Gravity

Delivered September 22, 2002 by Alison Siewert,
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, worship leader at First Presbyterian Church (USA), Bethlehem, PA, author of InterVarsity’s Worship Team Handbook.

Theme: Being found by Jesus. We don’t need to be afraid.

Sermon Text:
Luke 19:1-10
1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.
2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief
tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but
being a short man he could not, because of the crowd. 4 So he ran
ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him,
“Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone
to be the guest of a ‘sinner.’ ”
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.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house,
because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of
Man came to seek and to save what was lost.”

So I really like this story. It’s one of my favorite ones, out of Luke chapter 19. Luke writes this story about Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, and he’s going kind of surrounded by all these people. And it really was like a rock-star crowd because all these people had heard about Jesus, they might have even heard him teach and they kind of wanted to get around him. It moved like an amoeba. Have you ever been in a crowd like that where there are so many people you’re not really walking you’re more shuffling barely and it takes you an hour to get anywhere? That’s how it was around Jesus. Everyone was around him and it was hard to see him. He was known and now he’s headed to Jerusalem and people thought he was going to be the king. They thought he was going to take over, he was going to kick out the Romans. The Romans were this occupying power. Palestinian Jews and others who lived there didn’t really want Rome in their cities occupying their land but they were part of the Roman empire, they didn’t have any choice. So, they were hoping that Jesus would go into the city of Jerusalem and kick out the Romans and he would sit on the throne the way David sat and bring the Jewish nation back to it’s greatness. That’s what they were hoping for. That’s what they thought would happen. It was pretty politically charged situation. So, people were kind of following him around, waiting for him to do this cool thing in Jerusalem, which of course, if you’ve ever read the Bible, you know that that’s not how Jesus became king at all. If fact, it’s like the whole opposite way that Jesus became king. Eventually Rome did fall apart, but not because Jesus just immediately and directly kicked them out. He did it He did it in a much better way.

But all these people kind of want to check it out and so it’s kind of like, I’m from L.A. and you know, around Oscar time, it’s kind of funny what happens. People can buy tickets, you might not have known this, but you can buy tickets to sit in the bleachers where the stars come in for the Oscars. Did you know that? You can buy a ticket and you can have your own little seat in the bleacher and watch, like you know, whoever you are excited about seeing go in for the Oscars. Now I have never spent my money on a ticket to watch people go in because actually when you live in L.A. you run into stars, like I came about this close to slamming in to Steve Martin coming out of an elevator because I just wasn’t looking and you see people kind of around, because they have got to live somewhere and they are around. So you get kind of used to it, but we would have students at the college where I work come from out of state, who had never or it was like this whole new experience to see like filming going on at campus. Like the movie “Clueless” was filmed on our campus and so you would see the cameras around and everybody trying to spot people and it’s very exciting. It’s kind of like that. People are kind of are like trying to get around Jesus and it’s that weird curiosity that we have, like what are they like? Like, what are they like in person? Is Tom Cruise really as short as I think? I mean, you know. It’s a strange kind of curiosity and fascination that people have and people are applying that to Jesus.

So Zacchaeus is one of those people. He wants to see Jesus. He wants to check him out. Luke tells us three things about Zacchaeus. The first thing he tells us is that he is a chief tax collector. The second thing we find out is that he is rich and the third thing we know is that he is short. That doesn’t seem like much information, but it actually kind of tells us a lot, because Zacchaeus works for Rome. He works for the bad guys. He works for the occupying power. He collects money from other Jews and he takes the money and gives it to Rome and Rome uses it to build like pagan temples and to deploy more soldiers to their area to keep them under this kind of oppression. That’s how Rome is using their money. They have to like pay to be oppressed. It’s a very bad system. We used to have that here once a long, long, long time ago. Anyway, so Zacchaeus is kind of like on the bad side of the equation. We also know that he was rich. Now the way tax collectors got paid wasn’t like a salary. They didn’t draw a government check once a month. The way they got paid was to tell you that your tax was $70 if it was really only $50. You have to pay him $70 because you don’t have any choice, because he is the tax guy and you have to pay and he got to keep $20 for himself. It’s basically extortion. So Zacchaeus was very good at doing this. He was very weasely. He is kind of a weasely guy and he is able to extract a lot of money from people, from his own people, and he gets rich off basically taking money, kind of stealing money from people. He can set the amount wherever he wants and he sets it high and he gets a lot of cash. Now, not only is he rich and a weasel, but he is like the chief weasel. Right? He is like the head weasel who leads all the other weasel tax guys to collect money from all of the other people and he is not popular. Zacchaeus is not your, like, friendly guy on the block character. He is kind of a nasty dude and nobody really likes him.

Now Zacchaeus, to give him credit, he’s got it set up okay. Like he kind of has his life balanced for whatever it’s worth. It’s not great, but he’s got money, he’s got a house and a job and he’s got authority. He knows what he is supposed to do when he gets up in the morning. He’s got it kind of set up. He’s kind of perched in a place that’s working okay. It’s not great, but it’s okay. Maybe you can relate to that. You know, sometimes it is so hard to get everything working together, your schedule, your money, kind of your free time. It’s hard to get everything to work together. Zacchaeus is like okay with it. But he thinks it would interesting to go and see Jesus. So he goes to see him and he can’t see because he is in the back of the crowd and he is very short. So he has to climb a tree. That’s because if somebody in Palestine in the first century identifies you as short, you are short. I mean, if you think about Middle Eastern people now, they are not a real tall people group. Middle Easterners are not known for their seven foot basketball player people, right? They are a short people group and at that time nutrition is not as good, so you kind of just start taking off the inches. Zacchaeus was probably under five feet tall. Now I am not under five feet, but I can relate to being at the back of the crowd and not being able to see and you are trying to jump and look and it’s bad. Danny DeVito would play Zacchaeus, if we were going to make a movie. He’s like the short weasely guy, right? He would be a great Zacchaeus. And he’s rich, there you go. So, Zacchaeus goes from the back of the crowd and he defies dignity. He just a Middle Eastern leader guy and he’s not liked, but he is respected, because he has to be. He is wearing his robes and sandals or whatever he is wearing and he like runs ahead and finds a tree. Now if you’re thinking because in the text sometimes it says the sycamore tree, it’s not the kind of sycamore we have here where you couldn’t reach the bottom branch, even if you were like a good jumper. It’s a kind of ficus. So he climbs in this tree and he sees where Jesus is coming and he kinds of picks one where Jesus is going to come right under it. So he climbs up in this tree and he is not expecting anything, he just wants to see Jesus go by, just like the Oscars. I just want to see the stars. I just want to view them in their evening wear. I just got to take a look. I’m not going to be buds. I mean, there might be that slight hope. I always think it is really funny when you go to concerts and people are down in the front row screaming like at Justin or whoever they are screaming at and it’s like as if, you know, as if it is going to happen. Anyway, it’s kind of humorous. Zacchaeus doesn’t have any of those kinds of assumptions. He is not trying to make anything happen. He just wants to see Jesus. He just wants to look at him. So he gets up in the tree. He is kind of balanced, just like in his life. He’s perched there just to look. He would never expect a Jewish religious teacher to be interested in him. In fact, Zacchaeus is probably entirely irreligious. He can’t have been very religious and spent much time in the synagogue. First of all, people probably would not have let him and second of all, how could really like be in to God and like be abusing your own people at the same time. It doesn’t really work or at least it theoretically doesn’t work. I don’t think Zacchaeus was very religious.

So he is perched in the tree just to look and he doesn’t expect anything and he wouldn’t even have imagined that Jesus would notice him. Who would imagine that Jesus would even notice him? Who would imagine that Jesus would even notice him? He’s up in a tree and Jesus is surrounded by a thousand people. He wouldn’t imagine that Jesus would notice him, but that’s exactly what Jesus does. And it’s so Jesus, you know. You read the gospels. It’s classic Jesus. He’s going to notice him. You know ahead of time how it’s going to turn out. And he not only notices him, but he stops, he looks up and he goes, “Hey Zacchaeus. Come down. Hurry up. We’ve got to go to your house tonight.” Now can you imagine. Oh, the shock. Right. You’re up in this tree and all you want is to just like see the star pass by and all of a sudden it’s like, I am having dinner at your place. And you are thinking, okay. That’s kind of rude, but all right. It was rude then, too. You’re thinking ribs, no that’s kind of messy on the robe. Hot dogs, that’s kind of common. Fish, he eats a lot of that. So you get on the cell phone and are like, “Mom, can you get the chicken out and thaw it. I am bringing the Messiah for dinner. Yeah. I will explain later.” What do you do? That is such a weird situation. Can you imagine, yes I am cooking dinner for Jesus tonight. I can’t even fathom that. It doesn’t even seem like Jesus like eats. We kind of imagine him being so I don’t know, biblical that he wouldn’t like eat. But he does, he eats. And he has to have a place to sleep. I am sure Zacchaeus is like, no, no. You take the bed, I will take the futon, you know. So it’s not even on Zacchaeus’ screen. He is just balancing on the branch, checking it out. He’s not looking for life revival or renewal or something, he’s just looking. He is just looking. But you know what, Jesus is looking too. Jesus is looking too. And when Jesus is seeking, he always finds. When Jesus looks he always finds. So far in Luke, Jesus has done stuff like he’s found leaders in fishermen and he has found friends among hookers and he’s found healthy, vibrant people among the blind and lame. If Jesus doesn’t find what he is looking for immediately, he makes it. You know, it’s like I am looking for health and you’re not healthy, so now you’re healthy. That’s how Jesus operates. It’s very cool.

Jesus’ finding is really great, but it is also kind of shocking and it shakes us up. You know what I mean. I don’t know if you have ever been found by Jesus, or found like you were playing hide and seek and you hide in this really great place and it takes a really long time and it’s almost kind of startling when someone finally does find you. But it shakes us up and throws us off balance. It throws us kind of off the branch and unsettles everything. Just when you thought you had it pulled together, got your life under control, you had the right brand of jeans for once, Jesus enters the scene and he’s like a gust of wind and he blows all the papers off the desk and it’s all a mess and you have to start over. And he even redirects you as to how to stack stuff, you know. I thought I had my life all tacked down. I had gotten in to grad school. I was like ready to move to the East Coast to go to grad school. It was a huge deal in the western part of the United States, California, because people hardly know there are states there. They are like cool. It takes so long to get out of California, you’re not really aware of much except for maybe Nevada. Anyway, because it’s five hours just to get there. But sorry for all the Californians in the audience. I know Jeff and Debbie are here and they are probably cringing at my terrible impression of our state. But I was all ready to go. My parents had gotten me new clothes and bought me this really great luggage and I am all set and Jesus is like, “not really. I think stay here and defer for a year.” Right. That was 18 years ago or something, I forget. Anyway, a long time ago. If you look at Luke though, what you will find is that this shouldn’t really shock us, because all the way through the gospels, at every point, Jesus has had opportunity, he has found people and restored things and kind of undone what was, to make something better. That’s like Jesus’ thing. He loves to do that. He is totally in to it. And when he sees Zacchaeus and calls him down out of that tree, it is like gravity gets flipped. Suddenly Zacchaeus is closer to Jesus in the tree than he was on the ground. Because Jesus is not limited to where we are perched on our little branch. He is not limited by our small stature or like shortness. He is not limited by the fact that we were just there to observe. You know. It doesn’t limit Jesus. If you’re around, he is going to feel free to call you in.

I had a student once named Kelly. She hated to dance. She was like this hyper-intellectual person and we use to try to get her to dance at weddings and stuff, because you know people graduate from college and then a lot of them get married and we have all of these great wedding dance parties. Our fellowship was like the killer dance fellowship. So we are having these dances and it’s like the fifth wedding that Kelly is standing there going, uh, she is like rolling her eyes and she is kind of arrogant and just annoyed that people would do something so silly as to dance. So finally, this guy just loses patience with her and just says, “Kelly, you have to dance.” And he grabs her, “C-mon, you got to dance.” And pulls her out on the floor and like holds on to her hands and makes her move. Until she loosened up and finally she, the good end to the story is that she got married and danced at her own wedding. I was very excited to hear that. Finally! But Jesus is like that guy, you know. He is just going to pull you in and insist that you go for it with him. He is totally upfront. “C-mon, dinner at your place and I am crashing on the couch.” He doesn’t take no for an answer. It’s not like you know, could we arrange something. It’s like, “I am just coming.” And Zacchaeus receives Jesus gladly, which is kind of cool. He is happy to have him and they start walking down the road and it’s as Zacchaeus comes out of the tree and kind of greets Jesus, you can kind of hear the crowds start to mumble like, “Why is he having dinner with that guy? That guy is a weasel.” “We have church youth group barbecue tonight, he could come to that. But he is not coming to that, he is going to weasel house.” You know. You can just hear it, can’t you? And wouldn’t that be kind of weird honestly, if you guys are having dinner at I forget the people’s name, you are having something after this right, and it would make sense, I mean Jesus shows up, he should go with you all and hang out, but instead of doing that he goes to like the weasel dudes house and hangs out there. That is just the weirdest behavior for a Messiah you could imagine. But that is what Jesus does.

And as they go down the road, they kind of ignore the mumbling and as they go down the road, Zacchaeus just stops and he says, “You know what I am going to do. I am going to give half of my stuff away to the poor and I am going to restore everybody I have stolen from, I am going to restore what I stole four times. I am going to give them four times as much as I took from them.” Zacchaeus shifts from being on this branch, from observing Jesus from above, to this full lighted up extravaganza of doing the Jesus thing. I am going to give stuff away. In one fell swoop, it’s completely out of balance. This is not like a measured response. Zacchaeus is not like, well let’s see if I calculate what I can possibly give this month. It’s not like that. It’s like I am just going to go for it. Now do we hear Jesus say, “You know Zacchaeus you really ought to give your stuff away.” No. Do we hear Jesus say, “You know you really ought to make restitution for what you have stolen.” No. We don’t hear any of that because I don’t think Jesus said it. I think Luke would have included it if he had said it. I think what we are getting is that Zacchaeus is responding not to Jesus teaching, or to some moral code, or even to the law of the Old Testament, but he is responding to being found. He is responding to being found. Have you ever known somebody who is like, I have this woman who I talk with occasionally, she is like a spiritual director. She is so kind and so merciful to me that if I didn’t want to tell her something that was going on in my life, I wouldn’t be able to hold it back because she is like, I just spill. Do you know people like that? Where you see them and are like, I really need to talk. I need to talk to you, blah… Even stuff you didn’t want to say. Stuff you were trying to hide. It just makes its way to your mouth. I think that’s what it is like. Zacchaeus knows he has been found. He has been found and is responding to that by letting go. I have been found, I don’t have to hold on to my stuff. I don’t have to hang on to my branch, I don’t have to stay in the tree, I don’t have to make it work. I have been found and the hard thing about this picture is the bad news comes first. Because Zacchaeus doesn’t get found in full until he is willing to come out of the tree. Isn’t that true? He could have just said, “Well, that’s nice. Thanks for the invitation, but I am busy here on my branch.” “I’ve got a branch to take care of Jesus.” He doesn’t do that. He takes the risk. He does the hard step of coming down out of the tree and that is the moment when he gets like the bonanza reward for it. He is found fully. Jesus invites him to have full-on contact with who he is, with the truth and with love and with compassion and mercy. It’s a risk. It’s a risk to have imbalance and change and uncertainty enter your life in a new way, but you know what, it’s a risk we take in the company of Jesus, who is the greatest of all risk takers. Jesus risked his own life. He had his own life taken on our behalf and for our sake. And having received it back, he still out there helping us take risks.

Now I have a friend named John and I want to tell you a story about him. It all started with the broccoli. John is this guy who is 6’6″. He is a very imposing person. He shaves his head bald and wears a goatee and glasses. He was a philosophy major in college. He plays the violin. He uses big words all of the time. And he came to live with us one summer, he needed a place to be and you know we were like, “cool.” So he comes over and lives with us and I am doing that shopping. That was my job that week. We trade around, but I said, “John, what do you like to eat for lunch, because he is working during the days?” Well I just have ham and cheese on rye. Okay, that’s cool. I will get that for you. Do you like Miracle Whip or Mayo, because we are like a two jar family and he says, “I don’t need anything. Just the ham and cheese on rye.” So that’s my first clue, okay this guy has kind of a routine going and he is pretty specific, so I will just leave that alone and then I think it was like that night, we were having broccoli for dinner. “What are we having for dinner?” I am going to make some broccoli and I forget what else, chicken or something. “Oh, okay. I don’t eat broccoli.” “Oh, you don’t. Are you allergic?” “No.” “You don’t’ like it?” “Well, I don’t think so.” “Well when was the last time you had it?” “I was like maybe three.” So it’s the same thing when people tell you they decided like when they were in elementary school they didn’t like Jesus. You know, make an adult decision. So I said we are going to have to reconsider the broccoli, John and it became my mission that summer to get John to eat broccoli. I just decided it was going to happen dude. You’re going down. So as I got to know John, I had to kind of ask myself, why are these guys food options so limited. Like he only ate about five foods. Like all the time. Something is going on there. It’s not just being from northeastern Pennsylvania, although that’s a good start. It’s a limited food area. Anyway, don’t tell people from there I said that, okay. But like I am making all of this ethnic food because you can’t get it there, you have to make it yourself and we are kind of used to eating like Thai and Indonesian and all of those different foods, so I am making all of this stuff and John’s eating like about a quarter of the time. So as I got to know him I starting asking a lot of questions about his background and I found out that his dad is an atheist, Jewish, abusive, college mathematics professor who was ashamed of John for choosing philosophy as a major. That’s the kind of level on which they were operating with each other. He would like just bulge on out and John’s an only child, so he got the full force of his parents stuff. He would bulge on out in front of other people about being a philo major. “You’re an embarrassment to me. You’re humiliating me in front of all these other people by being a philo.” I am not sure what goes between the math and philo department, but something was bad there. And he just, it was bad for John. He just grew up experiencing people as not that encouraging to him and also new experiences have never been that encouraging to him, because every time he tried something, he got batted down by his dad. You know. I mean it was unbelievable the number of things that John had tried to do or wanted to do and his dad kind of cut him off at the pass or told him he was terrible, you know, he played the violin at his first recital. “That was terrible.” That kind of stuff. He just like aghh. So John I realized was not just resistant to broccoli, he was afraid of broccoli. Literally, because what John had experienced in life, was that people and new experiences both never go well and so I will avoid them. I will find the five foods that I can eat and I will stick with those five foods and then I don’t have to worry. Then I will be okay. I will feel okay. I won’t be embarrassed that I tried something and I don’t like it. I don’t have to worry about what I order at a restaurant. I can just have my five foods. That’s why he didn’t eat broccoli. Well that made me even more determined. So we had broccoli like eleven ways that summer. And John did actually try the broccoli several times and he actually grew to like it. I have to tell you that whenever I need to remember that God is true, I always look at John. He is still around. He ended up joining our staff team with the InnerVarsity and he does ministry of college students now. One of the first things that John learned to do with other people is he bought a Hibachi grill. He realized that like eating together and hanging out together and getting to know other people was really important, and that Jesus was in to that. He bought this Hibachi and he took it back on campus and then he set it up in the courtyard of his dorm, where there are rooms like all the way around, and he would like cook burgers right under people’s windows at hours of the day that he knew they couldn’t get to the cafeteria, because it was like closed or whatever, so he would like cook these burgers and get people out of their rooms. The guy had a full-on, whole ministry going, like he was meeting people and talking to people about God and he was getting to know God better the whole time and it was totally cool with his Hibachi grill. When he joined the university staff, or actually right before, married this woman on our staff team who is like the international chef. I mean she cooks everything and to get a dinner invitation to John and Jen’s house now is like the big coveted item on our staff team, because they make this great food. They make like Indonesian and Thai and whatever else and they make broccoli. John called me a couple of years ago in to this process and told me, “Hey Allison, guess what I am eating?” I was like, “I don’t know, but since you’re calling me about it, it’s probably something pretty important.” “A chocolate chip cookie.” He didn’t like chocolate either. That is a definite sign that something is up with you. But he learned to like chocolate. He’s eating a chocolate chip cookie and called me to tell me. I love that. John just could not imagine what it would be like to be free to get to know people and to have people know him. He could imagine. He couldn’t fathom what it would be like to let people into his life, because what he had mostly experienced from other people was pain and injury and harshness. He is just like Zacchaeus. And so are we.

Luke includes this story because it’s also about us. Because we are afraid. If I came up to you and really pressed you and said, “Tell me what you are afraid of right now?’ You would know. We all know. We all have something that we can name very quickly that we are really afraid of. Not like, I am afraid of being hit by a speeding train, maybe. But things about myself that I don’t want people to find out. Isn’t that true? I kept an eating disorder hidden for a whole year while I was doing ministry with junior high kids, a couple of whom had eating disorders. So I was afraid to let anybody see that I was struggling. That’s the kind of stuff that we do. The story is for us. Zacchaeus is for us. We have trouble admitting who we are. We have trouble coming down out of the tree. We have trouble eating the broccoli. But the promise is, if we come down out of the tree, not only will Jesus greet us, he is coming over for dinner. He wants to hang out. He wants to be with us. He wants our lives to change and open up and get free of the ways we have been and the ways that we have hurt. That’s Jesus’ offer to us. So what are you balancing on? What’s your branch? What broccoli are you afraid to eat? What’s the risk for you? Is it to dance? Is it to come down? Is it to take a bite? I don’t know. But I do know that Jesus makes an offer today and I hope like Zacchaeus you will take it. Let’s pray.

God, thank you for Zacchaeus’ life. Thank you for working in him and through him and for finding him. God, we want to be found. Would you find us and make us able to respond out of being found by you. God, find us. And come over for dinner. Jesus, thank you that you mess up our lives in really wonderful ways. Thank you that you are a cool dinner guest. Would you help a lot of us to experience you that way this week. In your name, Amen.