The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 13 March 2016

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

Background: Anointing

Anointing, at least in the Bible, was the sign or means of imparting a treatment for health (as in the story of the Good Samaritan), a sign and act of hospitality (as in today’s Gospel), a religious ceremony (as at Baptism, Ordinations, or at the anointing of the sick), and finally as a political ceremony (as at the anointing of monarchs). It is not unique to the Jewish and Christian traditions, and finds itself in other religious expressions as well. The means of the anointing have varied from perfumed oils, to milk and butter, or any other kind of fat. Whatever its purpose or means, anointing is indeed a very ancient practice that comes to us from the beginnings of human civilization. All of the purposes seemed to mix in today’s Gospel, underscoring Jesus appearance and presence as Christos (the Anointed One).

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.

There is a structure here in the second Isaiah’s proclamation of salvation that may elude us. The first section, verses 16 and 17 speaks of a community and a lament, the second section, verses 18 and 19a comments on what God is going to do, the third section, verses 19b through 21, describe God’s deliberate actions. These give us opportunities to mine the text for meaning. The prophet reminds the community that in addition to God’s power over the sea and waters (a reference to creation-making, and power over chaos) these mythic elements are made real in God’s deliverance of Israel from slavery in Egypt. In the latter part of verse 17, we have a lament, a remembrance of the current and past situations. The bondage of Egypt and the exile in Babylon are lumped together – a situation that God will soon address. Thus follows the next segment and its immediate charge, “Remember not the former things.” The God who has acted in the past will act again and will accomplish something different and novel. The signs of God’s activity will be signs of outrageous interactions in nature and in communities – all for the benefit of the people. These themes will be used again in Isaiah and indeed by other prophets as well. In our mind they are redolent of Israel’s baptism in the wilderness of Sinai: water in the desert, and a way through the desert. This should stir Israel’s memory so that it can entertain a notion of what God will do in the present and in their future. This is, however, not a community made through difficulty and trial. This is an intentional community, the product of God’s own hand, “the people whom I formed for myself.”

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. Why would Israel have cause to lament?
  2. How would God act in their favor?
  3. What are your memories of being saved?

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.

All the themes that are used in the Isaiah reading are found in today’s psalm as well: the desert, the water, and the emotional response to the acts of God. Like the initial verses of Isaiah, the psalmist asks the hearer to turn their mind to the past. The Hebrew word translated as “fortunes” really means “a previous condition”, and it is from that point, a remembrance of Egypt, that the psalm precedes. What a contrast, however, if Isaiah sees a community in lament, the psalmist sees a community overwhelmed with joy. This may indeed be a psalm that comes from the exilic community and the joy and happiness may be anticipated or present – the verb tenses are unclear on that point.  What is clear is that the joy is a possibility both present, past, and future – it is a product of the community’s relationship with God. The first verse gives as a rather real image of this reality, “then were we like those who dream.”

The images of the “watercourses of the Negev” are a reference to the dry wadi that are ever present in the Judean wilderness. These dry riverbeds can suddenly fill with water in the spring rains, and are an excellent example of promise and fulfillment suddenly made real. The juxtaposition of tears, in the next verse, amplifies the theme of the presence of water, only here the tears are redolent of what was (sorrow) or perhaps even of what will be (joy). The final verse embodies all of the flow of the preceding verses, the going out and the seed (promise) and the coming in with the sheaves of the harvest (the fulfillment). What a delightful psalm this is.

Breaking open Psalm 126:
  1. Why would Israel have cause for joy?
  2. What are your tears?
  3. What are your dreams?

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.

Paul wants to instruct the Christians at Philippi about the behaviors they must exhibit in following Christ, with Paul nominating himself as a prime example. He is about to warn his readers about the temptations of Judaizing, and he sets out his credentials right away. “I (was) circumcised on the eighth day, etc.” In other words Paul knows what comes with Judaism, and he knows what it is that Christians are to take into themselves as they differentiate themselves in Christ. He shows us vividly where he has come from, “a persecutor of the church,” and he wants us to see what the goal is. The process is difficult, involving suffering and loss of all things. What is to be gained, however, is worth ever so much more – Christ, righteousness, faith, and the power of the resurrection. In a way the reading mirrors Isaiah’s advice in God’s proclamation to Israel, “Do not remember the former things.” Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on.”

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. How does Paul demonstrate his Jewishness?
  2. How do you demonstrate your being a Christian?
  3. What is the goal?

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."

If you read the Background (above) then you are familiar with all the various kinds and purposes of anointing. This anointing, however, is quite particular. It is the anointing of Jesus for his burial. It takes place within the inner circle of friends and disciples, and yet there is confusion and disagreement about the act as it takes place. Some commentators have seen in this anointing a “royal” anointing prior to the entry into Jerusalem, where Jesus is hailed as “the King of Israel – the one who comes in the Lord’s name.” As with any symbolic act, the signs are leveled and multi-faceted and may represent both or more.

The comments on the poor, triggered by Judas Iscariot’s outburst, “why was this perfume not sold?” is answered in the final verse of the pericope by Jesus’ remark on the ubiquity of the poor. This comment is a reflection of a verse from Deuteronomy (15:11), which also remarks “the poor will never be lacking in the land.” Deuteronomy, however, follows that comment with an invitation to open hands and pocket books for the relief of the poor. John’s quote from Jesus’ lips underscore the incarnational presence of Jesus, and do not pretend to comment on the status of the poor. In rabbinic theology works of mercy, such as the anointing of the dead, were superior to works of justice, such as almsgiving. Our world may have a different view.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How would you prepare Jesus for death?
  2. Have you prepared for your own death?
  3. What place do the poor have in your life?

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.

Questions and comments copyright © 2016, Michael T. Hiller


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