Sunday, January 27, 2019 – Luke 19:1-10
“At that time, Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. And there was a man named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector, and rich. And he sought to see Who Jesus was, but could not, on account of the crowd, because he was small of stature. So, he ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus, for He was to pass that way. And when Jesus came to the place, He looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, make haste and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So, he made haste and came down, and received Him joyfully. And when they saw it they all murmured, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” 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.” 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.””
Surprises! Some people like them and some don’t. Sometimes we surprise those we love with surprise parties or gifts or even surprise compliments. Other times we can be surprised by an unexpected fall or accident or bill in the mail. Surprises are not inherently happy. Many times, we prefer time to prepare for what we are about to encounter. We are a preparing people. We prepare for exams, we prepare for retirement, we prepare for meetings and for the new year. We prepare for our meals and vacations. We prepare for weddings and the arrival of a baby. We need time to get our minds going in the right direction and we want time to make the necessary physical arrangements for our next big event – a cake, a gift, a plane ticket, a hotel reservation, a menu, gathering ingredients for a meal. We need to make plans and make sure all is in place before any big occasion or happening in our lives.
If we are taking a trip with our family and we know the number of hours or miles required for this trip, we will begin to follow the signs or count down the hours before our expected arrival. Belinda and I were raised in Kansas and we made that trip back to Kansas to visit grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins 1-2 times every year for the past 23 years we have lived here in Tennessee. On that trip we know the milestones. We know where we are likely to stop for lunch and when we are only 2 hours out from our arrival. We’ve got that road trip nearly memorized. Knowing how far away we are helps us to prepare and to anticipate our arrival at the homes of our family members in Kansas.
What many of you may know, is that we are about to begin an amazing journey together this spring. Our journey is one of joy and celebration and growth as a church family. Our journey will include a period of more somber reflection, confession, repentance and forgiveness before we enter into the grand celebration we call – Pascha, which is the Orthodox Christian name for Easter. This is the absolute highest of all of the Orthodox Feasts we celebrate during the church year since we are celebrating the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ on this day.
However, as I said – we must prepare. We don’t attend any grand celebration with our family, work or community without making the necessary preparations and this is the same for the grandest of all Orthodox Christian feasts. We must prepare and during our preparation we encounter signs along the way just like we do when making a 13-hour road trip with my family of 5 daughters and our dog to visit our families in Kansas. The Church provides us with road signs as we make our church family journey and this week, with the reading of this Gospel lesson today, is our very first sign along the road to Great Lent, Holy Week and Pascha. This week is the week we read of the Apostle Zacchaeus. You heard the story just a few minutes ago and probably grew up hearing and singing about the little man who couldn’t see Jesus as he was passing him by on the street on this day so he “climbed up in a sycamore tree to see what he could see.”
It might be easy to think that these chance encounters that short men, sick women, blind men, dead children, paralyzed men and demon possessed men all had with Jesus were just that – chance encounters and reassuring stories or parables included in the gospels for our benefit so we know that Jesus spoke with those around him as he was moving from one city to another with his disciples. However, the early church writers and fathers have made it crystal clear to us that each of these stories are included in the New Testament to validate the leadership of a Church bishop or early church leader or martyr. These stories are included to prove when the early church leaders actually met Jesus and how that meeting changed their lives forever. This is one of those chance encounters – a short man climbs a tree “to see what he could see.”
When Jesus saw this renowned man up in the tree, and He paused to speak to him. Zacchaeus was likely very well known to all in Jericho since he was the Chief tax collector and very rich – not because his government job salary was so high but because his position allowed for him to upcharge his local patrons when collecting their taxes to send on to the Romans who required their subjects to pay through men like Zacchaeus. This man, although short in stature, had become wealthy being the collector of the government tax and he likely had his favorites and his enemies.
When Jesus saw him up in this tree, He recognized him and stopped and asked him to come down and take him to his house. As you can imagine, this caused a stink among all of those in Jericho since they had heard admirable stories about Jesus, his teachings and his miracles. Stopping in to stay and eat with this “sinner” was not a popular turn of events for Jesus as he made his way into Jericho. However, it was a very fruitful event in the life of the Apostle Zacchaeus. After meeting and with Jesus and listening to him, what was his response? The evangelist Luke records in today’s gospel reading that “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.’” What does this mean? Zacchaeus repented! He realized his wrong doing and recognized that he needed to make it right with all of those whom he had defrauded and publicly declared that he would make it right with all of them. St. Augustine writes that the reason he agreed to give one-half “of [his] goods […] to the poor” was not in order to keep the other half for himself, but it was to have something from which to pay back those whom he had cheated four times over. Zacchaeus had the desire to see Christ, welcomed Him into his home and willingly and life-changingly responded to the message of Christ. That is how the companion of St. Peter who was later appointed the first Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine met Christ and why his life was forever changed. It began with his desire to “see Christ” and resulted in life-changing repentance and a life-time of faithful service to God, His Church and His people. He humbled himself by climbing a tree even when a man of his social and economic stature should not and would not be found climbing a tree to cast a gaze upon a traveling preacher and his common followers. This act of humility was the first step of one who demonstrated the seed of desire in his heart in act of climbing this tree today.
This week’s gospel lesson is the first of many we will read to prepare us for the arrival of Great Lent which this year begins on March 11. Additionally, the 6 weeks of Great Lent followed by Holy Week are prescribed to us as weeks of preparation necessary for us to receive the Resurrected Christ in our lives this year on April 28th. As we now see the very first road sign this week that we are on a journey together with one another, allow me to personally invite you to get ready, pack your bags, clean out your closets, get dressed, and clear your calendar – prepare. This is the Greatest Fast leading up to the feast of all feasts we are preparing for. We are not to enter these weeks without the necessary preparation. We will fast, we will pray, we will give alms, we will ask one another for forgiveness, we will live our lives with a more focused devotion to God and an increased faithfulness to Christ. This heightened awareness of our shortcomings and God’s work in our lives will cause us to grow closer to Him and help mold our ways and our thoughts to match His desires for our lives.
However, it all begins for us just like it began for Zacchaeus – We must shamelessly rush to see Christ, be willing to meet with him and to joyfully respond by repenting after hearing his hard words for our lives. I don’t believe it was easy for this small rich man to give up his riches to follow Christ any more than it is for us to repent. It is recorded in today’s gospel that Zacchaeus “received [Christ] joyfully.” He did not meet Jesus in his house with a gloomy face or begrudgingly. He cast aside his reputation and his riches. He was willing to enter into repentance – turning away from his sin – to willingly give up his life as a faithful follower of Christ.
As we begin this journey to the cross, death and resurrection of Christ what is Jesus asking of us? If he were to come down the street in our town would we be willing to cast all care and our reputations aside and climb to whatever heights necessary to see him? If Jesus were to ask to come into our house today to stay with us what would he find? Would he find a home where he would be comfortable and at ease? Would we be comfortable with what He would see on our walls and shelves, our TV’s and computers and hear in our conversations at our house? Would we joyfully receive Him and then eagerly listen and respond to His words to make it right with those whom we have wronged and return what we have wrongly taken four-fold?
I invite you to join us in this journey of a life-time, a life-changing journey of repentance, restoration and renewal. However, we must prepare. This is our chance to get it right. To mend that which is broken in our lives. To make it right with those whom we have hurt and those who have hurt us. This is what Christian growth looks like, and it begins today. We must prepare because Jesus wants us to climb down from our trees of observation and comfortable distance and gazing to allow Him to come and actually stay with us – just as He did with Zacchaeus. Will you join me on this life-changing faith journey? We both will be forever changed as we enter into this path together.