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Desperate To See Jesus
Dr. David Evans
October 30, 2016
We have been journeying with Jesus for the past two months now. We are following as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem and eventually to the cross. Along the way we keep meeting rich men. Today we are in Jericho. Hear the Word of God from Luke chapter 19:
He entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax-collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’ So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’ Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, ‘Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.’ Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’
The gospel writer Luke is obsessed with the disparity between those who are rich and those who are poor. Time and again the poor are venerated and the rich are eviscerated. Almost from the very beginning of the gospel we are confronted with this radical role reversal that has been inaugurated when the Kingdom of God has been set loose upon the world in Jesus Christ. It is the despised of the world who find good news in this new Kingdom. And the rich? Well, it seems pretty hopeless.
In the very first chapter Mary, the mother of Jesus, sings in that hymn that has come to be known as the Magnificat:
“…he has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent empty away.”
Mary’s hymn is just a head’s up about what is to come. The rich, those with great possessions, people kind of like you and me, are continually “sent away empty” in Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. In his inaugural sermon Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.” Which makes us wonder: Is there any good news for the rich?
In Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus says: “Blessed are the poor, for theirs is the kingdom of God.” (Matthew, you will recall, says it is the “poor in spirit.” Kind of takes the edge off a little bit, doesn’t it?) When we began journeying with Jesus a couple of months ago, you will remember that we immediately encountered two stories that began:
“There was a rich man…” And they are not the heroes of the story. Then Luke tells the story of a rich young ruler who comes to Jesus and asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus’ answer is startling: “Sell all that you have and distribute it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Then Luke adds: “When he heard this, he became sad, for he was very rich.” Jesus looks at those who are gathered around and says: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” The crowd is flabbergasted. They may be like you. They may be asking, “Then who can be saved?”
That, friends, is the question lingering in the minds of those following Jesus on his long and wandering journey to Jerusalem. “Who, then, can be saved?”
So in today’s gospel, Jesus is passing through Jericho. A wealthy tax collector named Zacchaeus is waiting for him. And as The Message so powerfully says it: “Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus.” Because he is vertically challenged, he climbs up a sycamore tree along the road in much the same way we boost our children onto our shoulders along a parade route.
We all know what happened next; we probably learned it in that Sunday school song: Zacchaaeus was a wee little man, a wee little man was he.” What happens next is so unexpected that no one could have predicted it. When Jesus comes along he looks up and sees Zacchaeus perched in the sycamore tree and startles everyone there when he says: “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” Now you have to understand that everyone watching this episode unfold hates Zacchaeus. The poor hate Zacchaeus because he is rich. The rich hate Zacchaeus because he collects taxes from them. And both the poor and the rich hate Zacchaeus because he collaborates with the hated Roman occupiers. He is probably the most despised person in Jericho. So there is a lot of murmuring going on because Jesus has been invited to eat with the most hated sinner in Jericho.
Zacchaeus’ response is to defiantly defend himself: “Behold, Lord, I give half of my goods to the poor. And if I have cheated anyone of anything, I repay them four times what I cheated them.”
With that Jesus surprises not only Zacchaeus but also the crowd gathered in Jericho and the disciples who have been trailing along after him for nearly three years and most especially us. Jesus declares: “Today salvation has come to this household…”
Do you remember the question the crowd asked when the rich young ruler went away sorrowful? Do you remember that they asked: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus’ answer to that poignant question is: “Whatever is impossible for humans is possible for God.”
So, salvation has come to a rich man’s house. A camel to go through the eye of a needle!! Zacchaeus is a rich man who squeezes through the eye of the needle and finds himself in the arms of Jesus. He is saved. Just when we think there is no hope for the rich to be saved, Jesus shows the way.
Let’s face it: we all believe there are those who lie outside the possibility of salvation, don’t we? We all believe that there are people who are do despised, so unredeemable, that nothing can be done. Not even Jesus can save them.
We’ve got our own list, don’t we? Those for whom salvation is out of reach. Louis Jones, Jr. was a decorated Iraqi war hero with a chest full of medals. He ad served for thirteen months in Iraq. But he was a damaged man when he came home. He kidnapped and brutally murdered a young Army private, a 19-year-old named Traci McBride. In 1995 Tim Floyd, a Lubbock attorney, took the case to defend Louis Jones, Jr.
As he comes to know Louis Jones, Jr. he realizes he is a severely damaged young man. Jones had already confessed to his crime, so his only defense was insanity. One day as Tim Floyd and Louis Jones, Jr. are visiting in the federal prison, Jones says to Floyd: “Would you remind me about Jesus? I have forgotten.” This took Floyd aback. He is a devout Christian but he never expects that he will be called upon to witness to his faith that day. To tell someone who was essentially unredeemable about Jesus. But over the course of the next hour he tells Louis Jones, Jr., a despised and broken human being, everything he can remember about the Jesus that loves me. That loves you.
At the trial Tim Floyd makes the best case he can to save Louis Jones’ life. But the jury quickly convicted him and the judge sentenced him to die by lethal injection. On the day of his execution Louis Jones’ family and Traci McBride’s family all gathered in the viewing room.
And then the miracle of salvation for the despised happened. Louis Jones looked toward the witness room and reached out his hands as if in a blessing and mouthed the words to those gathered there a silent: “I love you.” Then, asked if he has a last statement, Jones quotes a Psalm he has memorized:
“Although the Lord hath chastised me forth, he hath not given me over unto death.”
As the lethal drugs began coursing through his body, Louis began singing a hymn with the refrain:
“In the cross, in the cross, be my glory ever,
’til my raptured soul shall find rest beyond the river.”
(From the hymn “Jesus Keep Me Near the Cross.” Lubbock Avalanche, 1995 and on-line court records).
Who do we despise? Who are those whom we consider unredeemable, beyond the reach of Jesus’ saving love? This week I read about a former white supremacist whose views about others was transformed. One day a college classmate, Matthew, invited him to a Shabbat meal. Matthew was the only Orthodox Jew on a small liberal arts campus and he had started hosting Shabbat meals for his friends and acquaintances. None of them were Jews. Matthew decided that his best chance to affect Derek’s thinking was not to ignore him or confront him. He simply decided to include him. As he said: “Maybe he’d never met or spent time with a Jewish person before.”
(Presbyterian Outlook, “Looking into the Lectionary”, October 25, 2016).
Zacchaeus also spent some time with a Jewish person. His name was Jesus. And as Jesus stood in Zacchaeus’ home, he said: “Today salvation has come to your house.” Zacchaeus was desperate to see Jesus. But what Zacchaeus did not know is that Jesus is about to turn his world upside down and reverse his future because he came down from that tree, and spent time with Jesus.
And finally, after so many near misses, a rich man finds salvation in Jesus. And a despised person goes to his Maker with a song of hope on his lips. And a racist’s life is turned around because he was included. You see, Jesus has set the Kingdom of God loose in the world. It’s a place where lost souls find hope. The poor are saved. The rich find salvation.
It leaves us wondering, doesn’t it? Is there anyone who is out of reach of God’s salvation when Jesus comes walking down the road of your life? AMEN