Becoming the Sycamore Tree

October 3rd, 2009

Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Tree. It was my favorite Bible story as a kid. And because of that, over the years I’d come to the conclusion that it belongs in Vacation Bible School only—certainly not on a blueprint for youth ministry. (Just in case, though, I stuck it on the flannelboard of my brain should I ever be subpoenaed to teach preschool.)

But oddly enough—a mere five years into youth ministry—I’ve found this simple Bible story has become the guiding metaphor for my service to this generation.

For the first few years of my ministry, I surrendered to the temptation of defining success by bodies in chairs, names on sign-up sheets, and smiles on faces. My ministry was to the “crowd,” with little concern for those who didn’t possess the courage, strength, desire, or ability to rise above the distractions around them.

Then an eight-year-old girl at summer camp started me rethinking all of that.

I was sharing the story of Zacchaeus at a morning chapel—knowing that more minds were on the craft shack or ping-pong than on salvation. I chose the smallest kid to play the leading role and a reluctant-yet-stout counselor to provide the branches on which our little Zach could perch. I picked a Jesus. And for the crowd I assembled a small band of willing volunteers. The drama unfolded. There were giggles as “Zacchaeus” made his way up the “tree,” hitting a few ticklish spots on his journey. Then Jesus came to town, Zacchaeus came down, we sang the familiar song, and all the kids in the crowd returned to their seats. But before turning over the podium to the cabin inspectors, I closed by asking a question:

What would have happened if Zacchaeus hadn’t climbed the tree that day?

Maybe I naively expected a first-grader to respond with something like, “Well, obviously he would have missed Jesus and salvation would not have come to his house that day, and Jesus would have had to wait to state that his mission was to ’seek and save the lost’,” because I was taken aback by this eight-year-old girl’s response:

His song wouldn’t be as much fun to sing!

It took me only a moment to see my question through her eyes. Then I began to hear with her ears. (You’ll have to sing out loud to get the effect.)

Zacchaeus was a wee little man
A wee little man was he
He started to climb in a sycamore tree
But he didn’t…
And then…he went home.

(Not the greatest tune without Zacchaeus’ upward journey, huh?)

That’s how we ended chapel. But that little girl began something new in me. She helped me realize that my definition of a successful ministry had been severely missing the mark.

I was more interested in the next retreat, more focused on my next class, and more excited about the newest game I planned to teach at the next devotional—completely oblivious to those in my group whose songs were not much fun to sing because their faith was so small…and the crowd was too tall…and they had no sycamore tree to climb.

I hadn’t been looking out for my Zacchaeuses.

At my church, we have a private preschool and kindergarten. In the nearby church courtyard is a playground. And on that playground is an off-limits tree. A big tree. A tempting tree. I mean, this is a Mount-Everest-of-a-tree to little, exploring eyes. It’s as though God chose a playground and placed a tree in the middle and declared, “On every other structure thou mayest climb, but on this tree thou mayest not climb, for on the day when thou dost, thou shalt surely…be placed in time-out…or something.”

Eventually a red line was painted above the second limb from the ground. The children were free to climb to that line, but everything above was forbidden territory. And “Mrs. Wanda” (as the kids call her) guards that tree with a watchful eye that would impress an angel wielding a flaming sword.

But after hours—figuring Mrs. Wanda and her whistle have departed for wherever kindergarten teachers go until 8 a.m. the next day—some kids do climb above the red line. There’s something about that tree that beckons, “Come…and climb!” to every adventurer.

What makes it tough is that those who’ve boldly gone where no child has gone before tell other children about the view. During recess they proudly (albeit quietly) boast to those content with hop-scotch, “I have been to the promised land…and from it you can see over the fence of the playground!”

What they’ve seen “up there” is amazing—much more so than the mundane sandbox.

Each morning I see that tree when I go to my office. Every day I see wee little people looking up, peering through its branches in awe. And I’m reminded that what they seek is a viewpoint so very different from their own. But without the tree, their quest is impossible—and their song is not as much fun to sing.

That’s when it hit me.

For many years I tried to be Jesus to the teens God entrusted to me. I tried to save them. I tried to heal them. I tried to build a ministry that would be truth and light for them.

And all those years I noticed only three characters in the Zacchaeus story—Jesus the Savior, Zacchaeus the sinner, and the crowd of distractions.

I forgot about the sycamore tree.

The sycamore tree is me.

And ministering as the sycamore tree is the mission to which I’ve been called.

When I made that realization, I developed a new definition for success in youth ministry—a clearer image of who God’s called me to be and what he’s called me to do:

Like the sycamore tree, my job is to lift teens above the crowd so they might see the approaching Savior.

I was so occupied with bearing the burden of saving kids that I failed to acknowledge that Jesus came to seek and save the lost. He will find them.He will heal them.

Jesus simply pleads with me to create an environment where teens will willingly choose to “come and climb” so they’ll be found by him.

Luke records that when “Jesus reached the spot,” he calls to Zacchaeus to come down. Jesus doesn’t stumble upon the tree. He doesn’t follow the crowd’s jeers and pointing fingers to find a stranger out on a limb. This meeting is no accident. He goes “to the spot” as though it’s his destination that day—not some comical interruption preceding an important public appearance.

Jesus’ search for Zacchaeus is far more noteworthy than Zacchaeus’ attempt to catch a glimpse of the Christ. The story is not about a seeking tax collector, but about a seeking Savior.

Imagine the houses that had been cleaned that day in hopes that Jesus would invite himself there for the evening. City leaders, prominent dignitaries, wealthy landowners—all certain they had it “together” enough that Jesus would choose them as dinner companions.

Jesus, however, made his reservation before he ever arrived in town. Others wanted to be seen with Jesus, but this day will forever be remembered because one man wanted to be seen by Jesus—and he needed a sycamore tree to fulfill this desire.

“He wanted to see who Jesus was but…he could not because of the crowd” (Luke 19:3).

Preaching (at least the way I’ve done it) won’t win much of this generation to Christ; but being available when a teen wants to climb higher to investigate the outrageous claims of the Son of God, will.

In the Zacchaeus song we all know, I’ve always been bothered by the way we recreate the moment when Jesus encounters his new friend. Maybe your Sunday school teacher was kinder and gentler, but mine would shake her finger and say, “Zacchaeus, you come down from that tree!” with the kind of vocal inflection my mother would use when employing my first, middle, and last names along with phrases like “wait until your father gets home!”

Maybe it doesn’t matter much what tone of voice Jesus uses here, but to me (and I imagine to any teen listening for him), Jesus’s tone is vital. The voice Zacchaeus hears offers peace, protection, and a promise. His invitation seems to say, “Zacchaeus, you don’t belong on a tree. That’s my job.” The response Jesus receives from Zacchaeus is immediate, sincere, and abundant.

How do I measure the success of my ministry?

If it’s only through numbers or pats on the back, the lost are seldom sought or saved. If what I want to hear is, “I enjoyed the retreat,” “Great class!” or “Good pizza,” then salvation will not likely come to the homes of those I serve.

But—as a sycamore tree—I long to hear teens say, “I see him, and I know he sees me.”

My challenge is to be guided by the sycamore metaphor. Not as a formula for success or steps to a healthy ministry, but as a way to understand my role—our roles—in the kingdom.

I now perform a one-man drama from the viewpoint of the sycamore tree. In character, I describe the excitement of being so close to Jesus and the anticipation of catching a glimpse of the Savior. Noticing Zacchaeus in the crowd, however, I fear that he might get too close and then I will be forever linked with a sinner in Christ’s memory. Then Zacchaeus begins his climb up my trunk—and the higher he climbs, the lower I feel.

But then—after hearing the invitation of Jesus and the response of the tax collector—I am forever changed. I realize that I’ve become the closest witness to the encounter between these two men. At that moment—despite not being noticed myself—I’ve been used to lift someone above the crowd so that he might see the approaching Savior and that the approaching Savior might see him.

Repentance is shouted. Forgiveness is offered. Salvation is delivered. And it’s the sycamore tree that provides the means for this miracle to occur. To witness someone’s song becoming so much more fun to sing.

Like the sycamore tree, my job is to lift teens above the crowd so they might see the approaching Savior.

Luke eventually tells the story of another tree. The first tree holds a man living a lie while on the other hangs a man dying for truth.

Zacchaeus climbs a tree to get the attention of Jesus. Jesus climbs a tree and dies to get ours.

Being a tree is easy.

Being a Savior is not.


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