Twenty tree minutes on the third thing the real Christ of Christmas brings us that we really want
Transcript and Videocam along with the DIY Sunday Service options are available on the blog here:
Many of us might identify at a time when our radio and television news seems so chaotic with the words of the Irish poet Seamus Heaney when he said:
“I don’t want any more doors into the darkness. I want a door into the light.”
And that’s where this the third ‘Magnetic Point’ of the Christian faith at Christmas comes in … this issue our souls long for and that the real Christ of Christmas provides.
Here’s out verse today:
““For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
There’s perhaps a sense of self-protection in many people … perhaps we sometimes feel a bit bad about it … that makes us want to stay away from ‘the wrong sort of people’.
Makes us NOT want to have too much to do with those who aren’t really eligible under our own definition of ‘the cool crowd’.
But here is what the Scripture says in Luke 19:10 “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Jesus came … we’re thinking Christmas (the REAL Christmas) … to go after the drifters, the losers, the outsiders, the quirky, freaky, weirdo-type people, what we might (secretly) think of as ‘the no-hopers’.
He came to seek them.
And He came to save them.
I’ve used a wrong word in that paragraph there.
Can you see it?
He didn’t come to save the lost that we call ‘them’!
Not at all!
He came to save the lost that are called … ‘me’.
Because here’s the thing: WE know the experience of longing that we could find the way out … one that as Seamus Heaney put it is a door into the light.
There are too many doors before us that open onto darkness.
For sure, we know there is something not right with the world simply because of our experience of it.
The problems of brokenness, shortcomings, suffering and death confront us all constantly … much though we try to ignore them and look away.
Of course, we try a creative number of possibilities to deal with all this.
Sometimes we become backward looking and yearn for things simply to go back to the way they used to be … nurturing false memories of some old ‘paradise’ that’s long lost but never really was that paradisical in the first place.
We want deliverance from all our chaos by going backwards, instead of yearning for a way out going forwards.
Perhaps we think the problem is ignorance … so we dream deliverance will result from education.
If we think the problem is the pandemic, then we’ll probably look to ‘the science’ for the answer.
If loss of identity or individuality is thought to be the source of the problem, then we may well look to Nationalism to give us the answer … the road out to deliverance.
The aridity of such avenues to ‘deliverance’ leads people like the sports psychiatrist Steve Peters to argue that the problem we seek deliverance from is not so much ‘out there’ as ‘in here’ … in his book ‘The Chimp Paradox’ he argues that we long to be in a place where we are no longer controlled by our desires (our ‘inner chimp’) and to get there we need to save ourselves from our own brain.
That’s all a bit ‘high-brow’ but for most the desire to ‘get out of your life’ is recognisable and leads to addiction to gardening, gaming, drink and drugs, mobile phones, obsession with the fantasy world of novels or comics, TV soap operas … and for some of us even protracted listening to the BBC World Service!
Oh, we are VERY inventive in finding ways to escape our reality … eagerly searching to find a way we can be comfortable with to get out of here, even if only for a SHORT while.
I’m trying to make the point that it really isn’t ‘them’ but it is us that see ourselves as lost and in need of deliverance … the way out.
We find ourselves in a place we possibly don’t understand, don’t want to be in and unable to find the way out.
Ultimately, we fear the way out lies beyond our control because death shows NOBODY respect.
We are all looking to find the way out of this, but we don’t want the way to be that!
And into this sense of healing ‘lostness’ in Scripture waddles a chubby little man called Zacchaeus.
He seems to have SO much of what the world can offer.
But he CLEARLY wasn’t one of first century Palestine’s ‘in-crowd’.
Zacchaeus was clearly one of the ‘lost-crowd’.
So let’s ask then …
Well he’s lost in the crowd, but not in the in-crowd.
Zacchaeus was a man who was thoroughly looked down on.
His name Zacchaeus comes from the Greek form of the Hebrew name זַכָּי (Zakkay) which meant “pure”.
What … really?
Is this a Biblical joke here?
His given name in this story means ‘clean’ or ‘pure, but to the people he lived with this man was a pariah!
You see, we’re told immediately Zacchaeus was a tax collector.
• Tax collector
We’ll come back to quite how serious a social pariah this makes Zacchaeus when we look at how outrageous it was for Jesus to have anything to do with him, but for now let’s just recognise he was powerful but despised and an outcast.
To be a tax collector for the Roman Empire in first century Palestine made you first and foremost a …
The Roman emperor appointed a governor (procurator) who was in charge of collecting taxes and preventing the people from rebelling against Rome.
The Romans placed heavy taxes on land, on goods and food that were bought and sold, and on inheritances.
They also charged tolls for people traveling through the areas they controlled.
The taxes went to support the Roman army and to maintain control of Palestine.
Farmers and the poor suffered the most under this system of taxes.
The Romans made contracts with local people in order to collect taxes.
These local tax collectors (publicans) would often collect much more than the amount they were supposed to turn over to the Romans.
They kept the rest. In Palestine, this led to bad feelings between the Jewish people and their neighbours who agreed to collect taxes for the Romans.
Tax collectors were often seen as traitors by the Jewish religious leaders.
Some called them sinners, and said they were not welcome to be part of the Jewish people or to worship with them.
But there was another thing that made many look down on him.
Zacchaeus the tax collector was … SHORT!
• Small, v. 3
v. 3: “ … and he was not able to because of the crowd, for he was short in stature.”
He couldn’t get eyeballs on Jesus.
And he couldn’t because of his physical limitations.
We know he was wealthy.
We know the sort of physical shape cut by wealthy men in the culture Zacchaeus was part of … Zacchaeus probably struggled to get himself up in that sycamore tree.
Now, of course, this wasn’t one of OUR Sycamore trees which can grow to fifty feet and more.
This is the συκομωραία (sukomōraia) Ficus sycomorus, called the sycamore fig or the fig-mulberry (because the leaves resemble those of the mulberry).
It is a fig species that has been cultivated since ancient times.
Ficus sycomorus grows to 20 m tall and has a considerable spread, with a dense round crown of spreading branches.
In the Bible, the sycamore is referred to seven times in the Old Testament – the Hebrew is שִׁקְמָה shiḳmah; and once in the New Testament (συκομoραία sykomoraia or συκομορέα sykomorea here in Luke 19.)
Though it was not as common in Galilee, the sycamore was a very popular and valuable fruit tree further south in Jericho and Canaan.
The important thing for our purposes is probably the shape of the tree.
Think of the shape of a tortoise’s shell.
Flat along the bottom, with the bottom of the canopy CLOSE to and parallel with the ground
Figure 1 - Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The point here is that Zacchaeus is not a heroic tree-climber.
In fact, not a heroic anything.
We get the impression of someone not good at sport in school.
He found a very low-hanging tree to get up into.
Zacchaeus was NOT the village hero.
Zacchaeus is NOT cutting the figure of a fully paid-up member of the in-crowd.
Zacchaeus is looking like a man who is lost, very much looking for the way out.
He climbs this tree that day VERY much seeking deliverance.
So we’ve established then that in spite of his given name, Zacchaeus is an outrageous person so far as the first century Palestinian cool guys were concerned.
But there is an arguably more outrageous person in this story, Who is in there offering Zacchaeus his deliverance … Zacchaeus’s way out of his miserable, outrageous, wealthy, privileged life.
That person is Jesus.
Let’s ask the question then: ‘just how outrageous for doing this here is Jesus?’
Of course, the answer entirely depends on your perceptions.
Jesus is going around Palestine ‘Messiah-ing’.
But to unconverted people looking on at that time, in their view Jesus was going around ‘Rabbi-ing’.
If He’s going around Messiah-ing … saving the lost … there is NOTHING to take exception to here.
But if He’s going around doing nothing but ‘rabbi-ing’ … then there is LOADS going on here that is totally outrageous.
If Jesus is just a moral teacher, then what He does with Zacchaeus is a bit of a stumbling block.
But if He has come to seek and to save those who were lost, then what He does here with Zacchaeus should prompt party songs … songs from the Heavenly party.
The fact is Jesus has come as the Saviour, but if He’s come as a Teacher then His actions are outrageous … to those who think He’s just another Teacher.
• Tax collectors
Tax collectors as we’ve said were collaborating with the hated, oppressive Roman conquerors who were taxing the farmers and the ordinary people particularly into penury, in order to pay for the Roman legions that were pinning the Palestinians down hard.
And Jesus ‘buddied up’ to that man?!
Not only are we told Zaccahaeus was a tax collector … we’re told that he was pretty much a taxation big cheese …
• Chief tax collector
This is the one place in the NT, in Luke 19:2, that the office of chief tax collector is mentioned.
If the term refers to a managerial rank, this individual would organize and oversee the other tax collectors and collect significant commissions (see also the note on the word tax collector in 3:12).
It is possible, however, that in this context the term simply means “major tax collector” and is a comment on the individual’s importance or wealth rather than his rank (see D. L. Bock, Luke ad loc).
The next thing we hear about the outrageousness of Jesus here is that the Saviour associates with someone who is either high up or particularly efficient amongst the oppressors.
• Very wealthy
Zacchaeus, by his oppressive trade, is a person who’s become very wealthy.
Who loves a person who has benefitted from others’ misfortune?
Who loves a person who has grown πλούσιος - wealthy, abounding in material resources, by making other weaker and more vulnerable people poor.
You see, if Jesus were only a teacher, then associating with people like Zacchaeus (or the ex-tax-collector turned Apostle Matthew from Matthew 9:9) would be utterly outrageous!
Why associate with people who rejected your whole corpus of ethical teaching?
To do so would seem pretty hypocritical.
But He is the Saviour announced by the angel to Joseph as to be called Jesus because He would SAVE His people from their sins …
The Christ Who came at Christmas was coming with a particular purpose to seek and save, to deliver those people like us who are lost.
And then the ‘Jesus is a very good Teacher’ people were sent into orbit in outrage at what Jesus does next … inviting Himself to the outcast, lost, Zacchaeus’s house for tea.
• Table fellowship in Judaism
In Judaism the pious Jew did NOT sit down with sinners for supper.
To find fellowship around a table was to proclaim your acceptance of one another as heirs of the covenants of God.
Time is running short, so please feel free to Google this, but sitting down to dinner was understood as a corporate covenant activity, a proclamation your dinner party belonged to the in-crowd and had no need for any further deliverance from exclusion from the good things of God.
How outrageous does Jesus seem to be being here?
To the crowd who saw Jesus as just a good teacher it’s clear, Luke 19:7: “All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
The house of ‘a sinner’ …
So what did they all think THEY were?!
Jesus gets even clearer as He spells out what He means by His deliverance of Zacchaeus …
• Sons of Abraham
v. 7 “Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Now the good Jewish lads in the crowd around Jesus and Zacchaeus might well have been tearing their robes and throwing dust in the air!
Jesus is putting outrageous Zacchaeus at the heart of God’s covenant community … at the heart of God’s in-crowd, and what they claimed was theirs.
But please look a little bit closer.
Here’s the key to the ‘way out’ that Jesus brings … God’s covenant with Abraham was based in a real repentance that was born of trust and faith.
Let’s not rush this gun … it’s time to ask: according to the real Christ of Christmas Whose mission was salvation and deliverance, what really IS the way out?
Well you can see it portrayed here in Zacchaeus …
It starts out with genuine, determined seeking after Jesus.
• Seeking Jesus
v. 3 “He was trying to see who Jesus was.”
καὶ ἐζήτει ἰδεῖν τὸν Ἰησοῦν τίς ἐστιν
From time to time we’re blessed to see, even in this rough-edged age, people taking an interest in Jesus.
It feels great to see that, but that ‘interest’ may not be what God is really looking for.
There is more here to be noticed in Zacchaeus.
He is trying … commitment, effort … to see NOT Jesus (like a spectator) but specifically the text says he was trying to see Who Jesus really was.
Yes, he was cutting the slightly ridiculous, short and tubby image of an habitual non-climber clumsily ascending a sycamore fig tree.
All thought of personal reputation and dignity set aside, Zacchaeus lifts up his robe and gets climbing, because he really wants to see and know Who Jesus really is.
And then when he did get summoned down after the fashion of a naughty climb-y child called down by its mother … ‘Zacchaeus come DOWN from that tree!’ … his dignity was no bar to his progress.
And he’s taking a risk.
At this point, the general bitter critical gaze re-directed from Jesus to the tax-collector, and Zacchaeus climbed down into a barely-repressed but quite antagonistic mob.
• Coming down to Jesus
Coming down to Jesus can take quite a lot of ‘pluck’!
Having been comfortingly hidden in the low branches of that tree, Zacchaeus is now PUBLICLY obeying a new Master.
And in Zacchaeus we then see a tangible faith and repentance.
• Faith and Repentance
Having been denounced in the crowd as a sinner, to whose house the Saviour Jesus had invited himself, Zacchaeus is ready for the change of life that is going to lead to his deliverance … and Zacchaeus make it public and decisive right there and then.
The crowd are calling him over as ‘a sinner’ … as if they weren’t themselves …
v. 7 “ 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.”
Repentance computes to restoration.
Zacchaeus will be BUSY with his books tracking past transactions backing paying THAT amount of restitution … it is IMMENSE!
HERE is the evidence of real faith, and THIS is the Saviour’s way out.
It has come into the heart of old, unacceptable Zacchaeus … who is sounding now like a completely new man.
So here comes the Saviour’s decree of his salvation:
• The decree of Salvation
It shows up first as:
• Personal calling, v. 5
“When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
That is PERSONAL calling.
And it’s followed by …
• Divine proclamation, v. 9
“Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.”
Abraham believed the God Who had promised in Genesis 15:6 … so Romans 4:3, Galatians 3:6 and James 2:23 echo that tune:
“Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.”
So now his radical repentance has testified to Zacchaeus’s radical faith-induced deep change of life and Jesus has brought him to deliverance … to finding the way out.
It shows you what the change of heart that gets you settled on the Way out LOOKS like.
There’s (at some length) in verse 8 the particular personal application of how the Christ of Christmas addresses the deep human desire for deliverance, and now comes the summarising statement of the general principle behind it all …
• General principle, v. 10
“For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
If that’s not the Christ in your Christmas, if that deliverance doesn’t swing the needle of the compass of your heart, you haven’t got the authentic Christ of Christmas at all.
And if that melody isn’t echoed in sympathetic resonance of your heartstrings to His … here to seek and to save those who are lost … then what part have you with Him at all?
I mean, He CAME to seek and save those that are lost.
He’s come to take His people along the way out to the deliverance that He came at first Christmas to bring.
Here’s the conclusion.
We know something’s wrong, the folks around us know there’s something wrong.
We are urgently seeking the way out … but it’s more than that.
We don’t feel at ease with the exit that seems to be looming.
Death looks far more like disaster than deliverance!
But He came to seek and to save those who were NOT from the in-crowd and looked as lost as that Zacchaeus.
You remember a man called Lazarus and the despair … the longing for a deep deliverance … that characterised his mourning sisters called Mary and Martha?
Ultimately deliverance lies in the hand of the One Who is both the proven resurrection and the abundant Christian life.
Deliverance from one comparatively minor situation after another in this life, of course, lies in the hand of the compassionate Saviour.
This is true.
But turning the ultimate (inevitable) challenge from disaster to deliverance meets the deepest yearning that we nurse, in its significance.
The ‘way out’ we long for is not an endlessly revolving door.
Neither is it a place of smoke and mirrors.
It is rooted in reality at the end of the street, which is one way and policed by the Saviour.
He CAME to seek and save the lost.
To save those wrestlers with the ugly fruit of human existence.
The inner compass points to the need for this deliverer.
Here’s the third magnetic point met by the real Christ of Christmas.
There’s something wrong.
But here’s the way out.
Table of Contents
• Faith and Repentance Having been denounced in the crowd as a sinner, to whose house the Saviour Jesus had invited himself, Zacchaeus is ready for the change of life that is going to lead to his deliverance … and Zacchaeus make it public and decisive right there and then.