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Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:1–4; 2 Thessalonians 1:1–4, 11–12 & Luke 19:1–10

Since the day of his ascension, followers of Jesus have been waiting for the time when he would come again and fully establish the kingdom of God here on earth. And in the two thousand plus years since, followers of Jesus have looked on in sadness and distress at the level of violence and corruption that has continued to go unchecked in the world. 

We only need look around the world today and see the number of countries that are either at war with another country, embroiled in civil war, or experiencing terrorist insurgency. A recent global article I read suggested there were at least 32 countries that fell into one of these categories, and that the combined death toll in 2022 alone from this violence could be in excess of 300,000. 

Like violence, corruption is also rife, whether that be on an international level or domestically here in Australia. I’m sure each of us have heard stories of corruption; whether they be in politics (federal, state or local), business, sport, and even in religious organisations. It seems there is no section of our society that is free from corruption. 

In light of rampant violence and corruption, as Christians watching on, we might find ourselves asking the questions, Why does God often seem indifferent to this? and Why do the people who perpetrate this violence and corruption seem to go unpunished? As I said earlier, this is not some recent phenomenon that is unique to our time. Christians have been asking these same questions for more than two thousand years. And not only Christians.

These same questions were posed by the Jewish prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk lived in Judah during the reign of King Jehoiakhim, and he prophesied between the fall of Nineveh (the capital of Assyria) in 612 B.C. and the Babylonian invasion of Judah in 588 B.C. With Assyria in disarray, Babylon was becoming the dominant world power. Saddened by the violence and corruption he saw around him, Habakkuk poured out his concerns to God. Today injustice still seems widespread and uncontrolled, but we shouldn’t let our concern cause us to doubt God or turn away from Him. Instead, we should consider the message that God gave Habakkuk and acknowledge God’s long-term plans and purposes. We should trust that God is doing right, even when we don’t understand why He works as He does. 

God responded to Habakkuk’s questions and concerns by stating that he would do amazing acts that would astound Habakkuk. When our own circumstances become almost unbearable, we might wonder if God has forgotten us. That’s when we should remember that God is in control. He has a plan, and those who perpetrate violence and corruption will be judged in His time. We must be willing to trust in God and await His timing. 

Through Habakkuk, God told the inhabitants of Jerusalem that they would be utterly amazed at what he was about to do. The people would, in fact, see a series of unbelievable events: (1) Their own independent and prosperous kingdom, Judah, would suddenly become a vassal nation; (2) Egypt, a world power for centuries, would be crushed almost overnight; (3) Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire, would be so completely ransacked that people would forget where it had been; and (4) the Babylonians would rise to power. Anyone hearing these words would have ridiculed Habakkuk, however the people actually saw each of these prophesies fulfilled during their lifetime. 

The figure of a watchman, together with a watchtower, were often used by the Old Testament prophets to demonstrate an attitude of expectation. And in today’s reading, they illustrate Habakkuk’s attitude of patient waiting and watching for God’s response. Stone watchtowers were built on city walls or ramparts so that watchmen could see people (enemies or messengers) approaching their city while still at a distance. Habakkuk wanted to make sure that he was in the best position to receive God’s message. 

Habakkuk complained vigorously to God about the injustice he witnessed in his day. God’s answer to Habakkuk is also appropriate for us, “If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place.” It isn’t easy to be patient, but we must trust God even when we don’t understand why events occur as they do.

When Jesus chose to be the guest of Zacchaeus, there were many Jewish people who clearly didn’t understand why he would do such a thing. After all, Zacchaeus was a tax collector, and not just any tax collector, he was a chief tax collector. In first-century Judea, tax collectors were puppets of the Roman government. Fellow Jews viewed them as traitors, since they made their living by overcharging on the taxes, and keeping the extra for themselves. And Zacchaeus has done quite well, because Luke tells us that he was rich.

Luke also tells us that Zacchaeus was short in stature, and some New Testament scholars believe Luke does so to indicate that Zacchaeus was “small in spirit”, which would explain his occupation as a tax collector. To be “small in spirit” was to be “mean spirited”, and those who worked as tax collectors were often felt to be mean spirited people.

We can interpret the story of Zacchaeus as a story of conversion, because while Jesus is staying with him, Zacchaeus promises Jesus that he will give half of his possessions to the poor, and that if he has cheated anyone out of anything, then he will pay them back fourfold. Zacchaeus responds to the visit of Jesus by making reparations for any previous wrongdoing, and Jesus in turn responds by saying, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.” Jesus is saying that just because Zacchaeus is small in stature, doesn’t mean he is small in spirit, and therefore he is not to be excluded from the kingdom of God. 

Perhaps the transformation in Zacchaeus also resulted in a transformation in some of those living in Jericho who were prejudiced and biased towards him. Perhaps even though they may not have understood why Jesus chose to stay at the home of Zacchaeus, a known tax collector and someone they would describe as a sinner, they may have trusted in Jesus that he obviously had a very good reason for doing so. That reason was of course that Zacchaeus was deserving of salvation. 

Through his encounter with Zacchaeus, Jesus is motivated to make known his mission – that he has come, not just to mix with the righteous and respectable, but to save those who need saving. To bring in to the kingdom of God, those who are kept on the outer of society, the oppressed and the marginalised. He does this by proclaiming the Good News of the gospel. Jesus invites us to join him in doing the same.

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