November 3, 2013

To Seek Out and to Save the Lost

Passage: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4, Psalm 119:137-144, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
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Then Jesus said to him, ‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’


In April of this year The New York Times reported on "a proliferation of psychology smartphone apps”—with names like Breakkup, iStress and myinstantCoach—that purport to help us live happier, less anxious lives. One of these apps is called the Fix-a-Fight app.  According to this apps' website, “Fix a Fight guides you through steps to help you and your partner make quality repairs to relationship wounds. Guided by the soothing and informative voice of marital therapist Mark McGonigle, you can get back to where you want to be with each other.”  (I have a little advice for husbands. Don’t download this app without first consulting your spouse. If you do, it will create the occasion to check the effectiveness of the Fix-a-Fight app.)

The proliferation of such apps is another indication of what humanity has long known.  We ache for relationships with each other yet find such relationships difficult.  Why is it that marriages apparently made in heaven end not far from hell?  As N.T. Wright observed: “Although to couples in the first flush of romance the very thought of each other adds a whole glorious new dimension to the lives, statistics suggest that, unless they know how to navigate the road that lies ahead, they may soon be yelling and sobbing and calling the divorce lawyers.” (Simply Christian, p. 29)

Somehow we humans know we were made for each other.  Yet making relationships work, let alone making them flourish, is often remarkably difficult. Wright’s proposal is “that the whole area of human relationships forms another “echo of a voice”—an echo which we can ignore if we choose to do so, but which is loud enough to get through the defences of a good many people within the supposedly modern secular world. Or, if you prefer, human relationships are another signpost pointing away into a mist, tells us there is a road ahead which leads somewhere we might want to go.  Just as we all know that justice matters, yet slips through our fingers we know that we are social creatures made for relationships that also slips through our fingers.  The voice we hear echoing in our heads and our hearts keep reminding us of this paradox, and it’s worth pondering why.

1. Jesus entered Jericho—he is on his way to Jerusalem.  Like many towns Jesus enters he attracts people; they are drawn to him, and they do approach him.  They want to move closer, but not too close for comfort.  They are attracted to him at the same time that they are wary of him.

Zacchaeus was like this.  He had heard much about Jesus, was intrigued by what he had heard and decided he had to check Jesus out for himself.  He found a curious crowd in Jericho that was waiting for Jesus, and joined it.  Now Luke tells us that Zacchaeus was a short man.  Then why didn’t he stand at the front of the crowd if he wanted to see Jesus?  If he stood at the front of the crowd then all the adults taller than he, standing behind him, would be looking at him.  He would feel their eyes boring holes in the back of his head.  After all, no one liked Zacchaeus, and he knew it.  He was a tax collector, commissioned by the hated Roman occupation.  This alone was enough to make him resented.  Worse, however, he defrauded people even as he collected money from them on behalf of the government.  The last thing Zacchaeus wanted was to put himself on display in a crowd.  Yes, he wanted to see Jesus, but he didn’t want to be seen seeing Jesus.  And so he climbed a tree.  The tree-perch was perfect.  The tree-perch would let him see Jesus even as it protected him from the crowd.  Even more important, the tree-perch would allow him to see Jesus without being seen by Jesus.

I invite you to reflect with me on this story of Jesus through the lens of this relationship question.  We know ourselves to be made for relationship yet find them difficult.  Consider Zacchaeus.  He was the chief tax collector and was rich.  Tax collectors purchased the right to collect taxes for Rome and profit from them.  Herod has a palace at Jericho and it was a busy place; as “chief” tax collector Zacchaeus has developed an organization of people who work for him.  He has lots of connections with people but is isolated from them; he has plenty of “relationships” but they exist in what they will do for him.  The pursuit of wealth has this way of turning a person in on themselves: Zacchaeus has learned how to take care of number one; in the process he becomes a lonely man.

He is also alienated from God.  The religious people hate him.  Their disdain and his own selfishness are enough to turn even the most persistent from ever joining in temple worship.

Notice the Jesus came looking for him.  Only one thing brings Zacchaeus out of the tree: our Lord’s insistence that he’s going to the little man’s home; our Lord’s insistence that they’re going to share a meal. In first-century Palestine eating with someone was the sign of intimacy, the sign of agenda-free friendship.  To eat with someone meant that you embraced that person without reservation; you cherished him without hesitation; you received him without qualification.  “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”  It is God who comes to us to restore relationship with him.

The order of relationship renewal in the story is important.  First Jesus turns us to himself; we were created for relationship with God. This is the primary relationship.  Zacchaeus finds in Jesus that God has an open hand and ready welcome.  He wants to come to your house.  But secondly Jesus turns Zacchaeus towards others.  Notice that he is freed from the grip his wealth held over him.  “Half of my possessions I will give to the poor.”  And suddenly Zacchaeus cares about the people he has defrauded/harmed.  “If I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” People may be slow to trust Zacchaeus; what a difference though to meet a tax collector who actually cares about how you are doing.   Jesus turns us first away from ourselves to himself and then towards one another.

In my days as a consultant I had a wonderful Christian mentor.  He once gave me this advice: “Jim, your objective is to work for ten of your friends.”  What he meant was that if I cultivated relationships with people—care about them, who they are, and the success of their enterprise—the work I needed would take care of itself.  He was right.

The gospel answers our question about relationships by saying you were made for this; first relationship with God which relationship lifts and orders all others.

2.  Jesus entered Jericho.  Jericho is the oldest known city on earth.  Jericho is at the north end of Dead Sea and is 853 feet below sea level which makes it the lowest on earth.  It is a beautiful place; its weather is tropical and yet within a short distance (less than 10 kilometers) you can be in the cool of mountains overlooking the plain of Jericho.  Like many of people’s favourite places there is beauty that attracts.

Zacchaeus climbed into a sycamore tree.  Is the tree merely backdrop to the story?  The sycamore in Jericho was a sycamore fig tree; rather like an oak tree and easy to climb.  It is hard for me to imagine a better spot to watch a parade of people go by than Zacchaeus’s perch.  Sitting on wide branch leaning against the great trunk of the tree in the shade of its leaves on a sun drenched day. (I would have grabbed a Starbucks coffee to sip on a I sat and watched.)

The beauty of the earth is everywhere in this story; it so much part of the landscape that we look right past it.  N.T. Wright identifies beauty as another echo of a voice. (Simply Christian, p. 39-51)  He offers us a parable of a collector, rummaging through an attic in a small Austrian town, who comes across a faded manuscript containing many pages of music.  It is written for piano.  The handwriting looks like that of Mozart. Before long, someone is sitting at a piano and the music sounds like something the composer would have written.  The truth gradually dawns that it is the work of Mozart.  It is beautiful.  But it’s the piano piece of a work that involves other instruments.  By itself it is frustratingly incomplete.

This is the position we are in when confronted by beauty.  The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete.  Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole.

Beauty, like relationships, slips through our fingers.  You photograph the sunset, but all we get is the memory of the moment, not the moment itself.  One summer holiday Valerie and I drove around the Gaspe Peninsula (Quebec).  Nearby the town of Gaspe we visited the studio of an artist named John Wisemen.  He had a wonderful painting that captured the scene of a place I had stood a couple of hours earlier.  Standing in this place on a hill overlooking Gaspe below to your left was the town along the coast, in front of you was the church that overlooked the town, and to your right a little further up the hill was the cemetery, and off in the distance was Percé rock framed against the blue waters of the Gulf of the St. Lawrence.  A scene of the church standing between life and death.  Mr. Wiseman told me that this painting represented about six months of his life to complete.  I learned from him that to get such exquisite detail in a painting he had to paint it at the sight; no photograph will ever capture every detail of a scene—digital, high definition or otherwise.  And while I loved that painting and it had a beauty all of its own, it still couldn’t reproduce the experience of standing on that hillside taking in the scene.

Why are things “beautiful” to us?  It is simply conditioning?  If you look at art from other cultures you will find pictures, in paintings and sculpture, of women whose contemporaries obviously thought extremely beautiful.  Why do people find other people attractive?  Is it simply a function of sexual drive?  Not only does beauty slip through our fingers but in our pursuit of beauty we are destructive of beauty.  A song by Bebo Norman titled Britney describes it this way: “Britney, I'm sorry for the lies we told / We took you into our arms, then left you cold / Britney, I'm sorry for this cruel, cruel world / We sell the beauty but destroy the girl.”

Have you ever wondered why beauty is so powerful—whether in the natural order or the human creature—that it evokes our deepest feelings of awe, attraction, wonder, gratitude, and reverence?  Even though people disagree about which things evoke such feelings and why, where does this sense of beauty come from?  Is it, as some say, merely all in the mind, or the imagination, or the genes?

Research in the field of bioacoustics has revealed that every day we are surrounded by millions of ultrasonic songs. Did you know, for instance, that the electron shell of the carbon atom produces the same harmonic scale as the Gregorian chant? Or that whale songs can travel thousands of miles underwater? Or that meadowlarks have a range of three hundred notes? Arnold Summerfield, the German physicist and pianist, observed that a single hydrogen atom, which emits one hundred frequencies, is more musical than a grand piano, which only emits eighty-eight frequencies.

“Beauty”, writes N. T. Wright, “Is another echo of a voice—a voice which might be saying  one of several different things, but which, were we to hear it in all its fullness, would make sense of what we presently see and hear and know and love and call “beautiful.”


The gospel tells us that God comes into this world in Jesus of Nazareth to seek out and save the lost. We discover in Jesus, that this One who comes to save us from the puzzles and predicaments of life is also our creator.  The very fact that God visits his creation himself tells us that God thinks the world is worthy of restoration.  Jesus’s visit to Jericho is an instance of his coming among us.

At the end of our Lord’s encounter with Zacchaeus Jesus exclaims, “Salvation has come to this house.”  And so it has.  Most people are rather vague about the meaning of “salvation.”  It’s really quite simple.  Salvation is simply a creaturely good, damaged and devastated by sin, restored at God’s hand.  Ultimately salvation is the entire creation restored.  As far as Zacchaeus is concerned, salvation is one particular creature restored: Zacchaeus.

‘Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.’