19 [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When 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.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”8Zacchaeus 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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
THE WORD OF THE LORD.
NOT A FAN
When Andy was an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee, we tried to get down to see at least one football game each season. In 2002, we made plans to see UT play LSU. We were pleased that our neighbor, Ed Robinson, who was an alum of UT would travel down to Knoxville with us.
Ed was a brilliant man and a super guy, but he had had a stroke when he was only an infant, and it left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. He did pretty well, but navigating Neyland Stadium – 110,000 other people– was going to be a challenge. Plus, our seats were in the nosebleed section – you know, up where the air is thin and the fog rolls in! (And did I mention that we were the only orange sweatshirts in a sea of LSU purple?) By the time the four of us finally wedged into our seats, we didn’t dare move for fear of falling headlong onto the football field.
Of course, from up there, the football field was the size of a postage stamp, the players barely visible, and only Superman could have seen the ball in the air. Nevertheless, we were UT fans, and happy to be there — if only to catch a glimpse of our team. That’s what fans do!
That’s sort of what Zacchaeus did in this gospel story this morning. His objective was to catch a glimpse of Christ. The text says “he was trying to see who Jesus was.” That was the end goal – to see this guy whom he had heard much about. I think he must have been a secret fan, or else curious enough to show up at the rally, and to climb up that Sycamore tree into the nosebleed section. Maybe he was wearing his orange Jesus sweatshirt. He figured he might get a glimpse of the guy, satisfy his curiosity, then go home and have a beer.
But, as the story goes, Jesus stops under that tree, looks up, and calls this IRS guy by name: “Zacchaeus! Hey, Zacchaeus! Come down here. I want to go to your house for dinner!“ And THAT is a game-changer! Zacchaeus was not expecting that! And, of course, the crowd below who knew Zacchaeus’s tax-collecting tactics . . . they weren’t expecting it either! The text says they “grumbled.” They knew this guy! He was a sinner, in their book – a man who got rich by cheating and extortion. Why would Christ honor him of all people! But Zacchaeus climbed down –no, “hurried down” — and was “happy to welcome Jesus.” That tells me he was a secret fan – and this was his big day!
How big? Well, what if –suddenly –that little striped figure on the football field had blown his whistle. And Casey Clausen had spoken into the ref’s mic. “You!” he says pointing to us in row XXX in the upper, upper deck, “You, Ben Sarles, you need to get down here and suit up. We need you on the field, man! Hurry up! I’ll meet you in the locker room!” And, with that, Ben would no longer have been a fan . . . he would have become a follower! He would have traded his UT sweatshirt for a uniform. With that, the Vols would have stopped being “that” team and becomes “his” team. That would have been, indeed, a very big day — but highly unlikely. Nevertheless, that’s what it was like for Zacchaeus.
Now we all know that fans can’t step from the stands onto the football field. They would get killed! But fans can and do climb down from trees to join Christ’s team. Since Yahweh called Abraham out of Ur, men and women have been invited down, coaxed down, climbed down from the stands to become players, called from the sidelines onto the road. And this simple story about Zacchaeus contains some powerful truths about that process. I’m going to talk about four of them.
First, being a fan of Christ is a great starting point! Zacchaeus had obviously heard about Christ and held him in a positive light. He had probably been watching Christ’s band of followers and liked what he saw. They were preaching love, repentance, and forgiveness, and he liked what he heard. He was curious enough to turn out along the road, interested enough to climb a tree. I guess you could say that Zacchaeus was “predisposed” to become a follower.
That’s important information to know – and that’s the work we Christians can do: turn non-believers into fans of Christ. We want to predispose them into becoming Christians. Sadly, they are often turned off by what they hear about “church.” Christians don’t often conduct themselves like children of the light. They are critical, judgmental, and stingy. Churches sometimes project an image of being closed societies – like country clubs — or do-nothing organizations to which people pay dues. And non-believers are watching; they are listening; and they are forming their opinion of Christ based upon what they see and hear from you.
But the second truth of the parable is that Christ is the one who does the calling. We can predispose, influence, invite and model, but Christ issues the call. God alone knows whose heart is ready. And God speaks the word of life to that dry heart. I recently spoke to a Christian who has spent much of his adult life in prison. And most of that time, he was angry and bitter. In the ugly and violent culture of prison, he said his heart became so dead and dry that there was nothing left inside. He was a dead man.
But one day, while walking the track in the prison exercise yard, he heard a voice as clear as yours or mine that said, “Go back to your cell, pick up your Bible, and read Ezekiel, chapter 37.” That’s how specific the call was. And he did. The passage was, of course, about Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of the dry bones – and the Lord’s promise that his spirit would enter those dry bones and bring them back to life. “And you shall know that I am the Lord,” verse 33 and 34, “ . . . for I will put my spirit in you, and you shall live!”
My friend told me that the call and this scripture were life-changing. That he began to reconnect with the nub of faith he had acquired as a child. While still in prison with years yet to serve, he prayed and repented and gave his heart to God. He became a follower.
The Bible is filled with dramatic stories of God’s call: The angels’ visit to Abram’s tent; Moses and the burning bush; Jonah on the beach near Nineveh; Gabriel’s visit to Mary; Saul, struck blind on the road to Damascus; Mother Teresa on a train; the author of “Amazing Grace” on a slave ship. //
Where are you? Are you a fan, a follower, or somewhere in between? Perhpas you are still a fan and not yet suited up for the game. Or, more likely, you can remember receiving God’s call. For some of us, the call came in response to a crisis: a divorce, a serious illness, a tragedy, the loss of a loved one. Our hearts were all dried up like Ezekiel’s dry bones when God spoke a word of life to us.
For some, the call comes gradually. We don’t jump down from the tree, we are sort of coaxed down branch by branch. We attend church or Bible study with
a friend and at some point, the study turns into something more. We start to believe in this God figure who forgives and heals. We find ourselves actually walking with Jesus, and it is hard to say exactly when or how it happened.
In the New Testament, we read of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of nameless folks who turned out to hear Christ, or Peter, or Timothy or Paul. And as they listen to the message of living water, their dry hearts begin to stir and beat in their chests, they are watered and come back to life. They are new creatures who repent and are baptized. But not everybody is happy about it. Those who have followed the rules all their lives resent Christ’s attention to sinners.
It’s not hard to understand why: Christ called and still calls the unsavory folks, those who are “up a tree,” “ out on a limb.” You could call them bad apples: You know, the people who cheat on their spouses, deceive their customers, gamble the kid’s lunch money, drink too much, brag too much, swear too much, spend and waste too much. Luke clearly states that the “Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” [Luke 19: 10] So Christ eats with sinners. “ Zaccheaus, I’m going to your house.” And, note that Christ doesn’t shout up into the tree and say, “I’ll be back this way next week, so if you can straighten yourself out, I’ll look you up!” No. Truth #3 is that Christ calls us while we are yet sinners, knowing that the love, grace, and discipline of God will take care of the rest.
So here is the fourth and final truth: Once Zacchaeus gets his feet on the ground, what does he do? According to Luke, Zacchaeus says to the Lord, “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 says to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because [you] too are a son of Abraham. [Luke 19: 8-10]
Zaccheaus demonstrates that becoming a follower is a huge blessing — but also comes with an expectation. Christ’s church is not a do-thing organization, it is not a country club. If you want to wear the jersey, you have to get in the game. And the game is loving our neighbors as much as we love ourselves. No more cheating them out of their money, no more getting rich on the backs of the poor, no more neglecting your family, no more living for me, me, me. It will be a team effort –and be forewarned, God is in it to win.
So if you are still a fan, it’s time to become a follower. As far as I know, there is no section in the stadium of Heaven reserved for “fans.” But seats for followers are plentiful. So, I urge you to take that step. But put on a helmet – because the work of following Christ can get bumpy. You’ll take some hits, but there’s no doubt who will win! In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen.