This week’s Journey to Eternity sermon is about welcome. The word welcome is one way you could summarize God’s mission to humanity through Christ. Jesus eliminates any obstacle to our welcome at God’s heavenly feast through the sacrifice of His body on the cross. For our sermon text, I looked at Luke 19:1-10, the story of Zacchaeus, in which Zacchaeus is saved from his sins not by being chastised or argued into a corner, but through Jesus inviting himself over for lunch. The sermon audio and manuscript are both below.
How many of you hate parties? Well I do. Oh, I love the idea of parties. I’m always saying to my wife, “We should have people over.” We’ve been planning to invite the neighbors over for an open house since we moved in three years ago.
It’s one thing to invite people you know well to your house. Then you just have to move the piles to a room that you aren’t using. We have a Bible study small group that meets in our home every week. Most of them are families with little kids. So they get it. The toy room is a disaster before they arrive, and it’s a disaster when they leave. But if you invite people over for a party, that means that all the rooms except the bedrooms need to be presentable which means that you need to be caught up with the laundry, the paperwork, the boxes, the mail, etc.
And the worst part about parties is when the people actually get there. Because you have to entertain them. You can’t just sit in the corner because that’s not being hospitable. So you have to rack your brain for interesting things to say. And you don’t know what music is appropriate because you’re not in college anymore but you haven’t entered into the jazz-only era of life either. Now I know that some of you eat this stuff up and don’t give it a second thought. So who in here actually enjoys hosting parties?
Ah, good. Now can I ask you a follow up question? What are you doing for lunch? Can I come over and eat with you? Is that cool? And what do you usually do after you eat? Is it all right if I take a nap? I don’t need a bed; I can just stretch out on the couch… Thanks for playing along. Promise me you’ll raise your hand again in church sometime.
If I were Jesus, I could pull that off… I just can’t get over how different it was back in Jesus’ day. He pulls into town and invites himself over to lunch with a complete stranger, Zacchaeus, along with all twelve of his disciples and whoever else was in their entourage: we know that a bunch of women were traveling with them, some of the disciples probably had families. So 25 would be a fairly conservative estimate for the entourage size.
And Zacchaeus not only said yes, but he was deeply honored. And he was so floored that Jesus wanted to eat with him that he decided that day to pay back all the people he had ripped off as a tax collector and offer a huge chunk of his fortune to the poor. What’s going on with this picture?
As many of you know, Jewish tax collectors in Jesus’ time were despised by their fellow Jews. They bid with the Roman government for the right to collect taxes by paying an enormous cash advance; then they could recoup as much money as they wanted with the backing of the Roman military. Furthermore, they were commodity speculators. Because they had more liquid currency on hand than anybody else, they could buy up all the grain in the region, put it for sale at a 400% markup, and trigger a humanitarian crisis.
Needless to say, the Jews saw tax collectors were complete traitors who had disinherited themselves from their people. That’s why the townspeople were grumbling when Jesus went to eat with Zacchaeus. And that’s why it was such a powerful thing for Jesus to say, “Today salvation has come to this house. For he too is a son of Abraham.” Those two sentences go together. By dining with Zacchaeus, Jesus officially welcomes him back into the Jewish community, and Zacchaeus in response repents of his greed: that is Zacchaeus’ salvation.
Notice what Jesus didn’t do. He didn’t organize a mass protest outside of Zacchaeus’ house with picket signs spelling out a list of demands. He didn’t even tell Zacchaeus, “Before I come over for lunch, there are some things we need to talk about.” Jesus didn’t say anything other than to let Zacchaeus know that he wanted to eat with him more than anybody else in that community. By making himself welcome in Zacchaeus’ home, Jesus welcomed Zacchaeus home to his people.Even though we live in a different age, this story expresses an eternal truth about the nature of welcome. The best way to welcome others is to give them the space to welcome us. Jesus didn’t have a problem whipping up food for 5000 people on a minute’s notice. He could have held a public picnic of loaves and fishes and invited Zacchaeus, which would have saved Zacchaeus the trouble of scrambling to pull a huge feast together. But then salvation wouldn’t have come to Zacchaeus’ house; Zacchaeus would not have received the full acceptance of being able to do something for the messiah of his people.
The story of Zacchaeus shows how welcome is the essence of Christian salvation. The way that Jesus brings Zacchaeus to repentance for his sins is not to publicly shame him or argue him into a corner. Zacchaeus is confronted instead by the pure good-natured-ness of his absolute welcome and acceptance. And that welcome tastes so sweet to Zacchaeus that he wants to drop everything about his life that keeps him from being a part of it. He wants to become a part of Jesus’ welcome and share it with everyone he cheated. That’s how grace works. God overwhelms us with His love; and the beauty we taste makes us want to let go of every ugliness.
What Zacchaeus discovered on the day that salvation came to his house is that we receive eternal life by becoming part of God’s welcome. God doesn’t wait to welcome us to His party until after He sees that we’ve done a good enough job of welcoming other people. It’s the reverse. When we discover how welcome we are with God, then we want to welcome our neighbors. And a house of grace is built throughout the world as these waves of welcome spread. God reaches out to heal our ugliness not with the punishment of lightning bolts and plagues, but by sharing a sweetness that takes away our appetite for hurtful, destructive ways of living.
So what if you hate parties? What if you’re just an introvert? Does that make you a second-class purveyor of God’s welcome? I’ve been reading a book called Reaching Out by Henri Nouwen that talks about hospitality in which he says something really strange: “Poverty makes the best host.” He explains that what he means by poverty is to reveal yourself as the opposite of someone who has everything together. If your party is too perfect, then you’re being a bad host because you haven’t allowed for the incompleteness in which people can let their guard down and feel at home.
What makes parties stressful is when they serve the purpose of proving to others that you’re a good host. The more that you rest in the welcoming arms of God, the less you feel the need to prove anything. Nouwen says that most people are lonely and they try to fulfill their incompleteness through social interactions with others. When we rest in the arms of God, our loneliness becomes solitude, a deep comfort within our own skin that allows us to love others without an anxious neediness.
The way to move from loneliness to solitude is through a life of prayer. Prayer is not something to do because you’re supposed to; it is something to do because God wants to show you how welcome and loved you are. Jesus may have been socially bold enough to invite himself over to a stranger’s house for lunch, but time and time again in the gospels, we see him leaving everyone else to go off by himself and pray. You will never escape your loneliness unless you embrace the solitude of your heavenly Father’s welcoming arms.
God is inviting himself into your heart because He wants so desperately to welcome you and make you a perfect host. So when you come to our church picnic next weekend or wherever else you have the opportunity to be hospitable, don’t come as the expert power-networking potato salad champion; come in poverty; let your incompleteness allow the space for others to feel at home. And spend some time this week in the sweet solitude of God’s welcome so that you can be moved to the same giddiness that filled Zacchaeus’ heart.