First Mennonite Church
October 16, 2022
When Grace Touches the Heart
Text: Luke 19:1-10
When God appeared in the world or to people, both the world and those to whom he appeared never were the same again.
In Genesis, where we find God’s first appearances, the world came into being; it teemed with life, beauty, order, and the powerful assurance of a hopeful future for all. Adam and Eve were endowed with God’s maximum grace, bearing his image and likeness, also bore the ultimate responsibility of stewardship over everything God had created. But when Adam and Eve chose to follow their own ways, the entire creation was affected and God’s purposes for his entire project were interrupted.
However, God continued to appear and to reignite and restore his purposes for human life, especially for and through his chosen people. Through Israel, the God’s promises made to Abraham were to be fulfilled:
“I will make you into a great nation,
and I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
and you will be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
and whoever curses you I will curse;
and all peoples on earth
will be blessed through you. (Genesis 12:2, 3)
To make the story short, God kept appearing. He did so through the prophets and finally through his Son.
One of those beautiful examples of God’s intervention and power to change life is found in the story of Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus hears that Jesus is going through town, but the crowd beats him to the street. When he gets there, both sides of the street are filled with people wanting to have a look at Jesus. You would think the people would be sympathetic to Zacchaeus due to his stature and would allow him to sneak through to get a good look. But no; the town’s people hate Zacchaeus because of his profession. He is a chief tax collector, thus considered a traitor to his nation. And although Zacchaeus is above his people in the area of authority and economic power, he is physically shorter than the shortest of them all. He is hated and most likely he also reciprocates. None-the-less, he is determined to do one thing: he wants to see Jesus. He finds a way to overcome his physical disadvantage. He might cursed his situation and the indifference of the crowds, but he clenches his teeth and pushes his way up a sycamore tree. Zacchaeus sets aside any remaining dignity he has. In ancient Jewish culture, adult people do not run in public. And climbing up trees in public view was even more humiliating for any man of reasonable dignity. Zacchaeus dishes out every sense of personal pride for the sake of seeing Jesus. He perches on his branch overhanging the street and peeks through his leafy perch hoping for at least a glimpse of Jesus.
When Jesus arrives where Zacchaeus is perched up, Jesus stops by. To the surprise of everyone, Jesus comes under where Zacchaeus is perched up and commands him down from the tree. “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” Jesus’ words to Zacchaeus reveal what theologians call a “divine imperative.” Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “I must stay at your house today.” Every other time Jesus uses the phrase “I must” or “it must” as when he described his death to the fleeing disciples on the road to Damascus (Luke 24:7), or when “he must” go to Jerusalem (Matthew 16:21), or when “he must go” through Samaria (John 4:4), where he met the Samaritan woman, or as in this case where Jesus tells Zacchaeus “he must stay at his house,” Jesus reveals a divine appointment, a moment in which the power of God would be revealed. Every time Jesus says he must do something, it reveals God’s intent to intervene in that particular event. And in the case of Zacchaeus, Jesus must stay at his house where something extraordinary was about to take place.
Zacchaeus rejoices not only because he got a good look at who Jesus is, but because Jesus offers to be his guest. The NIV reads: So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. The NRSV reads: So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. Neither translation capture the joy with which Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus to his house. The verse should read: So he hurried down and joyfully welcomed Jesus. Zacchaeus was blissful that Jesus not only greeted him but has offered to be his guest.
The reaction to both Jesus’ personal interest in Zacchaeus and his offer to “re-dignify” Zacchaeus’ house was troubling to the crowd. The people begin to mutter: “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” In the gospel according to Luke, the rich are always presented in a bad light. But here, Jesus offers himself as guest to a rich chief tax collector. And contrary to the rich ruler who went away sad, Zacchaeus jubilantly welcomes Jesus.
Jesus’ personal interest and direct engagement with Zacchaeus, become immediately evident it is indeed a divine appointment given to Zacchaeus. “Lord, says Zacchaeus, “half of my 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.”
Jesus’ visit not only changed Zacchaeus’ heart from greed to generosity, but also completely changed his perspective about life. He will not defraud anyone else from then on. He will in fact repay those he had cheated. He will mend his ways and make a complete “U-turn” in the way he will carry out his business. Zacchaeus pledges to adjust his ways.
At the end of Zacchaeus’ declaration of repentance, Jesus declares: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” If the crowd was right in saying that Jesus had entered the house of a sinner, Jesus reversed that description with his declaration. He brought salvation to a house, to a man who did not know the power and freedom God’s salvation gives. Change and transformation happen when God appears or shows up anywhere he might find us. When God appears, the human heart is illuminated not only to see its condition, but also to be able to recognize the face of God in others.
Let me borrow, here, a word from James. In James one, 26 and 27, James uses the word “religion” as equivalent to the Christian faith. There, he says that anyone who says is religious but does not control his/her tongue, such religion is worthless and in verse 27, says the true religion is that which compels a sense of compassion towards the vulnerable and shies away from the chatter of the world. At the heart of religion is a deep sense of the Divine, the Ultimate Mystery or Reality. In the Christian faith, we call this Mystery, the Triune God: God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Whenever God appears to us, we find ourselves overwhelmed, touched deeply within, open, and unable to escape. God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, or simply as we might often think it is, the Word of God, speaks to us personally and compels us to act according to his command. Within our chests, a mysterious pulsating force empowers our hearts to respond to such a manifestation, even if it’s the faintest glimpse of who God might be. But it is powerful enough to make us respond as Zacchaeus did, with true repentance and genuine desire to correct our wrongs.
Zacchaeus was convinced, he would not enjoy fullness of peace, if those he had wronged do not have peace. He knew, his joy would not be full, unless others are also joyous. Zacchaeus knew that God’s love is even sweeter when it’s shared with others. Zacchaeus experienced the power there is when Grace appears.
And here is word of warning:
When religion, as James uses the term, loses its mysterious pulsating power in the human heart, and more precisely, in our heart, religion becomes religiosity. The once open-heart collapses within, shielding itself with the shell of religiosity—that is, the appearance of the True religion. The loving person that once was, continues to be a good one in society but with no joy and more finicky about most everything. The once happy and joyful person turns into a gloomy and gray shadow that neither illumines nor allows light to filter through him or her. And what can be even sadder is that such a person forgets the power and joy there are when Grace touches the heart.
Jesus is God’s channel of grace, Grace that fills the heart with joy and light. May our heart be always filled with Divine grace to keep our heart pulsating towards others with redemptive expressions of love and gladness. And may all the glory be to Him who touches us with grace, as He did Zacchaeus. Amen!