The Fifth Sunday in Lent - 17 March 2013

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
Saint John 12:1-8


Background: Pilgrimage
Over the past weeks we have been looking at the pattern in the readings of the Lectionary during Lent.  One aspect of that pattern has been the recurring notion of pilgrimage – an active journey to a holy site, a journey from tyranny into freedom, an interior journey into our own faith, or the journey from spiritual moment to spiritual moment, such as the Stations of the Cross.  In Judaism (as well as in later Christianity) we hear of such journeys.  The Bible sees the journey of Abraham and Sarah from the Ur of the Chaldeans as not a mere relocation, but a journey guided and informed by God.  Similarly the journey of Israel from Egypt to the promised land is not only a political reality but is peppered with spiritual moments of learning at various points along the way.  With the construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the people saw an opportunity to make a pilgrimage to a holy place, learn and experience there, and to return home.   Even before this Temple, shrines and holy places in ancient Israel drew pilgrims to experience God on the journey.  The Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) literally give voice to the sacred journey of people to the Temple and worship.

Christians began their own journeys; Paul’s being the most notable as he moved from place to place honoring the Gospel.  Early Christians traveled back to the source as we read about the journeys of Origin, Helen, and Jerome.  During this season, it might be interesting to read about the pilgrimage of Egeria, a Gallic woman, to Jerusalem during the Holy Week of (ca.) 381.  Later Christians would journey to not only Jerusalem but to Santiago de Compostela, Canterbury, Rome, and many other places.  The journey is the heightened human experience, often written down for the benefit of others.  Let us continue our journey during this Lent.

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 journey that Israel makes out of Egypt in the Exodus becomes a model for the faithful and for the prophets.  Here, second Isaiah idealizes that journey to freedom as an answer to the question, “Who is YHWH?”  In the succeeding verses we can see the God of Israel through the acts of the God of Israel.  The pericope begins with a rehearsal of the event at the Red sea, and then the prophet interrupts the scene.  “Do not remember the former things…I am about to do a new thing.”  Isaiah sees no danger in remembrance or recall, but does see a limiting nature to such recollections.  For the prophet, the acts of God are continuous rather than completed.  Something new is around the corner, and life will change.  The scene is still the wilderness, but now it is a wilderness of “a way” and of water.  The usual privations and terror of the wilderness (wild animals and jackals) are swept away, because they too honor God.  These wandering people are refreshed.  How mighty these images must have seemed to those who returned (through these circumstances and locales) as they left Babylon for the land of their fathers and mothers.  The beauty of good is seen in a simple cup of water.

Breaking open Isaiah:

1.     What has God done for you in your past?
2.     What do you expect of God in your future?
3.     How do you honor God for what God has done for you?

Psalm 126 In convertendo

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, *
then were we like those who dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter, *
and our tongue with shouts of joy.

Then they said among the nations, *
"The LORD has done great things for them."

The LORD has done great things for us, *
and we are glad indeed.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD, *
like the watercourses of the Negev.

Those who sowed with tears *
will reap with songs of joy.

Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, *
will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.

Speaking of Psalms of Ascent (see Background above), such a psalm is the responsorial psalm for this day.  The psalm itself rides on the cusp of the past and the future.  The verbs in the initial verses are unclear if we are remembering something wonderful (Israel’s fortunes) or anticipating something wonderful.  Oddly enough, it doesn’t matter.  It reflects Isaiah’s theology of the old and the new.  The phrase, “then were we like those who dream”, sums up the reality that the psalm endeavors to embrace.  God’s former or future deeds are celebrated here.  One aspect to the word translated as “fortunes” is that it can also be translated as “previous condition”.  The fifth verse draws it out for us - “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses of the Negev.”  The dry wadi of the wilderness in southern Palestine, are dry river courses; bereft of water they become gushing rivers during the rainy season.  Wet and dry (see Isaiah’s use of this image in the first reading) becomes a symbol of Israel’s difficult past and its fruitful future.  The images change from a land of nothing to a land abounding in grain.  This interaction between God and Israel does not happen in a void, however.  The nations see and understand, recognizing the great deeds that God has done.

Breaking open Psalm 126
1.       The psalm speaks of Israel being restored.  What would restore you?
2.       From what condition do you need restoration?
3.       What might a joyous future look like?

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.

In the verses preceding this reading, Paul wrestles with the notion of circumcision, and calls it “a mutilation.”  Paul wants to move the congregation at Philippi to another point of view, and begins a conversation on the “true circumcision.”  His real departure is a discussion about “who are we – what is our honor?”  Thus he begins this pericope with his own confidence.  He has followed all the rules: circumcision, the house of Israel, a Benjaminite, born under the Law, a Pharisee.  All of this he gives up.  Now the question is one of righteousness – what will be standing by our side at the moment of judgment?  His answer is Christ.  Knowing Christ, being found in Christ, righteousness in Christ, faith in Christ, these are the aspects of honor that Paul wants not only for himself, but also for those who would follow Jesus.  Nor does he see it as an “event” accomplished once, and then forgotten.  It is rather a continuation of God’s grace, as he (we) moves on beyond the goal.

Breaking open Philippians:

1.               What distinguishes you from other people?
2.               Does your Christian faith distinguish you?  How?
3.               What have you given up for your faith?

St. 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."

This reading follows the raising of Lazarus (11:1-44), and as the “Seventh Sign”; John draws new material that focuses on the themes of death and life.  He quite consciously draws our attention to that event by locating the action in Bethany, “the home of Lazarus.”  The time is important as well.  We are six days away from Passover, and in John’s chronology, seven days from the Resurrection.  Martha serves, but again, Mary goes beyond and reveals what everyone has been avoiding.  There are several culturally unusual actions that Mary makes.  She anoints Jesus’ feet (not his head) and letting her hair down (instead of keeping covered as social convention demanded) she wipes his feet with it.  John suspends us on the question of what all this means, which he delays until the last.  A clue is given, however, in the phrase, “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”.  Similar phrases talk about the glory of God filling the house (Temple) or of the fragrance of sacrifice.  It floats there, in John, making us seek new associations and meanings. 

Judas interrupts our reverie with a concern about the cost of the ointment – “it could have been given to the poor.”  Mary’s gift was about her respect for Jesus, but in her actions Jesus sees an opportunity to talk about what was about to happen.  Jesus connects her actions with the anointing of his body following his death on the cross.  Judas’ objection is hollow, and does not see the value of Jesus’ presence for all conditions of people.  It is the final lesson before a week of events and a dialogue with the disciples.  It is the prelude to learning about Jesus’ purpose and progress to Jerusalem.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What do you think were Mary’s motives?
  2. What were Judas’ motives?
  3. What are your thoughts about the “the poor you have with you always” quote?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday. 

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

All commentary and questions are copyright © 2013 Michael T. Hiller


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