Zacchaeus had heard of Jesus. Jesus was passing through Jericho, Luke tells us in chapter 19 of his gospel, but stopped to sit with and attend to an image bearer, Zacchaeus. Being a chief publican (or tax collector) meant Zacchaeus wasn’t welcomed in many places. He was ignored by the community despite being wealthy. Even though Jesus had just taught about the difficulty of a rich man entering into his kingdom, (Luke 18:18-25) still he slowed enough to be with Zacchaeus.
That day, Jesus gave Zacchaeus time to become familiar with him and offered him salvation. Jesus didn’t overlook Zacchaeus. I wonder how that conversation went. What did they discuss? Did they laugh over things that surprised Zacchaeus? Was Zacchaeus overwhelmed with being in the presence of Divinity? All we know is that Jesus offered Zacchaeus the gift of his presence and Zacchaeus offered him a changed life in return.
An Essential, Missing Element
Over the last 12 months of ministry, I have sat a screen’s distance away from many young people wilting from lack of connection. Often, they are surrounded by a few family members, but aren’t able to grab coffee with or get a hug from a friend—activities from what feels like another time period. The loneliness could be cut with a knife. While they talked to me through the screen, I prayed God would give the right words to uphold them for the next while.
What they seemed to be missing was withness, being with people. They miss gathering as a community and meeting with God together. What once seemed to be an invisible commodity lurking in the background of normal life has now been identified as essential to survival. The value of simply being with someone has risen to the top as a necessity, not a luxury to be taken for granted. The demand outgrew the availability, and our souls are suffering from a lack of something we never knew we needed.
Jesus, Immanuel, God WITH us
This isn’t the first time souls have suffered from separation. In a society wrecked with the ugliness of sin, the balm for a broken soul was poured out before. Jesus was introduced to us as Immanuel, God with us through his intimate and quiet arrival. This approachable God came to bind up our suffering souls, to free us from the things that distract and entangle us, and to comfort us in our grief. He came to replace our wrecked and worn-out dressings, and to give us joy once more.
We might not have a copy of the dialog between Zacchaeus and Jesus the day they shared lunch, but we know these promises applied to him as well. Jesus came for Zacchaeus’ shattered soul pieces, to free him from the entanglements he was wrapped in, to comfort his grief, and to give him joy. Jesus had been with Zacchaeus.
Similar to Zacchaeus’ experience, Jesus came to meet our need for withness, too. Humanity needed the withness of Christ as Jesus passed through Jericho that day and we continue to need him now. Pandemic living has brought our need for the withness of Christ to the forefront.
The Grief of Isolation
Through the white rectangle on my laptop screen, I remind my friends that it is okay to grieve the losses of the year, that their heaviness doesn’t mean something is wrong with them, that they are created for community and its palpable vacancy is proof. I assure them that it is okay to acknowledge a need for comfort even though they are physically healthy and outwardly appear so. And, more often than not, I find that by simply sitting with them, speaking these truths over them, and allowing them to quietly weep, the pressure lifts slightly because they have become aware of the nearness of Christ.
When we acknowledge the weight of the struggle, the burden seems just a little lighter—not because we are suddenly able to carry more weight, but because we have become aware of the nearness of Jesus. He promises to be close to the brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18), to answer our cries for help (Psalm 18:6), and to be close enough to cover us with his sheltering and shielding wing (Psalm 91:4).
I have come to experience Jesus’ nearness when I remember his approachability. His birth invited the wealthy and wise, the humble and hardened, the lonely and unloved. Jesus continues to be approachable now and welcomes me whenever I need it. I find myself drawn to times of silence—whether that’s in the car without the radio blaring, doing a chore uninterrupted, aggressively walking a trail, or sitting on the deck with coffee in the morning. This lets me sort out my thoughts and emotions with Jesus as the sieve.
Sometimes I feel as though I am sitting at the other end of a bench from him with my arms crossed and my chin high in the air, scowling, frustrated, and fuming over foolish things. With his guidance, I am able to separate the exhaustion and loneliness from the other issues that we need to address together and slowly release the stubborn arms and relax the scowl. Then, I am able to trade his beauty for my ashes and get doused with his oil of gladness. In our times of loneliness, may we experience the blessing of being aware of the withness of our approachable Jesus. Thankfully, we don’t have to climb a tree to get an unexpected lunch date with Jesus.