God Always Comes Down

Today’s scripture readings:
Isaiah 1:10-18
Psalm 32:1-7
2 Thessalonians 1:1-4, 11-12
Luke 19:1-10

This past Wednesday night, I was the pastor who got to meet with our ninth- and tenth-grade confirmation students to teach a brief lesson before sending them into conversations with their mentors. This year, the ninth- and tenth-graders are learning about Martin Luther’s legacy and our legacy as reformers. The topic this past Wednesday? The Theology of the Cross. It’s a pretty heavy-duty topic. The Theology of the Cross is probably one of Martin Luther’s most significant theological insights. I had ten minutes to talk about it.

I began by asking the confirmands, “How would you know if someone has been blessed by God?” How would you answer that question? On one side, there are those who espouse a prosperity gospel, who say that wealth and success are signs of God’s blessing. If I’m doing well, God must be happy with me. If I’m struggling, God must be mad at me. On the other side are Lutherans, among others. Lutherans would say it doesn’t work like that at all. If you really want to know where God is, you have to look to the cross. God is most powerfully present where people are suffering. The God who became human in Jesus and died on the cross is a God who comes alongside all those who suffer. The cross is not a symbol of godforsakenness but of divine compassion and solidarity. That, in a nutshell, is the theology of the cross.

Lutherans would say that that other way of thinking makes it all about us. If I’m doing well, God must be happy with me. I must have done something to earn God’s blessing. If I’m struggling, I must have done something wrong. I must not be doing enough to find favor with God. But Lutherans reject that way of thinking. We’ve had it drilled into our heads that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works. Salvation is a free gift of God, not something we could ever earn.

Kelly Fryer, a Lutheran pastor turned leadership coach, wrote a fantastic little book several years ago called Reclaiming the “L” Word, in which she makes the case that Lutherans have something important to offer the world. At the heart of what it means to be a Lutheran, she says, is grace. What is grace? Kelly talks about a time in seminary when one of her professors drew a giant down arrow on the chalkboard. He said, “If you understand this, then you’ll understand everything you need to know about what it means to be a Christian who is also a Lutheran.” Kelly says the whole class just sat staring at that big down arrow for a long time, feeling a little stumped; she says the only thing she could think was, “He thinks we’re all going to hell.” But eventually, the professor offered an explanation:

God always comes down. God always comes down. There is never anything that we can do to turn that arrow around and make our way UP to God. God came down in Jesus. And God still comes down, in the bread and in the wine, in the water and in the fellowship of believers. God ALWAYS comes down…. God comes down to set us free from every single thing that binds us and burdens us and holds us back from being the people we have been created and called to be. God comes down to set us free from sin and death and the power of evil. God comes down to set us free to love and to laugh and to learn and to give ourselves away.

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It’s not lost on me that Zacchaeus climbed up into a tree only to be scolded by Jesus and told to come down. Scripture tells us that he climbed up into a tree because he was “short in stature”—a “wee little man,” according to the song we all learned in Sunday School. But it may be that Zacchaeus wasn’t short at all; the Greek text is actually a little ambiguous. The Greek word used here for “stature” can also refer to “maturity” or “character.” Maybe we’re supposed to understand that Zacchaeus was short on integrity, which you’d probably have to be if you were going to be a tax collector. Pastor Bradley explained last week that tax collectors could take as much money from people as they wanted as long as they sent Rome the required amount. They were part of a Roman imperial system that transferred wealth from the imperial subjects to those who held power. Zacchaeus’s livelihood depended on his ability to cheat people of money that was rightfully theirs.

You’d think he would be shunned—and he probably was. He must have been just about the least popular person in town. Nevertheless, Jesus seeks him out and invites him into a relationship. He says to Zacchaeus, “Get down from the tree. Come down to earth. Climbing up to see me? That’s not how this works. Get down; I’m coming to you. In fact, we’re going to your house. If we’re really going to see each other, we’ll need to be down here together on the same level. Let’s face the reality of who you are and let me tell you why I love you anyway.”

Did you notice that it’s only after being drawn into relationship with Jesus, after Zacchaeus has come down to Jesus, that his behavior changes? It’s after his time together with Jesus that Zacchaeus commits to repairing the wrong he has done and giving his excess wealth to the poor. Zacchaeus doesn’t do anything to earn a little bit of face time with Jesus. Instead, Jesus seeks him out. God’s love, freely given, comes first, and that is what softens his own heart and frees him to be more loving toward others.

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Our confirmands are relieved that we don’t make them memorize Luther’s Small Catechism. But I know some of you still know it by heart. Do you remember what Martin Luther says in his explanation of the Third Article of the Creed? He writes, “I believe that by my own understanding or strength I cannot believe in Jesus Christ my Lord or come to him, but instead the Holy Spirit has called me through the Gospel, enlightened me with God’s gifts, made me holy and kept me in the true faith….” In other words, we don’t come to God; God comes to us. Not because we’ve earned it or deserve it, but only because it is God’s will to find all who are lost and offer salvation.

Biblical scholar Alan Culpepper says that “in an era of overwhelming problems, [we] can read the story of Zacchaeus as a potent antidote to pessimism…. When even one person is offered forgiveness, hears a word of affirmation, clings to hope that life can be different, or resolves to live by a new set of values in the future, there the kingdom of God is at work.” So often we think we know who people are and convince ourselves they could never change. Or we begin to believe we could never change, that all hope is lost. But we should be prepared for God to show up, seek us out, and call us down to earth and into relationship. And the very best part? It’s not up to us. This is the good work of a loving God who always comes down.


Resources consulted:

R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).

Kelly A. Fryer, Reclaiming the “L” Word: Renewing the Church from Its Lutheran Core, (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2003).

Peter Marty, “Climbing Down: What Zacchaeus Can Teach Us,” on Day1.org, published October 11, 2011, accessed October 28, 2022, https://day1.org/articles/5d9b820ef71918cdf2002f53/dr_peter_marty_climbing_down_what_zacchaeus_can_teach_us.


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