Jeremiah 31:31-34 31The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. 32It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. 33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.
1God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
2Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns.
6The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
8Come, behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations he has brought on the earth.
9He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow, and shatters the spear; he burns the shields with fire.
10“Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.”
11The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah
Romans 3:19-28 19Now we know that whatever the law says, it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20For “no human being will be justified in his sight” by deeds prescribed by the law, for through the law comes the knowledge of sin. 21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; 26it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus. 27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
Luke 19:1-10 Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Good morning, St. Matthew. We gather on this morning in Itasca on the unceded tribal lands of the Kickapoo, Peoria, Ka-skas-kia, Potawatomi, Mya-a-mia, HoChunk, Winnebago and O-che-thi Sakowin nations, acknowledging that hard past and praying our way into a better future.
And so we pray.
Holy Lord, we were created to walk with you in the garden, to talk and discern, to share our delights and sorrows, to be in deep and close relationship with you. Yet when we broke that bond, we ended the ease of that conversation. We shattered our understanding and fragmented your meaning. Yet you always, always come and speak to us in whatever language we have invented with your Word of life and grace. Today as we remember the efforts of Martin Luther to bring that word of life into a language we could better understand, we ask that you lead us to seek the best paths of communication – speaking the language of grace and love for which you created us. In your holy name we pray Amen.
In getting ready for this week’s sermon, I am delighted to say that one of the key openers of the texts for me, was our own Adrea Pohlman Kulik. In this month’s Living Lutheran, of which she is the editor, she made me aware that this year 2022 is the 500th anniversary of Luther finishing and publishing his great work of bringing the Greek, Aramaic, Latin New Testament into the German of his day. Now in this day of so many instant translation apps, we might miss why this was such an amazing thing – but part of being able to say that Jesus comes to each of us is being able to believe that Jesus is able to talk to us. Imagine there being a time when you would go to church and not understand a single word being spoken to you. Did you know that the “magical” expression “hocus-pocus” comes from misunderstanding the Latin mass? When the priest would hold up the bread for consecration, he would intone “Corpus Christi” which is the Latin for “Body of Christ”. The vast majority of folks in the pews knew no Latin, but they knew something was happening to the bread, so they mushed it around. Then when they wanted to indicate something was changing – they’d say hocus pocus to shorthand the words of change. Having no understanding of the language, they had little appreciation for the faithful action. Luther saw this as a breakdown of faith – he wanted so much for the people to behold the miracle of faith that he could not bear to think they had no way to comprehend it. And so, he brought the words of faith to the people in a language they could understand.
Language is often such a barrier; we use words to communicate certainly, but we also use words to build walls and lock each other out. And many in leadership get pretty selfish about their learning, and they try to keep it locked up, away from the hoi poloi. One of the primary things we have to remember about Luther was that he was hoi as the poloi come! There were many times he absolutely revelled in that; I won’t quote some of his more colourful words from the pulpit, but if you check him out on your own, you’ll find that he made a lot of poo and fart jokes that seem designed to poke pins into his more learned colleagues’ scholarly bubbles. Because he was part of the newly emerging middle class, he had a foot in both camps – he could speak to those scholars with knowledge and depth, but he also saw the common folk as his folk. He knew the language of the streets, the shorthand of the bar, the nuance of the poor. So hocus pocus wasn’t a moment for him to scoff at those who didn’t know any better, but to be really angry at the leaders for not making it clear what was going on.
All of our lessons this morning – each and every one of them – is spoken to you in a language that you can understand. And if you don’t? You can thank Luther and the Reformers for their fierce dedication to make sure that you could ask the question – Hey! WHAT DOES THIS MEAN? You and I no longer accept hocus pocus – we pull out books, do Google searches, ask the questions and believe that we will get the answers – and even more, believe that we are entitled to get the answers – and in that, the Reformation utterly succeeded. We all believe that the Word of God is not meant to be locked away but to brought into our lives in ways that are meaningful and impactful.
There will always be those who think that God’s word is meant to be exclusive and elusive, that you need a secret decoder ring to be in with the in crowd – but because we can read the Bible, we can hear the prophet Jeremiah contradict that in today’s lesson:
33But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. 34No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord.”
When we walked in Eden, God’s plan was always to be in conversation with us – and God never changed that plan! It is we who corrupted that equation. We who played games with words, who selectively listened, who became legalistic. God has always dealt with us in grace and love. Grace and love are not about the letter of the law – they are about the restoration of relationship. The whole of the Romans lesson today is about that restored relationship, and that is the message Luther was so desperate for the faithful to hear. Leaders love law – it gives power to the sheriff if they can tell you stay in line or else! But God works in grace and forgiveness. Paul writes:
21But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, 22the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, 23since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; 24they are now justified by God’s grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. … 27Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. 28For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.
And that is what drove Luther – to make sure that the average person understands that the sheriff doesn’t save you, THE LORD saves you! In law, we are stuck with the hocus pocus magic of legalism. In grace, the living Spirit meets us in the living Word through which we encounter the living God and begin a relationship.
And all that falls into the example of the Gospel today. In the law, Zaccheaus was lost. It wasn’t that he had broken any rules per se – by the lights of his day, he had done exactly what he was supposed to do. Serve Rome, be a good citizen, make his money. But none of that was actually life giving. And the Jewish leaders, keepers of the faithful law, made very sure he knew he wasn’t winning any points in their righteous books. So his success didn’t feel at all like a win. Add to that that he was the kind of short that would always be commented on, and poor old Zaccheaus was a true outcast. I have always been the shortest person in my class and so when the Sunday School song taught us that “Zaccheaus was a very little man” – I was hooked. He was my hero – a guy who understood that you had to stand on things, climb things, push to the front of the crowd if you wanted to see anything. Even in his wealth and power, he was still stuck being “a little man”. And he is so anxious to have this encounter with Jesus, that he is willing to climb a tree to see the Lord in person. Imagine – for all his power and prestige – he was scrambling up a tree, scuffing his fine sandals and probably tearing his fine robes. He would have looked like a fool.
And just when I am sure, he was beginning to feel the weight of all this foolishness, when he is about to lose hope that he can reach the salvation he had hoped to find, the living Lord comes to him! “Zaccheaus! Come down! For I’m going to your house today.” This overwhelming joy, this sought for but wholly undeserved grace has swamped into his life – and that is the story that God wants to tell us, that’s the reason the Bible in our hands, in our language is so powerful; we can hear the Lord calling us down in words that we comprehend to come and join in the feast. It’s a direct invitation – not mitigated through leaders or law or church or steeple. This grace flows directly from God’s heart to ours; the flow doesn’t go the other way; we are receivers of grace, not the ones who summon it. And when we open ourselves up to the story, as Zaccheaus did – we will be called into it and made part of it.
So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Today salvation has come to this house, grace has come to invite and call us. How will we respond? Will we worry about our dignity or climb the tree? Will we worry about the letter of the law or enter into the story and let it flow through us? The Reformation was 500 years ago – what will we let go of and leave in the past in order to speak the truth to those who need to hear it today?