This sermon was delivered on the Fifteenth Sunday of Luke (Luke 19:1-10), January 26, 2020, at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Shrine Church in Flushing, New York.
Audio recorded at a later date.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
Today we heard a story from the Holy Scriptures that might be more memorable to us than some others. We hear the stories of Jesus teaching, and after a while perhaps we conflate the details of his parables. Or, maybe we recall a story of Jesus healing someone but misremember and add in elements from another account.
But today, Jesus is passing through Jericho, and is surrounded by a crowd. Zacchaios learns that he is coming, and as the crowd approaches he realizes he will never be able to see Jesus. In his determination and exuberance, Zacchaios climbs a nearby tree so that he can see better. Jesus then stops, bringing the crowd also to a halt, and he shouts up to Zacchaios for him to come down. It’s an unusual scene that grabs our attention as it would have grabbed that of the crowd on that day.
There are many ways in which we might approach this encounter in order to draw something from it. Today, let us consider the following three questions. First, are we enthusiastic about meeting Jesus? Second, are we willing to go out of our way to see him? Third, when Jesus sees us, and calls us down to himself, will we go to him? These three questions will put us in the position of Zacchaios. We will use his actions as a criterion and model for our own.
Are we enthusiastic about meeting Jesus?
Last week in his sermon, Fr. Aristidis poignantly reminded us that just because we come to church doesn’t mean we are coming to Christ. Sure, he’s here. But it does not mean that we have come with the right intentions. Zacchaios had heard of Jesus, and when he heard that Jesus was going to be in his town, he was filled with anticipation. He was ready to admit that he was not perfect, and even to offer examples of how he’d tried to make his mistakes right.
What about us? In terms of the physical act of coming to church on a Sunday, are we enthusiastic? Do we see the Liturgy as indispensable? Or are we OK with missing a Sunday? Do we prepare ourselves to receive Holy Communion? Or do we avoid it, or do we take it “just because”? Even if we are not the best at praying, do we have Jesus constantly on our mind—at home, at work, while resting, while on vacation? Or is he an afterthought, or someone we only think about on Sunday? If we’ve done something we know is not quite right in the Lord’s eyes, do we make it a point to confess and reconcile with him? Or do we sweep everything under the rug? Do we even want eternal life with him—do we even believe this is possible, do we recognize our mortality, do we recognize our helplessness, do we truly believe in him? Or are we just here because, well, that’s what we do? Are we enthusiastic about meeting Christ?
Are we willing to go out of our way to see Jesus?
Assuming we are enthusiastic about meeting Jesus, will we then find a way to be able to see him? In the story about Zacchaios, Jesus is surrounded by crowds and the short Zacchaios cannot see him. We, like Zacchaios, have been laid low by life. We are weighed down by many things: the cares of work, school, and family life consume us. In order to distract ourselves from those cares, we develop a layer of habits that numb us. It is often these very things, as good and harmless as they seem, that keep us from seeing Jesus.
Our concerns about life loom large, and our infantile attempts to numb them keep us weighed down—drinking, partying, sports obsessions, gossip, shopping addictions, sexual activity outside of marriage, video game immersion, Netflix bingeing, social media madness, and so on. Some people even become lured into and obsessed with conspiracy theories, or they become religious fanatics who think, in the most ironic way, that it is their place to defend and speak for the God they don’t even know. All of these things are ultimately driven by fear and lack of faith, and are not driven by love and trust in Christ.
But then there’s the tree. Maybe we find ourselves in one or more of these situations or mindsets. We know Jesus is out there, but we have no access to him on account of the crowd. Yet set before us is a high place, a tree of life, the tree of the Church, which can bring us above this crowd of cares and manias and sin. Are you a glutton for food and television and social media? The Church gives us the low branch of fasting. Are you mired in the humiliating emptiness of lust and fornication? Just a little higher is the branch of chastity. Are you blinded by anger and resentment and weighed down with the grudges you hold? Just a little higher is the branch of forgiveness and humility. There are others that climb higher. The lowest branch is the branch of Confession, and it is very easy to lay hold of. Are we willing to reach for it?
When we finally see Jesus, and he sees us, will we come back down and go to him?
Climbing the tree of repentance gives us a whole new vantage point. From it, we can see Christ in the crowd, and he us. Sure, we can still hear and see the crowd. But there is Jesus. We see him now. And, glorious surprise, he is looking right at us. He is not looking at the crowd. He is looking at me. Right at me. Into me. And I see him. Our gaze locks—does it last but a moment? Or has it been a lifetime? Time is forgotten. But then the air is pierced by his voice. He calls me by name. “Quickly, come down to me, for I must stay at your house today.”
But do I go? Like Zacchaios, do I hasten down at his bidding? Or do I stay there, just gazing? Perhaps afraid. Did I climb the tree of repentance and virtue and life in vain?
Zacchaios did not climb the tree to simply stay there. What about me? Maybe I like the tree? Maybe I think the tree is safer than coming down to encounter Christ face-to-face? Sadly, there are many people who hasten up the tree only to get stuck there, like a house cat. They love going through the motions of worship and fasting and abstinence and looking just the right way and doing and saying just the right things that make them seem pious. But they fell in love with the tree and forgot about Christ.
Christ desires to enter our home, our heart. He longs for us to long for him. He longs to see us rise above the crowd. He longs to call to us and for us to come back down to him. He parts the crowd to encounter us. He longs for us to open our heart to him, so that he can utter the words in which he delights
Brothers and sisters, today, we see that The Great Forty Days (“Great Lent”) is on the horizon. It is a gift and opportunity from Christ through his Church for us to ask these questions, to quiet our thoughts, to reduce our consumption, to rise above the crowd, to see him more clearly, and to open our house to salvation.
Christ is coming. Lay hold of the tree.