Friday, November 05, 2004

ADD-Style Thursday Night Commentary

No matter what one's politics, Senator John Kerry's concession speech, delivered on Wednesday at historic Faneuil Hall in Boston, was gracious and classy. I've been watching Kerry since 1971 and never realized what heart his Brahmin style concealed.
Baseball fans of a certain age will remember that slugger Reggie Jackson once described himself as the one who stirred the New York Yankees of the late-70s to greatness. (Much to the chagrin of Yankee catcher Thurman Munson.)

Sometimes, it seems, the media serves a similar egotistical stirring (and grating) role in our national life. Twenty-four hours after John Kerry conceded and President Bush acknowledged victory in the election, the media punditocracy had apparently decided on the obsession-du-jour: Asking whether President Bush had a mandate to govern.

This is silly! Irrespective of the margin of victory, the President received a clear majority in both the popular and Electoral College votes. (He's the first presidential winner since his dad in 1988 to get a majority.) Mr. Bush received more votes for president than any candidate in US history. (Second place on the list? John Kerry.)

I thought that it was gracious and statesmanlike for Willy Brown, former Democratic mayor of San Francisco and one-time Democratic leader of the California legislature, to say on tonight's Newshour with Jim Lehrer that of course, Mr. Bush has a mandate to pursue his program.
The History Channel's documentary on Dwight Eisenhower, about three-quarters of which I was able to view, was pretty good. I'd give it a B-minus. Although two hours in length, it still managed to be a bit thin in some places. It could have gone into a bit more detail on Eisenhower's World War Two-efforts and it failed to convey the extent to which this man, once thought to be little more than a presidential figurehead, ensured that America was at peace during his watch.

But it was fair in its negative assessment of Ike's failure to respond appropriately to the civil rights movement.

There were a few facts shared of which this Ike-afficionado had been unaware. I hadn't known, for example, that Eisenhower was so opposed to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War Two, believing that Japan had already been beaten. I also hadn't known how sternly he had counseled both Presidents Kennedy and Johnson not to send US soldiers into Vietnam.

For my money, Eisenhower was one of the three best presidents of the twentieth century. (My other two choices: Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Roosevelt.) He is also, I believe, one of a small pantheon of greatest US leaders of all time. On that list, I include George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, George Marshall, and perhaps a surprise entrant, Billy Graham.

I often wonder what counsel Eisenhower might have given President Bush regarding the invasion of Iraq had Mr. Bush been able to ask Ike.
Chris Williams asks in his November 1 blog posting if there's a cure for stupidity. It's a good question and he's seeking your input on how best to encourage more concern for personal responsibility rather than entitlement in today's world. Click on his blog here.
She identifies herself as a liberal evangelical Christian. She voted for Kerry and she's pro-life. Deborah White presents atypical, intriguing thoughts on her presidential candidate's loss and the state of America. Whether you agree with her or not, it's worth a read here.
As usual, Mark Roberts has interesting things to say on his blog. This time he's doing so in a series of post-election posts on Christian reaction to the election results. In these wise, judicious, and faithful articles, Mark commends civility, compassion, and a balanced appreciation of the fact that far more important than our politics or government policies is the Lordship of Jesus Christ and the good of all our neighbors, even those with whom we may disagree. Great stuff, Mark!

Thursday, November 04, 2004

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 3

In the first two posts of this series, I've talked about how it's understandable when we wonder why tragedy befalls the innocent. I've also observed that generally speaking, God doesn't seem to answer that question.

But on the pages of the New Testament section of the Bible, there is a tantalizing example of a time when God did give a reason for one of his innocents' suffering.

A man named Saul from the city of Tarsus was not always innocent. Burning with an Osama Bin-Laden-like zeal for his faith as a Jew, convinced that followers of the risen Jesus were dangerous heretics, he approved murdering these people who would later be called Christians.

He also gained authorization from religious authorities in Jerusalem to go to synagogues in other towns and regions to have his fellow Jews confessing Jesus as Lord excommunicated from the faith and worse.

But, Saul's life changed. On his way to the city of Damascus, carrying authorization papers, Saul encountered the risen Jesus. He himself became a follower of Jesus and eventually, undertook a life-long mission of carrying the Good News of Jesus to the world. Gratified and stunned to learn the truth about God--the truth that God wants to save us and not condemn us, that eternity and forgiveness are free gifts from a gracious God and not things that we can earn---Saul, now renamed Paul, spent the rest of his life telling the world about Jesus Christ and the new life He makes possible.

Much of the New Testament is composed of Paul's letters to early Christian congregations spread around the Mediterranean basin. Paul proclaimed that the power of sin and death over one's life could be erased when as a matter of faith, one received Jesus Christ as God and Savior. He said that on the cross, Jesus paid the debt all of us owe to God for our rebellion against God. Faith, says Paul, is a surrender by which we go through death, dying to sin, in order to rise to a pure, new life with Jesus Christ.

In his magnum opus, the New Testament book of Romans, Paul writes:

For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin. But if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. The death he died, he died to sin, once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. [Romans 6:5-10]

Paul's life of faith and of sharing Jesus wasn't easy. He never generated enough personal income to be able to devote all his time to preaching, working as a tentmaker throughout his adult years. In addition, he suffered a series of misadventures and persecutions as a follower of Jesus. Tradition holds that he was ultimately executed for his faith. Clearly, Christ's forgiveness and the gift of reconciliation with God that Paul claimed to have because of his faith in Jesus didn't make his life easier. In fact, it had the opposite effect. In one of his New Testament letters, Paul recounts some of his experiences as a follower of Jesus:

Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. (Second Corinthians 11:24-28)

It all could cause a person striving to follow the God met through Jesus Christ to ask, "Why?" Or, to at least ask God to change things, to make life a bit easier.

We know of at least one source of suffering that did incite Paul to ask God for relief. It was an unspecified "thorn in the flesh," an affliction that may have been physical. emotional, relational, or spiritual. We simply don't know what it was. That may be for the best because the fact is that no matter what the source of our suffering in life, its impact on us is amazingly similar. Paul talks about his thorn in the flesh in Second Corinthians:

I know a person in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows. And I know that such a person—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know; God knows— was caught up into Paradise and heard things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat. On behalf of such a one I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. But if I wish to boast, I will not be a fool, for I will be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think better of me than what is seen in me or heard from me, even considering the exceptional character of the revelations. Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given to me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. (Second Corinthians 12:2-10)

According to Paul, God refused to remove suffering that had come to him from Satan. Why? To keep Paul from becoming filled with spiritual pride.

If Paul is to be believed, God allows even devoted believers to be hit with suffering and tragic circumstances as a means of protecting them. Protecting them from what? A famous passage from the Old Testament says, "Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall" (Proverbs 16:18).

Recently, former President Bill Clinton published his memoirs and discussed his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, a liaison that nearly shattered his presidency and deeply wounded his second term in office. Clinton said that he'd had that affair simply because he was capable of having it. Period. (I appreciate Clinton's disarming honesty!)

Sometimes we can become full of ourselves, mistakenly thinking that our successes or good fortune emanate from our talents, innovativeness, cleverness, perseverance, tenacity, or charm...never considering that even our capacity for developing such gifts come from the One Who crafted us in our mother's wombs.

The first of the ten commandments in the Old Testament book of Exodus says, "You shall have no other gods before Me" (Exodus 20:3). Theologians from Martin Luther to Paul Tillich and C.S. Lewis have reminded us that whatever is most important to us in life is our god. Speaking for myself anyway, I've found that no false god--be it money, power, sex, houses, cars or whatever--has waged a fiercer war for my ultimate allegiance than one persistently alluring god: Me...My Ego.

Through his suffering and God's refusal to relieve it, Paul was driven to acknowledge his dependence on God for all the best blessings in his life.

I learned this lesson myself once again yesterday, not from suffering but from weakness. Some time ago, I was invited to give a presentation to a group in metropolitan Cincinnati. For months, I thrashed over what I would say to them. After a good deal of prayer, I created an outline for my presentation. But yesterday morning, just hours before I was scheduled to speak, I woke up feeling flu symptoms. I was achy all over, felt as though a temperature was coming on, and in spite of a good night's sleep, fatigued. On top of that, I simply sensed that my presentation wasn't what the group needed to hear. And so I prayed, "God, You know better than I do. Guide me. Fill me with Your Spirit. Get me through this thing physically. And put Your words in my mouth."

The appointed moment came. I was given an introduction that was so complimentary, I was tempted to look around the room to see who'd been selected to speak in my place. I approached the microphone. I hardly remember what I said. But God was in it. The post-presentation Q-and-A session went well. So did the luncheon conversation. I came home, gratified but exhausted.

But if I hadn't awakened feeling so crummy and insecure, I might have gone ahead with my planned presentation. It may have gone okay. But then, I would have learned to depend on myself rather than on God.

From his thorn in the flesh, Paul learned reliance on God. Sometimes God allows the innocent to suffer because it's only through our weakness that the greater power of Christ can dwell in us and touch the world around us. It also may prevent us from declaring our independence from God, inciting us to keep the door of our hearts and wills open to the God Who has an eternity of good He wants to pour into our lives.

One last point. No loving Christian would ever tell another person that their suffering is being allowed by God to teach the suffering friend a lesson. That would be arrogant and un-Christian. Remember that Paul gained insight as to why God refused to heal him of his thorn in the flesh not in conversation with others, but in his own personal prayer interchange with God. The insight that some of our suffering may be from God is a personal one, between God and the sufferer alone. The very best thing we Christians can do when others talk with us about their suffering is keep our pie holes shut, listen, and offer to pray for them.

God willing, more tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Post-Election Thoughts

Today, I encountered ecstatic Bush voters and disappointed Kerry voters, the people in both categories being committed followers of Jesus Christ. I basically tried to share with them the same message I shared in an email to the members of Friendship Church (the congregation of which I'm pastor) today:

The election is now behind us. If things go as they appear they will go in the vote count, President Bush has been re-elected. For many of you, this will be a source of deep satisfaction. For others, the cause of deep disappointment. But I leave two thoughts with you:

(1) Our help is in the Lord. So says the Bible in so many words on virtually every page. We are called to put our trust in the God we know in Jesus Christ. Only Christ is bigger than all our challenges in life. We put a lot of stock in what governments can do. But ultimately, the past, present, and future belong to God. This should chasten those whose candidate won and comfort those whose candidate lost.

(2) As Senator Kerry said in a speech about ten days before the election, whoever is our President needs our prayers. Pray that God will give President Bush wisdom and the openness to God to act on that wisdom in the next four years. Please also pray that whether we share religions or partisan beliefs that our national community will be united.

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 2

In my first post on this topic, I said that it's natural for us to wonder why we suffer because somewhere in the recesses of our collective DNA, there is this notion that our lives are meant to be good and eternal.

But even if it's natural for us to do so, is it right for us to ask, "Why?"?

Years ago, a friend of mine attended the funeral for a young man who had been killed in an accident. My friend, a committed Christian, was appalled by what he saw among the parents and siblings of the dead young man. They were going around praising God for the death, saying that their loved one was now in heaven, and asking mourners wasn't it all just too wonderful for words? "They were in complete denial, Mark," my friend told me. I think that he was right.

It is true that followers of Jesus Christ live and die with hope. I love what Paul says in the New Testament book of First Corinthians:

"...Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died. For since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being; for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ..." [First Corinthians 15:20-22]
"If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." [First Corinthians 15:19]
When I preside over funerals, I often tell the families and friends of the people who have died: "If what we say about Jesus conquering death for all who believe in Him isn't true today, it simply isn't true at all." Jesus isn't just our Lord when life is going well and we're living large. He's also our Lord when this world hands us its worst. That's because we believe that on an Easter Sunday two-thousand years ago, Jesus rose from the dead, certifying His power to deliver on all His promises, even beyond our deaths and our funerals.

But no matter what our hope and no matter how sure we are that "all who call on the Lord shall be saved" (Acts 2:21; Psalm 55:16; and other places), we still experience loss when loved ones die, or when we lose our health, a job, or a marriage, or when we experience tragedies. It's normal even for Christians to experience grief.

The New Testament tells us to "give thanks in all circumstances," not for all circumstances. In other words, our circumstances may be lousy or painful, but we can be thankful that even in those times, the God we know through Jesus Christ is with us.

Although my friend attended the funeral I mentioned many years ago, I still wonder why that family reacted as they did to their loss. Maybe they were taught that any other reaction would reflect faithlessness, a lack of trust in God. Maybe they thought that an angry God would punish them in some way.

If they entertained such thoughts, they obviously hadn't spent much time reading the Bible. Back when I was moving from atheism to faith in God, I spent some time exploring the Bible as I never had before. One thing that kept striking me me then was how honest the Bible is. No facts are sugar-coated. Great heroes of faith---from David to Moses and Peter and Paul---are seen warts and all.

And when people of faith mentioned in the Bible encounter mysteries about God and about life with God, they honestly own up to being confounded and confused. In the Old Testament's book of worship songs, the Psalms, for example, there are whole genres of songs called laments: community laments and individual laments. In them, believers in God express sadness and bafflement at their suffering. They complain about the seeming inactivity or insensitivity of God. In Psalm 13, for example, the psalmist talks to God:

How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long? [Psalm 13:1-2]
If any believer was worthy of being zapped on the spot, it was the writer of those words, traditionally held to be David, a person the Bible describes as a "man after God's own heart." But God didn't zap David.

A man named Job didn't get zapped either. His story is told in a lengthy and eloquent book of the Bible's Old Testament. Job was such a good man that God bragged about him. But in rapid order, Job was subjected to a series of personal tragedies. He lost his vast property and land holdings, all his children were killed, and he became afflicted with a disease. At first, Job seemed to handle things well, insisting that he would keep worshiping and serving God. But, understandably, Job broke.

Three friends came to visit him and for a time, simply allowed Job to "vent," sharing his feelings of sadness and grief and mystification that a good God would allow all this to happen to him. It was then that Job's friends made a huge mistake. They tried to explain what had befallen Job. In a nutshell, they were sure that Job was guilty of some secret sin and that God was punishing him. While Job wouldn't have claimed perfection for himself, he was sure that the friends' explanations were off-base. He tells them, "If you would only keep silent, that would be your wisdom!" (Job 13:5) (I laugh every time I read those words, remembering with embarrassment and regret all the stupid explanations I've tried to offer for the bad things that have happened in my own and in others' lives.)

Job then complains bitterly to God and about God. Given their "theology," Job's friends may have felt vindicated in their "explanations" of Job's plight. They may also have considered moving a few feet away from Job just in case a stray lightning bolt from heaven hit them.

In the end of the book of Job though, God responds to all that Job and his friends have said. But God offers no explanations. First, God upbraids the friends for pretending to know what they couldn't possibly know, for judging their friend Job as worthy of all the suffering he was enduring. Then, in a long discouse, God reminds Job of a few simple facts: God is God, Job isn't, and no matter what, God would be with Job.

In a way, that may not seem like an especially satisfying resolution. But, remember Paul's words, "If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied." [First Corinthians 15:19] This life, consequential as it may be for eternity is just a blip on our journeys. Paul, a man who certainly had a lot of suffering in his life, said in another place:

For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. [Second Corinthians 4:17-18]
Ultimately, every person I have ever observed to have come to a place of peace in dealing with life's tragedies has done so because they've adopted an eternal perspective. They know that this life isn't all there is to life and choose to trust God in spite of the mysteries and unanswered questions.

Summing up this post:
1. It's normal for us to grieve.

2. It's normal for us to ask God why we suffer.

3. God won't zap us for wondering why we suffer.

4. Even when we grieve, we have an eternal hope when we trust Jesus Christ as our God and Savior.

5. God is God.

6. We're not God.

7. God is with us.
More on point 7 in my next post. [Use the Comments post below to dialog, give feedback, and tell me if this is helpful at all.]

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Watching election coverage has prevented me from writing the next installment in my new series. I will try to resume it tomorrow evening. I'm sorry about the delay. Thanks for your patience.

When Tragedy Hits the Innocent: Part 1

For several months now, our congregation has been praying for the infant daughter of friends of congregational members. We learned this past week that the little girl died at six months of age.

The question naturally arises: Why?

It's a searing question, whether you're a person of faith or not. For those who claim no faith, as was true of me back in my days as an atheist, the question is thrown down as a gauntlet, a rhetorical salvo meant to be the last word in any debate over, if not God's existence, His power or His compassion.

I can't be critical of atheists and agnostics who ask "Why?" in this way. Years ago, after I had come to faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ, a woman I've known since we were in junior high school, an atheist, wondered how I could possibly believe. She pointed to all the suffering that goes on in the world and asked, if there were a compassionate and loving God, how I could claim faith in Him. It's been my experience that most agnostics and atheists are people with good hearts, offended by the pain that they see in the world and unable to see how an omniscient, loving God could stand by and seem to observe it all passively.

In fact, it strikes me that many who resist faith in God are by and large, more compassionately attuned to the agonies endured by majority of the human race over the course of human history than are many people of faith. I have greater respect for the honest resister of faith who resists because he or she cares about people than I do for the pew-sitters who mindlessly embrace church membership because their parents were church members. Whether it's a simple case of the zeal of a convert or not, I've also found that most former atheists or agnostics make more passionate, compassionate Christians than most church members who receive their "faith" by osmosis or family habit.

In coming posts, I hope to address the question of why good or innocent people suffer in some detail. I also hope to delve into some of the other issues surrounding the experiences of undeserved suffering we can go through in life. For today, I simply want to deal with why we ask the question, "Why?"

One of my seminary professors, the systematic theologian Walter Bouman, used to tell us that in spite of all the progress the human race has made through the centuries, the ratio of births to deaths is still running one-to-one. (A line I've lifted from him countless times in the twenty-plus years I've been preaching!)

Death and tragedy are and have been constant companions of the human race for most of history. Yet, we seem to view each death as a cruel, unfair encroachment on our happiness and the happiness of the one whose life is snuffed out. We see the death of young people as particularly tragic, a violation of the proper order of things.

In spite of the pattern of tragedy and sadness we see in the world (and in our newspapers) each day, illnesses, hurricanes, earthquakes, marital breakups, youthful rebellion, crime, crooked politics, job losses, mass starvation, genocide, abuse, and a whole host of other tragedies throw us off. They make us yearn for "getting back to normal," as though "normal" was a life devoid of these events, a life to which we've been usually accustomed.

In fact, sadness and tragedy seem to be the normal state of things in the world. So, it's curious that we find sadness and tragedy so offensive and hurtful. Shouldn't we be used to it?

No, I don't think that we should. I believe that deeply embedded in our collective DNA is the memory of a time when tragedy and sadness weren't part of the human experience. We weren't meant to live under their shadows. Somehow, deep within each of us, there's an awareness that life is meant to be good. And so, we're right to be offended when tragedy strikes. In an ultimate sense, it is unnatural.

The opening chapters of the Old Testament book of Genesis contain two different accounts of the creation of the universe by God. However you interpret those chapters, a few facts emerge:

1. God is good. It's in the nature of God to give. After all, God gave the gift of life to everything from the frilled lizard to human beings. Creation is a voluntary act of giving on God's part.

2. God's creation is good. God says that it is, repeatedly. And when God fashions human beings, He looks at everything He's created and declares it all, "very good!"

3. Death wasn't part of the human scene until the first human beings deliberately rebelled against God's will. That had consequences. In fact, the New Testament book of Romans says that because human beings are the pinnacle of creation, its caretakers, the whole universe groans under the burdens and consequences of human sin.

(Keep in mind that God doesn't mete out punishment every time we sin. Thank God for that! But sin is an inborn disease with which every human being is afflicted at birth. That has its results, evident in all of us.)

If we are offended by the tragedies of this world, it's understandable. Until sin entered our world, tragedy and death were foreign to our lives. No one who asks, "Why?" should feel ashamed. It offends God, too.

More tomorrow...

Election Day Has Arrived

Pundits are hesitant to make predictions about the outcome of today's presidential vote. However it turns out, I'm praying that there will be no good reason for drawn-out arguments in the judicial system. A clearcut winner would be welcome.

In fact, I fully expect that by this time on Wednesday morning, we will know who has been selected to serve as our President for the next four years.

Monday, November 01, 2004

All Saints' Day Thoughts

Today is All Saints' Day. The following is from my colleague, Pastor Glen VanderKloot of Faith Lutheran Church in Springfield, Illinois. (You can receive a daily emailed inspiration from Glen if you'll write him at and tell him so.)

Today is All Saint's Sunday. What makes a person a saint?

We think of people. People for whom special days, hospitals and churches are
named after. We might think of more recent people – people who have made
significant contributions to our world, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Oscar
Romero who the people of Central America are asking the Pope to declare a
saint these weeks. We might think of Mother Theresa of Calcutta, the young girl
from Columbine High School who is reported to have declared her faith and was
shot as a result. We might even include a grandmother or grandfather, aunt or uncle.

A bishop of Sweden once said

"Saints are those who make it easier for us to believe in God."

Robert Louis Stevenson said, "Saints are sinners who keep on going."

A saint is one who is faithful in all circumstances, one whose identity is not
shaken by the daily circumstances, the ups and downs of life.

+ + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + + +
Scripture Verse
Hebrews 12:1-3

Such a large crowd of witnesses is all around us!
So we must get rid of everything that slows us down,
especially the sin that just won't let go.
And we must be determined to run the race that is ahead of us.
We must keep our eyes on Jesus, who leads us and makes
our faith complete…So keep your mind on Jesus, who put
up with many insults from sinners. Then you won't get
discouraged and give up.


Lord, thank you for the saints who have gone before us and
provide examples of faith for us. Amen.

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Friends of God: Lost and Found

Luke 19:1-10
(shared with the people of Friendship Church, October 31, 2004)

I was at a party a few years ago and ended up at a table under an umbrella with a successful man who, from all external indicators, had his life together. We talked about this and that, as happens in informal settings where people don’t know one another very well. Then, he surprised me. He looked around to make sure that nobody was listening and said, “Mark, I’ve got to ask you something. I’ve been wondering about this a lot lately and just would like your input. What exactly is the purpose for my life? I don’t get it.”

The evening took a serious turn and we spent about twenty minutes talking about his question. I don’t know if what I had to say helped this man at all. But his question reminded me of a very important fact: Each of us seem to have this inborn desire for more than this world is able to offer us.

In our Bible lesson for today, we’re told about a man named Zacchaeus. Luke, the writer of the lesson, tells us that Zacchaeus was rich. That was because he was a tax collector. (Luke, in fact, says he was a chief tax collector.) As such, he practiced a kind of legalized extortion, after the customs of the times. Zacchaeus would have had all the best things this world has to offer.

And yet, like the guy who spoke to me at that party, as we meet him today, Zacchaeus is obviously looking for something more. That’s why he throws dignity and personal safety aside in order to climb up into a sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

Zacchaeus must have heard about Jesus, heard that Jesus was a miracle-worker Who gave forgiveness and hope to the worst of sinners imaginable, even to prostitutes and extortionist tax collectors like Zacchaeus.

Zacchaeus climbed that tree because he was searching for a better life, a different life. He hoped that somehow by seeing Jesus, he would get a vision for what that life might look like.

Do you know what I think? I think that we’re all like Zacchaeus. We know the limits of what this world has to offer. We know that even if our candidates win this coming Tuesday...even if we rocket to the top of our career food chain...even if all our investments pay off to the max, we will still be looking for more. We are all seekers.

Fortunately, we can find what we are looking for. My Mom and Dad met on a blind date on August 1, 1950. On December 2, 1950, four months and one day later, my Dad--just 21--and my Mom--aged 19--were married. Eighteen days after that, Dad shipped off, stationed at Furstenfeldbruck Airfield near Munich, Germany. Mom and Dad scrimped and saved every penny, Mom accumulated vacation days, and Dad piled up leave time so that they could have a honeymoon in Europe the following summer.

But Mom has told me that she was afraid in the months before their reunion. She kept wondering, “What if I don’t recognize my husband? What if I don’t pick Jim out from among the people who’ll be there on the docks at Southampton?” She needn’t have worried. From the ship, as it landed in England, Mom frantically scanned the people waiting on the docks. From the shore, Dad just as eagerly looked for Mom among the people waving from the ship. Their eyes locked. Mom realized that just as she was looking for my Dad, he was looking for her.

Zachhaeus learned a similar lesson that day in Jericho. He was looking for something more than this world can offer and God, the One Who can give us those things, was looking for him. Zacchaeus learned that God seeks us. Jesus, God in the flesh. looked up and saw Zacchaeus perched in that tree and calling him by name, said, “Zacchaeus, climb down here. I want to spend some time with you at your place!”

The good religious people in Jericho were scandalized! How could Jesus spend time with this notorious sinner? Zacchaeus knew he’d found what he’d been looking for: The everlasting friendship of God, offered through Jesus Christ.

I came to follow Jesus more slowly than Zacchaeus. After all, God had a thicker skull to penetrate when it came to me. But I remember how I felt when I realized that God, the One Who made me in the first place, accepted and loved me and had better plans for my life than I could ever make myself. I remember how I felt when I realized that the missing hole in my soul was filled by Jesus.

A few years after I had my “Zacchaeus moment,” I ran into an old high school friend of mine. “You’re different, Mark. I can see that. Before, you were like a crazy man. There was an instability at your core. But now I can see that you’re at home with yourself.” He was right. Through Jesus Christ, I came to feel at home with myself because I was at home with God.

That old Mark sometimes rears his ugly head, usually at least once a day. But like Zacchaeus, I’ve found what I was looking for in the God Who came looking for me!

So, we’re all looking for more than this world has to offer and through Jesus God is looking for us to give it to us.

Now, there’s just one more point I want to share with you this morning. It’s this: When Jesus finds us, we experience what our Bible lesson calls salvation.

Jesus says to Zacchaeus, “Today [because I’m here, Zacchaeus], salvation has come to your house.” In part, that means that because Zacchaeus has trusted Jesus to change his life--to change him from a money-grubbing, thieving enemy of God to a forgiven friend of God--Zacchaeus has been saved from sin and death.

But soteria, the New Testament Greek word that we translate as salvation, means much more than that. It also has the idea of our being made whole or complete. In a way, you and I are these crazed, fragmented Humpty Dumpties and Jesus puts all the pieces back together again, only better than before.

One of my favorite passages of the Bible tells us that “if anyone is in Christ Jesus, there is a new creation.” We’re bionic people! Even when life gets crazy, we know that we belong to God and that God will help us face whatever life brings, good or bad.

And there’s even more to salvation. (In saying that, I feel like an announcer in one of those TV commercials: “But wait: there’s more!” But there really is more!) It’s this: When God’s salvation comes to one life, it has an impact on countless other lives as well.

Jesus declares that salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ whole house. Zacchaeus’ family and employees would have likely felt an immediate difference in how they were treated once Jesus entered Zacchaeus’ life.

People in Jericho would have noticed the difference, too. Grateful for the salvation that Jesus has given to him, Zacchaeus makes a vow: “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”

Can you imagine the difference it would make in our worlds if each of us, every politician and businessperson, and every person of influence made a similar vow? Can you imagine the impact it would have if every person who says they follow Jesus Christ vowed to love God and neighbor completely?

A person to whom the salvation of Jesus has come is, in God's hands, a weapon of mass instruction, an object lesson for all the world to see how Jesus goes to work on people to help them become their best selves!

We seek God;

God seeks and finds us;

and when we let Jesus into our lives, salvation---freedom from sin and death, wholeness, and a commitment to the good of others comes into our lives and the lives of all we know.

My prayer is that just like Zacchaeus, we will let Jesus’ free gift of salvation into our lives and begin to experience the better lives God has in mind for all of us.