October 30, 2016
Isaiah 1:10-18, Psalm 32:1-8, 2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12, Luke 19:1-10
Have you enjoyed the moves you have made in your life, moving from one city to another, one house to another? I haven’t. First there is all that work to pack up your belongings and then you have to live in the chaos of boxes everywhere until moving day, and then there is the clean up! All of this before you’ve even gotten into your new place where more work and chaos await. But more than all that is the psychological trauma of moving: putting my possessions in boxes that then go on a truck, I find to be unsettling. It upsets my stable sense of identity. Who will I be in my new city? I’ve always said: “moving is hard, even if you are moving from hell to heaven”—which is exactly the move Jesus invites Zacchaeus to make this morning. Jesus is not fooled by Zacchaeus’ wealth and power as chief tax-collector. The people think he has everything, but Jesus sees his sin-sick soul and the hell of living in a community where no one respects or cares for you. This is Zacchaeus moving day, into a healing and heavenly reality, if he is willing.
When Jesus first appears in Galilee Matthew’s gospel reports Jesus says, “Repent for the kingdom of Heaven is upon you.” I was struck by the image of the Kingdom of Heaven, which is telling us that “Heaven”, which according to N. T. Wright, is “God’s dimension of the created order” is now appearing in the dimension of reality that we live in. Like Pig Pen in the Peanuts cartoon, who walks around with a cloud of dust over him, so Jesus has the Kingdom of Heaven hovering over him and so that those who draw near to him in faith also experience the Kingdom of heaven while still living on earth.
As I say most every Sunday, Jesus does not come to earth to give us the secret of how to get to heaven when we die, but rather he comes to announce the union of God’s heavenly kingdom with earth, in the here and now, in the “this-ness” of our lives. That’s why he teaches us to pray, “thy kingdom COME, thy Will be done, ON EARTH as it is in Heaven.”
“The Kingdom of Heaven is upon you!”
Now Zacchaeus who has gotten rich off the poor people of Jericho can’t see Jesus because his sight is blocked by all the people who he mistreats and who therefore hate him. So he does something out of the box—like a child he climbs a tree so he too can see Jesus. And, then, to his utter surprise Jesus sees him, calls him by name, and invites himself to be a guest in Zacchaeus’s house.
The Kingdom of Heaven surrounding Jesus falls on Zacchaeus. Not because he is good or worthy—he’s neither—but because he is sick and loved by God. Now he is confronted with the most important decision of his life—more important than the choice of spouse or career.
Zacchaeus is confronted with the choice of accepting or rejecting Jesus’ invitation to say Yes to the Kingdom of Heaven that has descended on him. He can live in the status quo which provides a financially stable life for him and his family OR he can repent, that is, change his mind about Jesus and the Heavenly reality he offers, and then let Jesus teach him how to walk in this new life with thisnew identity.
When Jesus invites another person into the Kingdom of Heaven several chapters earlier, the rich young man declines the invitation. He chooses to keep his wealth and give up the new identity of a man in the kingdom—He also walks away from joy!
Zacchaeus is being called to become an apprentice to Jesus in order to learn how to live as a new man in this new reality called the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of Heaven. The move from hell to heaven is hard on all of us. It’s not hard to enjoy the Kingdom of Heaven on earth because it is a reality of great joy, fellowship, and purpose. What’s hard is leaving behind one’s former way of life, which for all its pain and sorrow, is familiar and supported by the culture.
Imagine in January of 2014, you had been transferred to the Bahamas.
Maybe at first you and your family are ecstatic, but then it slowly dawns on you that you will have to give up a lot of things and you will need help in learning how to live in this new place. You will need to leave behind a lot of things you’d come to depend on: your winter coat, hat, and gloves, for starters. You will leave behind that snow shovel that belonged to your grandfather. As they say, you don’t have to shovel heat.
And you will have to learn new things: like, how to drive on the wrong side of the street and how to understand the accented English. You will have to learn how to embrace a slower pace of living and how to enjoy different food and music.
Someone who has actually lived there will have to tell you how to live in your new home. So it is with living in the Kingdom of God. Learning to live in this new dimension doesn’t happen all at once for any of us though. Remember when Peter, Andrew, James, and John decide to leave behind the only life they know as fishermen and step into this new reality of heaven on earth. They apprentice themselves to Jesus for three years and every day he teaches them something new about living in the community of those surrendered to Triune God.
The old hymn that became a famous song in the musical Godspell, puts it nicely: “Day by day—O dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day.” For example one day early on in their apprenticeship the apostles are discussing who among them is the greatest. So Jesus in this teachable moment Jesus brings a young child and says, “The least among you in the kingdom is the greatest.”
But then after 3 years with him we find them having the same debate as to who is the greatest. So Jesus once again, with infinite patience, explains that “the highest among you must bear himself like the youngest, the chief of you like a servant.”
Yet it is obvious that Zacchaeus is catching on quick when he says, “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.” Zacchaeus is starting to feel the incredible joy of experiencing his true self which lives within the love of God.
Zacchaeus does not give away his wealth in order to get into the Kingdom. He gives it away because he is in the kingdom. Now he is ready to join the people Isaiah talks about today who: “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, and plead for the widow.”
“He was in the land of the lost, but now he’s in the land of the found.”
Of course the people who hate Zacchaeus continue to hate him because in their world you are never allowed to change—once bad always bad. Who knows, maybe their eyes will be opened to the Kingdom of Heaven once they get some of their money back.
And they are horrified that Jesus is willing to help such a man. But Jesus simply says, “This is why I’m here, “to seek out and to save the lost”, to invite them to move in with me this very day into God’s world. And not to worry, my Father covers all the expenses of the move.”