November 3, 2019
Tomorrow, with another Halloween safely behind us, but days of temptation, followed by giving in and guilt ahead of us, as that left-over Halloween booty seems never to disappear, we move into that wonderful time of year we’ve all been waiting for. A season that will bring millions of people together, listening to familiar songs, sharing similar memories and experiences, all of them voicing those two words so identified with this time of year all across America. If you’re sitting in your pew about now thinking something like, “Oh, he’s talking about ‘Merry Christmas’” . . . think again! The two words are also not that pale, generic, politically correct, let’s not offend anyone greeting: “Happy Holidays.” No, because if we’re thinking it’s the Christmas season, we’d be jumping the gun by about 51 days, since the church’s Christmas season begins on Christmas Eve at midnight and ends 12 days later on Epiphany, January 6, with Christmas Eve being the only day that brings millions of people into our nation’s churches, over half of whom won’t be seen again until Easter Sunday. The remaining 12 days of Christmas are pretty much of a non-event, with the Sunday after Christmas vying every year with the Sunday after Easter as the lowest attended service of the year.
No, the season I was referring to that is about to kick-off in earnest at those malls of worship across America is the “Retail Christmas” season—a period of frenzied shopping that, when I was growing up, used to begin on the Friday after Thanksgiving, known affectionately to retail America as Black Friday because sales on that day put many businesses “in the black.” Of course in recent years, with retailers perhaps believing that just the words Black Friday contain some kind of Harry Potter magic—we’ve seen that incantation popping up in summer sales as well. But those nostalgic memories of the real Black Friday launching the retail Christmas season are long gone. Now it starts around Halloween. I actually spotted Christmas trees at Walmart several weeks ago—and I’m sure they were not alone. Far from being a sacred day to mark the entry of our creator God into our world as a babe in a manger, the retail Christmas season has pretty much evolved into a non-government bail-out for America’s retailers.
What’s interesting though is that this retail Christmas season has created its own traditions and rituals that are also strictly observed and one which concerns those two words I spoke of that are not Merry Christmas. We’ve all both heard and said them . . . and will again soon. A salesperson approaches, hovers over your shoulder while asking, “May I help you find a size?” And the responses? “Just looking.” “You know we have a 25% markdown on all of our sweaters!” “Just looking.” “Have you seen our new line of”—well, fill in the blanks! “Just looking!”
When we think about it, there’s an awful lot packed into those two words that, if the salesperson was not just hearing, but really listening, he or she might figure out. Such as: “I know you’re just doing your job, but while I may be interested, I’m just not ready yet to commit. I don’t want to be pressured into a decision, so please just keep your distance.”
While Jericho in the 1st century may seem far removed from Nordstroms or Bloomingdales in the 21st century, isn’t that pretty much the same message that Zacchaeus, our little tax collector up in the tree, is sending to Jesus in our Gospel story? “He was trying to see who Jesus was,” we read in verse 3. Based upon these words and where Zacchaeus was, it seems pretty clear that Zacchaeus wasn’t ready to meet or to get close to Jesus, didn’t want to touch Jesus. All he wanted was to catch a glimpse of Jesus from a safe distance through the branches of the sycamore tree. “Just looking, thank you very much,” is the message Zacchaeus is sending to Jesus.
But this is not some department store clerk, easily put off. This is Jesus! King of kings and Lord of Lords. The Alpha and the Omega. The first and the last; and He’s not about to be put off by Zacchaeus or any one else with a “Just looking,” whether those two words come from our lips; or whether they’re projected by an attitude—like someone perched in an actual or a metaphorical tree, safely observing Jesus and life from a place of safety and non-involvement.
Because Zacchaeus clearly seems to believe he’s actually safe up there in his sycamore tree, high above it all, observing life as it passes him by. Little does he know, as he looks down from his perch, that the very “one who came to seek out and to save the lost” as today’s Gospel puts it, is already looking for him. Suddenly—in a moment of stunning revelation--this little man in the tree seems a bit familiar to us, doesn’t he? Why? Because, admit it or not, we’ve all been up in that tree with him. Times in our lives—maybe even as you sit here today when it seems a lot safer, even attractive, to just climb up a tree of sorts and watch the world go by, as a spectator rather than on the ground as a participant, struggling with some issue in our life.
Some years ago singer John Mayer had a hit song that speaks precisely to this common affliction. It’s called “Waiting on the World to Change.” If we’re being honest with ourselves, at one time or another, we’ve all been the person described in these lyrics: “Now we see everything that’s going wrong with the world and all those who lead it; we just feel like we don’t have the means to rise above and beat it. So we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change.” It’s hard to beat the system when we’re standing at a distance, but we keep on waiting, waiting on the world to change!
How different might our world be today if more of us had found the courage to come down from our observation posts of safety and security to help Jesus change the world into His image. For example, if Zacchaeus had said to Jesus, “Just looking,” and had stayed up there, imagine how many would never have received the fruits of his repentance. Because when he does come down, he tells Jesus that he will give half of his possessions to the poor and return to anyone he has defrauded four times what he’d obtained by his fraud as a tax collector. Since we find out in verse three that Zacchaeus was rich, this was not just an idle promise. It was common for the Jews who worked for the Romans to overcharge their own people and skim large amounts for themselves. So in coming down from the safety of his tree to see Jesus and make those promises, he took a great risk by making an even greater commitment.
His reward was one that can come only from God. “Today,” said Jesus, “today salvation has come to this house.” Have you ever noticed that “Today” is a very significant word throughout the Gospels? To the thief next to Him on the cross, Jesus says, “Today, you will be with me in Paradise.” In His first sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth, He tells the congregation that “Today the scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And on Christmas eve, the angel tells the shepherds in the field, “Today, in the city of David, a savior has been born to you.” And let’s not forget, “Give us today our daily bread.”
Why is that? I suggest that it’s a crucial message to all those perched in trees of their own creation along the roadsides of life or in the lives of their churches, offering a polite, “Just looking,” to any offers of a deeper and more sacrificial commitment to Christ and His church. Is “today” perhaps a reminder to us all that while God did gift us with free will, He also gave us finite life spans within which to exercise that free will. One way we exercise it is by saying “Yes,” “no,” or maybe “Just looking” to His daily offers of salvation and His invitation to come down from our trees of passive Christianity—while there’s still time.
Today conveys to each one of us a sense of urgency, reminding us that while God’s grace, mercy, and patience may be infinite, our lives are not. So it is that Jesus’ call to Zacchaeus to “hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today,” is meant for everyone who finds themselves, to paraphrase John Mayer’s lines, standing “at a distance, waiting for the church and the world to change.” For everyone who nods politely to God and says, “Just looking,” God’s response may well be these words, attributed to painter Pablo Picasso, “Only put off until tomorrow those things you are prepared to die having left undone.”
Zacchaeus come out of the tree and found his life forever changed. Now he could see people in need, whereas before he saw only people he could use—and they were the same people! That’s only part of what happens when we come down from our trees of non-involvement and safety, allowing Jesus to touch us. Instead of just observing, Jesus allows us to really see the world and its people through His eyes, enabling us to see real people with real needs and real ways to get involved in the work of ministry; to see that real change never happens from a distance. What we may do or what we may give—if doing is not an option in our lives—doesn’t matter. Time and time again when Jesus gets us out of those trees, we ripen into generous givers and into doers, not takers and slackers; into workers, not watchers; into disciples and apostles who will spend the rest of their lives serving, not just observing.
Again if we’re being honest, we are all up in a tree to one degree or another when it comes to Jesus. The only real variable is how far up and how many leaves and branches are obscuring our vision. To each one of us, says Jesus, as he did so long ago to Zacchaeus, “Come down here, for today I must come to your house.” And, before we let those two shopping season words, “Just looking,” pass our lips, allow me to send you home with these words from Mother, now Saint, Teresa of Calcutta, “Today someone is suffering. Today someone is hungry. Our work is for today; yesterday has gone. Tomorrow has not yet come. Today we have only today to make Jesus known. Only today to make a difference.”
Wherever you find yourself as you sit here today, perhaps in your own tree, as Jesus passes by, whatever branch you may be perched on in terms of sacrifice, service, and giving--today, when Jesus beckons, may this scripture be fulfilled in your life.