Preaching: Pastor Rebecca Henry
Date Presented: Sunday, April 2, 2017
Scripture Reference: Luke 19:1-10
Sermon: Give Up Something Bad for Lent – Bad Habits
Among the many stories that James Moore tells in his book, Give Up Something Bad for Lent, is that of a young family. The husband and wife became angry over something that happened at their church, and so they left. They didn’t look for another church, but instead stayed at home year after year, complaining about the church. Several years later they decided it was time to go back to church it was what they needed and what was missing in their lives. Only what they weren’t expecting was all the resistance from their children; they had nothing good to say about going to church because they had heard nothing but bad things for years.
This story is a powerful reminder to us that people are watching and listening to us. In other words, how we live, what we say conveys a powerful message about the church, about Jesus. Our behaviors do indeed influence others, sometimes positively and sometimes negatively.
We all have bad habits and this Lent we have spent time reflecting on how to let some of them go so that we can change and grow to be more like Jesus. Only the truth is we all have far more bad habits than we could begin to address individually, and so today we change our focus to be more general, to think about the things we can do to give up any bad habit that keeps getting in our way of having a strong and healthy relationship with God and in our witness to others.
Today in our scripture reading we heard the family story of Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus had a few bad habits. We are told early on that Zacchaeus was a tax collector. This was an important and valuable job in the Roman Empire because only 2-3% of the population had authority over everyone else which meant they got to determine how everyone lived. Not surprisingly, that meant controlling how much money everyone could have. One of the primary ways that the elite controlled wealth was by collecting taxes on everyday needs like housing, clothing, food and roads. Even the things that peasants and artisans would produce was heavily taxed. In the end most of the population lost 20-50% of their income to taxes which ultimately supported the lifestyles of the elite while they lived in poverty.
But not Zacchaeus. He was a tax collector, a chief tax collector in fact, and this tells us a lot about him and his bad habits. He chose to turn away from his neighbors and his Jewish community and instead work to be rich. The fact that he was described as being “rich” not only tells us Zacchaeus had money, but he was in a position of power in which he could take from others. So we know some of his bad habits were greed, selfishness, taking advantage of others.
Only something happened that day that Zacchaeus was able to give up his bad habits and choose instead a better relationship with God and his community. First, Zacchaeus recognized his bad habits and he was ready to name them, to face them head on. He was ready to have that honest conversation with Jesus so that when Jesus asked to spend the day with Zacchaeus, he said yes. Luke tells us that in that conversation Zacchaeus acknowledged he had indeed cheated others rather than simply saying it was his job.
That’s the thing with bad habits – we are really good at rationalizing them so that we don’t recognize them. We say our gossip is a way of informing others. We say we can’t tithe because we have bills to pay rather than looking at what we are spending money on. Our temper flairs too quickly and we convince ourselves that is just the way we are. Only the danger with rationalizing is it makes our bad habit acceptable, and soon it isn’t just something we do on occasion but it truly becomes a habit.
One can imagine that is what happened to Zacchaeus. The first time he collected “extra” it was just to help him get out of debt. Only then maybe he really needed something, and what would it matter if he charged more, just one more time? And soon it became a common practice because all the tax collectors were doing it. Until that day when Zacchaeus met Jesus and he named what he was doing. If we want to give up a bad habit we have to recognize it, name it.
Then we can choose to stop it. It is clear that Zacchaeus has made his mind up to stop cheating others, and we can do the same with our bad habits. It is a choice. We can choose to tell the truth or a lie. We choose if we are going to read and study or watch TV or play video games. We choose if we will eat potato chips instead of carrots or raisins. And sometimes we choose the bad habit over and over again, and the only way we can give it up is the same way it became a habit . . . making a choice. We have to choose to stop the bad habit.
Third, as we have discussed before, we have to follow Zacchaeus’ example to replace our bad habit with a good habit. In verse 8 we hear Zacchaeus say he will not only stop cheating people, but he will pay back four times as much as he took. In that moment Zacchaeus replaces his bad habit of greed with generosity. Indeed it is a lot easier to stop a bad habit when there is a good alternative instead. Just look at McDonalds or other fast food changes. They recognized that people were trying to get rid of the bad habit of eating junk food so rather than lose business they started offering healthier options that people could choose: grilled chicken, yogurt, tangerines. As parents we have done the same in encouraging our children to not choose pop as their main beverage, but of offering other options like milk or water. It’s a lot easier to stop a bad habit when there are other good options to choose instead.
Finally, when we look to give up a bad habit we can’t forget to ask for God’s help. I don’t think it is any coincidence that this was the day Zacchaeus gave up his bad habit. I would imagine he had been pondering it, maybe even had tried it for some time, but that day he had the help of Jesus. Jesus himself said, “Salvation has come to this house today. . . I have come to seek and to save the lost,” (Luke 19:9-10). Giving up bad habits is hard work, but we don’t have to do it alone. We can’t do it alone. We need the strength, the help of Jesus.
A friend of mine told me the story of a father and son. As they were walking along the road they came across a large stone. They boy said to his father, “Do you think if I use all my strength I can move this rock?” His dad answered, “If you use all your strength I am sure you can do it.” The boy began to push the rock. He pushed and he pushed with everything he had, but the rock did not move. Discouraged, he turned to his dad and said, “You were wrong; I can’t do it.” The father placed his arm around his son and said, “No, son, you didn’t use all your strength – you didn’t ask me to help.”
Whatever rock is in front of you, whatever bad habit you have, you may not be able to move it on your own, but Christ will help you give it up. That is why coming here, to the Lord’s Table, is so important. Not only do we come here recognizing what we have to give up in our life, what we have to change, but we come choosing Christ instead. We come knowing that there is nothing, no one, more significant, better for us than Jesus. Only we also know that we need Christ’s help to live a new life, to let go of our past, and so we come. We come to invite Christ into our lives, to receive Christ’s help and let go of our bad habits.