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Ecclesiastes 3:6b - A Time to Seek...

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The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. Consequently, the church's mission is to be used by God to seek and save those who are lost.

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Ecclesiastes 3:6b - A Time to Seek...

  1. 1. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” “1He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Luke 19:1-10, NRSV “What have I done?” That statement is the climax of the plot line of one of my favorite films, The Bridge Over the River Kwai. Some of you may be familiar with the story. Alec Guinness (for you younger folks that’s Obi Wan Kenobi in the earliest Star Wars movies) plays Colonel Nicholson, the archetypal “stiff upper lip” British army officer commanding a group of soldiers who, having been ordered to surrender, are in the custody of the Japanese army. Instead of fighting, they are now given the task as POWs of building a railway bridge. Nicholson, concerned with preserving the cohesion of his unit, requires that at every point his men act as soldiers all the way down to parading into their new prison home whistling the “Captain Bogey March…” [Whistle] Through the film Nicholson becomes increasingly rigid in performing his duties to the point of ordering his men not to attempt to escape because, after all, they had been ordered to surrender! He also becomes so enamored of showing what the British army can do that he has his engineers improve the Japanese bridge design—correcting structural mistakes, changing the site, things like. 1
  2. 2. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” By the end of the film, they have built a better bridge than the Japanese army otherwise could have built and thus they have actually helped the Japanese war effort—all in the name of discipline and preserving morale. At the end of the film, an allied raid attempts to destroy the bridge. Nicholson attempts to thwart the destruction of his men’s work. In a moment, he comes to his senses and queries, “what have I done?” At that very moment, he is struck and killed by a bullet, lurches onto the detonator, and the charges blow seining the bridge to the bottom of the river. Have you ever had a “My God, what have I done” moment? A moment when you realize that what you just did runs counter to your mission, your purpose, your calling, or to the sort of person you want to be. You made a decision at work that was questionable. Something you said to your spouse or your kids undermined your relationship. As I’ve studied Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus in Luke 19 this week, I’ve turned a single phrase over and over in my mind, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” It may have been true of Jesus, but I’m not so sure it’s true of us, is it? To be a Luke 19 church, requires us to: ⁃ Actively engage the lost ⁃ Which requires we actually believe it is possible to be “lost” ⁃ Communicate the Good News (the Gospel) 2
  3. 3. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” ⁃ Which requires that we understand, embrace, and experience the Good News ourselves Are we following the imperative given to us by Christ at his ascension? “Go and make disciples of all nations…baptizing the in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit teaching them to observe all I have commanded you…” (Matthew 28:18- 19). Do we know our purpose? Do we own our beliefs? If we were to stumble upon a Zacchaeus waiting for a word from God, could we give it? Jesus’ teaching ministry has brought him to the wealthy border town of Jericho in Palestine. The city was located in one of the most fertile parts of Judea, which meant there was steady agricultural trade. It also boasted a Herodian palace, which attracted many wealthy visitors and part-time residents. Jericho was a good place to be in the tax-collecting business. The volume of trade meant that there was a significant opportunity for tax agents to make their fortune by collecting the customs tax from traders as their products transited the area. In good capitalist fashion the tax collectors funded their business by adding a surcharge to the established tax rate and skimming the difference. In a city like Jericho, there would be an army of tax agents all under the patronage of a chief tax collector. The chief tax collector, as head of the pyramid, received a percentage of the surcharge from each individual agent meaning that the chief could become a very wealthy man indeed. Tax collectors always were angling for the chance to make an extra buck off of someone with less power, less knowledge, or less common sense. And they were hated for it. 3
  4. 4. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” There are some things about human nature that never change. One of those things is our resentment toward taxes and those who collect it. At the best of times, taxes are a nuisance. In the situation described by Luke it was far worse. As a tax collector, Zacchaeus and his associates, were Jews who had turned their back on their people by going to work for the Roman civil authority. They were traitors and enemies of Israel. To the Jewish mind of the time, salvation belonged to all Israelites by virtue of their descent from Abraham, except for those who had excluded themselves by virtue of their heinous crimes—people like tax collectors (Keener, 241). And to make matters worse, tax collectors were notoriously greedy. They could become rich without cheating, but many chose to defraud their countrymen in order to get even richer. Such was our friend Zacchaeus. He had created a city-wide network of economic predators bent on extracting as much as possible from the residents and traders who passed through Jericho and he was known for his ill-gotten gain and the lavish lifestyle that accompanied it. Luke recounts that Zacchaeus was “trying (or seeking) to see who Jesus was.” (3). Of course, he had something of a problem. He was short. As a result, he was unable to see Jesus because of the crowd that was thronging him. The Jericho of the New Testament was much different from the Old Testament Jericho. By the time of Luke’s account the city had spread out, the homes and buildings were spread farther apart, there were tree-lined roads, and parks. It was not the highly compact walled city of the Old Testament. Consequently, he was able to run on down the street and find an easily-climbable tree, planted on the road-side, and scramble up it. He wanted, we’re told, “to see who Jesus was.” That’s strange expression. Not, “he wanted to meet Jesus.” Not, “he wanted Jesus to heal him.” 4
  5. 5. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” He simply wanted see Jesus—perhaps just get a glimpse of this famous rabbi. We don’t really know all of the things that motivated Zacchaeus, he could have even seen a business opportunity. Based on what we know of Jewish culture of the time we can postulate that: Perhaps his corruption had so alienated him from society or from himself that he felt desperately alone, even despised by his fellow Jews and even by God Perhaps his wealth had created a impenetrable barrier between him and those around him—he felt caught Perhaps in his heart-of-hearts he was just a broken, vulnerable, and fearful man looking for hope Perhaps he was just plain lost The Lehigh Valley is full of Zacchaeuses—this is a room mistly full of “found Zacchaeus’s.” That’s why we’re here. Who did God use to find you? Who did God use to connect or reconnect you with God and with this church? God has put us on Center Street because He is launching a kingdom counter-offensive into our community and this is a forward operating base, and you are the front-line troops. A forward operating base (FOB)—a military term—refers to a secured area near the enemy that is used to launch and support tactical operations. Most of the time they’re simple, primitive even, made from a fortified wall with a secure gate to allow patrols to come and go to engage in operations. 5
  6. 6. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” Jesus brought the church into being, literally calling us out of the world, in order to reclaim this world—His world—that has turned from Him, and turned to sin. I heard John Ortberg, pastor of Menlo Park Presbyterian Church at a conference several years ago. It was a bracing sermon and I recall some of his words : “Jesus says he is building his church, and the gates of hell will not prevail. Our problem is hell, and hell is at work wherever the will of God is defiled out there or in here. Every time a little child is left unloved, unwanted, uneducated, unnoticed; every time a marriage ends; every time racial differences divide a street or a city or a church; every time money gets worshiped or hoarded; every time a lie gets told; every time generations get separated, get divided, get suspicious, get standoffish; every time a workplace becomes dehumanizing or fear-based; when families get broken down; when virtue gets torn down; when sinful habits create a life of shame or a culture of shamelessness; when faith gets undermined, hope gets lost, and people get trashed, hell is prevailing. It is not acceptable to Jesus that hell prevails. It is not okay. People will ask sometimes, “How is your church doing?” Real important to think about, What does it mean for our church to be doing okay? Our job is not to do okay. Our job is not to meet a budget or run a program or fill a building or maintain the status quo. Our job is not to do pretty good compared with other churches in the denomination… Jesus did not say, “On this rock I will build my church, and it’ll do pretty good compared to other churches in the denomination.” He said, “I’m going to build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Our job is to put hell out of business, and that’s why Jesus went to the cross on a Friday, lay in a tomb on Saturday, and was raised to life on Sunday.” Most of our neighbors aren’t seeking a savior, often because they aren’t even aware that they need one or that one is available. 6
  7. 7. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” We live in a culture of “save yourself.” But in many ways they’re seeking salvation or deliverance from many of the same things that crippled Zacchaeus—broken relationships, a purposeless life, empty wealth, stifling poverty, isolation, hopelessness. And underlying all of that, alienation from God. That’s why we’re here. If you read the story closely, you’ll realize that Zacchaeus wasn’t the only person seeking that day—Jesus was seeking too. Jericho enjoyed wide streets bordered by airy villas and scattered parks. Its thoroughfares were lined with trees. And as Jesus traversed one of these streets flanked by a multitude of people, he came to a tree that was occupied by a squat little man attired in the finery of the ruling classes. Their eyes met—for the first time ever—and Jesus spoke him, “Zacchaeus….” Have you ever had the experience of someone you know and respect, a celebrity even, knowing your name? Yeah…I haven’t either. But I can imagine. It’s got to feel pretty good. In the Jewish world, one of the signs of a prophet was addressing someone, previously unknown, by their name. That’s precisely what Jesus did here. While Jesus had never met Zacchaeus; he wasn’t unknown to him. Jesus had very specific plans for the shady little crook up in the Sycamore tree. “…Hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” It probably won’t surprise you to learn that inviting yourself to lunch, even in the ancient world and even by an (in)famous person, violates a social norm. No matter how high their status, people didn’t typically invite themselves to someone else’s home. And if you didn’t know that was a thing, make a note. It’ll save you pain later in life. Not only that, pious Jews weren’t overly fond—that’s English understatement—of eating in the homes of people like tax collectors. After all, since tax collectors were selling out their co- 7
  8. 8. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” religionists how likely was it that those same tax collectors would be carefully observant of the law? Most pious Jews assumed that because tax collectors were unreligious enough to collect taxes they would also be unreligious about tithing foodstuffs to the temple, and observing purity regulations (Keener, 241). As a result, they kept a wide berth. Notice too that Jesus is emphatic: “I must stay at your house today.” It’s a strong phrase, suggesting that Jesus saw this encounter with Zacchaeus as part of his divine mission and purpose. And how does the little man respond? With joy! Zacchaeus tumbles out of the tree with haste and happily welcomes the savior. Jesus’ move wasn’t a hit with the crowd. We’re told that immediately they started grumbling: “He’s gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner!” (19:7). Notice, according to Luke its not simply the religious leaders in attendance at the Sycamore tree audience—it’s the crowd in general. They’re indignant that Jesus would choose Zacchaeus’s company over theirs. Surely Jesus has got it wrong. The Messiah has come for the righteous Jews, to bring them out of Roman captivity and into a new promised land. Not quite. It’s pretty clear from Jesus’ ministry that Messiah has come for those who are far from righteousness—those who are outside the precincts of the pharisees, the scribes, and the professionally religious. Jesus’ ministry is rebuttal to the operating assumption of most of us, which is that we have to get our act together in order to receive grace. The truth is that before we can do anything, God sets His affections on us and, like Zacchaeus, invites Himself to lunch with us and then he changes our lives. In the midst of the murmuring, the grumbling, and the mumbling, Zacchaeus stands his ground in the presence of the Lord. He doesn’t take Jesus to his home, instead this conversation takes place at the very foot of the sycamore tree had occupied just a few minutes prior. There’s an urgency to the conversation—it cannot wait; it had to be settled. 8
  9. 9. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” A better translation for verse 8 is “But Zacchaeus stood and said to the Lord…” (Morris, 298). In the face of the crowd’s disapproval, Zacchaeus doesn’t slink away and he doesn’t cower. There’s even a hint of formality to the Greek, perhaps suggesting that Zacchaeus’ encounter with Jesus will form the basis for a significant change in his life that he is about to make public for the first time. And then he declares to Jesus with the crowd listening in, something remarkable—a plan for restitution. And not just any old plan, a plan that went far beyond the requirements of Jewish law. The encounter with Jesus had affected this man in such a way that he publicly committed to a striking and radical plan. Where voluntary restitution was given, the Law required no more than the original amount plus one fifth (see Leviticus 6:5; Numbers 5:7). He was doing what was required for theft with the killing or selling of an animal (see Exodus 22:1; 2 Samuel 12:6): “When someone steals an ox or a sheep, and slaughters it or sells it, the thief shall pay five oxen for an ox, and four sheep for a sheep…” By implication Zacchaeus is acknowledging the depth of his guilt before God and before the Jewish community. He’s not trying to get away with the lightest possible restitution, but is willing to do more than the law requires in order to make things right. God’s grace toward Zacchaeus produced generosity and fairness within Zacchaeus. He not only made things right with those he had defrauded, he also gave generously of his means in order to care and provide for the poor. Zacchaeus was changed and as a result his life looked different. Jesus then says, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he [Zacchaeus] too is a son of Abraham” (19:9). 9
  10. 10. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” At first glance this exchange seems curious. What does Jesus mean: “he too is a son of Abraham”? We’ve already noted that Zacchaeus was a Jew. He wasn’t a very good Jew, but he was one nonetheless. Throughout the Bible, in both testaments, a distinction is made between external and internal realities. The Prophets instruct God’s people to circumcise their hearts as well as their bodies, indicting them for outward religion that has not penetrated to the heart. The apostle Paul notes in his letter to the Romans, “For no one is a Jews who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not be the letter” (Romans 2:28). A true Jew is one who follows the faith of Abraham (4:12) not one who shares DNA with him. And so I have to ask you: Do you know that no one is a Christian who is merely one outwardly, nor is baptism outward and physical? It is a matter of the heart? Have you placed your faith in the Lord Jesus Christ? And are you aware that all that we have and all that we are to be laid at the feet of Jesus so that he can use us to join him in seeking and saving the lost—connecting them to Jesus Christ so that he can transform their lives? In the words of the Essential Tenets we studied together last year, “We are not elect for our own benefit alone. God gathers His covenant community to be an instrument of His saving purpose. Through His regenerating and sanctifying work, the Holy Spirit grants us faith and enables holiness, so that we may be witnesses of God’s gracious presence to those who are lost” (Tenets, 3.B). 10
  11. 11. “…A time to seek and a time to lose…” Could it be that as you leave this campus today, your spirit within you might ponder—My God, what have we done? And how can we return to the purpose that God has for us? May that renewed sense of purpose—seeking the lost—grip us and our household to the glory of God. Amen. 11

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