Sermon for Oct. 31, 2010 All Saints, Reformation Sunday Habakkuk and Luke 19:1-10

Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4

Luke 19:1-10

The Little Prophet and the Little Profiteer 

Geneva Reformers

Two special celebrations meet on this Sunday: All Saints Day and Reformation Sunday.  On All Saints Day we honor the memory of those who have gone before us; those with whom we will be reunited in the resurrection.  I believe we honor them best by doing what they would want us to be doing in our generation: faithfully hearing the scriptures read, reflecting on their application to our lives, and letting the ancient words become modern mandates for us, as Jesus’ disciples.

We celebrate the Reformation no better than to read a verse from Habakkuk that was so influential to Martin Luther, has he encountered it the book of Romans (1:17) where Paul quotes it.  Luther made a note in his bible, beside the words, “ the righteous live by their faith.” He wrote, in Latin, the word, “sola” or “alone:” “faith alone” became one of the three central slogans of the Reformation to which we Reformed Christians are heir.   (source: Texts for Preaching C, W/JK, p. 578)

Habakkuk’s Dialogue – and ours

Let us begin there, with the text from the prophet Habakkuk.  We read a portion of the back and forth dialogue between the prophet and the Lord that is so characteristic of the book of Habakkuk.  The prophet makes his complaint and waits for God’s answer.  He complains that things have gone wrong in every measurable category;

3       Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
4   So the law becomes slack
and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—

His words, echoing down to us from six centuries before Christ, have an uncanny  modern ring to them; he complains and waits for a reply.  The reply comes:

2 Then the LORD answered me and said:
Write the vision;
make it plain on tablets,
so that a runner may read it.

Use the largest font size your printer will produce – large enough for people on the run to read as they whizz by; it’s that important!

3 …If it seems to tarry, wait for it;
it will surely come, it will not delay.

The suspense builds as we wait for the message.  What will the Lord say about such a time, such a mess-up time?  The message begins with a call to make an observation:

4  Look at the proud!
Their spirit is not right in them,

In messed-up times, if there is any hope on offer, we are not its source.  If there is any reason to believe things will be better, it is not anything we will be able to manage; there is no cause for pride; the self-sufficient spirit of “the proud” is “not right.”  So now we are ready for the requested reply from the Lord:

“the righteous live by their faith.”

Hope, if there is any on offer in messed-up times of violence, injustice, and strife, times like these, comes to those who live by faith; those who look at the messed-up conditions around and say that there is a reality deeper than the one seen by the naked eye.  Despite appearances, God is in control; that is our faith.  God’s purposes are being fulfilled; we will live by that faith even in times such as these.

It is the person who lives by faith that can say, along with Habakkuk, these powerfully hopeful words from the conclusion of his book:

3:17  Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18   yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19  GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

In messed-up times, “the righteous live by faith” and are therefore, people of hope.

Zacchaeus in the tree

If the sense of living in messed-up times links us with Habakkuk, how much more does it link us with Jesus and his times.  In the generation before Jesus, Rome, which had been a republic had devolved into an empire, often run by mad-men.  Israel which had been an independent nation, was now just a peripheral province under the Roman boot.

Oppression took all kinds of forms, none the least of which was the toll-collection system which sanctioned extortion.  Toll collectors, like Zacchaeus, got rich fleecing the defenseless populations of their districts – and were deeply resented for it.

In messed-up times, not everybody suffers equally.  I just heard a finding from a survey of millionaires – as a group they doing fine.  I hope that makes you feel better about these times.  The financial wizards who sold worthless securities and at the same time bet against them did quite well when they brought down the economy on our heads.

I guess we could put Zacchaeus in the same category as a modern, unscrupulous hedge-fund manager, enriching himself on the backs of the misery of others.   But something was going on that was invisible to the naked eye.  Something sent Zacchaeus out his door and down the streets of Jericho to see Jesus that day.  Something sent that ridiculous little rich man scampering up a tree.  He may have checked the box indicating “very satisfied” on the survey of millionaires, but his perch, up there with the squirrels, told another story.

The story of Zacchaeus is artfully told, even elegantly, but frustratingly spare.  When he looked up and saw him in the tree, how did Jesus know his name?  Perhaps that is the question we are all meant to ask ourselves as well; how does he know my name?

As we think about this story we have other questions:  How could Jesus have offered to share table fellowship with, and hence full acceptance of, a person who had spent his life luxuriating in an economic system that caused so much suffering and pain to others?  The people who grumbled about it had reasons – good ones.

And what in the world did Jesus say to Zacchaeus that motivated that miraculous response?  Why is nothing recorded – no “turn or burn” speech by Jesus, no “repent or perish” words – not even a suggestion of turning a new leaf?   It was as if the mere fact of accepting Zacchaeus as a part of God’s family, the mere willingness to call him a “child of Abraham,” the singular offer to come to his home and eat with him was enough all by itself to provoke that response.

And what a response!

8 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.”

Most of us are emotionally attached to our money in ways that are even deeper than we understand.  It would take a work of God in our hearts to change us.  It would be a miracle.

9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

Habakkuk said that “the proud” are “not right” in their spirits.  Some of them know it, and it feels empty. It is that restless emptiness that sends them out the door, down the street, and scampering up trees.  It is Jesus’ willingness to embrace them – yes, even them – as children of Abraham, in other words, as sons and daughters of the promise, as people accepted and loved by God that brings salvation.

Gratitude as Response to Love

Gratitude to God for his unlikely, unlimited embrace is our link with this story.  We, who like Zacchaeus, have been named by God have been called as well to make room for him in our homes, at our tables.  He comes, and like Zacchaeus we are filled with joy.

Like Zacchaeus, our gratitude to God for his unearned embrace shows itself in the radical dis-attachment of our hearts from our money.  Suddenly we see poor people whom we never noticed before, and we give.  Suddenly we see injustice, and we fix it.  Suddenly everything we have looks different – looks like gifts, waiting to be re-gifted.

This is why we give.  When the pledge cards (or, faith-promise cards) arrive in the mail, we do not fill them out because anyone is watching; we do not promise to give because we need to pay church bills, we do not wait for the cajoling speech about budgets and duty, we respond out of gratitude to God.

Gratitude to God for his gift of accepting us, for his gift of hope, even in messed up times, enables us to sing with Habakkuk:

3:17 Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

We who live in messed-up times are here to say what Zacchaeus learned:

“the righteous live by their faith.”


One thought on “Sermon for Oct. 31, 2010 All Saints, Reformation Sunday Habakkuk and Luke 19:1-10

  1. Thanks for posting your message. I was working on a posting about Habakkuk when I happened upon your blog. What a great message we get from this very neglected prophet.

    How can we be faithful in a world like this? (Habakkuk) is the title of my blog post in case you wanna check it out. I’d love to get some feedback.

    Just a preview, Peter Craigie wrote, “Faithfulness requires a continuation in the relationship with God, even when experience outstrips faith and the purpose in continuing to believe is called into question.” Good stuff!

    Thanks again for posting your message,

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