“I Want to See Jesus!” (Luke 19:1-10)

Zacchaeus, by Ira Thomas

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”

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.”

Jesus said to him, “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.” (New International Version)

Every time I read this story about Zacchaeus climbing up the sycamore tree to see Jesus because he was a short man, I think of the old ‘70s song Short People by Randy Newman. The song was (and still is) criticized by some as being prejudiced against short people. 

Indeed, the criticism seems justified with lyrics such as “short people got no reason to live.” Yet, the song’s intended purpose was really the opposite – to be an attack on the pervasive prejudice of the day, and an attempt to “heighten” (pun intended) awareness of other people’s importance. 

“Short people are the same as you and I. All men are brothers until the day they die” are the lyrics containing the real message within the song.

At first glance, the story of the short Zacchaeus seems to be about his inability to see. Yet the real heart of the story is that:

Zacchaeus is unable to see because the other people are obstacles to his sight. 

In turns out that Jesus is the only person who truly sees Zacchaeus. No one else sees him. No one else seems to care. While everyone else is busy with their own line of sight, Jesus is concerned to see the one person who is unseen: Zacchaeus. 

And here’s the reason why Jesus had his radar attuned to picking up Zacchaeus: Because Jesus came to see people like Zacchaeus; Christ came to seek and to save the lost.

One of the most pertinent applications of this story for us, is that we must not be an obstacle for others coming to Jesus – and instead be a conduit for others to meet Jesus. For that to happen, we need a reformation of both attitude and our action.

Our chief obstacle to realizing a reformation is the sort of hindrance that Zacchaeus overcame in order to see Jesus and experience him:

Zacchaeus did not take himself so seriously.

A very serious Zacchaeus would not have been playful enough and much too respectable to climb a tree. Maybe he was used to living with short jokes all his life; I don’t know. I just see a rich businessman who was lighthearted enough to climb a tree; and who lightened up enough to give a big pile of money away.

As a tax collector, metrics and measurements and figures were his world. All of that accounting can create a serious and sterile environment – concerned with doing more, being more, and getting more.

Reformation – reforming oneself, one’s culture, and one’s institutions – comes through the disposition and willingness of not being so doggone serious all the time.

“Jesus and Zacchaeus” by Soichi Watanabe

Hanging one’s happiness and well-being on other people adopting my opinions, my plans, and my way is a surefire prescription for getting knocked down several pegs by both others and God.

A reformation comes through collegiality, cooperation, and collaboration with others. To acknowledge that God is God, and I am not, and that all people (even the ones I don’t like) are just as important as me, is to see with new eyes. This is the way of seeing Jesus because it’s the willingness to climb trees and to not care how it makes me look to do it.

People short on faith, short on hope, and short on love desperately need the love of God in the gracious person of Jesus Christ. 

Let us then, help, and not hinder, people’s ability to see Jesus.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16, NIV)

Let us not become discouraged when our expectations obscure our sight.

When John, who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. (Matthew 11:2-5, NIV)

Let us have eyes to see and not be blinded by our own seriousness.

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (John 9:39, NIV)

Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. (John 14:9, NIV)

Let us humble ourselves and stoop to see the incredible reality in front of us.

As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.

“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter, ‘He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.’” (Mark 16:5-7, NIV)

Let us see and believe.

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
    a son of man that you care for him?
You made them a little lower than the angels;
    you crowned them with glory and honor
    and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:6-9, NIV)

In God’s kingdom, the tall are short, and the short are tall. And there are plenty of trees to climb so that everyone can see Jesus.

Loving Lord Jesus, give me the grace to see you in all things throughout my days on this earth. Help me to see your benevolent kingdom come and see your ethical will be done, here on earth, as it is always done in heaven. Amen.

2 Chronicles 34:1-7 – Getting Rid of Idolatry

Russian Orthodox icon of Judah’s King Josiah (640-609 B.C.E.)

Josiah was eight years old when he became king of Judah, and he ruled thirty-one years from Jerusalem. He followed the example of his ancestor David and always obeyed the Lord.

When Josiah was only sixteen years old he began worshiping God, just as his ancestor David had done. Then, four years later, he decided to destroy the local shrines in Judah and Jerusalem, as well as the sacred poles for worshiping the goddess Asherah and the idols of foreign gods.He watched as the altars for the worship of the god Baal were torn down, and as the nearby incense altars were smashed. The Asherah poles, the idols, and the stone images were also smashed, and the pieces were scattered over the graves of their worshipers. Josiah then had the bones of the pagan priests burned on the altars.

And so, Josiah got rid of the worship of foreign gods in Judah and Jerusalem. He did the same things in the towns and ruined villages in the territories of West Manasseh, Ephraim, and Simeon, as far as the border of Naphtali. Everywhere in the northern kingdom of Israel, Josiah tore down pagan altars and Asherah poles; he crushed idols to dust and smashed incense altars.

Then Josiah went back to Jerusalem. (Contemporary English Version)

Josiah started out as a boy king. Evidently, he had some good training because by the time he became a teenager, Josiah was raring and ready to exercise his kingship in the best sense of leadership. 

After generations of kings before him who followed other gods and gave the stiff-arm to the Lord, as well as to justice and righteousness, Josiah committed himself fully to Israel’s one true God.  And, as a twenty-year old king, he showed the real muster of his reign.

Josiah took responsibility and initiative to do what was right in the eyes of God – no matter the consequences. 

King Josiah continually performed the dual action of worshiping God and aggressively taking active steps to rid the kingdom of all the ubiquitous false gods. 

The king did much more than simply stick his toe in the water to test what the response might be to removing a high place of Baal worship or an Asherah pole. Instead, Josiah jumped right in and put his entire kingship on the line. 

All of the power brokers who were dealing in false gods could not have been happy about this turn of events in Judah. But any kind of pushback did nothing to prevent Josiah from doing what was right in the eyes of the Lord by thoroughly eradicating idol worship.

“Let us all be the leaders we wish we had.”

Simon Sinek

Josiah had a clear sense of purpose. That sense of vocational direction ordered his kingly steps. It led him to do the things he did. Josiah was determined and devoted to leading the people back to God. 

This desire and determination for spiritual revival directed toward the worship of the Lord is not limited to the ancient world. God is still in the kingdom business of bringing all creation under a divine and benevolent rule. 

Therefore, there still remains an abiding purpose to lead others, caught in a web of unhealthy routines and habits of living through idolatrous practices, back to the one true God. 

Like the ancients before us, there is still a need to exercise courage and confidence in following the Lord by making disciples who will worship God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. 

So, reconnecting with our overarching purpose in life is imperative for taking bold steps of faith in this idolatrous world which worships at the altar of exorbitant eating, shopping, and drinking.

It is no wonder the current zeitgeist of so many of our communities is full of anxiety, discouragement, and anger. There is no justice in the public square. Competing voices, other than the merciful words and ways of Jesus, drown the divine regulations for living a good life of integrity, wholeness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

It is almost as if the collective efforts of idolatrous people have surgically removed the spiritual spine of society. We are now bereft of genuine support, spineless and unable to move toward a life of truth, justice, and a courageous concern for the common good of all persons.

King Josiah shows us a better way. We must radically remove all that is toxic and damaging to our souls. We need a clear purpose in life, to go hard after God and rediscover how the Divine fits into all of life and gives us meaning.

Any old fool can complain about how bad things are in the world. But the one determined to make a difference amidst all the surrounding crud and helps to make things better – that is the wise person who is in touch with their own spirit, who is able to see the spiritual within others.

So, how then will you live?

May your living be in a healthy spiritual groove of loving God and loving neighbor so that worshiping the banal becomes a thing of the past.

Holy God, you are the Sovereign of the universe. Expose the things in my life that I might be trusting in, other than you. Wean me away from evil and bend my heart and mind to truth, justice, and goodness. Help me to be aggressive in my Christian walk so that I steadfastly follow Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit, leading others to faith along the way. Amen.

2 Kings 23:15-25 – Repent, Renew, and Reform

The Book of the Law, Read to King Josiah by Dutch artist Maerten van Heemskerck, c.1569

The king smashed all the altars to smithereens—the altar on the roof shrine of Ahaz, the various altars the kings of Judah had made, the altars of Manasseh that littered the courtyard of The Temple—he smashed them all, pulverized the fragments, and scattered their dust in the Valley of Kidron. The king proceeded to make a clean sweep of all the sex-and-religion shrines that had proliferated east of Jerusalem on the south slope of Abomination Hill, the ones Solomon king of Israel had built to the obscene Sidonian sex goddess Ashtoreth, to Chemosh the dirty-old-god of the Moabites, and to Milcom the depraved god of the Ammonites. He tore apart the altars, chopped down the phallic Asherah-poles, and scattered old bones over the sites. Next, he took care of the altar at the shrine in Bethel that Jeroboam son of Nebat had built—the same Jeroboam who had led Israel into a life of sin. He tore apart the altar, burned down the shrine leaving it in ashes, and then lit fire to the phallic Asherah-pole.

As Josiah looked over the scene, he noticed the tombs on the hillside. He ordered the bones removed from the tombs and had them cremated on the ruined altars, desacralizing the evil altars. This was a fulfillment of the word of God spoken by the Holy Man years before when Jeroboam had stood by the altar at the sacred convocation.

Then the king said, “And that memorial stone—whose is that?”

The men from the city said, “That’s the grave of the Holy Man who spoke the message against the altar at Bethel that you have just fulfilled.”

Josiah said, “Don’t trouble his bones.” So, they left his bones undisturbed, along with the bones of the prophet from Samaria.

But Josiah hadn’t finished. He now moved through all the towns of Samaria where the kings of Israel had built neighborhood sex-and-religion shrines, shrines that had so angered God. He tore the shrines down and left them in ruins—just as at Bethel. He killed all the priests who had conducted the sacrifices and cremated them on their own altars, thus desacralizing the altars. Only then did Josiah return to Jerusalem.

The king now commanded the people, “Celebrate the Passover to God, your God, exactly as directed in this Book of the Covenant.”

This commanded Passover had not been celebrated since the days that the judges judged Israel—none of the kings of Israel and Judah had celebrated it. But in the eighteenth year of the rule of King Josiah this very Passover was celebrated to God in Jerusalem.

Josiah scrubbed the place clean and trashed spirit-mediums, sorcerers, domestic gods, and carved figures—all the vast accumulation of foul and obscene relics and images on display everywhere you looked in Judah and Jerusalem. Josiah did this in obedience to the words of God’s Revelation written in the book that Hilkiah the priest found in The Temple of God.

There was no king to compare with Josiah—neither before nor after—a king who turned in total and repentant obedience to God, heart and mind and strength, following the instructions revealed to and written by Moses. The world would never again see a king like Josiah. (The Message)

The Book of the Law Found, Unknown artist, 1913

To say that King Josiah cleaned house is a significant understatement. Having found the Book of the Law, which was lost for generations deep within the temple, Josiah took its words to heart and set about a campaign of reformation like no king before him. 

Indeed, Josiah was determined to restore and implement the Law in the life of the nation of Judah. His zeal knew no bounds. Josiah was doggedly relentless and actively radical in returning the Jews to the true worship of Yahweh.

Josiah did more than reinstitute the Passover and other festivals of the Lord. The king first upended the alternative pagan worship which had become embedded in Judah like a death-dealing cancer. Josiah surgically removed it with ruthless precision. 

King Josiah made ashes out of Asherah poles; put pagan priests out of business permanently; and did away with everything contrary to the worship of the One true God, including spiritual mediums, household gods, and sacrificial high places. In order to turn his heart fully to God, he did away with all competing gods.

Repentance, renewal, and reformation requires a two-fold process: 1) Turning away from what is false; and 2) Turning toward what is true.

Turning from spiritually unhealthy ways of living – without turning to God – is merely a half repentance. Furthermore, turning to God – without turning one’s back on damaging lifestyles – is a form of denial and is dangerous. 

We are to put off the old clothes of spiritual insensitivity and social injustice. We are to put on the new clothes of righteousness and peace. We are to forsake the old inner person of shame in order to embrace the new life of freedom and joy. 

There needs to be a radical removal of sin, so as to replace it with what is just and right. And, keep in mind, that none of this is pretty or romantic. Repentance and renewal is a messy ugly process of dispelling darkness and letting light shine. It is not for the faint of heart.

Where to begin? Make a fierce, brutally honest spiritual inventory of your life. No one can turn from something they are not really aware of. So, create in your schedule some time in the week to connect with God and do the following: 

  • Identify some areas for change, then list the obstacles to turning away from them (e.g., fear, despair, financial repercussions, etc.). Face those obstacles honestly and forthrightly. 
  • Form a rudimentary plan to forsake the old ways and embrace new paths of righteousness. This is only a beginning. Let God take that process and direct it in redemptive and purifying ways.

Holy God, you are jealous for your own glory. Today, I decide to identify and put away all that is contrary to your righteousness and will for my life. And I choose to turn to you with all my heart. In body, soul, and spirit I belong to you. Amen.

Romans 5:6-11 – Christ Died For Us

“Golgotha” by Edvard Munch, 1900

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also boast in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (New International Version)

In Christianity, there is only one way of approaching God: Through the death of Jesus Christ. That means we cannot approach God by our good works, doing things right, or by our spiritual pedigree. We are justified and declared righteous by grace alone through faith in the cross of Christ.

Back when my youngest daughter was still living at home, sometimes I needed to go into her room to get something. More often than not, it ended up becoming an archaeological dig. I had to wade through layers of stuff. I didn’t always find what I was looking for, and other times I discovered things I didn’t know I had even lost. 

When the magisterial Reformer, Martin Luther (1483-1546) went digging into the Bible, he found he was wading through layers of church tradition and came upon something that was lost. Luther rediscovered that God justifies sinners by grace through faith apart from any good works done by us. Luther found in the Scriptures that we are completely and totally at the mercy of God in Christ.

The cross of Jesus Christ is the means of salvation from what ails us because the cross is an attack on human sin. Luther discovered we all have layers of stuff that has grown around our hearts to the degree that we no longer see the sheer grace of God in Christ alone to meet the most pressing needs of our lives. 

The Reformation has taught believers that apart from Christ, we are addicted to ourselves. The cross is the intervention we need to help us confront our constant me-ism.

We might justify ourselves with the fact we do good works. However, one of the legacies of the Reformation, coming from the book of Romans, is that good works do not earn us deliverance from sin. In fact, Luther said that our good deeds are the greatest hindrance to our salvation because we have the tendency to trust in those good deeds instead of the death of Christ. 

So, Luther actually called our good works a mortal sin that sets off God’s wrath and leads straight to hell. In other words, good deeds can be deadly, if they are done as a means of approaching and appeasing God. 

It is through the suffering of Jesus on the cross, his death for us while we were still sinners, not when we were lovely and looking fine with all our pious actions, that we are saved. 

“He who does not know Christ does not know God hidden in suffering. Therefore, he prefers works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness, wisdom to folly, and, in general, good to evil. These are the people who are under God’s wrath! God can only be found in suffering and the cross. It is impossible for a person not to be puffed by his good works unless he has first been deflated and destroyed by suffering and evil until he knows that he is worthless and that his works are not his but God’s.”

Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation

God does not come to us in our beauty and goodness but in our ugliness and sin.

While we were still sinners, ungodly, enemies of God, powerless to save ourselves, Christ died on the cross for us. We spend too much time and effort concerned about looking good and doing good things in order to present ourselves acceptable to each other and even to God. 

But that is the very sin that sends people to a hellish existence. The hottest places of damnation are actually reserved for outwardly pious persons who trusted all their lives in themselves and how they looked to others without a thought, at all, about justification, reconciliation, and being restored to God through Christ.

Like a gold ring in a pig’s snout, is a person who has good deeds but knows nothing of God’s grace.

It is a totally human tendency to decide which sinful actions are trivial and which are the biggie sins. The Apostle Paul was really hard on his fellow Jews in the book of Romans because they tended to place their trust in who they were and what they did – being the covenant people and practicing all the good things a good person does. And Paul says the wrath of God is reserved for them. 

The way of approaching God is by seeing our true ugliness, our rebellious hearts, and that the hope of salvation is through the cross of Christ. We are justified by and reconciled to God because of Jesus, and not for any other reason. A new relationship is established based solely in God’s grace.

“Jesus Carrying The Cross” by Olga Bakhtina, 2017

When Christians grasp this truth, even a little bit, it should cause us to repent of our sinful good works (yes, sinful good works). Wherever there is humility that leads to a complete turning to Jesus, there is revival to new life in God, and a personal reformation around the doctrine of grace instead of the doctrine of my glorious works that I perform.

We, then, as Christians, saved and justified through the blood of Jesus, ought to be the most joyful and grateful people on the planet. We have deliverance from the deception of our hearts to life in Christ. Apathy and lethargy to the things of God are the twin evils that reign in the place of awe and appreciation for what God has done for us in Christ.

There is nothing more God can do to show us that he loves us than by actually dying for us, and by doing so, satisfying God’s own wrath against the sin which seeks to destroy us. The late Brennan Manning once told the story about how he got the name “Brennan.”

While growing up, his best friend was Ray. The two of them did everything together: bought a car together as teenagers, double-dated together, and went to school together. They even enlisted in the Army together, went to boot camp together and fought on the frontlines together.

One night while sitting in a foxhole, Brennan was reminiscing about the old days in Brooklyn while Ray listened and ate a chocolate bar. Suddenly, a live grenade came into the foxhole. Ray looked at Brennan, smiled, dropped his chocolate bar and threw himself on the live grenade. It exploded, killing Ray, but Brennan’s life was spared.

Later in life, when Brennan became a priest, he was instructed to take on the name of a saint. He thought of his friend, Ray Brennan. So, he took on the name “Brennan.”

Years later he went to visit Ray’s mother in Brooklyn. They sat up late one night having tea when Brennan asked her, “Do you think Ray loved me?” Mrs. Brennan got up off the couch, shook her finger in front of Brennan’s face and shouted, “What more could he have done for you?” Brennan said that at that moment he experienced an epiphany. He imagined himself standing before the cross of Jesus wondering, Does God really love me? And Jesus’ mother Mary pointing to her son, saying, “What more could he have done for you?”

The cross of Jesus is God’s way of doing all he could do for us. And yet we often wonder: Does God really love me? Am I important to God? Does God care about me? We tend to ask those questions when we are trusting in ourselves, because we never really know where we stand with God.

No matter how bad or how good you are, the path of suffering of our Lord Jesus has taken care of the sin issue once for all.

Week after week for the past two-thousand years, God’s people have gathered together to worship this same Lord Jesus who died on the cross. The only thing left for us to do, since Jesus has done it all for us, is to offer our lives to him.

While we were still sinners, enemies, estranged, hopeless, lost, despondent, proud, and stained by sin, Jesus died a cruel death on a cross to wash away your sins with his blood. It is my hope and prayer that today you are rediscovering the great Reformation truth that we are justified by grace alone through faith in Jesus alone, and the life of unbounded joy in knowing that we have now received reconciliation with God in Christ.

Lord God Almighty, the ground is level at the foot of the cross. We need you, Lord Jesus, and come to you on the basis of nothing else but your shed blood. I pray for all those who are wrestling with you right now. Oh, that you would revive those that need new life, that you would renew those who have become cold, and that you would reform all of our hearts so that our lives would completely be devoted around the person and work of Jesus Christ! 

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for dying for us while we were still powerless, sinful, and ungodly. Thank you for saving us from God’s wrath. Thank you, God Almighty, for reconciling us back to yourself through the cross. There are those needing you to break through their stubborn hearts; and those who need peace to their troubled hearts. O God, save us from ourselves, whether it is from our trust in our own perceived goodness, or our sense of shame and guilt. Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.