Fifth Sunday in Lent

March 17, 2013
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Isaiah 43:16-21
Reading 2: 
Psalm 126
Reading 3: 
Philippians 3:4b-14
Reading 4: 
John 12:1-8
By Paul S. Nancarrow

Isaiah 43:16-21

What a wonderful skein of references, cross-references, counter-references, and contrasts is presented in these six verses from the second major division of Isaiah! The poem is as remarkable for its complex patterning as it is for its message of hope and encouragement. "Thus says the Lord," the passage begins, using the typical prophetic formula to indicate that God speaks; and then it identifies the speaking God as the God of the Exodus, the one who "makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters," a path that is safe for the chosen people, but into which "chariot and horse, army and warrior" are brought out and "extinguished, quenched like a wick" by the returning waters. But then, unexpectedly, having identified the speaking God, the prophet hears from God "Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old:" the Exodus remembrance just evoked is then explicitly denied.

It is not enough to compare what God has done to what God is about to announce; the identification of God as God of the Exodus is not sufficient for understanding the "new thing" God is about to do. For now God "will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert," and will "give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people." Instead of making a way through water, God will now make a way where there is no water, and will in fact there provide water for those who journey on the way. Instead of laying low "chariot and horse, army and warrior," God will now elicit praise from "wild animals ... the jackals and the ostriches." The promised new thing, the return from Babylon, will be unlike what has gone before, unlike the original Exodus from Egypt; in key ways it will even be the opposite of the Exodus from Egypt, dry rather than wet, eliciting praise rather than extinguishing enemies.

Yet the new thing cannot be understood for what it is apart from the Exodus: it is the same God who works liberation for the people in each instance, and the depth and breadth and importance of this new liberation cannot be grasped without reference to the old. The warning not to remember former things cannot be taken as an absolute: it is only by remembering the Exodus that the Return can make sense. Instead, the warning is not to be limited by considering the things of old, not to assume that since God has acted to liberate in one way before, that is the only way that God can act. God is free to act in the world in ways the world has never before known; but even those new ways will be in continuity with God's own fundamental character of justice, peace, and love.

This is a key insight of process thought: that real things in the world must balance novelty and continuity, being new enough to stand out from what has occurred before, but being continuous enough to sustain relationships with already existing entities. So it is with God: attributing novelty to God's actions in the world is not incompatible with asserting the everlasting unchangingness of God's fundamental character and aims. And so it is with this new thing that God is about to do: it is recognizable because of its resonances with the Exodus; but it is remarkable for the way it contrasts, transmutes, and re-appropriates the Exodus. For contemporary commentators and preachers, the promise of novelty-with-continuity can prompt us to look at our own situations, to see new and unexpected -- and often uncomfortable -- things "springing forth," and to recognize their transmutations of our traditions into new potential co-creative acts with God.

Psalm 126

Perhaps the most obvious reason for pairing this psalm with this First Testament reading is the reference to flowing water: the psalm's appeal to God to "Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the watercourses in the Negeb" can be seen in parallel to God's promise in Isaiah to "give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." Moreover, where the Isaiah passage looks to the Exodus to anticipate the Return, this postexilic psalm looks to the Return to anticipate divine assistance in the present.

The repeated experiences of alienation and restoration, focused through the twin lenses of Exodus and Return, allow the faithful people to discern a pattern of God's way with them: "those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy; those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves." It is to that pattern that they appeal for encouragement in doing their work of rebuilding the city, and for faith that God is with them in the work. That pattern can be a source of encouragement for us in our times and places as well, as we do our work to embody divine aims for justice and peace and mutual well-being within a world so often frustrating and resistant to those aims.

Philippians 3:4b-14

Just as the prophet heard God calling him not to remember the former things, but to look for a new thing, so in this passage Paul says of himself "this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." In context with the other readings assigned for this day, what jumps out from this part of Philippians is the "before/after" contrast: before, Paul was "confident in the flesh," citing as his reasons his ethnic and tribal heritage, his Pharisaic training, his zeal for the Torah, even to the point of persecuting the Torah-laxity of the church, and his sense of personal righteousness in keeping the law; after, these things have come to seem much less important, even to seem like rubbish, compared to Paul's experience of "the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord." Instead of having confidence in himself, Paul now places his confidence in "faith in Christ;" that is, he derives his sense of value and purpose not from what he can accomplish with respect to the external demands of God, but from participation in the activity of God in Christ.

Paul wants to "gain Christ and be found in him," so that Christ is not a possession he can gain and claim, but an environment, a surrounding and supporting reality, that claims Paul and redirects Paul's personal activites to divine ends. This is what it means to Paul to "share Christ's sufferings" and "become like him," even to the point of death: that Paul's life-aims are coordinated to the larger ideals and goals of God's righteousness made manifest in human terms and available to human realization in Jesus. It is because "Christ Jesus has made me his own" in this way that Paul revalues his former accomplishments and is willing to set them aside, to forget them, and instead to press on toward the actualization of new potentials in Christlike life.

Yet for Paul, as for the prophet before, the "former things" are not entirely lost: his Pharisaical training continues to serve Paul in his new task of interpreting and re-presenting the meaning of Christ, and his zeal for the law has perhaps even increased in becoming zeal for the gospel. Paul the Christian is hardly imaginable without Paul the Jew. For him, to "forget what lies behind" is not to erase it utterly, but to refuse to be limited to simply reenacting old ideals, and instead to release influences from his past to be the raw materials for new realizations of new ideals, pressing on to a new "call of God in Christ Jesus." The passage invites us to ask what things in our lives might need such "forgetting," such release to become the energies of new responsiveness to God's call.

John 12:1-8

This brief episode from John is included in today's lectionary as a kind of "pre-Passion" bridge between the Lenten season and the extended gospel reading for next week's Palm Sunday/Sunday of the Passion. The anointing of Jesus by Mary at Bethany "six days before the Passover" is a proleptic preparation for burial, one that will only be completed by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, in haste and without a personal touch, just before sundown on the following Friday night (19:38-40). John sets this dinner after the raising of Lazarus, and notes that Lazarus is at the table, so the scene already has a liminal, life-and/or-death feeling to it. Luke, by contrast, puts his partial parallel to this story, in which Martha serves and Mary is at Jesus' feet, but at which Lazarus is not mentioned, in the middle of Jesus' public ministry, and not in any connection with the Passion. Mark and Matthew differ yet more by placing their versions near the Passion, but in the house of one Simon the leper, and with a nameless woman performing the anointing. Only John combines the imminence of death with the intimacy of friends.

Into this emotionally laden scene of anticipation of suffering and death intrudes Judas's comment about selling the perfume and giving the money to the poor. Judas appears to misunderstand completely the meaning of Mary's gesture: the value of her acknowledgment of Jesus' impending death is lost on him, as he is only able to see the value of the perfume as a commodity, as so much cash that could be used for other purposes -- perhaps to serve the poor, but more likely, according to the narrator's gloss, to line Judas's own pocket. Even if Judas is a thief, his fixation on the cash-value of the perfume rather than the meaning-value of the anointing seems remarkably tone-deaf to the situation. It earns for him Jesus' remonstrance "Leave her alone," and the explanation that "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial." Serving the poor is a constant and ongoing ministry, Jesus says, because "You always have the poor with you." But the opportunity to serve Jesus in tenderness and with recognition of his sacrifice is, for these friends, a unique occasion, and it should not be wasted.

This is in a way a test of Jesus' New Commandment -- "Love one another as I have loved you" -- Mary shows for Jesus the same quality of tender love he had shown for her and Martha when they grieved over Lazarus; she loves as he loves; and this will be the ground of her ability to love others, including the poor, when Jesus is no longer with her in earthly life. The contrast between Mary and Judas leaves us with an implied question: will we measure things by their instrumental "cash" values, to others or to ourselves, or will we make our judgments according to the ideals of Christlike love?