May 1, 2009

Sermon Title: When Jesus Comes

Benjamin A. Loven
M.Div. Student, Luther Seminary
First Place tie, May 2009 Round

Isaiah 1.1-20; Psalm 145; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-17; Luke 19.1-10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. Amen.

In our reading for today the Prophet Isaiah gives many warnings to the people of Israel, telling them to turn from their evil ways and instead to seek justice for all, especially for those who cannot help themselves. If the people refuse, they will be destroyed.

Why, then, wouldn’t the people want to do what Isaiah tells them to do? Do they like being “devoured by the sword?” Do they like being a “besieged city?”

Don’t you think they would want to “wash themselves; makes themselves clean; remove their evil deeds from before God’s eyes?” as Isaiah directs them to. Wouldn’t they want to avoid having their cities burned with fire and their country laid desolate?

If we were faced with these warnings wouldn’t we want to “cease doing evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow?”

So why don’t we?

When the World Trade Center was destroyed the entire country was united under the cause of fighting terrorism. We initially pursued this task in a just manner, following our own laws and international conventions. However, we quickly lost our way. Anything, no matter how heinous or immoral could be legalized if it could be justified as necessary for fighting the ‘War on Terror.’ Warrant-less searches and wiretaps; ‘enhanced’ interrogation methods; indefinite imprisonment without trials of any kind.

And we as a country were not outraged. There was no mass outcry as there had been in generations past.

Why didn’t we cry out for justice? Why didn’t we, as Isaiah says, “learn to do good?”

Why didn’t we, as the Prophet cries, “rescue those who were oppressed,” those who were withering away in prisons without any hope of ever facing their accusers?

Why do we insist on rebelling against God’s laws and commands, seeking our own destruction, welcoming the sword that comes to devour us, the fire that comes to burn our cities and make our lands desolate?

St. Paul in his second letter to the Thessalonians writes about the lawless one. The lawless one exalts him/herself over all other things, seeking to be God.

Brothers and Sisters, we are the lawless ones. We seek to set ourselves up as God in place of the one true God. We do not do what God’s law demands: we do not seek justice, we do not rescue the oppressed, and we do not defend the widows and orphans. We do not cry out on behalf of those who are imprisoned indefinitely without their legal right to a trial, we do not cry out on behalf of those who are being interrogated with illegal and immoral methods, and we do not cry out on behalf of those whose privacy is being illegally violated.

Whether these people have committed acts of terrorism or not, we have not acted in just ways. We have not justly dealt with these captives, who are innocent until proven guilty under the law. We have not justly investigated and interrogated these and other prisoners.

God’s law shows us all of this and it accuses us and tells us how we have failed to live justly and morally.

St. Paul writes about the “lawless one;” some Greek texts call this person the “sinful one.” The law shows us that we are indeed lawless and full of sin.

Our Gospel reading from Luke today tells us the story of another great and lawless sinner: Zacchaeus the tax collector.

Tax collectors were worse than regular sinners: they were traitors. Tax collectors worked for the domineering Roman Empire. Zacchaeus, like us, did not cry out on behalf of the oppressed; he took part in this oppression. Tax collectors made their money by cheating those they collected taxes from. The Romans had a certain amount of money that they collected but the tax collectors could, essentially, demand whatever amount they wanted and the people had to pay it. I know that the IRS has a bad reputation but at least it cannot collect taxes like Zacchaeus and those like him!

You can understand why the people were grumbling in verse 7 about Jesus going to stay at Zacchaeus’ house. Why should Jesus, a great Prophet, go to stay with Zacchaeus, a horrible tax collector, a traitor against his own people? That would be like Jesus staying at the penthouse suite of Bernie Madoff, or at the mansion of the CEO of AIG or Citigroup, or any of the host of other white-collar crooks who were greedy and did not care about what they were doing to their companies, the country, and the world.

So Jesus goes to the sleazy CEO’s house; he goes to stay with Zacchaeus. But something amazing happens when Jesus arrives there.

“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.’” Zacchaeus is a tax collector and the way that he makes his money is by cheating people; all of his possessions have been acquired through cheating and defrauding people. He is going to give half to the poor and then pay back everyone he has defrauded (which we have found out is everyone that he collected taxes from) four times as much as he took!

Where will he get all of this money? Where will all of this wealth come from? These are both pressing questions but there is one question that trumps those two: why? Why will Zacchaeus do this? What has changed in him? He used to be the lowest of the low, the sleaziest of the sleazy, the Bernie Madoff of Bernie Madoffs. Why is he now so generous and so concerned with those whom he has cheated?

Jesus was probably asked this question too. “Lord, why did Zacchaeus change so dramatically?” Jesus gives us a great one-liner: “Today salvation has come to this house.” Why the drastic change of heart? Salvation has come to Zacchaeus.

When Jesus comes to even the biggest, sleaziest, nastiest sinner, salvation comes with him. When Jesus arrives at your doorstep, salvation comes in and changes you. This is the Kingdom of God breaking into our old world and making all things new. This is what it means when Jesus proclaims at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” (1.15) This is the Kingdom breaking into our world and making us into new creations.

Let us be clear about this: Zacchaeus is not saved because of his good actions on behalf of the poor; Zacchaeus is saved because Jesus came to him. Zacchaeus’ change of heart came because Jesus chose him as Jesus says at the end of our reading in Luke: “For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” Jesus sought out Zacchaeus, a lost sinner, and he saved him in spite of the evil that he had done.

In spite of the evil actions that we have done, in spite of our silence on the matters of illegal searches and interrogation tactics, in spite of our silence on the issue of unlawful imprisonments, Jesus comes to our homes and saves us. We, who once were lost, are now found by Christ and he brings us salvation through his death on the cross and resurrection three days later.

He went to the cross for us and because of us, to take captivity captive, to become sin to sin, to be sleazy to sleaze, greedy to greed, and to put death to death. In his resurrection he brings to each and every one of you, to every human being on earth, eternal life, salvation and forgiveness.

No matter what sins we have committed, no matter whom we have oppressed, whom we have ignored, whom we have allowed to suffer because of our silence, Jesus Christ forgives us and saves us through his death. He frees us from being bound by the power of our sins, frees us from being bound toward our own destruction at the hands of a devouring sword.

And it is out of this freedom that Zacchaeus acts. His good actions are the first fruits of the salvation that Christ brought to him. His generosity is not his own work but it is God’s salvation working in and through him.

This is our future as well. Christ has surely come and brought each and every one of us God’s salvation and it will work in and through us. You will no longer be able to sit complacently as injustice rages around you. God will work in and through you to speak out of behalf of those who have no voice, to rescue those who are oppressed, even if they happen to be your enemies: these are the fruits of your salvation and the Kingdom of God.

What is our response to this? With the Psalmist of Psalm 145 we will shout: “The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed; and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness.” We will praise God because of the salvation that he has given us. We will praise God because of the wondrous things that he will do through us on behalf of the poor and oppressed.

When Jesus comes to our home, as he came to Zacchaeus’ home, he brings salvation and he brings God’s Kingdom. In God’s Kingdom we are new creations, poured out on behalf of our neighbors. In this Kingdom we will seek justice, rescue the oppressed, and defend the widows and orphans. We will cry out on behalf of those who are imprisoned indefinitely without their legal right to a trial, on behalf of those who are being interrogated with illegal and immoral methods, and on behalf of those whose privacy is being illegally violated.

We will do these things not because of our own volition but because God has saved us and created us anew. It is God working in and through us that we do these things and we will give thanks to God because of this. “[We] will extol you, [our] God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day [we] will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised!” (Ps. 145.1-3)

Hear the gospel of your salvation: Jesus Christ lived, suffered, and was crucified for the forgiveness of sins, yours and mine. On the third day he was raised from the dead for the salvation of the world. You have this forgiveness and salvation not because of any good works that you have done to deserve it, but you have them in spite of the sins that you commit. God promises this to you: that he has come to seek you out, you who are lost and have fallen short of the glory of God. God does this through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.