Little Johnny’s mom was working in the kitchen, listening to her young son play with his new electric train in the living room that his father had purchased for his birthday. Mom heard the train stop, and Little Johnny said, “All of you sons of guns who want off, get the heck off now, ’cause this is the last stop! And all of you sons of guns who are getting on, get your behinds in the train ’cause we’re going down the tracks.”
Mom was shocked. “Johnny! We don’t use that kind of language in this house. Now I want you to go to your room and stay there for two hours. You may play with your train when you come out, but I want you to use nice language.”
Two hours later, Little Johnny came out of the bedroom and resumed playing with his train. Soon the train stopped, and mom heard Johnny say, “All passengers who are disembarking from the train, please remember to take all your belongings with you. We thank you for riding with us today and hope your trip was a pleasant one. We hope you will ride with us again soon.” Johnny continues, “For those just boarding, we ask you to stow all your hand luggage under your seat. Remember, there is no smoking on the train. We hope you will have a pleasant and relaxing journey with us today.”
As mom smiled, Johnny added, “For those who are annoyed about the two-hour delay, please see the bossy lady in the kitchen.”
I traveled back and forth to seminary by train: The Empire Builder along the high line, but more recently, my travels have all been by plane, and perhaps, because I don’t travel all that much, I don’t mind the delays. I’ll find a quiet place to read or watch the people, but the delay greatly annoys others. Folks get angry at the airlines, short-tempered with the stewardess, and cranky with traveling companions. If airlines were the only place we encountered delays, I suppose most wouldn’t care, but as we all know, delays are everywhere. Traffic. Doctors office. Rain delays at sporting events. That’s just a few. We see the delay as an infuriating inconvenience and a personal attack on our happiness. But what if we saw this time—not as wasted or an annoyance—but as a blessing? An opportunity?
Zaccheus was a wee, little man, And a wee, little man was he.
He climbed up in a sycamore tree, For the Lord he wanted to see.
“Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through it. A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich.”
At the time of Jesus, Jericho was a significant city. As the Scripture says, Zacchaeus lived there, was a tax collector and was wealthy; therefore, Zacchaeus was a busy little man in a busy little city. And into his busy little life comes Jesus. There is a moment when he thinks he would like to stop and see this Jesus, yet Zacchaeus is on his way to pay a visit to a certain wealthy merchant who owes big, and he can’t afford to waste any time along the way. So instead of stopping, Zacchaeus pushes his way through the crowded street, grumbling over the rabble in his way and angry at this itinerant preacher for the inconvenience he is causing. Finally making his way through the crowd, he finds the wealthy merchant and begins haranguing him for an extra one percent because Zacchaeus just bought a winter home down in the Sinai that needs a new roof.
Meanwhile, Jesus passes on to Jerusalem, and salvation never comes to that wee little man, and he dies wealthy in his winter home in the Sinai, but alone and hated by all. There was a moment when life could have changed so dramatically for him, but he could not be delayed. He was so worried about everything else that he missed the moment altogether.
A moment changes everything, but unless you are willing to take that moment and to allow it to change you and the course of your life, it is nothing more than a bit of smoke on a breeze. We most likely miss those moments, not by intentionally brushing them away, but by being so trapped in the past or worried by the future that we don’t even see them in the now.
Blaise Pascal writes, “Let each one examine his thoughts, and he will find them all occupied with the past and the future. We scarcely ever think of the present, and if we think of it, it is only to take light from it to arrange the future. The present is never our end. So we never live, but we hope to live; and, as we are always preparing to be happy, it is inevitable we should never be so.” Why do we not live in the present? Pascal answers: “The present is generally painful to us. We conceal it from our sight, because it troubles us; and if it be delightful to us, we regret to see it pass away.”
We are nearing the end of the church year, which means we will begin the Season of Advent soon. That is the season when we consider Jesus’ first coming—the past—and when we look ahead to the future, anticipating his second coming. It seems that we, as a Christian people, are falling into Pascal’s mistake, being occupied with the past and the future and completely disregarding the present. However, that is not the message of Jesus. A few chapters before our Gospel reading today, we read of an encounter Jesus had with the Pharisees: “Once Jesus was asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God was coming, and he answered, ‘The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you… the kingdom of God is within you.’” What does that mean? Jesus came once, and he will come again, but “the kingdom of God is among you” clearly says that the kingdom of God is now, in this very moment. Jesus ushered it in at his first coming, and he will bring it to its eternal and glorious fruition when he comes again, but it is also now. Jesus said, “I am with you always—I am with you now!—even to the end of the age.”
Yes, I do know that sometimes the present moment can be unpleasant, it can be painful, and full of trials, but I also know that God is present even then and that those times contain something good.
A university professor tells of being invited to speak at a military base in the month of December, and while there meets an unforgettable soldier named Ralph. Ralph had been sent to meet him at the airport, and after they had introduced themselves, they headed toward the baggage claim. As they walked down the concourse, Ralph kept disappearing—once to help an older woman whose suitcase had fallen open, once to lift two toddlers up to where they could see Santa Claus, and again to give directions to someone who was lost. Each time he came back with a big smile on his face. “Where did you learn to do that?” The professor asked. “Do what?” Ralph responded. “To be so helpful and considerate to others.” “Oh,” Ralph said, “during the war, I guess.” Then he told the professor about his tour of duty in Vietnam, how it was his job to clear minefields, and how he watched his friends blow up before his eyes, one after another. “I learned to live between steps,” he said. “I never knew whether the next one would be my last, so I learned to get everything I could out of the moment between when I picked up my foot and when I put it down again. Every step I took was a whole new world, and I guess I’ve just been that way ever since.”
Don’t fret over the delays. The Kingdom of God is now. Jesus is coming your way; he may even be sitting in the pew across from you or be your waiter at lunch. It is possible that you will see him in the face of an enemy or a stranger. In all of these instances, it is as though Jesus were saying to Zacchaeus, “Hurry and come down, for I must stay at your house today.” Live between the steps, recognize the gifts and blessings of God that are right here, and be happy to welcome Jesus into your life in all the many forms that he makes his presence known in every moment.
Let us pray:
Most Loving Father, we spend so much time reliving yesterday
or anticipating tomorrow
that we lose sight of the only time that is really ours,
the present moment.
You give today one moment at a time.
That is all we have,
all we ever will have.
Give us the faith which knows that each moment
contains exactly what is best for us.
Give us the hope which trusts You enough
to forget past failings and future trials.
Give us the love which makes each moment
an anticipation of eternity with You.
We ask this in the name of Jesus
Who is the same yesterday, today and forever.
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