(Sermon) Tree Percher’s nemesis – Grace

urlDate: Feb 2, 2013

Title: Tree Percher’s nemesis – Grace

Scripture: Luke 19:1-10; John 8:1-11;

19 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. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”

1: I am a human being full of errors and mistakes – it comes as a package, I think.  You look at me and what do you see?  Most of the pastors carry the weighty, gentle and gracious look about them.  Always dressed in full suit and tie, very well groomed and spotless mannerism where they are good candidates for being good examples and being well respected as per what we have learned through the scriptures.  Pastors are meant to exemplify Christ in our actions, speeches and in our manners.

But you look at me and what do you see?  Half the times, I act like a goof and I am loving it!  I have waaaay too much energy that I do not know what to do with (btw, that’s why I work out so severely, so as not to have so much energy that I cannot control) and when it is available, I love spending my energy wrestling one of the brothers at church.  I am also clumsy in that when I get nervous, my muscles stiffen up very badly and I sweat profusely.

There was an incident where I was at a fancy event where I needed to be in semi-formal clothing.  Everyone gathered there either had experience of modeling or is currently one or is working with them as photographers.  It was a very fancy event where elegant and eloquent mannerism was the very basic requirement.  I showed up dressed adequately but then there came this girl I had the crush on and I was holding a Champaign glass – bad combination.  Clumsy dude whose muscle is stiffening up because he’s nervous and he’s holding a VERY delicate Champaign glass… it was just a matter of time before I spilt it on someone or something.  I ended up spilling it all over the cash register.  Think about the embarrassment I felt.

I am naturally goofy and clumsy and I love me for them regardless.  However, think about how much I must have been criticized for being a goof and clumsy growing up.  I grew up always listening to the idea that “good kids” behave well and that only meant being quiet and not act so playful.  That idea resounded in the church life as well.  While I was a teenager and early twenties, I attended a church and there I had very difficult time simply being accepted – partly because fobs had no place to fit into that crowd and partly because my playfulness seemed to have bothered some people.

One of the leaders of the church always criticized me for my actions – goofy or not (mind you, it was well intended).  It might have been my goofy and laughter loving nature that caught that leader’s attention and eventually arrived at the conclusion that this “kid” must be corrected, instructed and guided.  So every week or every encounter with that leader involved hearing an “earful” of “corrections”.  At one point, I remember thinking that apart from breathing, there isn’t a thing I can do without offending someone.

Some years later, I started attending another church for I really needed to serve to grow.  I wasn’t a pastor yet but began serving faithfully on Sundays as part of praise team or as a clean-up crew.  That church’s pastor’s name was Sam Kim and there is a reason why he was a successful pastor at that time.  One of the first encounters with him involved his account of his observation of me.  When he opened his mouth and said “One thing I noticed about you….”, I immediately thought “oh here we go again… how am I going to get passed this criticism!”  At that time, that was the only reaction I knew.  But as Pastor Sam continued he said “you are like Johnny on the spot for me.  For whatever reason or another, when I need you, you seem to be there.”

With those words, I began breathing better.  Thinking back, Pastor Sam gave me great advices and that leader before Pastor Sam also gave me great advices as well!  But the one who shaped me most influentially was, no doubt, Pastor Sam.  He knew the consequence of continued criticisms and he approached “me” in a way that I can first come down from my tree-perch before I can open up to his advices.

We see the same thing in today’s passage.  Jesus approaches the most notoriously hated Jew in that region named Zacchaeus.  Zacchaeus was a tax collector who raised taxes for the Roman governments.  Now typically tax collectors at that time were fairly rich and the reason is this:  Collecting taxes was like an auction.  They bid against other collectors and the collecting duty went to the one who said will collect the most for the Roman government.  Then the tax collectors will start collecting taxes from their fellow Jews.  As if that is not bad enough, they will also OVER-charge taxes.  That’s how they become rich.  Roman government is only interested in collecting whatever these people say they will raise and whatever surplus the tax collectors collected was pure gravy for them.  That’s why Zacchaeus was hated.  He became rich on the blood of his own people.

To that hated man, Jesus approached and if you read the Gospels with one eye open, you will be able to see that Jesus is VERY confrontational everywhere he goes.  In fact, He goes to temples just to pick fights against the Pharisees.  He wasn’t afraid to criticize the religious leaders of Jews at that time but what does he do to Zacchaeus?  Well, we will get to that but first let’s focus on what would NOT have brought him down from the tree perch.

2: In the first place, one thing we have to note is what’s missing from the Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus.  Noticing what’s missing in the picture is hard because it presupposes you knowing the entire picture thoroughly so I do not blame anyone if this has skipped everyone’s attention but take a good look at Jesus’ conversation with Zacchaeus; there is not a mention of criticism of Zacchaeus.

For years, Zacchaeus collected taxes and for years he had cheated his fellow Jews to become rich but knowing plainly well what had been happening, Jesus does not say a single word about it.

One of my professors put it well for us: Magnifying someone’s short comings won’t do it, it only humiliates them.  Sending them on a guilt trip won’t do it either; it will only make them self-righteous or neurotic.

Shortly put, making someone feel bad about himself is not an effective way and in fact, most often, the worst way to correct anyone.  Judgement will only push them away.  It is in our nature to love ourselves above anything else.  No matter how we think about it, this is true.  We love ourselves that we cannot bear to watch our own pride gets trampled upon.  To that self-glorifying nature, judgement of any kind only fortifies the stronghold guarding the mind of the judged.

Everyone here knows the movie called “Forrest Gump” starring Tom Hanks, right?  Well, it portrayed mankind quite accurately at least in one aspect: Forrest does not like to be told “you are stupid”.  Wherever there is weakness or vulnerability, people do not like to be reminded of them so plainly.  It often is something that they like to hid or have it escaped from people’s attention.  That’s why judgment from fellow mankind does not bring others down from the tree-perch.

But then what works?  Let’s return to Jesus’ example.

3:  In John 8:1-11, there is yet another beautiful encounter.

At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

One thing we have to note is that Jesus did NOT accept this woman’s sin.  Jesus clearly said “leave your life of sin” but he saw a woman who needed acceptance and embrace of a community.  That is why he started his sentence with “neither do I condemn you”.  Of all the people who showed up to stone her, it was only Jesus who had the authority and ability to throw the stone at her and in fact kill her on the spot but instead he chose to forgiven this already judged, humiliated and harassed woman but forgiveness alone will not do it.  She needed deliverance.  If forgiveness has the power to wash away, deliverance has the power to restore.  She was already humiliated but by finding her acceptance in Christ, her dignity was restored.

The tree-perchers like Zacchaeus come down from the tree only as they find their forgiveness, acceptance and joy restored in their life.  And these cannot be done apart from true grace and true love found in Jesus Christ alone.

4: I mentioned my experience of trying to be “fixed” by two different approaches.  One criticized on every encounter and the other went out of his way to praise what I did right.  It wasn’t the praise that transformed my life.  It was the acceptance and embrace that my beloved Pastor exhibited (which he learned from his Lord) that changed my life.

As I look at this community called East Faith Church, few thoughts cross my mind.  On the one hand, I do not worry since you guys not only grew up together but you guys are fairly comfortable with each other that there is natural acceptance.

On the other, I am grieved significantly since there always is silent sufferers who in her quietness cry because of the hurts from sharp tongued people.  I know you guys are not judgmental but I invite you to develop the sensitivity and discipline to reflect in your daily lives whether you have done or said something to hurt anyone and made them insecure about themselves.

Our Lord Jesus Christ said that no disciple is greater than his master.  If our Lord Jesus Christ did not use criticism or coercion or dominance to make us behave godly, then we also shall follow his footsteps and learn to accept people as they are and LOVE them so that they can taste the small sample of grace that our Lord Jesus Christ is all about.

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(Sermon) Safety Distance

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(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.