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Semon – October 31, 2010: My Delight

 

Sermon for Sunday, October 31, 2010 First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

My Delight

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

Today in Muenster, Germany, worshipers in St. Lambert’s Church may not notice

the metal cages hanging on the church’s spire. The cages remain from the year 1536. That

year the Bishop of Muenster exhibited the bodies of executed rebels in them. His armies

had, the previous summer, overrun the city and restored conventional rule. Among those

whose remains were publicly displayed was John of Leiden, who had become ruler of an

experiment in Bible-based community life begun in Muenster two years earlier.

The Muenster rebellion had begun as a movement by Anabaptists–a religious sect

committed to believer’s baptism and the Bible as the sole standard of conduct–to establish

God’s kingdom on earth. The Protestant Reformation was underway, and its currents of

resistance and reform affected every level of society. Everywhere common people

echoed the complaints of Habakkuk about the rich corrupting the courts, and the sentiment of

the psalmist who declared that though small and despised he remembered God’s

precepts against his enemies who have forgotten God’s word. This indignation and

resentment, joined with religious energy, made the Muenster Anabaptists seize power. At

first they copied the policies of the apostles from the book of Acts. Later, when John of

Leiden became leader, he modeled himself on King David, even to the point of having

multiple wives. His Anabaptist group legitimized violence against any not sharing their

religious views, and they saw themselves as the seed of a renewed and redeemed world.

Muenster was briefly an experiment in heady freedom, religious enthusiasm, and

charismatic leadership. Its collapse into license and violence and subjugation took less than

a year. I begin with it today because the final Sunday of October is observed in traditions

like ours as “Reformation Sunday.” While we remember the sixteenth century’s legacy of

Protestantism, we must keep in view the bad possibilities as well as the good possibilities

of choosing private revelation and personal religion over traditional approaches.

One of the results of the suppression of the Muenster variety of Anabaptists was to

confirm nonviolent types of Anabaptist in their pacifism and refusal to engage in political

reforms. Menno Simons became a prime spokesperson for believer-baptizing free church

groups who renounced violence and looked for purity in withdrawal from the wider society

rather than revolution in the wider society. Martin Luther’s church reacted to similar violent

social upheaval by emphasizing the legitimacy of the secular government, and the sorts of

Baptists from whom we are descended took as their lesson an emphasis on live-and-letlive

religious and social life.

The cages hanging from the steeple of St. Lambert’s remind us of what can go

 

wrong when established and admittedly corrupted modes of social order fail and give way

 

 

 

to the energies of individuals who believe God is leading them in a new direction. In our

time Islamist terrorists display similar characteristics, and from similar causes–social and

economic upheaval and another revolution in communication. When the world’s familiar evils

no longer seem offset by traditional safeguards, or people become convinced either that

times are much worse than ever before– or convinced that a new approach alone offers

promise–people will tend to cohere into groups determined that their saving vision

dominate, and trust that their righteousness, in which they absolutely believe, will make

them prevail.

This kind of triumphalist mob, which sees itself as freed from ordinary limits by their

alone being true to God, is the great evil which can result from times of religious ferment and

social uncertainty. An ingredient of this evil is the conviction that one has a privileged

relationship to God. That sense that the personal connection to one’s God is fundamental is

what allows one to violate long-standing teachings–such as the obligation to be truthful or

nonviolent–because one is answering to a higher power.

Religion that arises from troubled times and is deeply personal can have another

outcome. As we saw with the emergence out of the madness of Muenster of Mennonites

and other industrious, inoffensive, altruistic Christian movements, freedom in religion and an

emphasis on a personal relationship with one’s Lord can be a blessing to all. Now that

we’ve acknowledged the dangers of self-righteousness an d self-delusion, we can talk

about the wonders and splendor of self-knowledge and righteousness that is humble.

I want to take Zaccheus as a model for us. Forget about his being small of stature.

Forget about his climbing a tree. Forget, if you can, that children’s song about him being a

“wee little man” and Jesus’ charge for him to “Come down!” in the voices of children

delighted to have a song with a bossy-sounding chorus. There are incidents from scripture

which lend themselves to nursery tales, and though no doubt the adults teaching children

about Zaccheus convey good lessons about humility and sharing and being embraced by

Jesus though one hasn’t always done one’s best, the fact that those lessons are familiar in

the setting of childhood can make it difficult for adults to re-imagine the encounter and read

themselves into what happens, and that’s what I want us to do.

Jesus Christ is coming. The Lord is going to be near. People are going to be able

to get the benefit of being close to the Lord, and there is an air of excitement and spirit of

expectation. It has drawn a crowd. It must be something like the level of energy in the

grandstands before a big game, or the mood of the throng waiting for a parade.

Whatever is going on with the crowd where Zaccheus is, it’s not working for him. All

those other people–who they are, or where they are looking, or the stance they’re taking–is

interfering with Zaccheus’ getting to see Jesus the way Zaccheus needs to see Jesus. It

can be true for us, too, that when we see who’s lined up looking forward to celebrating

Jesus Christ, we sense that we don’t fit in. We don’t belong there–not with them, not with

 

their way of waiting, not with their sense of what it will be when Jesus is near.

 

 

 

I know it happens to visitors to this church. They take some courage from the name

over the door that they’ll get a worship experience like the one which works best for them,

and this church and its way of waiting on God and worshiping God and celebrating God

together isn’t what they need. It’s not like it kills them or anything. They are civil, they do

their part, they may even sense we mean well and have nothing ill to speak of us–but they

don’t come back. The dozens of us here who find Christ by coming here don’t help them

get where they want to get, because we have our own approach to the approach of Christ.

That’s the big problem for Zaccheus. Maybe a little of it is that he’s short, and more

of it is that he’s despised by decent people because he cooperates with their oppressors

to take their money. Both those things play into the story, but the important thing is that

Zaccheus is looking for Jesus and Zaccheus, down deep, already knows what it will mean to

be met by Jesus–because when they meet Jesus doesn’t tell Zaccheus what he has to do

in order to be right, Zaccheus knows all that already. So the main thing is Zaccheus’ interest

in getting to a place where he can see Jesus clearly, and maybe, just maybe, get noticed

by Jesus himself.

Crowds can help that. Like-minded people who share one’s instincts and who

appreciate the same approaches to religious seriousness can help a person get closer to

God. That’s the beauty of Christian conversation between friends. Sometimes, though,

what a crowd amounts to is an obstacle.

There are millions of people in the world today who would benefit from having a real

connection with the God revealed in Jesus Christ, and be grateful for discovering faith and

purpose and promise through Jesus Christ, who aren’t there because the crowd they see

being eager to talk about Jesus and point Jesus out discourages them instead of

encourages them. If that’s where Jesus is coming from, if that’s what Jesus means, if those

are the people Jesus approves, then Jesus isn’t for them. They’ll be secular. It’s not lack

of hearing the gospel which makes for nonbelievers. If only that were so. It’s having the

crowd of believers confuse people about what the gospel is that makes it tough.

Zaccheus has his own idea of how Jesus is arriving, and he goes to head him off.

He goes to intercept Jesus, and he does what he can to get the clearest view. That’s what

we have to do. We have to forget about what other people are saying about what God

wants and who God is and where to look, and use our own initiative and do the best we can

to meet Jesus on our own. We have to make an effort, we have to size ourselves up and

see what we need to be in the best position possible. Then we not only can see for

ourselves who Our Lord is; but Christ can see that we want to offer him a place in our lives,

and Christ can invite himself in. Then, like Zaccheus, we can be grateful that we’re worthy of

such an honor, and show ourselves worthy of it by being the persons God wants us to be.

Zaccheus was rich, so he knew he had to share. Zaccheus had cheated people, so he

knew he had to make amends. His personal seeking is what gave Jesus a chance to help

him make those changes in his life, and to become Christ’s host and fellow-worker.

 

 

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