Caught up in something greater—Lent 5, Year C (17 March 2013)

Isaiah 43.16–21
Philippians 3.4b–14
John 12.1–8

Christ is among us—

God is doing a new thing!

Another Sunday in Lent, another wonderful passage from Second Isaiah, who wrote when the people were in Babylon, forced into exile for life away from Jerusalem, where their homes were demolished or in ashes.

Their life as a nation was over. The Babylonian armies had conquered. The Babylonian gods had won. It was in this setting that Psalm 137 was written:

How could we sing the Lord’s song

in a foreign land?

If I forget you, O Jerusalem,

let my right hand wither!

Isaiah’s message cut across this sense of doom.

I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

What new thing was God about to do? This is how Isaiah puts it:

I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

Much earlier, God had brought the people out of slavery in Egypt. Then, God had made a dry path through the waters of the Red Sea; now, God would make a river to follow through the dry paths of the wilderness.

God was doing a new thing, and drawing them into a new story. No longer would they only be people delivered from slavery in Egypt—they would also be people delivered from exile in Babylon.

God was doing a new thing; God has been doing new things ever since.

The story of Mary of Bethany is the story of a woman who found that God was indeed doing a new thing. 

The way John tells the story, “the chief priests and the Pharisees” decide it’s time to finish Jesus off once he raises Lazarus from the dead.

Well, soon after Lazarus was raised, Jesus is at Lazarus’ house for a feast; and that is when Mary anoints Jesus.

Why did she do it?

What I’m asking is why did Mary do it? What was in her head? We don’t know the answer to that question; people 2000 years ago weren’t interested in that. But we are.

Before we ask what may have been in Mary’s mind, we need to recall what ‘anointing’ meant.

When a man was being made a priest, or crowned as king, he was anointed with oil. Was that what Mary saw in Jesus? Was she anointing him because she hoped he would be revealed to all as God’s anointed priest and king? Jesus is our high priest and our king; that’s in the background; but it’s not what Mary was doing.

Jesus saw a different significance: anointing was also used for the bodies of the dead. Mary was anointing him for his burial—ahead of time.

So what may Mary herself have thought? Again, we don’t know—but let me speculate.

I think Mary anointed Jesus because she felt a deep outpouring of love for this man who had brought her brother back.

That’s why the extravagant gift—this perfume cost a whole year’s wages.

This gift shocked the practically-minded. This gift scandalised Judas. The gift Mary gave was her love for Jesus. She anointed his feet, taking upon herself the form of a slave. Do you hear echoes of what Jesus did at the last Supper in John’s Gospel? When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet? Was he so moved by what Mary did that he followed her example?

Love requires everything from us.

Where were you on 31 August, 1997? I was at my aunt and uncle’s place in Sheffield, England, and early on this Sunday morning the phone rang. It was Karen, to talk about the death of Princess Diana just hours before. It had been all over the news in Australia, but because it happened in the middle of the night we were blissfully unaware of the tragedy until the early-morning call from the other side of the world.

The mood in Britain switched to mourning, and I do mean switched. It took no time at all. The news media had been very critical of Diana of late, but all that was immediately forgotten.

A few days later, I was walking through the lovely city of Lincoln with another aunt. A splash of colour caught the corner of my eye. I looked to the right, and there was a huge collection of bright bunches of flowers. It was a flower-shrine to Princess Diana, at the opening to a small shopping mall, little more than an arcade really. Diana had officially opened it some years before, and so it had become a place where people came to remember her.

The people of Britain were showing their deep love and affection for Diana. The floral tributes were simply extravagant—but they fitted the nation’s mood.

Mary anointed Jesus out of sheer love. But Jesus saw a deeper meaning—he was being anointed for his burial. And this deeper meaning drew Mary into a deeper story. Not the story of a woman’s gratitude to the man who had brought Lazarus back, but the story of a Saviour who would soon die.

God was doing a new thing, and drawing Mary into the story. In the parallel stories in Matthew  (26.19) and Mark (14.9), Jesus says:

Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.

We need to tell this story more often. We need to let it sink deeply into our hearts. Mary is a great example of faith, hope and love.

(One thing: When Jesus says “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me”, he isn’t saying not to help the poor. It’s not a zero-sum game. Caring extravagantly for one person doesn’t cancel out doing whatever we can for those in need.)

Mary is a great example of faith, hope and love; and so is the Apostle Paul. He had everything going for him: a good family tree, the right religion, good moral character. If he’d been born a Yorkshireman he’d have had a full house.

But God was doing a new thing, and drawing Paul into a larger story. Paul gave it all away when Jesus came into his life. Make no mistake: becoming a Christian was costly for Paul. He lost everything that meant anything to him. But in comparison with Christ, he says everything else is “rubbish”.

Actually, he says more than that. The Greek word translated as “rubbish” is more accurately a very coarse word for human excrement. Paul was prepared to flush the lot down the loo for the sake of Jesus.

What new thing did Paul find? He found life coming out of the death of whatever fed his ego. He found new life in Christ in the midst of pain. And he trusted that the end was sharing in “the resurrection from the dead”.

(And perhaps today, I should talk about St Patrick, who came from a wealthy family—probably in Wales—was kidnapped by Irish raiders, escaped from slavery in Ireland and then gave everything up to bring the Gospel to Ireland. God did a new thing, and Patrick was caught up in it.)

Where are we in all this? What new thing is God doing amongst us? What new thing is God doing in your life? How are we being caught up in the story and transformed by grace as Mary, Paul and Patrick were?

It involves our giving extravagantly to Christ—and to the poor, who are his family; and being prepared to count whatever keeps us from following him as rubbish. Or worse.

What do we love more than Christ? What stops us giving our lives to him?

Mary gave her precious perfume. What is our alabaster box of perfume? Whatever it is, Jesus calls us to leave it at his feet; he calls us to count it as loss, and be drawn into his story, the Gospel story, in which men and women find new life through letting go of the things that keep us from loving God. Friends,

Christ is among us—
God is doing a new thing!


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