Old Testament: Isaiah (43:16-21)
Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick: “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? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
The Response: Psalm 126
1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.
2 Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.
3 Then they said among the nations, *
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
4 The Lord has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.
5 Restore our fortunes, O Lord, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.
6 Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.
7 Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.
The Epistle: Philippians (3:4b-14)
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but 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.
The Gospel: John (12:1-8)
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
At the point at which the scene in today’s gospel takes place, John’s narrative has been traveling full-speed-ahead. The gospel began with the Word existing with God before the world began; it then quickly brought us to the event in which “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” skipped over his childhood and young adult years, portrayed him suddenly as a mature adult, and provided us with highlights of three years of public ministry. Sometimes, the story has progressed so rapidly that we could hardly catch our breath.
But here, at the beginning of chapter 12, John slams on the breaks. (Look out for whiplash!) Time suddenly screeches almost to a halt, and the evangelist, who has taken only eleven chapters to recount for us everything that has happened from before the world began to the end of Jesus’ public ministry, now takes an entire eight and one-half chapters to describe the events of just one week. The account in today’s reading is said to have taken place the evening before Jesus’ dramatic entry into Jerusalem.
But another thing has changed between the first eleven chapters and the final ten as well. The contrast between peoples’ reactions to Jesus has become much more evident; and their differences, much more clearly defined. And in today’s passage, John presents us with a stark, day-and-night contrast between Mary of Bethany, on the one hand, and Judas Iscariot, on the other.
For three years, Jesus has been struggling to engage his audiences all over Galilee and Judea in what our passage from Second Isaiah calls the “new thing” that God is doing. He has invited them into a vision of the kingdom of God, or “eternal life” as John calls it. That life is not something that takes place only after death. Instead, it is new way of relating throughout our lives to all of God’s people. It is a way of living that puts the focus on serving the needs of others, rather than focusing on our own wants and desires. Mary immerses herself in that vision. Judas increasingly rejects it.
Mary’s action in anointing the feet of Jesus with such expensive ointment is over-the-top; and that is what John obviously intends to portray. Her commitment to Jesus and to his vision results in an action of extravagant generosity. She has fully immersed herself in the new thing that God is doing.
Judas, on the other hand, is pictured as traveling in the diametrically opposite direction. He has made the decision to go back to old, primitive ways of living, to ways that are all too familiar in the history of the human race. He, who at first must have accepted at least something about Jesus’ vision of a life of service to others, has now increasingly retreated into a more and more narrow focus on himself and on his own interests and on what he can obtain and control for himself. John tells us that Judas had become a thief, stealing from whatever money Jesus and his disciples had. In just a few days, his greed will lead him to betray a friend, a teacher, for thirty pieces of silver. Humanity’s past and its self-centered ways apparently had such a hold on him that he was unable, or unwilling, to live in God’s future.
That wasn’t, of course, the first time that that had happened. It’s a recurring issue for people in all ages. A similar thing had taken place five centuries earlier with the Jews who found themselves living in exile in Babylon. They had been through such a traumatic experience and were feeling so helpless that their natural reaction was to try to return to the past. That seems to be the tendency among all people in unsettling times: to attempt to retreat to a supposedly simpler time and to older ways as an escape from the present reality. They succumb to a corporate form of nostalgia: a longing to return to an earlier time, a time that existed primarily in their own imaginations.
But one voice challenged them to look, not so much to the past, but to the present and to the future: to God’s present and God’s future. That anonymous prophet who spoke the words of today’s first reading begins by identifying Israel’s God and citing God’s great deeds in the past; but then he or she goes on to insist “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?” Don’t try to return to a past, whether a historical past or a past of your own imaginations. Instead, stand up and see the new thing that God is doing: the new ways that God is at work here and now, and the new place to which God is leading us for the future.
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” That is God’s urgent call to us today and to God’s people in all ages.
Old Testament scholar Paul Hanson explores the tension between the call to remember God’s deeds of the past and the call not to remember them. He asks, “Under what circumstances should Israel not remember the former things?” and then responds, “at a point where a nostalgic relation to tradition threatens to tie the people to their past and to stultify alertness to present realities, responsiveness to new opportunities, and the potential for growth into yet-unrealized possibilities.”
On the one hand, remembering the past is essential as it gives us roots, as it gives us a foundation. But on the other hand, remembering the past can blind us to the fact that the past is gone and will not return, but that God is alive and well and working in new ways today and is leading us into the future.
That is always an important realization for churches. We treasure our heritage, and it’s important that we do. But sometimes we tend to keep looking back and trying to return to the way things used to be, not recognizing that times have changed, that the membership of the church has changed, and that the needs of the community that we are called to serve have changed. The past is past, and it is never going to return.
It is in situations like these that the author of the second part of the book of Isaiah asks us the same question asked of our spiritual ancestors 2500 years ago: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Maybe that is a central question, or even the central question, for us at all times: what new thing is God doing in our day? Where is God active and working in the world today? Where is God calling us to come and follow and serve God’s people today? And in what ways is God leading us into the future?