24 - Zaccheus Sunday, February 17, 2013

I Timothy 4:9-15

Luke 19:1-10

The Sunday of Zaccheus announces that the shores of Great Lent have been sighted just over the horizon. Zaccheus lived in Jericho. I have been noticing that many of the Gospel stories happen around the city of Jericho. It makes me wonder if Jericho holds some deeper significance for the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and if we should consider if there is any biblical significance to the fact that Zaccheus lived in Jericho.

There is this from the book of Numbers: “And the LORD said to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, ‘Say to the people of Israel, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan: You shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you, and destroy all their molten images, and demolish all their high places; and you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it.’” (Num 33:50-53)

Now, the Promised Land is a type or icon of the Garden of Eden, which, in turn is an icon of the temple of the Lord, and ultimately of the human soul.

Jericho stands on the border of the Land of Promise. So, I think we can say that Jericho is an icon of the body, because the body opens onto the soul as Jericho opens onto the land of Canaan. The body, the Scriptures tell us, is meant to be the temple of God. It is not to be defiled; it is to be kept holy and blameless because God desires to “abide” in the body. Listen to St Paul: “Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? If anyone defiles (or destroys) God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are.” (I Cor 3:16)

These words of St Paul recall, for me, the word of the Lord given to Moses as Moses stood in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho: “If you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as pricks in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. And I will do to you as I thought to do to them." (Num 33:55-56)

I see these passages that I have drawn from the pages of the bible as part of the biblical witness to a deeper history than the history we read about in the schools: it is the history of God working to sanctify the temple of the human body and to purify the temple of the human heart – to clear it of idols (not just the idols of molten images but the more subtle idols that we worship, such as the idols of the lusts  of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life) and to cleanse our bodies and our hearts of all the impurities that follow from our idolatry – so that He can become flesh and “pitch His tent” among us (Jn 1:4).

This “deeper” history begins with the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden. They had become, in effect, idolaters when they turned away in disobedience from the commandment of God that would have given them life and followed after the lies of the serpent. God then seeks to destroy all of mankind, to cleanse the earth of man, because he saw that “the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5) But, he saved the righteous Noah and those who were with him in the ark, and set out to prepare for Himself a holy nation from Noah’s seed, a nation of priests. This was the nation of Israel from whom would come the Panagia, the All Pure Virgin, the Blessed Mother of God. But when Israel took possession of the Promised Land, like Adam and Eve they listened to the serpent and went after the gods, the dark spirits who dwelt in the idols of the Canaanites. And so, Israel was expelled from the land as Adam and Eve had been expelled from Eden: first, the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell to the Assyrians and her citizens were deported; and then the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians and the Jews were scattered.

God allowed a remnant to return to Jerusalem and to the Promised Land. During this time, there were many righteous souls, sons and daughters of Abraham: for example, Simeon the God-receiver, the prophetess Anna, Joachim and Anna, Zechariah and Elizabeth, for example, John the Baptist, the righteous Joseph, the Blessed Virgin. But, the chief elders and religious leaders of the people showed that their Father was not the God of Moses but the serpent, the father of lies and a murderer from the beginning, when they crucified Jesus, the Son of God who came to them in the flesh, born of the blessed Virgin. I wonder if the Lord’s cleansing of the temple, when He threw out the money-changers, wasn’t His penultimate cleansing of the “Promised Land”, that is to say, the temple in Jerusalem. He was throwing out the idols of money and those who worshipped money. “My house is a house of prayer,” He cried, “but you have made it into a den of thieves and robbers.” I think He was saying, in effect: “You have filled my temple with idols, just as your fathers did. You are thieves; you have stolen the worship meant for the living God and given it to the idols, the gods of greed and power.”

The Lord’s final cleansing of the Promised Land, the temple of the human body and the sanctuary of the human heart, then, was His death on the Cross. Then, the curtains of the temple were rent in two, as the heavens had been opened at His baptism. Then, the heart of man, the sanctuary of the temple of the body, was opened onto the heavens where God dwells, and in Christ, the human body became the dwelling place, the temple of God, and the human heart became the sanctuary where the glory of God now “abides” in the God-Man Jesus Christ.

Against this biblical backdrop, when the Lord calls out to Zaccheus, Come down, for today, I must “abide” in your house, I hear the same call He gave to Adam and Eve, and then to Abraham, and then to Israel, and finally to all mankind: “Today, l who am the Resurrection and the Life must enter your body and make your soul that is dead in its trespasses, its idolatry, alive and holy and blameless so that I may dwell in you and you in Me.” And when Zaccheus stands up and says, “I give half of all my goods to the poor and if I have defrauded anyone, I will restore them fourfold,” I see him standing with Joshua and saying, “Today, I and my house will serve the Lord. Today, I cast out all the idols and their abominable practices from the house of my body, so that the Lord may abide in me and I in Him.”

This, that is to say, is the call of Great Lent. This morning’s Gospel is calling out to us to take possession of our body, our soul and mind, as Israel was called to take possession of the land, and to cast out the idols, the dark gods of this world that we have given ourselves to, from the temple of our body and the sanctuary of our heart, to become poor in the world and the things of the world that we may become rich in the life and glory of Christ our God. Cleansing ourselves in the work of faith from the riches of the world, from the riches of lust and greed, conceit and pride – this is how we become true sons and daughters of Abraham. The Lord of Glory comes to dwell in us as in His holy temple, and we become holy and blameless, a dwelling place worthy of the Glory of the Lord.

This joy and this hope of become members of Christ’s body, living stones of the Holy Temple of His crucified and risen body, this is the destination of our Lenten journey for which we now begin to prepare. I pray we take this joy that is given to us in this glorious vision of hope to heart, and that it will raise up in us a resolve to take possession of our bodies and to cast out the idols, to deny ourselves and take up our cross and to follow Christ, to lose our life for His sake so that it is no longer we who live but Christ who lives in us, Christ who is the love of God, Christ who first loved us, Christ who took the sins of our idolatry upon Himself and suffered and died for our sins, so that we would not be destroyed but that we might have eternal life, if only we would take possession of the land and become a holy temple in whom God loves to dwell. Amen. Most holy Theotokos, save us! Glory to Jesus Christ!