Grace Presbyterian Church
April 7, 2019, Lent 5C
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
This challenge to the people of Judah, as delivered by God through the prophet Isaiah, came during their period of exile in Babylon. In particular, it came at a point when that exile was starting to seem permanent; there was no sign of movement that their conquered home kingdom would ever be able to do anything about it, and their Babylonian rulers showed no signs of ever letting up and releasing exiles to go home. But lo and behold, Babylon was conquered by Persia, and the ruler of that kingdom ultimately decided, for whatever reason, to repatriate those exiles out of Babylon and back to Judah and to Jerusalem.
This wasn’t a normal decision on the part of the Persian king. Whether it was some kind of bizarre impulse of kind-heartedness on his part or a more pragmatic decision that keeping these exiles under control while also pacifying the native Babylonian population wasn’t worth it, the exiled people were able to return, finally perceiving the “new thing” of which Isaiah spoke.
Isaiah’s oracle was pretty striking in its almost extreme level of insistence – telling the people of the Torah “do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old” was a seeming radical way of getting the people’s attention. The “things of old” were nothing less than the very identity of that people of the Promised Land, now divided into Israel and Judah – the story of Abraham, called to strike out for a home he had never seen; the captivity in Egypt and the exodus back to that Promised Land; those “former things” were no less that the story of their people; Isaiah couldn’t possibly mean to forget those, could he?
But God really was doing a new thing, without which the people might have remained in exile…who knows how long? Getting caught up too deeply in the old things and missing the new thing would have been a tragic result.
Anyway, it sounds great, right? Going home after all these years?
The first of three stages of deportation out of Judah had occurred in around the year 597 BCE; a second stage happened around 587 or 586, and the third around 582 or 581. The repatriation to Judah began after the Persian conquest in 539. That’s as many as fifty-eight years for those deported first. That’s time for one or even two generations to be born, generations who had no experience of Judah or Jerusalem. That’s plenty of time for many of the original deportees to have died and been buried in Babylon. That’s plenty of time to have, as we might say today, “made a life” in Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah had delivered an oracle from God to those exiles telling them pretty much to do that, after all:
Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce.Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. (Jeremiah 28:5-7)
So if you’ve been doing that, and all this “I am doing a new thing” talk suddenly starts coming from another prophet, maaaaaybe you’re not completely convinced after all. After all, what condition is Jerusalem in after all this time? (Hint: the answer is “ruins.”) Where will we live? How will we eat? What about those who were left behind in Judah – will they be hostile to us? Or have new peoples moved in and taken over? These aren’t necessarily easily answered questions, especially to those of the Judean population who had been born in exile. What’s the point of giving up the life you know, rough as it may be, for one full of questions and uncertainties?
Now jump forward to the reading from John’s gospel. In considering this account it is vitally important to remember what is recounted in chapter 11: the death and raising of Lazarus, possibly the most expansive story in John’s gospel outside of the Passion narrative, and indeed a pivotal one – the religious authorities were now determined to get rid of not only Jesus but also Lazarus, because many were following Jesus because of Lazarus and his unprecedented not-dead-anymore condition. Now here Lazarus is, reclining at table in the home he shared with sisters Martha and Mary, hosting the man who had brought him back to life for dinner. Lazarus is living a new thing, and is a living “new thing,” and his life – his newly-restarted life – is under threat for it.
The story of this dinner unfolds in two acts: Mary enters with a highly fragrant perfume and anoints Jesus’s feet, and dries them with her hair; Judas then responds with indignant scolding for the waste of such an expensive perfume when the proceeds from it could have done a lot for the poor, only to be rebuked by Jesus, who commends Mary for her act, also observing that she had gotten it for “the day of my (Jesus’s) burial.”
It’s easy to jump on Judas here, and John strongly encourages you to with the added note about his unethical actions with the community treasury. His basic statement, though, is correct, even if he is saying it in something less than earnest; the sale of that perfume could have provided a lot of dinners at St. Francis House or Family Promise, to be sure. Still, Judas is totally missing what’s going on, or perhaps he actually is seeing it and is not happy about it. Perhaps he is the type novelist Upton Sinclair spoke of in his observation that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” If Jesus is going to die, where does that leave Judas (whether he’s dipping his hand in the till or not)? What position does he have? Such status as he has, meager as it might be, is gone if Jesus is gone.
It’s easier to praise Mary. Here she is again, off doing her own thing while sister Martha is diligently serving away. (Unlike the other such encounter of this type, over in Luke, Martha seems content to keep quiet in this case.) At any rate, she performs the act of anointing, and the whole letting-her-hair-down thing is enough to make the event scandalous in that culture, but that seems to pass unremarked.
As Jesus notes, such an act was part of the burial ritual of the time; Mary and Martha had probably performed that act on the body of Lazarus only a short time ago. It was familiar. It was known, and as such it might even have been a comfort. And it was on some level in this case correct, if premature; Jesus’s burial would not be far off at this point.
Lazarus, the dead man no longer dead, is right there at the table. Did this not register? Mary may have prepared Jesus’s body for burial, but was she any better prepared for Jesus not to stay buried than Judas was, or anybody else in the room?
When God does a new thing, it is so, so difficult to grasp it, to know it, to trust it. How do we know this isn’t just wishful thinking? Well, if the “new thing” seems in fact rather comfortable and easy to accept, then it probably is wishful thinking. If it’s discomfiting and upsets the seeming order of things, on the other hand, maybe we’d better pay attention.
Still, the “new thing” God does is almost always going to be uncomfortable, maybe even threatening. It may not include the stuff we like. It may not even include this church, or any of the other things about our Christian life we know and love. But God moves when God moves, and God never moves for anything other than our good (even if we don’t get it), and we either keep up or get left behind.
Those “rivers in the desert” back in Isaiah sound so inviting. When even the otherwise left out things – like those jackals and ostriches, among the more reclusive animals in the wild – begin to come forward and sing the praise of God, it sounds so wonderful. Still, though, jackals are kind of scary animals – not comfortable. The “new thing” God does may lead us to places where we never thought we’d go, or never wanted to go, but it is God who leads, and we who better figure out how to follow.
“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #509, All Who Hunger, Gather Gladly; #74, When God Restored Our Common Life; #223, When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; #166, Lord, Who Throughout These Forty Days