Sunday, November 3, 2013

Lost and Known

Lost and Known
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 3, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 19: 1-10
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

19 He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 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.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 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.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” [1]

 So today I'm supposed to talk about Zacchaeus, the wee little man, who climbed up the sycamore tree, for the lord he wanted to see. Like most people I've heard the song all my life, but really hadn't ever thought too much about this story. It's a well known one, mostly because of the song. I wonder if it wouldn't be so well known if it wasn't for the small detail about Zaccheaus being small in stature. The fact that he is a wee little man makes him memorable. Otherwise he's much like the other tax collectors and sinners, Jesus associates with, at least on the surface. At least I had thought, but studying this story more closely this week I noticed a much more interesting distinguishing mark for Zacchaeus, and that is that he is a salvation, redemption story. Jesus comes to his house, and he is so touched, so moved, that he changes his life at that moment. He does so with a great gesture of goodwill towards his fellow man, the very people he had been fleecing and cheating from during his career. He promises to give half of his possession to the poor, and to pay back anyone who he has ever cheated four times what he took from them. Yes climbing up the tree was just the beginning. . . I thought about a bad pun about, going out on a limb, but thought better about it. He does though, he is completely moved by the person or the message of Jesus, it's interesting that the story in the song, ends with Jesus coming to his house, rather than the salvation, which also comes to his house. Speaking of puns, Jesus' name means salvation in Hebrew, which then literally is true in Hebrew or in Aramaic, Salvation, Yeshuah, does come to his house. . . There is something about the complete life change that occurs within Zacchaeus here.
It's been well documented in sermons I've heard, and for that matter delivered, exactly who these tax collectors were, and what they did with their position. They were agents of the government, and in this case a foreign power an occupying empire, thousands of miles away back in Rome, and they were responsible for getting money, tax money from the poor people of the area. They took what they were required to, and sent it on to Rome, but they often would skim off the top, often they would charge more than was necessary, making themselves very, very rich, sold out to their occupying government, and selling out their country men. They were despicable people. It's like the Sheriff of Nottingham, Benedict Arnold, a organized crime boss, a war profiteer, a corrupt banker, and his brother the corrupt politician all rolled into one. That's him, that's Zacchaeus, but what gets me is why does he change, why does he climb up the tree, why does Jesus grab him, why does he care? Does he know how lost he is? and if so, how does he know?
It says at the beginning of this passage that Zacchaeus is rich, he's got it all going for him. He is winning, what makes him think twice about his success? It appears that he is on the top of his game, and then Jesus walks by. What is it that draws him? Is it just curiosity? Is it just that he is interested in the crowds that Jesus has amassed. They have to be substantial since he has to climb a tree to see, but why does Zacchaeus bother? Does he wake up that morning searching for something, was something empty in his life, or was he just drawn to Jesus? Whatever it was, he climbs the tree, then Jesus invites himself to his house. And he goes ahead, gets everything ready, has Jesus come, and then is it something that Jesus says? Is it something that Jesus does? But then Zacchaeus gives up half of his wealth, and you'd assume he then becomes a follower of Jesus. What is it about Jesus that draws him in?
Do you ever ask these questions? We have been in Sunday school the last few weeks. It has been one of the repeated questions we've looked at as we've been going through the gospels. Jesus has all these followers, but how is it determined, who follows and who doesn't? Why would one person follow and then so many others not? What makes the difference for them? How do they know, when so many others don't. We have the benefit of reading these gospels, hearing them preached, backwards and forwards. We all get to read about John the Baptist at the beginning of each gospel, the voice in the wilderness making the way straight, pointing us in the right direction, but these eye witnesses do not have that luxury. We said, well they have the prophets and the law, these point to Jesus don't they. Sure I guess, they do for us. Matthew has so many great quotations from the prophets, showing how Jesus fits them, but you don't get those real time. Sure he's done some miracles and some other signs, but many people see those, and not everybody is swayed by such things. What about the religious professionals. They are the religious question answerers, the literate ones in an illiterate society, the ones who know, but we keep seeing again and again that they just do not know, but here all of a sudden, and he is not the first, a sinner comes to know, a seemingly bad example of humanity, the scum of the culture, the dishonestly wealthy. He gets it, when everyone else doesn't, the wrong people get it, the wrong people get to walk with Jesus, the wrong people get access to Jesus, the wrong people get saved. Why? Why do they go, when others decide against it?

In Sunday School we have put ourselves in the shoes of these folks, or at least tried to. What would you have done? How do we feel about great crowds of people? How do we feel about miracles and healings, How do we feel about challenging teaching? How do we feel about messages that challenge our traditions? How do we feel about someone questioning those traditions? How do we feel about changing traditions? Who do we listen to about matters of faith, religion, God? If you listen to me at all, I have to admit, I find myself being very skeptical about someone claiming to be God, challenging tradition, with great crowds following him, of people he has "saved and healed." I think cult, I think brain washing, I think crazy? And we shortchange Jesus if we don't see him in this world challenging light. 2000 years of Christianity has in many cases softened Jesus' edges making him all that much more palatable for us, but would we have followed Jesus in real time? And if we followed would we have given up half our wealth, and gone on a crusade to undo the damage we have done through our dishonesty? And if not then, why today, or more honestly, do we today?
Are we lost, do we know it? And can we recognize salvation when it walks by us on the street, when it invites itself to our homes for dinner, and when it requires us to commit completely to it, seeming to require us to put it all on the line, half our stuff, our safety, our security, our livelihood, our success, our lives? Or do we say to ourselves, grumbling, "Salvation has gone to the house of a sinner"? Jesus says, "Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out the lost?" Have you ever wished to be of the lost before? Would you ever consider yourself to be lost? Did Zacchaeus?
Have you ever heard the poem The Hound of Heaven, that speaks about how Christ seeks us out? Let me read a bit of this to us. . .

I fled Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
  Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.
                  Up vistaed hopes I sped;
                  And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmed fears,
From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
                  But with unhurrying chase,
                  And unperturb√®d pace,
                Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
                  They beat--and a Voice beat
                  More instant than the Feet--
                "All things betray thee, who betrayest Me." 

                  Now of that long pursuit
                  Comes on at hand the bruit;
                That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
                  "And is thy earth so marred,
                  Shattered in shard on shard?
                Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!
                Strange, piteous, futile thing,
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught," He said,
"And human love needs human meriting,
                How hast thou merited--
Of all man's clotted clay rhe dingiest clot?
                Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
                Save Me, save only Me?
All which I took from thee I did but take,
                Not for thy harms.
But just that thou might'st seek it in my arms.
                All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for the at home;
                Rise, clasp My hand, and come!" 

  Halts by me that footfall;
  Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstreched caressingly?
  "Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,
  I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me."

Jesus pursues us like this. . . again it's not about what Zacchaeus does. It's about Jesus seeking him, bringing salvation to him. In this situation there is no other choice. It's the only thing that seems reasonable. It's Jesus doing the seeking, may he come by us, in the midst of our day, may there be a sycamore tree there for us, but we need not climb it, Jesus comes, will come. . . and then we react. Oh may we be like this sinner, Zacchaeus, who repents, because he was lost, and he comes to know it. If we are lost, may we know it, may we realize it, and rather than making our own way, may we invite salvation into our homes for dinner, and then let it stay in the only way it can, the life changing true way.. . .  Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 19:1-10). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.