November 3, 2013 at Calvary Evangelical Lutheran Church – Mechanicsburg, PA
“And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’”
“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he….” So starts the famous children’s song. Countless people have sung it, from preschools to church camps to Sunday School. And it does an admirable job conveying the details of the Gospel Reading for today. But there is a bit of an issue with the song. You’ve heard it; you’ve sung it; you may have even tried climbing an imaginary tree. So what detail do you remember about Zacchaeus? He’s small. He’s a wee little man. But that’s not really the Gospel Writer’s main description of this man of Jericho. This event is not just about a short guy going up into a tree to see Jesus.
The description about Zacchaeus is a bit more sinister. “Zacchaeus was a rich, cheating man, and a rich, cheating man was he….” That’s what the Gospel Writer tells you: “[Jesus] entered Jericho and was passing through. And behold, there was a man named Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector and was rich.” This is how Zacchaeus is introduced to the world. He’s a rich man. He’s an important man, a major collaborator with the Roman government, holding and overseeing the tax collection franchises based in Jericho. That description reveals the problem with Zacchaeus: it’s not his lack of height; it’s his lack of integrity and character. Zacchaeus’ way of life has shown him to be anything but a son of Abraham, anything but one of the Lord’s Covenant People.
You’ve heard other descriptions of similar people in the Old Testament Reading for this morning. They were involved in similar enterprises as Zacchaeus—cheating, extorting, swindling, oppressing. They had forsaken their identity as the Lord’s Covenant People. It was so bad that the prophet Isaiah came along and called them and their metropolis of Jerusalem “Sin City”: “Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Give ear to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!” And the prophet read out the statement of judgment against them: “Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to Me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts My soul hates; they have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”
The problems of the people needed to be corrected. Their devotion to false gods had to come to an end. Their open rebellion against the Lord’s Law had to be put down. Their hearts, minds, and souls had to be changed. And so the Lord exhorts them to do so: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” With those words, the people of Jerusalem are summoned back to their identity, the status of being the holy nation that the Lord had established through His work for them.
The same divine summons is what Zacchaeus receives. It came to Zacchaeus, as he heard of Jesus and His work. And that is what drives him to go where Jesus would be found: “And he was seeking to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was small in stature. So he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Him, for He was about to pass that way.” This rich, cheating man was going to see Jesus. And when the Lord summons Him, he welcomes Jesus with great exuberance: “And 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.’ So he hurried and came down and received Him joyfully.”
The change in Zacchaeus had happened. He was being transformed by Jesus’ words, by Jesus’ welcome, by Jesus’ work. The old way of life was being set aside. No more would Zacchaeus be known as an oppressor. No more was he a lover of money. This rich, cheating man was now devoted to the way of life that Jesus had established for Him: “And Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord, ‘Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.’”
Zacchaeus’ belief in Jesus brought about this great change. It moves him from being marked by unholiness to righteousness. No longer can he keep what he had taken wrongly. No longer can he have mammon as his god. His scarlet sins and crimson crimes were being purged from him. Now Zacchaeus is following in the way of life that the Lord had established. And what does Jesus say about it? “And Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’” Jesus confirms Zacchaeus’ identity as one of the Covenant People. He affirms that Zacchaeus had received the salvation that He had come to bring to the earth. The lost was found. The prodigal had returned. The rebel was reconciled.
But what happened in Jericho is not just for ancient people in long past eras. No, what took place there is how sainthood is given, even now. This transformation of Zacchaeus happens over and over again. There is the initial giving of an identity of being one of the Lord’s people. That is granted in the marking of you in Holy Baptism. With that act, the Lord claims you as one of His own. He gives you a place in His kingdom. He designates you as “a son of Abraham.” Even more, He declares you to be His child. And with that comes great promises, along with an entire way of life.
So what happens to that? Remember, the people of Jerusalem who were called “Sodom and Gomorrah” by the prophet once had that identity given to them. Wee, little Zacchaeus had possessed that same identity. But their devotion turned away from the Lord. Their actions revealed a desire for unvirtuous living, for what the Lord had proscribed. And the same occurs among you. Whether on a large scale or small, the scarlet sins and crimson crimes are found in your lives.
But you all have received the divine summons away from that. “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” He came to seek and save you. And His exhortation comes to you: “Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before My eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” Jesus calls you to Himself and says, “I must be present with you. I must give My Spirit to abide with you.”
With those words of Jesus, He summons you to be where He is found. He brings you into His presence, so that your status is restored as you joyfully welcome Him. Jesus brings His forgiveness and restoration to you and says: “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
But what Jesus says is not a static declaration of what has happened. The living word of Jesus transforms and changes those who receive it. There is activity to move you from being marked by unholiness to righteousness, even if it seems to be in fits and starts. But that divine activity does have effect in you. Just as Zacchaeus could not keep the profits of his cheating and could not remain a devotee of mammon, so you also cannot continuously abide in your sinful ways or be devoted to what is against the Lord’s will. The Holy Spirit’s work done in you as you hear and abide in Jesus’ word moves your hearts and minds away from that.
The transforming that the Holy Spirit works through the divine word took place among the people of Jerusalem who received the Lord’s message from Isaiah. It happened in Jericho when Zacchaeus heard Jesus. It occurred in Thessalonica while the apostle brought the gospel to Europe, as you also heard read: “[O]ur testimony to you was believed. To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of His calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by His power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in Him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Lord performs the same divine actions in you. As the Lord works in your hearts and minds, the status He has given to you is confirmed and strengthened. His grace bestows His righteousness to you, making you His holy people. Belief in His identity and work is created and reinforced, so it grows to be steadfast and abundant. The desire and resolve for good and the works of faith are established, thus increasing the love that you have for one another that is displayed in your deeds.
So you have become like the restored people of Judah, like Zacchaeus, like the Thessalonians, and like all the other saints who have gone before you. Like them, salvation has come to you. Like them, you have been sought and saved by the Son of Man. Like them, you have joyfully received Jesus in His words. “When He comes on that day to be glorified in His saints and to be marveled at among all who have believed,” it will not be a time of fear. Instead, you will gladly welcome Jesus as He comes to be in the presence of those sinners that He has made to be His holy people for eternity.
+ In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.