The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: A Sermon

Readings (Track 1)

O LORD, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?

There are so many places in today’s world that prompt that cry. Too many places. Habakkuk was a contemporary of Jeremiah, prophesying around 600 BC, about the time the Babylonians were beginning to throw their weight around.

Habakkuk seems to have been crying out about local injustice and violence. The Lord’s initial response: I’m bringing in the Babylonians to clean things up. So Habakkuk cries out again: that cure is worse than the disease. Here’s a bit of that second cry, Habakkuk telling the Lord just what he thinks of this response:

You have made people like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
The enemy brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net,
he gathers them in his seine;
so he rejoices and exults.…
for by them his portion is lavish,
and his food is rich.

And so, returning to the text we heard, Habakkuk’s on his watchtower, waiting for an answer. The Lord’s answer speaks of waiting and of living by faith.

If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.
Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,
but the righteous live by their faith.

That’s by no means all that’s in the answer, but it’s enough for the moment: waiting and living by faith. Notice that the answer does not reduce the tension between what is and what ought to be. Nor is the answer “suck it up.” Wait…in faith, in trust. The proud assume that they need neither faith nor trust: they’re in control. In this situation what our response to the Lord (our righteousness) needs is faith and trust.

We’ll come back to what faith and trust might look like momentarily, but first our second lesson, Paul writing to the church in Thessalonica, about 180 miles up the coast from Athens. Habakkuk was complaining about the violence surrounding him; the Thessalonians seem to have been on the receiving end of local violence. Paul prays that the Lord give them power to live out the faith and trust Habakkuk talked about.

In that prayer Paul speaks of the Lord “revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” The waiting to which Habakkuk is called will not go on indefinitely. At the same time, these verses make clear that vengeance is the Lord’s business, not ours.

Which brings us to the Gospel. Jesus is passing through Jericho and notices Zacchaeus, whom Luke describes as “a chief tax collector and… rich.” We wonder if taxes here could be any worse—and yes, they could. The Romans subcontracted their tax collection, and if the subcontractors happened to collect more than required… Recall Habakkuk:

The enemy brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net,…
for by them his portion is lavish,
and his food is rich.

Not a bad description of the tax collectors. So in Judea under Roman occupation, if you’re looking for someone who symbolizes everything that’s wrong, look no further than Zacchaeus. If there were ever a time for some of that flaming fire that Paul talked about… And Jesus invites himself over to Zacchaeus’ home.

Let’s slow down for the last part:

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.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Jesus’ presence and choices have seriously messed with Zacchaeus’ head.

From one perspective this is an unfortunate text to pop up during stewardship season, because Zacchaeus says nothing about contributing to the temple. From another perspective it’s a fortunate text, reminding us of the intimate link between faith/faithfulness and the checkbook.

We saw this a few weeks ago, in that scene in which the Lord tells Jeremiah to buy the field from his relative Hanamel because “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.” The timing could not have been worse: the Babylonian army, then laying siege to Jerusalem, probably had its spare chariots parked on that field. But “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land,” so take out your checkbook, Jeremiah.

Elsewhere Jesus says “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Lk. 12:34). That works, I think, both ways. My heart (my center) shapes my budget. And the decisions I make about my resources shape my heart.

Changing one’s heart in any significant way is near impossible. But one way change happens over time—for good or ill—is through the choices I make with my resources. So, when the General Thanksgiving speaks of “the means of grace,” that covers not only prayer, Scripture, etc., but also the checkbook. But back to our story.

“For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” The justice that Habakkuk cried out for, the vengeance Paul described: that will come. But meanwhile, what waiting and having faith look like often look something like how Jesus interacts with Zacchaeus. It would have been easy not to notice Zacchaeus, or, noticing him, to immediately write him off. We’ll be coming up to the altar rail in a bit: “Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice.” Who knows how God might answer that prayer, how God might mess with our vision so that we see—really see—folk we overlook and respond in ways that somewhat reflect what Jesus did that day in Jericho.

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