Fifth Sunday in Lent
Donít remember the former things, and donít consider the things of old. Behold, I will do a new thing.
I went on another wildflower adventure yesterday; this time I took out of town friends to the Hill Country. They came to San Antonio, and I wanted them to see more of Texas, so we drove through small towns, back roads and along rivers. We ate some Texas BBQ and wandered through a wildflower seed farm. We even went to Luckenbach, a tiny town in the middle of nowhere which is well known in the world of Country music. We found incredible fields of wildflowers along the way and got a taste of Texas with all of our senses.
Texas is known for its bluebonnets. These flowers are hardy but fickle. The seeds can stay dormant for years, but when the conditions are perfect, they burst forth in magnificent fields of blue that look like lakes or rivers. I went to the same routes a few weeks ago with my sister, and there were only a few flowers in bloom. I expected this to be a fantastic year because the weather has been just right, but as it turned out, we were simply early. The fields were extraordinary yesterday. The early blooms we saw a few weeks ago were the first signs of spring, and now we can hope that warmer weather is here to stay.
Bluebonnets are not the only wildflowers, but they are so beloved by Texans that they are our official state flower. We long for the day when the bluebonnets are in bloom, but then there is something in every place that indicates that the long winter is finally over. For some it is the crocus, for others the daffodil. In Washington it is the cherry blossom. I remember longing for the first lilacs to bloom on our bushes in Pennsylvania. When we see the color on the bushes and in the fields, we know something new is about to happen.
In Isaiah, we hear the promise of what is going to be. Do you not perceive it? It is like waiting for those first flowers of spring to burst forth; we wait longingly for it to happen and then when it does we can expect warmer days and green grass.
Do you remember the good old days? This question might bring up different memories for each of us. For some, it is the joy of childhood that is brought to mind. For others, it is a remembrance of a specific day or year. Some remember a decade as the good old days, others a century. They long to be there, to return to the ways of that culture and the experiences of life in that time. While it is a pleasure to remember, we canít continue to live in the past. We donít get very far on a journey if we keep turning back. We donít see the joy and peace that is coming if we spend so much time thinking about the pain of yesterday.
God did some amazing things for the Israelites. Just last week we heard of how God finally led His people into the Promised Land and helped them to begin their new life there. The first thing they did was celebrate the Passover, a remembrance of Godís deliverance of the Hebrews from the bondage of slavery in Egypt. Even today, Jews all over the world continue to remember the Passover and celebrate with special meals and ceremonies.
In todayís lesson from Isaiah, Isaiah was speaking to the exiles, assuring them that the promise still existed. God has done great things, but He is about to do even greater things. They will be set free and sent home. These words were specifically given to the exiles, but they reach far beyond the day they would return to Jerusalem. This promise is for all of creation. Through Isaiah, God told the people to forget the things that have gone before, especially the suffering they experienced. ďBehold, I will do a new thingĒ He said. He speaks of making the water flow in the desert, bringing life into the wasteland. This would be such a great thing that even the wild animals would honor God. The people will drink and proclaim praise for God, not just the exiled Jews, but all who trust in God.
The old has past and the new is coming. The psalmist sang praise to God because He delivered the people from the exile. They rejoiced as they went home, laughing and singing along the journey, giving praise to God in joy and thanksgiving. They once sowed in tears, but they returned with songs of joy. The old is set aside for something new.
Throughout the scriptures, we hear about the joy of Godís deliverance. When the Israelites made it across the Red Sea, Miriam danced. When the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Jerusalem, David danced. It is very difficult to dance in celebration and joy without laughing! Joyful laughter shows the world the condition of our hearts. Joy comes from God, and we feel the joy of our salvation when we experience His love. When we know the joy of the Lord, it is impossible not to laugh. When we do, the world sees that God has done a great thing for us.
Mary had this joy, and she showed it in the way she gave homage to Jesus. The scriptures show us that Mary repeatedly sat at His feet. In Lukeís story about Mary and Martha, Martha was busy serving, but Mary was at His feet listening. When Jesus arrived after Lazarus was dead, Mary fell at His feet to beg for mercy. In this story, Mary knelt at Jesusí feet and anointed them with a very costly perfume.
Nard, otherwise known as spikenard, is made from a plant that in that day was only grown in what is now Nepal, above 13,000 feet in the Himalayas. It was used for several purposes. First of all, it was used to anoint a bride for her wedding night. The Song of Solomon describes how seductive the fragrances are to the groom, making him desire her. Secondly, when a person was buried, the body was carefully prepared with oils and spices, then wrapped in cloth and placed in the tomb or grave. The act of pouring expensive oil on the feet of a dead loved one was an act of love. The third purpose for nard was to anoint kings. It was poured over their head to show that they are the chosen one, giving them the authority and power to lead. Other oils may have been used, but the cost of nard made it popular choice as a sign of the king's wealth. The Egyptians also used it in cosmetics to rejuvenate the skin.
Todayís Gospel lesson is a turning point for Jesus. Until now, Jesus has been doing great and wonderful things for the poor, the sick, the lame and the lonely. He fed thousands, healed the sick and cast our demons. In chapter eleven of John, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been in the tomb for four days. This was significant because they believed that the soul left the body on the third day. They had no hope of life for Lazarus, but Jesus gave them more than a promise. Jesus raised Lazarus to new life, a new life that would bring His own death.
The Jewish authorities were concerned about Jesus. He had fulfilled the expectations of the Messiah doing all they expected Him to do, but it was not a good time for change in Jerusalem. The authorities had a good working relationship with the Romans; they were in cushy jobs and quite comfortable with the way things were going for them. Jesusí preaching did not fit their expectations. The people were amazed by Jesus and the leaders were concerned about the crowds getting out of control. Jesus never indicated that He would lead a revolution, but the crowd seemed bend on rebellion. He had to be stopped but they did not know how. The crowd was still small and uncertain and they could be controlled, but they did not know how long that would last. They hoped that Jesus would say something like the other wannabe messiahs so that they would turn from him.
Unfortunately, when news of Lazarus got out, many people believed beyond doubt that Jesus was the expected Messiah. There was little chance that Heíd do something stupid, little chance that they would stop following. The Jewish authorities had to do something to stop Him. This was a turning point in their mission. It was also a turning point in Jesusí ministry, for now it was time to turn His face toward Jerusalem.
Did Mary know that she was buying this nard to anoint Jesus in His death? Nard, as most essential oils, has a very short shelf life, only three to six months. This is not a substance that anyone buys ahead to keep on hand ďjust in case.Ē It isnít something that would have been bought on sale and kept in the pantry until needed. Nard was purchased with a purpose; the purchaser expected it to be used in a short period of time.
Perhaps Mary did know. She was the one disciple who was always at His feet, listening to every word He said. She heard Him tell about His death. Without a doubt, she also knew it was the raising of Lazarus that would be the catalyst for the end. After all, it was the Jews who had been mourning with her that went to tell the Jewish authorities about the resurrection of Lazarus. He was already in danger because He threatened the status quo. He had been avoiding Jerusalem, but now He seemed set on going there, to face His enemies. Death loomed for Jesus, though none of them could have guessed the time or the day.
They were at a party; they were celebrating the new life Jesus gave to Lazarus. Mary took the jar of nard and poured it over Jesusí feet, probably an unplanned act of love for her Lord. She felt joy, but she was suffering with an unexplainable grief. The very thing for which she was rejoicing was the very thing that would send Jesus to the cross. I can almost imagine her suddenly coming up to Jesus with the nard, and without warning pouring it over His feet. Luke writes that she wept as she honored Him in this way, wiping His feet with her hair and kissing them. She did not care what others felt, did not care that it was a disgrace to let her hair down. She did not care what the oil might do to her hair, which was the most valuable thing a woman had. All that mattered was Jesus.
Judas did care. He suggested that the oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. This sounded like a good excuse. After all, until this moment, Jesus was pretty concerned about the poor. He fed them. He gave the people mercy and forgiveness. He taught the disciples compassion. They were expected to give as they had been given, to love one another sacrificially. Three hundred denarii would have fed a whole lot of people but Judas didnít really care about the poor. He simply wanted access to more money he might steal out of the common purse.
Judas was looking back, but Jesus was looking forward. It was a new day; the time had come for Godís promises to be fulfilled. The poor would be here tomorrow, and Christians are expected to feed them both in body and spirit. However, in this moment Jesus set His face toward Jerusalem where He would die for the sake of the world. Mary anointed Him not on the head like a king, but on the feet like one who is dead. She may not have known what she was doing, but she will always be remembered for seeing and acting beyond that moment.
Jesus received her extravagance and reprimanded Judas for his unbelief. The poor would still be with them tomorrow, but Jesus had little time left. Mary was giving Jesus a wonderful gift, the honor of anointing while still living so that He could see her love and humility. My mother always said, ďIf you never buy me flowers when I am alive, donít bother when I am dead. Give them to me today so I can enjoy them.Ē Mary gave Jesus the sweet fragrance of thankfulness in the days of His life so they could be savored together, rather than later in the tomb.
Paul had a great set of credentials. He had a long list of reasons why he should have been respected among his people. His credentials gave him authority; his voice was one of power and influence. He was qualified to be a leader, to speak on behalf of God about Jewish Law and practice. Paul had a great set of credentials, so great that people were willing to follow his lead in persecuting the Christians. He could easily have held his genealogy and his blamelessness above all others because he was right with God according to the Law of Moses. But, in Christ he realized that his credentials were meaningless. Instead of being someone above all others, he knew that his place in Godís kingdom made him a servant of all. He realized that he was not greater than anyone, and even suggested that of all sinners he was the greatest. He had persecuted Christís church, and thus persecuted the Savior. He knew now, in Christ, that all that he had was useless. Only in Christ is there righteousness. Paul did not look back, holding on to what was, but looked forward to what would be because of Jesus.
Paul advocated repeatedly that salvation is found in Christ and Christ alone, but also reminds us that the salvation we seek is not fully ours. We continue in the race, striving forward to the day when it will be ours. Paul, who was the Pharisee of Pharisees, Jew among Jews, never thought of himself as a Christian of all Christians. He knew he was a sinner continually in need of the Savior and called to be a humble servant for Him in this world. We might have great credentials but they never make us greater than others. God gifts us with all we need to serve Him in love and humility, joyfully showing the world the condition of our hearts and that Jesus Christ is our all in all.
The old is past and the new is coming. It came on the cross, when Jesus died for our sake. The final road to the cross begins as Jesus sets His anointed feet toward Jerusalem. The resurrection of Lazarus brought the death of Jesus. But that is not the end, for the death of Jesus brings the resurrection of us all, all those who live in faith in Jesus Christ. Like Paul, we have set aside what is behind and we too strive toward the promise, which is assured in Christ Jesus. We are new creations with a new attitude praising God with songs of joy for that which He has done on the cross and for which He is doing in our lives today.
After the long wander in the wilderness of Lent, we are waiting anxiously for this new life that he has promised. The God of Isaiah, the God of the Israelites, can do amazing things. He made a path through the Red Sea for those who left Egypt to travel as they escaped slavery and oppression. He made a path for the exiles to return home. We are slaves to our flesh but He has made a path for us to return home to Him forever. We are oppressed by the expectations of this world and by the burdens of the Law. But God is about to do a new thing. He has created a path through the sea of oppression so that we will be free. Jesus Christ is the living water that He promises, water in the wilderness that we are given to drink. Soon, very soon, just as the bluebonnets burst from the earth in joyous proclamation of Spring, we will burst with joyful praise to God along with all the hosts of heaven for the fulfillment of all His promises as we are resurrected into eternal life.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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