Luke 21: 5-19, Isaiah 65: 17-25
What Isaiah’s people long for, Luke’s people enjoy.
First we hear Isaiah describe the ancient people of Israel
after the destruction of the original temple, Solomon’s temple.
Then we hear the Gospel story with their descendents back in the Holy Land, back at the reconstructed temple, able to worship once again in their own space, in God’s house.
What Isaiah’s people long for, Luke’s people enjoy.
And yet, even as they worship, Jesus warns them it will not last.
A third group, us, reads these stories as we prepare for Thanksgiving, It’s a time when we ask, “what are we grateful for at this time, in our lives?” Let’s ask these earlier people the same question. “What did you have to be grateful for?”
It may help us answer the question for ourselves.
1. If we’re talking about tangible blessings, goods in hand, Isaiah’s people sure seem to have the least cause for gratitude. Look at them, ripped from their homes, forced to walk about 500 miles due east, away from the shores of the Jordan, the Mediterranean, and the Salt Sea, shores that bounded their land and their imaginations. It’s no wonder that they cry out in the songs of the Psalms:
By the Rivers of Babylon-there we sat down
and there we wept when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there, we hung up our harps.
For our captors asked us for songs and out tormenters mirth,
Saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
But how could we sing the Lord’s Song in a foreign land? Psalm 137
One the face of it at least, Isaiah’s people, God’s people, have very little to be grateful for. And yet,….and yet… from the mouths of these same people, come these extraordinary words of hope!
All the earlier troubles, chaos and pain are things of the past….
Look ahead with joy. Anticipate what I am creating!
…I’ll take joy in Jerusalem and create my people as pure delight!
They’ll build houses…and move in.
They’ll plant fields and eat what they grow!
No more building a house that some outsider takes over.
No more planting fields that some enemy confiscates…
For they themselves are plantings blessed by God.
With their children and grandchildren likewise God-blessed.
How did they get from point a to point b? What could possibly have changed?
The singers haven’t gone home, they haven’t gained independence, what has caused them to find the song to sing? Read the words once more and listen for the answer.
Anticipate what I am creating! plantings blessed by God.
And what can these people possible have to be grateful for?
They have God. And they have each other.
II. Now let’s turn to the folks in the gospel story.
Here they are, back in the temple again, and not just that prosaic little place that the first re-settlers rebuilt under Nehemiah. This place is gorgeous. Herod, has done himself up proud showing both the Jews and the Romans that he knows how things ought to be done. Of course, his house is still a bit bigger, but……hey..
The Jewish people can now worship their own God in their own temple. What’s not to be grateful for? Do you remember what passage is right before this one? A poor widow pours out her copper coins into the treasury and is commended by Jesus, while the wealthier patrons look on. “For all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on.”
Wait a minute. Why is there still poverty? Didn't God promise their ancestors that there would be abundance for all, old and young, when they returned to the their own land?
But that doesn’t seem to be what’s on the people’s mind, does it? As our passage this morning picks up, they’re all craning their necks, gawking at the magnificence of the building and its accoutrements.
Is the wonder of what human hands have made distracting them from God’s command to seek justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God?
Then Jesus says the unthinkable….its all gonna come down.
its all gonna come down. That gets their attention!
Oh Lord, how will we know????
Man I don’t want to be anywhere near this place when it falls!
Aren’t you going to save us?
Jesus' followers must have had a horrible case of historical déjà vou.
Maybe Jesus was confused, momentarily living in the past…….
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?"
Now Jesus doesn’t always give a straight answer.
(Have you noticed that?)
He often gives us what we need to hear
rather than what we want to hear.
Teachers. Go figure.
So Jesus tells them what NOT to pay attention to:
people claiming to be messiah, doomsday predictions, ……
And Jesus tells them what NOT to be afraid of:
war, natural disaster, famines and plagues, even dreadful signs from heaven.
Can you hear Jesus peeling away layers of security?
He’s exposing our real need, the ultimate foundation of our lives.
What is of lasting importance is not the beautiful gifts or the decorations in the temple.
What is of lasting importance is not the temple itself.
What is of lasting importance is not all of the things and circumstances in life that that make us feel secure:
Jesus gets down to the most basic, ultimate matters of importance.
If this place burned down tonight, what would he have left tomorrow?
What is of lasting importance isn’t in our hands at all.
It’s not our jobs, the ones we have or the ones we wish we had.
Its not the retirement plans; the houses, big or small; or the well stocked grocery store right down the road.
It’s not even the assurances of love we seek by finding the perfect holiday presents to give. Whether its shopping with the pre-dawn thrill of “black Friday,” or hours spent researching the catalog and internet pages, or knitting the perfect sweater, these things will not save us.
Not only that, Jesus tells these folks that they have even more to lose in the hard times ahead. Even their friends and family will desert them. Its so hard to imagine times like that being truly possible. Times like the Civil War in our country when brother fought brother. Times like living in the mountains of Pakistan now. Times like the aftermath of the Typhoon in the Philippines when neighbors start looting for food to survive or anything they can lay their hands on because they’ve lost sight of any thing else they can count on.
Jesus tells the followers with him that day that they will be stripped of everything important except one thing.
The question is will they remember that one thing,
or be absorbed by all that they have lost.
The one thing is this:
I, Jesus says, will help you remember who you are. I will give you words and wisdom.
This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict.
I am with you and you are with me. And that’s what saves you. By your endurance you will gain your souls.
III. What do WE have to be grateful for?
SO much that it sometimes becomes difficult to remember what is ultimately worthy of our deepest gratitude, God’s presence with us.
There’s a story Jesus used to tell:
“Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” -Mark 4
Too many wonderful options can create a weedy garden where the essential is choked out if its not nurtured.
One wonderful project, if it displaces God, becomes an evil bird raiding the garden of it potential for growth.
Admiring something beautiful becomes superficial, a ground of gravel, if one doesn’t move beyond the beauty to the source of all beauty.
And the tough times that we all experience in our lives together and alone:
-For Isaiah’s people, the Diaspora; for Luke’s people the looming destruction of their beloved temple;
-For us, the trials we face as a nation and as a community,
Those tough times will burn us to a crisp like an unrelenting summer sun if we do not protect and care for the tender and basic ground of our presence with God.
This is where the real test comes.
What we can and must ultimately be thankful for is God’s self, who makes all blessing possible, and even probable-the God who demands we express our thanks by seeking justice and loving mercy and walking humbly with our God.
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
and a wee little man was he.
He climbed up in a sucamore tree,
for the Lord he wanted to see.
And when the Savior passed that way
he looked up in the tree.
And said, Zacchaeus, you come down!
For I'm going to your house today.
For I'm going to your house today!
Zacchaeus was a wee little man,
but a happy man was he,
for he had seen the Lord that day,
and a happy man was he;
and a very happy man was he.
Does this catchy old Sunday School tune start singing in your ear when you read today's gospel passage? It seems like a simple story, but I have to confess that
I had a real problem preparing to preach on Zacchaeus' story. There have been at least 1 communion sermon, 2 stewardship sermons, and 3 titles dancing around in my mind: “Out on a Limb,” “Turning the Tables,” and “When a Little Goes a Long Way.” There's so much to be discovered in this story! So let's just go into the story and see what God has for us to read between the ines.
Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it.
Just passing through. This is Jesus' last trip. He's moving toward Jerusalem and what we know waits for him in his final days. He dosn't seem to intend to spend any time in Jericho, but on the way in he's already instructed the crowd to "let the children come to me" and to bring him the blind man they don't seem to think he should bother with.
A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature.
Zacchaeus was a “big man” who was too short to see. His name means “pure, righteous,” but he wasn’t feeling it. He wasn’t living it. What got in his way? His job title, architelones, is only mentioned once in the bible, here. In fact, its the only time the term is used in all of Greek Literature. There's comething unique going on here.
He was a little big man. His way of earning a living had determined his social position. Supervising toll collectors as goods moved over the Jordan river and through Jericho on their way to the city meant he worked for the unpopular Romans. And because he was rich people then would have assumed, whether it was true or not, that he was skimming off the top. That was pretty standard practice. Come to think of it, its still practiced now. Just this week it came to light that Homeland Security workers are regularly padding their pay checks with overtime they feel entitled to.
It wasn’t all coming up roses for Zaccheaus. There was push back from the crowd, from his neighbors. His wealth was getting in the way of his happiness. His reputation was getting in the way of his belonging in the community. As a rsults, the crowd was now a barrier between him and this guy coming down the road.
So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way.
Zacchaeus saw where Jesus was headed and completely abandoned his dignity to get there in time to see him.
A sycamore fig is an interesting tree to climb. Its taller than your average fig tree, up to 60 feet, and the fruit grows through the bark in clusters that would have made foot holds for children climbing. The fruit’s not as good as regular figs, but in hard times, the poor would eat it to survive. There's probably another sermon in the way Zacchaeus literally climbs on the food of the poor. For today, let's notice he's becoming childlike in order to reach Jesus. (Awareness of what he's done to get where he is in life may dawn later.)
When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, "Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today." So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, "He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner."
file://localhost/Users/karenlmunson/Desktop/Z.jpgHow did Jesus know he was up there in the shady leaves, probably because people were pointing and laughing. What outrageous behavior! He’s not “all that” after all, is he? But the outrage turns and cuts in their own hearts and minds when they hear what Jesus says to him. I MUST (divine imperative) stay at your house today.
The very idea that Jesus would go to this man’s house for table fellowship, even invite himself, is so outrageous in its time that some scholars have come to the conclusion it must be made up. It can’t be true. But others point out the unique details in this passage that make it obvious its not a parable, or a fable, or a sermon illustration. It’s a real life encounter between Jesus and a desperate man, with us looking on trying to figure out what to make of it.
At this point in the story the word "all" forces us to ask which character we identify with and why. The crowd? Zacchaues? Jesus? Why is grumbling such a great unifier? Have you ever noticed how it draws a crowd together? Wise managers will sometimes even give employees something harmless to grumble at. Are we in the grumbling corwd or are we ready and willing to risk indignity to see Jesus? Or are we modeling Christ, able to stop and notice someone like this strange little person up a tree?
Did you notice that Jesus spoke first?
Would Zacchaeus ever have spoken to Jesus? Why not?
He seems to be silenced by public opinion, enslaved by professional success, locked down in battle between the power of money and the power of communal identity and acceptance.
Some of us may be victims of success today. Its not just the tyranny of money. Who controls our time as we seek success at work, in sports, in our social lives? "Telones" (tax or toll collector) has the root "telos," used by philosophers to mean "purpose, or end." Zacchaeus turned from serving the purposes of the empire controling his people to serving the God who frees all people. Meeting Jesus shows him the way. Jesus will also become a victim of his success, literally, hung him on a cross at the request of the crowd. But you can't keep that good man down, can you?! The resurrection is God's declaration of freedom across all time and place.
I think about some of that saints we remember in this season of Saints. St Francis was known for being free of the love of money. Was he also free to use his time as God led him? What would it look like to today to be free of the tyranny of time and money? And who are saints we’ve known who embody Christ’s freedom from the tyrannical aspects of money, time, public opinion, and selling our own selves short?
Zacchaeus’ urgency, running, climbing, comes to a head in Jesus’ urgency, I must……
And then the mood shifts. As soon as Jesus speaks, Zachaeus responds with joyful abandon. (I like this guy more and more as the story goes on).
Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, "Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much."
He’s turning his own tables over, not waiting for Jesus to give him instructions. He knows what he needs to do, because he knows Torah, the law of his people. He wants to do even more than the law requires.
Then Jesus said to him, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.
Zacchaeus, who controlled our money as chief tax collector, is one of us, our family.
For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost."
Those of us who forget God is saving us in our lostness find ourselves grumbling instead of rejoicing, feels like our privileges are violated (remember the prodigal son). Does anger also become a privileged possession if we refuse to give it up?
Whose house would we rather Jesus didn't visit, much less stay at?
Jesus looks at a rich man and instead of challenging him to give up his cash, invites himself to the man’s house, (which upsets everyone in the crowd), then witnesses and affirms the man's radical transformation. It’s another open ended story. We're left to imagine how we feel about the transformation of someone we've learned to love to hate.
We're left to ask if we can see the direction Jesus is headed.
We're left to wonder would it take for us to run ahead and meet him there?
Things get in the way.
We get weighed down with the things we have to take care of, house, barns, investments, and valuable objects….We get tied up in what people think about us, and in our opinions about other people.
Zacchaeus was the goose ready to fall from the sky when Jesus came along side and said I"m with you, try your wings. Then the story goes from being a story of urgency to a story of freedom. This is the vision of beloved community.
Opportunity overcomes pessimism.
Repentance replaces guilt.
Eagerness to do what's right pours out of the joy of being free.
Christian tradition says that Zacchaeus became the bishop of Caesarea, appointed by Peter, and a model of Christian hospitality in the time of house churches. The little man went a long way after humbling himself. Not becuase he was rich, but becuase he learned what to do with his riches. Not because he was important, but because he was ready to meet Jesus, and willing to become part of the people of God.
Because Jesus stopped for one man, and instead of giving him what his naighbors tought he deserved, gave him what God knew he needed.
Karen L Munson
United Methodist Pastor & Liturgical Artist