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Sermon – “Today Salvation” – November 3, 2013

Sunday, November 3, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Today Salvation

Psalm 119: 137-144; Habbakuk 1: 1 – 4, 2: 1-4; Luke 19: 1-10

Young children have definite ideas about whatʼs fair. Divide a treat for them and if one part is bigger, it will get noticed. Siblings instinctively expect equal treatment, and will keep track. If one is upbraided for a certain kind of bad behavior, and the other seems to do just the same wrong thing but nothing is said, that will be protested.

I use young children as an example because this principle of equity, of equal shares of good and bad, reflecting the equal value of persons, seems an instinct with them. It always makes sense to a young child to say, “If someone were treating you that way, how would it make you feel? Is it right for anyone to treat another child that way?” One doesnʼt have to be very old to grasp the idea of deserving or not deserving.

Iʼm not saying that the formation of a conscience and possessing a sense of justice donʼt result from a toddler absorbing signals from interactions with the wider world. Iʼm saying that this happens so soon and so spontaneously that it at least gives the appearance that human beings are born with a preference for order, and sensible patterns in moral matters as well as in physical things. Just as a baby will be fascinated and excited by recognizing a checked tablecloth or equally-spaced rails on the side of a crib, or catch onto and enjoy the buildup in the rhythms and pitch intervals of familiar songs, the baby will be glad to discern a predictable pattern to rewards and punishments. From an evolutionistʼs perspective, thatʼs all adaptive. As created beings, children of God, it looks to us like part of that image of God in which weʼre made.

One reason small children are good examples of possessing a sense of justice is that their initial clarity about what is right and wrong gets less clear as they grow up. To use Biblical terms, all of us eventually notice that the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, and that God makes the sun shine on the just and the unjust alike. We grow accustomed to many little incidents which donʼt fit our concept of right or wrong, and it actually is a sign of maturity to become more hesitant to pronounce on the justice of things.

Still, people always retain this gift from God of distinguishing between what ought to happen from what does happen, and being unhappy with outcomes which undermine fairness. In fact, this sensibility about whatʼs deserved and whatʼs undeserved, though I think it reflects our godliest aspects, often is responsible for people having difficulty believing in God. Things in the world so often are not fair that it becomes impossible for some people to credit the existence of a deity Who cares about fairness as much as we do–which is always supposed to be true of the Almighty.

Psalm 119 is the longest in the Bible. It is a curiosity– its length is owed to its having been written according to an alphabetic pattern. The first eight-line stanza has all eight lines begin with the first letter, and the next stanza has all its lines begin with words starting with the second letter, and so on. Each stanza also has a word for “instruction” in it, and the whole praises God for teaching believers the right way to live by the gift of the law.

Our portion of the psalm betrays a familiar problem of the faithful. Though Godʼs wisdom and greatness are recognized, and praised, and though the righteousness God requires is welcome and wonderful, there are those who scorn Godʼs instruction, and they donʼt seem to suffer for it. This frustrates the psalmist. It also leaves him vulnerable to the suspicion that the gift of the law somehow hasnʼt made righteousness govern as it should, or be rewarded as it ought. This is such a burden that the person pleads, “give me understanding, that I may live.” In other words, “I canʼt go on without Godʼs helping me to get the connection between divine righteousness, my desire to share in it, and the apparent lack of fairness in life.”

The prophet Habbakuk has the same need. The prophet is Godʼs person. The prophet is attuned to the will of the Most High God, and wants to be part of Godʼs redemptive work in the world. What, however, is God doing? How is it that things merely continue to go from bad to worse? How much injustice and contempt for righteousness must Habbakuk witness? How long can a prophet bear what appears heavenʼs indifference to unrighteousness, and what seems Godʼs inability to intervene?

The Bible sees Godʼs law, which is Godʼs endorsed code of right and wrong for human beings and their society, not as the revelation of the existence of right and wrong, but as Godʼs helping human beings fulfill their natural hunger for justice. In other words, people sense a moral order before they are given a particular one. In Psalm 8 we hear that Godʼs glory is visible in the regular movements of the heavens and Godʼs glory chanted by infants. It is in us to respond to Godʼs establishment of what should be.

When a human being has gotten off the track, when a personʼs inner compass has been neglected or overturned by competing values, the potential remains for that person to be restored to a proper recognition of righteousness. The bad man, in the Bibleʼs view, is susceptible to redemption, to turning back to the right way. That is such a powerful possibility in people that the Exodus story insists that Pharaoh would have listened to what God wanted and changed direction and avoided judgment if God hadnʼt hardened his heart. The Bible believes that strongly in the human openness to reconsideration and reform.

We see it in the gospel lesson. Zacchaeus has something in him galvanized by hearing about Jesus coming. The accessibility of Jesus, the fact that heʼs going to be near, awakens something in Zacchaeus. How eager is a dyed-in-the-wool evildoer to see Godʼs person up close? Yet Zacchaeus is eager, so we know heʼs having a change of heart. He runs ahead. He clambers up that tree to make sure he has a good vantage point. Thereʼs something powerfully attractive in someone known for deeds of mercy, acts of forgiveness, and preaching Godʼs desire for one’s allegiance. None of that jibes with the man Zacchaeus has been, but for some reason it prompts Zacchaeus to realize who he can be.

Many times persons mature into religious responsibility. Their faith is tempered by shocks and seasoned by endurance, and deepens gradually. For other people the spiritual potential in them is turned on just like a switch, and they embrace new conviction and experience new life virtually immediately.

The thing we notice about Zacchaeus is his stature. Heʼs of modest height. What we may miss at first is the speed of his conversion. The tax collector runs to see Jesus, and when Jesus salutes him from the roadway Jesus tells him to hurry. Once Zacchaeus has hurried down, he immediately declares his change of practice, perspective, heart. He, who has been as instantly recognizable as a sinner as he is rich, sheds both those identities to the best of his ability. He plans on having a new life through his encounter with Jesus.

Jesus proclaims it. “Today,” Jesus says, “salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.” By pointing out Zacchaeus also is a Son of Abraham, what Jesus says is this– that the tax collector may be an opportunist, a collaborator, a traitor to his fellow Jews– but he still is one of them, to whom Jesus particularly has come to offer the opportunity of new life. Nothing he has been has forfeited his chance at being on the right side of righteousness.

We should be making the same appeal, and offering the same reassurance, as Jesusʼ church. People may be very much in the wrong, but they still can respond to who Christ is, and choose to live in a new way. Being selfish, being conniving, preferring the reputation of a sinner to making the effort to please God–none of that makes God any less interested in helping a person live the way every child of God is meant to live.

Where does Zacchaeusʼ turnaround begin? It starts when he learns about Jesus, when he hears the story, when he believes in what Christ is able to do for people. Thatʼs what makes him eager to see for himself. Thatʼs what gets him in Jesusʼ path, and creates the meeting which changes everything. How can we as a church keep the story alive? How can we as individuals have our lives so marked, our troubles helped, our potential for good realized, that others will be able to see us as evidence of the power of God to transform? How can we do that collectively, by what we make our priorities, and who we recognize as also being children of God? Pray that God help us individually and as a church to make it possible for others who, somewhere deep inside, know they should change, to find the faithful and fulfilling person they become by knowing that Christ loves them.

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