The Fifth Sunday in Lent, April 7, 2019
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
From St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward … the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, after four weeks of Lenten scripture lessons that have urged us to examine our past, to look deep within ourselves, to think of our legacy, to repent and make amends, today’s lessons take us in a totally different direction. And as I pondered why this shift in direction would come on this particular Sunday, I was reminded of the joy of Lent.
See Lent, for all its focus on self-examination, is always steeped in God’s grace and mercy. A grace and mercy that urges us, in spite of our past, in the words of St. Paul, to press onward, to see our self-examination not as a season of despair, but as an opportunity for new life and witness as people of God.
In today’s Old Testament reading, the Prophet Isaiah tells the people, “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?” Can you not feel it and sense it? What’s interesting in today’s reading is that while Isaiah calls the people to look to the future and forget the past, he then reminds them throughout chapter 42 and 43 of their past. He speaks of how their ancestors were led through the Red Sea on dry land; how they were fed with manna in the wilderness and when they tired of bread, they received quail from heaven. He reminds them that when they were thirsty, God caused waters to gush forth in the wilderness, and rivers to be formed in the midst of the desert. And yet, Isaiah says, don’t get hung up on the past – don’t long for the “good old days” as many tend to do when looking backwards, but rather, look for the new works God is about to do. Isaiah says that their God, our God, is about to intervene in human history in a way that far surpasses the Great Exodus. God is going to do something new that will be a hundred times greater than any thing they’ve seen or heard about from their ancestors. So, don’t look back or compare God’s new work to the past. See it for what it is: a new way – a new hope – a day of incredible joy that no one thought possible.
The Psalmist speaks of a time when God restored the people of Israel and how, with a new sense of security and prosperity, they once again could dream about the future. A future when all creation and all humanity would be at one with God. The Psalmist reminds us that there are times when we feel down and out, when we weep for what once was and was lost. And yet, in turning to God and recommitting ourselves to God’s ways – ways that define how we should live before God and how we should treat and live with each other – we will know incredible joy. “Those who go out weeping” the Psalmist says, “will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”
St. Paul, in today’s Epistle lesson, describes the joy and release that comes from living into the new work of God in Christ Jesus whom we love and adore as our Lord and Savior. Paul describes for us how he was the perfect example of compliance with the laws of God. Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to be confident,” (or reason to brag), “I have more” than they. He goes on to explain how he and his parents did everything right: a natural born citizen of Israel, (not an alien), born of Hebrew parents (no mixed lineage for him) circumcised on the 8thday just like the law required. He was thoroughly schooled in Hebrew tradition and theology so that he became a Pharisee – one of the highest honors in Jewish society. He goes on to describe how zealous he was for his faith as demonstrated in his unyielding persecution of heretics like the Christian Church. And finally, he says he practiced his religion so perfectly he was blameless under the law. But, Paul says, he regards his past as rubbish compared to the joy, fulfillment and spiritual freedom he has found in getting to know Jesus Christ as Lord. That is the same joy and righteousness all Christians share equally as members of the Body of Christ. Paul says my past with all its striving for perfection, good breeding and schooling, is nothing. What matters now is Christ and Christ alone. What is past is past. What matters is what lies ahead of me today and in the future. And so, Paul says, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal, the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
And therein lies the challenge that confronts every Christian. See, if we focus only on our past, we can lapse into convincing ourselves that we have been saved solely “from” our sins and forget that we have also been saved “to” something: saved and empowered to a new way of living. Similarly, if we focus on how God intervened in human history in the past, we can limit God and think that is the only way God engages the world today. And in so doing, we can miss out on new works of God that often unfold around us every day.
See, the Church can never be static or stuck in its past. It must be a living and breathing organism that continues to wrestle with matters of faith and faithful living. It must never look to glory in itself or its programs and ministries. For as Isaiah, the Psalmist and St. Paul says, the glory is God’s and God’s alone. It is up to us to always seek God in our midst, to live in the present moment while planning for the future. And here during this Season of Lent we have been challenged in the faith to strive for holy living and understanding God’s supreme place and role in our lives. We have been encouraged to look back and see the places of wilderness, of deserts, places of haunting bewilderment, and ask ourselves where is God in my life today so that by God’s grace, God’s new waters of life gush forth in our hearts and minds. God is always at work in our midst. And we must never forget that reality of our faith.
Nevertheless, our human nature often causes us to look at God’s work in the present moment as being inferior and nothing like the past. Some, like Judas in today’s Gospel lesson, will always find something to complain about. John notes that while Judas raised a good point that the perfume could have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor, this was not his motive. Judas wanted the money so that he could skim some off the top for his own use. This apparently self-righteous man had unrighteous intentions. Jesus tells Judas that Mary’s actions symbolized his coming death: A death that would fulfill the promise of God’s incredible new work prophesied in today’s lesson from Isaiah; A work that far exceeds any previous act of God. Jesus responds, “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Jesus is saying seize this moment for what it is. There may be other things we could be doing as a parish church and maybe even doing better, but it is all God’s work and in that work, God is being glorified. Our task, as people of faith, is to help one another discover God’s presence and God’s work in their lives today in the midst of their own struggles and concerns. For it is in recognizing that God is at work in our personal lives and as a community of faith every day, that we are drawn into a deeper and more intimate relationship with God and with each other. A relationship characterized by an even deeper love, care, wholeness, purity of heart, and purity of mind: A relationship that seeks not our own glory, but God’s glory.
And so, my beloved, as our Lenten journeys come to a close this week, let us commit to be a people who, while recognizing our past, while confronting from whence we came, forever remember what we have been saved to. Let us press on toward God’s heavenly call to us in Christ Jesus: a call to live differently right now, a call to be open to God’s fresh direction and work among us every day. For in so doing, we will grasp the true joy - the grace, mercy and promised peace - of this Season called Lent. May God grant us the courage so to do. Amen.