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How do you watch for God?
Sometimes it helps to get a fresh viewpoint. Photographer Jim Richardson was in Spain to experience the pilgrimage to El Rocio. The festivities were lively and colorful, but also a confusion of activity. As he tried to figure out how to best capture the scene, he noticed stairs up to a balcony. It turned out to be the perfect vantage point for taking pictures.
“Nothing will improve your photography faster or make you look more “creative” than a fresh viewpoint,” says National Geographic photographer Jim Richardson.
He got a fresh viewpoint from climbing the stairs. How do you get a fresh viewpoint?
We could write a book about climbing the stairs. It would be a step by step guide.
In our scripture readings today, Habakkuk climbs a tower. Zaccheus climbs a tree.
Why did Habakkuk need a fresh viewpoint?
We don’t know much about Habakkuk. He was a prophet who cried out to God. He tells us in the first part of today’s reading that he was “surrounded by people who argue and fight.” He complains, “Violence is everywhere!” He laments, “Why must I watch all this misery?”
We don’t know everything that was happening, but Habakkuk talks in his writing about the rise of the Babylonians and historians tell us that by 605 BC, about the time of Habakkuk, the Babylonian armies had conquered the Assyrians and the Egyptians, and had become the strongest world power.
Habakkuk’s words could also describe the world today. People argue and fight. Violence is everywhere. It’s hard to watch all the misery…so hard that we sometimes turn away or allow ourselves to be distracted so that we don’t have to see.
If we have the choice to turn away or avoid the suffering, we are in a position of privilege. Those who are living in the midst of poverty, racism, illness, war, and oppression don’t have a choice.
In Habakkuk’s time, the Babylonians would come and conquer Jerusalem, just as they had conquered other nations. There would be no way to escape. And it wasn’t just the Babylonians. There were also the evil kings who enslaved the people and padded their own pockets at the expense of the kingdom.
In our time, there are rulers and leaders who do the same. The news is full of reports of the war in Ukraine, and violence across the country, and around the world. In our own lives there is suffering. Sometimes we have too much going on in our own lives to have time or space for the news.
Like Habakkuk, we lament, “How long, O Lord?…” (Hab. 1:2)
Habakkuk climbs a tower to watch and listen for God to act. He says, “There I will wait to see what the Lord says and how he will answer my complaint.” (Hab. 2:1)
Habakkuk asks, “Why?” Why must we watch all this misery?” (Hab. 1:2), but God doesn’t answer the why.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas encourages us to “resist the demand for explanations for suffering. It’s just there. It can’t be explained.” He says we’re mistaken somehow if we think that Christianity is about making us “happy in a way that the reality, the complexity, of human life is denied. The sudden reality of illness. A sudden reality of broken relationship. The sudden reality of death. If those are denied, then we don’t understand why it is we so desperately need one another.”
We do need one another.
Habakkuk was probably a Levite, a priest, serving in the temple in Jerusalem. In that position, he would have a unique vantage point for seeing people’s suffering as he was helping them to bring their offerings and their sacrifices and their prayers to God. We each have a unique vantage point, too, because of where we live, where we work or go to school, because of who we are and what we do. What do we see that maybe no one else sees?
To answer Habakkuk, God says, “Look around at the nations;
look and be amazed! For I am doing something in your own day,
something you wouldn’t believe even if someone told you about it.” (Hab. 1:5)
Habakkuk climbs the tower to watch and wait, and God says, “If it seems slow in coming, wait patiently, for it will surely take place. It will not be delayed.” (Hab. 2:3)
For Habakkuk, things did change, but probably not quite the way he wanted. The Babylonians came and conquered Jerusalem.
400 years later, things changed in a different way. Jesus came. And in our gospel lesson we find someone else climbing to watch for God. Zaccheus climbs a tree so he can see over the crowd and get a look at Jesus.
Zaccheus was the chief tax collector, and therefore a rich man, but he was also short, so maybe that wasn’t the first time in his life he’d had to climb a tree in order to see. Maybe this time he also climbed the tree to be seen. Jesus sees him and calls him over and says, “I must be a guest in your house today.” (Luke 19:5)
Zaccheus quickly climbs down, and he’s excited and overjoyed that he gets to welcome Jesus into his house. But the people in the crowd think this is scandalous. They grumble, “He’s going to be the guest of a notorious sinner.”
Then Zaccheus makes a somewhat surprising statement. “I will give half my wealth to the poor, and if I have cheated people on their taxes, I will give them back four times as much.” (Luke 19:8)
If we look at that statement in several different Bible versions, we’ll find that some of them say this in the future tense, like the one we just read, and some of them say this in the past tense.
Was Zaccheus so transformed by his encounter with Jesus that he’s going to change how he does business from then on? Or was Zaccheus already giving to the poor and making restitution to those he’d cheated?
Either way, Jesus declares that, “Salvation has come to this home today, for this man has shown himself to be a true son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are lost.” (Luke 19:9-10)
Has Zaccheus just become a son of Abraham through this encounter with Jesus? Or was Zacchaeus already a man of faith, and now his true self has come to light? Was he despised because of his actions or because of people’s assumptions?
Depending on how we answer that, we get a different understanding of what Jesus means when he says he came to seek and save those who are lost. Are lost people those who don’t know Jesus? Or are they those who are outcasts from the community, outsiders who are lost to the fellowship of God’s people because they are shunned?
It might be one or the other or both.
If Zaccheus is transformed by meeting Jesus, it’s not surprising. A gracious welcome can be life changing. Zaccheus is probably used to being avoided and disliked. He may not have many friends. No wonder he’s excited. Jesus, the Son of God, wants to be his friend and stay at his house.
Whether Zaccheus was going to start giving to the poor, or had already been doing it, he had a unique vantage point for seeing who was poor and needed help. As he went out to collect taxes, he would know who was able to pay and who was struggling.
At Christmas time, our Sterling Ministerial Alliance tries to do a little extra to help those who are struggling, but we don’t know who they are nearly as well as the people at the city who collect the payments for electricity. So the Alliance gives money to the city and asks them to apply it to the accounts of the people who are struggling the most. The people at the city have a unique vantage point for seeing those needs.
Each one of us has a unique vantage point. If we are able to see someone’s suffering, maybe that’s God telling us to do something about it, whether that means to climb a tower and hold a prayer vigil until God makes something happen, or to give help out of our own resources, or to help make connections through our family and friends or coworkers, or to use our position and credibility to bring attention to the needs and help find solutions.
Or simply to welcome that person so they know they’re not alone. We may not have explanations for suffering but we do have the ability to be with one another as we go through it.
Who do you know who might need to know that you care about whatever they’re experiencing?
In the midst of our suffering, in the midst of all the violence, we need each other to help one another know that there is still love in the world, and that even though it may seem like God’s not there, God never leaves us, and we are not alone. God says, “Do not be afraid, for I am with you.” (Isaiah 41:10, 43:5, et al)
At the end of Habakkuk, the suffering continues, but Habakkuk has found comfort from crying out to God, and he says:
17 Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
and the cattle barns are empty,
18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
There’s a note at the end of the text that says, “This prayer is to be accompanied by stringed instruments.” This was Habakkuk’s song of praise to God.
Zaccheus didn’t leave us a song, but if he had, maybe it would have been similar to Habakkuk’s.
- Even though the people hate me and they call me a notorious sinner,
- Even though I have more money than I need and it brings me no love,
- Yet I will rejoice in the Lord and be joyful in the God of my salvation!
All of us can sing for joy to the God of our salvation, and be the ones who help others to sing along.
 Jim Richardson, “A Point of View,” National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.com/photography/article/creative-point-of-views-richardson
 Life Application Bible, NLT Large Print Edition, pg. 1923.
 Everything Happens Podcast with Kate Bowler, Season 9, Episode 8, accessed October 27, 2022. https://katebowler.com/podcasts/more-life-fewer-explanations-2/#transcript