Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
The fifth Sunday of Lent, 3rd of April 2022
In 2022 being afraid of the future would simply seem to be common sense. Russia has invaded Ukraine; Europe is struggling to respond; and we are now closer to a nuclear war breaking out than at any time since the Cold War. This week Lismore and the surrounding areas were flooded for the second time in a month, and the centre of Byron Bay went under water in what locals described as the worst flash flooding they had ever seen. It is no wonder that so many of Australia’s young people are worried about living in a world affected by climate change. These are global, existential, threats. A lesser, local, concern, but one that might affect us more immediately, is the fear of the future felt by the many Australian church congregations that have shrunk over the past fifty years. What will the future of this congregation be, as those who have been committed members of it all their lives age and die and are not replaced? Given all this, feeling fearful of the future, and so hunkering down, turning inwards, conserving what we have rather than sharing it, only makes sense.
It may be sensible, but of course I am going to argue that fear is not where we need to stay. Our faith is one of hope, not of fear. This was the message of the prophet we know as ‘Second Isaiah’, reassuring a people who had experienced the conquest of Jerusalem, the destruction of the Temple, and the deportation to Babylon. We look around us and fear suffering, displacement, and impoverishment. The people to whom Isaiah was prophesying had experienced it. They would be able to empathise with the Ukrainians and all those who have fled their homes due to war; all those who have lost family or friends or homes or livelihood to bushfires and floods; all those who look to the future in fear. It was to them, to a people who were afraid that God had deserted them, that Isaiah wrote the Book of Consolation.
Isaiah assures the exiles that although they are still in Babylon there is hope. ‘First’ Isaiah prophesied judgment and condemnation. ‘Second’ Isaiah prophesies comfort and trust. The trust is based on the certainty that no matter what has happened, God has always been with God’s people. When the people of Israel cried out in Egypt, God heard them; the Lord was then the one ‘who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick’. Isaiah draws on this history to answer the exiles when they ask where God is now, whether God is powerful enough to save them. Isaiah answers that even when we do not believe it, even when we are in exile, God sees and feels the pain of God’s people, and God responds. But Isaiah also warns the exiles that God might not respond in the ways they expect, or even in the ways they want. God is doing something new: ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’
Why does Isaiah begin by reminding the exiles in Babylon of what God had done in the Exodus, and then warn them not to remember the past? It is because hope looks forward. God is always doing something new. God does not save us by returning us to the situation of the past. God saves us by leading us into the future. From the perspective of the exiles, the Exodus was what God had done in the past. The new thing that God would do in the future would be the return. The water that had been a barrier would become a path; rather than bringing dry land from the sea as he did in Egypt, God will bring rivers to the desert. The future will not look like the past, or if it does it will be the past radically reformed. Fear of the future often leads us to wistful nostalgia. If only things could be like they used to be! But the God who rescued people in the past is the God who leads us into a future beyond anything we could have imagined, a future of hope and promise.
Today’s psalm also holds together the memory of the past with hope for the future in a present time of trouble. It begins with a memory, probably of the very return from exile that Second Isaiah promised, a time of restoration when the Lord had done great things for the people, and they rejoiced. The psalmist sings that the people’s mouths were filled with laughter, and their tongues with shouts of joy. But that is not where the psalm ends. That was the past; in the present the psalmist is beseeching God for God’s favour, asking that their fortunes be restored once again. The psalmist asks that those who are currently sowing in tears will in the future reap with joy. Then this short psalm looks to that future, and ends with certainty that God will hear and answer the psalmist’s plea: ‘Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves’.
The psalm reminds us that, short of the eschaton, the end-time, no joy lasts forever. The slaves in Egypt were rescued by God in the Exodus. The exiles in Babylon were brought home through the desert. In neither case did that mean that their lives from then on were perfect and without pain. We do not know what happened between the joyful past and the psalmist’s present, what has turned the psalm from praise to lament. What we do know is that in the sorrowful present the psalmist still has faith that God will not leave the people trapped in that sorrow, because God is faithful, God’s promises are true, and what God has done in the past God will do again in the future. It is the same message that Isaiah gave the exiles; because God has been faithful in the past we can have hope that God will be faithful in the future. And so while we remember what God did in the past, we do not need to cling to it with nostalgia, because God’s continuing and enduring faithfulness will be revealed just as much in the new things God will do as it was in God’s past actions.
As Christians, of course, we believe that God’s ultimate ‘new thing’ was to enter all the messiness of human life in Jesus. In today’s story from the Gospel according to John we are shown how ‘new’, how unique and curious, the Incarnation and Crucifixion were. Jesus is in Bethany, the home of Lazarus. In the chapter before this, we were told about Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. This led many Jews to believe in him, and had the Council worrying: ‘If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.’ The Council decided that it would be better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed, and from that day on they plotted to kill Jesus. As Jesus and his disciples enjoy dinner in the house of Lazarus, death is approaching. But only Mary of Bethany responds to its approach.
At this dinner Martha serves, she literally ‘deacons’, and Lazarus sits at the table with the other disciples. But it is Mary who best models what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. She takes a pound of costly perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet, and wipes them with her hair. She offers Jesus her wealth; the perfume was worth about a year’s wages. She offers him her honour; unbinding her hair in the presence of men and touching Jesus’ feet. Later, on the last night of his life, Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet and tell them, ‘if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.’ (John 13:14-15) Washing each other’s feet is a sign of the love that the disciples are to show for each other. Mary is already able to show this love, withholding nothing of herself from Jesus. The house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume she offers; filled with the love she is showing.
Mary’s anointing is not just a sign of love. Jesus’ hour is looming. Here, while Jesus is having a meal with his friends, he is also being prepared for his burial. The other disciples may be unaware of how close Jesus is to his death, or in denial about what going to Jerusalem will mean, but in her anointing of his feet Mary recognises it and acts prophetically. People did not commonly anoint the feet of a living person, but they could anoint the feet of the dead as part of the ritual of preparing a body for burial. In less than a week, the man who is now sitting and eating with disciples and friends will be dying on a cross.
The two meanings of the anointing, the prophecy of Jesus’ death and the modelling of overwhelming love, are intertwined. After Mary anoints Jesus, Judas Iscariot asks, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?’ John says that Judas’ concern for the poor is hypocritical – he just wants to steal from the disciples’ common purse. But even if Judas were sincere in his objection, as the objectors are in the versions of this story told by Mark and Matthew, Judas has missed what is happening. ‘You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,’ Jesus says. He is quoting Deuteronomy, where the people of Israel are instructed: ‘Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, “Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbour in your land.”’ (Deut 15:11) It is a command that we should respond to the poor with open hands, because there will always be poor people needing their neighbours’ help. But, here, at this moment, the focus is not on the poor but on Jesus, because in him God is doing something unique, something that has never been done before and will never be done again.
In Jesus the transcendent God is incarnate, and the incarnate Word is going to die out of love for the world. For one brief moment God is present among humans as a human being, and this God will die a human death. God is doing a new thing, but Judas and the other disciples do not perceive it as it springs forth. Mary of Bethany does, and she offers her wealth and her honour and her dignity and her love and pours them all out over Jesus’ feet. In the same way, Jesus will pour out his own life, his own honour and dignity, dying a scandalous death as a sign of God’s love. Like Mary’s perfume, God’s love is not something to be conserved and admired. It is to be poured out, emptied to the last drop, until its fragrance fills not just the house but the world. This is God’s love, shown in Jesus’ death, God’s new thing, given for the sake of the world.
In a world of danger and change and scarcity it would make sense to be wary, to be careful, to look to the future with fear. Jesus was never sensible. In today’s gospel story neither is Mary of Bethany. If Jesus had behaved less extravagantly he would not have died on a cross. If Mary had taken more thought for the future she would not have poured out perfume worth almost a year’s wages in one extravagant gesture of love. Both were echoing the extravagant abundance of the God who gives water in the wilderness, makes rivers run in the Negeb, who does such unbelievable marvels that we experience them like dreams, filling mouths with laughter and making the people shout with joy. We do not need to fear the future or look back on the past with nostalgic regret, because we know that the God who does new things will walk with us into whatever lies ahead. It may be death, but we also know that after the crucifixion comes resurrection. We have nothing to fear. Thanks be to God. Amen.