A sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019. The scripture readings are Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, and John 12:1-8.
Listen to the sermon HERE.
The scriptures today invite us to get ready, to heighten all of our senses if we can, to listen, look, taste, see, feel… “I am about to do a new thing,” says the Lord. And God asks Isaiah (and us), “Do you not perceive it? Can you sense the new thing?”
The section we hear from Isaiah today comes from a larger section that promises good things to the people of Israel. And yet, this word of encouragement from God through Isaiah comes while the Israel is still far from home. They are still captive in Babylon and only have the hope of returning home. Isaiah says, “Hang on. It’s going to get better.” “I will make a way.” I will bring water to the thirsty and food to the hungry. I will lead you out of this, into a better place.
The Psalm sings of just that, of God’s deliverance. This is a pilgrimage psalm. People would gather together to make a trip to the temple in Jerusalem and they would sing psalms like this one on the way to celebrate the Passover, just like the kind of procession we’ll re-enact next Sunday, the palms that lead the way forward for Jesus.
The Gospel take us right to the edge of Jerusalem, to Bethany, thought to be where today’s West Bank is, about a mile and a half east of the temple in Jerusalem. It’s not far in proximity, and it’s not far from the events we will retrace in Holy Week.
John’s version of the woman anointing the feet of Jesus is the one we read today. Here, Mary of Bethany anoints the feet of her friend and teacher, probably as a gesture of warmth and hospitality. Jesus names it as anointing for death. Jesus knows what’s ahead. Judas shows up to criticize, to misunderstand and to miss the significance of Jesus’ presence. Judas’s point of view is taken up soon after this scene as the religious leaders get together and decide that because of the raising of Lazarus, something has to be done to stop Jesus. He’s getting too popular. The people are losing their minds over him.
Today’s Gospel sets the stage for next Sunday and Holy Week. Jesus is with his friends, the sisters Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. This is just after Lazarus has died, and Jesus has raised him from death. But this is just a hint of what’s coming. Lazarus has been resuscitated, given a new lease on life, but he will presumably die again, later. This “raising” has to do with Lazarus and is a sign. But it begins to reveal the power of God in Christ, the power that will be fully let loose on Easter with the resurrection not only from death, but with a victory of sin and death for ever.
Judas’ criticism signals the betrayal of Judas in the Garden of Gethsemane. Mary’s anointing hints at the women who go to the tomb to anoint Jesus and discover the tomb is empty. The raising of Lazarus foreshadows the great movement from death to life. But this story also sets a pattern for friendship with Jesus the Christ, a pattern open and available to us.
In the Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul writes about how nothing in his life matters but his relationship with Christ. That he is a Jew, doesn’t matter. That he is learned, doesn’t matter. That he’s a person of some standing, doesn’t matter. His friendships, his family, his experiences, his eloquence…. That’s all rubbish, Paul says. The thing that matters is “that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” Paul says he wants to know the full power of the resurrection from the dead, and while he doesn’t yet know it, “I press on,” Paul says, because “Christ Jesus has made me his own.”
The physical body of Christ is not ours to anoint or hold or touch or befriend. And yet, Christ has told us where to find his body—not in a tomb, and not even in scripture. Jesus lives as our brother and sister, the expression of God’s Incarnation all around us. In trying to explain the Kingdom of God, Jesus talks about the opportunity to meet him in those who are hurting and in those who are in need.
“I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” (Mt. 25:35-36). Sometimes that might be a stranger, but other times it might be that we meet Christ is a person very close to us as we serve them, or as we allow them to serve us.
Christ is met in the stranger and the suffering, but we also encounter the Body of Christ at the altar. In Holy Communion, we become one with him and with one another. In the sharing of a meal, we become a family. In the eating and drinking, we take into ourselves the Body and Blood of Christ.
In the other people, in Holy Communion, and through prayer, Jesus Christ befriends us.
Any friendship takes time to develop. It involves talking and listening. With a real friend, we can be ourselves—no pretenses, just comfort. A friend can challenge us and change us. A friend’s presence can give us all that we need sometimes to get through the day, sometimes to get through the hour.
Jesus can be this kind of friend. I don’t mean the kind of self-serving Jesus-Friend who is a copilot in driving and steers us through green lights and finds the perfect parking space. That’s a silly piety that doesn’t stand up to much challenge. But Jesus our Friend is more like the one who stretches out his hand when we’re about to lose our footing. Jesus our Friend shows up when no one else is available. Jesus our Friend stands between us and danger, sin, and death itself.
This side of heaven, we don’t have the easy friendship with Jesus that Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had. But Christ does invite us to the same kind of intimacy. We don’t have oil to offer in anointing, but we have other gifts, other qualities, other ways of being present, being still, listening and learning from Jesus our Friend.
As we remember the stories that take us along with Jesus to Jerusalem, may the Holy Spirit quicken within us a sense of Christ our Fried—alongside and within.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.