God Himself Is Present Under the Sycamore Tree
First in a series of four
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our sermon text for today is Luke 19, just before Jesus enters Jerusalem, his encounter with Zaccheus, which ends with these words, “Today salvation has come to this house, since he is also a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost.”
Dear Friends in Christ,
God himself is present. That is our sermon series for the next four weeks, as we near the end of the church year and the beginning of the next. God himself is present, and let us now adore him, and with awe appear before him. Today we begin considering who God is present among his people. We consider what he does when he is present with his people. We consider how the one who rules the heavens comes down to be present with Zaccheus and all kinds of sinners on earth.
Bu first, let’s ask the first question: What does it mean to be present? Because, there are different kinds of present. At least that’s what my wife tells me. I was washing dishes the other night and only half listening to what Laura said, thinking about how the Packers are in first place in the NFC North when she says, “You need to listen to me.” I was present, but I wasn’t there.
There are different kinds of present, and the presence of God is felt in many ways. The first, and most obvious way is that God is everywhere, among everything. Paul says it like this (he quotes ancient philosophers who got it right) “In him we live and move and have our being.” All the religions of the world have an idea of the presence of the gods that keep the world spinning. In the creed, we confess that God created us and still takes care of us.
And he is present in another way. The God who holds the universe together in an unknowable way is also the God who makes himself known in Jesus. Jesus is God’s presence, in a special way, as man among men.
And he is present in another way. Jesus promises that in his word and Sacraments, you come into his presence. You are washed with water to be united into his body. You eat his body and drink his blood. Heaven comes to you in the promises of his presence.
And he is present in another way. He is present in you. In every interaction, there he stands. In every kindness you do, there Christ is. In every time that brothers and sisters in Christ do all the good works that he has set beforehand for you to do, there Christ is for your neighbor.
Today, we look at Jesus’s presence, as he is present with Zaccheus. Jesus is ending his journey to Jerusalem, and he has been setting his face to Jerusalem. He won’t be persuaded to go anywhere else. Zaccheus is one of many that are looking to see Jesus on the way. He climbs up a Sycamore tree, and Jesus commands him to come down.
Point number one that we would understand today is that whatever our intentions, Jesus’s presence has its own agenda. Notice that on Zaccheus’s terms, he would have seen Jesus from afar, his curiosity would be sated, and he’d go on his way. But Jesus has different plans. Instead of walking by, he stops. Instead of preaching to the crowd, he addresses Zaccheus. Instead of calling out sin, he invites himself in.
The presence of Jesus has its own agenda. It’s the same for us too. Have you ever really wanted to be mad at someone and then you read a verse that rebukes you? Have you ever needed hope, sad and lonely when a Christian song proclaims that you have nothing to fear? The presence of Jesus has its own agenda. We are conformed to something greater, something different. We are called to a higher calling.
Notice what happens next in the text. When Jesus invites himself in, the crowd grumbles, and, though they’re grumbling, they have a point. Jesus has been invited in but there isn’t any change. Zaccheus is still a tax man.
What does that mean? Taxes worked different in the Roman world than they do today. Today, we have an arm of the government that collects revenue. In that day, they hired independent contractors to collect taxes any way they saw fit. Today, the IRS employees get paid a regular wage by the government. In that day, the tax man would collect taxes, and anything he charged on top of those taxes was his pay. Zaccheus was considered a traitor to Judea, a stooge of the government, and a sinner.
Point number two that we would understand for today is that wherever we begin, the presence of Jesus changes us. The crowd grumbles, noting the disparity between Zaccheus’s invitation and his behavior.
And then Zaccheus’s remarkable words. The half of my goods, I give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone, I will restore it fourfold. Half of his goods. Remember, he’s a chief tax man. He will restore fourfold. If he overcharged $100, he would give you $400. Jesus’s presence trumps Zaccheus’s agenda. Jesus’s presence changes Zaccheus, and Jesus’s presence changes you too.
Even for lifelong Christians, and for Christians in every chapter of life, Jesus’s presence changes us. His presence gives us the humility to admit our failures, our mistakes, knowing that he has paid for them on the cross. His presence gives us the strength to risk all that is on earth because we know that our lives are hidden in Christ on high. So, what is Jesus calling you to change today? What is Jesus calling us to risk for the sake of the kingdom today? Where is Jesus challenging you to find peace only and ever in him? Jesus’s presence changes us.
We go back to the text. Jesus’s closing words, today salvation has come. Today! It’s the same word that he uses in the Lord’s Prayer, Give us this day our daily bread. It’s the same word that he uses with the Thief on the Cross. Today, you will be with me in paradise. Today, salvation has come to you.
Notice what that means. Today, on that very day, salvation was with Zaccheus. The salvation that Christ would win in the next days on the cross was already Zaccheus’s by faith. The salvation that culminates at the end of all days has already been handed out to Zaccheus and to us.
Point number three for today is that the presence of Jesus means that today we rest in all the benefits of what God promises for eternity. It’s already yours. In your baptism you have died to sin and raised to life so that you will die no more. In the eating and drinking, you have a foretaste of the feast to come an in this little bit, you are getting every benefit of the feast without end. All the glory, all the honor, all the power, all the might, all the wisdom, all the majesty of our God is hidden in these little pieces of his promise, and all of it is yours today.
Because of what? Why is that so? Because the son of man came to seek and save the lost. Which makes one ask, what does it mean to be lost? I can tell you a lot about Nicaragua, and I’m sure that I will in the coming weeks, but today, I want to close this sermon by sharing with you just a little bit of our trip. Our driver’s name was Hamilton. He took us to churches in Nicaragua, mostly out in little villages out there past the capital of Managua, into the farm lands and beyond, to Somotillo, to Via Quince, to Villa Nueva, to Israel. Much of the time we would travel on the two lane highway, winding around volcanoes and lakes, until we would turn off the main road to a labyrinth of hard-packed dirt roads, potholes everywhere, to little sidestreets with volcanic rocks and field stones sticking out, to soft bottom dry riverbeds where we thought our van would get stuck, so we’d get out and walk beside it.
And the truth is, I had no idea where we were, over half the time. But I wasn’t lost. Why? Because Hamilton was there. He knew the roads and the dirt roads, the ones with street names and the ones with no names. He knew how to get out and how to get back in. And since he was with us, we were never lost.
Dear friends, I don’t know where this life together will take us, but the truth is, we aren’t lost. Why? Because the Son of Man is my Shepherd. More than that, he is the Great Shepherd of all of his sheep. He sends his pastors to care for the flock. He stands right by our side, and as often as we listen to his Word, we are never lost.
The kingdom of heaven is like a large church in a small town that is tempted to think that they are lost. They see all kinds of unfamiliar territory around them. They see new challenges ahead. They see the old familiar left behind. But as often as they look at their savior, they remember the old familiar truths. As often as they taste his body and his blood, that often comfort and reassurance well up with them. As often as they cry out for forgiveness, they realize that their savior is by their said, and because they stand next to him, they are already home.
Amen and amen.
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