(Sermon) Safety Distance


(Illustration by Paula J. Becker from http://paulabecker.com/blog/?p=450)

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10

1 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.

5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.

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

8 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.”

9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

My sister has a cat named “Snowball”.  It is a white Persian cat that my sister and her husband bought  while snowball was a small kitten.  I still remember the first time I met snowball.  She was a small little furry creature that rolled up into a ball.  I needed to look at the rolled up furry creature to see that it was a kitten.  Snowball and I played “rolling the ball” with a rolled up tinfoil and when we were done she crawled up to my chest to sleep on it in a superman position on her back – she was an incredibly cute kitten.  I knew she might grow to be a snob but while she was a kitten she was cute.  Then came along a dog named truffles.  Truffles was mix between Maltese and Yorkshire terrier and  even cuter because of her affectionate personality!  My sister and her husband planned to raise the two together but it caused a bit of trauma for the cat.

The dog was always friendly and wanted to be touched, hugged and kissed and she often jumped onto one of our laps to cuddle with us.  Snowball the cat had such strong pride that she would  not come to anyone on her own.  Whenever the family was sitting down and watching the TV together with the dog in someone’s arms, the cat would keep her distance (like 5-10 mitres away) and just observe the whole scene.  When we chased after her to bring her near to the family, she’d always run away and returned to the same observation spot when we gave up the chase.  Did she feel neglected? Of Course.  Did she want to be closer to the community called family? Most definitely.

Did she have the courage to open up to the family who seemed to “prefer” the dog?  Now that’s the interesting question.  And we find ourselves asking the same question while listening to Zacchaeus’ story.   Zacchaeus the chief tax collector was probably one of the wealthiest Jew in the region but also the most hated and isolated because of his tax collecting practices where he over taxed people in order to add to his riches.

He was intrigued enough that he will come to hear Jesus speak but  afraid enough that he kept his distance at a tree perch.  Did he have the courage?  Let’s answer that in a minute but first a professor of mine describes the scene beautifully.  Listen to this:

… (Zacchaeus) He had heard much about Jesus, found himself intrigued, and decided he had to see Jesus for himself. The tree-perch was the perfect place for him. he would be close enough to see Jesus for himself, yet far enough away to be out of reach; close enough to “get a line on” Jesus, distant enough to be safe.  Curious he was; committed he was not. He didn’t want to be hassled or embarrassed in any way.  The tree-perch was perfect.” (Ponder and Pray by Dr. Victor Shepherd. pg 44)

Don’t we all find ourselves being in the same boat as Zacchaeus?  All too often we find the safety distance to be all too comfortable.  All too often we find that tree perch to be our shield and our protector.  We love our tree perches of all types and shapes but there is a gotcha here.  While the tree perch represents safety distance, it also represents distance in intimacy.  As in, while that distance surely protects us from embarrassment, hassle and possible exposure, it also prevents us from becoming intimate with the one who gives life and lightens our burden.  All the blessings that Jesus has in store for us, cannot be ours until we are done away with the safety distance and gain the intimate closeness.

All this to say, just merely being curious about Jesus will not cut it in our lives – the tree perch is comfortable but we cannot stay there.  It can be a self-imposed trap and self-imposed prison.  Just like my sister’s family who started to wrongly suspect that perhaps snowball the cat needed to be left alone to figure out the life with a dog on her own, when the truth was that snowball  needed to be loved and she craved the attention from us.

So how DO we come down from the tree perch and gain that intimacy closeness that Jesus’ blessing can be ours?  We can examine Zacchaeus’ story learn few things:

(1) First, in Zacchaeus’ case, he showed up to listen to Jesus.  He heard about Jesus through strangers and from the words of mouths but they were not good enough for him.  And even though he wanted that safety distance, he must have desired an encounter.  It is entirely possible that he was getting  tired of tax collecting practice and being completely isolated and alone in the Jewish community. He may have sincerely desired to see the Messiah.  That’s what Jesus saw – Zacchaeus’ timid heart that needed an encouragement and encounter.  When Zacchaeus showed up to listen, Jesus decided to reach out and ever-so-gently says “Let’s go to your place for dinner”.

Does obedience not start from listening?  What or whom are we going to obey? What instructs our actions?  Unless we listen to God, how else are we to figure out what it is that we are going to obey?  I know time is precious but we have to put our life and sitcoms on a pause in order to listen to God.  Just as Zacchaeus was able to “hang” and “chill” with Jesus as he showed up to listen, we also shall encounter God richly if we just take that time to “show up” at Quiet Times and devotions to “Listen” to God.

(2) Secondly, we need to see the sequence of events.  Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house and then Zacchaeus says this:

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.

Why is Zacchaeus, all of a sudden, giving away his wealth?  Certainly he knew what Jesus’ message was – Love God and love your neighbor (and as its implication “help the poor”).  Surely Pharisees did not teach that!  They were too busy playing religion!  Romans did not teach it since they were too busy exploiting and extorting the Jews!  It was Jesus’ teaching that Zacchaeus was aware of all that time.  It was simply the case that he did not accept Jesus’ teaching and therefore his authority up until the point of encounter.

Jesus’ visitation finally provided an occasion for Zacchaeus to recognize and accept Jesus’ teaching as THE authoritative teaching in his life – to which Jesus declared there is a believer in that house!

Without first submitting (which is to be distinguished from “come to” Jesus – Jesus has already come to us FIRST!) to Him and recognize His authority over you, there will not be an intimate life with Jesus.  That is to say there will forever be a safety distance between you and God and you will forever remain on your tree perch. Safe you might be but saved you will never be.

I ran into religious fanatics many times in my life and every time I run into street evangelists, I always had an immediate turn off reaction towards them.  I have not met a single street evangelist who appeared gentle, loving and I never received that warmth that I receive whenever I think about My Lord Jesus Christ.  But you know what?  To this day, I have not met a single evangelist whose message was wrong.  They all had the right message!!  Even as they were screaming “YOU ARE ALL GUNNA DIE!!!” they were right.  I AM going to die someday.  They also screamed “YOU ARE GOING TO HELL!!!” they were right.  I was going to Hell until my Lord saved me.

They didn’t have the wrong message.  In fact, they were quite right.  But I laughed off and walked away simply because I did not recognize their authority and resisted it due to their awful invitation.

Jesus’ invitation is different.  He says in Matthew 11:28-30

28 “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

This is one of the warmest invitations you will ever see in the scriptures.  In fact, if Jesus rebuked Zacchaeus to come down from the tree perch, he may have remained there still but it was a warm invitation that brought him down.  Luther once said, “To know Christ means to know his benefits.” Recognize that Jesus’ invitation is warm, his yoke is light and wants to bless us with his companionship.  Zacchaeus certainly recognized and submitted to Jesus to obtain more than he gave away.

(3) Third and lastly, there might be times when we feel like God is no longer speaking to us and God has hidden his face from us.  Of course God does not abandon us but it is common among all believers that they feel this way time to time in their lives.

In Zacchaeus’ case, he said he will not cheat anybody.  In fact, , he’d pay back four times of what he had cheated.  For tax collectors at that time, unless they extort Jews more than what they were required to submit to the Roman government, they cannot make living.  Their riches depend on their extorting of fellow Jews!  So if he decides that he will cheat no more, he will have to start generating honest income.

At that point Zacchaeus clings onto the providing grace of God.  Just as Zacchaeus did, we also cling as we gain that intimacy closeness.  We cling onto Jesus Christ ever so tight and we cling onto him as if our lives are on the line.  If you have gone to rock climbing and the only thing that’s keeping you alive is that rope that you are holding onto, wouldn’t that grip be tight?  We cling the same way.  Even when we think the speaking voice is gone and his presence is dim, we cling onto his presence because apart from him there is no hope.

There is a very dramatic moment in the Gospels.  Listen to the story of this blind man.

35 As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. 36 When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. 37 They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.”

 38 He called out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 39 Those who led the way rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

 40 Jesus stopped and ordered the man to be brought to him. When he came near, Jesus asked him, 41 “What do you want me to do for you?”

   “Lord, I want to see,” he replied.

 42 Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has healed you.” 43 Immediately he received his sight and followed Jesus, praising God. When all the people saw it, they also praised God.(Luke 18:35-43)

When the blind man shouted all the more, how do you think he shouted?  We need to keep in mind that ever since Jesus started performing miracles, there were huge crowds following after him.  For a single man to be shouting over a sizable crowd enough so that he can be a nuisance, can only mean that he must have been really loud – loud enough to be outshouting the large crowd following Jesus and did it over again and again and again.  That’s what it means to cling onto Jesus.  It means we cling to Jesus with a sense of desperation.

Furthermore, while you are clinging onto God, it doesn’t need to look all too pretty – even though we like to appear cool and “no sweat” under toughest situations.  God called us to finish the race, not to finish at the top.  You just need to somehow find a way to obey Him and tough it out.  All you guys know I work out and train martial arts and stuff.  Time to time I train with a trainer and my trainer tells me to lift something that is beyond reasonable.  I work out with 225lbs on bench press and all of a sudden he loads up 275 lbs and tells me to lift it 12 times.  I try my greatest but there is just no way I’d lift 12 reps on my own.  Somehow with his help, I get to the 12th rep, I am dead tired and he might be lifting more than I am on that last repetition.  But how do you think my face will look at that time?  I am the hideous creature that no one wants to look at.  But it does not matter, what mattered was that I completed my set.  That was the whole point.  Again, God told us to finish the race.  When the obedience becomes tough, we just somehow need to find a way to obey and tough one out.

The early church document has it that Zacchaeus became the first bishop of Caesarea.  Zacchaeus must have faced “going gets tough” situation in his life after leaving the riches behind.  He then also must have had to “cling” onto Jesus as if his life depended on it.

When it comes to obeying God, obey him gladly and joyfully.  When the joy is gone, obey him nonetheless.  When that motivation is gone obey him still. When you simply don’t feel like it any more, obey him some more anyways.  That’s the way of disciple and that’s the way of people who has encountered God in such closeness and enjoyed his presence “knowing” that he is there (even if she does not “feel” it).

In the beginning I asked whether Zacchaeus had the courage.  Well, it wasn’t courage to be sitting on a tree perch but it became courage when he accepted Jesus’ invitation to transform his life.  If you are comfortable on your tree perch, in the sense of “curious you are but committed you are not”, I invite you to think about Jesus’ invitation once again in your life.  Jesus says to you “Come all you who are weary and thirsty.”  He is the one with many benefits and blessings, which can only be yours through close intimacy and not from safety distance.  Come down from the tree perch and dine with him.

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