November 3 – If you’re a Hebrew Testament buff (and even if you’re not, we recommend you give it a try this month), November gives you the opportunity to experience some unfamiliar voices and then to relax with some familiar friends. We begin with Habakkuk, that tongue-twister of a minor prophet tucked away in the back of the book. This is the only time that Habakkuk appears in the lectionary, so it is possible that many preachers have never preached from this book and that many congregations have never heard it before. Yet, there is much to be discovered here in these brief three chapters. The writings of Habakkuk are different from most other prophetic works. Rather than giving us proclamations and pronouncements from God through the prophet, we have instead a glimpse of the dialogue between God and the prophet himself. It is as if God were trying to convince Habakkuk, and through that conversation, we get an insight into the promises of God.
Habakkuk is concerned about the lack of justice in the world in which he lives. He continually cries out to God, asking when God is going to put things right—to end the cycle of violence, to heal the deep divisions in the society, to push back the wicked who prey on the righteous. And he gets an answer! “Abide”—which is like “wait” or “hold on.” But (and this is important) abiding doesn’t mean “cooling your heels”; it doesn’t mean “sitting back and keeping your nose clean.” No, the prophet is told to make a sign, a big sign (one that drivers could read if they were driving down the interstate at 75 mph). We are called to proclaim a vision of justice and peace, of inclusion and transformation, of tearing down walls and building bridges. And we are to proclaim that vision loudly and consistently. That is what it means for “the righteous to live by faith.” That is what it means to “abide in the reign.”
The Psalter gives us a chance to sing in the reign along with Isaiah. When we speak of “psalter,” we usually think of a psalm; and most of the time, the lectionary provides us one. Occasionally, however, the lectionary finds another “psalm” or act of praise not from the book of Psalms, but from another book in the Bible, such as the prophets, as in this case. Our act of praise this week is to acknowledge the brokenness of the world and to accept responsibility for making it right, starting with ourselves! Isaiah reminds us of the interrelation of worship and personal morality and corporate justice seeking. Worship disconnected from a life of holiness that influences self and community is meaningless. In fact, it is less than meaningless; it is offensive to God. We are invited not just to talk or sing or pray about the lordship of God, but we are to abide in the reign each and every day. We are to confess when we forget or lose sight of the “kin-dom” of God—where all are sisters and brothers in Christ. We are to cling to the promise of a new start, where our sinful habits will not impede our progress as the body of Christ.
November gives us a brief (three-week) series within the series from II Thessalonians, if you choose to focus on the epistle. Since there is some academic debate as to whether Second Thessalonians was written by Paul (see Abraham Smith’s helpful article in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume XI, pp.683-684, plus the useful bibliography on pages 685-686), it might be helpful to refer to the author as the “writer of II Thessalonians.” Or you could declare that the debate exists and say that you intend to call the writer Paul for simplicity (and because that’s what is written in the opening verse).
The assigned verses from the opening chapter of this epistle give a clear indication of the thrust of both letters (I and II Thessalonians)—the invitation to live in the tension between the “already” and the “not yet.” Our passage begins with a congratulatory note that faith increases, community is being built, and steadfastness amid suffering abides. All are worthy of commendation, indeed. Yet, as the chapter continues, there is a “work-in-progress” note—“asking that our God will make you worthy . . .” Are we not worthy yet? Can we celebrate the faithfulness of the people, but also call on more faith without sounding as if we are “piling on” or are somehow unsatisfied with the current state of the souls in our care? If you are including an “All Saints” moment in worship, would you reference those you remember as perfect people who had it all together or as “works in progress” who let God’s grace shine through but who are themselves in need of that grace?
Abiding in the reign is not a simple reality, nor a switch we can throw. It takes time and attention and encouragement and accountability. That is why we are abiding together as a body, as a family, as a community of faith (often made up of surprising individuals) journeying together.
Nowhere is that more evident than in our Gospel passage for this week. Luke’s story is so familiar to us that we almost miss the dynamic of the moment. We might speculate on the motivations that drove Zacchaeus out on a limb that fateful day, and we could come up with a laundry list of reasons and inner thoughts. But Luke doesn’t tell us any of that. All we know is that Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus so much that he risked the embarrassment of the moment and then embraced the new reality that Jesus offered him without a moment of debate. It is an incredible story, almost fairy-tale like. This is a man doing a job for which he would be hated by everyone in his community and doing it well. He is a man of means who is able to pay back four times any amount he defrauded. And now he is a new man, a changed man, already in the business of making that change. This isn’t a promise; it is a description. According to Zacchaeus, his acts of giving to the poor and paying back those who had been cheated are happening already. The verbs are present tense, not future tense. He’s doing it— or having it done. Maybe he has his wallet out; maybe he is writing the checks as they talk on the street in the shade of the sycamore tree.
What brought about this change? What is the genesis of this new life? Jesus says to him, “I’m coming to stay with you.” Jesus did not say, “I want you to invite me for dinner,” or “I want to have a chat; have your people call my people.” No, he said, “I’m coming to stay”; “I’m coming to abide with you.” When Jesus abides, transformation happens. Jesus comes to help Zacchaeus live up to his name. “Zacchaeus” comes from “zakchaios,” which means “pure” or “righteous.” Perhaps at the beginning of the story, the name serves as a pun, an ironic twist that everyone in the crowd notices; that is, Zacchaeus is the “pure” traitor, the “righteous” collaborator. But now, in his transformation, his righteousness is found in making right the wrongs he has committed. His purity is in his willingness to abide with the least of these.
How is Jesus’ abiding presence so powerful? It is powerful because he abides always in the reign of God, and we are invited to do the same. Zacchaeus takes up residence under the authority of God in that moment on the street of Jericho. Will he live there always? Will he abide in that reign for the rest of his life? Do any of us? Like the Letters to the Thessalonians, we are living in the tension between the now and the not yet. Zacchaeus stepped into the now in that moment, but he may stumble out of it at some point. But the grace of Jesus Christ is such that we can step back in again and again. We may abide under the rule of our own hearts or our loyalties and preferences and prejudices at any time. But when Jesus comes to stay with us, we can choose to abide in the reign of God at any time. The opening sermon of this series, then, should be one of invitation; let us choose to abide.