8 You are saved by God’s grace because of your faith. This salvation is God’s gift. It’s not something you possessed. 9 It’s not something you did that you can be proud of. (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Last Sunday we saw a video of complication of wedding proposals. When I was studying at the seminary in Evanston, one day I was walking by the lake with my friends. My seminary is sharing its campus with Northwestern University and there is a lakeshore in the campus. We were walking by the lakeshore that day. That was a beautiful spring day with breeze and warm sunshine. SO there were many people by the lake, walking or laying on the grass. Just a beautiful, relaxing day. On my walk, I saw a couple sitting in a bench by the lake side. They must be students of Northwestern University because the guy was putting the university t-shirt on. The guy soon stood up, knelt before his girl friend, and opened a small box to her. Yes, he was proposing to her for wedding. Everyone who was around there stopped walking and saw that beautiful moment. I also stood there and watch them. People around the couple were so excited to see that moment so we were shouting at them for encouragement and support. It was really fun to watch. We were all expecting to hear the girl’s yes.
But you know what? The girl just took off at the moment he showed the ring to her. She didn’t just take off. She literally jumped out of the bench and ran off. Soon there were the guy with the ring and us, the bystanders. It was so awkward. The guy seems not know what to do, and we who were shouting at the couple really didn’t know what to do either. That was terrible.
But you know what? A could of years later, they, the couple was on the newspaper of Northwestern University because they were getting married a couple of years later! They were on the newspaper because they were notorious for a while because of the failed wedding proposal on campus. But only God knows. A couple of years later, the girl finally said yes and they looked so happy in their picture in the newspaper. I think it was written in the newspaper how they got back together again, but I don’t remember. Anyway, isn’t that interesting?
I think this couple’s case tells us that we can say “yes” to God instantly when God asks us to accept God, or we can say “yes” a little more slowly. There are people who say “yes” in a moment and become a follower of Jesus, and there are people who say “yes” to God over several seasons or even years. I am the case of the former case. I was not a follower of Christ when the second day of the youth camp started, but I became a follower of Christ when the second day of the camp ended. People call it a ‘light switch’ experience. And the later case, we call it a “dimmer switch” experience because like a dimmer switch slowly increase the brightness of a light, they slowly get to know Jesus and become a Christian over months or even years. In the book, grace-filled church, a survey says about 80 percent of Christians expirence a “dimmer switch” season while about 20 percent say they have had a “light switch” moment. Here is the deal. It doesn’t matter how and when we respond to God’s proposal of grace on our lives. What matters is that we respond! Right now God is asking us to have a relationship with God by simply saying “yes!” To God’s love in this moment or season of life. The most important thing is God’s grace is available “even now” to us. God looks forward to the day or season in your life when you will say “yes” to this proposal. A couple of weeks ago we read this Bible verse, but let’s read this again. (slide 1) “For God says, ‘At just the right time, I heard you. On the day of salvation, I helped you.’ Indeed, the right time is now. Today is the day of salvation.”
I have heard so many times that people have told that “Well, he or she doesn’t go to church, but he or she is a good person.”Or, when people talk about their relationship with God, so many people have told me that “Well, I try to be a good person…” Yes, that is a good thing. There are many good people out there, and it is a good thing that we try to be a good person. However, when we are talking about having a relationship with the holy, amazing God, our ‘goodness’ does not and cannot make the gap.
I like Pastor Bill Hybels. I think he is a real pastor who has a big heart for Christ and people. He was the senior pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, but now is retired. Hybels once shared a interesting illustration in his message about the goodness ladder. The goodness ladder is that we humans tend to grade ourselves on a goodness scale by saying, “I am better than so and so” or “I am worse than such and such.” For instance, we tend to think like “I am a better Christian than Pastor Sophia” or “I am a better cook than Sophia, but worse than Eva or Pat.”
Imagine this, there is a huge ladder representing a scale of goodness from absolutely, perfectly good at the top to absolutely, perfectly evil at the bottom. Of course, God is at the top of the ladder as the one who is perfectly good. Then, now here is the question. Where do you and I fit on this goodness ladder? When it comes to our goodness, where are we on the scale from perfect goodness to absolute wickedness? Let’s put a couple of people on the scale. Let’s put Mother Teressa on the scale. She was probably one of the most kind, loving, benevolent person in the world, wasn’t she? But in her journals she said she struggled with her lack of faith. She was suffered from her doubt and fear as all of us do. So we know she was not perfectly good. But still she could be somewhere at the top part of the scale, right?
So let me ask the question again. Where do you and I fit on this goodness ladder? Are we 60 percent good? Fifty or forty percent good? We would probably say, we are not sure, but at least we fall somewhere below Mother Teresa. This goodness ladder tells us the fallacy of trying to be good before God. When it comes to the issue of goodness, we all fall short. Paul had it right when he said this. Let’s read it out loud. (slide2) “For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.”(Romans 3:23) This is why we are not just grateful for grace; we are counting on grace!
So, instead of us trying to climb “the goodness ladder” to be in a relationship with God, here’s what God does. God Godself came down on earth. God sent Jesus down from heaven, down “the ladder” to meet with us just as we are. Heaven has come to us. God has come down to rescue all people everywhere in every time who are made in God’s image. God’s rescue mission is evident in Jesus’ ministry. In the Gospel of Luke here is a story of a man who spent his life climbing ladders until he found Jesus Christ. Let’s read Luke 19:1-3 together. (slide 3) “Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through. 2 A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. 3 He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.” (Luke 19:1-3) In the four Gospels, tax collectors are always named as one of the notorious sinners because tax collectors extorted Jewish people as much as they could. Jewish people hated tax collectors, and Zacchaeus is a chief tax collector. He is a top sinner. Somehow Zacchaeus, a very wealthy man, got the news Jesus was passing through his town of Jericho, and something about Jesus drew him to him. He didn’t know it, but it was God’s prevenient grace inviting him to Jesus, “even there” grace at work.
In Zacchaeus’ story, we will see three things that God wants to give us through God’s justifying grace. (slide 4). Let’s read it out loud. First, God wants to give us friendship. Friendships are important, right? And Zacchaeus also needed a friend who could support him, understand him, and be there for him like we do. Remember, Zacchaeus could have been a hated, despised man. I am sure when he walked by others, he was called a lot of names. People would have called him by disrespectful nicknames because they despised him. And I got the sense that he was a lonely man. When Jesus saw him, he was alone atop a tree. Look at what happened next. (slide 5) 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree beside the road, for Jesus was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came by, he looked up at Zacchaeus and called him by name. “Zacchaeus!” he said. “Quick, come down! I must be a guest in your home today.” (slide 6) 6 Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. 7 But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled. (slide 7) 8 Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” 9 Jesus responded, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. (Luke 19:4-9)
There are two wonderful things happened here. First of all, Jesus called Zacchaeus by name. We don’t know how Jesus knew his name. Maybe he was so notorious that Jesus had heard about him. We don’t know. But Jesus called him by his name. John 10:3 says, “He calls his own sheep by name.” It must be something. Among the huge crowd that was welcoming Jesus into Jericho, Jesus shouted Zacchaeus, the notorious tax collector’s name. Jesus called the name of the person who was despised by all the town! Another amazing thing happened for Zacchaeus when Jesus said to him, “I must be a guest in your home today.” Sharing a meal together was a big deal in this time and culture Again Jesus said this when he was with all the huge crowd so that everyone in town could hear him saying this. Zacchaus was short on friends until Jesus befriended him. Of all the homes in town, Jesus was coming to Zacchaeus’ home!
Second, let’s read this together. (slide 7) 2. Jesus wants to give us forgiveness. Like I said, Zacchaeus was tax collector. Not just one of the tax collectors, he was a chief tax collectors! Tax collectors in Israel this time were usually Jews who collected taxes for Rome and the tax collectors were to keep fractions for themselves. And he was a wealthy man. How could he collect that wealth? Probably he accumulated wealth by extorting money from Jewish people. So the bottom line for Zacchaues was this: he has a lot to be forgiven of! That is why Luke 19:6-7 says, (slide 9) “6 Zacchaeus quickly climbed down and took Jesus to his house in great excitement and joy. 7 But the people were displeased. “He has gone to be the guest of a notorious sinner,” they grumbled.” Jesus made himself the guest at the home of a notorious sinner, and that is very good news for us. Perhaps we are thinking, “I’m not a notorious sinner.” I get that. When I read this passage, I thought just like that. Yet remember the goodness ladder. The standard for comparison is not with Zaccheus but with Jesus. Let’s compare ourselves, myself to Jesus. Then, we realize that we are a wretched sinner. I think 1 Corinthians 13, which is known as the love chapter, well describes who Jesus is. I put 1 Corinthians 13 on the screen. And I’d like to invite you to read it with me. When you read it out loud, please replace love with your name. (slide 10)Sophia is patient. Sophia is kind. Sophia does not envy or boast and is proud. Sophia is not self-seeking, not easily angered, and keeps no record of wrongs. Sophia does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth. (slide 11) Sophia always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Sophia never fails. After I wrote this, and I read each line, and I could hardly agree with every sentence that I wrote. The truth is that, compared to the Lord’s character, I am not patient or kind. I tend to envy, be boastful and proud. I am self-seeking and easily angered. I really enjoy keeping records of wrong things. Compared to God’s character, I delight in evils and do not rejoice in truth. Compared to God, I am a notorious sinner. Apostle Paul once called himself in one of his letters “the chief of sinners.” I believe that Paul compared himself not to others, but to God. We are notorious sinners, and by ourselves, we can do nothing! But you know what? Even though we cannot come to find God’s grace, God’s grace finds us “even now.” “Even now” in the midst of our sins, God can come to find us, rescue us, save us and justify us through the blood of Jesus Christ. That is what happens when we say yes to Jesus’ proposal for us. When we say “yes” to God’s love proposal, the gift of salvation is applied to our sins and our lives, and we become justified. That means when God looks at you and me, covered by the blood of Jesus that has power to wash away sin. God does not see our sins. God looks at us just as if we had never sinned.
(slide 12) can we read this together? “Jesus wants to give us a future. Short on friends and short on forgiveness. Zacchaus didn’t have any hope or purpose for his life. Zacchaeus was also short on a future. His life was meaningless, lonely and shameful. But the one encounter with Jesus changed all of that. As Jesus entered his home and his life, purpose exploded in Zacchaeus’ empty soul. (slide 13) 8 Meanwhile, Zacchaeus stood before the Lord and said, “I will give half my wealth to the poor, Lord, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much!” (Luke 19:8) Jesus’ presence in his life suddenly gave him purpose of life and generosity for others. By friendship and forgiveness that Jesus offered, Zacchaeus totally changed, and his future is totally changed as well. When Jesus claims us as a friend and forgive our sins, he also calls us to a life that matters into eternity. We accept God’s offer to a future with joy-filled meaning simply by saying “yes!” Like the couple that I mentioned at the beginning of today’s message, the time for each and everyone of us is different. It could be right now, or it could be some years later. But what matters is this: we need to say “yes” to God’s proposal and have a relationship with God. Thanks be to God! Amen.