Philip Yancey tells the story of a British conference on comparative religions that occurred in the middle of the last century. Experts from around the world gathered to debate what, if any, belief was unique to the Christian faith. They worked through a pretty comprehensive list. Incarnation? Other religions had accounts of gods’ appearing in human form. What about Resurrection? Well, other religions had testimonies about return from death. The debate had been going on for a while when C. S. Lewis wandered into the room. “What’s the rumpus about?” he asked. They told him they were trying to identify Christianity’s unique contribution among world religions. Lewis responded, “Oh, that’s easy. It’s grace.” (Yancey, Phillip, What’s So Amazing About Grace?,Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1997, page 45.)
Grace is the unconditional love of God. The textbook definition I was taught many years ago is that grace is God’s unmerited love and favor towards us. Brennan Manning put it well when he described it. For Manning grace shows in the very nature of God. He said, “[God] is not moody or capricious; He knows no seasons of change. He has a single relentless stance toward us: He loves us. He is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners.”
This concept of grace is central to the Gospel message. In Hebrews 12, the writer instructs his readers and says, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.” (Hebrews 12:15).
See to it. Be sure to. Don’t forget. Do not let anyone miss the grace of God.
But the truth is that we often do miss it. Though we sing about it and read about it and certainly nod in agreement to the concept, we often miss the unique power of this “Amazing Grace”. We think there has to be something else, something more; God can’t just recklessly love like that.
Recently I stumbled upon an old video of comedian and Gospel singer Mark Lowry. In it He describes grace and said, “God handles grace like a 4 year old spreads peanut butter –he gets it everywhere!” He’s right.
Maybe we miss it because we are skeptical of free offers. Maybe we’re prideful and figure we must contribute something. Maybe we’re just stubborn. Whatever lies at the heart of our disconnect, we need to have that disconnect removed. Why? So that the grace of God can be let loose in our lives.
When we finally come to the end of ourselves, and realize our great need of God’s grace, we discover the awesome power of grace to work in our lives.
In his excellent book on this topic, Max Lucado says:
“Have you been changed by grace? Shaped by grace? Strengthened by grace? Emboldened by grace? Softened by grace? Snatched by the nape of your neck and shaken to your senses by Grace? Grace is the voice that calls us to change and then gives us the power to pull it off.” (Lucado, Grace, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2012, Page 9)
We need the Lord’s grace don’t we?
We are tired. We are stressed. Our days are marked by anxiety, worry, and busyness. Our spiritual lives? Quite often our spiritual lives seemed choked by everything else. So we struggle with the same sins, we wrestle with the same questions, we fight the same tendencies we did last year and the year before and the year before. We need to drink deeply from the pure stock of God’s grace. We’re not alone in this need. Today’s Gospel lesson gives us a wonderful example of the work of the grace of God in a person’s life.
Father B.E. taught us a bit about tax-collectors last week. We learned that tax collectors were just as unliked 2000 years ago as they are today! In fact they were despised even more by the Jewish people. They were seen as traitors who were taxing their own people on behalf of the occupying Romans. A Jewish tax-collector was considered ritually unclean, was an outcast, and despised. Quite often the Bible speaks of “Sinners and Tax Collectors” in the same sentence as a way of emphasizing the offensive nature of the tax collection business. St. Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a rich man—so he was a successful tax collector that had become wealthy on the backs of his countrymen. The people would have hated his guts.
So far as we can tell Zacchaeus was an unlikely prospect for Jesus. The people certainly would not have considered this tax collector a ripe candidate for conversion.
Running? Climbing Trees?
So Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem and passes through this ancient city of Jericho. In Jesus’ time Jericho was a bustling metropolis and the people would have expected that Jesus would stay in the town and teach and receive and enjoy their hospitality. But Jesus passes through and a crowd walks with him.
Then we cut to Zacchaeus. Scripture says he was short in stature. But he was a wealthy and powerful man. In the middle east, then and now, if you are a wealthy and powerful man, people make way for you. It’s a testimony to how much he is despised that the people refuse to do that for him. So now he does something that, again, men did not do –he ran and climbed a tree. Middle Eastern men did not run in public. They did not climb trees. Kenneth Baily suggests that the fact that Zacchaeus picked a sycamore tree shows his desire to remain hidden. He chose to run outside of town and climb a tree with numerous branches and leaves that could just about hide a man.
Can see just how much he is reaching out for grace? He’s desperate for it. He makes a fool of himself just for the chance to get it. He knows he’s out of step with God.
What about you? Do you sense being out of step with the Lord? With your faith? You may not be a tax collector, but you’ve collected more than your share of guilt, worry, anxiety and depression. Your anger simmers just below the surface. You feel like an octopus on roller skates –there’s a lot of activity but not a lot of progress. You know you’re not living or experiencing the life you God desires for you. If you realize you’re up a tree and need the Grace of God…good. If that’s you, and you know that’s you, then grace can do its work.
The next part of the story is a bit humorous. You have Zacchaeus hiding in the tree and Jesus walking right under it. We don’t have any indication that the crowd noticed the little man, the original tree hugger, listening above. But Jesus did.
“Zacchaeus, Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5)
Don’t miss the grace here. Jesus calls to Him. And when he does Jesus incurs the wrath of the crowd. The crowd hated Zacchaeus. Jesus had chosen not to spend time with any of the respectable people of Jericho but had walked clear through the town and invited himself to stay with this…this…tax collector. Verse 7 says, “When they saw it, they all grumbled,” Notice they grumbled about Jesus’ action here, “He (Jesus) has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.”
The Scandal of Grace
Grace is always scandalous. Remember, it’s like a 4 year old with peanut butter—it gets everywhere!
So Zach comes down and hosts the Lord in his house. And in the midst of this, grace does its work. Zacchaeus, the one who was desperate for grace, receives it and its effect is immediate, “Behold, Lord, half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8)
Wait a minute, that’s not the talk of a tax collector! It’s hard to imagine an IRS agent saying that, isn’t it? This man was changed. The very offer of love and grace changed him. It put him back in step again. That’s what grace does. It changes us. It does what God promised to do way back in Ezekiel when God says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.” (Ezekiel 36:26)
A new heart. A new spirit. Getting back in step with God. Grace getting hold of you. Has it been a while since grace took hold of you?
The image I have of this comes from a commercial that was on TV many years ago. In that commercial a man was standing on the side of a pool. He took a sip of this refreshing glass of tea and fell backwards, totally relaxed into the pool. In my mind this is an image of grace. We can’t produce it, earn it, or deserve it. The only thing we can do is trust and fall into it.
And this is the goal. Look at what Jesus says in the next verse, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9a)
The order of events is important here or you and I will get the wrong idea. First, Zacchaeus is a scoundrel. Secondly, he becomes aware of it and is drawn to Jesus. Thirdly, he reaches out for grace. It’s a timid, halfhearted reach (climbing and hiding in a tree), but he reaches out. Fourthly, Jesus sees and enters his home, showing affection and grace. Fifthly, Jesus’ grace changes Zacchaeus’ heart and produces a change in his life.
Grace changes us. Rules won’t. Laws won’t. Guilt won’t. Nagging won’t.
But waking up to your need for grace, dropping back and falling into grace? That? That can be life changing.
Can you see why the writer to the Hebrew’s said, “See to it that no one misses the grace of God.”? (Hebrews 12:15).
Zacchaeus shows us what a grace encounter looks like. We see how grace is the scaffolding for the Christian life. Dare to believe that God loves you, really, desperately, passionately, loves you. And it is that love that enables you to live and love like Him. You may be tired, sick, exhausted, irritable, depressed, lonely, hopeless, or guilty. It doesn’t matter. His grace is greater; His love is stronger. There’s not a thing in your past -or your present- that is greater than his love. Zacchaeus learned this. I pray we will too. Come down. Grace awaits at this table with Jesus, your Lord. AMEN+