“God Guides Us”

Pentecost 24

October 30, 2016


Text:  Habakkuk 1:1-4; 2:1-4; Psalm 119:137-144; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12; Luke 19:1-10


    You have probably noticed from the sermon title that this is a sermon about God’s guidance.  Yet on hearing the Scriptures today, the subject of God’s guidance may not be the obvious thing that jumps out at you.  It certainly was not the first thing that jumped out at me.  But as I reflected on these Scriptures in relationship to what I have been experiencing, what I have been reading, and what I have being praying about, the connection clicked for me, and I find myself guided to share what I realized with you.

    I’m going to start with today’s psalm.  Psalm 119, of course, is the longest chapter in the Bible.  It is an acrostic psalm, consisting of 22 eight verse sections.  In each section, each verse in Hebrew begins with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet, and there is a section of the psalm for each letter.  Today’s section begins with the 18th letter, tsade.  The theme of Psalm 119 is consistent throughout--it is about the goodness and rightness of God’s torah (which means teaching, law, commandments, and instruction) and about the importance of loving and obeying God’s torah.  God’s teachings tell us what God wants and expects from us.  God’s teachings are an important way God guides our lives.  Today’s section closes with words that reinforce this idea:  “Your laws are righteous forever.  Help me understand so I can live!”  Understanding what God wants from us is the first step toward accepting God’s guidance in our daily lives.   

    Now we are living in a time when many people are feeling discouraged for a variety of reasons.  There is discouragement about the way things are going in the world, the nation, and the church.  The prophet Habakkuk also lived in discouraging times.  Listen again to the complaint he raises before God:  “Lord, how long will I call for help and you not listen?  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’ but you don’t deliver us.  Why do you show me injustice and look at anguish so that devastation and violence are before me?  There is strife, and conflict abounds.  The Instruction is ineffective; justice does not endure because the wicked surround the righteous.  Justice becomes warped.”  There are many people, operating from many different perspectives, who are saying similar things about the time in which we live.  

    In response to Habakkuk’s complaint, God’s guidance was that there would be a vision. God’s purposes would be carried out, even though deliverance might not come right away.  “If it delays,” God told Habakkuk, “wait for it; for it is surely coming; it will not be late.”  And the other guidance that is given is this:  “The righteous person will live by faith.”  In order to stay true to God’s purposes, one needs to trust God to guide the future and live faithfully, being guided by the justice, love, and compassion of God, in the meantime.

    The Christians at Thessalonica, the ones to whom Paul wrote the letters to the Thessalonians, knew something about doing that.  They were putting up with a lot of harassment and trouble both from outside the church and inside of it.  Paul gave thanks that they were faithfully following God’s guidance to endure the trouble, grow in honoring God in all they did, and grow in love for each other.

    What is God’s vision for this church for the future?  That is a question we need to wrestle with, although it may take some time to discern what the answers to that question might be.  What does it mean for us to remain faithful under the current circumstances?  Surely we must find ways to trust God with the future, endure the present difficulties, grow in honoring God in all we do, and grow in love for each other.

    This leads us to the story of Zacchaeus.  Now it may really be hard to see what this has to do with God’s guidance.  But consider these things:

    First, what led Zacchaeus to seek out Jesus in the first place?  After all, Zacchaeus was a leading tax collector in Jericho and was very wealthy.  Sure, he probably didn’t have a lot of friends because of his line of work and his bad reputation, but maybe he didn’t care about that.  However, there must have been something in his life that he didn’t find satisfactory, a hunger for something more fulfilling than having a large bank account. Surely God was already working in his life, helping him to recognize that something was missing and helping him to realize that maybe Jesus had something to offer him in this regard.  The desire God placed in Zacchaeus to meet Jesus was so strong that he willingly went beneath his dignity and climbed up in a tree, since Zacchaeus happened to be short and couldn’t see over the crowd (one wag among my clergy colleagues suggests that perhaps Zacchaeus looked similar to Danny DeVito).

    Second, what led Jesus to seek out Zacchaeus?  Since Jesus lived completely in tune with the will of his heavenly Father, surely it was God guiding him.  At any rate, Jesus went over to the sycamore tree where Zacchaeus was perched and said, “Zacchaeus, come down right away.  I must stay at your house today.”  Zacchaeus came down and welcomed Jesus.

    Now when this happened, the bystanders started to grumble, saying, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”  That was not considered appropriate behavior for a rabbi or any Jew who sought to be faithful to God.  But Jesus, who was guided by God far more directly and intimately than the rest of us humans, refused to conform to that expectation.  Jesus willingly entered into relationships with all kinds of people, including people others looked down upon because of what they did, their standing in the community, their nationality, their health, or any other circumstance that led people to judge them undeserving.

    Now if we follow Jesus, shouldn’t we also enter into relationships with people we are inclined to look down upon?  I find that I, and Christians in general, often don’t do a very good job of that.  We often do a pretty good job of doing things for such people, especially those who are in need economically or others we believe need help.  But helping someone in need is different than entering into a real relationship with someone.  When we help someone of a different social status, we often do it from a position of perceived superiority, helping because we feel we are somehow superior and maybe they can benefit from that.  But in a genuine relationship, the people in the relationship perceive each other as equals.  Everyone benefits from the relationship. Jesus approached Zacchaeus as an equal.  He allowed himself to be a guest in Zacchaeus’ home.  And because Jesus entered the relationship on those terms, Zacchaeus’ life was transformed.  He voluntarily committed himself to giving half of his possessions to the poor and repaying those he had cheated on their taxes four times as much as he had overcharged them.  And Jesus approved:  “Salvation has come to this house, for he, too, is a descendant of Abraham.”  Surely God was guiding all of this.

    Could God be guiding us to enter into relationships with people in our community we generally avoid, ignore, or don’t even know about?  And what could happen if we entered into those relationships as equals rather than in a patronizing, condescending way?  If the story of Zacchaeus is any indication, lives could be transformed.  And one of the lives that is transformed might be our own.  All of this would be very much in keeping with the United Methodist Church’s mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  It’s not only the world outside the church needing transformation.  We who belong to God in Jesus Christ need transformation.  The church needs it.  I need it.  And I imagine you do, too.

    So, in conclusion:

    God guides us in our daily living.

    God guides us in times of difficulty.

    God guides us in seeking his vision.

    God guides us into relationships with people we otherwise would reject.

    And ultimately, God guides us in the direction of transformation for ourselves and the world we live in.  Let us seek God’s guidance as we endeavor to live for him in this community and in the world.  Amen.

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