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Dear Friends in Christ,
What’s Christmas all about? You might think that everyone knows the answer, but they don’t. You can tell by watching the news, or the holiday movies. From those sources you would think that Christmas is all about love and peace, and family, and giving or getting just the right gift. It’s all about children, some people say- seeing their eyes light up as they open their gifts. From our own experience we might think that it’s all about cookies and decorated trees and lights, and having so much to get done that you might wish it wasn’t Christmas, or that it would hurry up and be over so you can get back to a normal schedule.
There are myriad things that distract us from focusing on what Christmas is all about. In fact, many who claim to be Christians end up missing the true meaning of Christmas. Now the Biblical account of Zacchaeus the tax collector might not be the first Scripture that comes to mind to remind us what Christmas is all about, but, as you will see, it does a very good job of doing just that.
The Bible tells us that Zacchaeus was a tax collector. In fact, not just an ordinary tax collector. He was a chief tax collector and a very wealthy one at that. People would look at him and, whether it was true or not, think that he must be a traitor and a cheat because he worked for the Romans and he was rich. We hear that attitude today when it is assumed, whether it’s true or not, that any rich person must have cheated or abused people to get what they have.
Surprisingly, Zacchaeus wanted to see who Jesus was. Obviously he had heard about Jesus. He had heard about his miracles. He had heard that he taught with authority. Maybe he had even heard that one of his disciples, Matthew, was a former Tax Collector. He wanted to see who this person was that he was getting so much attention, and yet was willing to associate with those the Pharisees considered sinners. In fact, he was so determined to see Jesus that he gave up trying to peek through the crowd to get a glimpse of him, that he ran down the road and climbed up into a tree.
Was Zacchaeus like King Herod, only interested in seeing Jesus perform a miracle for his entertainment? His words and actions would tell us, “no.” It seems that his conscience had been at work. Deep down he knew people were right when they called him a sinner. He probably didn’t even know why, but his determination to see Jesus, even being willing to do something that would make people laugh at him, like climbing a tree, shows that he must have thought just being able to see Jesus would somehow help salve his conscience.
One of the things the Advent season is designed to do is to move us to think like Zacchaeus. One of the key figures of Advent is John the Baptist with his call to repentance. His preaching of the law pricks our consciences. He warns us not to trust in ourselves or our heritage. Just because you go to church, or a Christian school; just because you have been Lutheran all your life, doesn’t save you. The advent season reminds us that if we are going to be prepared for Jesus’ coming; if we are going to understand what Christmas is all about; we must first understand that we are sinners who are completely lost. Left to ourselves we would end up being goats on the left hand of Jesus in the judgment. We would hear the terrifying words, depart from me you who are cursed. If we are to experience the real joy of Christmas, we need to have a longing, a deep desire like Zacchaeus did, to see Jesus.
It all turned out better that Zacchaeus could have imagined. He just wanted to see Jesus with his own eyes. But, 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.
How amazing! Remember, the crowd was so large that Zacchaeus couldn’t find a spot anywhere that he could see over, around or through. Imagine the noise and commotion! How likely was it that Jesus would even look his way or notice him? But he not only noticed him, he walked over to the tree and addressed him by name! How did he know his name! They had never met! And what else did Jesus say? I MUST stay at your house today! It was necessary, it was the will of God, part of his plan, that Jesus meet Zacchaeus and spend time at his house.
At my first church in Milwaukee our church president was also a great evangelist. He would purposely ride the public bus to work so that he could talk to strangers and tell them about Jesus. Whenever he had the chance to do this, on the bus, or making calls in the neighborhood, he would tell whomever he was talking to that their meeting wasn’t by accident. It was part of God’s plan that they were talking because God knew that they needed to hear that Jesus was their savior. I don’t know if anyone joined the church because of his witnessing, but I’m sure many people were comforted, and some are probably in heaven with him because he took the time and made the effort to witness to them. He felt it was necessary for him to stop at their home, or sit next to them on the bus, because they needed to see Jesus.
Zacchaeus was overjoyed that Jesus was coming to his house, but others weren’t. They began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” They thought that Jesus was defiling himself. After all, Zacchaeus worked for the Romans, the gentiles, so by his contact with them, he was defiled. A faithful Jew would never go into the home of such a person.
Some of you might remember having Catholic friends who were forbidden to enter your house because you were Lutheran. You could play outside together, but they couldn’t come into the house. Or you might remember that Peter was called before the elders of the church because he had entered into the house of the gentile Cornelius. It’s true, the Bible tells us to stay away from false teachers; but it never tells us to avoid those who have done something sinful. If that were the case you would have to avoid yourself. Jesus spoke out against and avoided those who promoted false teaching, but those same false teachers often grumbled against him and tried to discredit him for speaking with and eating with those they considered “sinners”.
I often wonder where we would stand on this issue if we had lived at that time. Are we more likely to stand with those who accused Jesus of hanging out with sinners, or are we more likely to stand with Jesus who was often seen talking and even eating with sinners? I wonder how often we shy away from “those people” and say, or think, “those people would never listen or come to church.” And, if they did, how would we treat them?
We learn why Jesus needed to go to the house of Zacchaeus that day. At some point during Jesus’ visit, 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.” Zacchaeus did what John the Baptist had called on the people to do. He produced fruit in keeping with repentance. He did something that showed where his heart was. He showed that his heart was not set on his wealth. He was willing to give a large portion of it away. And he demonstrated repentance for knowingly or unknowingly cheating anyone by willingly making restitution. Jesus didn’t require that he do these things, but he was so filled with thankfulness that Jesus would come to his house he was moved to do these things gladly and willingly. In Jesus he had found the peace he was looking for, the cure for his troubled conscience- he now saw who Jesus really is, the Savior who forgives sins and removes guilt.
Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.” I don’t think we can appreciate what an unprecedented statement this was. It would be like Jesus saying to Nancy Pelosi or Maxine Waters, “President Trump is my friend.” How could this chief tax collector, this traitor, who was despised by almost everyone, be considered a son of Abraham? How could Jesus say that he was saved! That’s what being a son of Abraham means.
As Paul reminds us, not all who are descendants of Abraham are considered children of Abraham by God. Only those who share the faith of Abraham are true children of Abraham. Jesus was saying that Zacchaeus believed God’s promise of a savior. He believed that he, Jesus, was the fulfillment of that promise. And through faith, righteousness was credited to him, just as it was to Abraham.
Jesus’ last statement teaches us what Christmas is all about. The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. He didn’t come to call the righteous, like those who were grumbling that he went into the house of a sinner. He came to call sinners, those who feel the weight of their sin, those who know they are in trouble with God and can’t help themselves; those who, like Zacchaeus, want to see Jesus because they are hoping against hope that he has the answer for their guilt. Jesus came to seek us out by becoming one of us. He pictures himself for us as the good shepherd who goes after even one lost sheep and doesn’t give up until he finds it. He came to save. He came to fulfill God’s law in our place. He came so that he could take on himself the punishment we deserve for our sins. He came to save the lost, and we are all, by nature, lost and condemned creatures.
If you want to truly celebrate Christmas, you don’t need gifts or a tree, or lights. You don’t have to get together with lots of family. If you truly want to celebrate Christmas, like Zacchaeus, recognize that you are a sinner who needs to be saved. Then, look in the manger and remember why Jesus came. He came to seek and to save the lost. He came to seek and to save you.