Sermon: Because God So Loves to Forgive

10.30.2016         Preaching Text: “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.’” (Luke 19:8)

This week the lectionary readings continue Luke’s highlighting of various and altogether unlikely candidates for “righteousness,” i.e. those “in right relationship with God.”

Last week Luke showcased Jesus’ parable of the tax collector who, though a social outcast and known sinner, goes home “justified” rather than the Pharisee, whom Jesus’ contemporaries would have assumed to be the more obvious candidate for “sainthood.” This parable, together with today’s lesson about another tax collector, Zacchaeus, would have been nothing short of scandalous to Jesus’ original hearers.

As we discussed last Sunday, this is because Jesus is addressing not so much the obvious sins from which we all should abstain but the often hidden and thus more insidious sins having to do with pride, sins to which we the religiously and morally upstanding are far more prone.

In both cases the two tax collectors are contrasted favorably with the upright religionists for the simple reason that the former admit their faults, something religionists aren’t always willing to do. Why? Again, the sin of hidden pride.

But there’s something else at work in today’s story about Zacchaeus. Like the tax collector last week, Zacchaeus also repents, seeking God’s mercy and forgiveness. But Zacchaeus does something more.

Not only does Zacchaeus repent earnestly and from the heart, but he volunteers to give half his possessions to the poor. “And if I have defrauded anyone of anything,” he says, “I will pay back four times as much.”

There’s a tongue-in-cheek aphorism I often use in Bible Study, in the pulpit, and elsewhere. It says, “I love to sin because God so loves to forgive.”

Immediately we get the joke. It’s not enough simply to ask and receive forgiveness. We must also resolve to change our behavior, to stop offending.

If I were to come up to you and kick you in the shins, you’d be upset. But if I then came to you and offered my sincerest apologies and sought your forgiveness, you very well might accept both.

But if, the next day, I come up to you and kick you again, and then later, feeling remorse, ask once again for your forgiveness, you very well might react differently!

Now suppose I kept doing this over and over. After a very short while I’d be willing to bet you’d completely ignore my pleas for forgiveness.

It’s not enough to say you’re sorry while continuing to act as before. It’s not enough for Zacchaeus to seek Jesus out and earnestly repent. Zacchaeus is also obliged to change his ways, to stop sinning!

One of the main themes of Dietrich Bonnhoeffer’s writings was his objection to “cheap grace.” Like my earlier tongue-in-cheek adage, cheap grace luxuriates in forgiveness but fails in the harder task of building on that grace. Grace requires a response.

We often think of God in warm and fuzzy terms. This is not entirely false since God is, after all, our Holy Parent who loves us unconditionally.

As with our own children, there’s virtually nothing they could do that would make us stop loving them. Just ask my mother! But that does not mean parents bear no concern for the way their children choose to live.

My father once described my two older brothers this way: Chris, the oldest, when told to do something, would argue and complain but then do it.

Bob, on the other hand, would invariably smile and say “sure” but would do nothing. Whose behavior, would you say, pleased my father most?

In biblical theology, there are two basic kinds of sin. The one kind has to do with those sins we commit, big or small, for which we are sorry.

The second has to do with habitual sin, sins that have become a way of life. It is this type of sin about which our biblical faith is far more concerned.

In what is perhaps, for me, the most profound passage in the entire Bible, Paul, in his Letter to the Romans, lays bare his personal struggle with sin.

“For we know that the law is spiritual;” he confesses in chapter 7, verse 14, “but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.”

“I do not understand my own actions,” he continues, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

With this brutally honest admission of guilt, Paul is saying several things. For one, he betrays the opposite of pride. He’s a sinner. He harbors no illusions about himself or the effects of sin. He realizes that, this side of heaven, moral and spiritual perfection is impossible.

And yet he doesn’t excuse it. He earnestly seeks God’s unmerited mercy and forgiveness, an admission that reveals an unqualified humility.

He thanks God alone for his salvation. Any claim to righteousness he ascribes solely to God and not to his works, though impressive.

Here Paul underscores the paradox of Christian faith. Though we are all sinners, we nonetheless strive to obey Christ’s law of love. And when we fall short, as surely we will, we find comfort in knowing God’s mercy shall have the final word.

As Christians we know it’s not enough to receive God’s mercy, as with Bonhoeffer’s cheap grace. We also must admit we cannot perfect ourselves, or achieve our own sense of righteousness by works, as with the Pharisees.

Thus Zacchaeus, like Paul, has it right. In order to experience the fullness of God’s grace we first must eschew pride, humbly admitting our shortcomings, while simultaneously resolving to live as honorably as we can, knowing that God’s grace is not premised on perfection.

This Tuesday, November 1, the Christian church celebrates All Saints Day, a day to remember and honor the saints of the church, those ordinary, flesh and blood pilgrims who have served Christ and his church throughout the ages.

In honoring them, we do not presume their moral and spiritual perfection, only their resolve to live faithful, righteous lives in the context of God’s mercy and grace. Amen.