I Am Zacchaeus

by Erin Bird

Today, I want to start a new series here on the blog from Luke 19:1-10. You possibly know this section of Scripture as the story of Zacchaeus, made famous by the children’s song. If you aren’t familiar with the story or need a refresher, I encourage you to take a moment to read it. (Don’t worry, I’ll wait for you.)

Here’s what we’ll do during this short series: Next week, we’ll look at the reaction of the crowds to Zacchaeus, then in two weeks, we’ll end the series by looking at Jesus’ view of Zacchaeus.

But this week, I want to look at Zacchaeus himself. He was a fascinating man that I think you and I can learn from.

Get to know Zacchaeus

Here is what we know about Zacchaeus from Luke 19:

1. He lived in Jericho.

Jericho was a city just north of the Dead Sea near the Jordan River (map). This location would have been a couple days walk south of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent the majority of his life and ministry. Which means, Jesus didn’t spend much time around Jericho. Word had been spreading around Israel about the miracle-worker from Nazareth, so to have Jesus arrive in Jericho would have been like the arrival of a celebrity. The whole city would have turned out trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

2. He was a wealthy tax collector.

i love zacchaeus2 350x196 - I Am ZacchaeusTax collectors were some of the most despised individuals in Israel, because they were Jewish men who were working for the Roman government. But not only were tax collectors “sellouts” who obtained required taxes for the Roman Empire, they often took more than necessary, keeping the extra for themselves. In other words, they were thieves. That’s how Zacchaeus had become so wealthy.

3. He was short.

An average Jewish man in Jesus’ day would have been about 5 foot 5 inches, meaning Zacchaeus must have been significantly under this mark. So Zacchaeus was most likely five foot tall at most. While we don’t know his exact height, we do know he was short enough that when Jesus was walking down the streets of Jericho, Zacchaeus couldn’t see over those in front of him. Which is why he opted to take desperate measures, as we see next…

4. He was desperate for Jesus.

In verse 4, we see Zacchaeus climb a sycamore tree. The Israeli variety of sycamore is a bit different than the North American variety. The sycamore Zacchaeus climbed was probably shorter than if he’d climbed one in Iowa. Also, the branches were probably low enough for him to grab. The branches then probably created a “nest” where he could sit or stand (instead of just one trunk going skyward with branches coming off the trunk).

But here are two reasons why climbing a tree reveals Zacchaeus’ desperation:

#1. Jewish men in the first century did nothing publicly that would bring make them look undignified. They didn’t run. They didn’t pursue recreational activities. And the most certainly didn’t climb trees. By climbing a tree, Zacchaeus (who is already hated by the majority of the city, which we’ll talk about more next week) is drawing even more attention to himself, furthering to ruin his horrible reputation even further.

#2. Jewish men wore robes/tunics with nothing underneath. We don’t know how high Zacchaeus climbed, but it’s possible he risked people (or at least curious kids) seeing his privates, even FURTHER ruining his reputation within the community.

And yet, while the crowd emotionally looked down upon this desperate htree-climbing tax collector, Jesus stops, calls him down, and invites himself over to hang out with Zacchaeus, a sign of tremendous respect.

Why did Jesus honor this traitorous thief? Because he saw Zacchaeus’ desperation, and knew Zacchaeus no longer wanted the riches of this world, but wanted the spiritual riches found in Christ.

I Want to Be Like Zacchaeus

I am like Zacchaeus. No, I am not a wealthy, thieving, Jewish short man from Jericho. I have never worked for the IRS. I have never betrayed my fellow countrymen by working for a foreign government. I have never extorted someone for money. And while my taller friends have made fun of my almost-5-foot-9-inch frame, I have never had to climb a tree to see a parade.

Despite these differences, I am like Zacchaeus. My worldly pursuits have never fully satisfied. Like Zacchaeus, I need the spiritual riches of Christ.

But while I am like Zacchaeus in some regards, I want to be like him in a different regard. I, too, want to be desperate. I want to live with a desperate desire to know and follow Jesus.

Now I will admit: I don’t want to look weird in the eyes of our culture. But I want to want Jesus more than I want respect and admiration of my fellow man. Which means if my spiritual desperation makes me look foolish in the eyes of others, then so be it.

But that’s not all. I want you to be desperate for Jesus, too. I want you to realize Jesus is worth everything: worth running for, worth climbing trees for, worth being embarrassed for. You and I might live in a culture that thinks we are wasting our time gathering to worship Jesus on Sundays, or looks weird taking a moment in prayer to thank God for our food while at a restaurant, or views us as odd for choosing to say “no” to certain activities our culture deems as perfectly acceptable. Your reputation might take a hit if you reveal a Christ-centered desperation.

But when you live with a desperate heart that longs for Jesus like a deer pants for water, He rewards you with his full presence, changing your heart and perspective on life.

So I am Zacchaeus, or at least I want to be. And I hope you will be a Zacchaeus as well.

The Palm Sunday Mistake

by Erin Bird

It’s no secret; I love movies. One of my favorite directors is Christopher Nolan, famous for writing and directing Inception, the Dark Knight (Batman) trilogy, Interstellar, and 2017’s Dunkirk.

The first Nolan film I ever saw was The Prestige. The film is about two 19th-century magicians competing to be known as the greatest illusionist of their time. Both men were so committed to their craft, they were willing to make major sacrifices. But the viewer doesn’t realize just how deep their sacrifice truly was until the end of the film approaches. The reason you, as the viewer, get surprised by the ending is because you naturally made assumptions about what you were seeing, causing you to fall into a “mental mistake” regarding the story.

A Biblical Mistake

In the New Testament, all four Gospels share a story of what has become known as “The Triumphal Entry.” This true story is remembered every year on Palm Sunday, the week before Easter (which is this Sunday if you didn’t realize it!). If you aren’t familiar with the story, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem riding on a donkey as people wave palm branches while yelling, “Hosanna!” (which means “give salvation now” in Hebrew).

But the palm wavers were making a huge Prestige-level mistake.

Palm branchesThe palm branch had become a symbol for Israel, meaning the wave of a palm branch was a rebellious gesture against the Roman Empire. On top of this, Jesus was riding into town on a donkey, in fulfillment of a prophesy about a coming king (Zechariah 9:9). So, the people assumed Jesus was arriving as a political Savior who was going to “give salvation now” by overthrowing the Roman government and reestablishing Israel as a sovereign nation.

But that’s not why Jesus was entering Jerusalem.

You see, Jesus didn’t come to earth to overthrow or establish a political nation. As the eternal Son of God, He knew powerful nations rise and fall. Rather, there was a spiritual empire that had enslaved God’s people for several millenia. Ever since Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit (see Genesis chapter 3), sin had subjugated mankind. So Jesus did not come to overthrow a temporary Roman empire, but rather overthrow the long-reign of sin. His aim wasn’t to simply be a political king, but the True King over all things, including life and death.

But it is not just the palm wavers that were mistaken about Jesus. Sometimes modern humans like you and I make assumptions about Jesus that are also incorrect.

  • Some view Him as simply a good moral teacher,
  • Others see Him as a benevolent God who will give us nice things if we behave,
  • And still others have an opinion that He’s just a myth created by desperate people.

But Jesus is none of those things.

Like a Prestige magician, Jesus, fully God and fully human, willingly sacrificed Himself on a cross, not to pull off the greatest illusion ever, but to truly pay the penalty of sin so you and I might be freed from its tyranny and could enter the Kingdom of God. And to make Jesus the King of your life is not a mistake, but rather the best thing you could ever do!

Jesus to the Rescue

By Erin Bird

Most of the people in my family like superhero movies, especially the Dark Knight series directed by Christopher Nolan or most of the movies in the MCU. Needless to say, a few of us Birds are quite excited about The Black Panther movie releasing tomorrow night. It is getting rave reviews, and seems to hit most of the things I appreciate about good movies (character development, solid storyline, great photography, solid special effects, etc.).

But if you think about it, most superhero movies boil down to the same plot: a seemingly ordinary human uses his or her superpowers to do something truly extraordinary that saves others from the story’s bad guy.

If you are a follower of Jesus, you know from where they get this plot – the Gospel, the greatest story of all time.

More than a Superhero

jesus rescue2 350x196 - Jesus to the RescueWe are continuing our series here on the blog on “The Gospel on the Ground,” which is God, Man, Christ, Response. So far, we’ve looked at parts 1 & 2 (God & Man), so that means this week we come to Part 3: Christ.

In Isaiah 53:2-3, God clued His followers in that the Messiah wouldn’t look like anyone special. Just like comic book superheroes have secret identities, Jesus looked like a carpenter from the small town of Nazareth. But unlike a Peter Parker who was a flawed teenager, or a Bruce Wayne who was trying to overcome the guilt and fear that washed over him with the murder of his parents, Jesus wasn’t a flawed human trying to atone for His shortcomings. He was the sinless Son of God.

And He did more than just rescue earth from invading aliens like the Avengers, He died for the sin of the bad guy in the story, who was separated from the loving Creator of the Universe because of this sin.

Jesus is the hero of the Gospel story. That is why we sing to Him each Sunday, why we remember His incredible sacrifice through communion, and why we seek to become more like Him in our emotions, thoughts, and actions.

And so may you find joy today in knowing that Jesus rescued you through the cross. Let the high point of the Gospel story invigorate your spirit and impact your “everyday, ordinary life—your sleeping, eating, going-to-work, and walking-around life.” (Romans 12:1-2 MSG)

Fasting Leads You to Jesus

From January 7-27, Riverwood will be doing “21 Days of Fasting & Prayer” as a church family. We’ll be praying for Riverwood, for our nation, for our community, for one another, and for personal spiritual growth in 2018. To make our weekly blog post a part of this spiritual campaign, we’ll be looking at Isaiah 58 and the topic of fasting. So let’s learn together as we seek Jesus through the spiritual discipline of fasting!

by Erin Bird

About two and a half years ago, during Lent, I overheard a conversation where a gal was sharing what she had given up as part of Lent. I can’t recall from what she was fasting (I think it might have been chocolate or coffee), but her face and voice revealed she was doing awful, hating every moment of her fast.

And that’s when she said, “I sure hope this makes God happy, because I’m miserable!”

Sometimes, we view fasting like this gal. We see God as some drill sergeant at Basic Training yelling in our face to drop and give him 40 days of no food, and if we complete it, He’ll be happy with us. But if we fail, we run the risk of facing His wrath.

But that’s NOT the reason we are to fast! Fasting isn’t about…

  • miserably giving up something to “make God happy,”
  • trying to get God to do what we want,
  • or trying to prove to others that we are spiritual.

Over the next few weeks here on the blog, as part of our “21 Days of Fasting and Prayer,” we are going to look at some of the benefits of fasting by working through Isaiah 58. And what we are going to see through this Old Testament chapter is that…

  • fasting changes us, not God (Jan 11)
  • fasting should help others (Jan 18)
  • and fasting is an act of worship (Jan 25).

But before we get to any of that, we need to talk about the primary purpose to fasting.

The Ultimate Benefit

fasting leads to Jesus2 350x196 - Fasting Leads You to JesusYears ago, I read a book about fasting called Starving Jesus. One of the authors shared a personal story about the reason he decided to fast from food for the first time in his life. The reason? Lose weight. The fast worked – he lost weight. But after his fast, he realized weight loss was the wrong “benefit.” He discovered, through his sacrifice of food, a greater benefit, a better goal than just shedding a few pounds. He discovered the ultimate benefit is Jesus.

In our three-week series in Isaiah 58, we are going to see some benefits that come as a result of fasting. But each of these benefits ultimately points us to Christ. In other words, in the midst of our fasting, we need to remember the biggest “benefit” you get from fasting is God Himself.

Here’s why this is important: We live in a physical world, with physical eyes. It is incredibly easy to allow our hearts and minds to be filled with the things of this world. Our schedules, our stress, our possessions, our hobbies, our work goals, and more fill our thoughts in our quiet moments. Seeking Jesus while fasting gives us a continual reminder that there is something more valuable than all these things. Fasting can create clarity, clearing up our spiritual vision to see Jesus. And as we see Jesus clearer, we will become more like Him, enabling us to live out the three things we are going to talk about over the coming weeks.

So I invite you to join me on this 21 Days of Fasting and Prayer journey. I encourage you to find at least one thing that God is calling you to give up for 21 days to put your focus on that which is of greater value. Let’s pursue Jesus together!