This week we conclude the series of messages titled I Love the Church Because… This week’s message is I Love the Church Because…It Brings Change.
We will soon begin another series of messages, and once again, I am asking for your input. Is there a passage in the Bible that has always puzzled you? A passage you have struggled to understand? A passage that has troubled you? If so, I would like to know. Send me the passage(s) you would like to better understand, would like to have help interpreting, or like to serve as the text for a Sunday morning message. I will compile all the responses and put together a series of messages based upon them. But there are a couple of caveats. First, I may not be able to get to all of them, depending upon the number of responses. Second, I can’t guarantee my message will fully answer your question(s), put your mind at ease, or be an explanation with which you agree. Having added those qualifications, I look forward to your responses.
Beginning next week we will have a short series of messages based on an historical event that took place 500 years ago this month. Would anyone like to take a guess what that event was? It was the Protestant Reformation. The Protestant Reformation was one of the most significant events in the history of Western society, and its effects continue to influence us to this day. The song the choir sang this morning, for example, was made possible by the Reformation. The title Grace Alone is one that very strongly echoes the Reformation claim of what is called sola fide – faith alone. Salvation is granted to us not on the basis of works, but by faith – and grace. If you have ever said I guess it was just meant to be, you are reflecting the theology of John Calvin, one of the most important and influential characters not only of the Reformation but of all of Christian history. And though I’m not wandering this morning into the controversy over whether or not one should stand for the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star-Spangled Banner, I will say that our right to protest and our tendency to protest are also products of the Reformation. We are Protestants, a name that derives from the word protest, which was what Martin Luther did when he nailed the 95 Theses on the door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany, which is now recognized as the beginning of the Reformation.
In thinking about the message for this morning, I must once again admit there is some measure of irony in the title. The church brings change? Really? Aren’t churches quite often resistant to change and even more often defenders of the status quo?
Well, yes. Kind of. Sometimes. If that seems like a strange answer, allow me to explain. The church has what we might call a dual life. The church is an institution, and as institutions have a tendency to do, it sometimes does resist change and seeks to preserve the status quo. To deny this reality would be an exercise in sticking one’s head in the sand and ignoring reality. The church is, however, much more than an institution. The church is a living body – the body of Christ – and as such it specializes in bringing change to the lives of millions of people. The church is a spiritual entity whose goal is to bring transformation to our lives, and as we sometimes resist change as much as an institution, the Holy Spirit works through the church to bring change and transformation to our lives.
The Scriptures are full of examples of changed lives, and one of my favorite stories of that change is found in the story of Zacchaeus. Follow along with me as I read the story, from Luke’s gospel.
Luke 19:1-10 –
1 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.
4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way.
5 When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.”
6 So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly.
7 All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”
8 But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.”
9 Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham.
10 For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.”
Let’s talk first about –
- Change often happens slowly, but it does happen.
I have no idea the way in which I am perceived by people – and many times, honestly, I don’t want to know. I would imagine that people generally see me as someone who is fairly outgoing and talkative, but that is not my nature and is certainly not how I was when I was younger. I was a very shy and quiet kid, and when I began in ministry I found the public side of it to be very difficult. Preaching, especially, was very unnerving for me. When I was an associate at a church in Anderson County I would preach once a month on Sunday evening and a few Sunday mornings each year. Each time I preached I would be so unbelievably nervous. If you go to the Keystone Class room they have a pulpit identical to the one at the church in Anderson County where I served. It is big. Very big. It’s very wide and provided a safe, secure cover for me. I stood behind that pulpit for security and would never dare to move from behind it. I held on to it so hard that there are probably still some of my fingerprints pressed into the wood. And the idea that I would step out from behind that pulpit and walking around on the platform as I spoke? Never, ever! Obviously, somewhere along the way I changed, but it was not overnight, I can assure you.
I find the story of Zacchaeus fascinating for many reasons, one of which is the very immediate way in which Zacchaeus’ life was changed, and in that way, Zacchaeus was an anomaly. I have been in church all my life, so I never had that dramatic, Road to Damascus kind of change. I have minister friends who are former atheists, and some have stories of God reaching out to touch their lives in a very dramatic way. Many of us see change come in small doses, one tiny increment at a time, over a long period of time. Stories of dramatic change are exciting, but perhaps most change comes over time, like the smoothing of rock or the hollowing out of a cave by the slow, steady drip of water. It is amazing to walk through a cave and see what that slow, steady drip of water can do.
For Zacchaeus, however, change was almost immediate. Jesus comes to his town – Jericho – and invites himself into Zacchaeus’ home. Zacchaeus welcomes Jesus and in a few moments experiences a complete transformation in his life, to the point that he volunteers to give half of his possessions to the poor and he promises to pay back four times to anyone he has defrauded (his business, as a tax collector, we should note, was built on fraud, so he was probably bankrupting himself). Notice the action words in the story that demonstrate the immediacy of the change – Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today. So he came down at once (verses 5-6). Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor (verse 8). Today salvation has come to this house (verse 9).
If you grow frustrated at the seeming lack of change in your life, or the slow pace of change, remember this – you are not the person you were a year ago, or five years ago, or more. Change does happen, even if it isn’t always as fast as we desire it to be. Over the years, I have rebaptized a lot of people. There are a variety of reasons why people ask to be rebaptized, but the number one reason, in my experience, is this – someone will say to me, I understand it so much more than I did when I was baptized the first time. Well, you should! I don’t mean that in a judgmental way, but we should know more about our faith now than we did a year, or five years, or ten years ago.
- We want change, and we don’t want change, but change is coming.
How often do you say, I wish I could change? Or, how often do you say, I don’t want to change? I know that sound contradictory, but we have a conflicted relationship with change, as we sometimes want to change, and sometimes resist change.
I have never attended any kind of class reunion. I’ve not been interested in a high school class reunion and every time one of the landmark reunions (10, 20, etc. years) of college come along I am unable to attend. Attending a reunion is an example of our struggle with change. We want people to say, you know, you haven’t changed a bit! You still have all your hair and your hair is the same color, and wow, look at that leisure suit – it still fits! At the same time, however, we hope someone will also say, wow, you have really changed! You’re not the slacker you were back in the day. Look at what a hardworking, successful person you turned out to be. You sure have changed!
We have a similar struggle with change in churches, as we recognize that some things must change while simultaneously resisting change. The difficulty is, one person’s necessary change becomes another person’s dig-your-heels-in and fight change every step of the way moment. We’ve all been on both sides of that argument, sometimes advocating for change and sometimes hoping and pleading change doesn’t come.
I think that sometimes our problem is that we don’t know how to tell the difference between what does not need to change and what does need to change. Churches get into arguments about change all the time, and much of the time those arguments are about things that just simply do not matter, such as music, or worship style. There is absolutely nothing in the Scriptures telling us whether or not we should have traditional or contemporary worship. Nothing. But how much time and energy and emotion have been expended on that argument? Far too much, that’s for sure! When we engage in conflict over such an argument we are only arguing over personal preference.
People are looking for something that will bring change to their lives, they are looking for something that will bring them hope, something that will help them get through each day and the struggles that come their way, and if a church can’t do better than to offer them a particular kind of music, that is a sad commentary on the state of churches.
Zacchaeus was looking for something, obviously. Maybe it was just because Jesus had reached a level of celebrity and Zacchaeus wanted to get a glimpse of him, but I think it was something much deeper. Zacchaeus was obviously desperate to see Jesus, and when Jesus said he would come to his home, Zacchaeus was thrilled, but others were not.
I find it very interesting that people complained about Jesus going to the home of Zacchaeus. What did they say when Jesus went? Verse 7 says this – the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner. What would we do without the people who wag their tongues about everything and everyone they don’t like? Wouldn’t you think they would be happy that Jesus was going to the home of Zacchaeus? People should have been thrilled! Shouldn’t they have been pleased with the visit because they saw the opportunity that Jesus could bring change to the life of Zacchaeus. But maybe the people of Jericho were more content to complain about Zacchaeus than they wanted to see people his life changed and transformed. Zacchaeus wasn’t a popular person in Jericho, as he had cheated a lot of people. They wanted to see him get what he had rightfully coming to him; they did not want to see him change and received grace from Jesus.
Here is what is interesting as well – Jesus did not wait for an invitation from Zacchaeus. No, Jesus invited himself to Zacchaeus’ home. We could say that Zacchaeus gave him the opportunity because he was so anxious to see Jesus, but Jesus just invited himself and waltzed right in to Zacchaeus’ home. He didn’t ask if it was convenient or if Zacchaeus had anything else going on that day. No, here is what he said – Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today. Notice the urgency in what Jesus says – immediately, must, today. Jesus was communicating a great sense of urgency – I’m coming today Zacchaeus. Change is coming, and it’s coming today.
- What needs to change in your life?
While I admire the amazing change that came over Zacchaeus, I am also a bit troubled by it, because I don’t know that I could ever allow that level of change to come to my life. Could you?
C. S. Lewis is one of my favorite writers and he was a fascinating figure. Coming out of a background of atheism he was converted and became one of the great Christian thinkers not only of the 20th century but, I think, of all Christian history. In his book, Mere Christianity, he writes this – Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself (page 174).
I think that when Jesus invites himself into the home of Zacchaeus that is a way of demonstrating what God intends to do with each of us – he intends to move into us. Jesus got hold of Zacchaeus and changed him. He wants to do the same thing to us as well. Imagine what it means for the God of the universe, the creator of all things, to move into our lives!
We have two trees in front of our house, although I couldn’t tell you what kind of trees they are. They both have green leaves (obviously, I’m not an arborist) and one of them, in the fall, is ablaze with bright red leaves. When I look at pictures from eight years ago, when we moved into our house, I am amazed at the growth in those trees, even though I can’t see the growth taking place on a daily or weekly basis. Know this – God is always working in your life to bring about the needed changes. You might not see it, or realize it, or perceive it, but God is always there at work. And though we may not always welcome change, God is working to bring the change to our lives that we need!