Last weekend i was stranded in Ireland as storm Ophelia hit the south coast. - the cancellations, the power cut, the candles, the guiness, the company, the stars. Disruption, danger for many - but for us it was like a gift, an unexpected pleasure, an extra day - when we could do nothing but enjoy each other’s company, amazing conversations… something that changed us a glimmer of grace…
Grace is a central idea of the Christian good news.
It describes a gift that is completely unearned, an unexpected, undeserved pleasure that comes into our lives and changes us forever.
It could waking up to a thick covering of snow on a Monday morning
Or - being given a free ticket to an international match where your country gets a result beyond your wildest dreams
Or - finding 20 quid in the pocket of the second hand Levis you just bought for a tenner!
There’s nothing like grace when it happens.
Undeserved. Unexpected. Bringing Joy
But all too often that world of grace is hidden to us. Life is hard and our so called ‘real world’ lives by different rules. Rules which from nursery school onwards we become well versed in:
Rules like: “People get what they deserve, nothing more, nothing less.”
“The early bird catches the worm.”
“There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”
“Earn your way.”
“You get what you pay for.”
“No pain, no gain.”
Do well – and you’ll be loved
Do badly – and you won’t
So life becomes like a constant audition.
I used to work as an actor. Auditions can be horrendous things:
“Mr Fouhy, please do it again with a Glaswegian accent. Thank you.. and this time… as an orangutang please. Thank you Mr Fouhy snigger snigger, we’ll let you know.
But if course this is not a joke. These rules of ungrace, coupled with the tragic brokenness of our world lead to much pain and unhappiness.
There’s Pride and self-absorption – because of the belief that unless i achieve i won’t be loved
There’s unforgiveness – because ‘she did badly and doesn’t deserve love’
There’s feeling of great inadequacy and worthlessness because ‘i can never do enough to be sure i am loved.’
There’s great insecurity and unreality – because ‘if i let people see what i’m really like they will never love me.’
We automatically assume God works to the same rules. God – holy and perfect – how can i possibly be good enough for God!!! why would i want to go to church – i feel bad enough as it is.
If Jesus were to walk in here tonight would we leap up to meet him or would we slide down in our seats praying that he won’t come anywhere near us.
But here’s the thing – these are our rules – not God’s. This is the world we have made, not God’s. God’s world is a world where grace happens..
God is not a director at an audition sitting back waiting to be impressed. Rather the Bible describes him as a loving husband, a compassionate father or a Shepherd who goes in search of lost sheep. The Bible’s claim is that God has risen from his throne – and entered our world, as a human being – Jesus of Nazareth. Far from sitting back God has coming looking for us. To do us good. To show us grace. Unearned, unexpected… saying whoever you are, no matter what you’ve done. No lectures, no cost i love you, i want to be with you. Grace ..
How do i know this?
Let me show you in the passage we had read for us
Here is Jesus entering the town of Jericho in Ist C Israel – crowds flocking to see him. Here is God walking in his world. Here is God come looking for us. And there are three things in the story
- a lost man
- a shocking surprise
- a changed life
- a lost man vv2-4
A man was there by the name of Zaccheus, he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy
Nobody likes the tax man. But believe me tax collectors in Jesus’ day were despised. For a start they were traitors – making money for Rome the occupying power. But more than that they were corrupt and brutal. As long as they paid their tribute to Rome they could collect as much tax as they liked, by whatever means they liked – torture, beatings. To be a success in the tax collecting business – you had to be prepared to resort to certain ‘techniques’ Zaccheus w’re told was both a chief tax collector and was wealthy.
For ten years i lived in King’s cross. We got to know through our church some of the girls who sold themselves on the streets – enslaved to their misery by the supply of crack drip fed to them by their pimps. I remember one of the pimps – his eyes were as hard as steel.
That was Zaccheus … a more lost and so called ‘God forsaken’ man you could not find.
And yet we’re told – he wanted to see who Jesus was. Zaccheus – chief taxcollector, wealthy – was looking for something. Perhaps he was looking for grace?
But Zaccheus had a problem – apparently the politically correct term is that Zaccheus was ‘vertically challenged.’ Look he was short – ok v3 he could not see because of the crowd. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. This was the perfect solution. He could watch from a safe distance. He could see but remain unseen among the lush leaves of the fig tree. That lost man.
But then – a shocking surprise
Think about the most shocking surprise you’ve ever received. Something unexpected that blew you away and gave you joy. Receiving your first bike at Christmas, A surprise party. Think about that.
But grace is the shock to end all. The surprise to end all surprises.
When Jesus reached the spot he looked up
Zaccheus – suddenly caught like a rabbit in the headlights of Jesus’ gaze..
The crowd – hundreds of people – askings – what’s he looking at? ‘i don’t know looks like there’s some kid in there, up the tree. And then Jesus speaks … a name …
Zaccheus.. one word and it sets off a buzz in the crowd. Can you imagine how Zaccheus feels? He thought he was going to watch from a safe distance – now he is the centre of attention. ‘How did he know i was here?’
Zaccheus… ‘How does he know my name?’
Zaccheus… The crowd is now hushed and straining, waiting with baited breath to see a traitor get what’s coming to him..
Zaccheus .. says Jesus come down immediately.. And then the words for which no-one was prepared, least of all Zaccheus, i must stay at your house today.
Why’s he want to stay at his house? The drug dealer’s mansion built on dirty blood money? Doesn’t he know who Zaccheus is? Where he’s been? The things he’s done? That’s what the crowds mutter don’t they in v7…?
Jesus says … Yeah i know him, i know everything about him and i still want to be with him.
Doesn’t he know that Zaccheus deserves to be despised?
Jesus says… No.. Zaccheus… i like him.
Shouldn’t Jesus summon Zaccheus to a meeting a week on Friday to discuss his failures? Jesus says, Zaccheus could i come to your house – now? back to yours?
Zaccheus must have nearly fallen out of his tree!
This term ‘stay at your house’ – complete acceptance – fellowship
Zaccheus doesn’t need much persuading, he responds, he embraces Jesus’ offer V6 He came down at once and welcomed Jesus gladly. We’ll come to Zaccheus’ response in v8 in a moment. It’s important to see that before Zaccheus did anything – Jesus fully accepted him. So in v9 Jesus proclaims Today salvation has come to this house. You are forgiven Zaccheus, acceptable, you have eternal life.
It’s a shocking surprise. God doesn’t play by the rules. He disregards our performance. He accepts people just as they are. And gives salvation as a gift.
BUT you exclaim. Zaccheus had done wrong. Yes he had. What kind of God is God if he doesn’t care about wrong? Do we just brush evil under the carpet and pretend? Surely God is just, surely some price must be paid? Well yes – it must.
But this is the thing – this is the gospel. There is a way.. There is a way that God can accept us just as we are and yet also demand a price paid for our wrongs. How? The answer the Bible gives us is God pays the price himself. V10 The son of man has come to seek and save the lost. God’s grace is not some grandfatherly display of ‘niceness’ for it cost the price of Jesus’ death on the cross. Grace is free because the giver has borne the cost.
I wonder if you knew God loves like this? Far from sliding into their seats, people painfully aware of their lostness were drawn to Jesus in great numbers – drawn by his acceptance, drawn by his grace.
I wonder if you knew God loves you like this? irrespective of your performance, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve done. Your creator knows you by name, he loves you as you are and offers you salvation as a gift. And the Lord Jesus Christ – the great shepherd of the sheep calls you by name now. Hear him speaking your name – You … come immediately, i must stay at your house today.
Hear his call and go to him – receive the gift of forgiveness and life and begin to be transformed by the security and power of his grace.
That’s our final thing..
A lost man, a shocking surprise
And finally a changed life…
V8 Zaccheus 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.
When we encounter the grace of God – we are changed.
This is not Zaccheus trying to earn salvation. Remember the order here. God always disregards our performance it can never be enough. No the change comes after Jesus has chosen to be with Zaccheus. The change is the evidence that salvation has already come to this house.
And what a change!… The Bible that Zaccheus had – the Torah – jewish Law said that you had to give away 10% of your income to charity Zaccheus says i want to give 50. The Law said that if you’d cheated someone - pay back the amount you cheated plus 20% (Numbers 5) but Zaccheus says i’m gonna give back 400%. Zaccheus is responding to grace with his money. See Zaccheus is rich he knows he can put things more than right – he knows he can give and so he does. See the grace of God – the sacrificial and generous love of Jesus Christ has gone through Zaccheus like a lightening bolt. Zaccheus says Look Lord! You see the emotion in that? Look Lord because you love me i want to change. The gospel has begun to send him on an adventure
Jesus doesn’t demand that we change before he will accept us. No he calls us as we are by his grace, in the knowledge that that grace will change us into the people we are meant to be.
Radical disciples who are free to die to self, love our enemies, risk all for our neighbours, and give away our money with lavish generosity.
It is the dynamic of Jesus’ gracious, undying, secure love for us which keeps changing and changing and changing us, bit by bit, week by week..
Grace will always really change you
This is true in my experience, it will be in yours – that time and again when i’m trapped in my bitterness and sinful behaviour, thinking the whole world is against me. God surprises me again with his love.
And that love – unearned, unexpected - fills me with a thankfulness and joy that turns me away from selfishness and helps me to grow…
Grace will always really change you