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LEARNING FROM LUKE: Little Man Lost
For all thirty-five years of my ordained ministry, I have taught Elder Training to those elected by the congregation to serve. To begin each session, I ask each person to divide up his or her life into three parts, and to think about their awareness of God in any number of events: growing up, going to church, going to school, moving to a new neighborhood, perhaps being baptized as an adult or going through confirmation. If they were married, I ask about their thoughts about your God at their wedding, and if they divorced, were they feeling close to God, or far away then? And what about during an illness or an accident, and even the death for family or friends? I ask them to describe if they felt like God was close by or was far away; if they still believed in God or if their belief wavered or went away.
These are called “Faith Stories” and they are most helpful to formulate and put down on paper. You might even do it yourself so your children or other relatives know. I have found that, “the more you tell your story, the more you’ll have a story to tell.” Without my assignment, many say: “I don’t have a faith story.” But you do! You just need a reason to write or tell your story. Further, I ask those I am training, as I ask you now, if you can name when you turned to Christ from some other path. A number of those I trained said: “It’s hard to tell. I grew up in the church, felt loved and welcomed, and always felt like Jesus was with me.” There are plenty of people with that kind of experience. But at some point, if you joined the church, you declared: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior!” That is your first day of real Christianity. Before you might have been in a Christian family, but Jesus was always waiting to hear from you: “Who do you say that I am?” And he hopes to hear from you, “You are Jesus, my Lord and Savior.” I remember when I first said that. I was thirteen years old in April of 1969. My parents wanted me to answer baptism questions at “an age of understanding,” so the day I claimed Jesus as my Savior was the day I was baptized at the end of my “Communicants Class.” But there are others, who I’ve trained as elders, and others here today, who had a kind of awakening; a “born again” experience. Some said that before that time of decision they were living oblivious to God, or in conflict with God, or even in open rebellion against God. Some of those people were incarcerated; some got addicted to alcohol or drugs, and some were violent. And others were just non-believers. Then one day they met the Lord, and salvation came to their house that day! Some can tell me the exact day when their life changed, when they turned their old willful life over to Christ.
There are examples of both kinds of transformations in history. Some are transformed into Christians over time; and some are changed “in the twinkling of an eye.” Timothy in the Bible is an example of one transformed over time. His mother and grandmother were believers in God and had great influence over him. They were faithful Jews just at the time when the story of Jesus began to be shared. Paul said this to young Timothy: “I am reminded of your sincere faith, a faith that lived first in your grandmother Lois, and your mother Eunice and now, I am sure, lives in you. [2 Timothy 1:5] Paul, on the other hand, found Christ suddenly. He was a rabid persecutor of Christians, actually giving the order to execute one called Stephen. Paul’s name was Saul in those days. But then one day, (in Acts chapter 9), the Lord Jesus appeared to Saul in a “light from heaven,” and Saul fell to the ground. He heard a voice ask: “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” From that confrontation, Saul began to change. Astoundingly, instead of persecuting Jesus, he began to call him “Lord.” He was baptized in Jesus’ name, and in one synagogue he visited he began to proclaim: “He is the Son of God.” That’s perhaps the most famous conversion story. But there are others. Did you realize that the Luke passage for today is another conversion story? Zacchaeus was curious about Jesus, but he was mostly a scorned tax collector. The public believed he took their money and kept huge amounts for himself, so he was most unpopular. And even though history has shown that people were, on average, shorter centuries ago than they are today, Zacchaeus was much shorter. The Bible says he was “short in stature.” The song I learned as a child declared that: “Zacchaeus was a wee little man and a wee little man was he!” Hmm. Sounds like that was written by a Scotsman! Anyway, the real point of the story is lost on children, and on adults who last went to Sunday School as a child. This is another salvation story. It’s the story of a man who was lost, but then was found. Jesus told the little man that climbed up in that sycamore tree: “come on down! For I’m going to your house today!” Did Zacchaeus wonder if his house was presentable for guests? Did he stumble down the tree and say “No Jesus, maybe another time?” No. The Bible says “He hurried down and was happy to welcome him!” Something amazing was about to happen! Even so, the crowd grumbled, because they had, rightly or wrongly, named Zacchaeus a “sinner.” But right before their eyes the man who was called a “sinner” started giving away his money! All of a sudden, Zacchaeus was everyone’s new best friend! “Zach! Zach! You are my new best friend!” I can imagine someone saying. Sinner or not, he was giving away money! Isn’t it amazing how easily they, and we, can be bought? But there was more to it than that. As Zacchaeus started giving away half of his money, Jesus declared: “Today salvation has come to this house!” Did you hear that? He didn’t say justice was done, or the poor are getting money. That wasn’t what Jesus saw. He saw Zacchaeus’ heart change, and that change, that desire to follow and honor Jesus, saved him. It saves everyone. The desire, and then the decision, to follow Jesus, saves others besides that “wee little man.” It saved me; it saved our elders and church members. And perhaps it saved you too!
There are so many salvation stories and no two are alike. Listen to this account from the Rev. Billy Graham. Today he is weak and frail, but in his prime he saved so many souls for Christ! In his sermon called “Saved or Lost?” he declared:
John Newton wrote the song “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, the saved a wretch like me.” Do you know how John Newton was converted? He was converted because he was scared to death in a thunderstorm at sea. Do you know how Martin Luther [the great Reformer] came to Christ? Martin Luther was converted in a thunderstorm….There are a lot of people who think they have to go back and straighten up their lives and change themselves in some way, change their situations, and then they can come to Christ. No, you come just as you are, and it is so simple that millions stumble over it. You don’t have to straighten out your life first. You don’t have to make things right at home or in your business first. You don’t have to try to give up some habit that is keeping you from God. You can come as you are. The blind man came as he was; the leper came as he was; Mary Magdalene with seven devils came as she was; the thief on the cross came as he was. [20 Centuries of Great Preaching, Volume 12, Word Publishing, 1971, p. 308]
You may recall that when Paul was in Philippi, “A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and was a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul.” [Acts 16] And she was baptized. Later in chapter 16, Paul and his colleague Silas were imprisoned because they sent demons out of a possessed woman, and the one controlling the woman could no longer make money off of her fortunetelling. So he reported Paul and Silas to the authorities and they were arrested. While in prison, about midnight, they began to sing hymns to God! Then a great earthquake violently shook the prison, and the doors broke loose and flew open! And chains became unfettered. Did you know that jailers who had prisoners escape on their watch in those days were brutally killed? Thinking his prisoners escaped, that jailer was about to fall on his own sword, But Paul and Silas stopped him, crying out “Don’t do that! We are here!” The jailer was so amazed at their faith in God that he asked how he could have what they had. And according to Acts 16:31, Paul told him: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved.”
Friends, do you see the different ways that salvation came to different people’s lives? Sometimes people come to Jesus progressively and slowly, surrounded by faithful and praying parents or grandparents. Others come “in the twinkling of an eye.” If you know Jesus as your Savior, you have a story to tell too! Perhaps it’s not as dramatic as others, but it has the same result: that you claim, or reclaim, the faith by saying: “Jesus Christ is my Lord and Savior.” What a difference that has at death, when a person dies knowing Jesus, compared to the ones who die without knowing him! What a difference it has during this earthly life, when you have a Savior!
Zacchaeus found joy when he gave others half of what he had, and Jesus said that salvation came to his house that day. John Newton was busy selling and torturing slaves as commodities when he called on Jesus and salvation came to him.. Martin Luther was struggling with the faith he had learned through the lens of his priestly training when the Holy Spirit made his eyes fall on Romans 1:17: “the just,[or the righteous ones] shall live by faith.” He then found salvation and a new Reformation began. So many stories, but only one Savior! What’s your story? Remember: the more you tell your story, no matter how significant it may sound, the more you will have a story to tell. And it will keep grounding you in Jesus as Lord. Thanks be to God.
Let us pray:
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to you O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 30, 2016