A Sermon by Pastor Chico Martin

October 30, 2016

Fourth Sunday before Advent

Lections: Habakkuk 1:1-4; Psalm 32; 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4;11-12; Luke 19:1-10


Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho, was a wealthy man, who worked, as did the Publican we read about last week, with the Roman occupiers of Israel; therefore, his neighbors despised him.  Zacchaeus seems to have been much better off than the Publican, which means he regularly overcharged people for their taxes and kept much of the revenue for himself.  Thus, he disgraced himself and his family, because of how he made his living, and he is labelled as a sinner.  Somehow, for we are not told how, Zacchaeus has heard of Jesus, and he wants to see this person, but he is too short to see over the crowd that follows Jesus.  So “he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him.”  

This image of Zacchaeus, running ahead of the Lord, and climbing a tree to see him, profoundly affects our imagination, and easily stays with us, in our heart, if only we let it.  We have all, I hope, in our childhood, when we were little, climbed trees.  We have scraped our legs on their bark, and perched on their limbs.  The vantage, its height, was a special joy for us, a place where we could be hidden, though we were not as high up or as hidden as we thought ourselves to be.  Let me suggest that Zacchaeus, as he runs ahead of Jesus, is running back to his childhood, for Jesus said, “Let the children alone, and do not hinder them from coming to Me; for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matt 19:14).

The Middle Eastern sycamore is a tall, fig tree, and Zacchaeus climbed just far enough up in the tree, for Jesus, as he approached, to spot him. This is how Zacchaeus sees the face of Jesus, and he is converted on the spot: his heart is changed, and his person is transfigured, when the person of God finds him in the leaf-covered limbs of the sycamore tree.  “Zacchaeus,” Jesus called out, “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” And Zacchaeus hurries down, knowing – for the first time – the happiness that comes from pleasing God.

And where are we to be found in this picture?  Are we not among the crowd following Jesus, grumbling, because Zacchaeus is a sinner?  We have put tree-climbing behind us, and we have lost our childhood to the judgments we make.  We imagine ourselves to be better than others, to be right as they are wrong, and when we look down on the person of God from the vantage of our pride, Jesus cannot find us.

We hear Zacchaeus offering to make restitution for his ill-gotten gains, and we say, that’s not enough.  He tells Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.”  We think, that’s not enough.  It’s impossible for us to be merciful and to forgive those who trespass against us. For Zacchaeus, precious little of his wealth will remain; no longer will he live in ease and comfort, as Jesus saves him and he begins the life of a disciple. At the doorway to his house, Jesus makes an announcement: “Today salvation has come to this house,” he says, “For the son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Zacchaeus has whole-heartedly cast his lot in with Jesus; he has been born again.  How could we see this happen, from where we were standing, among the crowd? Jesus looked up and found Zacchaeus perched in the fig tree, and blessed him. In the words taken from the Torah, the Lord, “lifts up His countenance” on us, and makes his face to shine on us, and is gracious to us” (Numbers 6:24-26).  This is the blessing that changes us forever: the conversion experience that marks our salvation: prayer, repentance, grace, faith, joy, peace, and a desire to please God.  This is the blessing – the glimmer of the face of God shining on us – that God wants to share with all his people.  It is the glimmer of the unwavering brightness that the dead in Christ rejoice in.

When Jesus calls out for Zacchaeus to “hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today,” he also calls to each of us, unworthy as we are, to welcome him under the roof of the house of our soul; for he has only to say the word, and our souls will be healed (Matt 8:5-13).  In the sacramental life of the church, God’s call and promise are renewed every time we confess our sins and receive Holy Communion with faith and thanksgiving.  God’s mercy and pardon extends to all who accept his invitation to be with them in their hearts.

The readings from Habakkuk and 2 Thessalonians remind us that our individual salvation is collectively fulfilled, first in the world and then in the heavenly Kingdom.  The prophet Habakkuk questions God about violence and wrongdoing, destruction and contention; for justice never prevails in the world, and the wicked surround the righteous.  Yet adversity and affliction are the conditions under which, as Paul writes, our faith –as a church – grows abundantly, and the love of everyone increases.  Paul prays that we will be made by God worthy of our call “and will fulfill by his power every good resolve and work of faith.”  And so we too should pray, each day, to be steadfast and fulfill according to his grace God’s will for us. “Draw near to us, O Lord, draw near, and bring us Your eternal salvation.”  Amen.






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