Isaiah 43:16-21 – Rivers in the desert: 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.
Psalm 126 – When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy. Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Psalm 119:9-16 – How can young people keep their way pure? By guarding it according to your word.
Philippians 3:4b-14 – I more than any have reason to be confident in the flesh (my own works-righteousness) but I regard them all as rubbish in order to gain Christ, and know him as Lord, a righteousness based on faith, not works. And so I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
John 12:1-8 – Mary anoints Jesus feet with costly nard and wipes them with her hair. Judas objects. And the much maligned: You always have the poor with you, but not me.
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.
Toward the end of this post I will comment a bit on the gospel text. You can also read more about the gospel reading, John 12, Mary anointing Jesus feet, on a former post called Extravagant Love.
I am going to focus on the Old Testament reading, as I have been for the last few weeks. This text is from Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), written 547-540 B.C. This section of Isaiah reflects the end of the Babylonian Captivity. God is going to make a way from Baghdad (Babylon), back to Jerusalem, through the wilderness. This evokes a former journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
Luther Seminary professor, Mark Throntveit points out this text is laid out in a classic chiastic structure: A-B-B-A:
A: God delivers by making the sea into dry land.
B: Forget the former things.
B: I am about to do a new thing.
A: God delivers by making the dry land into a river.
Notice that there is a reversal in two ways. God’s judgment of the people through the hands of Babylon, ultimately sending them into slavery 900 miles away, will now be reversed through the hand of Cyrus, YHWH’s “anointed one” (messiah, christ). Secondly, the deliverance was making the sea into dry land. Now YHWH will turn the desert into rivers.
Don’t miss the ecological overtones here. The entire cosmos will feel the redemption of God. Rivers in the desert may be the flow of exiles home, but it also hints of water that provides for all living things. The wild animals will honor YHWH, along with the jackals and the ostriches. The people, the land and all God’s creatures are interrelated. When one suffers, all suffer. When there is drought, the plants, animals and humans suffer. When there is war, the environment suffers too.
A more personal application may be made as well. We all go through wilderness experiences in life. There are periods of grief, when sadness seems to be ever-present, and hope a long-lost friend. Abuse, a diagnosis, the death of a loved-one, the loss of a job – all these things can send us into wilderness stages of life. Hope is believing, when things are darkest, that God can make rivers in the desert. Hope is trusting that in the midst of death, Christ brings a word of life. It is knowing that even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not alone. Through what desert are you going? Could God make a river through your desert? Preacher, what deserts have you been through? Could you share your journey?
This reading from Isaiah is a powerful reminder of the power of hope. No matter how bad things are, God has the last word. God can redeem what we cannot. No matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’ve been, no matter what you’ve suffered, God boldly promises forgiveness and healing.
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.” When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
Jesus was at the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. They threw a big dinner, a feast for Jesus. The disciples were present for this party. Lazarus was at the table. Martha, was busy serving, as usual. Mary, ever-devoted, came out and poured a very expensive jar of nard all over Jesus’ feet. This nard may have been imported from Eastern India or Nepal. Mary wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. This is a sensual picture, in a society where men and women are not to mix. Immediately Judas jumps on this.
In Luke’s parallel version of this story (Luke 7:36-50) Jesus is eating at the home of a Pharisee, and the woman doing the anointing is a sinful woman. The Pharisee thinks that if Jesus was a prophet, he would know what “sort” of woman this is, and distance himself from her. Jesus responds by saying, whoever is forgiven much, loves much.
Judas’ argument in John’s version of the story is bit different. Being the treasurer, and one who is skimming, he complains that this money has been wasted. It could have been used for the poor.
Jesus utters the well-known words, misused by many, “The poor will always be with you, but I will not always be with you.” Jesus is a realist. He knows there will always be inequity. There will always be people in need. He is not telling people to give up. In fact, he calls his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and so on. Instead, he is saying, “There is a time for feasting and a time for fasting.”
You may recall that one chapter earlier in John, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. If there was ever something to celebrate, that was it! Of course, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus threw a dinner for Jesus. Wouldn’t you? What is your life worth?
The writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us, “For everything there is a season, and time for every purpose under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to harvest… a time to mourn and a time to dance… a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing.
When you fast, know when it’s time to break the fast, and join in the feast. If you fast during Lent, like so many around the world, do not punish your friends who happen to be born in March. Break your fast and celebrate joyfully with them. Likewise, if you are invited to someone’s home for dinner during a time of fasting, and you accept, don’t offer a litany of your food restrictions. We fast by grace and not by law. Accept the invitation joyfully, and don’t let your fasting be a show. Most fasting should probably be secret anyway. Some people break their fast on Sundays, which are not, technically, part of the 40 days of Lent. This moderates the fast.
Fasting is good for the soul. But so is feasting. For everything there is a season. Know which time is which.
Could it be that Lazarus, Mary and Martha are coming through their slavery to the Law, through the wilderness, and into the Promised Land of the Gospel? How might we invite our people to find in their Lenten discipline, and through their life experiences, an opportunity to experience more fully the gospel of Easter? It is the fifth Sunday of Lent – Easter is closer than you think.