St Barnabas, 7th March 2010
Hide and seek – did you ever enjoy playing that when you were young. Hiding away waiting to be found was so exciting wasn’t it. When our children were small we used to go to Gwithian Towans near Hayle each year and the big sand dunes were idyllic for such a game. We used to clamber to the highest dune to see if anyone was there looking for us and dart back keeping our heads down. And if you were the one looking, sometimes it took ages to find anyone hidden deep beneath the dunes and foliage growing in the sand but when you did find everyone there was a great sense of achievement and rejoicing. Great fun!
Well our reading today in Luke tells us about another hide and seek story. Zacchaeus was certainly hiding but who was seeking? Hold that thought as we look at the background to the event. We are continuing on Jesus’s journey to Jerusalem and eventually to the cross. The time was getting nearer and nearer. We read Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. He hadn’t intended to stay, but he knew he had something to do, someone to see.
Jericho was a very wealthy and a very important town. It lay in the Jordan valley and commanded both the approach to Jerusalem and the crossings of the river which gave access to the lands east of the Jordan. It had a great palm forest and work-famous balsam groves which perfumed the air for miles around. Men called it “The City of Palms”. The Romans carried its dates and balsam to world-wide trade and fame.
All this combined to make Jericho one of the greatest taxation centres in Palestine. Zacchaeus who we are talking about this morning was a man who had reached the top of his profession; not only a tax collector but a chief tax collector. He was exactly the kind of man everyone despised. Not only did he make money on the side in addition to his legitimate collections, but he almost certainly would have made more money from the tax collectors under him.
Tax always seems a dirty word in our society doesn’t it. It something we don’t enjoy paying, but we are obliged to, after all what did Jesus say in Mark 12 v 17 “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” I remember my brother when he was in the metropolitan police in London in the early days of his career and sometimes used to complain to our Dad on the phone about how much tax he had to pay. I can hear my Dad’s reply now with a smile saying “You must be earning it boy to be paying it, so stop your moaning”. At that time my Dad was in the building trade so he didn’t even have sick pay in those days and wages were low so he didn’t pay anywhere near the tax my brother did. But there are so many taxes we have to pay aren’t there. Income tax, VAT, car tax, capital gains tax, inheritance tax to name a few. It’s bad enough having to cough up for all of these but can you imagine paying these and knowing that the money you are paying is being skimmed off for the tax collectors’ profits. Can you imagine the reaction of neighbours, even friends and relatives of Zacchaeus as his house became more and more lavishly decorated, as his clothes became finer and his food richer. Everyone knew that this was their money and that he had no right to it and everyone knew that they could do nothing about it.
So yes he was wealthy but was he happy deep inside? Inevitably he must have been lonely for he had chosen a way that made him an outcast. Was he a complete atheist and not interested in religion or was he beginning to be curious? He had obviously heard about this Jesus that everyone was talking about. He would have heard about the miracles and healings, he would have heard about the fact that Jesus welcomed tax collectors, prostitutes and the like, those sinners that no-one wanted to speak to or mix with. He no doubt wanted to see who this Jesus was and what it was that everyone talked about. How could a man like Jesus mix with such a man as he. Well, curiosity did get the better of this little man and he tried to find a way to see this Jesus that everyone was talking about. The crowds lined the streets and being short (and for you shorties like me, don’t we just know what that is like?), he could not see anything. And who would let him get through the crowds anyway even if he wasn’t short, they just despised him. But that did not stop his determination, he ran ahead and found a sycamore fig tree and climbed into it. Now this type of tree has a short thick trunk and wide lateral branches forking out in all directions ideal for a short man to climb and easy to hide away in. So Zacchaeus was hiding but who was doing the seeking? Well certainly Zacchaeus was seeking something in his life or was he? Was it just curiousity or was he looking for something more?
In verse 5 of our reading it says –“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up”- it is telling us Jesus actually had been walking down that road in Jericho with the specific purpose of looking for Zacchaeus up in a tree. In other words he was literally seeking Zacchaeus as a search and rescue worker seeks out a lost person. When Jesus looked up he didn’t need to ask who that was up in the tree, he knew it was him. Zacchaeus was doing the hiding, Jesus was doing the seeking. Do you remember the game of hide and seek again. You count to ten, then say coming ready or not! When I play that with my granddaughter Katie, I go to look for her and pretend I cannot see her saying “ she’s not under the table, she is not behind the door, she is not behind the curtain”and she looks out of her hiding place and says “I’m here Grandma, I’m here. Well Jesus didn’t wait until Zacchaeus was a good honest man, He called him ready or not. Jesus told him: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately, I must stay at your house today.” Jesus had met enough tax collectors already to know exactly what life was like for them, and how, even though they couldn’t resist the chance to make more for themselves then they should, that there was a sickness at the heart for which He only had the remedy.
Look at verse 6: At hearing the words of Jesus, Zacchaeus reacted like a person who just won a major prize. Gladly he came down from the tree and welcomed Jesus. No one ever wanted to stop by Zacchaeus’ house. They despised him and all that he stood for. Jesus’ reaction to Zacchaeus was very different. He wanted fellowship with him in his house. It was the pure grace of God, Jesus found him and chose to stay in his home.
Once again Jesus finds himself relaxing in the company of the ‘wrong sort of people’. And once again the crowd grumble. You remember when Jesus was having dinner at Levi, the tax collector’s house in Mark 2, the teachers of the law who were Pharisees saw him eating with the “sinners” and tax collectors, they asked his disciples “Why does he eat with tax collectors and “sinners”. On hearing this Jesus said to them “It is not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick. I have not come to the call the righteous but sinners”.
This time instead of Jesus talking, Zacchaeus stood up and speaks to Jesus in public and gives evidence of his extravagant repentance. Repentance here isn’t just a change of heart; as in Judaism in general, repentance involves restoration, making amends. Zacchaeus is determined to do it lavishly He doesn’t offer to sell his property, nor does Jesus demand it. He immediately gives half his wealth to the poor and promises to repay all the money he has stolen. The law requires him to add an extra 20 per cent (Leviticus 6:5 “He must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner on the day he presents his guilt offering”) but Zacchaeus tops it with an extravagant pledge to repay four times over. So by the time he had given away half his wealth and repaid the four times over that he took, we can imagine that he would find himself in seriously reduced circumstances. But he doesn’t care. He has found something more valuable. Didn’t we just sing ‘Nothing compares with the promise we have in You!’ That is Jesus! Zacchaeus showed by his deeds that he was a changed man. Jesus came to that place to seek him out of hiding and because Zacchaeus had obeyed His call, he was in hiding no more. Zacchaeus was deeply convicted by his sin and desired to walk right, in obedience to God. No one can change him, no rules can help him, no education can correct him – but Jesus transformed him. How? When he came face to face with Jesus and believed the words He spoke. Faith in Christ changed him.
‘Today I must stay at your house’ becomes ‘Today salvation has come to his house’; where Jesus is, there salvation is to be found for those who accept Him as Master and reorder their lives accordingly. Isn’t that exciting news? You can’t accept Him and not change your lifestyle. Jesus declares that Zacchaeus is saved. The greedy tax collector, so at odds with his neighbours has come home to the love and forgiveness of God. He is a true son of Abraham now, not by race but by faith.
There are two things here I believe:
Firstly sometimes in our own journey with Jesus, we feel lost along the way in different circumstances that affect us for all sorts of reasons. The stresses of life or illness make us tired and lethargic and we fall away from our prayer life and our reading of the word of God. We may feel unworthy because of low self esteem or sin but what does it say in Isaiah 53 “We all like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way and the Lord has laid on him (that is Jesus) the iniquity of us all. ” Jesus gave His own life for our sins on the cross to bring us to salvation and everlasting life. Jesus is there to sustain us, to strengthen us, to comfort us, to bring us back to Himself.
Secondly there are people out there in the world, in our own parish, in our own families and in our own friendships who may not be tax collectors like Zacchaeus but who are hiding in their so called atheism but may be curious and actually seeking to find out the truth. Listen to that well known passage in Luke chapter 15:1–7: ‘Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, (there they go again grumbling and muttering!) “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them”. Then Jesus told them this parable, “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbours together and says “Rejoice with me, I have found my lost sheep”. I tell you that in the same way there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.’
The message of Jesus Christ was clear, “Repent for the Kingdom of God is near!” (Mark 1:15) It’s the same message in the book of Acts. “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the Name of Jesus Christ.” (Acts 2:38) And our message is the same today. “The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise, but is patient toward you, not wanting any to perish, but for all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9)
There are so many lost souls out there who are hiding away from the truth. I was reading in the Word for Today when I was finishing off this sermon and it was talking about how we are all caught up in modern technology such as mobile phones, laptops, hand held PC’s, television etc etc and they can become our slave drivers. We need to stop and ask ourselves “Can God interrupt me? Can He get my attention short of a catastrophe? Some of our ‘God experiences’ will happen when we are preoccupied with something else. So pray that you will be sensitive enough to realise it’s God and respond to Him rather than the pressures around us. Look at Mary and Martha, who was the one who spent more time with the Lord?
Look at the two men who encountered Christ on the Emmaus Road following his resurrection. Yet they didn’t recognise Him. “Did not our heart not burn within us while He talked on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?(Luke 24 v 32)
When we are sensitive to His word, His calling, His requests, He can help us when we sometimes feel lost and we can also respond to those opportunities to seek out those lost souls.
We sometimes get frustrated and disappointed when we see our numbers falling at our services, we sometimes get frustrated and disappointed when we get very little response from our own Church families and those outside for our social events, it becomes hard work. We ask ourselves what are we doing wrong? What can we do about it? But do we pray daily for this? Do we read the word of God daily to hear His word to us individually and as a Church? I am asking myself this question as well as you? We all fall short don’t we and then we mutter and grumble like the Pharisees.
Jesus taught that Satan tries to steal, kill, destroy and distract us. Don’t let him steal you away from God. Don’t allow your friends and family and those around to die in their sins. Stand up and fight for those whose souls are about to be destroyed by Satan. As I said at the beginning of this talk about the hide and seek and the achievement and rejoicing when we find those who have been hiding away. Give God something to rejoice about in heaven. May God use us all this week, this month, this year to seek and find and restore a lost soul who may well be hiding. And as we say in our hide and seek game – Are you ready or not?