Sermon by Clare Heard on 30th October 2016, 4th Sunday before Advent at the United Benefice of Holland Park

Sermon by Clare Heard on 30th October 2016, 4th Sunday before Advent at the United Benefice of Holland Park


What do you think people see when they look at you? What do you want them to see? What do you not want them to see?

And what about when you look at others? How quick are you to make a judgement and not bother to look deeper?

There was an interesting quote on facebook that I saw this week saying, “The biggest communication problem is that we don’t listen to understand, we listen to reply”. I can definitely relate to this, and I wonder if it’s similar with how we see people – perhaps we look long enough to put them into one of our neat boxes for categorising and if they don’t make the interesting box, stop there.

We all do it, as humans, we all judge, both consciously and subconsciously. And that’s both inevitable and ok…… as long as we don’t stop there, but keep looking and listening to get beyond our initial judgements.

How familiar are you with today’s gospel reading? For many of us this may be a well-known story. A classic tale of Jesus calling someone to repentance and their response of thankfulness and generosity.

A familiar story, we know the outcome – that we are forgiven and should be thankful, but we should also change our behaviour – job done! Sermon written!

However, recently some scholars have taken a different view of this passage. They have said that the Greek used for Zacchaeus’s declaration is actually present tense, not future intention – I give half of what I have to the poor, I give back 4 times if I defraud anyone. They also note there is no call to repentance from Jesus and no request for forgiveness or healing from Zacchaeus.

If read in this light, the story changes. It becomes about Jesus seeing Zacchaeus for who he actually is, rather than how others have labelled him – tax collector, sinner. It becomes about Jesus affirming Zacchaeus, blessing him and reminding him of his true identity as a Son of Abraham.

Zacchaeus puts himself where he can see Jesus, and Jesus can see him. He responds to Jesus call, and receives affirmation and blessing.

Now, I want to dig a little deeper into this reading today because there is a lot here that is easily missed.

The first thing that strikes me is how keen Zacchaeus is to see Jesus. So keen, he is willing to run ahead and climb a tree. When was the last time you were so keen to do something that you went about it in an unusual way, a way that might open you up to mockery, or challenge you to do something uncomfortable? When was the last time you felt really keen to see God, to see Jesus?

We are in a different context here of course, Jesus is not physically walking down our street, or coming to our church to give a talk. And yet, we can still encounter him in our prayers and worship, in the people we meet, and he can still have a profound effect on our lives, and our hearts.

And so I wonder whether we need to remember how exciting God is. Do we actually expect anything from church on a Sunday other than the usual mixture of rather lovely hymns, Bible readings, liturgy and prayers? Maybe on a good day we do, but my own experience is that often I don’t expect much at all. I’m not sure, I’d be willing to queue round the block to get into church, as people do for example, for Wimbledon tickets, or for really a popular prom.

Or to look at it a different way, if there was a charge to come to church, how much would I be willing to pay? Now of course, there never would be a charge as it goes against the entire spirit of our faith, but Zacchaeus’s actions are a fresh challenge to us.

Do we really value church? How keen are we to come each Sunday? Do we feel we’ve missed anything if we don’t make it? Are we willing to contribute to keeping it going? Can we come to church each Sunday with a renewed expectancy of what God might say to us, how he might inspire us?

And of course this goes well beyond church, Zacchaeus was out in the street, up a tree – this is about the whole of our lives. Can we enter into each fresh day with a hope of seeing God in it?

So my first point is that we all need to have a certain amount of expectancy in our relationship with God. We can look forward to all he has promised – new life, healing, wiping away the pain….and we can hope for the good things to come, in this life and beyond.

Secondly, Zacchaeus is short in stature, and according to some interpretation, short in morals as well. This gets in the way of him being able to see Jesus clearly. There are numerous things in our lives that get in the way of us being able to see, and in particular, see God. The constant noise and busyness of life surrounds us, blocks our eyes and ears, and so we often need to consciously create space, block out the noise, people and all the other stuff that is getting in the way. Some people do this by having a quiet time set aside each day to focus on God – I try to do this but have to confess it often gets pushed aside for household chores, the kids, work, or just more sleep – it’s very difficult to find time in the frenetic pace of life many lead today.

And then there may also be other things that get in the way of us seeing clearly – maybe holding on to pain or resentment, too great a focus on material possessions or a need to be in control and self-sufficient.

It might be that life has been hard on us, we’ve suffered, we’ve lost hope, and we struggle to trust God, or expect anything from him.

I heard a lovely story from a friend of mine who did a rather challenging walk through the Pyrenees this year, with one of her dearest friends, whom I will call Sue. A couple of years before, Sue had lost her husband. The walk was supposed to take a week and was to raise money for charity. My friend discovered Sue was not a particularly experienced mountaineer and there were some challenging places where Sue grew nervous. Then my friend had a fall and slid down a rock face about 20 feet. She was bruised all over - nothing was broken but she looked dreadful. Sue was a nurse and was able to check my friend over, but this really shook her.

She realised that since losing her husband she had never really trusted God; that she was scared others that she loved would be taken away from her. Then to top it all off, a storm blew up, they couldn’t see more than a few yards, and could not go on, so they pitched the tent and settled down to see it through.

Now Sue was terrified of the storm and she was also convinced they had run out of water, she hardly slept a wink but did battle with God (rather like Jacob wrestling with God’s angel), and finally, by the end of the night, had surrendered to God, she had started to regain her trust.

She was able to let go of much of her fear, and put her faith in her loving Father again and trust him to get her out of that mess! It was quite a journey.

For all of us there will be something, or perhaps many things, that get in the way of being able to see and hear God. We may not even be aware of what they are, but if you’re not sure, maybe think about what you turn to when things are tough. Are there places you hide, or seek comfort that shut God out, rather than allow him in?

If we are really going to let God in, we need to come before him with a degree of honesty about our lives – warts and all so to speak. Are we willing to become vulnerable? Are we willing to admit that we cannot do everything in our own strength, that we do need God’s saving love? Because if not, our ears and eyes are likely to remain closed, we will be stuck at the foot of the tree, unable to see.

The last point I want to mention is that when Jesus sees Zacchaeus he calls him by name, and the call is urgent. “Quick, come down, I want to eat at your house today.”

God knows us, he knows exactly who we are and he wants to eat with us. We are not some obscurity, some indistinguishable person fading into the background. Indeed, each person is completely unique, created by a loving Father, and known for who we are. And God is calling to each of us. “Quick, come to me, I want to be with you.”

Do we believe this?

In a certain sense it’s not very British. We may think, why would God want to be with me, I’m nobody special. There are plenty of other more interesting and exciting people, plenty of others who are better than me, I’ve got nothing to offer….

But this story refutes that lie, it says to all of us – God loves us and wants to spend time with us. “The Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost” – that is us – each of us. We are all lost in some way or other. And we all need finding, and need to keep being found as we slowly open up more of our hearts to our loving creator.

So the challenge to all of us today, is to combine these 3 things, as Zacchaeus does – an expectancy and desire to meet with God, a willingness to identify and remove those things which stand in the way, and an honesty about who we are as his beloved children.

This will probably take time, it will be quite a journey, but it will be an exciting journey, one that leads us closer into the embrace of our loving Father. One that allows us to look back and say, God was with me, even when I didn’t know it.

One of Charlie’s favourite stories is the Pilgrim’s progress – looking at other people’s journeys can be very exciting – looking at our own, it’s harder to see.

But today I would encourage you to be expectant – if we believe in a God who created the earth, sent Jesus to show us what God is like and save us from our sins, and then sent his Holy Spirit that we might always have his presence with us, then we should expect more – more of God’s work in our lives and those around us – more inspiration, more revelation – if we are brave enough to look!

And if we can be brave, and open our eyes and hearts to what God is doing, to journey with him, then we are also able to share that journey with others. As we walk alongside God, his mission becomes our mission. We start to seek out others who are lost, we start to see people for who they really are, rather than how they are labelled, and we start to share the love of God and the blessings that come with our identity being affirmed as sons and daughters of a loving Father who knows us by name and wants to sit and eat with us.

Holland Park Benefice