No-one is beyond Christ’s capacity to save

Sermon: Sunday, 9th October, 2022 Video
Speaker: John Johnstone
Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

On Monday King Charles came to the Kingdom of Fife, in order to formally carry out the wishes of the late Queen and bestow city status on Dunfermline. Why this wasn’t done for Kirkcaldy I’m not quite sure! This took place at Dunfermline City Chambers. The King said this historic moment would: ‘Gladden my dear mother’s heart, as it certainly gladdens mine.’ Charles and Camilla then went on to visit Dunfermline Abbey, marking its 950th anniversary.

Imagine for a moment that the King of Kings, Jesus himself, visited Fife today. Where would he go? Who would he meet? Would he meet with politicians, church leaders, business leaders and entertainers? I doubt it. It is more likely that he would approach the drug addict, or perhaps even the drug dealer. If we had a prison in Fife, he might stop off there. What about a rogue builder who had made a lot of money by cheating elderly people? What about a prostitute?

‘The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ (Luke 7:34)

As we return to this well-known story in Luke chapter 19, we need to appreciate how shocked the people are that Jesus would willingly mix with someone like Zacchaeus, one they regarded as a cheat and a traitor. ‘All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’ (Luke 19:7)

Most people hated Zacchaeus. Tax collectors were well known for charging more taxes than the Romans expected to receive in order to line their own pockets. Zacchaeus was the chief tax collector, probably taking a cut from all the tax collectors working in the affluent area of Jericho, making him equally rich and despised by the people. To go to someone’s home in that culture was a mark of your acceptance of them. We can imagine people in the crowd muttering things like: ‘Of all the people in the whole of Jericho, and he has to choose Zacchaeus…’

This is a significant moment because it is the last personal encounter Jesus will have with someone before his arrival at Jerusalem, where he will be put to death. This is no chance encounter. Jesus goes out of his way to meet with Zacchaeus in order to transform his life, change his heart, and bring him into the Kingdom of God. This magnificent transformation comes about through the love and power of Jesus, and illustrates for us the reason why Jesus left Heaven and came to earth: ‘For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:10)

Jesus specialises in seeking and saving lost people, and that is just as true today as it was back in Zacchaeus’ day. Do you believe that?

‘Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.’ (1 Timothy 1:15)

‘For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.’ (1 John 3:17)

Is this a story about Zacchaeus seeking after Jesus, or of Jesus seeking after Zacchaeus?

1. Zacchaeus is seeking Jesus

In one sense, Zacchaeus is certainly seeking to see Jesus. This must have been a strong desire in his heart, because he is willing to go to great lengths in order to do so. He runs on ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree, knowing that’s he’s too short to see over the crowd. Many wealthy and powerful people in his position would have given up, as they would have felt it was too embarrassing to climb a tree. It would have felt undignified. You would get laughed at. But Zacchaeus doesn’t seem to care. This begs the question, why is he so keen to meet with Jesus?

We cannot be certain. We are not told why. Perhaps it was because as one of the hated tax collectors, he had heard that Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners. If most people hated tax collectors, and they did, this would have made Jesus’ reputation something attractive. Perhaps Zacchaeus even knew Levi personally, that tax collector called to follow Jesus.

After this, Jesus went out and saw a tax collector by the name of Levi sitting at his tax booth. ‘Follow me,’ Jesus said to him, and Levi got up, left everything and followed him. Then Levi held a great banquet for Jesus at his house, and a large crowd of tax collectors and others were eating with them. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law who belonged to their sect complained to his disciples, ‘Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?’ Jesus answered them, ‘It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ (Luke 5:27-31)

Perhaps, in spite of his wealth, Zacchaeus felt empty inside. This is so often the case of those who rise to the top of their profession and have everything money can buy. But they cannot buy peace with God and they cannot buy a sense of meaning and purpose in life, which can only come through a relationship with God. Zacchaeus was seeking to see Jesus. Something seems to be stirring within him. It might have been just curiosity but I suspect it was something more than that. But his very curiosity is a sign of God’s hand at work in him. Ultimately, if Zacchaeus is seeking to see Jesus it is because Jesus is seeking to meet with and transform him. It is God’s work of grace which is undergirds everything.

2. Jesus is seeking Zacchaeus

Had it just been left to Zacchaeus, all that would have happened that day was that Zacchaeus would get a good sighting of the man so many people were talking about. It would not have been a life-transforming event. He could have gone home to his wife and said: ‘I was only a few feet away from him. He just looks like an ordinary guy.’ It’s hardly a headline story.

But Jesus is the one who takes the initiative, and this is the way it always is when people become Christians. God seeks us out. Jesus stops and looks right up at Zacchaeus. ‘Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.’ (Luke 19:5) Hear the authority of Jesus: ‘I must stay…’ This is the ‘must’ of divine necessity. Jesus is on a mission to save lost sinners, and Zacchaeus is one of them. He doesn’t say to Zacchaeus: ‘Is there any chance I could stay at your house?’

Note too how Jesus calls Zacchaeus by name. This is something supernatural. Jesus is signalling that he knows all about Zacchaeus. He knows his past, including all the people he has cheated. And yet, he still wants to pour grace and love into his life. This is wonderful news for us today, because it is the same for us; Jesus knows us by name, and he knows all about us, including those sins we’d be so ashamed for others to discover. He knows. And in spite of it all, he wants to meet with us too. God does not want any to perish, but for all to come to a knowledge of him. ‘You have searched me, Lord, and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar.’ (Psalm 139:1-2)

Kent Hughes: ‘What we begin to see at this point of the story is that Zacchaeus’ seeking of Jesus and Jesus’ seeking of Zacchaeus were both sovereign works of God. The crossing of their lives at the sycamore was a work of divine providence… The camel was about to go through the eye of the needle.’

3. Christ’s power to change

It may be that Zacchaeus’ heart was changed there and then, as he climbed down from the tree. Certainly, he responds to Jesus immediately and we are even told he welcomes Jesus gladly. We are not told about Zacchaeus’ faith and repentance explicitly in the text, and yet we can see it. He responds to Jesus, and welcomes him and even calls him Lord. He is placing his trust in Jesus. We can also see clear evidence of his inner change by his new attitude to money. This is a true miracle. A hard heart which used to exploit others for money is now giving this money away. This is extravagant repentance. This is the fruit of someone who has turned away from sin and turned towards Jesus.

I tried to get Samuel’s tablet repaired in Glenrothes, but the repair man said it was beyond his expertise and sent me to a shop in Dundee. The shop in Dundee said it was a hardware problem and that it couldn’t be repaired. It was for the bin. It was irreparable – a hopeless case. When people come to Jesus, he never says to us, ‘This is beyond me’. He never says, ‘You are a hopeless case.’ As we marvel at Christ’s power to change Zacchaeus, and let’s also marvel at his power to change Saul, that murderous threat to the early church, and marvel at how he transforms a business woman called Lydia, a demon-possessed slave girl and a Roman jailer and brings them all together in the church at Philippi. Surely, the penny has to drop for us that there is no such thing as a hopeless case in God’s eyes. If you’re not yet a Christian, you are not a hopeless case, but can come to Jesus to be saved and transformed. What about your children and your spouse? Are they hopeless cases? ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ (Luke 19:10) Jesus is in the business of changing people. He changes us at conversion. And he carries on changing us throughout our lives. Finally, in the world to come, the change will be complete. Jesus accepts us as we are, but he doesn’t leave us as we are. He changes us over time.

What practical applications can we take away from this passage this morning? Here are four.

When it comes to becoming a Christian, don’t write anyone off. We must never look at someone and think, ‘That person will never come to Christ.’ Even in the last few weeks, we’ve seen Jesus changing a poor blind beggar, a wealthy tax collector and a leper. So, when we have our next Meal with a Message, and you have invitation cards to give away, don’t think ‘There’s no way she’ll come’. You have no idea what God might be doing in a heart. Don’t write off your loved ones who don’t know Christ. Keep praying for them and witnessing to them. Jesus is at work today, seeking and saving the lost.

Let’s be challenged by Jesus’ willingness to spend time with people regarded as ‘sinners’ and ‘hopeless cases’. He goes into their homes. He loves them. He spends time with them. He values those not valued by others. As a church, we must not remain isolated from those who are lost in sin. Quite the opposite. Of course, we must be careful to mix with others in such a way as we maintain our Christian integrity. We must be wise. But as a church, we must be willing to give our time to those that are far from God. If they don’t know Jesus, we must expect them to be far from God, and to do things which ought not to be done. Nevertheless, we must treat them with compassion, respect, and if we love them, we will want them to know Jesus as we do.

We ought to expect people to become Christians more than we do. God is still seeking and saving the lost. Some of the seed that we sow will fall on good soul. Let’s pray and pray that God would use the weekly preaching to save the lost. Let’s pray and pray that God would use the café to save the lost. Pray that God would use your relationships and your prayers to bring about change in the lives of those we know. Should we be surprised to see people changing in the way that Zacchaeus changed? Not if we have a God who seeks and saves the lost!

If you are not yet a Christian, please think about Jesus’ love for a man most people hated. This was a man with quite a past. Yet, Jesus loved him enough to die on the cross for his sins. V1 tells us that Jesus is just passing through Jericho. He is on his way to Jerusalem where he will willingly give his life for others, to pay for their spiritual debts. Jesus does not ignore Zacchaeus’ sins but dies to pay for them. In verse 7, the crowd mutter and complain that Jesus has gone to be the ‘guest of a sinner’. But this is the best news in all the world. It’s not something to complain about but to sing about. Because if he welcomes Zacchaeus he can welcome you.

Perhaps God has been stirring up your heart in recent days. You are becoming curious about Jesus and want to see what following him means. If he is, then in a sense, Jesus is stopping where you are, addressing you by name, and saying to you, ‘Come, down, and follow me. I want to change your life’. What will you do? Like Zacchaeus, respond immediately and talk to Jesus in prayer. Turn from your past, and place your trust in him. He will never let you down.