Fifth Sunday in Lent
Brethren, I count not myself yet to have laid hold: but one thing I do, forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal unto the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.
Remember the good old days? For each of us this question might bring up different memories. 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 the culture and the experiences of life in that time.
For others, those days might not have been so good. What was so good about the 50's someone might ask? Even a wedding day might hold sorrowful memories if relatives spent the day fighting or everything went wrong. I know people who would love to have lived in the days of the first Queen Elizabeth, yet would it have been that great? There was no concern for hygiene - Queen Elizabeth set a trend by bathing twice a year! The waste ran in the streets and clothes were rarely washed, so conditions meant that there was a terrible stench in the air. Nosegays were popular because you could turn your head and breath in the sweet scent of the flowers rather than stink in the air.
While it is a pleasure to remember the joys of our past, we can't continue to live in those days that have gone by. We don't get very far on a journey if we keep turning back to see from whence we have come, and we miss out on the joys of that which is coming. I can't count how many times I have missed a turn because I have been busy looking at something that I just passed. Besides the safety issues, missing the turn usually meant having to turn around, then arriving late at my destination.
God did some amazing things for the Israelites. Just last week we heard of how God finally brought the people and helped them to begin their new life in the Promised Land. The first thing they did was celebrate the Passover, a remembrance of God's 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 today's lesson from Isaiah, Isaiah is speaking to the exiles, assuring them that the promise still exists. 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, yet they reach far beyond the day they would return to Jerusalem. This promise would touch all of creation.
Through Isaiah, God tells the people to forget the things that have gone before, "See I am doing a new thing." 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.
The old has past and the new is coming. The psalmist sings praise to God because He has 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.
Paul knew what it was like to set aside the old. He was a great Jew, well educated and highly respected. In the early days of the Church, he was among those most zealous to stop the spread of this faith. One day on the road to Damascus, Paul met Jesus and knew he had been wrong. He became zealous for the Lord, preaching and teaching the kingdom of God to all who would hear.
In today's letter to the Philippians, Paul mentions his past. The letter to the Philippians was written as a thank you note for ministry support given to Paul by the church in Philippi. It was also written to encourage them to stand fast in what they knew to be true. They were facing persecution, perhaps from the Romans who lived in the town, but also from the Jews who were trying to convince the Gentile Christians that they needed to be circumcised to be true believers.
Paul reminds them of his background, how confident he could be if his salvation were based on his flesh. He was circumcised, "a Hebrew of Hebrews." He was a Pharisee and according to the Law, he was faultless. Yet, he sets all that aside for the sake of Christ, for to him it is not useless. Paul writes, "…and be found in him, not having a righteousness of mine own, even that which is of the law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which is from God by faith: that I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, becoming conformed unto his death; if by any means I may attain unto the resurrection from the dead."
Paul does not believe that he has already obtained it all, but that in this life we strive toward that which is assured through the promise of God. He encourages the Philippians, and us today, to set aside all that has gone by and continue moving forward toward the promise. The old is past, the new is coming. For this, we are called to rejoice and sing His praises.
Today's 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 has fed thousands, healed lepers and the blind. In chapter eleven of John, Jesus even raised Lazarus from the dead, after he had been in the tomb for four days. The significance of this time period is that it was believed that the soul left the body on the third day. After that there was no hope for resurrection. However, Jesus raised Lazarus to new life, a new life that would bring His own death.
The Jewish authorities were concerned about Jesus. Though He fulfilled the expectations of the Messiah - He did all they expected Him to do - it wasn't 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. Jesus said some things that did not fit into their mould of what it meant to be a child of God. He was focusing on all the wrong things, disobeying their understanding of the Law and speaking spiritually about things they did not understand. His words were getting the people excited, enough that they were concerned about the crowds getting out of control. Though Jesus Himself never indicated that His ministry would lead to revolution, the crowd seemed bent on rebellion. He had to be stopped, but they did not know how. While the crowd was somewhat small and unsure, they could be controlled. Perhaps they even hoped that Jesus would do something stupid, like all the other Messiah wannabees and get caught or lose a following.
Unfortunately, when news of Lazarus got out, many people believed beyond doubt that Jesus was the One they were waiting for. There was little chance that He'd 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 Jesus' ministry, for now it was time to turn His face to Jerusalem.
On this night, just days before the Passover, Jesus had dinner with Lazarus and his sisters. Martha ministered to Jesus as she always did - serving the food. Mary served Him in her way, at His feet. In every instance we hear of Mary, the sister of Lazarus, she is at the feet of the Lord Jesus. In Luke we see the story of Mary and Martha, where Martha was upset that Mary was not helping, Mary was at His feet listening and learning. When Jesus came after Lazarus was dead, Mary fell at His feet to beg for mercy. In this story, Mary knelt at Jesus 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. In Song of Solomon, we see how seductive the fragrances are to the groom, making him desire her.
Another use for nard was to anoint the feet of the dead. When a person was buried, the bodies were carefully prepared with oils and spices, then wrapped in cloth and placed in the tomb or grave. I do not know the purpose or reasons for the different spices and oils, though I think the practice probably came from ancient times. Perhaps it was simply to keep the body from smelling bad, though that would have been done easily with less expensive oils. Whatever the purpose, the act of pouring expensive oil on the feet of a dead loved one certainly showed a great deal 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.
Nard is still available and is used today in aromatherapy and for religious anointing. Though not quite as expensive as it was in Jesus' day, nard is still a valuable oil. Pure nard is too strong to be used on the skin alone; it is mixed with other types of oil that enhance the aroma and medicinal qualities. Nard is used to help relieve stress and insomnia, headaches and indigestion, skin rashes and to rejuvenate the skin. It was popular with Roman perfumers who used it to produce Nardinum, most likely the blend that Mary used that night.
Did Mary know that she was buying this nard to anoint Jesus in His death? Perhaps she got a two for one special at the local market when she purchased the jar for Lazarus just days before. However, 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, "just in case." It isn't 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.
I believe Mary did know. She was the one disciple we always saw at His feet, listening to every word He said. She heard Him tell about His death. Without a doubt, she also knew it was His gift to her and Martha that would bring it about. 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, had been avoiding Jerusalem for some time. 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.
At this party, and it was truly a party since they were celebrating the new life Jesus gave to Lazarus, Mary took the jar of nard and poured it over Jesus' feet. I doubt that this was something she planned to do. Beneath the joy she felt, she was suffering with an unexplainable grief. The very thing for which she was rejoicing was the very thing that would send her Lord to the cross. I can see her suddenly coming up to Jesus with the nard, and without warning pouring it over His feet. Luke tells us 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. 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. Though Judas didn't 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 all God had promised to be fulfilled. The poor would be here tomorrow, and we would be expected to feed them both in body and spirit. Yet, today Jesus set His face to Jerusalem where He would die for the sake of the world. In some way Mary knew and she anointed Him - not on the head like a king, but on the feet like one who is dead.
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, "If you never buy me flowers when I am alive, don't bother when I am dead. Give them to me today so I can enjoy them." Mary gave Jesus the sweet fragrance of honor and thankfulness in the days of His life so they could be savored together, rather than later in the tomb.
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 this day 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. Thanks be to God.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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