The following sermon was delivered on Jan. 29, 2017, on the Sunday of Zacchaeus, when we read the Gospel of St Luke 19:1-10.
The ideas for the sermon were borrowed from "Zacchaeus Up a Tree" and the book by Fr Alexander Schmemann "Great Lent."
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.
The Great Lent is fast approaching. The preparation time for the Feast of feasts is only 4 weeks away. Pascha is the greatest Feast because the period of preparation for it is the most demanding of any fasts we have. If nothing else, we are shown how important the feast is by how serious we prepare for it.
Great Lent, the period of preparation for Easter, itself is so important that we have to prepare for it as well. The Church calls us to prepare for the period of preparation.
It’s similar to swimming, if you will. I can’t just jump into a cold swimming pool, I need to warm up first. The same way, I can’t compete in swimming events without practicing.
Our spiritual life is no different. I can’t learn to pray if I don’t read the Bible. I can’t know God if I don’t pray, fast and do charitable works. And I can’t fast if I don’t prepare for it.
And this period of preparation for Great Lent begins today, 5 Sundays before the first day of Great Lent. Each Sunday there is a special Gospel reading that focuses on a person or an event, but all of them show us fundamental aspect of repentance.
For example, today we heard about Zacchaeus, next Sunday we will hear about the publican and the Pharisee, Sunday after that – Prodigal Son, then Sunday of the Last Judgment, and finally the Sunday of the Casting out of Adam and Eve from Paradise.
Great Lent calls our attention, in fact, moves us towards repentance. We prepare to meet the resurrected Lord, but we can’t do it without repentance. That’s why, as you may recall from last week, the very first word spoken by Christ when He came out for His public ministry was, “Repent.” He didn't come out and say, "Hi, my name is Jesus," but "Repent!"
Christ preached, and taught, and healed people for three years. All this time He was doing one thing – preparing people for His death and subsequent resurrection. And He made it very clear that the only way to prepare for it is by repenting.
So today, in the person of Zacchaeus, we are presented with the first steps towards repentance. We heard about a man who was too short to see Jesus, but who desired so much to see Him he climbed up a tree.
Except for maybe Tarzan, grown men usually do not climb trees. At least they didn’t in the Middle East in the time of Jesus. Neither did they run. Running was for children, professional messengers, and soldiers. Adults, who were neither professional runners nor soldiers, did not run. They walked in a laid-back manner, especially if they were of importance and great dignity.
It’s important to keep this information about the culture of Middle East in mind when we read the story of Zacchaeus. He badly wanted to see Jesus, when he heard at the last minute that He was passing through his town of Jericho.
There was a great crowd surrounding Jesus, and Zacchaeus, being a short little man, could not see past the crowd. Normally Middle Eastern crowds would make way for rich important people, but Zacchaeus knew there was no chance of that. He was a chief tax-collector, someone who constantly ripped people off, and he was hated for it as a result. No one in the crowd was going to make way for him.
But his desire was so great to see Jesus that he did something no important adult with the least bit of concern for his dignity would do: “He ran on ahead and climbed up into a sycamore tree to see Jesus,” (Luke 19:4) as the Gospel of St Luke told us today. Note: He both ran and climbed into a tree.
By doing so, he exposed himself to ridicule, and this in a culture where public honor meant everything. Perhaps he felt he was so hated already that he had nothing to lose, but it still must have cost him something to run and to climb.
When he ascended that tree, he left the last shreds of his pride at the base of the tree. This just shows that in order to ascend, to really become something in this life, we must humble ourselves, we must descend, become each others servants, like Christ became a servant to us.
So the first step in repentance is desire. Repentance begins with desire to change. We can’t see God if we don’t desire to see Him. He is always here, but our eyes are always closed.
We always desire something. We can even say that our desire is our god. We desire to be successful. We desire to be, if not wealthy, then at least with enough extra cash in our pocket. We desire to be loved and respected, but we have no idea how to make people love and respect us.
Look at the society today. I mean, I have no idea what happened since the election. It’s like we are on a mad train and going off a cliff. Everyone desires to speak out, to have an opinion, but no one desires to hear the opinion of others. There is only one right opinion – mine, and everyone else’s opinion is trash because it’s different from mine. Everyone is offended at everything.
We all desire something, but we absolutely do not want to work for it. What separates Zacchaeus and us? He saw an opportunity and did all he could. He humbled himself, he gave up his pride and honor, and climbed that tree. And Christ walked by, looked up at this poor short man on the tree and said, “Zacchaeus, it is time for Me to visit your house.”
A few weeks ago I saw a picture online that just astonished me. It said, “Long before Zacchaeus couldn’t see Jesus, the tree was already planted to meet his need.” That’s how God works in our lives. He could take us by hand and drag us in the right direction, He could punish us, He could destroy us and avoid all the headaches. But then, He wouldn’t be the loving God, He would be a tyrant. Instead He guides us along our journey of life, giving us opportunities to turn the right way, but He does not do it for us.
Who planted that tree? God did. For what reason? So that Zacchaeus would climbed on it, shake off his pride and grow in stature, go from short to tall, if not physically, then spiritually.
What would have happened had he ran right by that tree? Nothing. Zacchaeus would have remained the rich and hated tax-collector and Christ would still go on to die to save all.
Desire drove Zacchaeus to do the unthinkable because he recognized that Jesus was the only One Who was able to fulfill his desire. And that desire was to become again a good human being, like we all are meant to be.
Desire led Zacchaeus to repent. And as I said last week, repentance is not simply feeling sorry for being bad, but it’s actually completely changing our life. And we see Zacchaeus do just that – after receiving Christ into his house, he said that he will give away half of his money to the poor and repay four times over to anyone he wronged and ripped off, which is like everyone.
This is our first lesson on the road to the Great Lent – repentance begins with desire to see the Lord. Zacchaeus desired to see Jesus so badly that he left all his pride and dignity at the bottom of the tree.
What are we willing to leave behind? Our pride and refusal to forgive those who offended us? Our laziness and failure to pray daily? Our greed and love of possessions?
We don’t have to leave any of these things behind if we don’t want to. But then we won’t see Jesus, and He will pass through our town without stopping. Better to run and climb, better to strip ourselves of our pride and whatever else stands between us and the saving encounter with the Lord.
The little tax-collector of Jericho badly wanted to see Jesus. How badly do we want to see Him?