Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.

As we near Holy Week, it is good to remember that the events leading up to the crucifixion were incredibly important to the Jews. The people in Jerusalem that week were there to celebrate the Passover. They were looking back to the incredible things that God did for them, when He delivered them out of Egypt. He parted the waters of the Red Sea. He destroyed the army of Pharaoh. He stopped the waters of the Jordan. He brought down the walls of Jericho. He defeated all the people that stood in the way of the Israelites taking the Promised Land for their own. These miraculous acts are certainly reason for the people to praise God and to continue to praise Him from holy day to holy day.

There is purpose to our celebration of God’s great deeds. First of all, these holy days offer us the opportunity to be willingly and willfully thankful for what God has done. Though the Exodus from Egypt was an event for a generation that lived long ago, the deliverance of Israel benefitted all those who would follow. There would be no story, no bible, no Son to follow. Our life and history began in those days. But there is a more important reason to rejoice: for it is in our joy that the world sees God’s goodness. God blesses His people so that they will be a blessing, and that begins in the act of telling the world the good things He has done.

Sadly, the people remember those good things that God did, but they often lose touch with the God who did it. The history of God’s people is like a roller coaster. They begin by being faithful, believing in God and obeying Him, but eventually they forget Him and turn to other gods. Over and over again the stories in Israel’s history end, “Again, the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The book of Judges ends on an even sadder note, “In those days Israel had no king: everyone did as he saw fit.” But even when they had a king, they failed to live faithfully.

It didn’t take long after the miraculous events of the Exodus for the people to turn from the God who delivered them out of Egypt. Their greatest failure is that they conformed to the world into which they had been delivered, taking upon themselves the practices, including religious, of the people who were there before them. It was easy to do so. The baals gave them an image of deity that was commonplace with which they could identify. Their greatest sin was syncretism. They melded the local gods into their faith in God.

See, the people of God had never before had a land of their own. In Abraham’s day there were nomadic, moving from place to place, taking their flocks to new pasture land. After Joseph, they lived in one place for hundreds of years, but they were not home, they were slaves. When they finally settled the land which God had promised, they were able to establish roots, to build homes made of wood and clay rather than tents made of fabric. Since the previous occupiers of the Promised Land had been agrarian, they probably began planting more of their own food. You can do that when you aren’t wandering.

Since they were beginning to rely on the constancy of the weather, rain in the rainy season, dry when it was meant to be dry, they saw the advantages of the local gods who controlled those ordinary aspects of life. The ba’als, whichever one they chose to worship, made sense to them, especially after they had wandered in the wilderness for forty years. They were in the desert and could not rely on the relief that comes from cool, refreshing waters. So, when faced with a people who believed they knew the deity that controlled the rain, they easily conformed to that religion.

It isn’t that they gave up worshipping God. They remembered Him for the miraculous things He did and worshipped Him as had been commanded, but He was the God to which they turned in a crisis. They didn’t concern Him with mundane matters. Baal was available for the ordinary, everyday needs of the people.

We don’t know much about Baal. Much of our knowledge comes from the Bible; and few other writings exist about the god known as Baal. The word itself means “lord” or “owner” and so each baal was in control of just one thing. The name of the baal included a place or an aspect of life. When the word Baal named a unique god, it was generally understood to be the universal god of fertility. Baal was the storm god; Baal controlled the rain. When the harvest was good, Baal was pleased with the people and blessed them with the right rain. When it was dry, Baal was angry and withheld the rain.

What amazed me most as I studied the information about Baal, was how similar the images were with the God of Israel. It is no wonder that they embraced these local gods. Baal was known as ‘rider of the clouds’, god of lightning and thunder, ‘the Prince, the lord of the earth’, ‘the mightiest of warriors’, ‘lord of the sky and the earth.’ You can find these same attributions to the God of Israel in the scriptures. There are even parallels in the story of God. In one story, Baal battles Mot, the god of the underworld and death. Mot kills Baal and throws him into the underworld. When Baal dies, the plants in the world also die. But then Baal returns to life and so does the world.

You can see the parallels in the song of the psalmist. “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing seed for sowing, Shall doubtless come again with joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” This verse is thought to reflect the myth of Baal. One practice in their worship included mourning as they scattered the seed, as if they were scattering the Baal’s body after death, but the sadness of that moment was overcome with the joy that came with the growth of new life and the harvest of the fruit. Though this was not the way God intended for His people to worship, it was embraced by His people, especially the common folk, because it was a practical way of understanding the mystery of nature.

They didn’t stop worshipping the God who delivered them out of Egypt, but they added to their worship the god they thought helped them live and eat and reproduce. Since Baal was a god of fertility, there were additional sins, including temple prostitution, which also counted against them. But the worst sin was worshipping a false god, when the God of their forefathers was all that was needed. Despite the stories we read in the scriptures of God defeating Baal, the people continued to fall into the patterns of the people with whom they dwelt.

This is why they ended up in exile. Since they no longer looked to God as creator and provider, He turned from them. They fell to the invading armies and were destroyed. The prophets warned the people to reject the local gods, but when they did not, God turned His back and they were taken by people who were more powerful. They turned back to God and He heard their cry. He saved them from their exile and returned them home. They apparently learned the lesson that Baal could not keep them from harm because Baal worship seems to have declined following the exile.

So, in the passage from Isaiah, we see God promising to do a new thing. He is the God who saved them from Egypt, but the prophet spoke a word of hope that they would see God do something even greater. If God could lead them out of slavery, through the wilderness and into the Promised Land, then He could certainly restore them to the home they had lost. “Behold, I will do a new thing; now shall it spring forth; shall ye not know it? I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert.” He would be greater than the baals they’d once worshipped because He would provide drink for His people in His time and way, not according to the seasons.

Now, the purpose of God’s grace is so that His people will praise Him before the nations. Unfortunately, God’s people often miss the greatest blessings which He has given. God asks, “Shall ye not know it?” They recognize the miraculous and look to God for help in their crisis, but do they see Him in the ordinary? Do they see a river in the wilderness and realize that it was put there by God for their purpose? Or do they credit the ordinary waters of the earth to the ordinary gods like Baal? But we see that the wild animals honor God for the water in the wilderness. They recognize God’s grace in the rivers of the desert, given to quench the thirst of God’s people. Though they miss it, others benefit from the blessings and they honor God for it.

What we learn from these lessons is that we have been formed to give God the glory so that the world will see Him and know that the blessings come from Him. Unfortunately, like the Israelites, we often miss seeing God’s hand in the ordinary. We give credit to others; we seek the help of others. We turn to God only in our times of crisis and forget that He is also Lord over our ordinary needs. We praise Him for the miraculous, but ignore His hand in the everyday. God has done great things, but we worship Him not just for the miraculous. We worship Him because He is God.

Our Gospel lesson takes place shortly before the Passover celebration. In this story we see the beautiful sacrifice of Mary, as she took a pound of pure nard to anoint Jesus. The purpose of the gathering was a celebration of life. Mary and Martha were delighted because their brother Lazarus had been dead but now he is alive. They gave a dinner for Jesus and his friends in grateful appreciation for the miraculous thing He did for them. For the believers, and those who did not want to believe, the raising of Lazarus was a turning point. Jesus was no longer just a street preacher; He was the Messiah and a threat to the establishment. The event for which Mary and Martha were so grateful was the very thing that caused the authorities to begin to plot Jesus’ death. They knew He had to be stopped. But Mary saw Him from a different point of view.

Nard was a very expensive perfume, 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: to anoint a bride for her wedding night, to anoint the feet of the dead and to anoint the head of a king. The crowds that were gathering in Jerusalem saw Jesus as the answer to their prayers. They were ready to anoint Him as king as we will see very clearly next week during the procession of the palms. When He entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the people roared with joy and expectation, honoring Him as they would honor their king. Perhaps Mary was using the nard with that in mind.

Jesus tells the disciples to leave her alone because she purchased the nard for the day of His burial. But nard has a very short shelf life, only three to six months; nard goes bad very quickly. It is impossible to pre-purchase nard for burial because we never know when people will die. Did she have the nard leftover from when they buried Lazarus a few days earlier? Or did she know? Did she believe Jesus when He talked about His death? The disciples wanted to silence Him when He talked about what would happen in Jerusalem. They wanted Him to avoid going into the city. But did she know this was what God intended? She anointed His feet, not His head. Though she may have thought of Him as king, she anointed Him as one who was dead.

The disciples were offended, particularly Judas. “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred shillings, and given to the poor?” Though his reason was not unselfish, for he was stealing from the purse, he heard what Jesus had been teaching them all along. The mission was providing justice for the poor, to give food to those who are hungry and clothes to the naked. And though Jesus is not saying we can ignore those needs, He shows us that Mary has the right focus. She honored Jesus, and thus praised God, in her simple act of generosity.

I love the image we see in this passage. “…the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.” Imagine what it must have been like to be in that room, to have the overwhelming odor of perfume permeate the space, drawing everyone’s attention to Jesus. Though they were celebrating the miraculous raising of Lazarus, they were like a family gathered to share a meal and the joy of life together. For a brief moment in this ordinary experience, all eyes were on the One who would do a new thing for their sake.

Jesus certainly did not suggest that we should ignore the needs of the poor, but our attention is meant to be kept on Him. There will always be poverty and need in the world, but Mary knows that Jesus deserves the praise and worship. We begin there, giving the honor and glory to the God who meets our needs in times of crisis and in the ordinary, everyday of our lives. It is as easy for us to get caught up in the reality of life, the distress of suffering and human needs, that we forget that God is in control of everything. And though we may not be stealing from the purse, our motives are not much better than those of Judas. We still fall for the foolishness of Baal, giving heed to the things of this earth while ignoring the reality of God.

Paul had it going on. He was born right and he was given every benefit of a member of God’s chosen people. He was circumcised as was proper, and was educated in the scriptures. He did what he believed was right by living according to the Law and persecuting the Christians. But when he met Jesus, he gave up everything to become a servant of Christ. He had power, authority, prosperity. He ended up beaten, persecuted and martyred. He put his past behind him and moved toward the future, toward the coming of God’s kingdom in its fullness.

If it were based on his flesh, Paul could be confident of his salvation based on his background. Yet, he sets all that aside for the sake of Christ. He does not believe that he has already obtained it all; as a matter of fact Paul calls himself a sinner greater than all other sinners. Yet, he was striving for that which has already been promised and is assured by God’s faithfulness. He encourages the Philippians, and us today, to set aside all that has gone by and continue moving forward toward the promise. God has done something new. While the acts of God that have been done already are great, we can rest in the promise that the best is yet to come. We need not forget the past, but always look toward the future. We need not ignore the flesh, but always keep God in the proper place: as the center of our life.

Like the Israelites, we have entered into the Promised Land, but we still face the temptation to conform to the ways of the world. We may not have to worry about Baal worship, but we have our own false gods to face. Do we cry out to Him only in times of crisis? Or do we look to Him to supply our ordinary, everyday needs? Do we hold on to the memories of the extraordinary things He has done and ignore the daily bread He provides? Do we want to make Him our earthly king rather than experience the cross with Him? Are we willing to publically praise Him, honoring Him with our own sacrifices so that the world will see His grace?

Let us pray that He will always be the center of our faith, so that all might benefit from the grace He has promised. We may go out weeping as we sow the seeds, but God will produce a harvest that will bring such great joy that the whole world will rejoice. He has promised those He has chosen, but His blessings rain on all. Don’t let the wild animals sing His praises louder, for God has created you to declare His praise for all the world to hear.

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