Sunday, 14 October 2018

God, the Father Almighty: A Sermon on the Apostles’ Creed

My local church has just started a three-week sermon series on the Apostles’ Creed. This is a slightly ambitious task, given the detail we could go into. But we are looking at the Creed in our home groups for a longer period, so no harm done. I was given the first article; here’s my effort.

Deuteronomy 6:4-6; Matthew 28:16-20;
1 Corinthians 8:5-6

More than three thousand years ago, in a land we now call Jordan, Moses the man of God stood before all Israel and declared:

Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you arise.

These are not mere words; they are part of a wider expression of faith or belief known as the Shema. The Shema, with its confession of faith in the oneness or unity of God, shapes Jewish faith and practice even today.

Now let’s jump forwards a thousand years or so. To the north-west of the Sea of Galilee in Israel, the risen Jesus of Nazareth is standing before his eleven remaining disciples and declares:

All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

Hidden in this commission is an expression of faith or belief in one God, not unlike the Shema. But here the oneness or unity of God has been radically interpreted in light of Jesus. Jesus commands the eleven disciples to baptize new believers in the name, the singular name, of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Once more, these are not mere words. Baptism in the name of the one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, somehow places believers into the life of the risen Jesus himself, making them members of his body, the Church. This instruction of Jesus, for his disciples to baptize believers in the name of the Trinity, shaped the faith and practice of the early Church, and shapes Christian faith and practice even today.

The Shema and baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are basic expressions of faith or belief in God. We could call them very early creeds: short summaries or statements of faith. The New Testament in particular contains a number of basic creeds or creed-like statements, including the simple but effective ‘Jesus is Lord’. In today’s reading from 1 Corinthians, Paul takes the Shema and its faith in one God, ‘the Lord alone’, and, in light of Jesus, extends it so that ‘for us there is one God, the Father . . . and one Lord, Jesus Christ’. In effect, Paul takes one expression of faith or belief and shows its ongoing relevance for generations to come, though radically interpreted.

In the centuries that followed, the Church devised longer creeds containing more detail. A number of unusual or uncommon or plainly ridiculous ideas about Jesus and the Holy Spirit had arisen over the years, and so it had become necessary for faithful Christians to set out what was the heart of their faith but in more detail. The creeds they devised did this by defining Christians in terms of a story centred on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as told in the Bible. This is why as part of the baptismal liturgy, and echoing today’s Gospel reading from Matthew 28, the minister asks three simple questions:

Do you believe and trust in God the Father?
Do you believe and trust in his Son Jesus Christ?
Do you believe and trust in the Holy Spirit?

Our answers to these questions are not a grunted response but a wholehearted commitment to the Christian faith as passed down to us through the centuries. We do not make up our own Christian faith, as though we can pick and choose the elements we want. We receive and accept a faith passed down to us from earlier generations of Christian believers—and we, in turn, need to figure out what this means for us in London and Kent today before passing it on to the generations that come after us. We are but one link in a chain of belief that stems back to the first disciples and extends to those who one day will welcome Jesus as he returns in glory.

‘No, no, no, Tommy. I said “Apostles’ Creed”, not “Assassin’s Creed”.’

Our usual practice at Holy Trinity is to say the Nicene Creed together; this is the creed where we confess Jesus as ‘God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God’. But for today, and for the next couple of weeks, we will be looking at the somewhat shorter Apostles’ Creed, as well as spending more time exploring this creed in our community groups.

So what does the Apostles’ Creed say about God, and in particular about God the Father? We can see what it says in the first part or the first article of the creed:

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.

As with the Shema of Judaism and the baptismal formula of Matthew 28, these are not mere words. They are an expression of faith or belief in the sort of God we are committed to and place our trust in. I believe in God, the Father almighty. This means that I do not believe in some ill-defined power which may or may not have some vague influence over some area of my life; I believe and trust in God who reveals himself as the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and who rules over all with justice and love. In turn, this means that I can believe that no-one else, and nothing else, can or will rule over all, and that all the powers and authorities and political systems that daily shape our lives have no ultimate say in what our lives are worth, or in how this world will turn out. I believe in God, the Father almighty.

And I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. This means that I do not believe that God is the universe, or that God is the sum of all things, or that God is simply another part of the universe; I believe that God is the one who created all things and who, by virtue of being the creator, is utterly different from all created things. In turn, this means that I cannot believe that God is merely a name we give to certain events or certain causes in the world, or simply to be identified with whatever happens in the world. I cannot believe that God is in any way subjected to what goes on, or that God is in any way controlled by the world. I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

These are just a few examples of how the sorts of things we say we believe in the Apostles’ Creed automatically rule out belief in other sorts of things. Remember: these are not mere words—these words shape Christian faith and practice, our faith and practice.

So when we say that we believe in God, the Father almighty, we are not merely saying that God rules all things; we are committing ourselves to seeing God’s rule being worked out in our lives, regardless of the social and political and psychological pressures that aim to take God’s place.

And when we say that we believe in God . . . creator of heaven and earth, we are not merely saying that God created the universe; we are recognizing that God is the source of all life, and therefore the source of all authority, of all power, and of all hope. Thus by reciting the Apostles’ Creed, we remind ourselves, and one another, of the beliefs and values that mark the faithful Christian life.

Before I close, I want to touch on the term almighty—what does this mean? What does it mean to talk about God, the Father almighty? At first glance, it points towards the next clause in the article, creator of heaven and earth. God would need to be almighty to do that, surely! God can do anything! But when found in the Bible, the words translated ‘almighty’ point not so much to God’s unlimited power and ability but to God’s rule and the way in which God rules.

In Genesis 17, where the name ‘God almighty’ first occurs in the Bible, the context is one of God making a covenant with Abraham. God promises Abraham that he will sire a great nation that will bless the entire earth in and through his offspring. No matter how unfaithful the people of Israel were, no matter how near they came to extinction, God kept them, preserved them, protected them, in order to fulfil God’s promises to Abraham in Jesus. This is how God’s almightiness is demonstrated: in blessing and protection and fulfilment.

We see this understanding of God’s almightiness in the life of Jesus as well. Jesus was crucified a weak, dying man, but was raised to life by the power of God, the Father almighty. In raising Jesus from the dead, by bringing life from death, God shows how impotent the world’s authorities and powers truly are. But God shows this through the weakness of self-sacrificial love displayed on the cross and in the birth of the new creation in the resurrection. God is God, the Father almighty; but the Father’s almightiness is defined ultimately by the cross and the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. God’s is not raw, naked power, but the power to bless and protect and fulfil in Jesus.

So now, more than three thousand years after Moses, almost two thousand years after the resurrection of Jesus, we hear the faith of the Church echo down through the centuries: ‘Do you believe and trust in God the Father?’ Well, do you? As we celebrate the Eucharist this morning, let’s remember that we are called, each one of us, to share in the life of the risen Jesus as through him, and in the power of the Holy Spirit, we give thanks for our lives to God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Forthcoming Conference on Divine Action and Providence

The seventh annual Los Angeles Theology Conference is scheduled for 17–18 January 2019 at Biola University. The topic is ‘Divine Action and Providence’ and the planned papers look intriguing. It’s pointless for me to identify which of the papers most appeal as they all look pretty good, at least by title. The full list can be found here.

Biola University is not exactly just around the corner from me, so I shan’t be going. Hopefully the papers will be published or made available soon afterwards.

Sunday, 23 September 2018

Questioning God’s Character: A Sermon on Psalm 89

This is the third in a series of five sermons on the psalms being preached at my church. The first two sermons covered Psalms 1 and 51. I was allocated Psalm 89 (I always seem to get the gloomy ones). To be honest, I’m not sure I pulled this off the way I wanted to. I know I messed up reading the final paragraph, so the point I wanted to make, the main point, could have been more clearly expressed. Also, I should admit that I don’t write sermons with titles in mind, which is why they tend to have rather poor titles whenever I post them on this blog!
 

Psalm 89; Luke 1:26-33

Be honest: Have you ever felt let down or betrayed by God? Have you ever had doubts that God actually keeps God’s promises? Is it possible that God really isn’t, as one older chorus puts it, the ‘faithful one, so unchanging’? If you have ever felt any of these things, or if you have ever thought anything like these things, then Psalm 89 is a good psalm to pray. Psalm 89 gives us all an opportunity to pause and to ask difficult questions of God, questions like:

  • Can I trust you, God?
  • Why don’t you sort things out?
  • Are you going back on your word?
  • Have you forgotten us?
  • Where are you?
  • Are you ever going to answer us?

Psalm 89 is a perfect psalm for anyone who struggles to balance all the good things we’re supposed to believe about God alongside the harsh realities of everyday life in a broken world. Let’s see why this is so.

Almost a thousand years before Jesus was born, God promised to King David that his descendants would always sit on the throne of Israel; you can read about this in 2 Samuel 7. God’s promise didn’t mean that David and all those who came after him were free to do whatever they wanted; they still needed to keep the law of Moses; but it did mean that the line of David would last forever, that God would always be faithful to Israel and to Israel’s king, even if Israel’s king and the people themselves failed to be faithful to God. The covenant relationship between God and God’s people was secured by God’s promise to David.

This is the promise celebrated by Ethan the Ezrahite, to whom this psalm is attributed. Look at the detail in verses two to four: the Lord’s ‘steadfast love is established forever’; the Lord has ‘established [David’s] descendants forever’; David’s throne will last ‘for all generations’. The words here directly recall God’s promise to David from 2 Samuel 7. And the Lord and the Lord’s promises can be trusted because the Lord is all-powerful and entirely faithful; the Lord demonstrates kingly power and authority over ‘all things visible and invisible’; the Lord does not let the forces of darkness and chaos win. The Lord is righteous and just and shows covenant love and faithfulness to all that is created, bringing order out of disorder. This is why the people ‘exult’ in the name of the Lord ‘all day long’.

But if the Lord is the king over all things, then David is the man appointed king over all Israel. David was God’s choice—and as God’s choice, David was always going to have the Lord’s protection. Look at verses twenty-one to twenty-eight: ‘My hand shall always remain with David,’ says the Lord. ‘The enemy shall not outwit him . . . I will crush his foes before him  . . . I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.’ David and the Lord shall enjoy the closest of relationships, with David the dutiful son crying out, ‘You are my Father, my God!’

And now look at the following verses, verses twenty-nine to thirty-seven: the promise made to David also extends to include all those who follow him. ‘I will establish David’s line forever,’ says the Lord, ‘and his throne as long as the heavens endure.’ Even though individual monarchs fail and fall, God says that God will not ‘violate my covenant’; God has ‘sworn by [God’s] holiness’; ‘I will not lie to David,’ says the Lord, ‘and his throne [shall] endure before me like the sun . . . forever like the moon’. The overwhelming impression is of permanence secured by divine faithfulness. The Lord has promised that there will always be a descendant of David on the throne—and the Lord’s promises are certain and unbreakable. Aren’t they?

Boom! In 597 bc, the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem and took its young king Jehoiachin prisoner. And ten years later, in 587, the Babylonians tightened their grip on Jerusalem, destroying the temple and the palace, before deporting the majority of the city’s population to Babylon itself. The kingdom of David was no more. All the promises of the Lord had come to nothing.

‘David and his line shall continue forever,’ says Psalm 89, ‘but now you, Lordyou have cheapened and rejected him. You are angry with him. You have got rid of the covenant. You have defiled his crown. You have broken down his walls. You have ruined his stronghold. You have weakened him—but you have strengthened his enemies instead, and you have made them rejoice. You have not supported him in battle. You have taken away his glory and dirtied his throne. You have taken the king down in his prime of life. You have shamed him. You, you, youyou have done all these things, and you have completely gone against what you promised!’

These are strong sentiments. The final quarter of Psalm 89 can make for difficult reading and hearing. Ethan the Ezrahite is here reminding the Lord of the promises and points out how different real life is. How can there be a descendant of David on the throne in Jerusalem when Jerusalem lies in ruins and the throne, both metaphorically and probably in reality, is in the depths of enemy territory? God, how could you let this happen? God, what about your promises? God, where are you? Why won’t you answer? Why?

Why, indeed? Ethan the Ezrahite captures something of the pain we all face when the circumstances of our lives don’t match up with what our faith tells us about God. Psalm 89 is what we could call a ‘communal lament’. It is a lament because it points out to God, should God ever need reminding, that all’s not well with the world and needs God to step in and sort things out. It is a communal lament because the lament is spoken by or on behalf of a hurting community. In light of the Lord’s promises to David, and given the fact that there is no longer any king on Israel’s throne, the people need to know: Has God lied? Why has God let us down? Why isn’t God here, protecting our nation? And we could extend these questions to ourselves:

  • God promises to be with us; so where is God today?
  • God promises that no weapon formed against us will prosper; so why is God not sorting out this crazy, violent world we live in?
  • God promises that the Lord has plans for our welfare and not for our harm; so why is God letting us—me, my family, my friends, my colleagues, my country—why is God letting us go through so much pain and meaninglessness?
  • Why doesn’t God keep God’s promises?

There are many answers to these sorts of questions—and most of them won’t actually help that much. But praying a communal lament such as Psalm 89 helps us voice our concerns and fears. It gives us the words we need to push God for a response.

maskil crusaders, working overtime . . .
But as well as a communal lament, Psalm 89 is also described in its heading as a maskil. Nobody quite knows what the word maskil means, but scholars suggest that a maskil is intended to prompt reflection or understanding—so perhaps this psalm was used communally to help the exiled people of Israel come to terms with the destruction of their nation and monarchy. Psalm 89, as a maskil, invites us all to consider and even question God’s character: in light of what we know about God, about God’s righteousness, God’s justice, about God’s steadfast love and faithfulness; in light of all these qualities, what does all this pain and disaster and uncertainty actually mean? How should we as a nation, as a church, as a family, tackle and face up to our pains and struggles when God appears absent and far away? How might we relate to God when our misery and anguish are total? In short, what does Psalm 89 tell us about God?

Psalm 89 doesn’t actually give us an answer. The final verse ends Book Three of the Psalms as a whole rather than the psalm itself. We are left with an image of Ethan the Ezrahite standing face-up towards God, arms outstretched in prayer, perhaps with all Israel alongside him, pouring out his heart to God, desperate for and demanding an answer from God, who is quick to make promises of blessing but not so quick, it seems, to keep them. It is not an especially comforting picture. But let’s look once more at the psalm:

I have set the crown on one who is mighty [says the Lord], I have exalted one chosen from the people. I have found my servant . . . ; with my holy oil I have anointed him. . . He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God . . . !’ I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth.

Remember, O Lord, how your servant is taunted; how I bear in my bosom the insults of the peoples, with which your enemies taunt, O Lord, with which they taunted the footsteps of your anointed.

If these verses, taken from the middle and end of Psalm 89, remind you of Jesus, then you’re in good company. The New Testament sees Jesus as the descendant of David, the one to whom David’s throne is given. Our Gospel reading today from Luke makes this especially clear. But Jesus was born around five hundred years after Psalm 89 was composed, a thousand years after God’s promise to David. For those who lived in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem, there were no easy or persuasive answers. But we see Jesus as the fulfilment of David’s line—and because of this, we see Jesus as the one who, despite suffering pain and death on the cross, is the risen and exalted Lord who sits on David’s throne at the side of God the Father. And because we see Jesus, we do not need to use Psalm 89 to reflect on God’s promises in light of life’s struggles and pains. No—instead, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we can read Psalm 89 to reflect on life’s struggles and pains in light of the promises already fulfilled in God’s Son, the Lord Jesus. That is both the challenge and the comfort of this extraordinary psalm.

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Watching the World Burn: The Dark Knight and Wall·E, Ten Years On

Arguably the two best films of 2008 were Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight and Andrew Stanton’s Wall·E. I remember being utterly captivated by both on the large screen and enjoyed watching them a second time and a third time (and so on) on DVD when they were released on that format. Ten years on, I have taken the opportunity to watch them both again (this time, with Wall·E on Blu-ray). Each has lost something in the intervening decade. The Dark Knight is bloated and far too self-serious (‘Why so serious?’), something only the passage of time would reveal; Wall·E suffers from a quasi-dispensationalist juxtaposition of dystopianism and optimism, that is, things get happy real quick (forgivable, since Wall·E is, after all, primarily a children’s film). But on the whole, they still hold up pretty well.
There’s one thing I thought at the time that is still true for me: Wall·E is the darker of the two films. The Dark Knight spends a lot of time focussing on Joker the chaos-bringer (played compellingly by the late Heath Ledger), suggesting that ‘some men just want to watch the world burn’. Undoubtedly this is true. But The Dark Knight’s fundamental assumption is that while humanity has its sociopaths, and while people must contemplate the ethical dilemmas they face on a daily basis, eventually humanity en masse will make the right calls. This is seen especially in the scene towards the end of the film where the Joker has placed two boatloads of people in a situation where they must destroy the other remotely in order to ensure their own survival. One vessel is full of convicts, the other of civilians. And needless to say, after some forced Ethics 101-style debate, neither craft is destroyed—much to the Joker’s bemusement. If these two groups of people, one ostensibly degenerate and the other nothing extraordinary, can together make a mockery of the Joker’s assumptions about humanity, then this seems to presume humanity’s propensity for making good and right decisions.

Contrast this with Wall·E, where humanity has messed up, literally. The presence of Wall·E himself trundling around a limitless rubbish dump and the existence of infantilised humans floating around in their enormous celestial playpen far, far away testifies to what is surely a statement about an inherently flawed humanity driven by corrupted and poorly formed desires. In The Dark Knight, people—or only certain people, perhaps—merely have the potential to make and act upon immoral decisions; but in Wall·E, humanity has already succumbed to its basest cravings and has thoroughly screwed up in the process.

Both films labour these points more than they need to. As excellent as Ledger’s performance as the Joker is in The Dark Knight, the film’s plot surely makes too much of his character’s frenzied ways to the extent that I cannot help but think that Jerome Valeska (a Joker-styled figure, played by Cameron Monaghan) in Gotham embodies chaos far more effortlessly. In Wall·E, consumerism is the natural target, as is the dulling effects of constant entertainment and ready access to certain sorts of technology. Each film taps into certain fears: The Dark Knight into terrorism and the dangerous unknown or the other more generally, Wall·E into the depths of our daily habits and the effect these have on our lives. And yet Wall·E continues to carry more weight because whereas terrorism and disarray is a continual and very real threat from ‘outside’, consumerism and its handmaids are insidiously, sinisterly pervasive, spreading within each and every one of us whenever we swipe right or upgrade our phones. This is not the fault of technology in and of itself, but technology, if marketed in certain ways, exploits and then reshapes our desires—and this is what leads to humanity’s downfall in Wall·E. Thus Wall·E, I submit, is darker than The Dark Knight.

You can read another article, written in 2009 by Carrisa Smith, on Wall·E and The Dark Knight here.

Sunday, 26 August 2018

Abridged Too Far? The Cross and the Switchblade: A Play in Two Acts for Three Parts

Characters
David Wilkerson, a skinny preacher from Pennsylvania
Nicky Cruz, a vicious member of the Mau Mau gang
Unnamed Leader, a vicious member of the Bishops gang

Act i

Scene: a typical street in New York City in the 1950s (or the 1970s)

(David has just finished playing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ on the kazoo and is about to preach to the passing masses.)

David
Hie! Listen to me, all and sundry, and I shall deliver unto you God’s Word!

(Nicky struts towards David.)

Nicky
I am a vicious gang member who wishes not to hear the Word of God, lest it prevent me from committing dastardly acts of violence and injecting my veins with heroin.

David
The Bible says, ‘Jesus loves you.’

Nicky
I mean it, emaciated street preacher. Gleefully I shall quarter you if again you spout such nonsense!

David
Even if you were to dismember me, each throbbing, bloody piece would proclaim, ‘Jesus loves you.’

Nicky
Pah! Despite my promise, I shall not cut your frame, for instead your words have cut my soul. I shall take my leave.

David
I invite you to attend a non-cringey evangelistic event at a local arena. Other vicious gang members will attend, too.

Nicky
What’s this? Then I, too, shall attend. I shall bring my best stabbing knife and a foul attitude. I foresee it shall be an occasion to steal some offering money, too. Until then, scrawny one!

(Exit Nicky.)


Act ii

Scene: an arena

(The arena is filled with vicious gang members, of which only Nicky and Unnamed Leader are actually present in this scene. Everyone is wearing flares and bandanas apart from David.)

David
Ho! You vicious gang members—why can’t you just get along with each other?

Nicky
I do not get along with anyone who isn’t in my vicious gang, thin man of God.

Unnamed Leader
Likewise. My vicious gang wants not the likes of him and his cronies in my vicious gang.

Nicky
Why, you . . . ? Prepare to meet your maker!

David
But your maker is already here! Vicious gang members, put away your blades and ruminate on this: Jesus loves you!

Nicky
What’s that? Even me?

Unnamed Leader
And me?

(Nicky and Unnamed Leader drop their knives.)

David
Yes, Jesus loves you both. So come here, kneel, and believe! And then I shall put you on the coffee rota at the nearest church.

(Nicky and Unnamed Leader kneel. David puts his hands on their shoulders.)

Nicky and Unnamed Leader
We feel so clean! Praise God for the words he has spoken through you, our gaunt friend.

The End

Thursday, 23 August 2018

‘Not for the fainthearted’: William J. Abraham on Divine Action

I’m currently going through the first of William Abraham’s volumes on Divine Agency and Divine Action for review. It’s most definitely a tasty read, full of nutritious nuggets. I digested this one yesterday:

My aim is to highlight that the debate about divine action cannot avoid making tacit epistemological commitments. If theologians are deprived of the critical resources without which they cannot do their work, then, there is no hope of recovery. In my judgment, the last thing the theologian should do is resist crossing over into the new world opened up in the church by divine revelation. It is precisely within that world that we are introduced to a wide-ranging canon of divine action that is central to identifying, describing, and explaining who God is, what God has done, and why God has acted and acts as he does. It is one of the tasks of the theologian to step into that world with its own magnificent inheritance of commentary and reflection and get on with the business of articulating who God is and what he has done. We have had enough formal analysis and detours.
To be sure, stepping into that world calls forth our best endeavors to make sense of the epistemology involved. In doing this we break with the epistemic shibboleths to be found in most contemporary departments of philosophy, whether analytic or non-analytic. The likelihood of getting past cries of arbitrary fideism, slavery to authority, bondage to ecclesiastical authority, and irrational emotionalism is thin; as thin as the calls to think for ourselves, to grow up intellectually, and to come into the modern world of science and history, are shrill. So be it. A radical break from the shibboleths of our time on the part of the theologian is both necessary and feasible. Just as important is the urgent imperative to develop the ontology of agency and action that will undergird the extraordinary range of divine action, general and special, in which we are immersed. Theologians are entitled to develop their own modest metaphysical resources on agency and action in order to come to terms with who God is and what he has done.
This enterprise is not for the fainthearted.

William J. Abraham, Divine Agency and Divine Action, Volume I: Exploring and Evaluating the Debate (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 163–64

The context is a chapter on science and divine action, in which Abraham critiques the tendency to assume that scientific perspectives can supply answers to theological questions about divine action. Also, I should point out that the volume from which this quotation is taken is the first of a tetralogy. Volumes 1 and 2 are already out, with volume 3 coming out later this year—no idea about volume 4!

Monday, 20 August 2018

A Taxing Situation: A Sermon on Exodus 20:15 and Luke 19:1-10

http://marialaughlin.blogspot.com/2013/05/#2855174954956457719
My local church is going through the Ten Commandments at the moment and I was given Exodus 20:15: ‘You shall not steal.’ Rather than going into all the various ways in which we might illegitimately appropriate from others, I thought the Gospel reading assigned (the story of Zacchaeus in Luke 19) leant itself towards a narrative sermon. I’d never preached a narrative sermon before, so this was a new experiment for me. It seemed to work well enough on the day, though I admit I’ve probably taken a few liberties in trying to create a relatable context—and I’m almost certain I’ve done Zacchaeus himself an injustice, choosing to present him as a boo-’n’-hiss EastEnders-style villain for the sake of contrast; the text of Luke doesn’t make him quite so objectionable, though I suppose in the context of the sermon, this is just one person’s view of him. Anyway, here it is.

Exodus 20:15; Luke 19:1-10

It’s been an unusually hot day here in Jericho today, the sort of day where if you stand still long enough you can see the air shimmer in the distance. I must admit I’ve been quite lazy today—I’ve had to be, really, otherwise I’d have collapsed a sweaty mess. But now things are cooling down, and I feel more energetic, more willing to emerge from the shade of the trees. I yawn, I stretch, inhaling dry air, and I step out purposefully into the still-strong sunlight—only to hear people shouting:

‘Look! It’s him! The miracle worker!’

‘Hey, everyone, it’s that man who heals people!’

‘Can you believe this? It’s Jesus! Jesus is here in Jericho!’

Jesus? I’ve heard of this bloke. He’s been travelling around the place with his followers, apparently curing people of diseases, performing stories about farmers and Samaritans, getting into arguments with Pharisees, telling us all to be excellent to each other, and so on and so forth. I must admit to being a little cynical about all this—once you’ve heard about one itinerant preacher, you’ve heard about them all—but I may as well go and see this Jesus seeing as he’s coming into town. It’s not every day a minor celebrity comes to Jericho, after all.

It’s funny: Jesus isn’t really anything special to look at. If it wasn’t for everyone else pushing towards him, despite the best efforts of his followers to cushion him, I don’t think I’d give him a second glance. But look! Old ladies, zealous young men, people with ritually unclean relatives—so many people want to see him or talk to him. It’s quite incredible, really. To be honest, I think Jesus looks a little embarrassed by all the attention and just wants to get out of there as quickly as possible. He probably wants to get to Jerusalem before dark—well, good luck with that!

Hang on—Jesus has stopped, quite abruptly, and is motioning for us all to be quiet. He’s cocking his head, as though listening for some faint or distant sound. He’s moving towards a sycamore-fig tree. It looks like someone’s sitting in the branches . . . who is it? And then I hear Jesus saying,

‘Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.’

Zacchaeus? Zacchaeus the tax collector? Seriously? You must be joking—why on earth would Jesus want even to talk with Zacchaeus, let alone stay with him? I hate this slimy weasel. He’s in charge of the local tax office and makes sure that he takes full advantage of all the privileges his position allows him. He has no qualms in sending his boys round if he says you haven’t given him enough or if you can’t pay him on time. He’s done that a couple of times with my brother, saying that he avoided paying export duties or something, when actually he had paid in full. And he’s quite happy to lick Roman bootstraps and drop the rest of us in it if he thinks it will benefit him somehow. I know some people think he’s okay and that he’s just doing his job, but I can’t stand Zacchaeus. He’s nothing more than a dirty, thieving, traitorous scumbag, and I’d as soon as spit on him as talk to him.

But it’s true—it really does seem as though Jesus wants to stay at Zacchaeus’s home. Nobody seems to like this idea; everyone around me is making it quite clear what they think about all this. I can’t imagine why Jesus wants to stay with Zacchaeus. I can only assume he wants in on the action. You know what these super-religious types are like—they’re all, ‘Give me some cash and I’ll pray for you’, aren’t they? I’d heard that Jesus was different, but really—really, he’s just like all the others: a money-obsessed hypocrite who’s quite happy to play to his privilege when it suits him. I’m sure Zacchaeus will give him a nice, clean bed for the night and the finest food, all paid for by me and all the other nobodies in Jericho.

Look at him, climbing down from that tree. Zacchaeus makes me sick, a little man with a big ego. Anyone who knows the law of Moses knows that what he’s been doing over the years is wrong. ‘You shall not steal’, that’s what Moses says. ‘You shall not steal’—not ‘you shall not steal unless’, or ‘you shall not steal, but’. There’s to be no stealing, period. I know that some people feel they have to—they can’t eat unless they snaffle some grain from an unattended sack or swipe a small jar of olive oil to sell on. But people like Zacchaeus and his fellow tax collectors—well, they know what Moses says, but they completely disregard it and collude with the Romans to make their lives more comfortable, forcing people to steal and cheat and sin just to survive. This is not God’s way for us Jews, and it makes me so angry!

But what’s this? What did Zacchaeus just say? Did I hear right—that he’ll give half of his possessions to the poor? Half? My goodness, that’s a redistribution of the wealth if ever there was one! And what else—that he’ll repay anyone he’s exploited and cheated four times as much? That’s more than the law of Moses actually requires. Is he for real? Looking around, I can see quite a few people doing mental calculations of how much they’re going to get back—it looks like some of them will get a lot, judging by the smiles on their faces! Someone has even gone up to Zacchaeus and shaken his hands!

It seems trite to say this, but I can’t quite believe what’s happening here. I’ve heard stories about this Jesus. I’ve heard he can heal the sick and calm storms. I’ve heard he has even raised the dead. But what’s happening now is beyond miraculous—he has somehow changed the corrupt desires and practices of a man whose life has been all about exploiting financial loopholes and leaning hard on people to fill his own pockets. If ever anyone has walked the thin line between the strictly legal and the downright fraudulent, it’s Zacchaeus. And yet this man Jesus has persuaded him to change the direction of his entire life simply by meeting him. This is surely the salvation and power of God at work, the coming of God’s kingdom! I need to ask Jesus some questions about all this.

But look—Zacchaeus is now leading Jesus and his followers away from us and towards his home. It doesn’t look like I’m going to get a chance to speak to Jesus after all. But I wonder: Would I really want to meet Jesus? If Zacchaeus is true to his word, if he does make things right by everyone he’s stolen from or cheated, then everything’s going to change for him. He’s certainly going to be a lot poorer for a start! But if I were to meet Jesus face to face, like Zacchaeus has, what will he get me to change in my life? Will even his slightest glance in my direction cause me to remember all those times when I have stolen from or cheated or exploited others for my own benefit, echoes of the sorts of practices I have found easy to condemn Zacchaeus for? Is meeting Jesus really a risk I want to take for myself?