Monthly Archives: November 2013

11-24-13 CHRIST THE KING

It might seem odd for us to turn and visit the cross right before advent. After all the holidays are coming up. Everyone’s favorite scriptures of the nativity and the birth of the savior are in the weeks ahead. This is a time of anticipation and celebration. And as we turn to celebrate thanksgiving, we see our savior on the cross, suffering and dying and forgiving us despite ourselves. It does tend to put a damper on the festivities, doesn’t it?

There’s a reason for it, I promise. Today is the end of our church year, also known as Christ the King Sunday. Next week advent begins, but before we prepare for the birth of the infant savior, we take a moment to see Jesus as Lord. This is a day that draws to a fitting close the Christian year, which begins anew next Sunday. We began the year by looking forward to the coming of Jesus into the world, and we end it by reminding ourselves that he is the eternal King.

Our world has strong ideas of what authority is, of what power and royal splendor should be like. Though the word king doesn’t mean what it used to. The term king is seen as largely irrelevant today. Because we have no contact with real kings, the word “king” has come to be used figuratively in reference to a host of historical characters who are not the governing heads of any countries. We have Elvis as the king in this country. On television, we might see a character who carries the title of king, but no one who really rules. The royalty of England does not have much power, because Great Britain is not rules by the monarchy, but by an elected parliament.

But that’s not the way it was back in Jesus’ day. In his day, a king’s power was virtually absolute. Even if there were a set of laws, the king could overrule the law because ultimately the king’s word WAS the law. When we began calling Christ our King, we were using that term to someone that commanded all of our allegiance. Someone who had all of our respect and someone whose laws we would follow no matter what.

Yet Jesus never acted as a king. Even when he had people willing to follow him, happy to revolt against Rome and follow his lead, Jesus refused. He refuses to be the master of the world, the mighty monarch, the spiller of blood. His reign subverts our notion of kingship.

He is the king who serves the other. He is the king who dies for the other. He is the king who is ridiculed, scorned, and mocked. Most insufferable of all, is the fact that in this scripture Jesus plays a powerless sovereign. Dying on his cross-throne, Jesus is taunted repeatedly for the fact that he does not save himself. “You a savior?” they jeer. “Then save yourself.” Soldiers with their sour wine chide, “Aren’t you a real king? Save yourself.”

And our king, rather than smiting them down, rather than freeing himself from a painful death, forgives his tormentors. More than that, he asks his Father to forgive them for their ignorance. After asking for their salvation, the king promises paradise to another thief who is dying. Then our king breathes his last and dies. Wait, that is not how the story is supposed to go.

We’re not always comfortable with this image of Christ as king, are we? We prefer to focus on the resurrection and the triumph over death. Or maybe we turn to the transfiguration, when Jesus is a shining light of the divine. The truth of the matter is we don’t want to think about our God suffering and dying. The very idea makes us uncomfortable. Jesus’ victory is over death so focusing on the dying seems wrong. And yet, we are offered this passage today. Not the resurrection, but the suffering and death. That is our King.

In some ways, our first passage this morning is more like what we expect from a Christ the King. Our first passage is full of Paul’s lyrical description of the divine Christ, reigning in glory. “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” Now, that is kingly. That is the sort of divine talk we were hoping for.

In this hymn of celebration, Paul uses one of my favorite phrases for Christ in the entire Bible. He calls Christ the Image of the Invisible God. The firstborn of all creation. In Jesus we get the image of what our unseeable creator is really like.

But as image or an icon of Jesus is more than simply what the invisible God looks like. He is also the One through whom you and I enter into God’s eternal yet ever immanent presence. That is what icons do for us; they transport us into the reality they signify. The world of computers gives us an easy example for today. When you click on an icon, the program behind it opens to you, and you find yourself transported into its wondrous world. In a relig
ious and liturgical frame of reference, focusing on an icon draws you through that image into the presence of the one so portrayed.

When we experience Jesus, we also experience the invisible God fully. Now Jesus came to earth, fully human, which is what we will be spending the next several weeks talking about. Advent prepares us for the wonder that our God became fully messily human and dwelt among us. Today however, I want to lift up the part where Jesus is fully God. Our God came to this world so we might see him better. More clearly. So that we might be rescued from the darkness and pulled into the light. God created everything and came to earth and dwelt among us.

There is a story about a young girl who was scared of thunderstorms. She ran to her parents whenever she heard the thunder. Her parents would reassure her and take her back to bed every night. One night her mother said “Don’t worry. God is with you even in the thunderstorm. You will be alright” and tucked her back in. Ten minutes later after one particularly loud crack of thunder the girl was back down in her mother’s lap. “God is nice and all, but sometimes you need someone with skin on.”

We need someone with skin on, someone embodying God. Jesus is that someone. It is in Jesus we can grasp the divine. That we can see our King. And yet what do we see from our Savior and King in the gospel passage today?

Not golden crowns or mighty thrones. Not for our God. Our God is nailed, bleeding to a cross. He is mocked and beaten by those around him. And through it all, in the midst of his suffering, he thinks of others. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.” That is what the image of our invisible God looks like. It is a word for others in the midst of pain. It is forgiveness in the middle of being tormented. It is hope that out lasts even the worst of what the world offers.

We celebrate Christ the King today, not because of Jesus’ regalness, but because of his humility; not because of his power, but because of his compassion; not because of his triumph, but because of his perseverance through suffering; not because he fixes our lives, but because he shows us the way to live.

We are called to follow our King. As Christians, we have promised to do as he did. To be images for the divine for others. After all, we are called to be the body of Christ. Therefore we only see the divine reflected in each other today. We are called to live out that image of the invisible God. To show people who our Lord really is. It is through Christ that the world finds reconciliation with God. When we open ourselves up to be used as reflections of the divine we may be giving someone a glimpse of the God they have never seen. We offer up ourselves as dim reflections of that glory.

So we live our lives as if Christ the King Sunday holds reign every day, offering the image of God to those we meet as best as we know how. We live our lives as if Christ is really our Lord and King, following his example. And it is in grateful thanksgiving that we serve our King.

 

11-17-13 DISASTER: WHERE WAS GOD?

DISASTER: WHERE WAS GOD?

Psalm 121; 1 Kings 19: 8-13a

 

Last Sunday as we prayed for the
residents of the Philippines,
the prediction was that the death toll could reach 10,000. Mercifully, in the
light of day and with a reassessment the number has dropped to 3,700. But that
still is a loss of a lot of lives. One life lost to catastrophe seems to be one
too many. 50 years ago this Friday, a young mother—America’s first lady—became a widow
with two small children when her husband, President John F. Kennedy, was
assassinated in Dallas Texas. He was a Catholic man who prayed, and
even still, harm found him. Just months ago we recall how Hurricane Sandy
devastated the New Jersey coast and parts of New York. We saw some of the
devastation when we visited there last month. A few years ago Japan had devastating earthquakes.
We in the United States remember Hurricane Katrina that hit the Gulf Coast
several years ago and, in 1992 Hurricane Andrew that hit South Florida. In 2004
hurricanes Charley, Frances, Ivan, and Jeanne hit Central Florida. Thankfully
loss of life was low compared to other so-called “natural disasters.”  And we know there have been disasters caused
by malfunctions or accidents such as the Challenger Disaster, the Titanic
disaster, and the Hindenburg disaster. Finally, the world will not forget the
towering infernos created in New York City from the 9/11 attacks. 

 

Some in our communities think about
incidents like these, and they ask: Where was God? Today I hope to
address that topic with special attention to two biblical passages. But
first, I want to name why God seems to be different in the Old Testament than
in the New Testament. It is not because God is different; it’s because the
reporters are different.
In our day those who watch a political news report
on the Fox News channel get a different point of view and get different
editorial choices than those who watch the same political news on CNN. Likewise
ABC, NBC, and CBS each make editorial choices about which story comes first,
second, or last, and how it’s reported. The Daytona Beach News Journal and the
Orlando Sentinel both have editors with different points of view and they make
different choices: about which stories go on which pages and how a story is to
be reported or covered. The reporters and editors have great power over the way
they tell their stories, including what we see or read, and what we don’t. Now
imagine that there were a group of reporters that wrote the Old Testament. They
reported what they saw and heard and experienced from a certain point of view.
In this case it was the Jewish point of view: that everything comes from God;
that if something happens in the world, God is responsible, whether it be the
death of a child or the birth of a child; a barren woman or a pregnant woman;
an invaded country or a protected one. In each case it was God, these editors
say, who was responsible. If there was a storm, God sent it. If there was an
invasion, God was behind it. There was nothing that happened that could not be
directly connected to God. Indeed, when something terrible happened, people
wondered who sinned in that family for God to bring that tragedy.  If a plague occurred, they ask why God sent
it.

 

But sometimes even thoughtful Jews got
to wondering if there was randomness to the universe instead. In 1982, for
example, Rabbi Harold Kushner intrigued the world with his book When Bad
Things Happen to Good People.
His son had Progeria, a rare disease that
made him age rapidly and die early. Rabbi Kushner was a product of the thinking
I described earlier. So he believed in a good God, and he believed that he was
a faithful rabbi. So who did what to make his son so sick? He would not deny
the goodness of God, nor would he say he was an unfaithful believer who failed
to read and follow Torah. So instead, he had a radical idea: Could it be, he
wondered, that there is some randomness to the universe; that sometimes storms
just come; that sometimes illnesses just happen; and that in the midst of them
all, God is still loving and caring and present? Kushner’s thoughts reached
millions of persons: people of faith and people with little or no faith. He had
hit a chord. The Old Testament editors, who believed that God was behind every
event that they called miracle or tragedy, had compiled their information
covering over 3000 years into what most Bibles cover in about 1100 pages. The
result is that many people over the years, even in our day, think that when
something terrible happens, like Superman, God should swoop in to rescue us; to
save the day. They think that God (if there is one) should have prevented the
Holocaust, should have prevented 9/11, should have prevented Typhoon Hiayan,
and should have prevented the death of your child or grandchild. God should
have done that because, our Old Testament editors have told us, that’s what God
does.

 

But then we get a different editorial
board in the back portions of our Bibles; the Old Testament was written in
Hebrew, first for Jewish people and later for Christians. The New Testament was
written by some Jews and some Gentiles in Greek, and all of them were changed
by their encounter with a man called Jesus, one who would later be called
Christ. In him we still had our Superman character; if Jesus were around, or
even one of the Twelve in the book of Acts, they had the power to heal and
perform miracles. But stories of storms happen rarely in the New Testament, and
when one does occur—a storm on the Sea of Galilee, no one said it was not sent
by God; it was just that “a storm arose.” Like God Almighty, with a couple of
words Jesus said: “Be still!” he stilled the waters. Even the Scribes and
Pharisees brought their Jewish understandings to question Jesus, such as when
they saw a blind man and asked: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Jesus
doesn’t answer such questions. Instead he brought different insights and a
different consciousness into the world. He was not about assigning blame;
instead he valued, listened, honored, and sometimes healed. That, he let others
know, is what God would be doing. Things that happen in the Kingdom of God are
things like those: feeding hungry people; giving clothing to those who need
them; giving water to those who are thirst; and giving the poor or
disenfranchised a chance to be heard. Jesus said God asks for justice, with
compassion, and with care. The Old Testament prophet Micah was ahead of his
time when he said “What does the Lord require but to do justice, and to show
mercy, and walk humbly with your God?”

 

Disaster in our day can have a human
cause: such as a person with mental illness or a deluded or brainwashed
worldview; another human cause is sin, which has its roots in evil, some say,
or in Satan, others say. And those are tragic. In all cases God wants both
justice and forgiveness, but first God shows compassion and care.  If there is one thing that I unfailingly
believe about God, it is that God is love.
Why, then, if that’s the case,
would God be punitive with punishments, or sinister with the losses in my life,
or your life? “Would God do that?” I wonder. Or would God, like my good mother
and good father, try to comfort me, see that I get well, give me food, and
never stop loving me?

 

So today, as we dig a little deeper into
the question of “Where is God?” in times of need, let’s recap. If disease
filled someone’s life in the old world view, it was a punishment from God for a
sin; if locusts ate a farmer’s crops they were sent by God because of something
the farmer did.  So we have the stories
of Job and the great Exodus plagues interpreted as anguish sent from the
Almighty. But in Jesus’ day, he thought differently. He told questioners that
“the rain falls on the fields of the just and the unjust.” (Matthew
5:45) We discover in our 1 Kings story that God is not in the storms,
but God is in the aftermath. It helps us to understand the answer to:
“Where was God?” In the Elijah story the prophet’s mood swings from secure in 1
Kings 18 to insecure in 1 Kings 19. In 18 he took on the prophets of Baal,
staging the famous contest on Mount Carmel. As the story goes, he put the Lord
God up against Baal (the many gods in whom Queen Jezebel believed). God
appeared; Baal didn’t! The Queen, who had most of the power in that day in
spite of her husband Ahab being the rightful King, threatened to kill Elijah.
So we watch. Does God protect Elijah from Jezebel? Not that we can read;
anymore than God protects any children of the world from a car or plane
accident or a storm. No; God is not present in that way. But after the storms
of life, when we need the comforting arms of a mother or father, God is there.
Think about God as the Great Collaborator. If you go to help others after a
disaster, God will be with you if you ask; if you hold a grieving woman or man
or child after a loved one dies, God will be with you if you ask. And if you
pray for someone else and engage in fervent prayer in support of another, God
will be there. We wish that, as it seems to be reported in the Old Testament,
God would save us like Superman. Jews have cried that for ages, and Christians
join the cry too, especially on Palm Sunday: “Hosanna!”  It means “Save us!” But God does something
different. As Isaiah is commissioned to tell the exiled Jews “Comfort, comfort
my people” saith their God, so God is in the comforting business. Elijah was
not saved from his fears; but God, in collaboration with angels and with
instructions he gave Elijah to do, saw that his broken prophet was fed and
given water. He still had journeys to make, first into a desert area around the
holy mountain of Sinai, and then way up to Damascus in Syria; then God saw that
Elijah’s burdens and responsibilities were passed to a protégé named Elisha.
God never abandoned his colorful and unpredictable prophet. But neither did he
keep him from facing discouragement and fear; he brought him through it. As
nations and persons face dark nights and dark days, God accompanies us, and
through the hands, eyes, feet, and ears of God’s people, we show God’s
love.  A person who just one time prays:
“God please help those people” is a train without wheels, stuck in the
Celestial Railway station. To put wheels on our requests we make our prayers
fervent and continuous, and we join the efforts in making a difference. That
put wheels on the prayer request to God. Then God, the great collaborator,
joins you and others in doing wondrous and inspiring things.

 

God was not in the earthquake, or the
wind, or the fire as God approached the crumpled figure of Elijah. But after
all of that seismic and cosmic disturbance, there was a
still
small voice. And in that still voice, onward came
the
Lord.
Onward
came the Lord. Onward came the Lord.
Where was God in all of
the world’s disasters? God was under hundreds of hard hats, rescuing human
beings and even pets. God was at the end of fire hoses and ladders, reaching
stranded persons or putting out infernos. God was on the other end of buzzing chains
saws cutting through downed trees and harmful debris. God’s hands offered cups
of soup or water, pieces of bread or servings of rice. God was setting up
portable pumps and generators. God was breaking down boundaries of status or
ethnicity in ways like the people on the Titanic and people after Typhoon
Haiyan realized “We are all in this together.” God was there as neighbor helped
neighbor.  God was there lifting debris
off of terrified and trapped children. In a disaster especially, the kingdoms
of our world become the Kingdom of our God, and of his Christ as people carry
out our Savior’s invitation in Matthew 25: to feed the hungry, clothe the
naked, visit prisoners, and give shelter to the homeless. God is there. As the
lesson from Elijah describes, after the terror and anguish that disaster
brings, and after the winds finally die down, onward comes the Lord.

 

Finally, remember the message from Soren
Kierkegaard’s brief story: “Footprints in the Sand.” As I told the children,
when two sets of footprints walk through the sand on the good days—one of them
your footprints and the other set God’s—we get troubled when disaster comes and
see just one set of footprints in the sand. Why did you forsake me then?” we
cry out to God. And we hear this message back: “My precious, precious child;
during the dark days I did not leave your side. I have never left you; in your
darkest or weakest days, it is then that I carried you. Those were my footprints,
carrying you over burning sand, or debris-littered streets, or troubled
waters.”  This is the God we are called
to worship.

 

Jeffrey A. Sumner                                                                November 17, 2013

11-10-13 HEAVEN: LIFE IS DIFFERENT THERE!

HEAVEN: LIFE
IS DIFFERENT THERE!

Luke 20: 27-38

 

Through
stories, jokes, and anecdotal evidence, we get an unusual picture of what
heaven is like. Because the Roman Catholic Church claims that Peter, the
apostle of our Lord, is the first Pope and the one on which Jesus built the
church, people often  say that when we go
to heaven we’ll meet St. Peter. Maybe so. Because the book of Revelation,
describing heaven in symbolically breathtaking terms, says that there are
twelve gates made out of twelve pearls in Revelation 21: 21, we say we enter
heaven through the “pearly gates.” And because the King James Bibles translate
the Greek word for “rooms” as “mansions” in John 14:2, we think about heaven as
some ultimate gated community, with persons getting their own mansion,keeping
the rif-raff out, and where there are golf courses that rival the finest ones
on earth! Maybe so; but let’s look today at other images of Heaven that might
be closer to the truth, ones that are either metaphorical descriptions or
hopeful ones.

 

First
we have to acknowledgement that some writers such as Marcus Borg, Rob Bell, and
Stan Saunders believe that Jesus described the Kingdom of Heaven as being a
place in the here and now where hungry people are fed, people who need clothes
get them, where prisons get visited and prayed for, where thirsty people are
given cool water to drink, and where justice prevails. There are shining lights
of communities, now and then, that exhibit heaven-like qualities. Second, we
acknowledge that even Jesus’ mother described what Heaven on earth would be like
when the angel visited her. She gave credit to God for the time to come when he
would scatter the proud, put down the mighty from their thrones, exalt those of
low degree, and fill the hungry with good things.  This, then, is another way to describe the Kingdom
of Heaven on earth. Third, it is our charge from the Great Commission of
Matthew 28, say some believers, to change the world so that it will be more
like heaven; not to leave the world in a hell-like condition when we go to
Heaven, but to work to make our little corner of the world better when we leave
it than when we found it. For some that is too tall an order and they give up.
Some Christians actually believe that the world can never be redeemed; it is
only a place from which they hope to escape and fly away.  But others, our Savior included, believed
that we, (his disciples, his body)  are
supposed to keep doing what Jesus did, so that one day the Lord can fulfill his
prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven.”  Many, including me, believe that Jesus wants
us to change this world for Him with our actions and words, rather than just
longing for the day we’ll fly away.

 

But
today’s text gives us pause, as it addresses matters that are both legal and
relational. As usual when Jesus gives a point and gets a counterpoint question,
it’s meant to stump him; to make him stumble. Today’s question was like
that.  It came from the Sadducees:
religious priests who did not believe that there was a resurrection from the
dead. Their question came from their tradition, in what is called the Levirate
Law in Deuteronomy 25: 5-10, which was the Social Security system of the time.
It was: “An injunction that if a married man died without children, it was the
duty of a brother or other near relative to marry the widow.” It was a first
century and earlier mandate to give widows a source of income and the
protection they would need in the world. But these Sadducees take the question
to an extreme: what if a woman has seven different husbands, and they all die
after getting married to her as the Levirate law required? Whose wife would she
be in the afterlife? Jesus knows that such marriages were not out of love as
much as protection, but in the Kingdom
of Heaven things do not
depend on such laws. So Jesus answers them, in so many words;” It’s not like
that. The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But in the
resurrection we do not need to arrange for men to marry women because of laws,
or for protection. There are the angels and there is God in the resurrection.”

 

Still,
biblical writers, hymn writers, and other writers have worked to give us a
glimpse of how wonderful and how beyond comparison Heaven could really be. In
Revelation, John calls Heaven “the New Jerusalem” and “the Holy City.”  John is clearly writing metaphorically, using
images that he knows, and he believes his readers know, from the Hebrew Bible
that we call the “Old Testament.”  He says
“The New Jerusalem” will be a place where God “will wipe away every tear from
[your] eyes, and death shall be no more, neither will there be [sadness] nor
crying any more for the former things have passed away.” (Rev 21:4)  He describes the Holy City in symbolic
language, the 12s representing not only the 12 tribes of Israel, but also for
the 12 Apostles and all who follow the Lamb. There is no need for a Temple
there (or, we may extrapolate, for churches) because “the glory of God is its
light, and its lamp is the Lamb.”

 

Author
Don Piper, who visited Daytona Beach last spring, says in his book 90
Minutes in Heaven:
“The single most vivid memory I have of my entire
heavenly experience [I’ll call] music, but it differed from anything I had
heard or expected to hear on earth.  The
melodies of praise filled the atmosphere. …The praise was unending, but the
most remarkable thing to me was that hundreds of songs were being sung at the
same time—all of them worshipping God.” [Revell Publishing, 2004, p.30] In Flight
to Heaven: A Pilot’s True Story,
Capt. Dale Black wrote: “I was fast approaching
a magnificent city, golden and gleaming among a myriad of colors. The light I
saw was the purest I had ever seen. And the music was the most majestic,
enchanting, and glorious I had ever heard. I was still approaching the city,
but now I was slowing down. Like a plane making its final approach for landing,
I knew instantly that this place was entirely and utterly holy.”  [Bethany House, 2010, p. 99.]

In
the Jewish tradition, there is powerful imagery of crossing over a river,
because recalled their time of crossing from Moab to Canaan,
into a land that was to become God’s land, that gave them a land of their own.
Those in bondage in our own country in the 19th century and earlier
sang and wrote songs too about “Crossin’ over to the other side” about
“Gloryland” and about “Up Yonder,” and the place where one day “I’ll fly away.”
In our own new hymnals a favorite hymn with a water message was included in a
Presbyterian hymnal for the first time: “Shall we gather at the river that
flows by the throne of God?” That imagery is right from Revelation 22. It’s
supposed to remind the people of God of the significant crossing of the Jordan River into Canaan.
For Christians it reminds them of their Savior’s baptism in the same river by
John. When our life on earth ends and our new life begins, we are to remember
our own baptisms—the day of cleansing and grace that lets us gather at the
great river that flows by the throne of God. It’s a wonderful image; it’s a
hopeful image. And it leaves behind legal wrangling that the Sadducees and
others want to question.

 

But
our new hymnals still have hymns that give us glimpses of how different Heaven
is from Earth. We have it described in the words “Holy Holy Holy, all the
saints adore thee, casting down their golden crowns around the glassy sea,
cherubim and seraphim falling down before thee, who wert, and art, and ever
more shall be.” That’s a picture of heaven right from Revelation! We also have
it described in the words of another hymn that is new to our hymnals:  “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the
king … no more crying there, no more dying there, we are going to see the
king.” And we have it described in the words of the last hymn we will sing
today, especially with this verse:  “I
want to see the brightness of God, I want to look at Jesus; clear Sun of
righteousness, shine on my path, and show me the way to the Father. In him
there is no darkness at all, the night and the day are both alike. The Lamb is
the light of the city of God, shine in my heart Lord Jesus.”

 

May
you one day, find out how different, and how wonderful, God’s Kingdom truly is,
on Earth as it is in Heaven.

 

Let
us pray:

Dear
Majestic God who also stoops to be near us, help us to bridge the great divide
that seems to separate Earth and Heaven. Open our eyes to broken people, and
our hearts to needs so that, with generosity, grace, and gladness, we may bring
Christ to the darkened and even evil corners of our world. In His name we pray.
Amen.

 

This
next hymn was dropped from our last hymnal but it is back in the new one. Its
tune and message were and are beloved. “Be Still My Soul.”

 

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                          November
10, 2013

11-03-13 RELEARNING A CHILDREN’S STORY

RELEARNING A CHILDREN’S STORY

Luke 9: 1-10

 

There
are a number of times when children see and hear things differently from
adults. For example, if a carnival comes to town, children may think of fun
rides, games, cotton candy, and a place to go with friends. Parents, on the
other hand, think of safety issues and money draining from their pockets.
Children may talk parents into a movie, but few children go to their seats
without asking for popcorn, a drink, or some candy. Movie theatres know this.
So your child either sits in the theater with a major case of bad attitude or
you are out an extra $20 for snacks. And teenagers can get an attitude if they
don’t like what they have been asked to do, or not do. On some of their faces I
can read in their eyes and their expression: “This is stupid.” Or at other
times I can read “I want to be anywhere but here.” So the world has marketed to
children and youth with such things as toys, candy, “junk food,” and even with
higher ticket items. My niece just turned 13 and got a smart phone for her
birthday. That’s all she got, but she loves it! She didn’t have to pay the
several hundred dollars for it; she didn’t have to pay the monthly charge for
using it; those bills went to her parents. She could not have paid for the
phone on her own; but she is deliriously happy!

 

Today
we have a story that has been sung and taught to children for ages. As a child
I did not learn that Zacchaeus was small in stature; I learned that he was “a
wee little man!” And I learned that Jesus said to him in a voice that I always
heard in my head like the “Price is Right” announcer: “Zacchaeus! Come on down;
for I’m going to your house today!” So today, let’s see what an adult might see
and hear in this story of Zacchaeus.

 

First,
as adults we learn how to read Bible stories in context to learn more about
their meaning. You’ll remember last week we learned about the parable of the
two men who went to the Temple to pray, one thanking God that he wasn’t an
outcast, the other humbling himself to Jesus who knew that he was a sinner.
Just a few verses later Jesus was approaching Jericho when he saw an outcast: a
blind beggar. He embraced the outcast and challenged the grumblers in the
crowd. The outcast man was healed. And when he was, he rejoiced. In today’s
passage Jesus is presumably in the middle of town walking through. Certainly
word traveled to those who had heard about his healings, for healings were hard
to come by in an age before much medicine. If we were children, we might think
that Zacchaeus came downtown to see if there would be a parade. But we are not
children. There must have been an unhappiness, a sense of isolation, or some
other unrest in the life of this tax collector. Dr. Alan Culpepper, who was
Dean of the School of Theology at Mercer University says “

Roman officials
contracted with local entrepreneurs to collect the prescribed indirect taxes,
tolls, tariffs, and customs fees in a given area. These “Chief Tax Collectors”
were required to pay the contract in advance. They would then employ others to
collect the taxes with the hope that the amount collected would yield a profit.
The system, not surprisingly, was open to abuse, and Jews who collected taxes
for the Romans were assumed to be dishonest and were hated by other Jews for
their complicity with the Gentile oppressors.” [The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Abingdon Press, 356-357.]

So
this wee little man to children was seen as a crooked little weasel by adults.
In other words, here is another outcast.

 

Second,
a man climbing a tree seems like a good idea to children, but a desperate idea
to adults. Here’s what you need to know. Sycamore trees have branches that grow
close to the ground, ideal for a small man to be able to use them like a
ladder. By coincidence or providence, sycamore trees produce an inferior type
of fig that poor people ate. As adults we can see this rich man climbing on the
backs of poor people as he climbed that tree. And everyone in the first century
knew that dignified men a) did not run (remember how unusual it was to see the
father running down the road to
embrace his prodigal son in Luke 15?);
and b.) did not climb trees. The Chief Tax Collector threw caution to
the wind. He could have pushed through the crowd and risked being beat up.
Instead, the grown short man climbed a tree. Children often see him as sweet.
Adults see him as swarthy and perhaps greedy. So as adults, so far this is not
a likable man. But Jesus will have none of the crowd’s attitude. He sees
Zacchaeus climb a tree, and he sees he has thrown decorum to the wind. What was
his desperation? Was he ready for a new life?

 

The
third thing to notice happens when Jesus calls to him to come down; but that’s
not the surprising part. The surprising part is him saying, not asking, he’s
going to his house today; and he says
he will stay at his house that day.
Zacchaeus’ guest mat that served as a thin mattress would be used that night!
Children often love to visit the house of their friends. Adults often need a
little notice! When Jesus says what he does, the crowd thinks: “he is sleeping
in the same house the enemy.” There is clearly a delay of time between verses 7
and 8; in 7 Zacchaeus is coming down from a tree; in 8 he stands up, clearly
after having been seated, perhaps eating dinner with Jesus and some disciples.
Few children get to this part of the story. But it is the crux of the message
to adults. Zacchaeus stood up and said “Look Lord! Half of my possessions I
give to the poor!” Here he calls Jesus “Lord.” That’s a change. Then, instead
of being a rich man who does not give for others, now he’s still a rich man but
he gives to others an amount equal to or greater than what was expected. His
pledge conforms to the Old Testament guideline for restitution of payment, the
same standard put forth by John the Baptist. He exceeded what was expected by
promising to repay anyone who he cheated four
times the amount he owed
. This was a new man. This was, for the first time
in his life, a giving man. And for
perhaps the first time in his life, the Bible says he truly “rejoiced” when
Jesus invited himself into his life. And when he gave, not 5% or 10%, but four
times the amount owed, Jesus declares that “salvation has come to this man and
his house” Salvation; not just because he gave, but because he corrected what
he had corrupted before; he made straight what had been crooked; he returned
what he once demanded.

 

For
children, this is a sweet story. And that is good. It is nice to shelter
children from realities for a little while. But for adults, this is a story
about newfound generosity and newfound joy that correspondes with it. It’s
about how glad persons can be when, instead of hiding behind actions filled
with lying, or cheating, or stealing, they come clean, “fess” up; and admit to
their wrongs. Those who do that know how freeing it can be: to share
generously, and to admit to wrongs. You too can have that joy, that peace, and
that blessing like Zacchaeus received. It comes from Jesus. And he is waiting
to say to the world as he looks at your life and actions: “Today, salvation has
come to this house.”

 

Let
us pray: O Generous God: what an example you set. In Jesus you gave your all,
and through him the message of salvation was proclaimed. It comes when we come
to you and others with humility, repentance, confession, and generosity. If we
are ready Lord, lead us down that path so that we might also have peace that
passes our current understanding. We do this in the name of Jesus and for your
glory. Amen.

 

Jeffrey
A. Sumner                                                November
3, 2013