Saturday, 20 March 2010

A new way?

An offering for the 5th Sunday in Lent:

Readings: Isaiah 43 v 16-21

John 12 v 1-8

The gospel we read this morning – the story of Mary anointing Jesus at Bethany is my most favourite story in the whole of Scripture.

It is such an intimate portrayal of an extravagant display of love.

Extravagance isn’t something that often features in our Lenten discipline, when we tend to be a bit more austere, a bit more reserved in our observance.

But this story bursts into our lectionary just before we embark on the passion narratives and brings a dazzling display – perhaps to distract us from the awfulness to come in the events leading up to Jesus death – or perhaps to signal the impact of what is about to unfold.

However else you look at this story, it is intimate, maybe even a bit erotic. And no matter how that might make us frozen Presbyterians squirm, there’s no getting away from the image of a young, single woman, encountering our Lord with passion.

It’s a story with a bit of spice in it – and not just from the alabaster jar!

For quite a while, I was distracted by the various accounts of this story in different gospels.

I’d spend ages reading up on different interpretations and comparisons – and generally just ruining a beautiful story by becoming caught up in lots of peripherals.

And then, I decided simply to let the story be.

To just enjoy it for its beauty and passion, and be thankful that it is part of our gospel.

And, as a bonus, we often encounter the story again during Holy Week as we follow Jesus’ journey to the cross.

Whatever else this story is, just one of the reasons it is included in our lectionary this morning, at this point in our Lenten journey, is that it signals a turning point.

It signals a time when we see Jesus actively turning from his beach mission, if you like, his work alongside Lake Galilee, to his embarking on his journey to Jerusalem.

And that lends a whole other dimension to this little tableau.

That’s why it doesn’t matter how much the ointment cost or how counter cultural Mary’s intimate display was.

Because already things are turned around.

And Jesus is on his way to procure our salvation by making his way to the cross.

All of his ministry Jesus has proclaimed that this is the way it must be.

But who gets it?

Mary of Bethany.

A real new testament prophet.

A woman who, when so many of Jesus friends wanted to bury their heads in the sand and not face what Jesus had been telling them about, a woman who really gets it and is not afraid to throw convention and cultural constraints out of the window and anoint her Lord for burial, show her love for all the world to see and remember.

The sacrifice Jesus is about to make is incredibly extravagant – and so Mary’s response is one of extravagance.

That’s why it was so uncomfortable for those who witnessed her display of love.

She held nothing back.

She did not count the cost.

She simply gave her love.

And showed, as prophets do, how things would be.

Mary’s love has not made her blind as love sometimes does.

Mary’s love for Jesus has allowed her to see clearly and to understand all that Jesus has been teaching his friends. Mary’s love has revealed to her that this is a man with a mission. A mission that will end on a cross. So, in this opportunity she has been given, without thought for her own reputation or her own future, she lavishes her love on Jesus and does all that she humanly can to ease his passage.

When is the last time that we allowed ourselves to give with such extravagance, with such abandonment? With no thought of return but simply out of love?

Mary, the prophet of Bethany models for us today a new way. A new way of being, a new way of giving.

A new way of living as prophets.

Our other reading today came from one of the more traditional prophets – the prophet Isaiah.

But, again, there’s something different about Isaiah’s prophecy – it’s not a word of condemnation as the old style prophets often brought – the passage we read from Isaiah contains a beautiful message of comfort and encouragement.

Let’s read it again:

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 honour 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.

As the prophet reminds a people in exile, a people who have all but given up hope – our God is a God who constantly finds new ways forward for people.

The challenge is – will people be willing to embark on those new ways?

Are we willing to put our hope in God and allow ourselves to be led along unfamiliar paths.

Are we willing to discover and experience God’s new thing?

These words of the prophet were offered to God’s people who could see no way forward. They had been captured and banished from the land and the life they knew. For them, there was no way back.

But that is exactly what the prophet was able to pick up on.

When there is no way back. When we cannot see our way through all the obstacles that lie in our path.

That is when God comes through – God who can find a way, not by resurrecting the things of the past – but by showing us a new way.

I am about to do a new thing;
 now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

What about us?

Do we now expect so little from our faith, from our fellowship, from our God that we’ve shut ourselves down to avoid disappointment?

We’ve forgotten how to dream?

We’ve forgotten how to hope?

We’ve forgotten how to allow ourselves to be open to new things?

This ancient prophecy speaks to us today:

It speaks to our world today, offering hope in all its hopeless places.

This ancient prophecy speaks to the church today, offering comfort for broken and bruised lives.

This ancient prophecy speaks to us here in Mauchline today, offering us the possibility of a new way forward.

I am about to do a new thing, says the Lord.

What would it take for us to be open to that possibility?

To welcome it, even.

Can we allow ourselves the abandonment of Mary or the extravagance that we can give ourselves, in love, to a way we have not chosen, simply trusting in a God who always does a new thing?

Can we be prophets in this place, at this time, seeing the new way that God leads us and choosing to follow?

Even as Jesus changes direction and sets his face toward Jerusalem, may we have the courage to follow him, journeying to the cross – and beyond – because our God is doing a new thing in this place.

Thanks be to God.


1 comment:

Mompriest said...

I hope so! I hope we can....good sermon, thanks for sharing it.