Lent5c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Thus says the Lord, “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?”
As is clear from our gospel reading this morning, our Lenten season is drawing to a close. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week. The gospel passage is set six days before Passover, and Jesus is in the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, this unusual family of a brother and two sisters — all the more unusual because the brother had been dead, and behold, he is alive.
But before we come to this domestic scene with Jesus taking part in what begins as a simple family dinner in the home of some of his closest friends — before that our ears are tuned to expect something quite astonishing because of the other Scriptures we heard. They all relate to looking forward — so what is it we have to look forward to?
Isaiah portrays the Lord giving a direct commandment: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing!” And the new thing he describes is making a way in the wilderness, water bursting forth in the desert.
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Let me take this opportunity to tell you a bit of a personal story. I had more or less lost my faith by the time I was in high school. Don’t be too shocked — this often happens with young people; some of you may have had this experience yourselves. In my case, although I had been baptized an Episcopalian, I had been an infant at the time and was too young to remember it, and from about the age of five on I was raised in the Roman Catholic Church. This was in those days before the reforms of the Second Vatican Council — back when things were taught without being explained, when the worship was in Latin and we were taught to say the words but not what they meant, and the incense smelled like burning tennis shoes and it always made me sick to my stomach, already stressed because these were the days when you were required to fast from the night before. I’m afraid that the teaching — based on the principle “what we say is true because we say it” — wasn’t geared to my inquisitive and doubt-filled mind; and questions were not encouraged. So I drifted away from the church by the time I got to high school.
But a few years later, early in college, I actually picked up a Bible and read the Gospels, and realized what I had been missing. Also about that time — and I do believe this is the grace of God at work — I encountered an Englishwoman, Doreen Griffin (God rest her soul!), through my work at the local educational television station, where she was one of the people coordinating the “talent” performing in the educational TV programs they produced. Doreen was also a very active Anglican, an Episcopalian involved in her local congregation that was part of the emerging Episcopal charismatic movement — a part of the church blessed with. the visible signs of the Spirit’s presence. Now, mind, these were Episcopalians, so it didn’t mean being slain in the spirit or rolling on the floor in an ecstasy, or handling snakes. But it did mean being open to manifestations of the presence of God, evidence of the presence of God.
To make a long story short, I attended one of these charismatic meetings, and joined the circle sitting in silent prayer; and at one point I felt as if there was a strong wind blowing from the center of the circle, blowing into my face and I spoke, not really entirely sure why I did so, and I said, “There will be water in the desert.” That was it. When the prayer session ended the other members of the group told me that this was a prophecy. O.K., maybe it was; whatever it was, I have ever since found that phrase has been very close to my heart — and to which I have returned again and again in times of trial and disappointment. And here it is in our reading from Isaiah today.
It is a word of hope that does not deny the reality of trouble. There is, after all, the desert — the dry and unproductive, and dangerous and deadly environment: you might say, where I had been for those few years without God when I was between the church of my childhood and that of my early adulthood. A desert, yes, but one where there is hope — hope, that with the power of God, water will well up even in this unexpected and unpromising place, precisely where it is most needed. Water, in the desert.
Today’s psalm sums up this mixture of fear and promise, of hurt and hope. The fortunes of Zion, which had fallen very low, are restored; and those who went out weeping carrying the seed, come with joy shouldering their sheaves. I’ve spoken before about how this psalm portrays people risking planting the last of their seed in the hope that it will bring in a harvest — every farmer has to follow that advice to look forward to what is ahead, and to hope that the springs of water will come to nourish the crop. One who has no hope will never plant — but one who never plants will never reap a harvest.
Saint Paul gives this an even more personal spin; similar to the way in which I shared some of my story, Paul talks about his experiences with religion — though unlike me, who only drifted away from the church for a time in my youth, Paul in his youth actively persecuted the church in his zeal for his own religious upbringing. But since he has come to know Christ, he has tossed all of that behind him; he treats it as so much rubbish. All of his accomplishments, all the credit he scored with the leaders of his former sect, all of his learning, and even his ancestry— it has all become so much rubbish, and “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” he “presses on toward the goal of the prize of the heavenly call of God.” Paul has tasted of the water that wells up in the wilderness and he knows that nothing else will ever satisfy his thirst for God.
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So, by the time we arrive at the dinner scene in Bethany, we are prepared to see a new thing that will spring forth, to see water in the desert. And the one who sets the new thing in motion is Mary. You will remember from other incidents in this household that she was deeply devoted to Jesus and sat at his feet to listen to him while her sister Martha was busy preparing dinner. And we find her once again at the feet of her Lord, this time not sitting and listening, but anointing his feet with perfume — valued at 300 denarii as the money-minded thief Judas is very quick to calculate. Jesus is equally quick to rebuke this mercenary impulse — after all he knows this is not intended for the poor but for the protester’s purse — and this gives a hint of what this action means: that Mary has been keeping this perfume for the day of his burial.
Into the joy of this dinner held in Jesus’ honor, Mary provokes and Jesus affirms that his death and burial is only a few days away. As the hippies used to say, “Bummer.” But we would be wrong to see this as a reverse of what we’ve been talking about: water in the desert. This is not a desert coming into the water. This is not a buzz-kill, a discovery of something unpleasant floating in the punch bowl — no, this is still good news. This is water in the desert.
It’s just that the desert looks like a dinner party.
But look around that table. There is Martha, serving — is she still casting dirty looks at her sister Mary for not helping her with the work? And there is Judas, complaining out of the desert of his hard, scheming heart that his chance to make a quick buck has been spoiled. And there is Jesus, reminding them that his death is approaching, and that poverty and need will always exist. So much for the desert of want.
Then where is the water of hope?
Well, there is Lazarus — a man who was literally dead not too long before, but who is now alive, and if that doesn’t give you hope I don’t know what will. And there is Mary, willing to pour out that perfume in the hope of a better hope, like the people planting the seed knowing that the rains will come and the harvest thereafter. And of course, there is Jesus: who reminds them of his death and burial, but for we who know the other side of the story, the other side from Easter, know that he will be raised from the dead.
Jesus sets his face towards Calvary in the knowledge that his resurrection lies beyond it — over the hill — as I reminded us not long ago, no cross, no crown! The water will spring forth in the desert — but the desert is there. Resurrection will come, but not before death on the cross and burial in the tomb in the garden, where his body will be anointed again with perfume; laid to rest before he rises.
Jesus reminds us, “You always have the poor with you” — and I think it fair to understand this as meaning there will always be deserts; there will always be need, and disappointment, and loss. But through it all there will also be hope — the Lord will give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to those chosen, to the people God has formed so that they may declare the praise of the Lord, God blessèd forever, and mighty to save, who brings water in the desert, and new life from the grave.+