Year C — The Fifth Sunday in Lent

Commentary for March 17, 2013
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless

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Isaiah 43:16-21
“Well, it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”

I was always a bit curious about that phrase from my childhood; I could never figure out how anyone could see their own nose on their face! And, of course, that’s the point, I suppose; my nose is obvious to you, but not to me. And vice versa, I reckon.

Isaiah has God asking us, essentially, “Can’t you see the new thing I’m doing? It’s right there — just like a spring in the middle of the desert!” Not quite the same as the nose on our face, but still fairly obvious. But, oblivious humans that we are, we still miss it. 

Perhaps we need to be a bit more like the animals — jackals and ostriches and such. They can see it, smell it, feel it. When we are thirsty enough for the righteousness of God, I suppose we will then find the refreshing water God offers. 

Psalm 126
More water in the desert here in Psalm 126.

The “watercourses” in the Negev remind me of what we always called “gulleys” where I grew up in West Tennessee. Most of the time, they were empty ditches where children could play. But, wait for a good rain — particularly in the spring time — and suddenly they were full of raging water.

Trees, grass, and plants of all kinds flourish near such a watercourse; even if the coming of the water is uncertain, it is always life-giving when it happens. The prayer of the psalmist is that God’s mercy will come like the rains that replenish the growth and quench the thirst of all who dwell nearby.

And not uncertainly, but regularly. (Anybody else but me know the old gospel song, “Showers of Blessing?”)

Philippians 3:4b-14
“Pressing on toward the goal” is a great theme in this text. We all like to set and achieve goals, don’t we? Stewardship goals, attendance goals, ministry goals…on and on, the list of programmatic goals can be endless in the life of the church.

But, this “goal” is something entirely different, according to the Apostle; this is about “knowing Christ” in the power of his resurrection — which path leads through suffering and death! How does one break that down into a plan, a program? Can we chart our way into suffering? Is there a catchy slogan for that?

May we forget what is behind, and strain forward to what lies ahead…gain or loss, glory or suffering. Thanks be to God!

John 12:1-8
Waste and worship.

I can hardly wrap my mind around the juxtapositions in this text. We have Lazarus, he that had stunk up the joint after dwelling in the tomb for several days just a couple of chapters earlier — could that have been the reason Mary brought a pound of perfume into the room, ostensibly to wash the feet of Jesus?

Of course, her act is seen both as extravagance and as tenderness. Judas can only see dollar signs, while Jesus sees her devotion. 

There is the foreshadowing of his impending death and burial — even as we prepare to celebrate resurrection in just two more weeks. What is an impatient congregation to do? The pageantry and the pomp of Easter are calling us — but we must wait — AGAIN — to process through the dark passion of Holy Week.

It seems that so much of the church’s liturgical time is spent in hurry-up-and-wait mode. But, then, perhaps that is precisely because we are such a hurried people living such hurried lives. Are we Judases constantly afraid that we might just be wasting time sitting here at the Lord’s feet?

Sermon
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

In an odd sort of way, today is a day of mixed emotions, of conflicted feelings. As the world emerges from the dark and cold of winter into the light and warmth of spring, our religious tradition calls us deeper into the darkness and gloom of Jesus’ suffering and death. Sadness and celebration; darkness and light; the cold of winter and the warmth of spring, the death of Christ and the birth of new hope, all mixed up together in one day.

Just like in our Gospel Lesson. Here we find Jesus at a meal celebrating the raising of Lazarus, a feast in honor of the fact that Lazarus has been returned from the dead. Into the midst of this party, Mary comes and anoints Jesus’ feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair; an act that symbolically prepares him for death and burial, an act which also upsets everyone present.

This story is in the beginning of chapter 12 in John. In chapter 11 Jesus is out preaching and teaching when he gets word that Lazarus, his dear friend, is ill. Later he learns that he has died. The rest of chapter 11 is about Jesus’ delay in going to Lazarus and about how Martha fussed at Jesus for not coming sooner and how when Jesus saw Mary and all the others weeping, he started weeping too, and finally, Jesus went to the tomb and cried out, “Lazarus, come out.” And Lazarus came out, bound up like a Mummy in a bad horror movie; stumbling and smelly but alive.

Chapter 12 opens with the story of a dinner that took place a few weeks later to celebrate Lazarus’ amazing return from the dead. Make no mistake about it; this was a party, a fiesta, a banquet. Where I come from we would have had a pig-picking, a fish-fry, a keg party with fireworks. Or maybe a South Carolina Low Country shrimp boil: out on the deck, beach music playing, couples dancing “the shag,” little kids running around under the boardwalk chasing fireflies, old people sitting in corners talking and watching young people.

And into the midst of this joyous frivolity Mary comes with a gallon of perfume, expensive stuff, worth thirty or forty thousand dollars. And she plops down in front of Jesus and pours this rich and costly perfume all over his feet and then wipes his feet with her hair.

And the music stops, and the dancers freeze and the old people hush talking and the children stand with their fingers in their mouths and stare while Jesus smiles and lifts Mary up and thanks her for her generosity and her love. There are a couple of reasons for the stunned reaction on the part of the group, one that is spoken of in the text and one that is not.

In the text, Judas says that which everyone else is thinking, “My God, woman, what are you doing? You could have sold that and given the money to the poor.”Jesus reply here is very important. Many times people have used his words, “the poor you always have with you,” as an excuse for not helping the poor. That is definitely not what Jesus meant.

Jesus meant that Mary understands his immediate present and near future better than any of them. She bought the perfume, the nard, for a specific purpose; to anoint his body when he died, and she more than anyone else, knows that Jesus is soon to die. 

Her anointing his body at this time shows that she recognizes that by coming to Jerusalem and raising her brother from the dead, he has angered the people who run things and they intend to kill him. She knows, even if the others don’t, that by coming here to this place, at this time, and working this miracle, he has sealed his fate, he has signed his own execution order. In giving Lazarus life he has assured his own death. Mary pours out both her gratitude and her grief when she pours the perfume on Jesus’ feet. 

And when Jesus reminds them that they always have the poor with them, he is reminding them, and us, of our ongoing call and duty to serve the needs of what he calls elsewhere “the least of these my brothers and sisters.” Indeed what he says elsewhere is that when we serve “the least of these,” we are personally and directly serving Christ. Rather than being the end of our duty to the poor, this moment with Mary at his feet is really the beginning of a higher call and a wider duty for all of us.

The second reason people reacted with shock and dismay is not spoken of in this text, but is easily understood. Jesus was a single man and a rabbi; “decent women,” and “decent rabbis” just didn’t touch each other like that. But in her gratitude and her sorrow, Mary had thrown caution to the wind and gave vent to her deepest and most honest feelings about Jesus, her savior and her Lord.

This text calls us to do the same. It calls us to a deep, deep grief for the death of Jesus; a profound and abiding sorrow for our faults and failures, our evil deeds and iniquitous acts; in a word, our sins, that put him on the cross to bleed and die to save us from ourselves. 

It also calls us to a full and rich and sober joy and gratitude for the new life that Christ won for us there. Martin Luther called it a “sacred exchange,” a “divine trade.” On the cross Jesus took on our sins and gave us his holiness. Upon the cross Jesus died our death and gave us his life. There on that tree, Jesus accepted our fate and gave us his future.

And in response we are called to weep for our sins and his death and then to pour out our lives in service of Christ through service to the poor and needy of this world.

Amen and amen.

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