Fourth before Advent

Sunday 30 October 2016

4th before Advent

Thessalonians 1:1-12, Luke 19:1-10

Heavenly Father, may the words of my lips reflect something of your written word, and so lead us ever closer to your living Word, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

After the long green period of Trinity we are now entering a spiritually interesting time of year.

Last night the clocks went back which means that tonight will be darker than last night and although the Autumnal colours are still beautiful when the sun shines I’m sure we can all sense that even that colour won’t last long as we start the journey into winter. If there are any Game of Thrones fans out there, Winter is Coming.

And as the seasons in the natural world shift so too do the seasons in the church year. This is our last week of green as next week we shift into the red of the Kingdom season, then remembrance and, before we know it, into the purple of Advent. Tomorrow is the eve of All Hallows Day and I find it interesting that the world would rather celebrate the ghosts and ghouls of the evening rather than the saints of the following day. It now seems more socially acceptable to dress up your children as devils and skeletons then it is to have them in a nativity scene.

But we know, of course, that darkness does not have the final word. The sunrise of All Hallows Day banishes the darkness of All Hallows Eve and, most importantly, when the nights are at their longest and darkness seems to have taken over the world we know that a light is born into the world which will banish the darkness. So as we travel into physical darkness remember that Jesus Christ is the light of the world, and although we celebrate his birth on a seasonal basis, that he is already shining in the world for you and your salvation.

The darkness shall not overcome the light.

Today’s story from the Gospel of Luke is also a wonderful illustration that no matter who we are, no matter what we have done or how far we may feel we are from God that we are never beyond the saving reach of God’s love and grace.

There are two Golden Threads that run throughout Luke’s Gospel. Actually there are many more, because it is a richly woven tapestry, but today I want to concentrate on two in particular.

The first is the danger of wealth – in particular the way in which being wealthy, or even the temptation to become wealthy, can blind one to one’s deeper spiritual needs.

In Luke 6:24 Jesus says “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation”.

In Luke 12 we have the parable of the Rich Fool who built barns to store his abundant harvest but forgot to be rich towards God.

In Luke 16 we have the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in which the Rich Man languishes in hell at least in part because he failed to look after the poor begger Lazarus.

And in Luke 18, just before todays story, we have the story of the Rich young man whom Jesus commanded to sell all he owned and give to the poor and that person went away sad, because he was very rich.

So that the is first Golden Thread – the spiritual danger of wealth.

And the second Golden Thread is this. That Jesus liked to spend time with, to heal and to restore to wholeness those who were most on the outside of decent Jewish society. There are many examples of this but just to give you a flavour we have the healing of those who are possessed by unclean spirits, the healing of the disabled, the healing of a Centurion’s servant and, of course, in Luke 7 the sinful woman who had been forgiven and bathed Jesus’ feet with her tears.

Those two golden threads start to come together in Luke 18 when we have the parable of the self-righteous Pharisee and the repentant tax collector, who stands far off and Jesus proclaims that it is the tax collector who was justified before God that day.

That parable, and the coming together of those two threads of the dangers of wealth and the forgiveness of the outsider, sets the scene for today’s story of Zacchaeus up the sycamore tree.

Like the repentant man in the parable Zacchaeus was a tax collector. And he was not just any old tax collector we are told that he was the chief tax collector in the city of Jericho. This means that he was probably taking a cut of the profits of all the other tax collectors in the city. We are told that he was a rich man which means, if we have been listening carefully to the Gospel of Luke, that we know immediately that he faces an inherent challenge to his spiritual life. But we also know from the preceeding parable that even a tax collector, that most hated of Roman collaborators, can be justified before God if they repent.

Anyway, this rich tax collector Zacchaeus heard that Jesus was set to pass through the town and he wanted to get a look at this man. But, bless his heart, for all his wealth Zacchaeus was a short man and, despite his wealth, it seems the crowd would not part to let him see. This probably speaks volumes about his marginal status amongst the good Jews of the town.

So he did something which no self-respecting wealthy person should do – he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to get a good view of the passing Jesus and his followers. In the middle of Jericho to this day there is a road called Sycamore Street named after this incident. At this point, of course, no one was looking at Zacchaeus up the tree because the crowds were all trying to see Jesus.

But when Jesus passed the tree he looks straight at the diminutive tax collector and calls him by name:

Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.”

At this point all eyes in the crowd must have turned towards the tree, and to Zaccheaus perched in its branches, and it must have been humiliating for him to be seen there. And the good Jews of the town begin to grumble about both Jesus and Zacchaeus, saying that it was not right for him to be the guest of such a sinner.

But Zaccheus, without prompting or teaching about the dangers of wealth from Jesus, immediately proclaims that he will give away half of his wealth to the poor and will reimburse anyone that he has cheated fourfold.

This is the repentant tax collector from the parable made flesh and bones. Yes, he was rich but he was also an outcast from society and Jesus makes it clear that repentance from sins trumps all else:

Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

Jesus is proclaiming that despite his sins this man is still part of God’s chosen people and is restored to a right relationship with God – he is salved, washed clean of his sins by his repentance.

And in the final verse of today’s reading we are reminded that this is not really a story about Zaccheus at all – this is a story about God’s mission to the world through Jesus:

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

So the Good news today is this: if you are feeling lost, if you are feeling like a social outcast, if you are feeling out of step with the crowds of this world for any reason, do not despair. God came to this world to seek out and to save you. All you need to do is to make the smallest move towards him, to climb a tree to catch a glimpse as he passes or to reach out your hand in the hope of touching the hem of his cloak, and he will call you by name, invite you to repent of those things which have held you back, and will then invite himself to come and dine with you and make you clean in the eyes of God which are really the only eyes that matter.

Today salvation has come to this house.”