In contemplative prayer just one word can reveal God’s presence. I sometimes wonder what it would be like to preach a sermon of just one word. “This” is that sermon.
- The one word that encapsulates all of scripture and Christian worship
- What God’s kingdom looks like, and what it doesn’t
- How and where to see the kingdom this season
- Questions for discussion and reflection
My two-year old nephew has a favorite word, and it isn’t “no.” It’s “this”—and this one word is a whole sentence. He uses this a number of ways to mean a number of things. What is this? I like this. I want to sit like this. Look at this! For a two-year old, life is simple, wonderful, beautiful, and interesting. It is infused with divine presence.
This is one reason, by the way, that we baptize children. Children, better than most adults, understand and proclaim this. Before they can say “yes” to God, God has already said “yes” to them. This is why Jesus said, unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the kingdom.
From this perspective, all of scripture, sermon, and sacrament is contained in a single word: this. For all of scripture, sermon, and sacrament is intended to proclaim: “The kingdom of God is like this . . . This is what the kingdom looks like . . .”
Isaiah is among the best example of using pictures, each worth a thousand words, to depict the kingdom. Perhaps it is because there were not enough words to adequately express the anxiety, grief, fear, or longings of ancient Israel.
Isaiah reflects what he originally experienced as in Psalm 122, when all Israel would pilgrimage to Jerusalem for worship and instruction. But Isaiah expanded the vision of God’s kingdom to include all nations and all creation. “It looks like this,” Isaiah writes. It looks like the holiest place becoming the highest place, and all nations coming to worship God and receive instruction.
And because all nations now come under God’s judgments, they no longer have to fight for their own rights or out of their injustices. They can refashion their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.
Jesus loved to preach this. In Jesus’ parables, the kingdom of God is a woman, a shepherd, a father, a hen, a farmer, a group of children, a wedding banquet, or an empty tomb. In the passage assigned for today, this is two men in the field, one paying attention to this, the other not. It is two women grinding meal in the common square, one paying attention to this, the other not. The difference? Vigilance, expectation, and a desire for this. And the one paying attention is taken away.
Jesus also likens the desire for this to a protective homeowner. Our homes—where we live our lives; in the fields and at the grinding mill—where we work and socialize. When we eat and drink, when we get married and are given in marriage, there, in the ordinariness of our lives, Jesus warns us to be vigilant—for a thief is coming.
One thief comes to steal God’s Word, like a bird swooping down on seed sown on a walkway. One thief comes to steal you away to the kingdom of God. This second thief comes to the ones who are looking for this. We will miss it if we are looking away.
This weekend we saw a very graphic depiction of what this isn’t. The kingdom of God is not Black Friday, which blackened Thanksgiving and blackens this First Sunday of Advent. On Black Friday we saw people streaming not to Jerusalem or the Word of God, but to Best Buy and the word of advertisements. This weekend people didn’t turn their spears into pruning hooks, but their hands into claws. And I am left wondering, What are these people giving thanks for, and to whom, at 6am Thanksgiving Day? Or as ABC now calls it, “Black Friday Eve”?
This depiction of the anti-kingdom, the revelation of the anti-Christ if ever we’ve seen one—would threaten the despair of darkness, if not for this. This from Isaiah 9:2: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” This from John 1:5: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.” This from today’s lectionary in Isaiah 2:5: “O People of God come, let us walk in the light of the Lord.” This from today’s lectionary in Romans 13:12: “The day is near, let us lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”
And this from our celebration of the Lord’s Supper, because “this is how we know what love is, that Christ laid down his life for us.” (1 John 3:16) Because “no one has greater love than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13) Because “God proves his love for us in this, that while we were sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) Because Jesus said, “This is my body.”
As we begin a new year in the church, as we enter the season of Advent, and especially as we busy ourselves with the preparations of Christmas, let us look with vigilance for the one who desires to steal us away, in the ordinary moments of our lives, to this, the kingdom of God come in Christ.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What one word would you use to summarize your Christian faith? Share how it applies to the many facets of your life.
- How could you recapture the wonder and beauty of a two-year old’s interaction with the world? You were like this once, you know.
- What can you do to be more vigilant for God’s kingdom and Christ’s presence in your life? This will be especially important during Advent, but maybe this can be your liturgical new year’s resolution.
- How can you repent (turn away from) the pressure of all the distractions this Christmas—for example, greed, gluttony, envy, and sloth?
Religious and political powers crucified Jesus to show what he was—a false king and a false messiah. In fact, they showed what being a true king and messiah actually means.
- Popular expectations of king and messiah
- Other images of God
- A clue to recognizing God’s reign
- What “Today you will be with me in paradise” means
- The relationship between Christ the King and Christ the Babe
- Questions for discussion and reflection
When you read all the gospel accounts of Jesus’ arrest, torture, and execution, you realize that the people who taunted Jesus did so consistent with popular expectations of what a king and messiah should be. Kings are powerful enough to save themselves, so some taunted Jesus to save himself and the others crucified with him. The Jewish Messiah could under no circumstance die this cursed way, so they implored Jesus to prove his identity by rescuing himself.
The fact that Rome posted the charge against Jesus as “the King of the Jews” proves their motive; they wanted all such insurrectionists to understand who was really king, and it isn’t Jesus.
Those who taunted Jesus might have paid closer attention to scripture. The Bible contains images of God other than king, though king is predominant. Jeremiah, for example speaks of God as a shepherd whose chief concern is the welfare of those under his care. From this perspective, the crucifixion might have been expected as the shepherd giving life for his sheep.
Jeremiah goes on to speak of a “Righteous Branch from the line of David” whose rule will is likened to a servant of justice and righteousness (and we must always hear these words not in criminal and moral terms, but in social terms). From this perspective, the crucifixion is the demonstration of God’s solidarity with the oppressed.
Somehow one of those rebels crucified with Jesus recognized this. Tradition calls him the “Good Thief” but in fact he was more like a “freedom fighter.” That’s why he was being crucified alongside Jesus the insubordinate Jew. But how did he recognize God’s kingdom in Jesus? Had he heard about Jesus before, maybe admiring his reputation as one who stood against Rome? Had he talked the night before with Jesus in Pilate’s prion?
My hypothesis is that this brigand realized, at the eleventh hour of his life, what he needed. He realized his life was ending without meaning. He knew he needed redemption. Perhaps he remembered as a little Jewish boy reciting Psalm 46 which says that God is our refuge. Perhaps he remembered the vision of the peaceful river that flows through the city of God. This is what he needed at this hour.
Maybe because he was in touch with his deepest need as a human, his vision was clear to recognize it when he saw it. Jesus embodied all these promises, and so the man crucified with him saw what he needed most in Jesus. So this is what he says, knowing he needs a savior, he utters the name “Jesus,” which means “he saves.”
And Jesus responds with one of the most cherished promises in all of scripture, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” “Paradise” is a word used by the Old and New Testaments to refer to an idyllic hunting ground used by kings. It is a word borrowed from Persia. The Garden of Eden in the creation stories of the Bible’s first chapters is called Paradise. Revelation, the last book of the Bible, speaks of the return to Paradise. When Jesus says, “You will be with me in Paradise” he is saying, “To be with me is to be in Paradise.”
But what does Jesus mean by the word “today”? Does it refer to the moment of death? Is it by sundown that day? Is it within the next twenty-four hours?
The Gospel of Luke uses “today” in an evocative way. When Jesus begins his ministry with a sermon in his hometown, the passage from Isaiah says the Spirit of God come anointing for the purpose of proclaiming, “Good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind” (Luke 4:18, 21). Jesus’s sermon is that, “Today, this word has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
When friendly Pharisees warn Jesus to leave because Herod is planning to kill him, Jesus replies, “Tell that fox that I will keep healing others today, tomorrow, and on the third day will finish my work.” (Luke 13:33)
Or when Jesus meets Zacchaeus and the encounter transforms his life, Jesus declares that, “Today salvation has come to this house.” (Luke 19:9)
“Today” in the Gospel of Luke, written and read decades after Jesus’ resurrection, refers to the present time of his audience—first his original readers, then his readers now. Today is the day of salvation, because the resurrected Christ is present today. This means that wherever we find ourselves—in worship, doing ministry, struck through by conscience, anywhere—when Jesus is present, we are in Paradise.
Also writing decades after the resurrection, the letter to the Colossians gives us other image of Christ’s kingdom. It is depicted as our being rescued from darkness and transferred to light. Christ is presented as our Redeemer and the means of our forgiveness. In Christ we experience new life as part of the original creation and as part of the re-creation through Christ’s being the first-born of the resurrection. Colossians claims that all things are reconciled in Christ—what we are is squared with what God intended us to be.
And all this happens, Colossians says, through the cross. God’s kingdom and Christ’s kingship is revealed in the cross. This is the kind of king Jesus is, and the kind of kingdom he inaugurated. This kingdom is most fully revealed by his crucifixion. But it was first revealed in his nativity. Where and how he died clearly contradicted expectations of what it meant to be king and messiah, but it was all forecast in his birth—into obscurity and poverty.
This suggests that his whole life, from Advent to Christ the King Sunday, is a demonstration of God’s Kingdom. As we end this liturgical year and begin a new one next week, may our whole lives be a similar demonstration.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- What are your expectations of Christ as King and Messiah? Are they in accordance with the crucifixion of Jesus, or do they reflect more the kind of expectations of the world?
- As you read the other passages from the lectionary this week, how do the other images of God (more than were referenced in this message) minister to you?
- What needs in your life might open your vision to the kingdom of God in Christ? How might the example of the dying man next to Jesus embolden you to embrace your deepest human needs?
- Where in your life is there a potential “Paradise”—those places where Christ can be with you today? What would it mean to reconceive these places as “Paradise”?
There is a way to celebrate Christmas without losing your soul. It’s not necessarily easy, but God is with you and you can do it.
- The Christmas blues
- One aspect of New Testament faith
- How robbing God robs us
- How God puts soul back into Christmas
- Questions for discussion and reflection
I’m sure I’m not alone in feeling the Christmas blues. By the time Christmas comes around, I’m tired from shopping and for attending parties. I feel overwhelmed with gifts; sometimes I don’t remember what I’ve gotten or from whom. My eyes blur from writing thank you notes. I question whether the gifts I gave others were noticed or appreciated. Every year I have this vague sense that what Christmas has become bears little resemblance to the Nativity of Christ.
In short, I’ve lost my soul at Christmas.
The early church had reputation of helping others. Sociologists tell us that one reason the church grew as rapidly as it did in the early centuries is because Christians would help others that the rest of society shunned. We see this already with Jesus and the lepers he healed.
As word got out about this generous community freeloaders started attending—consumer minded people who only took from the church without giving anything back. This goes against the essence of New Testament faith, for what New Testament faith teaches us is that we are free from the distractions of the world in order to be free for service to others. The reason this is New Testament faith is because our freedoms are granted us by the power of the Spirit of the resurrected Christ. By this Spirit, we have power to resist temptation and power to serve.
Related to this, New Testament faith teaches that each person, in baptism, has at least one particular gift bequeathed to us by the Spirit. This means there is no such thing as stadium seating in the New Testament church—not until you join the communion of saints we celebrated two weeks ago, those who have died before us. But even they continue to work—to cheer us on, by their enduring example, even to pray for us in their union with Christ.
For this reason, that the Spirit has set us free and empowered us for service, freeloading is antithetical to New Testament faith. It denies God’s work in our lives—that we are free from sin and free to serve. It denies that the Spirit is alive in us.
Freeloading also robs Christ of his ongoing redemptive ministry. Jesus was pleased to deploy his disciples in his ministry. For example, when he fed the 4000 plus men, women, and children in Matthew 15, he did so through the disciples. God is still pleased to use the church in accomplishing the ministry of Christ, but if we freeload, we deny Christ’s his ministry.
The implications of such freeloading are vast. Psalm 98:3 says, “All the ends of the earth see salvation.” This week, the Philippine Islands are seeing God’s salvation. Through our ministries of Christmas Shoebox, Angel Tree, and Urban Peak, children at the “ends of the earth” are seeing God’s salvation. Our neighbors in 80909 saw God’s salvation last week through our Community Hands partnership. New parents of prematurely born infants see God’s salvation through the Warm Hearts, Warm Babies sewing ministry hosted here.
These various parts of the “ends of the earth” see God’s salvation only as people discern God’s calling to them and follow that calling. If we freeload, we deny this witness.
Freeloading robs God of our thanksgiving. The cycle of gift giving is incomplete without thanksgiving. God has given us many gifts and opportunities to use them, but the full intent of God’s generosity isn’t realized until we give thanks to God by using these gifts.
Freeloading robs us of God’s “delight.” In the passage from Malachi, the prophet says the nation of ancient Israel will be known by other nations as “delightful” when they stop robbing God through withheld tithes and offerings. God intends to delight in us, blessing us in abundant ways, but we do not experience this delight when we rob God by freeloading.
Finally, freeloading robs us of our purpose, of our self. Since receiving and using God’s gifts is part of God’s created intention for us, when we obstruct this desire we fail to fulfil our full divine right. In Jesus frequently used, we forfeit our souls.
Why do we do this? Why do we rob God and forfeit our soul? The lectionary passage from Luke offers a clue. The Temple of Jesus’ time was extraordinarily impressive. Taken all together, the Temple complex was the size of twenty football fields. Constructed on a mount and gilded with gold, it was visible from miles around. It was unimaginable that it could be destroyed. It was way too big to fail.
But from Jesus’ perspective, the Temple was a distraction. It had become a religious idol. Part of the good news of the scriptural witness is that God eventually destroys all idols. When it happens, it is unpleasant. As Jesus predicts the destruction of the Temple, he employs images of “wars, earthquakes, famines, and plagues.” He elaborates about “signs from heaven, persecutions, and even death.” The destruction of idols in our lives is traumatic.
And yet, Jesus assures his followers, “Not a hair on your head will perish.” God destroys our idols, but saves us. The reason God destroys our idols is so that only he remains to be worshiped. Thus Jesus can say, “Those who endure will gain their soul.”
But we don’t have to wait for God to destroy our idols. We don’t have to wait for the unpleasant process of being liberated from our idolatries by some cataclysmic event. We can begin to reject the “Temples” in our lives now. It’s not as difficult as when God does it but it is still hard. And God still preserves us.
Rejecting the “Temples” in our lives is a deliberate and thoughtful practice. It is is a daily practice that we’re called to throughout our lives. Prior to these words about the destruction of the Temple, Luke tells us that Jesus observed people making their offerings at the Temple treasury. Several people made large offerings with ostentation, but one solitary widow offered only two small coins. Still, Jesus tells us, her offering was more than the rest because she offered her entire life.
We offer God our entire lives one day at a time, by rejecting our idols on a daily basis. Trusting God daily leads to trusting God deeply. This is why Jesus tells his followers they don’t need to prepare what they will say come the day when the Temple is destroyed. Those who live for God daily will be practiced in giving up idols.
As we approach Christmas, perhaps we can “save our souls” by recognizing that Christmas itself has become a distraction. Christmas has become a modern day “Temple.” Following are some practical suggestions for trusting God more deeply during Christmas.
Try tithing on all your Christmas activities. For every $100 you spend on Christmas presents, food, and decorations, give $10 to the church or a food pantry. With every gift you give, include a Faith Christmas Card—or give Faith Christmas Cards* instead of presents. Donate time this year to the homeless shelter or by visiting nursing homes. Determine how much you will financially support the church and communicate that to the leadership. Give sacrificially from your life to causes to relieve hunger or offer disaster relief around the world. If you slow down, sit quietly, and pray for God’s guidance, the Spirit will lead you to other ways you can “save your soul” this Christmas.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Think back to last Christmas, and especially how you felt afterwards. Were you able to fully worship God and joyfully receive the gift of Christ in your life? If not, think of what you can do to simplify your season so that it may be more soulful.
- Be honest about this: how involved are you in your church? How supportive are you through prayer, activity, and financially of the ministries your church offers? Do you receive more than you give in relation to your church home? Are you freeloading a bit?
- If you are freeloading, look back at the consequences of this outlined in the message. How have you observed and experienced these consequences? How can you stop being a freeloader?
- What idols (“Temples”) is God taking down in your life? Are you holding loosely those things that can so easily become idols? How can you begin to be less attached to these things?
- In what ways can you begin to trust God more daily in order that you will trust God more deeply? What small adjustments to your life can you make to trust God more? Besides the suggestions offered in the message, what can you come up with?
*The Faith Christmas Card is available for “purchase” for a suggested donation of $10 each. This donation is equally divided among four charities: The Colorado Springs Rescue Mission, Hope International, Walk Free, and Care and Share. By giving the FXC, you raise awareness of these organizations and their mission, financially support them, increase tax-deductible giving to the church, and give a gift of profound and lasting meaning. And no one gets put on a mailing list. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Opening Worship, Moderators Conference, November 8, 2013
In the pluralism of our day, unprecedented in its scope, the scandal of the Messiah is particularly conspicuous. That God would choose one person out of one nation to be the means of grace and redemption for all creation raises our multicultural yellow flags. This was not what made Paul’s preaching scandalous, however. Let us pray.
God our Creator and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, send your Spirit upon these words, that the testimony we have read, the interpretation we hear, and the seal we receive, may strengthen us for a faithful response. In Christ’s name. Amen.
That Paul would preach Christ is not a scandal. The Jews had been preaching this particular scandal their entire existence. In the words of Zechariah the priest father of John the Baptist, “The dawn from on high will break upon those who dwell in darkness, and God will fulfill the promises made to our ancestors.” In the words of Mary the pauper mother of Jesus, “God has helped his servant Israel in accordance with the promises to our ancestors, and all generations will call me blessed.”
So it wasn’t the proclamation of Christ alone that earned Paul’s proclamation the label “scandalous.” The scandal was the proclamation of Christ crucified. Saul wasn’t scandalized on the road to Damascus by being addressed by a glorified Lord and Messiah. That would have been expected. It was rather that this glorified Lord and Messiah was the crucified Jesus, the one whose obedience to God’s redeeming will arose out of impoverished obscurity, took the form of a slave, and culminated in the most cursed death imaginable.
The crucified Christ addressed Saul on that road, and on every road ever since Paul proclaimed this Christ crucified. That is the scandal. It is a scandal that God’s deliverance is accomplished through such a withered branch. It is a scandal that God’s word is spoken with such dereliction. It is a scandal that God’s redemption of creation occurs through such a weak and suffering body.
The church today, the Body of Christ, is weak and suffering. Not every congregation shows this yet, but it is true. Creating new denominations is not going to change it. Changing polity isn’t either.
Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians presents a curious picture of an early church. Enthusiastic worship that manifested many gifts of the Spirit, but not the greatest gift of love. Exuberant celebrations of baptism and eucharist, but overlooking the ethic of hospitality that these rites commemorate.
In 1 Corinthians 1:17 Paul laments that the power of the cross can be emptied of its power by these kinds of contradictions. In the crucified Christ, God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the strong. When we intermingle the power of the cross with the power of the world, the cross loses power.
The cross is emptied of its power by human wisdom—theology that claims to know more about God than is possible, leadership practices that emulate business, worship that is confused with culture. But the greatest hindrance to the power of God, that which underlies every other drain on the Gospel, is a triumphalist Christology which precludes any eschatological hope. Or more simply put: Christ the winner, no hope for dinner.
In my presentations at the Glory to God Presbyterian Hymnal celebrations I advocate for more frequent and joyful celebrations of the Lord’s Supper. One of the most common objections we face regarding frequent communion is that communion isn’t joyful. Rehearsing the crucifixion of Christ on a weekly basis—who wants to do that?
No one wants to do that, and who can blame them? But I wonder if the problem isn’t with the sacrament, but with the sermon. If our sermons more faithfully proclaimed Christ crucified, then the sacrament wouldn’t have to bear that burden. Then the sacrament could be what it apparently was in the biblical church, a joyful celebration of the presence of the resurrected Christ in the gathered assembly, revealed to us in the breaking of the bread.
Who do we say Christ is? This is important, because what we say about Christ is what our churches will believe, and it will determine how they behave. If Christ is only triumphant in the sermon and only crucified in the sacrament, what are we saying? Could it be that we’re saying that Christ was present in his suffering, but now is only absent in ours? Where is the hope in that? What kind of behaviors does such a belief produce?
We have become disestablished as our culture shifts from a religious one supportive of Christianity to a secular one in which Christianity is one option among many. We experience this as dying, and we appear, by cultural standards and according to human wisdom, to be dying.
In such a time as this, we need to know that Christ is present with us in our sufferings. Only in fellowship with Christ, can we grow into our new identity as the church on the edge of empire, which is actually our original identity as the Bible testifies to the faith of communities who were always on the edge of empire.
But I wonder if in our sermons, a triumphalist Christology has crept in, robbing our celebration of the Lord’s Supper of joy, and leeching the power of God from our churches?
- I see triumphalist Christology in churches that rely on celebrity pastors like Apollos, Cephas, or Paul.
- I see the crucified Christ in churches relying on the Spirit to enrich its members for service.
- I see triumphalist Christology in the church which mourns the passing of Christendom.
- I see the crucified Christ emerging in the church that embraces its freedom from empire.
- I see triumphalist Christology in the church that is anxious about its declining numbers.
- I see the crucified Christ in the church that gets about the business of peace, justice, and righteousness.
- I see triumphalist Christology in the church that separates itself over the interpretation of Scripture.
- I see the crucified Christ in the church that is of one mind and thought about its Lord.
- I see triumphalist Christology in churches that deny access to the Lord’s Table, both in whom may be served, and who may do the serving.
- I see the crucified Christ in churches that frequently, hospitably, and hopefully proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again.
The Christ we proclaim in sermon is presented to us in sacrament. Triumphalist Christology in the sermon allows no room for Christ’s presence in sacrament. But proclaiming Christ crucified in sermon places God in solidarity within us through the sacrament, and this is grace, and peace, and joy, and strength.
In this letter, Paul calls the proclamation of Christ crucified the “mystery of God.” It is the power of salvation for those who believe. To others it is foolishness. But Paul knows that salvation comes through weakness, and that it appears foolish, and that in the words of Psalm 31, mourning will turn into dancing as we give thanks to God.
In chapters to come Paul will ask, “What is Cephas, Apollos, and Paul? Only stewards of God’s Word, only those who plant and water a seed.” (1 Corinthians 3:5-9; 3:21-4:2) Let us be trustworthy stewards, proclaiming Christ crucified, and giving thanks for his presence with us, so that we may bear our crosses in faith, and follow him. Amen.
On All Saints’ Day we gather at Table with all who rest eternally in God. As we look around at who else is here, we may be surprised at what we see.
- Some of the saints who are with us today
- Why it’s hard to welcome Zacchaeus to the table
- What Zacchaeus might say to us who want to see Jesus
- Questions for Discussion and Reflection
Here at the Lord’s Table there are saints from the Memorial Board, from the first name of Raymond Ball who died in 1958 to Jessie DeLuca whose name was added just last month. Saints from the Tradition are here also, like Anthony the Anchorite who lived on a pillar and Benedict the patron saint of worship. Aquinas the Ox and Luther the potty-mouthed are here. And the anonymous author of the 1395 spiritual classic The Cloud of Unknowing is here.
There are saints from Scripture, including Ruth and her great grandchild David, Thomas the Twin AKA the Doubter after whom I am named—he and I are twins in our doubt—and Joseph and Mary are here.
Also here at this Table is . . . Zacchaeus. No, really. Even the “wee little man,” short in stature, both physically and socially. He was a tax-collector, a position you only get if you pay for it. So he was rich to begin with, and now he’s even richer because he exploits his position. He’s a collaborator with Rome and a traitor to our religion and our homeland. When Isaiah says God doesn’t listen to the prayers of people with blood on their hands, he’s talking about Zacchaeus.
Could Zacchaeus be at this Table? The people then felt about Zacchaeus the same way we feel when the insurance company inserts a loophole so they don’t pay our bill. They felt about him the way we feel about politicians rewarding contracts to their friends. They felt about him the way I feel about well-paid preachers who have bad theology.
Salvation doesn’t come to the houses of these people, does it? They grumbled in Zacchaeus’ day, and I can understand why.
All Zacchaeus wanted was a glimpse of Jesus. The crowd wasn’t letting him have it. When they saw him coming they squeezed a little closer together. “This seat is taken,” you can hear them saying. I wonder if Jesus saw all this going on, if he looked over the shoulders of the tall and privileged and saw the wee little man trying to get a glimpse.
I wonder what Zacchaeus was thinking. Why did he want to see Jesus? Was he curious about the celebrity of Christ? Had he heard Jesus’ preaching of the coming judgment and was he nervous about it? Had he perhaps heard the second half of that sermon, about the hope of deliverance, that maybe even he, Zacchaeus, could be redeemed?
Whatever the case, Zacchaeus runs ahead of Jesus and the crowds and climbs a tree. I wonder if he saw others doing this earlier or if it was his idea. Either way it was certainly undignified. Can you imagine your doctor doing this? Or your lawyer or accountant? Or your insurance person?
What might Zacchaeus say to us today about seeing Jesus? If we were to ask his advice on how to get a glimpse of Christ today, what would he say? The first thing he’d say is to look where Jesus is going, and go there too. Where would Jesus be today? Helping the poor and marginalized, no doubt. If we want to see Jesus, as he said, we can do so by helping the least of his brothers and sisters.
Zacchaeus would also say look with expectation. I think we might confidently say Zacchaeus was hopeful for his own deliverance in looking to Jesus. He may have feared God’s judgment, but I believe he hoped that at last someone had come who could undo all the damage he had done to and through his life. Christ might just be able to turn this around. Why else would Zacchaeus welcome Jesus gladly into his home if not out of hope for deliverance rather than fear of judgment.
The crowd grumbled that Zacchaeus is a sinner, and he doesn’t dispute it. So he might tell us to be honest about ourselves and confess our sins. And while he was partying with Jesus and his friends at his house later that afternoon, he might advise us not be among the judgmental crowd if we want to see Jesus.
Beyond confession, Zacchaeus would say make restitution. He paid back four times what he had stolen. Even beyond that, he gave half of his possessions to the poor. It’s safe to say that he was no longer a rich man after this. I am reminded of the 12 steps: Zacchaeus hoped in God (2), confessed his sins (5), and made amends (9). To give back four times was the law. To give half of his possessions was his heart transformed by Christ.
Certainly the last thing Zacchaeus would tell us is to never count ourselves out. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. You are never so lost that Jesus cannot find you. Run ahead, climb the tree, but never count yourself out.
Or start with the words of Isaiah. He judged the unfaithfulness of ancient Israel as worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. A lot of people think they know what THE sin was in Sodom and Gomorrah. There doesn’t have to be any speculation; Ezekiel 16:49-50 makes it pretty clear: “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty, and did abominable things before me; therefore I removed them when I saw it.”
Isaiah saw worse things among God’s chosen people. But he calls them to wash themselves and to make themselves clean. To cease to do evil and learn to do good. To seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow. And then he promises that even though their sins be like scarlet, they shall be white as snow.
Ezekiel knew the same gracious God. He said that even the fortunes of Sodom will be restored. If God will restore the fortunes of Sodom whom he has not chosen, how much more will God restore those he has chosen? And so Jesus assured Zacchaeus and everyone around him, that he too was a son of Abraham. Even Zacchaeus is welcome at the Table. Jesus is the guest of sinners; come be among them.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- Where on the road with Zacchaeus are you? Curious? Hopeful? Seeking? Are there places where confession and restitution are in order? Are you inviting your other sinner friends over to party with the Savior?
- Are you among the judgmental crowd that is scandalized that Jesus enjoys the company of sinners? What can you do to wash yourself of this sin so that you can see Jesus?
- Are you more like Zacchaeus or more like the Sodom and the ancient Israelites as judged by Isaiah and Ezekiel? What can you do to become more like the person God has called you to be?
All of us have sleepless nights for any number of reasons. The good news is that God has brought us to the threshold of a spiritual breakthrough.
- A spiritual explanation of our sleepless nights
- One reason we pray
- The faith Jesus hopes we have
- Questions for Discussion or Reflection
We work all-nighters to get the work done. We enjoy dinner and discussion with friends. We drink caffeine too late in the afternoon or too much red wine at dinner or exercise too close to bedtime. We might be changing sheets after our sick kids puke on them. We might be writing the game-changing manifesto for work.
But what keeps most people up at night is run of the mill worry, anxiety, and fear. This was Jacob’s problem. His name means “grabbing the heal,” or “deceiver.” When he was born second among twins, he had ahold of his older brother’s heal. Since then he tricked his brother Esau and his dad Isaac to steal Esau’s birthright. Later he cheats his father-in-law Laban out of the best of their shared flocks. When some time later he meets up with Esau, he divides his clan in the hopes that if some are destroyed, others will survive. And he sends hundreds of gifts ahead to Esau and his 400 men who are coming to meet him.
After taking these measures, darkness surrounds Jacob and the Wrestler comes. Jacob ends up wrestling with restlessness all night. Whether you take this metaphorically or literally it doesn’t matter. The point is that Jacob persists in the match throughout the night. At dawn, after the Wrestler gravely injures Jacob, Jacob realizes he is overcome. He does the only thing he can do; he holds on to whatever he has ahold of and demands a blessing. He does this because after cheating everyone else in his life, Jacob has finally found a worthy opponent!
Sometimes our sleeplessness nights are caused by worthy opponents. We find ourselves at our wits end. We’ve done everything we know to do. We’ve seen the specialist and taken the medicine. We’ve gone to the counselor and read the book. Like Jacob, we’ve sent everything ahead. There’s nothing left that we can do. And so we enter the sleepless night.
This is God’s leading us to a place of self-exhaustion. All we can do is surrender ourselves and trust in God. The struggle handicaps our ego—we can no longer depend on ourselves—and we limp away. By these stripes, we are healed.
We are invited by this text to name our “Esaus” and enter the darkness. Where are the areas in our life where God may be calling us to come to terms? Where is God leading us to the limits of our boundaries, the places where we can no longer rely ourselves and can only depend on God? There we cannot give up on prayer. It is in precisely these moments when we want to give up that we are to keep on praying, for we are not alone in the darkness. In the words of Psalm 121, “God does not slumber or sleep.”
God may always be awake, but just to be sure, we need to keep praying. This is the point of the parable in Luke 18. The Widow kept the Judge awake. She argued her case during regular hearings in the day. Then she followed the Judge home at night. Maybe she met him in the morning, all the while demanding that the Judge give her justice. Her persistence is similar to the parable in Luke 11. On one hand, we pray because God is awake. On the other hand, we pray to keep God awake.
Is it possible God delays answers to keep us awake and praying. Luke introduces the parable with this: “Jesus told them a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.” And it seems this is what Jesus hopes for: “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
What kind of faith is Jesus looking for? He is looking for a faith that yearns for justice, like the Widow. Jesus is looking for a faith courageous enough to name the Esau and to enter the darkness. Jesus is looking for a faith that prays persistently, believes God is listening, and is audacious enough to become a nag on God.
And may he find it when he comes to us. Amen.
Questions for Discussion and Reflection
- Where is the “Esau” in your life? Open yourself to the Holy Spirit’s leading and identify the relationship or situation where you have regret, fear, or anxiety. Wrestle in prayer about this, remembering God is awake in vigil with you.
- What’s the longest you’ve ever prayed about or for something? How did that end up?
- As you remember that God never slumbers or sleep, does this give you renewed commitment to pray? Does it discourage you that answers to your prayers may be delayed?
- When Jesus comes to you, what kind of faith does he find? Is it the kind of faith he’s hoping for? Meditate on the fact that Christ in the Spirit lives now for the purpose of praying for you to have this faith.
Like Jesus’ original disciples, most of us wish we had more faith. These passages give us some ideas on how to do that.
- How Jesus answered the question originally
- An Old Testament example
- Two aspects of faith
- Questions for discussion and reflection
I become aware of how much faith I don’t have when I find myself worrying. Those of us who worry need more faith, for the Psalm for today says fretting leads to anger and evil (Psalm 37:8).
Jesus’ original disciples exclaimed, “Give us more faith!” right after Jesus taught them two things: don’t cause others to sin, and forgive others whenever they sin against you. They must have begun with more faith than I have, because these are not the things I worry about. I worry about money and security far more than I worry about causing others to sin or being unforgiving.
Maybe since they were a poor and occupied nation, Jesus’ original disciples simply had so much practice depending on God for money and security that their faith in these areas was strong. Or maybe they had only a small amount of faith to begin with.
Jesus’ answer applies equally well in either case. He tells them it takes only the faith they have to do what he is calling them to. This is the mini-parable of the mustard seed sized faith. He isn’t admonishing the disciples for their lack of faith, but affirming what faith they have, even if it is as small as a mustard seed.
The longer parable about the servant who works all day and then has to clean up, prepare and serve a meal as expected of him adds to this point. It doesn’t teach that we are worthless (though the church has often taught this). Instead, Jesus is saying that just as the servant does only what is expected of him by nature of his being a servant, so by our nature as God’s children are we able to have faith.
I am reminded of the first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism: What is your only comfort in life and in death? That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.
Taken together, what Jesus is saying to his disciples and to us is that whatever faith we have is enough, however small we estimate it to be, because of whose we are.
The prophet Habakkuk provides an example. After observing the devastation of the Assyrian conquest he cries out to God for justice and redemption. God answers by saying, “Don’t worry about the Assyrians—I am sending the Chaldeans to take over.” It’s like saying, “Don’t worry about the infestation of fire ants, a swarm of locusts is coming.”
This is hardly the answer Habakkuk was praying for, so he puts God on notice. Habakkuk will stand and watch to see what else God will do. And God assures Habakkuk that though the promise of justice and redemption may be delayed, it is still valid. It is simple enough (small enough, like a mustard seed!) to be written and read on the run. It is to remember God’s faithfulness, hope in God’s promise, and with for God in faith.
Habakkuk ends with a beautiful testimony of one aspect of faith: faith as perspective, as hope, and as praise. “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Habakkuk 3:17-19).
The words of the Psalm make the same point: “The wicked will fade like the grass.” (Psalm 37:1) How things appear today, however unjust, will be different in some tomorrow. God and goodness prevail in the end. Watch and wait for it, giving thanks to God.
But there is a second aspect to faith according to Habakkuk. Faith isn’t just a perspective, it’s an action. Faith isn’t passive waiting, it’s active doing. Habakkuk says “The righteous will live by faith.” This is best understood as, “The righteous, that is, the ones waiting for God with faith, will continue to live in faithfulness.” Or in the words of the Psalm, “Trust in the LORD and do good, so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.” (Psalm 37:3)
I know a lot of people who are waiting. They are waiting
- for the furlough to end
- until they’re older
- to have children
- until they have a job
- for graduation
- to die
- until they’re healthy
- to make partner
- till they’re married
- till they have more faith
The fact is we’re all waiting for something. We’re in it for the long haul if we’re in it at all. But God has given us something to do. God calls us to both aspects of faith—the perspective and the activity—to live in faith and serve in faithfulness. And remember, what little faith you have is enough, because of whose you are.
Questions for Discussion or Reflection
- In what ways do you feel the need for more faith? Where is God calling you to faith and action in such a way that you pray, “Increase my faith!”
- How does this message of Jesus’ affirming small faith and our nature as God’s children change your perspective of this passage in Luke, of your faith, and of yourself?
- Read the three short chapters of Habakkuk. How does his example inspire you in your own life situation and faith?
- Use the words of Psalm 37:3 (quoted above) to guide your prayers. What would it mean for you to “trust God,” and to “do good”? What does it mean to you to “live in the land” and to “enjoy security”?
- In the Newer Testament, Paul vigorously argued for “salvation by faith” and quoted Habakkuk’s “the righteous will live by faith” (see Romans 1:17 and Galatians 3:11). Yet Paul argued just as vigorously for a life of faithfulness arising out of this faith. In what ways can you add faithfulness to your faith?