. But you will change recognisably, as time goes by and Jesus gets to work on renovating the house of your life. Which is what he says about Zacchaeus in v9:
Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
Because salvation is about more than just being forgiven. It’s about being gradually changed – renovated into the person God meant you to be.
So looking at this story as a mirror, where do you see yourself?
Some of us will still be back in v3 – up in our tree, just giving Jesus a look, still full of doubts and questions and maybe cynicism. And if that’s you, can I say thanks for coming – and please do keep coming: do make use of these Sunday services; do keep going with the Christianity Explored course or ask about the next one. Please, please do keep looking at the Jesus of the Bible until you’re in a position to make your mind up about him.
But many of us will be in v8 – we do now call Jesus ‘Lord’, we’ve accepted him for who he is and we know that, amazingly, he’s accepted us as we are, in all our sinfulness and messed-up-ness, thanks to his death on the cross.
But there may be some people here tonight who are between v5 and v6 of this story – you know it’s all true. You know Jesus is there saying to you tonight, ‘Here I am. I stand at the door and knock.’ But for whatever reason, you’ve not yet opened the door. And I want to end by giving you the chance to do that, if that’s appropriate for you. And you do it by praying – by telling the risen Jesus that you accept him for who he is, and by asking him to accept you as you are.
So I’m going to end by leading us in a prayer along those lines. Now you may be at a point much further back than praying a prayer like this. Or you may already have begun as a Christian like this – and you don’t need to begin again. But this prayer may be exactly what you want to say to the risen Jesus tonight, in which case you can echo it in your mind to him now:
Risen Lord Jesus,
I admit that so far in life I have not given you your rightful place as ruler.
I now accept that is your rightful place and I want you to have it from today.
So I ask you to accept me, to forgive me and to come into my life by your Spirit as you’ve promised.
If you have prayed that and meant it, can I finish by saying three quick things.
The first is: trust that promise – ‘If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in.’ Trust that he has come in and forgiven and accepted you.
The second thing is: you may not be feeling much different right now. You may be feeling joyful, apprehensive, or just that you’ve spent too long on a hard pew on a hot night. I don’t know what feelings you’re aware of right now. But if you’ve prayed that and meant it, what you will become aware of is the sense that Jesus has come in to your life by his Spirit – that sense Zacchaeus had in v8 of living with Jesus at his side, with Jesus watching – and of finding you now want to please him rather than yourself or the crowd. You’ll find that’s your own experience as time goes on.
And the third thing is: can I encourage you to tell another Christian that you’ve taken that step tonight? It’ll help you start being public about it. And it’ll mean they can suggest some things about how to get going in the Christian life.