In 2001, the Christian band Mercy Me released their hit single, I Can Only Imagine. It offers a myriad of different responses we might have when we meet Jesus face-to-face as we enter glory. The song invites us to imagine what it might feel like to stand before Jesus. How will we respond? Dance? Fall to our knees? Stand in quiet awe? Sing hallelujah? It’s a moving thought, which is one reason the song is so popular.
In Luke 19, a man named Zacchaeus got to experience that moment for himself. We’ve known the story from childhood (all together now, “Zacchaeus was a wee little man …”). The amazing moment in this story was not his climbing the tree or Jesus’ announcement that he would dine with the much-despised tax collector that very evening.
What is astounding is how deeply this miserly, deceitful little man was impacted by being in the presence of Jesus. There are two things we know about Zacchaeus; he cheated and he hoarded. He was a tax collector and he was wealthy. The two went together. You overtax people and pocket the excess. Then you keep everything for yourself and grow rich on the backs of the poor. This was Zacchaeus’ way of life, his warped value system, his life as an owner and a miser. He likely hated himself as much as everyone else hated him.
And then he met Jesus, face-to-face. And his world imploded.
Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount. (Luke 19:8)
Face-to-face with Jesus, Zacchaeus’ heart was transformed. Not only was he changed inwardly, but it overflowed into extraordinary action. His owner’s attitude turned to generosity. His deceptive spirit experienced metanoia, a complete reversal of his mind and patterns of thinking. He would repay all he had stolen, and four times as much.
How about us? Don’t we believe Jesus is with us each day? Don’t we picture Him walking with us? Don’t we sing about, “thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide”?
The problem, of course, is that for Zacchaeus, Jesus had skin on Him. In Mercy Me’s song, we stand directly in His presence, physically face-to-face. So, let’s let our imagination run free for a moment. Close your eyes (after you read this), and imagine Jesus sitting right in front of you. Right there in your living room, your office, your dorm room, in the coffee shop or wherever you are right now. Jesus and you, you and Jesus, face-to-face.
How do you respond? Not how you hope you would respond; that’s not imagination, it’s just calculation to make you look good. Live in the moment. Let down your defenses. See Jesus, right there, in the flesh. Just you and Him. Let His gaze look deep inside you. Let His warmth run over you. Let His presence calm and comfort you. And let His holiness unnerve you.
As you do, shift your thinking quickly to the anxiety you are carrying, the fears you are harboring, the discouragement you are enduring. Do you find that “the things of this world grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace”? What else do you feel? Deep peace or the need to repent? Quiet joy or a sudden hatred of the sin you have allowed in your life? Would you dance and sing hallelujah, or confess to Jesus your fear-infused, owner-driven life?
It is likely we may feel many of these emotions at the same time. And they are all legitimate responses to an encounter with the living Jesus, present and powerful and peaceful and penetrating. One thing I believe would be true for all of us; if we are living as owners, holding on to worldly stuff and trying to control life for our own benefit, we would be shattered in His presence. Like Zacchaeus, we might stand and denounce our stingy heart, our greed-driven attitudes and our history of keeping and spending on our kingdom what God had asked us to give joyfully and invest in His kingdom.
And what would we do as a result? Would we shrug our shoulders and walk away? Or would we vow then and there to change our ways, to open our hearts, to live more fully for Him? Would we go ask forgiveness or give forgiveness that is long overdue? Would we turn from the sin that is eroding our life and commit to a new walk of purity and holiness? Would we try to love those we hate, embrace those we marginalize, serve those we once labeled undeserving? Would we tell others about Jesus without fear and help others know Jesus without reservation?
Would we take on the mantle of stewards, acknowledging that everything belongs to Jesus and begin living with a renewed passion for joyful obedience?
Would we be changed? Will we be changed? Will we, today, in His presence, right at this moment, allow Him to change us?
What would we do if we stood face-to-face with the living Jesus? We can only imagine.