God-breathed 16: Believing in God’s Grace

In December 2013, a 22-year-old man named Tom Billings got lost while hiking in the North Shore Mountains. His parents Martin and Laura Billings came from the United Kingdom to help in the search for him, and volunteers with North Shore Rescue spent hundreds of hours looking for him but they were unsuccessful. Three years later, in 2016, his remains were found near Cypress Mountain. Despite their grief, Tom’s parents, Martin and Laura Billings, realized that all those volunteers who had spent so much time and energy looking for their son had given them a great gift, and they wanted to give something back. So they decided to donate a significant sum of money to North Shore Rescue, who decided to build a shelter with a cache of food and other supplies in it, and a helicopter pad on Mount Strachan. They chose that location because right below the point where they put the shelter in the home pad are some dangerous cliffs and several people have fallen to their deaths over those cliffs. Then in March of this year, just a month ago, North Shore Rescue got a phone call from the shelter. There was a 16-year-old snowboarder there. They told him to stay where he was and they would pick him up. 

Reflecting on this, North Shore Rescue leader Jim Loree believes that without that shelter and helipad being there, that young snowboarder could have gone over the cliffs and died.  Tom’s parents were in the thoughts of another NSR leader, Mike Danks, who said, “I wanted to tell Martin and Laura that Tom saved a life today. And that’s what it’s really about. I know it’s going to give them some relief to know that Tom made a difference.”

 Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Because it was an incredible thing for Tom’s parents, despite all of the grief that they were experiencing over the loss of their son, to realize what a gift they had been given, and then in response, want to give a gift of their own. Then, because of that gift, a life was saved. So, what moves people to do that? Because if you think about it, all of us are in this huge ongoing interchange of resources and love and time and energy. We’re being given stuff all the time and we, in turn, give stuff to others. But the way that we give has the potential to make a huge difference. A gift from us can be like the gift the Billings’ gave and bring joy and life and hope into the world. But on the other hand, if we restrain ourselves from giving, then the darkness and the hurt and the pain that is in the world stay the same, and nothing gets any better. 

So the question that I’m asking you to think about today is this: What moves people to be more open, generous and loving toward the world? And note that the word “more” is in there. I’m not asking you to reflect on what makes people generous. I’m asking you to reflect on what makes them more generous and loving and open towards the world because all of us do not come with the same resources and experience and background. Some of us have a huge amount of love, generosity and openness in our lives, but if we stay where we are that is not a change that helps the world. Others have experienced some really tough things in life. Maybe we didn’t have the love we needed when we were little. Perhaps there was even abuse or other kinds of hard things. Then because of our background, our natural position is to be very closed, very tight-fisted, and very reluctant to give. If you’re a person like that, then to move one centimetre towards love and openness and generosity is a huge change. But what makes that change in people? That’s what we’re going to be thinking about and to help us as we do that. We’re going to be thinking about looking at a passage from the Bible, Luke 19:1-27. If you have a Bible or a Bible app, I invite you to turn there now. 

Jesus & Zacchaeus

As we turn there we meet a man by the name of Zacchaeus. Now Zacchaeus was a despised man, and he was despised because he was a tax collector. The Romans were the occupying force in the Holy Land and they wanted to get their tax money out of that region, so they would allow local people to bid on contracts for gathering taxes in specific regions. Imagine that a tax collecting contract for Walnut Grove was being put up for bids and the government said they wanted to get $1 million in taxes from Walnut Grove. So you’ve bid on that contract and you get it. Then whatever you gather over a million dollars, that’s yours to keep. So what do you do? You gather $2 million. You see, the Romans knew that they didn’t know much about the land that they were occupying. So they would get local Jewish people to bid on these jobs because the Jews would know the local language and local customs. They would also know where people would hide their money and the best ways of doing that. So they could ferret out more money in taxes than the Romans could ever do on their own. 

Not only was Zacchaeus hated because he was a tax collector. He was a chief tax collector, so he had oversight over other tax collectors. And he was the chief tax collector in a very prosperous region. Jericho was located at the crossroads of several important trade routes and it was the site of the Winter Palace for the kings of that time. There was a lot of trade going through that area so it was a very lucrative area to tax. That’s what Zacchaeus was doing. 

He was also a short person. And when Jesus came to Jericho, on his way to Jerusalem for what would be his last trip, Zacchaeus and everybody else in the town knew about it. Jesus’ fame had preceded him, so the whole town came out to see what he was about. Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so badly that he ran ahead of the crowd and climbed up into a tree. Running was something which adults never did, nor did they climb trees, so Zaachaeus brought additional shame upon himself by doing these things. But he didn’t care what other people thought of him, because he wanted to see Jesus.

As he is up in that tree, Jesus comes to the tree, looks up and says,“Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19:5) Now Jesus is a well-known and respected rabbi, a teacher. And in that time to eat with someone and stay with them was showing that you had a relationship with them, that you accepted them, and that you were friends with them. Who you hung around with was very important. And Jesus chose to hang out with Zacchaeus.

But the crowd in Jericho who observed this were scandalized by what Jesus had done. They grumbled and said, “He has gone in to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.” (Luke 19:7)

Jesus went to Zacchaeus’ home and ate with him. Sometime, we don’t know when but perhaps after the meal, Zacchaeus got up and said,“Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor. And if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I restore it fourfold.” (Luke 19:8) It might have been more accurate for him to say “…since I have defrauded people of things, I will restore it fourfold.” Regardless, in doing so, he went far, far beyond what the law required. The law required payment of the amount defrauded plus 20% and he was giving four times as much. Zacchaeus was moved to being generous by what Jesus had done. Just by being with him, Jesus had indicated that he loved and accepted Zacchaeus and the shame that everyone else had put on him and the shame that he had felt himself that didn’t matter at all to Jesus. Somehow, Jesus had wiped that slate of shame completely clean. 

Zacchaeus’ response indicated that his heart had been transformed so Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he also is a son of Abraham. (Luke 19:9) Zacchaeus’ neighbours would have all said that he was a traitor to the people of Abraham. But Jesus is saying, “No, he is a son of Abraham. Not only is he a son of Abraham in an ethnic sense. He is also a son of Abraham in a spiritual sense because he is now living by faith in the God who saves. 

Then Jesus says some words which I hope you will remember because these words are Jesus’ reason for being, his reason for coming into this world, his reason for making us his people and inviting us into his mission. He said, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:10) When Jesus uses the phrase “Son of Man” he is referring to himself. Jesus is saying that life with God is not a matter of us going to God. Instead, God has come to us in the person of Jesus to find us and bring us home to God.

But what does it mean to be lost? Some people may hear that word and even be a little offended if it were used about them. They might say, “I am not lost, I know exactly where I am. How can you say that I am lost?” The word “lost” has another connotation which will help us understand what is meant here. Imagine that you have some object that you treasure, something that you use, and it is lost. What does that mean? It means that it is not available to you anymore. It is separated from you and it is not able to be used for the purpose for which it was intended. 

I have a necklace with a cross made out of nails on it and the other day, I couldn’t find it. I looked all in all the usual places where I put it but to no avail. Finally, I gave up and thought to myself, “Well, when God wants me to have that necklace, he’ll show me where it is.” Later  I stuck my left hand in the pocket of my sweatpants, and there it was.  But for that entire time when it was lost, it wasn’t available for me to use as I had hoped and intended to use it. 

The same thing happens with each and every one of us. In our natural state, we are all separated from our Creator and unable to live in the way that he intends us to live. We’re unable to live the rich, full, abundant life, that he wants us to have. That’s why Jesus came, to find us and to give us that life.

The Parable of the Ten Minas

Jesus not only had this encounter with Zacchaeus, he also told a story. At first, when I was looking at this passage, it didn’t seem like these two stories were connected, but now I think they are. And as we look at this passage, we need to remember that Jesus is a masterful teacher. What he does is he takes the things that people are familiar with and he uses those things to explain what is unfamiliar to those he teaches. Most of the time, that unknown thing that Jesus is teaching about is life with God. 

Jesus uses that same technique in this story he tells. You may remember a king by the name of Herod the Great who was ruling at the time when Jesus was born. He died a short time later and in his will, he stated which parts of his kingdom would be ruled by each of his four sons.  However, his will was contested. Herod Archelaus was the son who was supposed to rule over Jerusalem and the surrounding area and, about 30 years before Jesus told this story, Archelaus had to go to Rome to be confirmed as king by Caesar. At the same time, a bunch of local people got together and sent a delegation to go to Rome to tell Caesar, “We don’t want him as our king.” The people to who Jesus told his story would have known about these real-life events and Jesus uses that knowledge to teach some important things in his story. 

So Jesus tells a story about a prince who had to go to a far country to be confirmed as king. Before he goes, he calls together ten of his servants and he gives each of them a mina. You might be thinking to yourself, “What’s a mina?” If so, my answer would be, “Nothing. What’s a mina with you?” But seriously, a mina is a unit of currency and the equivalent value in our time would be about $27,000. The prince then tells his servants, ‘Engage in business until I come.’ (Luke 19:13). He wants his servants to use what he has given them to make more money for him. 

When the prince returned as king, he called his servants before him to give an account. The first servant said, ‘Lord, your mina has made ten minas more.’ (Luke 19:16) Note that the servant gives credit to the prince’s gift, not to himself. The king said to the first servant, ‘Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities.’ (Luke 19:17). The king is invited the servant to co-rule with him. Then the second servant came forward and said, ‘Lord, your mina has made five minas.’ And he said to him, ‘And you are to be over five cities.’ (Luke 19:18-19) Note that again the servant gives credit for the increase to the King’s gift. Also note that the king does not condemn the servant for gaining a lower return. What he does is reward the servant in accordance with his abilities.

Then a third servant comes forward and says, ‘Lord, here is your mina, which I kept laid away in a handkerchief; 21 for I was afraid of you, because you are a severe man. You take what you did not deposit, and reap what you did not sow.’ (Luke 19:20-21) 

The king responded, ‘I will condemn you with your own words, you wicked servant! You knew that I was a severe man, taking what I did not deposit and reaping what I did not sow? Why then did you not put my money in the bank, and at my coming I might have collected it with interest?’  (Luke 19:22-23)

Why were the Responses So Different?

I’m inviting you now to consider Jesus’s interaction with Zacchaeus side by side with his story about the prince and the three servants and ask yourself this question: Why is there a difference in response between, on the one hand, Zacchaeus, who graciously received Jesus and then generously gave in response to the gift of his presence and, on the other hand, the crowd, who grumbled about Jesus actions? It was the same action, viewed and understood in totally different ways. And then in Jesus story, you have the first two servants who were given a mina and in response to that gift and the trust that their Lord had put in them, went and used it as he called them to do. And through that, more minas were made. But then you have the third servant, who was given the exact same gift of one mina, but he didn’t use it as his lord called him to do. He did nothing but return what was first given to him.  Why are those responses so different? 

I would say to you that the difference is because those various groups of people have different perceptions of the God figure they are interacting with. In the encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus is God, and the crowd and Zacchaeus have very different perceptions of him. In the story that Jesus told, the prince is Jesus, who has come to this world, but will have to go to a far country to be confirmed as king. One day, he is going to come back and he will  invite us to give an account of what he has entrusted to us. The first two servants receive what they’re given with gratitude and use it to make more. The third servant fears his master and his perception of his master governs how he responded. 

So let’s make this personal. What does our posture toward the world tell us about our perception of God? If we are harsh and judgmental towards others, does that perhaps indicate that we think that God is harsh and judgmental toward us? If we are severe and demanding toward others, does that reveal that we view God as being severe and demanding toward us? It’s a question that each of us will have to answer for ourselves, but I know that the only way that we can be truly kind, loving, generous and gracious toward the world is if we believe deep down in our hearts that God is kind, gracious, loving and generous toward us. And I believe that because we read it in the Bible in 1 John 4: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us….We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:10-12, 19)

We are all Zacchaeus

Dear friend, the truth is that you and I and everyone else in the world are all Zacchaeus.  Some of us are a little better at hiding our shame than others can, but I believe each and every one of us has shame buried deep within us somewhere. Shame tells us that there is something wrong with us. But Jesus comes along and says, “I love you, I accept you, I forgive you, I make you whole and I give you a new identity as a forgiven beloved child of God and nothing will ever take that away from you. I won that for you by going to the cross for you and suffering and dying there, then rising again on the third day. And it is because I rose from the dead, that you will know that these promises I’m making to you are true.

Now, I’m going to say something about the word “judge” but before I do that, I’m going to invite you to think of it in a little different way.  Most of us bristle when we hear that word. I don’t know personally of anybody who puts their hand up and says, “I want to be at the front of the line and get judged.” Nobody says that because we associate judgment with condemnation. Sometimes judgment results in condemnation, but I don’t think that’s the intent of it. I’m inviting you to think of judgment as “making things right”. You see when a judge rules in a criminal case, she is trying to take a bad situation and make things right, as best she can, given the laws of the land. 

So not only does God love us and save us and bring us into life with him. He also gives us the opportunity to make a choice: Are we going to allow ourselves to be judged, in other words, made right by God? Or are we going to stand in judgment over God? Our decision needs to be either one or the other. And it is only by seeing God as gracious and loving, that we will be willing to place our life in his hands and allow him to transform our hearts in the way that we need them to be transformed. We would only do that if we trust him, and we will only trust him if we know he is loving and gracious toward us.

A Father’s Love Changes Everything

Richard Foster tells a story about a father with a two year old son in a shopping mall. As two year olds often do, the son gets restless, noisy and difficult to deal with in the mall. So the father picks up his son and he holds him close to his chest. Then he starts singing a song that goes something like this: “I love you. And I want to be with you all the time. And you’re so precious to me.” The song is out of tune and the words don’t rhyme but the father keeps singing the song over and over and over again. Eventually, the little boy calms down, lays his head into his father’s neck and they complete whatever shopping that needs to be done. They go to their car, and as the father buckles his son into his car seat, the little boy puts his hands up in the air and hollers, “Sing that song again, dad!”

Dear friends, you have a father who wants to sing of His love over you, In Jesus Christ, you have a brother who loves you so much that he came to find you and bring you back to the Father’s family so you could live the full, abundant life that he has for you. And you also have the Holy Spirit who wants to pour himself into you so that there is a fountain of life and love flowing up within you. So the challenge that I’m leaving before you today is, first of all, be honest with yourself and God about what you think God is really like. When I went through this exercise several years ago, I realized that deep down in my gut I viewed God as an evil marionette master that was pulling the strings of my life. As hard as that was to realize, I had to see what I really believed about God in the first place before he could help me to move to a more truthful picture of what he really was. The second part of this challenge is for you to then ask God to show you who he really is. And third, immerse yourself in the love that God wants to pour into your life and then let him transform you to become more like Jesus. You will never ever experience from any other source, the kind of love that God has through you through God the Son Jesus. And you will never ever, ever receive from any other source the kind of life that Jesus wants to give to you.  My prayer is that you will see all things with the eyes of faith, live in God’s grace and receive his love so that you can be generous in giving it to others. Amen.

(This message was shared at Walnut Grove Lutheran Church in Langley BC on April 23, 2023. For more info about WGLC, go to wglc.org.)


[i] “’Tom saved a life’: Helipad built in memory of British tourist used in North Shore rescue,” CTV News (Internet; available at: https://bc.ctvnews.ca/tom-saved-a-life-helipad-built-in-memory-of-british-tourist-used-in-north-shore-rescue-1.6307267#:~:text=Thanks%20to%20a%20generous%20donation,west%20side%20of%20Mount%20Strachan.; accessed April 18, 2023).

[ii] “My Song is Love Unknown,” Hymnary.org (Internet; available at: https://hymnary.org/text/my_song_is_love_unknown; accessed April 19, 2023).

[iii] “The Love Song,” The Pastor’s Workshop (Internet; available at: https://thepastorsworkshop.com/sermon-illustrations-2/sermon-illustrations-love/; accessed April 19, 2023). Taken from John Ortberg, Love Beyond Reason (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998).

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