"SALVATION" - Psalm 67; Luke 19:1 - 10

A Sermon by Alex Evans, Pastor

Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Texts: Psalm 67; Luke 19:1-10


            When you notice the sermon title today, I wonder what comes to mind. Is “SALVATION” a positive word or a negative word for you?

            SALVATION is a very important word for people of faith. It intends to name the yearning, the desire, the hope, the purpose of faithful life.

            But it is also a word that can carry a lot of baggage for people.

            Is it more a positive word or a negative word for you?

            Unfortunately, SALVATION has too often been associated with “going to heaven.” It has been assumed to be about the afterlife. Many of us might have connected SALVATION with the either/or proposition of heaven or hell. Through the generations, Christianity has been, unfortunately, presented as mostly about being saved, which gives us SALVATION. But that can be very negative – do you believe enough, or behave well enough, to really appreciate SALVATION that comes from God? SALVATION conversations can easily generate anxiety and fear. SALVATION conversations have certainly led to exclusion – people being told they are not worthy, do not belong.  Where is the grace of God? Where is the good news in a faith that mostly generates anxiety, fear, and exclusion? SALVATION can be a very complicated and negative word.

            But that is not what we find in the Bible in regard to SALVATION. The word, SALVATION, or its sibling words, appear more than 500 times in the Bible. And SALVATION in the Bible is NOT mostly about the afterlife. The actual word – “salvation” – in the Hebrew, has to do with the “creation or enlarging of space.” This is what God does – recovers spaciousness, offers prosperity, and well-being - when we are feeling the confinement, the closed-in-oppression, the covered up and burdened situations of life. God opens space – creates = SALVATION.

SALVATION means liberation from bondage; it means release into the Promised Land. It means rescue from despair, rescue from exile and defeat. In the Bible, SALVATION often has to do with land, with opportunities, new possibilities – and all of them come from God.

            So, if you are a Washington Nationals fan, like Roger Gench – who has been long suffering and continuously frustrated across recent decades – you may be feeling a sense of SALVATION this week with the thrilling, game seven, World Series victory. In this sense, SALVATION gets some clarity in its real, Biblical meaning. No longer beaten up by despair and defeat – but joy, spaciousness, celebration.

            In the New Testament, the same image is developed further. The very name of Jesus means “he saves us.” He gives us space. He opens up possibilities for life and joy from the confining, oppressive structures that can wear us down and defeat us. Because of Jesus, we are not covered up with despair and death, but have new life. That is the message of baptism. Because of Jesus, we are not in bondage to selfishness; we belong to God and we are freed for a life of loving God and loving others. It is NOT about the afterlife – it is a present reality and SALVATION intends to play out in how we live. Moreover, SALVATION is for us and for all people, no exclusion.

As our Constitution reminds us in the church – the first “great end” of the church is “the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.” This is what we are to be about – not generating fear and anxiety, but spaciousness, life, promise, hope – this is what God wants.

            Here is how Scottish theologian John Baillie puts it: Christ did not come to earth to tell us about the afterlife. Christ did not come to earth to merely tell us what we ought to do. He did NOT come to give us good advice – that was NOT mostly what we needed, for there are plenty of people who are ready with their advice. Advice is cheap. What Christ offered was the power of God unto SALVATION. (Baillie, Invitation to Pilgrimage).

            SALVATION means blindness to seeing. SALVATION means brokenness to wholeness. SALVATION means death to life. SALVATION means infirmity to well-being, . . . from fear to trust, . . . from frenzied to focused.

            Our gospel story is a picture of SALVATION. It is the story of Zacchaeus. The name, Zacchaeus, means “the righteous one,” but some of us learned something different about Zacchaeus in Sunday School – he was the “wee little man.” He was short in stature . . . and short in his scruples – until he met Jesus. Frederick Beuchner describes him as “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job." Here is the story from Luke 19:

Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.”8Zacchaeus 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.” 9Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”

            This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

            This familiar story appears only in Luke’s gospel. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus tells many stories about transformation and SALVATION. When rich people are involved, it can go either way. But Zacchaeus is an interesting case for Jesus – he is a tax collector; in fact, he is called “chief tax collector.” That phrase is not mentioned anywhere else in the Bible or Greek literature – so it implies Zacchaeus is deeply imbedded in the corrupt tax system of the Roman government. And here is what we can know – no one can be privately righteous and also be deeply imbedded in the corruption and deceit of a system. What surrounds us always affects us. (This is why the company we keep matters so much) We see this even in the chaos of these days. It is almost impossible to be privately moral and righteous and also be part of a corrupt and unrighteous system, culture, or government.

But Jesus has been attentive and sympathetic to tax collectors. It is not tax collectors who pose a challenge for Jesus – he has welcomed them. It is the rich who Jesus warns so aggressively. Remember the story of the “rich man and Lazarus” and “the rich young ruler.” Neither of those stories ended well. Now we have a “chief tax collector” and a “rich man” – Zacchaeus – what will happen when he encounters Jesus?

            Then, as we have seen in other stories, the crowd gets in the way. Remember the woman who wanted to be healed and made her way through the crowds to touch Jesus’ garment? Remember the paralyzed man who could not get to Jesus, because of the crowds, so his friends took him to the roof and lowered into the room below? Crowds can present people from interacting with Jesus.

So Zacchaeus runs ahead of the crowd and climbs a tree, because he is short and wants to see Jesus.

And then take note of what happens in verses 5-6. Everything turns on these 2 verses: Jesus looks up in the tree and sees Zacchaeus; Jesus commands to him to come down; and Jesus offers to stay at his house. And Zacchaeus’ response to this encounter is immediate and joyful. He hurries down. When the crowd objects – wanting to get in the way again of SALVATION for Zacchaeus – Zacchaeus comes forward with evidence of what is happening in and around him: 1) he expresses his desire to give half of his possessions to the poor, and 2) he will repay anyone he has defrauded 4 times in return.

What does Jesus say? “Today, SALVATION has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.”

Zacchaeus was a climber of more than trees. He was, as the great hymn says, “rich in things and poor in soul.” He was a social climber too, who sold himself and his morals in order to participate with a corrupt system. He got rich doing it. Lots of people do. In all likelihood, he had climbed every economic and political ladder – stepping on others on the way up to be “chief tax collector.” We know people like this – selfish and focused only on what is best for them. Worse than ignoring the poor, he undoubtedly took advantage of the poor, making the poor poorer – we know people and systems like this.

But Jesus ordered him down from the tree, and down from “his high horse” – because SALVATION is not about the afterlife. It is about this life.  SALVATION means freedom from bondage – the heavy bondage that comes from abusing people. SALVATION is release from captivity – the captive loneliness that comes from deceit and corruption. SALVATION is rescue from exile, . .  . from fear and anxiety, . . . to a life of wholeness and purpose. This is what we all long for, yearn for, hope for – life free from guilt, free to focus on important things – like loving, serving, caring. This is what we are made for. It is about the NOW – “come down from the tree – receive, . . . . start anew!”

Cynthia Bourgeault summarizes it: “Our only truly essential human task here, Jesus teaches, is to grow beyond the survival instincts of the animal brain and the egoic (self-centered) operating system into the (selfless) joy and generosity of full human personhood. His mission was to show us how to do this.” (D. Brooks, Second Mountain, p. 246)

Jesus commanded Zacchaeus to come down, to receive SALVATION – and discover a new life - generous, giving, loving life - serving God and serving people.  “SALVATION has come to this house,” he says, because Jesus – and all the crowds – saw Zacchaeus’ joy, then heard about his generosity and commitment that reached to the community – he will give half his possessions to the poor – and reached to the personal – those whom he defrauded he would repay 4 times, which was twice what was expected or asked.

God’s grace welcomes a despised resident of Jericho – the chief tax collector – into the community of God’s people; “he too is a child of Abraham.” Imagine: “a sawed-off little social disaster with a big bank account and a crooked job, but Jesus welcomes him aboard anyway.”

And this gracious welcome leads to a gracious response by Zacchaeus – help and justice for the poor, and generosity as a way of life going forward.

See, SALVATION intends to re-order life. Jesus intends to re-establish priorities. SALVATION and Jesus want us to determine what we must do to live into God’s new reality. What do we keep? How do we divest? Where do we invest? What guides our thinking and living?

            One of the ways we divest and invest is in our annual effort to commit and re-commit to God’s work through the church, this church. The church is called to be about the work of SALVATION. All we do in this place seeks to be about release from bondage, rescue from despair, giving people space, growth, purpose. All we do here is related to the movement from fear to faith, from anxiety to hope, for frenzied to focused life as disciples who trust God and serve God. May we seek to be increasingly generous – all of us – like Zacchaeus. SALVATION has come to our house and we seek to participate with God in the in-breaking of God’s love and light in this community, this city, and in the world – as we make our pledges, give our tithes and gifts, focus our lives and our devotion on God’s work in this church.

            In his latest book, Second Mountain, David Brooks talks lots about his faith, his personal journey. In the heart of his chapter on “philosophy and faith,” he notes “faith is said to be a sip that arouses a life.” (p. 248) I love that. “Faith is a sip . . . that arouses a life.”

            That is what happened to Zacchaeus. He had a sip of Jesus that aroused and re-arranged his life. SALVATION came to his house.

            In a moment, we are going to have a taste of Jesus, and a sip of Jesus. May it arouse our lives. May we know that SALVATION has come to our house – and we keep striving to deepen our commitments, broaden our generosity, remain focused on justice. That is where SALVATION takes us – arouses our lives for faithfulness.

            A sip that arouses a life – a life so freed that we focus on freedom, so rescued that we seek to rescue others, so transforming that we let go of selfishness and seek selflessness.

SALVATION – it is God’s gift. May we live into it with how we live, give, love, care, and serve. AMEN

Prayer of Commitment: We believe, Lord; help our unbelief. By your Spirit, show us the way to live into, from, and for SALVATION, following Jesus. AMEN.

Alex W. Evans, Pastor, Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA preached this sermon during morning worship of Sunday, November 3, 2019. This is a rough manuscript.

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