Real salvation - Luke 19:1-10

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the evening service on 1st April 2007.

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One of the most inhospitable places on earth is the Australian Outback. The temperatures regularly soar high into the 40s and water is a scarcity. The harsh red centre can barely sustain the most mediocre of life forms, and anyone travelling through on the few roads is warned to take plenty of water and carry spares for everything your four by four will need. If you do breakdown you are advised not to leave your vehicle, and satellite phones are a must. But if you get lost in the outback, or for some reason are separated from your vehicle in the middle of the bush, then the chances of survival are next to nil. Death is by and large a certainty, and the statistics back up the theory. That’s why the story of Ricky Megee is one of the most remarkable to come out of Australia in a very long time. Mr Megee was travelling from the East coast to the West, a distance of some 3000 miles to start a new life with a new job. It meant driving through the outback, on some dusty and lonely roads. At one point he picked up a hitchhiker, and the next thing he knew he found himself face down in the dirt covered by a plastic sheet, with dingoes nibbling at his body. He had no idea where he was, he was hundreds of miles from the nearest town, and he had no food or water. But remarkably for three months, he managed to survive by eating lizards, frogs, and leeches. Finally, by sheer luck, Ricky Megee stumbled onto a road where a farmer called Mark Clifford just happened to be driving. Megee was picked up and taken to hospital where he was weighed at 7 stone, and where he began his long recovery. And had he stayed in the bush for much longer, he would almost certainly have died. Commenting on his ordeal, he said very simply: “I just hoped and prayed that someone would find me.” Because of course when you are so hopelessly lost, there is nothing better than being found and being brought home.   

            Now in our passage for this evening from Luke’s gospel, we meet a man who was hopelessly lost but who was found. And that man is Zacchaeus. And at first sight, coming to this story, we might be forgiven for thinking that we’ve heard it all before. The story is perhaps familiar to many of us from Sunday school, where we sung all about Zacchaeus being a very little man, and a very little man was he. And it’s very tempting to leave the story in the Sunday School. As adults, we’ve moved one. We want deeper stuff. And it’s easy to dismiss the story as something for the children. But to do that would be to miss Luke’s point in telling us this story. Because right at the start of the gospel, Luke has told us why he was writing. He wants us to know the certainty of the things taught about Jesus. He wants us to grow in our love and faith in Jesus. And this story is part of Luke’s argument as he shows us who Jesus is and what he has come to do. And significantly the story comes at a point in Jesus’ life where everything is about to come together. For Jesus is on his final journey up to Jerusalem. Just a few verses later in verse 28 Jesus will make preparations for his entry into Jerusalem so putting into process the events that will lead to the cross. And interestingly the meeting with Zacchaeus is the final personal encounter Jesus has before the events of his last week. And Luke uses this meeting with Zacchaeus to show us the heart of Jesus’ mission which is there in verse 10: “The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” This encounter with Jesus is not a Sunday school story about a little man and a tree. It’s a real life meeting with the King of kings that Luke uses to show us what Jesus’ mission is all about. And as such, we find that there are three very important lessons for us, things that actually in the familiarly of the story it is easy to miss. For it is so easy to underestimate so much of Jesus’ mission, which is always to our peril. So:

1) Never Underestimate Jesus’ Verdict Upon Us

2) Never Underestimate Jesus’ Ability to Save Us

3) Never Underestimate Jesus’ Power to Change Us


1) Never Underestimate Jesus’ Verdict Upon Us

So first then we must never underestimate Jesus’ verdict upon us. And what is that verdict? Well verse 10 gives us the answer. Jesus came to seek and save what was lost. That is the human race, including everyone here is lost. God’s verdict upon us is that we are lost and we need to be found. Now that was Zacchaeus down to a tee. He was a lost man. But of course at first sight, he seems to be the ultimate self made man. So have a look at verse 1: “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy.” You see at first sight Zacchaeus seems to have everything. He is extremely wealthy. What more could you want? Money can buy you everything can’t it? And also he had a very good job. He was a chief tax collector. It was a top job in the civil service, working with the government of the times, the Romans, in a area of life that is always going to need workers. After all death and taxes are the two things we can be sure of in life aren’t they? His was a job for life. And he lived in Jericho which was one of the three top tax centres in the land. Jericho was a city on an important trade route and as such would have taken a lot of business. So Zacchaeus’ job was one of the most important in the Revenue. He was a big man! But actually all was not quite as it seemed. Because for a start, tax collectors were notorious in Jesus’ day for their corruption and their dealings with the enemy occupiers of the land, the Romans. Because not only was Zacchaeus perceived to be working with the enemy, taking taxes from the people and giving them to the Romans. But he would have taken his cut as well. So he was getting double. His pay from the Romans and his extortion of his own people. He admits as much in verse 8. He admits he’s cheated people out of their wealth. And as top dog in Jericho he would have been hated by virtually everyone in the town. His named would have brought about revulsion in people. It’s the same reaction we get today when we consider drug barons, or sex offenders who prey on children. It’s that sort of reaction. People who make gain from others’ misery or who prey on the vulnerable. That was Zacchaeus. And notice too what other people thought of him in verse 7. They call him a sinner. It just shows how they regarded him. He was a social outcast. Very few friends, and shunned by society. But surely his wealth would have brought him happiness, we might say? Well wealth is irrelevant when you are lonely and everyone hates you. As Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen once said, “You can be the richest man in the world and have everything you desire. But you can also be the loneliest.” Certainly in the public’s eye Zacchaeus was definitely lost. No-one wanted him.

            But Zacchaeus was also lost in a far more profound way. Because back in chapter 18 v 24, Jesus commented on the rich getting to heaven. He said: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God. Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” In Jesus’ understanding, wealth is so often a barrier to people coming into God’s kingdom. Who needs God when you have got everything else? And that was Jesus’ verdict on Zacchaeus’ life. He was lost- socially, yes. But far more profoundly, he was lost spiritually. He was cut off from God. He was alienated from his creator. He could not get into the kingdom of God under his own steam. He was lost.

            And by using Zacchaeus as an example of a lost man, Luke means for us too to see in him our own spiritual status. No we might not be extortionists, no we might not be wealthy and lonely. In fact we might be totally fulfilled and happy and well respected and liked in many ways. But Jesus’ verdict on us is the same as Zacchaeus. We’re lost. Because like Zacchaeus we are all cut off from God. The fundamental issue in our lives is not wealth, or popularity, or security, or happiness. The fundamental issue is whether we are in right relationship with the God who made us. And naturally not one of us is. We are lost. And sometimes the problem with being lost is that you don’t even know it. And then it becomes extremely dangerous.

            Now being lost is no fun, but not realising you’re lost is no fun for anyone else. Especially when you are a small child and your parent is desperately trying to look for you. That’s exactly what happened to our family many years ago, when we went on a family trip to London with another family. There were six children, aged between about 1 and 10, and it was our first big trip to the capital. At one stage we had to get on the Underground and it had be drilled into us in the military style parental briefing beforehand that we should never get separated and always stick together. But at one point as everyone else got onto the train and the doors closed, suddenly one little voice piped up, “Where’s Robert?” Well it’s every parent’s nightmare. Robert was left on the platform as the train glided away. And the problem for Robert was that he didn’t really realise there was a problem. He was lost but didn’t know it. The next five minutes were probably the most frantic of our parents’ lives, but thankfully Robert was found safe and well, still standing exactly where he had been five minutes before. He was lost and needed saving.

            And that was Zacchaeus’ condition, and it’s ours too. Now many of us will know this today, but I wonder if many of us have realised just how lost we really are. Have we understood how far we have sunk in our sin and rebellion against God? Perhaps our temptation is to think that actually we’re not so bad after all, and that God is pretty lucky to have us on his team. After all, we’re gifted, we have so much to offer his kingdom. We’re decent moral people. Surely God would love to have us on his side? But do you realise the reality of your heart? Do you realise just how lost you are? Our sin is morally repugnant to God. There is nothing lovely about us at all! And when we see our hearts for what they truly are, then it leads to humility instead of pride, thankfulness instead of arrogance. Which is why one of the prayers I sometimes pray for myself is that God show me my sin, that I might adore the Saviour. Because the more I realise how lost I am, the more I realise the incredible grace that God has shown in saving me. It’s dangerous prayer to pray, because seeing your sin is painful. But unless we have a Biblical understanding of our lostness, then we will never fully appreciate the rescuer, and we will live our Christian lives in pride and smugness, thinking we’ve contributed to our salvation by our goodness. When in fact all we have contributed is our sin. No, like Zacchaeus we are lost, each and every one of us, whether we admit it tonight or not. And we must never underestimate Jesus’ verdict upon us.


2) Never Underestimate Jesus’ Ability to Save Us

But the great thing is that whilst we are lost, we are not lost causes, which brings us on to the second discovery in this story. Never underestimate Jesus’ ability to save you. Because what did Jesus come to do? He came to seek and to save the lost. And the amazing truth is it is Jesus who actively goes out to seek and save the lost. But at first sight, we might think that it is Zacchaeus who is going out of his way to find Jesus. So let’s pick up the story in verse 3: “He wanted to see who Jesus was, but being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.” Now it’s clear that Zacchaeus was fascinated by Jesus. He wanted to get a good look at this man. But as a short man, he couldn’t stand in the crowds, so he used his ingenuity. He ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree. But just think for a moment how risky it was. For a high ranking civil servant to run and then climb a tree! It was very undignified. Imagine John Prescott climbing one of the trees in Queen’s Gardens to see a celebrity like Bob Geldoff come to Hull. That’s the sort of thing that’s going on! And no doubt, Zacchaeus didn’t think he’d be spotted. He’d just cunningly get his view and then head on home. It was a perfect plan. But something else was going on that day. Divine grace was at work in Zacchaeus’ life. His life was about to change totally for ever. Because it turns out that it’s not Zacchaeus looking for Jesus, but Jesus looking for Zacchaeus. Notice verse 5: “When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’” Of all the people for Jesus to chat with and spend time with, he chooses Zacchaeus, one of the most vilified men in Jericho. It’s extraordinary when you think about it. And notice what Jesus says to him. It’s not, “Look, I’m desperate for a cup of tea, it’s been a long day, and I wonder if you won’t might it if I could come for a drink, if its not too much to ask?” No, it’s: “Zacchaeus, get down here now. For I must stay at your house today.” It’s very strong language. This word “must” is often used in the gospels of Jesus’ divine mission. Jesus must be handed over and be betrayed and die and rise again. And it’s as if we are to see this meeting with Zacchaeus as part of that divine mission. Jesus is seeking and saving Zacchaeus. He is taking all the initiative. And why? Quite simply to save him. Because he is lost and he needs saving. So see what Jesus says in verse 9: “ Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.’” Salvation in the form of Jesus has visited Zacchaeus. He’s become a member of the people of God. He has become spiritually speaking a child of Abraham. He’s received by faith all the promises of God. He’s  been saved. Now of course, Jesus’ mission was not yet completed when he met Zacchaeus. For Jesus would later that very week go on to die on a cross where he would be taking all of Zacchaeus’ sins on his shoulders, bearing the punishment Zacchaeus deserved. That was how Zacchaeus’ salvation would be achieved. But what was in no doubt to those with eyes to see, and indeed to Zacchaeus himself, was that Jesus had sought him and found him and saved him. Even a dirty rotten scoundrel like Zacchaeus. He was now a child of God.

            And we must never underestimate Jesus’ ability to save us. Because he can save even the most unlikely of people, even a Zacchaeus. But I wonder if we genuinely believe that. Do we really believe that God can save our friends? Do we really believe that God can save our colleagues at work? Do we really believe that God can save people on the university campus, or for those going on the Doncaster mission this week, do you believe God can save people there? Because if you really don’t believe it, then why are you going? Rather we should pray expectantly that God will save some according to his will. Now we cannot second guess God, but we must never doubt his ability to save, even those who we write off as never becoming Christians. What right do we have to do that? I remember reading a story about the great 19th century preacher Charles Spurgeon, and a young preacher came to him and complained that no-one was becoming a Christian through his ministry. And Spurgeon asked him: “Do you expect people to become Christians every time you preach, and do you pray for it?” “Well, no,” replied the honest young man. “Then why are you surprised if no-one is converted?”  

            God takes the initiative to save, and we should never underestimate his ability to save, even those who we would humanly speaking write off. Now I’ve been guilty of that myself. I remember one guy I met years ago who it seemed to me was the most unlikely person ever to become a Christian. He was a lawyer, highly intelligent, and very arrogant with it. He could answer any question you threw at him, and he seemed to be able to bring down the Christian faith at will. And when I met him, I secretly thought that there was no way this chap could ever become a Christian. But over months and months he began to read. We met together, and he questioned other Christians as well. And after months and months, he ran out of questions, and one night submitted his life to Jesus. And ten years on, he’s still serving Christ wholeheartedly. It’s a wonderful testimony to God’s ability to save and surprise us with those whom he choose to seek out and rescue. And if you have been praying away for a family member or a friend for years, then don’t give up. God can save them, and it may be in his will to answer your prayer positively later in the future. And let us never fall into the trap of thinking that God could never save this type of person or that. Because he can and he has. He can save a Zacchaeus. And he can save people like you and me. So never underestimate Jesus’ ability to save.

3) Never Underestimate Jesus’ Power to Change Us

But then the final thing we learn from this story is never underestimate Jesus’ power to change us. Because in Zacchaeus we see a quite staggering transformation. He moves from being self centred to other people centred, from being wealth centred to God centred. In fact, he’s marked by two qualities that are seen in all genuine Christians. First there is a new joy in verse 6: “So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.” Literally he welcomed Jesus with joy. It’s a wonderful picture of what happens to someone when they are found by Jesus and forgiven. It’s as if Jesus comes into the home of their lives and they welcome Jesus with joy. It’s not always an emotional happiness. Because joy in the Bible is much deeper. It is deep contentment in God that allows us to trust in him even in the most difficult of circumstances. There is a deep joy that sins are forgiven, that we are friends again with God, that we are in right relationship with our maker.  

            But notice as well that Zacchaeus is marked by a new obedience in verse 8: “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.’” Now notice that Zacchaeus is not just paying back those he’s extorted. Actually he goes far beyond what the law required if you’d fiddled someone out of their money. No, what Zacchaeus is doing here is showing in a remarkable way that money is no longer his God. For starters he gives half of his wealth to the poor, and only after that he gives back to those he’s extorted. It’s not that he’s trying to impress Jesus or even buy him off. No, it’s a lavish outworking of his new love for and devotion to God. As a forgiven, cleansed sinner, he generously shares his wealth and wants to make amends.

            And in any genuine believer there are these two marks. Joy and obedience. There is genuine joy at being a child of God, and there is obedience in the ways of God. Now it’s certainly not that everything is instantly OK in Zacchaeus’ life. And nor is it in ours. We will always struggle this side of heaven with areas of our lives where obedience is hard. But don’t underestimate God’s power to change you. It maybe that you think there are parts of your life that God could never change. Maybe a hidden sin, a deeply ingrained habit, an attitude which you think could never change. Well don’t despair. God can change even the most resilient of us into beautiful people, perhaps over many years, but change us he will, if we’ll allow him. Maybe it would be good to confide in a trusted Christian friend, and get them to pray with you and for you. But whatever our particular difficulty is, the challenge Zacchaeus gives us is to act. To act in response to Jesus’ lavish grace and mercy. 

            And that is really where this story leaves us. It asks how we will respond. Perhaps for some of us we have never accepted the rescue of Jesus. Well like Zacchaeus you need to admit you are lost. And you need to come to Jesus for rescue and transformation. For only he can save you. Only he can bring you back from the place you have wandered to.

            But I guess for many of us here tonight, we need to consider if we do underestimate Jesus in any of these three areas. And if so we need to repent. Perhaps we underestimate Jesus’ verdict on us that we are lost. Perhaps we regard ourselves too highly and need to humble ourselves again before the Saviour. Perhaps we underestimate his ability to save, perhaps doubting that he could save our friends and family. Or maybe we doubt his power to change us. Some area of our lives just too hard to change. Well don’t despair. Because this Lord Jesus is powerful enough to save and powerful us to change us. And that is why we need to come back to him and recognise afresh his grace and mercy.

            So let me finish by telling you about someone who did just that. His name was Robert Robinson. Robert Robinson was an English clergyman who lived in the 18th century. Not only was he a gifted pastor and preacher he was also a highly gifted poet and hymn writer. However, after many years in the pastorate his faith began to drift. He left the ministry and finished up in France, indulging himself in sin. One night he was riding in a carriage with a Parisian socialite who had recently been converted to Christ. She was interested in his opinion on some poetry she was reading. She read it to him: “Come thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace, Streams of mercy never failing, Call for hymns of loudest praise.” When she looked up from her reading the woman noticed Robinson was crying. "What do I think of it?" he asked in a broken voice. "Well, I wrote it. But now I've drifted away from him and can't find my way back." "But don't you see," the woman said gently, "The way back is written right here in the third line of your poem: Streams of mercy never ceasing. Those streams are flowing even here in Paris tonight." And suddenly it all became clear. Robinson knew it was true and he knew he had to act. So that night Robinson recommitted his life to Christ. Because he knew that only in Jesus is found the one who came to seek and to save what was lost.

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