A “before” and “beginning” story, to be continued…
Hope is very precious. Hope must be kindled. It must be taken care of. Take care of your hope.
n the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today, brothers and sisters, we have a “before” story and a “beginning” story. It is appropriate on this Sunday – only four Sundays remain now after this Sunday before Great Lent. On this day we talk about Zacchaeus, how he was before, at the beginning of the salvation. And it is appropriate because during Great Lent should be, for all of us, a struggle to become more spiritual, to know more about ourselves and about God, to do good works, to pray, to fast.
It’s a struggle that is difficult. We will see next Sunday the prayer of the Publican. In our mind’s eye, we think of Zacchaeus when we think of the Publican and the Pharisee, when he was crying: “Oh, God, be merciful to me a sinner”, because he felt the weight of his sins. This is after Zacchaeus had been received by Christ, and he had entered into the struggle against his passions.
In the Christian life salvation comes to us by degrees, because salvation is us being changed. We change by degrees. Nobody changes all at once. You might make a decision at a critical moment in your life as Zacchaeus did, but you don’t change all at once. You change with struggle.
Now, what happened to Zacchaeus was one of those moments that happen rarely in a man’s life when he saw himself and when he felt deeply in his soul the desire for God.
When you read the Scriptures, you must read them so that they relate to you. You’re the one reading them. What is it saying to you? What is God trying to tell you?
Of course, to read the Scriptures and understand them, you must understand the content of what they say, the factual dogmatic content, the circumstances in which the things were said, instructions that are given and all the rest. All this is very important. But also, another thing that is so important when you read the Scriptures: There must be some emotional impact in your soul, like Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus was changed in a day or rather, I should say, he had the resolve to change. He made a decision and spent the rest of his life living it.
Zacchaeus had many things that were in the way of him finding Christ. The Scripture mentions three: He was a Publican, there was a big crowd, and he was very little.
As a Publican he had done many sinful things. He was ashamed because he had defrauded people, he hurt people. Are we like publicans? You had better think so because there’s not a human being that shouldn’t feel ashamed for the things he’s done or not done, is willing to do, not willing to do, the way he thinks, the way he doesn’t think. And often these feelings can keep one away from God.
I am convinced that the majority of the entertainments and all the things in life that are so frivolous and fruitless are really a way for people to escape from knowing who they really are. You cannot hear God if you’re not quiet; and if you hear God and you’re quiet, you’re going to find out what kind of a person you are, and that’s not a pretty picture.
Zacchaeus had all of that going on in his life. He was a very bad man. He was the chief of the publicans. He had done a lot of bad and terrible things, and he had that on his conscience, but he had heard of Christ. After all, he was a Jew even if he was a bad one. He knew of Christ, and wanted to see Him because there was this thing in his heart that was wondering: “How can I get out of this morass that I am in? I want to change, I don’t know how.”
So what was he going to do? He wanted to be better. He didn’t know how. Any of you ever feel like that? I feel like that every day. Now, I know in principle how: Through the blood of Christ, through God’s mercy, through my struggle. As far as how to get from A to B in exact detail, I don’t understand that because my sins are too big for me. They’re too big for you too.
So Zacchaeus wants to see Christ but the press is in the way, the crowd. So many things get in our way, so many busy things, so many concerns that we have that we really shouldn’t be very concerned about. Most of the press is ourselves. Most of the crowd is our own lifestyle getting in the way of being good.
But he had the crowd to deal with, he was short, and could not see. So what did he do? He went up high. He went up in a tree. Now, imagine the scene: A publican hated by everybody, making a spectacle of himself in a tree. Certainly there must have been many comments about him. This is a man accustomed to at least people flattering him in public; they wouldn’t say anything about him to his face. But in a crowd probably there was a lot of snickering and laughter.
And then Christ came and what happened? He looked up, and He saw Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus was changed because Christ loves transforming. And He said something very interesting. “Make haste. Come down because today I must abide in your house.”
This would have been unheard of and quite a scandal: a holy man going to the house of a sinner. It was not just his house the Lord was talking about: it was his soul. The Lord will abide in our soul. What an amazing thing!
When I read this Scripture, I’m filled with possibilities for me and, since I’m a pastor, always about you too. God can change us if we are willing, but we have to be able to overcome all that inertia of sin, all those chains that are holding onto us or sometimes that we hold onto ourselves. And we have to do something. We have to press past the crowd, and we have to get up in the tree, and we have to wait for Christ.
And the thing is, every single time that He comes to the tree, He will look up and tell us to make haste and come down because He will abide within us. Every time. Sometimes this is hard for us to believe. I know this, having been a pastor for many years, I know that we really don’t completely believe it, because we’re pretty bad, and it’s hard for us to really believe that we can really be changed. When you read Scriptures like this it’s important to hold onto that emotion, that fervor, that feeling of being changed that Zacchaeus must have had.
There are many Scriptures like this. I have dozens of favorite Scriptures that touch me in a very intimate way and that I hold onto (and you should too). Most of life, (as I said in a post  just recently that I hope you all read carefully), seems to be great spaces filled with short moments. That’s not what it should be for a Christian. It should be one moment of being in Christ. Nothing in our life is mundane. Nothing in our life cannot be changed. Everything can be changed.
But I think we need to feel this fervor and remind ourselves of it. It is very difficult when you are down, when you’re tired, when you’re lazy, when you’re feeling bad thoughts or whatever else is going on — it’s really hard to remember that feeling you had before such as Zacchaeus had when the Lord looked up to him and there was hope for Zacchaeus.
What did he do in his fervor? He made promises to the Lord. He was full of joy, and he made promises that he hadn’t thought of before. And surely he fulfilled them. Absolutely he fulfilled them, but they would be difficult to fulfill., and he would have a lot of habits that he’d have to overcome.
Just getting out of that tree didn’t make him good. Getting out of that tree gave him the ability to become good, gave him hope to become good, gave him a way out. But he was still a person with passions, proclivities towards sin, commitments to people that he couldn’t ignore. He still had a long road to go.
And that’s why I believe that this is right before Great Lent, because Great Lent is a long road. Great Lent should be hard. It should be when you learn something of yourself and you struggle and you do more than you usually do. We have more services during Great Lent. We fast more strictly during Great Lent. And, to be perfectly frank with you, if you do those things — I guess if you don’t do these things, probably this doesn’t happen — but if you do those things you will come to periods of time in Great Lent when you feel a great sense of despair, and you’re not getting much better; you’re pretty much the same person you were two weeks ago, two years ago, twenty years ago, still full of sin, full of bad habits.
Remember when Jairus’ daughter was dying and his servant came up to Him as Christ was going, and he said, don’t trouble the Master; she’s dead? I think we feel that; I know we feel that; I’m positive. I think very few people who struggle do not have those moments.
The way you get through those moments is with struggle and with holding things close to your breast from the Scriptures and the services. It’s not so much that we must have particular things memorized, although that’s a very good thing to do; I recommend it highly. But the feeling of reading the Scriptures, the feeling of hopefulness that Zacchaeus must have had, that decision: “I am going to be better and now I have a way to be better”; that’s the good news, and this is what you must hold onto. There’s going to be a lot of times when it’s very hard. But if you will hold onto that, then there is still joy in you even in the midst of sadness.
Try it. See if I’m right. During this Lent, fast more strictly than you did before. Go to more services. We have plenty of opportunities. Pray. Read the Scripture more, or even start reading the Scripture. Attempt to give alms and do good works.
And you’ll find, even before the third week, you’re kind of tired, and there will be those voices inside you, those voices of the person that’s the Publican inside you: “You’re not really going to get much better. You really do have a lot of bad habits. What are you doing all this for? You’re just hungry and you’re more irritable than usual.” Don’t listen to those voices.
Listen to that voice inside you that was the person in the tree and you heard the Lord say to you, “Come down because I’ll abide in your house.”
It’s not just a nursery tale. This is the truth. This is absolutely what happens to the Christian soul. God visits it, fills it with hope. You can’t do anything without hope, nothing. Hope is very precious. Hope must be kindled. It must be taken care of. Take care of your hope.
Struggle. But remember that God will receive you just as He received Zacchaeus. Don’t let anything or anybody make you forget this. And He will abide in your house, and you will be saved. Amen.
Transcribed by the hand of Helen
Priest Seraphim Holland 2009
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