HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Psalm 103:1-13, 22
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 17:11-19
SERMON: “Rx for Grumpiness”
Any of you ever feel grumpy? Once in a while? Let me ask it differently. Any of you live with someone who gets grumpy – a spouse, a sibling, a child, a parent? When we were kids, my mom used to say it seemed as if “someone got up on the wrong side of the bed this morning.” I knew she couldn’t possibly be talking about me . . . I had a single bed, one side of which was up against the wall. There was no possible way to get out of bed on the “wrong side.” But we know that misses the point. Grumpy happens.
The story is told of two old friends bumped into one another on the street one day. One of them looked grumpy, just ready to snap. His friend asked, “What has the world done to you, my old friend?” The cranky fellow said, “Let me tell you. Three weeks ago, an uncle died and left me forty thousand dollars.”
“That’s a lot of money.”
“But, two weeks ago, a cousin I never even knew died, and left me eighty-five thousand free and clear.”
“Sounds like you’ve been blessed....”
“You don’t understand!” he interrupted. “Last week my great-aunt passed away. I inherited almost a quarter of a million.”
Now the friend was really confused. “Then, why do you look so grouchy?”
“This week... nothing!”
That’s the trouble with receiving something on a regular basis. Even if it is a gift, we eventually come to expect it. We are blessed to live in a land of plenty and as a result we tend to become complacent and neglect to give thanks to anyone for anything.
The Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth Rock over 300 years ago knew nothing of the affluent times which you and I enjoy today in this great country of ours. The next time you and I are tempted to complain about inflation and the state of our economy, remember that during that first long winter at Plymouth Colony, seven times as many graves were made for the dead as homes for the living.
The ship which was to bring food and relief brought 35 more mouths to feed, but not an ounce of provisions.
Touching indeed is the picture of William Brewster, rising from a scanty Plymouth dinner, consisting of a plate of clams and a glass of cold water, to thank God “for the abundance of the sea and the treasures hid in
The Pilgrims didn’t have much, but they possessed a great gratitude, not a bad thing for us to claim as our heritage.
One of their customs was to put 5 kernels of corn upon each empty plate before a dinner of “thanksgiving” was served. Each member of the family would pick up a kernel and tell what they were thankful for. It was to remind them that the first Pilgrims were in such dire straits that their allowance was only 5 kernels of corn per person each day.
The psalmist gives us a list of things we can be thankful for.
“Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits – who forgives all your sins.”
Now and then someone will say, “I know it’s not a very Christian thing to do, but . . .” and then they tell you of some infraction. Perhaps they spread gossip. Maybe they held on to some anger, or told a lie, or kept something that didn’t belong to them. I’ve heard people say that they’re not a very good Christian, or maybe they make that claim about someone else – He or she wouldn’t do that if they were really Christian. Friends, there aren’t good Christians and bad Christians. There are people who do things they shouldn’t, knowingly or unknowingly, some of them pretty awful things, some of them minor. In fact every single one of us is guilty of disobedience and rebellion against God at times. “Bless the LORD, my soul, who forgives all your sins.”
”Bless the Lord, my soul, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases.” Really? I’ll bet you can think of someone, probably several people who have incurable diseases. I wanted to skip past this one, but then realized that first of all, God is able to heal all diseases. For reasons we sometimes do not know or understand, there are times when God does not do so. Thinking on this one a little more I remembered that in the end all our diseases will be healed. For some death is the final, complete and total healing. The Revelation of John tells us that there will be a new heaven and a new earth, and that there will be no more suffering, no more tears.
Bless the Lord, my soul, who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases. The psalmist is talking to his soul. Quite likely, he is not talking about physical disease, but spiritual disease. Diseases of the soul originate in the virus of sin. Jesus identified the symptoms and disorders caused by sin in
Matt 15:19-20: “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a person ‘unclean.’” We go to the doctor or hospital to find healing for our physical ailments, but it is God’s Holy Spirit that heals our spirits.
1 Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name.
2 Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits--
3 who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion,
The Lord grants us love and compassion. It’s difficult, though not impossible, to be grumpy when we feel God’s love around us. I am convinced that when God fills us with love and compassion, it wants to spill over and spread to those around us.
Those who know me well know one thing that definitely makes me grumpy is my birthday. It’s not about getting older, because when you’ve had cancer three times you develop a sense of gratitude and pride at making another birthday. I don’t know all of the reasons why it affects me the way it does. Perhaps it’s a certainty that some hopes and expectations will not be met; it could be a tendency to ponder life and bucket list items not accomplished. It’s probably both of those and a few things I’m not going to share this morning. But I will share that this year I had the best birthday in years!
It wasn’t about getting amazing gifts or going out to dinner, or even reflection that I had accomplished much this past year. It was where I spent it.
Knowing that the Lord forgives all our sins – a great remedy for grumpiness.
Thankful for another year cancer-free – Gratitude is another great prescription for dealing with grumpiness. It’s next to impossible to be grumpy and grateful at the same time.
You know where I spent my birthday last September? Some of you do. I spent it at Detroit Children’s Hospital focusing, not on aging, not on things left undone, not on gifts I hoped to get. I spent it focused on the medical needs of a 12-year-old child and his family. It was the best birthday I’ve had in years as the love and compassion the Lord has showered on me spilled over and were shared with others.
Fears and anxieties are relieved when we accept from God the forgiveness of all our sins.
Opening ourselves to Christ and allowing him to heal the unclean thoughts and evil that haunt our souls, and being the one-in-ten who fills up on gratitude chases away grumpiness.
The best prescription, is allowing the love and compassion of God’s Spirit to surround us, fill us and spill over through us to others is the most effective prescription I know.
13 As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear [honor him, trust him, respect and revere] him.
FIRST BIBLE LESSON II Thessalonians 3
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 21:5-19
SERMON: “Standing Firm in a Shaky World”
“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.
It was the age of wisdom. It was the age of foolishness.
It was the epoch of belief. It was the epoch of incredulity.
It was the season of light. It was the season of darkness.
It was the spring of hope. It was the winter of despair.”
Thus begins Charles Dickens’ classic, A Tale of Two Cities set against the backdrop of the French Revolution. Those famous words came into my mind as I pondered this passage from Luke in the context of this past week because
This has been a horrible week. This has been a wonderful week.
This has been a horrible week. Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines with over 3,600 dead, nine million people affected and untold property loss. All of that seems far away.
Closer to home, a friend and colleague who serves on my presbytery committee underwent a second surgery in a few short weeks to remove melanoma cells from her face; she wrote to me that a semi-truck could not have done a better job of messing up her face. Another friend learned that the man who had repeatedly committed domestic assault against his daughter, nearly strangling her to death, was found “not guilty” by a jury who didn’t ask to see any of the evidence submitted and only bothered to deliberate for 5 minutes. Another friend went into the hospital Friday night for a life-threatening illness, and yet another friend learned that her child may have a serious illness. All of which makes the fact that my car wouldn’t start yesterday morning, a pretty minor problem. It was a horrible week.
It has been a good week.
Every time a gospel passage about end-times comes up, I tend to go looking to see what other passage I could preach on. Who wants to come to Sunday worship and deal with “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, famines and pestilences in various places, and fearful events and great signs from heaven.” ??
First, Jesus – by outlining in broad strokes what will happen – is telling his people to live with readiness and awareness. We might prefer not to think about such things, and reality is that it does little good to dwell on things we can do little about. Jesus is not calling his followers to sink into paranoia or paralyzing fear. Still, He does want us to realize that there are troubles everywhere as we live in a world marred by sin and tragedy.
Much of what we worry about, never comes to pass, especially when it comes to predictions of the end of the world. Do you remember last year at this time when some people were all worked up over the end of the Mayan calendar and feared that the world would end on 12/21/12? Didn’t happen. There were a few people caught with some last-minute Christmas shopping to do.
In December of 1999, there was near panic over the possibility of Y2K causing computers we depend on for all sorts of things to crash. Didn’t happen.
One July 2013 headline said, “The end of the world is (almost) nigh: Scientists predict that all life will be wiped off our planet in less than . . . a billion years.”1
Before you get worried about that one – the headline was in a British tabloid, and . . . well, a billion years gives us a while before we need to panic.
The oldest known prediction of the end of the world is recorded on Assyrian tablets: “Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.” Sound familiar? Those tablets date back to the 28th century BCE.
The early Christians believed Jesus was coming back any day –– Hence we get the Second Thessalonians passage Dottie read earlier.
In the 7th Century Muslims believed in a last judgment when Jesus would come to earth, end all wars, and kill ad-Dajjal, the Muslim anti-Christ.
In 1719 Jacob Bernoulli believed a comet seen in 1680 would return and collide with the Earth. That particular comet hasn’t been seen since.
In the 19th century, William Miller, a Baptist preacher, predicted the world would come to an end in 1843, then 1844. . . eventually his followers, the ones that didn’t fall away, became what is known today as the Seventh Day Adventists.
In 1978 Jim Jones, believing the end was near, took some 900 of his cult members with him by forcing them to drink cyanide laced Kool-Aid.
We are called not to bury our heads in the sand, but we are cautioned not to panic. Jesus said, “Watch out that you are not deceived. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and, ‘The time is near.’ Do not follow them. 9 When you hear of wars and uprisings, do not be frightened. These things must happen first, but the end will not come right away.”
We hear of catastrophic events like hurricanes, typhoons, earthquakes and tsunamis, events like 9/11, terrorist bombings and school shootings. In gospel times the much-dreaded catastrophes were the destruction of the Jewish temple and the persecution of Christians.
How do we live with the dire predictions and the earth-shattering and tragic life events? The answers can be found in Jesus’ own words. No sooner does he give a dire, but dead-on, description of life in our world than he issues a clear and simple approach for how his followers should live in such a world. Jesus -- reminds us that adversity often creates a platform, a platform upon which some will emerge and stand as a force for good.
The Apostle Paul expands on how Christians are to respond to their fears of heartbreak and disaster. 11 We hear that some among you are idle and disruptive. They are not busy; they are busybodies. 12 Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the food they eat. 13 And as for you, brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.
At this time of year when the church invites you to help provide food and clothing, to fill shoe boxes with gifts for children, to give a day to delivering Santa Claus Girls gifts, it is easy to say, “Enough!” brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.
When the church asks you to dig deep to send a few more dollars to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in the wake of another devastating storm, it is easy to say, “Been there, done that.” brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.
When the church asks you to pray again for people who are battling illness of body, mind or spirit, to pray again for people in financial trouble, to pray again for people who are grieving, it is easy to say, “but I have prayed.” brothers and sisters, never tire of doing what is good.
Luke highlights catastrophes as opportunities. For individuals this is a chance to let faith shine and witness to the rest of the world.
Finally, Jesus urges us to live with a constant focus on how the story will end. Admittedly, all of this is easier said than done, which is what makes Jesus’ last piece of advice so critical. He calls us to live with our hearts and minds anchored in the fact that in the end, no matter what happens, we will be okay.
Yes, there are wars and rumors of wars around the globe. Yes, there are earthquakes, fires and floods. In the end, no matter what happens, we will be okay.
Yes, loved ones suffer illness and injury, and we grieve over those who have died. In the end, no matter what happens, we will be okay.
The world we live in can be scary and shaky, but when the last page turns, God’s people win the battle. Jesus spoils the ending -- well, not really -- by promising that, “not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:18-19).
Jesus invites us to consider how we should live every day in spite of the troubles around us, in light of the fact that he, by his life, his teachings, his ministry, his death and glorious resurrection has guaranteed our survival.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON Haggai 1:15b- 2:9
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 20:27-38
SERMON: “An Institution Crafted by God”
Author and preacher King Duncan tells a story about a little girl who walked into a pet shop. She went up to the shopkeeper and asked in a sweet little lisp, “Excuthe me, mithter, do you have any wittle wabbits?”
The shopkeeper bent way down and put his hands on his knees so he would be on her level, and asked, “Do you want a wittle white wabbit or a wittle bwack wabbit? Or maybe that cute wittle bwown wabbit over there?”
The little girl thought for a moment, put her hands on her knees, leaned forward and said in a quiet little voice, “Mr., I don’t fink my pyfon weally cares.”
Well, she’s probably right. Her pet python didn’t care what color the rabbits were that were put in his cage.
Some of the Sadducees came to Jesus with a question regarding the subject of death. One of the differences between Pharisees and Sadducees is that the Sadducees did not believe in life beyond the grave. So it is obvious they are trying to entrap Jesus. Often when preachers approach this passage it results in dealing with the bad attitude of the Pharisees. But sometimes we don’t see the forest for the trees – Jesus’ response gives insight to an institution created by God to help us know just a bit about what heaven will be like.
There is a cute story about a family that bought a pet hamster. The children promised they would take care of it. You can guess how that worked out. Mom ended up with about 90 percent of the responsibility.
One evening she was thoroughly fed up with the kids’ lack of responsibility. She asked, “How many times do you think that hamster would have died if I hadn’t looked after it?”
After a moment, her 5 year old son looked up and asked innocently, “Uh . . . Once?” Well, of course he’s right. We only die once, but none of us avoid that one-time event. What will it be like for us after that one-time event. Those Sadducees didn’t believe there was a resurrection, so they tried to trick Jesus into admitting that.
In an attempt to disprove God the Creator Almighty, an atheist once asked a Christian, “Can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” Now the Christian is trapped… If he answers, “No, God can’t create a rock so big that he can’t lift it.” Then he has upheld God’s great power, but discredited God’s creative ability. But if he answers, “Yes, God CAN create a rock so big that he can’t lift it.” Then he has upheld God’s creative ability and discredited his omnipotent power. So what’s a Christian to do? How do we answer, “Can God create a rock so big that he can’t lift it?” Well, the simplest answer is, “Why would he want to?”
Okay, so that doesn’t really address the actual question at hand. But this is the sort of question that the Sadducees were asking of Jesus. If, according to God’s law, a woman is married by seven consecutive brothers – none of whom produce children, when they all die and are resurrected, “whose wife will she be?”
This is just one in a series of questions designed to trick Jesus into saying something the religious leaders could refute and use to discredit his authority. They asked him by what authority he did the things he did. They asked him about paying taxes, and now they pose a question about whose wife a woman will be if she is married to seven brothers one, after the other, as each of them die childless. They’re not really trying to iron out a fine point in the law, just in case such a situation would arise. Their purpose is to stump the rabbi, or at least force him into saying something they can ridicule. These men knew the laws of Moses very well. If Jesus answered that she would be one wife with seven husbands, or if he singled out one husband above the others, he would be accused of breaking Levirate law. So what’s he to do?
Well, just as the atheist’s question isn’t really about the rock, but about disproving God’s existence. The Sadducees’ question isn’t really about marriage, but about discrediting the resurrection.
The Sadducees were hoping that the conundrum they posed would demonstrate that the idea of a resurrection was sort of ludicrous.
Jesus responds by saying, "The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are considered worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage" (Luke 20:34-35) In other words Jesus says, "Look, don't use marriage in this world to disprove God's promises about the next one. Marriage is a gift for today, meeting needs that will be filled in different ways tomorrow."
If we think about it all, we have to wonder what life after death will be like. I’ve shared with some of you one of my favorite books on the subject – a novel by M. Scott Peck called In Heaven as on Earth. The story begins at the point of a man’s death and relates his experiences of afterlife. While In Heaven as on Earth is clearly fiction, Heaven Is For Real relates the experiences of a four-year-old who slips from consciousness into heaven while in surgery for a life-threatening illness. My favorite revelation from Scott Peck’s book is when the man discovers that in heaven he will never have to go to the bathroom again. Think of it – no bathrooms, no need to scrub toilets, . . . pretty cool. My favorite revelation from Heaven Is For Real comes near the end when we learn that no one is old in heaven.
At first look at this passage in Luke, we want to draw a conclusion about the silly Sadducees who try to trap the Teacher. Jesus always has an answer that goes beyond their thinking.
Can God make a rock so big that he can’t lift it? Why would he want to?
Married successively to seven brothers and bearing no children to any of them, whose wife will the woman be in the resurrection. Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.
So he didn’t answer their question about the marriage laws, but he did answer the question behind the question: Yes, there is life eternal after life temporary, In his response, Jesus not only affirms and gives us a glimpse of a future life, but he upholds the example of marriage as an next-life placeholder, which helps us grab a glimpse and appreciate the coming glory.
Before I go any farther, let me be clear that God doesn’t love married people more than single people. Being married is not a requirement for passage through the pearly gates. I imagine that God hates divorce (because of the pain and damage it can inflict on His children), but God never hates a divorced person.
In this world life is fragile. It begins with babies that are breakable, beautiful and absolutely dependent. They need someone to feed them, burp them, and create a playground of growth and safety and joy for them. Then, as we get older, moms and dads become like their children once were. They become breakable, dependent and desperately in need of the nurture and the comfort that a spouse can provide. I officiated at a wedding a few years back for a couple who had lived together for 25 or 30 years. I’m no expert on the law, but I’m pretty sure they could have qualified for a “common-law” marriage. When I asked the bride-to-be why, after all this time they wanted to get married, she said it was because they recognized that they were getting older and they wanted to make clear their commitment to care for each other to the end of life.
The wedding ceremony liturgy affirms, “God gave us marriage as a holy mystery in which a man and a woman are joined together, and become one, just as Christ is one with the church.”
It's difficult for us to grasp what the ultimate sense of wholeness in God's presence will be like. But marriage is an institution crafted by God that perhaps gives us the best glimpse.
In this life, marriage exists for promise-making and promise-keeping. In this broken world, instability and uncertainty rule the day. Sin drives us to love ourselves more than our neighbor, and the world full of unpredictability. Marriage offers something radically different, the possibility of two selfish people making promises of selflessness, stability, fidelity and endurance. It begins at the altar with grand promises to "love and cherish" as long as we both shall live, but gets lived out in a million little promises to "take out the trash," to "call me when you get there" and to "pick up milk on the way home."
The Book of Common Worship offers this prayer for a couple being married:
Grant that their wills may be so knit together in your will, and their spirits in your Spirit, that they may grow in love and peace with you and each other all the days of their life. – doesn’t that sound something like what it might be like to live in God’s heaven?
Give them the grace, when they hurt each other, to recognize and confess their fault, and to seek each other's forgiveness -- and yours. . – doesn’t that sound something like what it might be like to live in God’s heaven?
Make their life together a sign of Christ's love to this sinful and broken world, that unity may overcome estrangement, forgiveness heal guilt and joy conquer despair. . – doesn’t that sound something like what it might be like to live in God’s heaven?
Give them such fulfillment of their mutual love that they may
reach out in concern for others. . – doesn’t that sound something like what it might be like to live in God’s heaven?
Communion – heavenly banquet
There are a lot question the Bible doesn't answer about the Hereafter. But I think one reason is illustrated by the story of a boy sitting down to a bowl of spinach when there's a chocolate cake at the end of the table. He's going to have a rough time eating that spinach when his eyes are on that cake. And if the lord had explained everything to us about what's ours to come, I think we'd have a rough time with our spinach down here.
God instituted baptism to help us identify with Jesus’ death and resurrection
God instituted the Lord’s Supper to give us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet when they shall come from the north and the south, from the east and the west and sit at table in God’s kingdom.
God instituted marriage so that when it is experienced at its best we have a glimpse of what heavenly relationships will be like.
HEBREW BIBLE LESSON: Isaiah 26:1-4, 8-9
GOSPEL LESSON Luke 19:1-10
SERMON: "On the Road to Sainthood"
Frederick Buechner in his book Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who presents from A-Z several dozen character sketches of well-known (and sometimes not-so-well-known) biblical characters. And naturally, Zacchaeus is the entry for “Z.” About this man Buechner writes:
“Zacchaeus makes for a good [character] to end with because in a way he can stand for all the rest. He’s a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway, and that’s why he reminds you of all the others, too. There’s Aaron whooping it up with the Golden Calf the moment his brother’s back is turned, and there’s Jacob conning everybody including his own father.
There’s Jael driving a tent-peg through the head of an overnight guest, and Rahab, the first of the red-hot mamas. There’s Nebuchadnezzar with his taste for roasting the opposition, and Paul holding the lynch mob’s coats as they go to work on Stephen. There’s Saul the paranoid, and David the stud, and those mealy-mouthed friends of Job’s who would probably have succeeded in boring Job to death if Yahweh had not stepped in just in the nick of time. And then there are the ones who betrayed the people who loved them best such as Absalom and poor old Peter, such as Judas even. Like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them peculiar as Hell, to put it quite literally, and yet you can’t help feeling that, like Zacchaeus, they’re all of them somehow treasured, too. Why? Who knows? But maybe you can say at least this about it - that they’re treasured less for who they are and for what the world has made them than for what they have it in them, at their best to be, because ultimately, of course, it’s not the world that made them at all.
“All the earth is mine,” says Yahweh, “and all that dwell therein” adds the 24th Psalm, and in the long run, that goes for you and me, too.
When we think of Zacchaeus, we don’t usually think of him as a
saint, and yet his story tells us a great deal about how one travels down the road towards sainthood.
The first step on that road is to be seeking. Zacchaeus wasn’t found by Jesus hiding among the crowd, with his head down. You know the body language of the student in class, who hasn’t done their homework and hopes against hope that the teacher won’t call on them. No, Zacchaeus dropped what he was doing and went looking for Jesus. He wasn’t hiding; he was actively searching. And when other people blocked his vision, he went running ahead, climbed a tree to ensure his opportunity to see the Lord. Looking for Jesus was his first step on the road to sainthood.
In the Presbyterian tradition we don’t talk a lot about the saints. Our Catholic friends have a saint for this and a saint for that. But in celebration of All Saints Day I will ask you to take a moment to think about the saints in your lives – living or dead. Remember parents and mentors, people who modeled Christian followership, people who ministered to you or others when you were in a special need, people who taught and inspired faith in you.
I suspect many of us hope that we are on the road to sainthood, that some day when others are asked to think of the saints who encouraged them in faith we will find our way into their memories. And yet, to even say such a thing seems to be presumptuous. How can we think of ever being the saints of the church? We dare to think it, because Jesus believes in us.
Several years ago, a school teacher was assigned to visit children in a large city hospital, received a routine call requesting that she visit a particular child. she took the boy’s name and room number and was told by the teacher on the other end of the line, “We’re studying nouns and adverbs in his class now. I’d be grateful if you could help him with his homework so he doesn’t fall behind the others.”
It wasn’t until the visiting teacher got outside the boy’s room that she realized it was located in the hospital’s burn unit. No one had prepared her to find a young boy horribly burned and in great pain. She felt that she couldn’t just turn and walk out, so she awkwardly stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.”
The next morning, a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?” She started to apologize profusely, but the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him, but ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment . . . It’s as though he’s decided to live.”
Some weeks later, the boy was able to explain that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization -- They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy, would they?”
To know that someone believes in us is essential. Knowing that Jesus believed in him was enough to turn around Zacchaeus’ life. A man whose spiritual and social life were more critically injured than that boy in the burn unit of the hospital, gained a whole new attitude towards life, because Jesus believed in him. Why is it that most of us, who know how little we like being criticized and condemned, us disapproval and disparagement as our first line of “helping” others be and do better. I’d love to see what would happen if we chose to start by believing in people, by encouraging and appreciating them instead of trying to “fix” them.
Apparently Zacchaeus didn’t think much of himself - and perhaps
with some good reason. He had taken a job with the Roman government as a district tax superintendent. As such, he was surely one of the most despised people in his community. Religiously unclean because he touched money that belonged to the emperor, he was socially and politically undesirable because he became wealthy by collecting more than the required amount from people. He became rich at the expense of his fellow Jews. His spiritual life was a wreck, as was his social life.
He was a small man -- figuratively and literally. He was short, Luke tells us. So short that in order to see Jesus he had to run ahead and climb up in a tree. I kind of picture a small Danny DeVito climbing up in the tree to see Jesus. Sometimes the church feels like that little man, because we too are small. And unfortunately in our society, “small” has so many negative connotations. I mean, when you look for synonyms for “small” you find words like “tiny,” “diminutive,” “peewee,” “miniature,” “dwarf,” “unimportant” and “insignificant.” No wonder the “small” church sometimes has a self-image problem.
But when Jesus came into town, he saw this short fellow up in a sycamore tree, trying to see over the crowds of people who had gathered to see the Christ. Jesus called him by name and told him to come down. Then Jesus invited himself over for supper at Zacchaeus’ house. That was surely the beginning of his new lease on life. They wouldn’t send the teacher to the house of a good-for-nothing, lost cause outcast would they?
Can you imagine that when Zacchaeus received Jesus’ attention, something happened inside him. All those negative messages, his self-image problems, his possessions and his job all seemed insignificant now. Remember that Jesus told his disciples that whenever two or three of them were gathered in his name, he would be there with them. When Jesus encounters the church seeking him, he doesn’t call us diminutive or insignificant. He calls us a family, close-knit, faithful, hard-working. When Zacchaeus realized that Jesus believed in him, he began to believe in himself. Jesus believes in this church, and invites himself in to eat with us, to pray with us, to teach us. Jesus believes in you, and invites himself into your life, to eat with you, pray with you, teach you. And since Jesus believes in you, you can believe in yourselves.
One of my all-time favorite children’s songs is “Kids Under Construction.” In truth, we are all “saints under construction.” We are all working to develop habits that demonstrate our Christian life and faith. We want to establish holy habits. Habit is a powerful force in our lives. There is a true story about a TV announcer who had been doing coffee commercials for several years; then he changed sponsors. This time he was doing a commercial for a cigarette company. On camera for his first new commercial, he took a long draw on his sponsor’s cigarette . . . blew a big smoke ring . . . looked into the camera and said, “Man . . that’s real coffee!” Habits are powerful. On the road to sainthood, we want to establish holy habits -- habits of love and kindness, and patience and faithfulness and right living.
Zacchaeus, that despised, little man was able to move along the road towards sainthood by changing his habits. He responded to Jesus’ attention. He changed the habit of selfishness to one of generosity: “Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.” He changed his habit of dishonesty to one of restitution and then some: “if I have defrauded any one of anything, I restore it fourfold.”
As we consider our own journey on the road towards sainthood, that’s a tall order - to give half our goods to the poor, to give back fourfold to anyone whom we have hurt. And then Jesus, in direct response to Zacchaeus’ change of direction, said to him. “Today salvation has come to this house.”
Believing in Jesus is of supreme importance. But it really blossoms when we realize that Jesus believes in us. Look at all the people in the Bible that Jesus believed in. They were people like you and me. Jesus believed in them, and they came to believe in him and themselves. God comes to us in Christ not to put us down, but to show that He believes in us. Think about it: If God can believe in a man like Zacchaeus, isn’t it possible God could believe in us as well? He does. Never doubt it. Our best response: believing in him, trusting him and responding to him.