April 3, 2022 The Fifth and Last Sunday in Lent

April 3, 2022:
The Fifth and Last Sunday in Lent
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

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

From the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, “(God said) ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”  I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.

     I thought that today I’d try something different for this morning’s sermon. In fact, I’d like to invite you to join with me and drop by that dinner party described in our reading from the Gospel according to John. Take a minute to picture who is there, perhaps what’s on the menu, if whether it’s a potluck occasion or has Martha cooked up a storm as we say in these parts. Take a moment to envision that we’re all there. You might even close your eyes for a moment and picture the scene.

    John tells us that Mary and Martha, along with their resurrected brother, Lazarus, have invited Jesus to a dinner party. John suggests that there is quite a crowd present and I imagine the room is filled with the tantalizing aromas of freshly baked breads and mouthwatering food. Let’s imagine for a moment what it would be like to be there, to be there in that room, to be at that dinner table.

In all honesty, I think that if I were present while I would want to be looking at Jesus – the man believed to be the promised Messiah, the miracle worker in our midst – my eyes would keep wandering over to Lazarus – the walking, talking, and breathing miracle – the miracle alive and fully present right in front of us. After all, this is the guy who was dead and buried, whose flesh had begun to decompose and stink, and yet, here he is at the table eating and laughing with us. I would be looking at his eyes – eyes that were once lifeless and marveling that they are now filled with light as he engages in conversation.

Across the table sits Judas Iscariot. We know that Judas will always find something to complain about. So, there’s no doubt that at some point this evening he will tell us which foods he doesn’t like or note that something had too much salt or not enough seasoning. Just like today, at every family gathering there always seems to be someone to complain about something. I wonder what it will be this time.

And there is Jesus. As the guest of honor seated at the head of the table, he is sharing stories and challenging everyone to think differently. But my eyes keep drawing back to Lazarus. I want to ask him, “What was it like to be dead and made alive again? What has changed for you? What has changed in you?” Lazarus sits at that table as a living example of how life indeed changes – how even death is overcome – when Jesus calls to us, touches us, and gives us new life.

     In the midst of my silent musings and wonder, others and maybe even you, might ask Jesus to recount all the miraculous things he has done. “What did it feel like to heal that blind man or the man who was mute? Tell us another story, another parable about the kingdom of God. What about your next steps, Jesus? Do you know how excited everyone is that you are coming to Jerusalem?” And as the questions continue and conversations move back and forth among all present, Mary gets up, takes a bottle of perfume and anoints Jesus’ feet. Suddenly the aroma of delicious foods is joined by the sweet smell of perfume and our eyes are drawn to Jesus with Mary kneeling at his feet.

Almost on cue, and as just we expected, Judas has to say something! He asks, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (Well, thank you, Judas. You can always be counted upon to complain about something.) But then, Jesus speaks. He has been recounting his mission in this world talking about the coming Kingdom of God, recalling the miraculous events that have unfolded. He says, “Mary bought this perfume to keep it for the day of my burial.” We are stunned at his words, stunned into silence. Your burial? Lord, there is so much more to do. We have followed you. We have left our careers for you. We have witnessed your miracles. What about your kingdom? Your burial? Jesus says, “You always have the poor with you … but you do not always have me.” What? And Mary just keeps bathing Jesus’ feet and begins to dry them with her hair.

     John places this dinner party as having occurred just a few days before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. Jesus knows that he is going there to be killed, but he also knows that in the midst of death, he will bring forth new, transforming life to all who will accept him as Lord. In the words of Isaiah, Jesus, in recounting all that has taken place thus far in his journey, says to his dinner companions, says to us, “You see Lazarus sitting over there? … Well, ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’” Do you not hear it? Can you imagine it?”

     Today marks the fifth and final Sunday in Lent. Our Lenten journeys of reflection and self-examination are drawing to a close. Next week we will accompany Jesus into Jerusalem and gather to walk the way of the cross with him through Holy Week. But the reality of these next few weeks is we have heard that story, in fact, we have heard all of these stories, a thousand times before. The story of the cross and our redemption – that mighty work of God, as wonderful as it is, is still about the past. What difference does all this time of Lenten reflection, of retelling stories of salvation, really mean today?

     In our reading from Philippians St. Paul shares that the past is important only if it reminds us of where we have been and how God’s grace through faith in Christ continues right now to draw us nearer to God. What really matters to Paul is not the past, but rather, that we recognize God’s continuing presence – God’s on-going life transforming presence – in our hearts and minds today, to perceive that God is continuing to reshape us into the image of Christ as a more loving, merciful and forgiving people. Paul says it is okay to look back and perceive the hand of God throughout our life journeys but, we must remember to keep looking forward because God is forever at work in us doing newthings in our hearts and minds in this present moment. (“Do you not perceive it?”)

     The Prophet Isaiah reminds the exiled people of Israel of all the miraculous things God had done for their ancestors, parting the Red Sea and wiping out Pharaoh’s armies. Isaiah tells them, you know all that stuff from the past? Well, the past is fine and dandy, in fact, it’s wonderful, but God “is about to do a new thing; now it springs forth.” But for it to have any value, you, me, all of us, must be able to perceive it, to hear and embrace it as God’s active, on-going work of redemption and re-formation in us so that it makes a difference in how we think and live today.

     In the midst of daily life, life often marked by loss through the deaths of loved ones, illnesses of others, estranged relationships, lost income, unemployment, disappointments and broken dreams, worries that the Covid pandemic will return, and anguish over the destruction and loss of human life through a senseless war unfolding in Ukraine, not to mention the displaced millions evacuated to neighboring countries, we need to embrace the promise that God is alwaysdoing new things, new things in God’s people, new things in us. “Do you not perceive it?” God asks Isaiah.

     Our scripture lessons this morning affirm that new things are springing forth right now … like, to quote the Psalmist, rivers of fresh water flowing through each of our own parched deserts. The question is this morning, Do we perceive it? Can we hear it? If God is truly present to us and always at work in us, perhaps on this last Sunday in Lent, we might perceive, we might grasp, that like Lazarus at the dinner table, we, too, have been changed and if we so desire it, we can and will continue to be changed by God’s grace, because in many ways, each of us is Lazarus. And that, friends, is what eternal life in Christ is all about.

     I believe that discoveries of God’s on-going re-formation within the hearts and minds of God’s people really canmake a difference in how we choose to live today, and the next day, and the day after that. And that re-formation, that transformative grace of God, can draw all of us into a nearer and deeper relationship with God and with each other, if, and only if, we so choose.

     “(God said) ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” By God’s grace may each of us not only answer, “Yes”, but choose to embrace it, live it, and be that joy-filled and redemptive, life-restoring newwork of God our world, our community, this parish is desperate to know and experience once more. Amen.