One thing that makes me sad is when people have a wrong understanding about God. And unfortunately, it is not that unusual. Perhaps the church should take some of the blame. And since the church includes me, I should share in the blame. And after I have repented I need to find a way to change this situation. But how?
Many times, when I have been attempting to share Jesus with strangers I meet on the street, I have been informed that God would not have anything to do with them because they have done so many bad things. Any attempt to persuade them otherwise, like telling them about the thief dying on the cross next to Jesus being accepted immediately by Jesus, it doesn’t make any difference. They are steadfast in their belief of a lie.
Who did Jesus spend most of his time with when he was here on earth? People who were referred to as ‘sinners and tax collectors’. The bad guys. Or perhaps, the ones that everyone knew were bad. I love the story of Zacchaeus, the short tax collector. He was not a very popular man, like all tax collectors of his day. It is strongly implied in the story that he went along with the idea that his job permitted him to take not only what the Roman government demanded from the people, but also something extra to line his own pockets. He had plenty of money, but he was not at peace with himself. He heard about the teacher Jesus and was determined to hear him for himself. Being short, however, meant that in a crowd he would be unable to see much. So, he runs ahead of the route that Jesus is taking that day and climbs up a sycamore tree, in order to have a better view of what is going on. There is something about Jesus that is attractive to Zacchaeus, and he is wise enough to try and find out more. And then as Jesus is walking under the tree he looks up and sees Zacchaeus! And not only does Jesus see Zacchaeus, but he knows his name! Then he tells him that he is going to stay at his house that evening, and perhaps also night. And Zacchaeus is excited! Wow! Jesus knows his name, and knows who he is, and still he wants to come for a visit! Wow!
We need to recognize that Jesus is not saying that what Zacchaeus had previously done did not matter. Rather he is demonstrating to this short tax collector that he loves and accepts him as a person first. Jesus is not beginning with a call to repentance, he is not making clear that Zacchaeus has done unacceptable things, he is connecting with him, accepting him. And of course, the people witnessing this take place are not exactly thrilled about it. They complain to one another, wondering if Jesus knows what Zacchaeus does for a living. And yet we soon read of how this whole incident affects Zacchaeus, because he promises to give half of everything that he owned to the poor and would also pay back anyone that he has cheated four times as much!
I love reading stories of church fellowships that are giving back into their communities. Some go out and collect rubbish, quietly trying to make a park, or a street, a better place for everyone to enjoy. Others run free picnics, with face painting, bouncy castles, and other fun things, simply to demonstrate a different picture of who God is. There are even stories of larger fellowships giving substantial gifts to help cover the shortfall in finances for the local police. What message does that send to the community?
Many years ago, I visited a friend who had been hurt in a traffic accident, and I offered to help her in any way that she needed. She asked me to do some vacuuming. The funny thing was that as I carefully vacuumed her carpets I realized that they were already cleaner than mine were at home! So many of us had rallied around to help her that in reality she had more help than she needed! Helping our brothers and sister when they need it is so important, but perhaps we could find more ways to help others in the community too? Youth groups are great for this – clearing snow for the elderly; mowing the grass for those who struggle to do it themselves; taking cookies to those unable to leave their homes. Children too, visiting old folks homes to sing and chat with those who seldom have visitors. And this is not just for the young people in our fellowships – all of us need to find ways to give back into the community where we live. Giving back individually is great, but also as a church, when we can begin to carry a clear message that God loves everyone and wants to meet them where they are at.