Fourth Sunday before Advent
Introduction and Call to Worship Today’s readings offer a reminder that God is more interested in integrity than in superficial displays of faith. Each of us has the potential for generosity, kindness and justice – the values of His Kingdom. Today’s Readings First Reading Isaiah 1:10-18 The prophet sets out God’s priorities for the people: worship is meaningless without justice for those who are poor. Second Reading 2 Thessalonians 1 The Christians of Thessalonica are suffering persecution but, even in dark times, they are capable of love and faith. Ultimately, God will bring justice. Gospel Luke 19:1-10 Although he is despised as a sinner by his neighbours, Zacchaeus finds favour with Jesus when he opens his heart to generous giving. HOMILY “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” (Luke 19:9) Zacchaeus is an interesting character, described for us as a man of short stature. It's not easy being short which Zacchaeus knew all too well! He is not just a tax collector, which would be bad enough for the times, but a chief tax collector. So, he collects money on behalf of the hated Roman occupiers. And, Zacchaeus is rich. We are told this immediately after being told he is a chief tax collector; perhaps having made a mint out of tax collecting! He feels like a person who gets a lot of stick from others, perhaps ridiculed and we may not feel much sympathy for him. Jesus arrives and poor Zacchaeus can’t see a thing. So, he uses his initiative, runs ahead and climbs a sycamore tree to see what he can see. The ficus sycamorus is one of the larger trees found in the Middle East and a form of fig tree that bears edible fruit. It was widely planted and harvested in first century Palestine when food was scarce and everybody hungry. This tree has symbolic meaning also: a place to go when ‘hungry’ or to feel cool on a hot day, perhaps a place of safety or a refuge. And a very useful place when climbed, from which to observe from a distance rather than risk vulnerability by being directly engaged. So up this tree, what is he looking for? Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house, saying, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” (Luke 19: 5) He wasn’t expecting that, but nonetheless we are told Zacchaeus ‘hurried down’ and welcomed Jesus. Then he offers half his wealth to the poor and promises to repay four times the cost of anything he has defrauded. Perhaps before his encounter with our Lord, Zacchaeus was not a good person, making his money by extortion and fraud. A small man with a lot of power. No wonder those who saw all this grumbled, and said Jesus “has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner”. (Luke 19: 7) Zacchaeus climbs the tree to see this wonderful man he has heard about, Jesus. So, what does our Lord see? Does Jesus judge Zacchaeus and write him off? No, he recognises bad choices but also great potential. Zacchaeus can also be generous and honest, a compassionate son of Abraham. Indeed, our Lord goes further, naming Zacchaeus as a true Jew; in other words, one who will inherit God’s Kingdom! Now the rest of the community really do have reason to grumble! Zacchaeus may well have felt vulnerable. He was widely disliked and his stature probably held him back. He had used his power as a chief tax collector to create high status but even that is vulnerable, reliant upon the tyranny of the Roman regime. This view of today’s Gospel may well shock us out of our Sunday School memories and ideas. However, Luke uses Zacchaeus to teach us today something important about our Lord, God’s kingdom values and our own sense of worth, for we can often feel vulnerable and fear it. Today a family join us for Holy Baptism – I’m sure you may be feeling just a little vulnerable or apprehensive right now. But you need not – even though vulnerability is where our deepest selves dwell and our closest relationships thrive. In baptism you come as the people you are, with your own reasons for being here and your own journey of faith, and you are welcomed as you are and loved as you are and we hope and pray you will keep coming back to this place of prayer and celebration, so that your faith may continue to grow. Jesus sees the depths of the human soul; he knows our condition, our temptations, our strengths and weaknesses. He also longs to use our gifts, whoever we are, for the building up of his Kingdom. Truth be told, today’s Gospel is a little more complicated than a more superficial reading may suggest. It is a powerful reminder that, however we think of ourselves and however others choose to see us, Jesus sees who we really are, deep down, and what we could be – our potential! You know, whatever our age, background or ability, each one of us is full of potential in God’s eyes. The Saints, who we have remembered this weekend, stand in testimony to that realisation. But friends, even though we may not be able to see that potential ourselves, Our Lord does see, and he calls us out of our hiding places or vantage points to serve him and one another and build his Kingdom. So, looking again at today’s Gospel, is Zacchaeus a good or bad person? It’s easy to judge but Jesus recognises the potential, and the same is true for us. We are all called into God’s Kingdom as the people we are, whatever our height or outward appearance, with the different journeys we have been on to this place here at St Mary’s today. We come as the people God has made, and the people Jesus is calling into his Kingdom, for when Our Lord looks at us, just as he looked at Zacchaeus, he see the truth, that we are children of God, with the potential for good. As we welcome this wonderful family into the faith now in the Holy Sacrament of Baptism, all of us are called to renew our faith and pledge ourselves again to strive for God’s Kingdom and be the very best people we can be…saints today. Amen. Summary 1. Zacchaeus is a more complicated character than first observed. 2. Jesus sees in Zacchaeus the potential for faith and generosity. These attributes are needed for the building of God’s Kingdom. 3. Jesus sees in us, and in others, the potential to be children of God, whatever images or stereotypes are projected. We need to stop judging and re-commit ourselves to loving. 4. Baptism is an opportunity to renew our commitment to be the very best people we can be as we seek to build God’s Kingdom today.