Sunday, March 13, 2016

Coming Attractions

Fifth Sunday in Lent – Year C
Isaiah 43.16-12; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8
Sunday, March 13, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

As we begin the fifth Sunday in Lent, the penultimate week of this season, there is a definite shift in the tone of our readings. Up until now, the primary themes of our scripture lessons have been on repentance. On identifying those areas where we may fall short in our relationship with God and then seeking to turn ourselves around. On turning back toward God. While generally conveyed through specific experiences and encounters in Jesus’ own life, his words and his actions are meant to get us thinking about who he is, who we are, and our relationship with him. And based on that, to realize that we need to make changes in ourselves to strengthen that relationship. But today, that all changes. In many ways, the Gospel becomes all about Jesus. About what is going on with him, and what is going to happen to him.

As we rapidly approach Holy Week just one week from today, what we see in the Gospel reading almost seems to be a scene of coming attractions. Kind of like when you go to a movie and sit through seemingly endless trailers for movies that will be released in the coming months.

As John tells us, the scene we have just witnessed takes place six days before Passover. It is the day before Jesus makes his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, beginning his final days – his Passion. The scene is a simple one. Jesus is in Bethany at the home of his dear friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. They are hosting a dinner in Jesus’ honor, possibly out of gratitude for Jesus having raised Lazarus from the dead not long before. At dinner, Mary goes and sits at Jesus’ feet. She has a jar of very expensive perfume. We are told that it is worth 300 denarii, which would have been nearly a year’s wages for a common laborer. As we watch, Mary takes the perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet with it. And then she dries his feet with her hair. An extravagant, if not strange, act.

Like a movie trailer, we only catch a brief glimpse of the scene but it provides a symbolic, yet cryptic, view of the whole, of the coming attraction. In this single scene, we start to get a hint of what is going to happen. A scene, like all trailers, that is filled with extravagant action, enticing us to yearn for more. A scene that foreshadows the events of the week that is to come.

Jesus is welcomed to a celebratory feast where he is lauded for his spectacular action. And as part of the praise and adulation, Mary anoints him with the finest perfume. A gift fit for a king. And the anointing itself an action that is used to elevate a person to the status of king. All of this foreshadowing Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem the next day, where he will be greeted by throngs of adoring followers, shouting “‘Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the Lord!” A king, ordained by God, anointed through Mary’s actions.

Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet also foreshadows another event that will happen later in the week at another meal. At his last meal. At the Passover meal, Jesus will not have his feet anointed, but will rather reverse roles, setting aside that of master and taking on the role of servant, as he himself kneels at the feet of his disciples and washes their feet. In the same humble, tender way that Mary cared for him.

And then there is the presence of Judas Iscariot at the meal in Bethany. While Mary is performing the extravagant act of anointing Jesus’ feet with such costly perfume, Judas derides her, criticizes her for what he perceives to be a wasteful act. The money that was spent on the perfume could have been used to help the poor. But what he was really upset about was the fact that 300 denarii, placed in the common purse which he held, would have been available for him to steal for his own purposes. His presence in the story foreshadows his presence at the Last Supper, as he leaves disgruntled to go to the temple authorities to betray Jesus for a mere 40 percent of the cost of the perfume. The betrayal that set in motion the actions that would lead to Jesus’ arrest later that night. To his trial and crucifixion the following day.

Not only is the act of anointing one of king-making, it is also one of preparing a body for burial. Jesus clearly highlights this in response to Judas’ protests. Jesus tells him, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (Jn 12.7). Mary’s actions and Jesus’ recognition of the symbolism is clearly a foreshadowing of the events of Goof Friday, when Jesus will be hung on a cross. When he will die. And when his body will be removed from the cross and prepared for burial.

But Mary’s actions at that dinner in Bethany foreshadow even more than just the events of the week to come. They convey something of her own faithfulness to her Lord. And in so doing, foreshadow our own intended response – the expected response – to Jesus and to the events that are about to happen.

Mary is the very model of Christian discipleship. Whenever we encounter her in the Gospels, she is almost single-mindedly focused on Jesus. In the famous story of Mary and Martha, while Martha is busying herself with household chores, Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, intent on listening to the wisdom he has to impart. Intent on taking in the immense love that he radiates. In today’s Gospel, she again sits at his feet, this time not in a passive role, but in an active one. Her costly and extravagant act is a witness to who Jesus is – the Messiah who has come to save his people. Her actions witness to Jesus’ costly death. While Mary performs an extravagant act, she does not draw attention to herself, but to Jesus, and to what will happen in the days to come. To what will happen well beyond.

Even in her anointing of Jesus’ feet, Mary conveys the essence of what she is feeling. Perhaps it was a sign of gratitude for Jesus having raised her brother Lazarus from the dead not too long before. For giving him new life. But it would prove to be a sign of gratitude for the new life that she would receive as well, through her Lord’s death and resurrection. Hers is an act of gratitude and adoration for what Jesus will accomplish. But even more, she conveys the depths of her spirit. For her actions are an expression of humility, of selfless devotion, of absolute love.

In this, Mary’s actions provide an indication of her – and our – response to the fact that the Messiah will undergo the pain and suffering of death. That as his followers, we continue to journey with him, even in this most painful and distressing time. We are with him in his death, remaining faithful to him, continuing to care for him, preparing him and ourselves for what will follow – for his burial on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter. We set aside ourselves, our own self-concerns, and approach our Lord in a most humble and intimate way. That even as he cares for and loves us, we too care for and love him when he is at his most vulnerable, making his journey from life to death. Just as he will give his life for the sake of our salvation, so we give our lives to him.

Our other scripture readings for today give a sense of the magnitude and fill in some of the details as to what this “coming attraction” means for us – for those of us who are called to follow in Mary’s footsteps.

In our Old Testament reading, the prophet Isaiah conveys the words of God to the people – “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Is 43.19a). In the context in which Isaiah was prophesying, God was preparing to bring the exiles out of Babylon, returning them across the wilderness to their home in Israel. Five hundred years later, God’s words will have a whole new meaning. On the eve of Holy Week and the Passion of our Lord, these words, “I am about to do a new thing,” have a greater and more significant meaning. For as Jesus prepares to enter Jerusalem, God is indeed about to do a new thing. Just as he brought the Babylonians out of their old life of exile in Babylon to a new life in Israel, so too are we about to be brought out of an old way of life to new life. Not just one nation, but all nations, all humanity. A new life that is only made possible by Jesus’ death. In this, our new life is one that is centered on Jesus. He is our life.

And even beyond this, God continues to do a new thing. Through us. Following the model of Mary, in response to what Christ has accomplished for us, we devote our lives in humble service, unwavering obedience, unbounded gratitude, to the one who gives us the most precious gift of salvation and eternal life.

This is what Paul is talking about in our New Testament reading from his letter to the Philippians. He uses himself as an example of the transformation that occurs within us when we are brought into new life through Christ. He recounts his own transformation from a zealous Pharisee to one of Christ’s chief apostles, who completely changes his life, giving up all that he was, to go proclaim the Gospel to gentiles. To proclaim a message, a person, that he previously thought to be heresy to the very people whom he previously avoided like the plague.

Through his new life in Christ, Paul realizes that what had formerly been important to him – his ethnic and religious heritage, his familial bonds, his culture, his education, his accomplishments, his honored status – are no longer important. As he puts it, “I regard them as rubbish” (Phil 3.8b). Which is to say, excrement. What is now important is God’s grace through Jesus Christ. Paul’s résumé no longer defines who he is. There is only one thing now defining who he is – Jesus Christ. He is first and foremost a beloved child of God who has been redeemed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And this is what now guides his entire life. Defines his entire purpose. As he tells his friends in Philippi, “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” (Phil 3.13b-14).

Mary and Paul are our models. They, in their words and actions, exemplify the words that God speaks through Isaiah: “I am about to do a new thing.” That new thing is nothing short of earth-shattering. That new thing is absolute forgiveness of all our sins, freedom from the bonds of sin and death, and new and eternal life. Who or what we were is no longer important. We are defined by something new. We are that new thing that God is bringing into being, proclaiming in our own lives, just as Mary and Paul did, what that new thing is and what it means for us, God’s beloved children.

Today’s Gospel is indeed a preview of coming attractions. Of actions that will begin in just one week, as we begin Holy Week. And it is a preview of something far greater that follows. Just as Jesus is being prepared for burial, so are we being prepared for our own burial – for dying to self. Just as we tenderly accompany him into death on Good Friday, he tenderly accompanies us into new life on Easter.

No comments: