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by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          March 14, 2004

Preached at Irvine Presbyterian Church

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Scripture Reading: Luke 19:1-10

1 [Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through it.   2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.   3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.   4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.   5 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."   6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him.   7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."   8 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."   9 Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.   10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."

I Love This Story

I've always loved this Bible story. It all started when I was a kid in Sunday School. Most of the Bible stories we studied were about big people and their affairs. But Zacchaeus, he was short. Though he may not have been a "wee little man," as the song says, Zacchaeus was so short that he couldn't see over a crowd of adults, and that's something I could relate to as a child.

Moreover, Zacchaeus was a tree-climber, just like me. In my youth I loved climbing trees. Oak trees, pine trees, cedar trees, eucalyptus trees, yes, even sycamore trees, were among my favorite targets. Sometimes I'd climb so high that I'd give my parents the willies, but only once did I fall. I plummeted only eight feet, thank God. That was the good news. The bad news was that I fell head first onto a brick planter. Another fright for my poor mother and another set stitches for me.

You can understand why Zacchaeus was my hero: a short, tree-climber with a fascination for Jesus, just like me.

In this story of Zacchaeus we see four distinct responses to Jesus. Let's examine these one-by-one as they appear in the text.

Guarded Interest

The first response is that of guarded interest. As Jesus was passing through Jericho, Zacchaeus, the wealthy and therefore despised tax collector was curious. Apparently he had heard stories about this prophet-healer from up in Galilee, and he wanted to check him out.

But he didn't want to get too close. As a wealthy man, Zacchaeus surely could have found a less awkward way to meet Jesus. He could have hired someone to flag Jesus down or even sent a servant to invite Jesus to his home. But Zacchaeus didn't want this much interaction with Jesus. He simply wanted to see what Jesus was up to, to catch a glimpse of him from a safe distance.

Can you relate to this? I know many of you can. Perhaps you can think back to a time in your life when you weren't a Christian, but had a vague interest in Jesus. Maybe you tried to read the New Testament gospels. Or maybe you bought a book about Jesus. Perhaps you even visited a church, but made sure to sit near the back, a safe distance from the preacher. You wanted to learn more about Jesus, but didn't want to get too close.

Some of you may be in this very position today. You're not desperate to know Christ, but you are intrigued. You're here, not to commit your life to him, but to see what he's about. Now I want to be very clear with you that if you're rather like Zacchaeus up in the tree today, you're welcome here. You can come and sit and learn - and that's just great. If you've been around for a while you know that I'll encourage you to put your faith in Christ. But nobody here will pressure you or manipulate you or put you on the spot. We're glad to be here for you, and we're glad you're here with us.

Taking the Next Step with Jesus

Of course Zacchaeus's stint in the tree didn't last too long. As Jesus came into view, all of a sudden he looked right at the man in the tree and said, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today" (19:5).

Wow! Now that must have been a shock for Zacchaeus. I'm surprised that he didn't fall out of the tree altogether. Jesus, reaching out to him, knowing and calling his name, and even inviting himself to Zacchaeus's house. How unexpected!

This reminds me of an experience I had thirteen years ago this month. It involved Ben Patterson, the founding pastor of this church. For years I had admired Ben as a great preacher. When I went to Forest Home during my junior high and high school years, Ben was a regular speaker. He was outstanding! He and Bob Kraning were my favorite preachers in the whole world. But, being rather shy, I never introduced myself to Ben or even talked to him. I admired him from afar, up in my tree, if you will.

In 1984 I attended the College Briefing Conference at Forest Home. Predictably, Ben Patterson was one of the main speakers. This time I got all my courage together and sat at his table for lunch. Before long we got into a discussion about the nature of God, and in time this discussion became rather heated. In the end we parted cordially, but I was sure that I had offended my all-time preaching hero. That's the only contact I ever had with Ben until March 1991.

Thirteen years ago this month, the Pastor Nominating Committee of this church invited me to candidate to be your pastor. I was excited but also scared. Though drawn to this church, I wasn't sure that I was the right person to be your pastor. The members of the Nominating Committee encouraged me to call Ben Patterson on the phone and talk with him about what it was like to pastor this church. I felt nervous about this, given my history with Ben, but I was pretty sure he wouldn't remember our argument at College Briefing seven years earlier. So I called Ben on the phone.

"Hello, Ben. This is Mark Roberts. You probably don't know who I am but . . . ."

"Of course I know who you are," he interrupted. "You're the one who's going to be pastor of IPC."

"Well, maybe. That's what I want to talk with you about," I continued. "Now I'm sure you don't remember me . . . ."

"Of course I remember you," he boomed. "You're the one I had a big argument with at College Briefing." And then Ben went on to describe in detail the nature of that conversation.

"Oh my," I said when he finished, "I hoped you didn't remember that argument."

"Why? Of course I remember it. You did a great job. You defended your side well."

"I did? You think so?" I asked, brightening a bit.

"Yes, sure," he added. "Besides, I remember the article you published in Christianity Today several years ago. It was an excellent piece on spirituality."

"You remember my article?" I said, incredulously.

"Sure, I know lots about you," Ben replied.

And then he went on to tell me, in the most gracious way, how much he wanted me to become the pastor of this church, and how much he had been praying for me. I was astounded. Never in my life have I felt more affirmed and encouraged by someone who, I thought, didn't even know me.

So I can begin to imagine what Zacchaeus must have been feeling when Jesus called out to him. But now the man in the tree was on the spot. No longer could he sit back at a safe distance and check Jesus out. Jesus himself had upped the relational ante, calling Zacchaeus to come down. Zacchaeus had a choice, a choice that would forever change the direction of his life: come down and have a personal encounter with Jesus, or stay up in the tree and miss this opportunity.

Zacchaeus came down, of course. His response was not yet one of full-blown faith. He was saying "yes" to Jesus; not yet, "Yes, I put my trust completely in you," but "Yes, I'll go the next round with you. Yes, I'll trust you enough to draw near."

Many of us here today have experienced something like this with Jesus. We began by checking him out from a safe distance, and for a while nothing else seemed to happen. But then, all of a sudden, Jesus made a move. This move may have taken one of many different forms. But we knew, as surely as we knew anything, that Jesus was turning to us and saying, "Come on down. I want to be with you now." The next step in the relationship was ours. We had a choice at that point, either to move toward Jesus or to turn away from him. Neutrality and safe distance would no longer be possible.

Throughout my life as a Christian I've watched what happens with many people at this point. I've seen some act just like Zacchaeus, saying "yes" to Jesus and taking the next step in relationship with him. And, I'm sad to say, I've seen others say "no." Sometimes it's "No, I'm just not ready." Sometimes it's "No, I still want to be lord over my own life." Sometimes it's "No, I'm too scared." Some of my greatest disappointments in life have come when people who seemed so eager to meet Jesus finally had an encounter with him through the Spirit, yet decided to decline his invitation to a deeper relationship.

As you sit here today, maybe you're still safely perched on your branch, spying on Jesus from a distance. That's fine, but I need to alert you that the time will come when he'll ask for the next step. When that happens, I urge you to say "yes" to him. You'll find there's nothing finer in life than getting to know Jesus better.

Maybe today is the day of your calling. In this service, in this sermon, you're hearing Jesus say to you, "Come on down from the tree. I want you to know me better." If the Lord has placed this upon your heart, I'd plead with you to come down and meet.

But I won't push you out of the tree. And neither should anyone else. I want to say something to Christians here today, especially if there are people in your life who are sitting on their branch, and you desperately want them to climb down and come to Jesus. Here's what I want to say: Don't push people off the branch. As much as you yearn for them to know the Lord, it's not your job to force an encounter with Jesus upon people. The Holy Spirit is the one who draws people to Christ, not you. So, yes, continue to bear witness to the Lord. And, yes, encourage folk with your words and your own life. And, yes, most of all, pray like mad. Pray that, in God's time, people will hear the call of Jesus to come down, and that they'll be ready to take the next step with Jesus.

Grumbling Over God's Sovereign Grace

So Zacchaeus hopped down and was happy to welcome Jesus to his home. But then we see another kind of response to Jesus, the response I'd call grumbling over God's sovereign grace. Luke puts it this way: "All who saw it began to grumble and said, 'He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner'" (19:7).

Why did the onlookers grumble? Perhaps they felt disappointed, wishing that Jesus had wanted to come to their houses instead of Zacchaeus's. But, given what they actually said, I don't think disappointment tells the whole story. They also felt confused, or perhaps even judgmental. Jesus, supposedly a prophet, a healer, a holy man, had gone to the home of a notoriously bad man. Zacchaeus was, after all, a wealthy tax collector. He made his money by colluding with the Romans and ripping off his own Jewish people. This was not the sort of man that Jesus should have been hanging out with. So the people were bugged, bugged because Jesus wasn't doing things the "right way," bugged, ultimately with God's sovereign grace. The kingdom of God was coming through Jesus, but it wasn't looking like what they expected.

My friends, God's ways are not our ways. God's grace is always wiser and greater than ours. And God doesn't generally check with us before he acts. (Actually, never.) So there will be times when we'll feel confused, even frustrated by the Lord. Sometimes his grace will come in forms we don't understand or appreciate. But let's not be grumblers. Let's step back and let go of our own agendas so that we might rejoice in God's sovereign grace.


As soon as Zacchaeus met Jesus face to face he announced to Jesus and all who were listening: "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" (19:8). Now that's some response, isn't it?! That's what we call repentance: a complete u-turn.

In common English "to repent" means to feel sorry for one's shortcomings. But this only begins to scratch the surface of biblical repentance. Sorrow alone isn't nearly enough. Repentance, though it might begin with sorrow, is a complete change of mind and action. It's thinking, feeling, and living in a whole new direction. For years Zacchaeus had devoted his life to making lots of money, and he had been very successful, even if it meant losing favor and friends. But, in response to the gracious presence of Jesus, Zacchaeus altered, not just his thinking, but also his acting. What he once held to be most important in life - money - he now would freely give away.

My friends, when you have a genuine encounter with Jesus, you will be changed, not just a little, but deep within. And this profound transformation will alter the way you live, not just on the fringes of your life, but at the very core. Repentance begins when we give our lives to Christ the first time. And it's an ongoing experience as we continue to submit ourselves to the Lord and to be redirected by his Spirit.

Financial generosity, such as we find in Zacchaeus, is one aspect of genuine repentance. This is especially true in a culture such as our, which is so terribly materialistic and greedy. I've cited before statistics that show that the average household in Orange County gives just over $200 per year to charity. That's about .3% of annual household income. Let's face it, in our natural state, we don't want to give away our money if we don't have to because we've got so many things to buy for ourselves. But the more Christ gets hold of your heart, the more you'll experience repentance, the more you'll be transformed into a generous, Christ-like giver. It's true. I've seen it again and again.  

How Should We Respond to the Son of Man?

The conclusion of our passage today contains a saying of Jesus that has just been illustrated in his encounter with Zacchaeus: "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" (19:9-10).

Though we can easily take this saying for granted, it must have shocked the original audience. The phrase "son of man" means, in Hebrew or Aramaic, simply "human being." But this phrase came to take on special significance among certain Jews in the time of Jesus. They based their ideas upon Daniel 7 where "one like a human being [son of man]" appears before the throne of God, to received "dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him" (Daniel 7:13-14). But, moving far beyond Daniel, some first-century Jews envisioned this Son of Man as a virtual Superman sent by God to usher in the kingdom. Most importantly of all, the Son of Man would execute divine judgment upon all sinners, especially the Romans.

So Jesus came along, reaching out to a Jewish traitor who had sold out to the Romans. Then Jesus said that the Son of Man had come, not to bring judgment, but to seek out and to save the lost. And not just the lost faithful of Israel, but even people like Zacchaeus. Jesus, as the Son of Man, is like the good shepherd in Luke 15, who isn't satisfied until he has found every lost sheep.

How should we respond to Jesus the Son of Man? Well, if he's seeking out those who are lost - and includes you and me - then our job is to let him find us. Yes, in a way we are seekers after God. But on a more profound level, Christ is the one who is seeking after us. As I've said before, we are more the "seekees" than the "seekers."

No matter where you are today in your relationship with Christ, know that he is seeking you. If you aren't a believer, know that Jesus isn't just waiting for you to come around. He's after your soul, and the time will come when he'll say "Get down from that tree. I want to be with you today." Will you let Jesus find you? Will you come down from the tree?

And if you are already a Christian, Jesus hasn't stopped seeking you. He wants a deeper, truer, more lasting, more transforming relationship with you. He wants to make your life, not just a little better, but brand new. He offers new creation; we receive this by turning our lives around in repentance.

Jesus is here, in his church, and in his Word, and in his Spirit. Jesus is here to seek and to save the lost, to bring us home, to make us whole. When Jesus calls, will you come down and meet him?

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