5th Sunday in Lent

April 1, 2001
See Also: 

Lenten Candle Liturgy

Preaching Lent/Easter I
Preaching Lent/Easter II
Preaching Lent/Easter III

John Cobb on atonement
John Cobb on redemption
John Cobb on Jesus
Biblical Preaching on the Death of Jesus (Cobb)

Reading 1: 
Isaiah 43:16-21
Reading 2: 
Psalm 126
Reading 3: 
Philippians 3:4b-14
Reading 4: 
John 12:1-8
By Barry A. Woodbridge

The Lenten journey from desert temptation, to Jerusalem, to the Cross is propelled by a dramatic confluence of images between the lections in the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament this week. This fifth Sunday in Lent brings an unusually opportune time to read and preach inclusively from all four texts and not just the familiar story line of the gospel text.

The Isaiah text returns us to the desert in a second exodus, and then abruptly cautions against fixation on the past, or to use Whitehead's term, letting the old become canalized. Yahweh is about to do a new thing in the wilderness with the gathered and formed community. But not everyone will be able notice it. Here this text and the Psalm bring together Advent and Lent.

Psalm 126 makes its second appearance, having been the Psalter for Year B Advent 3. Like the sojourners in the wilderness, here we have the captives joyfully returning to Zion, dreamers with a vision (v.1 "we were like those who dream"). But all is not well in the homeland, in Jerusalem. Their shouts for joy turn to tears (foreshadowing next week's triumphant entry and passion story). Verses 5-6 provide a ritual for mourning, which is exactly what will be needed along the Lenten Way of the Cross. "Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves" (v. 6).

This is exactly what Mary and Martha experience in today's gospel lection. They have already had a season of weeping and mourning over the loss of Lazarus. Not more than days after the wailing professional mourners have departed their doorsteps, Jesus returns to share his "next-to-the-last supper" with them. Ostensibly, this dinner celebrates Jesus’ presence after Lazarus' resurrection, but ironically whatever possibility of celebration diminishes to a minor chord as Mary takes out the burial ointment and lavishes it (notice the translation "anoints" -- the anointed one becomes anointed for death) all over Jesus' feet! Lazarus got buried alive; now Jesus is treated similarly "six days before Passover" (v.1). Their home reeks with that perfume such that the smells of fruits, grains, and lamb (?) are overcome with the pungent sweetness of the Channel de Nard. (The more bold pastor may try placing some "Pontifical" incense on a hot coal during the gospel lesson or sermon if you want to re-create the olfactory reality of this text for your congregation!).

Into the banquet turned somber and almost funereal, enters Judas, disqualifying himself as a champion of the poor by his thinly veiled retort about selling the burial ointment for year's wages to help the poor (v. 5). The gospel writer uses the occasion to make a statement about the immediacy of the impending death of the Lord (contrary to the historical Jesus' usual lack of attention to himself as a priority). The compliment to Mary stands as a validation that she has a proper balance between weeping and joy, between lavishness and frugality. Balance of contrasts, process thinkers and composers know, often makes it possible to include the most extravagant or discordant aspect of life into a meaningful whole.

The epistle lesson reminds us that we disciples "do Lent" to become "like him in his death" (Phil 3:10). Echoing the gospel lesson, we are to revalue everything else no matter how costly as "loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord" (v. 8). Discipleship requires an economic and cultural revaluation because of the transforming power in Christ.

Here, we would do well to allow the sanctity of Paul’s bold affirmation "I want to know Christ" (v. 10) to settle in during a moment of silence. Then, our process sensitivities could help us unpack and make real and present what it means to "know Christ" in his death. For example, I knew my own father better during the last three days and nights preceding his death than at any other time in during his life, and that while sitting by his bedside without any verbal communication from him. Dying with someone can mean being influenced positively by their values, choices, and actions until that predominant influence outweighs our own claim to ourselves (Paul’s forsaking his boasting to religious, ethnic, and cultural claims to status) as a priority. That real influence was the power of the resurrection for Paul and for us. Certainly, this Process and Faith web site at this season just following the death of Will Beardslee brings a similar response to his influence on us which was perhaps best stated by Karen and David Lull in their poem dedicated to him in Creative Transformation, Winter 2000, p.13:

The Mentor

Accepted me

As I was

And stepped again into the ongoing process,


Who I am

And who I will become

One further interesting sermon possibility from these lessons would be to preach a pastoral sermon about hospice -- the ways in which we can bring weeping and joy into those times when we are preparing for someone's death. Mary and Martha provided a de facto hospice for Jesus. They brought celebration and anointing for death together in one place and one time. Moreover, Jesus was not in denial of his own death. He helped his disciples embrace that possibly, however abrupt and unfair to his present work. How can we as a congregation do that for one another? Traditionally, we bring food for the family of the deceased, and even that practice has dwindled in our commuter communities where we may not work and worship where we reside. What about an anointing of life by video taping the "lives of the saints" at a banquet free to everyone over 80 and recording their highlighted memories of their faith journey? Rituals of mourning and celebrating are important. This time of Lent invites us to explore how to "become like him in his death."