Sermons from Rev Julie Wagstaff


Sunday 30th October

No parable today!  In our gospel reading Luke simply reports an incident that took place when Jesus was passing through Jericho on his way to Jerusalem. 

There’s no mention of Pharisees, although I’m fairly sure that they were about .... but we do have a tax collector .... and this week he is a chief tax collector at that.

So if we’re not hearing a parable, does it mean we will find the story easier to understand ... and, more importantly, how to make it relevant to our own lives?

Well, we’ll see. 

The theme of last Sunday is continued, we are given another example of how God’s attitude towards the sinner and the social outcast can differ fairly dramatically from our own.

Luke’s is the only gospel that tells us about Zacchaeus and his sudden moment of glory and the story fits into three of Luke’s regular themes;

·       the problem of riches and what to do about it,

·       the identification of Jesus with sinners,

·       and the faith which recognises Jesus as Lord and discovers new life as a result.   

Jesus’ destination wasn’t Jericho he was simply passing through when he met Zacchaeus who, for whatever reason – possibly curiosity, maybe something deeper – decides he wants to see him – this young Rabbi who everyone was talking about.   

It’s worth considering the fact that Jesus is constantly passing through our lives – do we want to see him?

If so, where are we expecting to find him?  In which person?   In what place?  In what experience? Indeed, will we recognise him?  Or, will we be like the Pharisees who were so certain of their own religious understanding that they failed to do so?     

Sometimes we are unable to see Jesus in our lives because he’s crowded out by the way we see our world, the way we think about others in relation to our world and the opinions of those around us. 

Deep down, of course, we may not want to see him because, deep down, we know we will be challenged by him .... and we kinda like life just as it is thank you.

To see Jesus clearly we often, like Zaccheaus, have to make the effort and raise our sights above our comfort zone.  Take a chance of looking at the world from a different perspective by figuratively speaking climbing that tree ...... and take a risk – perhaps risk losing our dignity if we fall out of it.

We know from what Ian explained last week, just how much a tax collector would have been despised by his neighbours .... but a chief tax collector would not only have been collecting the taxes demanded by the Romans, plus a bit more for his own pocket but also skimming off a percentage from all the other tax collectors.  His modern equivalent would be something akin to a loan shark who bleeds people dry through threats, extortion and violence.

The people would have seethed as they watched Zacchaeus grow richer and richer, living more and more sumptuously, knowing that it was all at their expense.  As Tom Wright says, they would have been horrified to think that of all the inhabitants of Jericho he would be the one known by name over 2,000 years later.

We hear in scripture again and again that God wants us to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with him – indeed this is what today’s reading from Isaiah tells us seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.   

Not a very accurate description of a chief tax collector.

So what was it that Jesus saw in the eyes of this unscrupulous, hardened little man that caused him to call Zacchaeus down from the tree and invite himself to stay at his home?

Whatever it was, he was right.  It was as though a hard shell had encased Zacchaeus and as soon as he heard the words of Jesus, that shell shattered and he was immediately restored, to become the person who God had always intended him to be and Jesus said Today salvation has come to this house. 

Jesus was often accused of eating and drinking with sinners .... but other than the enjoyment they may have had from winding up the Pharisees, those ‘sinners’ didn’t gain anything from it unless, as a result of being with him, they too changed their way of living.

It is clearly not enough to just be in Christ’s company or to have heard his teaching – we have to choose, as Zacchaeus did, to allow ourselves to be transformed by our relationship with him.

It’s worth noting that Luke records this story soon after the story of the rich young ruler who, despite seeking out Jesus, in contrast to Zacchaeus, was saddened at the thought of parting with his wealth.

The aim of God throughout history is the creation of an all-inclusive community of loving persons, with God himself at the very centre of it. 

But what is it that separates those who God considers righteous from those whom he says he does not know?

The way we live is obviously crucial - but living that way has to be as the result of our relationship with God – the fruits of the Spirit if you like. 

In the verses immediately before those in today’s OT reading, Isaiah writes that even an ox and a donkey recognise their master but Israel does not know who it is who reared them and brought them up because they have rebelled against their God – they have turned away from him.

But despite everything God’s love is such that he is still longing to restore that relationship – Come now, let us argue it out.  Not even change your ways before it’s too late, but come back, turn around and let’s sort things out.

But they choose not to - they choose to keep God at arm’s length and put themselves, rather than God, at the centre of their lives.  They believe that by making their sacrifices, by performing their rituals they are doing all that is required of them and that they can continue to live exactly as they want and treat others without compassion or care.

But that is exactly how Zacchaeus treated people and in the parable last week Jesus claimed that it was the tax collector who went home justified. 

The younger son in the parable of the prodigal was heartless, cruel and selfish and yet his father – God – welcomed him home without even demanding an apology let alone a promise that he would never behave like that again.

So it’s obviously not about living respectably – just consider some of God’s main men – It seems to be about

·       acknowledging that without God we are nothing,

·       acknowledging that we are all broken and cannot fix ourselves.

·       acknowledging that nobody is deserving of God’s forgiveness

·       acknowledging that it is through God’s amazing grace, and because his love will not let us go, that our relationship with him has been restored ....

·       acknowledging that it has nothing at all to do with us – we cannot influence it one way or another. 

All that is left to us is to choose to accept it and live our lives with God at the centre ..... or choose not to because we believe we should be the one around whom our lives revolve.

God’s love is like a search light seeking out the slightest hint of a glance in his direction .... and woosh, he’s there .... just like the prodigal son’s father running to meet him, eager to restore their relationship to what it is meant to be.

Paul recognised that it is all God’s work from first to last – which is why he is giving thanks for the young church in Thessalonia, whose faith resulted in them pledging their allegiance to Jesus and building a loving community around God.

Paul’s role and ours is to share the gospel, the good news, and to demonstrate through our relationships and our attitudes something of the unconditional love of God. 

People don’t need to hear that if they change, if they do this that or the other, God will love them – that’s our take on it. 

They need to hear the truth .... that they are loved by God just as they are and that he will be overjoyed if they will simply turn to him and allow him to tell them himself.