Isaiah 43:16-21 – Rivers in the desert: do not remember the former things. 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.”
Return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.
– Joel 2
March 2 – Ash Wednesday: Dust. Ashes. Mortality. Repentance. Fasting. Don’t show off your piety.
March 6 – Lent 1C: First fruits for the Levite and alien. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the wilderness.
March 13 – Lent 2C: Abram’s call. Faith reckoned as righteousness. Jesus laments for Jerusalem.
March 20 – Lent 3C: Repent, for there is only so much time left for the fig tree to bear fruit.
March 27 – Lent 4C: Lost sheep. Lost sons.
April 3 – Lent 5C: I am about to do a new thing… Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
April 10 – Palm/Passion Sunday: Jesus entry into Jerusalem as an anti-triumph.
The Prodigal God
If you are reading Timothy Keller’s book The Prodigal God: recovering the heart of the Christian Faith, there is a study guide and DVD that go with each chapter.
Lent 1 – Chapter 1: The People Around Jesus
Lent 2 – Chapter 2: The Two Lost Sons
Lent 3 – Chapter 3: Redefining Sin
Lent 4 – Chapter 4: Redefining Lostness
Lent 5 – Chapter 5: The True Elder Brother
Palm Sunday – Chapters 6 and 7: Redefining Hope
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 Old Testament reading 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, God’s “anointed one” (messiah, christ). Secondly, the Passover deliverance was making the sea into dry land. If YHWH could turn the sea to dry land, YHWH could now do the opposite: turn the dry land into a river.
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 God, 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.
For all of us traumatized by the last two years of pandemic, the loss of life, loss of jobs, loss of community by a disease the robbed us of being together – all these things have been difficult. Church leaders and programs have been gutted. We wonder what the future holds. Could God be doing a new thing?
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Could Paul in Philippians 3 and John in Revelation 21 have had Isaiah 43 in mind when they wrote these words?
Do not remember the former things, the things of old. (Isaiah 43)
But this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead,
I press on toward the goal… (Philippians 3)
Behold I am about to do a new thing… (Isaiah 43)
And the one seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21)
Mary’s scandalous act: John 12:1-8
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(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.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9When 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. 10So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.
It is six days before Passover. We’re getting close to Jesus’ hour (13:1), the hour when, having given so much, he will set the ultimate example by giving it all. For God so loved the world that he gave… Sacrificial love is at the heart of the gospel. There is no other gospel.
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 pound of perfumed nard, a year’s wages worth, on Jesus’ feet. This nard might likely have been imported from Eastern India or Nepal. She then wiped his feet with her hair, an act of deep love, a foreshadowing of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in the very next chapter. Touched by a woman, loose hair, the familiar Mary who had sat at Jesus feet before. This is a sensual picture, in a society where unfamilial men and women are not to mix. Immediately Judas jumped on this.
Many of us in the Gulf Coast remember our friend, Professor Eliseo Pérez-Álvarez, who taught at the Lutheran Seminary Program of the Southwest (LSPS), housed at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest in Austin Texas. Professor Pérez points out that anointing was something done to kings (all male) by popes (all male), and vice-versa. But here, Jesus is anointed by a woman, from the country, working class, a lay person.
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 said the ominous words: “She has saved this for my burial.” His hour having arrived, she marked it with an act of lavish generosity that Judas cannot fathom.
Jesus then uttered the well-known words, misused for centuries, “The poor will always be with you, but I will not always be with you.”
Jesus is alluding to a passage that his disciples would have known well, Deuteronomy 15:11:
There will never cease to be some poor people in the land; therefore, I am commanding you to make sure you open your hand to your fellow Israelites who are needy and poor in your land.
In Deuteronomy, the fact that the poor will always be with you is not an excuse to ignore them. It is, in fact, the reason to open your hand to those who are needy in the land.
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, Jesus teaches 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.”
This is Jesus’ last hurrah. It is a time for lavish gifts. You may recall that one chapter earlier in John, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Another reason for a celebration. Mary, Martha and Lazarus threw a dinner for Jesus. Wouldn’t you? What is your life worth?
Mary’s act is one of extravagant generosity and love. This is what Jesus lived, and what he taught. But extravagant generosity to whom? Jesus answers this. Unambiguously, I think, in Luke 14:12-14, if I may mix my gospels a bit:
When you host a dinner or a banquet, don’t invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid. But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.
Let’s not call it social justice for the moment. Call it extravagant love, extravagant generosity. “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”
May our lives, our churches, our streets, be filled with such love, that sweet, sweet smell of the rose, of Mary’s fragrant perfume, the smell of extravagant love and lavish generosity.