The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 7 April 2019

TheFifth Sunday in Lent, 7 April 2019

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

Background: Nard

Nard (Valeriana spicaor Nardostachys jatamansi) is a plant from Nepal, China, and India, and commonly used in the ancient world as a perfume, its root having a strong but pleasing aroma. It grows in mountainous regions between 9,800 – 16,400 feet. The roots a crushed to render an oil, the color of amber. There are mentions of Nard throughout the scriptures, see Song of Songs 1:12, and 4:13, Mark 14:3, and John 12:3. It is designated in the Mishna as a component in the incense used in the temple. 

First Reading: 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 reading from Second Isaiah begins with references to the history of the people of Israel. Verse 16 looks back to the Red Sea Event, in which the Egyptian army is defeated by the waters, “they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” However, the prophet is setting up a trap for us. The next verse indicates his real intent, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” This Isaiah wants Israel to forget its current circumstance of living in exile. He states in as an extreme forgetfulness – so intense that even holy events (the Exodus) are forgotten as well. Again, Israel will be confronted by the wilderness, as it was at Sinai. Here, however, there will be a great highway, and rivers. The elements of the desert will honor YHWH by providing for his people’s exodus from a different enslavement.

Breaking open Isaiah:
  1. What has God done for you in the past?
  2. What do you anticipate from God in your future?
  3. What has God freed you from?


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.

This psalm is described in the text as “A song of ascents”, sung as pilgrims ascended up to Jerusalem. It is an emotional reverie which describes the feelings of joy as the city of both King and Temple is approached. Unlike the first reading in which the prophet wants to look to something new, in the psalm it appears to have already happened, “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” It is unclear, given “the fluidity of verb tenses,[1]whether the actions described in the poem are of a past or future nature. Is the joy anticipated, or in the present? It matters not, for in either case there is either joy in what God has done, or trust in what God will do. 

The water images in the psalm are almost opposite the initial water images in the first reading from Isaiah. Here there is anticipation of waters the rush through the wadis during the rainy season, when the desert and the land is renewed. So is Israel renewed as these waters renew. The water of tears become the water of joy. The notion of seed and then sheaves completes the image of the renewal of the land.

Breaking open Psalm 126:
  1. What in life gives you great joy?
  2. What in your spiritual life gives you joy?
  3. How has God given you abundance?


Second Reading: 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 loves lists, and here he lists his varied tribal status to establish his credentials: circumcised, member of the people, tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew from Hebrews, a Pharisee, a zealous prosecutor of the church, a righteous man. That established he goes on to what happened after all that – to a newfound status under God. Suddenly they become nothing, “these I have come to regard as loss.” We and the especially the ancient reader might wonder “Why?”. In a way, Paul’s reasoning here puts him on a level ground not only with his Jewish but with his Gentile readers as well. His alliance with Christ puts him in a new place that is apart from nation and tribe. For the Gentile readers, this was true as well. In a culture where emperor worship was not only socially acceptable but expected, the Christian was like Paul, counting all these cultural and social assets as nothing.  

Like Isaiah, Paul asks us to forget, “(I am) forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”In images redolent of the race, Paul describes himself as pressing forward to a destination or victory given him by God. This is a status and distinction that is given him and all believers by Jesus, the Christ. It is a gift; it is not something that he or we have attained. 

Breaking open Philippians:
  1. How would you describe yourself?
  2. What is your status in life?
  3. How would you describe yourself in Christ?

The Gospel: 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."

There is resurrection and anticipation in the air. We are in Bethany and are joined at dinner by Martha and Lazarus. Mary is there as well. There is also a note of dread, as Mary anoints Jesus with a costly ointment (see Background, above) which the Gospel describes as “pure nard.”Things and symbols are being bundled up. As John describes Mary drying the feet of Jesus with her hair, the same verb is employed as is used at the description of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. The nard itself, which was used to perfume the incense offerings at the Temple, becomes a part of this bundle of present and future. 

In this mix-up we see two sides of the Iscariot. There is the public side that seems to be troubled by the cost of the ointment, and the care of the poor, and the other side described in parenthetic descriptions by the Gospel writer. Even the money itself becomes a present/future symbol – the coins which were given Judas to betray Jesus. Jesus untangles the bundle and describes Mary’s true intent. The opportunity for almsgiving will always be with us in an endless Lent. Now is the time that all is coming together, now is the time to focus on Jesus.

Breaking open the Gospel: 
  1. When have you given a costly gift? What was the occasion?
  2. How do you help the poor?
  3. How do you focus on Jesus?

Central Idea:               Which way do we look?

Proposal 1:                  Remembering the Great Events (Isaiah) (Psalm)

Proposal 2:                  Anticipating Salvation (Psalm)

Proposal 3:                  Remembering who we were (Philippians)

Proposal 4:                  Anticipation of Death and Resurrection (Gospel)

Proposal 5:                  Knowing who we will be (Philippians)

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 © 2019, Michael T. Hiller

[1]       Alter, R. (2019), The Hebrew Bible: A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 84773.


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