Fifth Sunday in Lent
Prayer of the Day
Creator God, you prepare a new way in the wilderness, and your grace waters our desert. Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“I can remember when we ran two services on Sunday in this church and we still had to set up folding chairs in the aisle to accommodate everyone.” “This house used to be filled with the laughter of children. Now we just sit here in the silence and listen to the clock ticking away.” “Time was we were all friends in this neighborhood. Now the houses are full of strangers and half of them don’t speak my language.” There are times when I grow weary of these tired old litanies. There are times when I would like to shout out with the prophet, “Remember not the former things!” But, of course, that is not enough. When the past is all you have, it is unlikely you will let it go just because somebody tells you to. Snatching a bone from the jaws of a hungry cur only gets you bitten. Ah, but if you hold up a juicy piece of fresh meat, then the dog will drop his old bone in a New York minute and you will have earned a loyal friend!
That is chiefly what the anonymous prophet of “Second Isaiah” does. He preaches to a band of Jewish exiles in Babylon a vision of God’s purpose for Israel that is so exciting, so beautiful and so compelling it inspires them to do the unimaginable. The exiles let go of their pining for the glory days of Israel’s past and the secure lives they had built for themselves to undertake a dangerous journey back to the ruined homeland of their ancestors. Against all odds, this inspired band re-settled the land, rebuilt their temple and raised up the city of Jerusalem from the ashes. They were only too glad to let go of the good old days in order to take hold of the prophet’s bold vision for their future.
I wish I could preach like that. I wish I could preach a vision of mission to make my church see that its best days are in front of it. I wish I could preach the luster of eternal life into every nursing home I visit and turn those places into beehives prayer, joy and expectation. I wish I could preach the good news about Jesus Christ with such clarity and conviction that people would wish they had more time, more treasure and more talent to pour out for the gentle reign of God. Unfortunately, I lack the poetic imagination of the prophet and his or her gift for weaving language into lyrical testimonies to the ways of God. Still, I struggle with my own prosaic preaching to describe with words that for which there is no language. There is no other way. For in the end, words are all that we in the church have.
I must confess that at times I wish I had more than words. Words tend to become worn and hackneyed. They are so easily misunderstood, misconstrued and taken out of context. Their meanings get lost in translation. The words of the wise are so often buried under the relentless onslaught of idiotic chatter radiating from every billboard, magazine and digital device. How can the church’s preaching amount to more than a whisper in a hurricane? Yet as futile as speech can sometimes appear, words remain the means by which the mystery of God is revealed. God spoke the universe into existence. The prophets preached their discouraged people out of despair into hope and action. The Word made flesh continues to throb at the heart of the church judging, forgiving and inspiring because that Word is preached. By words we live. As the prophet tells us elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah,
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
Isaiah 55:10-11. Words are enough.
As indicated previously, these words of the prophet are addressed to the Jews living in exile at Babylon. The prophet sees in the conquest of Babylon by Persia an act of God creating an opportunity for the exiles to return home to Palestine. Though the prophet admonishes the people “remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old,” he or she is not suggesting that Israel forget her history. Rather, s/he is challenging Israel to understand her history in a new way. The Exodus, God’s liberation of Israel from Egypt, is not just an inspiring tale from Israel’s distant past. It is a prism though which Israel is challenged to look toward the future. If only the imagination of this people can grasp it, God is enacting another exodus for Israel. This time God is liberating Israel from Babylon. Just as God led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, so now God will lead Israel through what is now the Iraqi desert by a miraculous path of well watered garden. Israel, the people God formed for himself, will give praise to their God as they make their triumphal journey home. Even the animals will find shade and nourishment in this marvelous highway through the wilderness and will honor Israel’s God.
“Thus says the Lord.” This is a stereotypical formula for the making of a proclamation. Middle Eastern monarchs would make their decrees known by sending a messenger on their behalf who would proclaim in a public place: “Thus says the king!” The decree, order or declaration of the king would follow. Israel’s prophets often used the same formula when introducing a word from God.
“…who makes a path through the mighty waters, who brings forth the chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” While evoking images of the Exodus from Egypt, this sentence also reflects the overwhelming victories of Persia against Babylon. The prophet is intentionally using language that draws parallels between these two events in order to help his people “perceive” the new thing that God is doing for them.
“Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Evidently, the people do not perceive. Israel has been dominated by Egypt, Assyria and Babylon. Now Persia is getting the upper hand. But so what? This only means that we have a new master oppressing us. Unless you are the lead dog, the view never changes. But this is not just a change of administration. Cyrus, the emperor of Persia, is promoting a different agenda. His policy is to allow displaced and exiled persons, such as the Jews in Babylon, to return home to their lands of origin. To be sure, Cyrus has his own self interested reasons for promoting this policy. But the prophet knows that God, not Cyrus, is the driving force behind history. God is using Cyrus to open a way of return for Israel to the land promised to her ancestors. “Can’t you see the opportunity here?” says the prophet. “Don’t you see God’s hand in this? We are experiencing a new Exodus miracle!”
This lesson challenges us to read the Bible not as a book of ancient tales from long ago, but to understand it as the lens thorough which we are to see and interpret our present circumstances and our future hope. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said that, for the advancement of science, imagination is more important than knowledge. That is also the case for interpreting the Bible. Faithful imagination is the reason why a store front preacher with a seventh grade education can inspire a congregation of desperately poor people with vivid images of salvation, hope and liberation while a learned Reverend Doctor with an Ivy League degree can put you to sleep. Don’t misunderstand me. I am thankful for the theological education I received from seminary and find it enormously valuable in understanding the sense of the biblical texts. Yet I must also say that too often in my seminary career we tended to treat the Bible as a dead relic from the past that we needed somehow to “make relevant” to the modern world. The idea that we needed to learn from the Bible what is relevant and how to understand the world seldom occurred to us. But that is precisely how believers approach the Bible-with reverent imagination. Not until we can imagine ourselves as the people of the Exodus can we begin to see God creating new opportunities in our lives for faithful witness and service. Not until we enter imaginatively into the gospel narratives can we hear God calling us away from what holds us captive. Jesus has promised to be with us to the close of the age, but it takes a faithful imagination to perceive him in our midst. The preaching of the prophet in this Sunday’s lesson gives us a vivid example of the power of imagination.
This psalm served as inspiration for the revered hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” The lyrics for the hymn, printed below, were composed in 1874 by Knowles Shaw.
Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness,
Sowing in the noontide and the dewy eve;
Waiting for the harvest, and the time of reaping,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves,
Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Sowing in the sunshine, sowing in the shadows,
Fearing neither clouds nor winter’s chilling breeze;
By and by the harvest, and the labor ended,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master,
Though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves;
When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome,
We shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
I bring this piece of trivia to your attention because it provides us with a splendid illustration of biblical imagination discussed under the heading of our lesson from Isaiah. Through his identification with the struggles of the returning exiles striving against numerous difficulties to rebuild their ruined land, Shaw gives meaning to the lives of Christian believers striving, sometimes with little evidence of progress, to live out their discipleship.
The psalm begins with the words “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” An alternative reading is “When the Lord brought back those who returned to Zion, we were like those who dream.” If the latter reading is adopted, then “those who returned to Zion” are almost certainly the Babylonian exiles. This return was made possible by the edict of Cyrus the Great, emperor of Persia who conquered Babylon. Cyrus decreed that all peoples taken into exile by Babylon, including the Jews, would be permitted to return to their homelands. Such an opportunity would indeed seem like a dream come true. Yet there were also serious obstacles in the way of returning to Palestine. The journey home through what is now the Iraqi desert was itself a perilous trip. Upon return, the Jews found a ruined city and hostile peoples who had come to inhabit the homeland. Rebuilding would be a long and difficult task. Hence, the psalmist prays “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb!” The “Negeb” is a hilly desert region of southern Israel. Water courses there are seasonal, being dry for most of the year but brought to life in the rainy season to revive dormant vegetation. So the psalmist hopes that God will likewise restore and nurture the community of Israel in the land to which she returns. The final verses of the psalm reflect the hope that, just as a bountiful harvest follows the toil of planting, so the sacrifice, hard work and risks taken by the returning exiles will be rewarded with the rebirth of a thriving community.
The psalm concludes with this promise: “He who goes fourth weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing in his sheaves with him.” Verse 6. This could well be a proverb similar to the many found in the Book of Proverbs or it could be an oracle spoken by a priest in response to the congregation’s prayer for restoration. In either case, the image of planting what appears to be a lifeless seed just as one would bury the dead in the hope of new life at harvest is a powerful exercise of imaginative preaching! It calls to mind Jesus’ parable employing the same idea. See Mark 4:26-29.
To repeat briefly what I have said about Paul’s Letter to the Philippians in the past, this is not one letter but three.
Phil A = Phil 4:10-20 (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)
Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)
Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23 (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)
This Sunday’s reading comes from the third letter warning the Philippians to beware of the teachings of rival missionaries who were evidently teaching gentile Christians in Paul’s congregations that they needed circumcision in order to be full members of the church. In years past, scholars referred to these folks as “Judaizers,” but that name is somewhat misleading. The false missionaries with which Paul was contending were probably not Jews at all. Most likely, they were local people, probably gentiles who had received circumcision and took pride in the depth of commitment it demonstrated. Paul responds by pointing out that if such things as circumcision were really a source of pride, he could make a much stronger case on his own behalf than his adversaries. In verses 4-6, Paul points out that he has a real Jewish ancestry that he can trace; circumcision done strictly in accordance with the law and a first rate Hebrew education. But of all this St. Paul says, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Understand that there is more going on here than a fight over circumcision. In fact, circumcision is not the real issue here. The problem for Paul is that his opponents measure their worth in the eyes of God on the basis of their religious accomplishments. Paul maintains that “righteousness” depends on faith, more specifically, faith in Jesus. In this secular age where “organized religion” (so called) is in steep decline, it is hard to find many people who are striving to be righteous in the sight of God. But there is no shortage of people who are striving to achieve some measure of self worth. I am not talking only about folks striving for the American dream of a six figure income, home ownership and a comfortable retirement. I am also speaking of many of my colleagues over the years that have entered the service of the church under the mistaken notion that they are choosing a “higher calling.” There is no higher calling than baptism into Jesus Christ. From there on out, it’s all downhill. I have likewise known a good many folks who have told me that they are serving the church because “I want to make a difference,” presumably for good. At first blush, this sounds quite admirable. Yet the “I” in that claim is a little troubling. Could the translation be, “I want to be important?” or “I want to count for something?”
The fact of the matter is that Jesus does not call us to make a difference. It is not our job to change the world. As our Catechism tells us, “The Kingdom of God comes without our prayers,” and I would add, without our hard work, sacrifice and dedication. We are witnesses to the Kingdom, not its architects and engineers. That means we might spend our lives doing work that doesn’t make a difference-at least not one we can see. We might die before the harvest and when it comes, nobody will remember that we did the planting. Indeed, the harvest itself might not be appreciated. Faithfulness does not always produce growing churches, successful programs and revenue for the home office. So to people who have told me they are considering service in the church (including my own daughter), I warn them that they might very well come to the end of their ministry with their congregations, their colleagues and the denominational authorities viewing them as having failed. If you have a problem with that, you belong in some other calling.
No one knew better than Paul how tenuous are achievements in ministry and how easily each hard won gain can be lost. Paul knew that in the end, regardless of who plants and who waters, God alone gives the growth. So his focus is not on the success of his work, but on knowing Jesus and the power of his resurrection. Jesus, after all, was the quintessential failure. His ministry ended in a shameful death by public execution. His closest followers failed to understand him and they deserted him when he needed them most. But Jesus was faithful to God’s purpose for him and obedient to God’s reign-even when that obedience didn’t seem to be accomplishing anything. It is precisely that kind of faith in God’s promise to bring to completion what we cannot even properly begin that Paul is striving for. Such “striving” is nothing other than what should be happening whenever we take part in the order of confession and forgiveness. It involves letting go of what is past-both the painful memories of failure and the coveted memories of success. Failure, after all, might well prove to be a monumental triumph in the grand scheme of things. Similarly, the success in which we take such pride might prove over the long haul to have been negligible or even counter-productive. The only sure thing here is God’s promise and demonstrated determination to raise up from our shattered and imperfect lives something new and truly beautiful.
OK. So let’s start by acknowledging that Judas’ motives here were not as pure as the driven snow. Still and all, isn’t he right? In a society where malnourished children are surviving day to day on discarded scraps, how can you justify using ointment that would fetch three hundred denarii for a foot massage? Bear in mind that a denarius constituted about one day’s pay for a manual laborer. That is a lot of meals for a lot of hungry people. Judas could cite any number of passages from the Hebrew Scriptures supporting his claim that the ointment should rightly have been sold for the support of the poor. For example, the prophet Amos castigates the aristocracy of Israel because they “anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph.” Amos 6:6. There are many other such instances in which the prophets make clear God’s priority for care of the poor over opulent living and even proper worship. It seems that Judas is on pretty solid ground here.
So let me respond with a story that I once heard as a sermon illustration. I can’t remember anymore the preacher I got it from and have no idea whether it really happened. In any event, there was a parish in an impoverished neighborhood that decided to take seriously Jesus’ injunction to feed the hungry. So the social ministries committee appointed a young woman to oversee this work and she planned a Thanksgiving Day meal for the poor and homeless families in the community. Knowing how hard life is out on the street and in the grip of poverty, she decided to give her guests at least one night of fine dining in a family style setting. She bought white table linens, rented fine china with real silverware, catered a meal with one of the most renowned restaurants in the area and, to top it off, she hired a string quartet to provide music. The guests were overwhelmed. One fellow said, “I’ve been treated like a tramp for so long, I forgot what it was like to be treated like a man.” Another woman who came with two small children in tow remarked, “This is the first time in I don’t know how long that I felt like I was really welcome.”
On the Monday after Thanksgiving an emergency meeting of the church council was called and the young woman was summoned to appear. The council members were livid. “How could you so irresponsibly and thoughtlessly squander the resources of this church?” bellowed the president. “You could have fed all of those people for a fraction of the cost and still have had a substantial budget for the days ahead!” The good president had a point-as did Judas. It would have been cheaper and more efficient to serve the people processed turkey on paper plates with plastic silverware. They didn’t need table cloths. Music could have been provided via a boom box. But that really misses the point. Jesus does not simply feed the poor. He invites them to the messianic banquet. The poor are not a demographic. They are not faceless numbers on a spread sheet or social problems needing to be solved. They are people for whom Jesus has a special interest, people who are gifted and highly valued. You don’t feed God’s special children rubber turkey and you don’t anoint Jesus with cheap perfume.
So here is the point. Mary is anointing Jesus for burial. Her act is one of profound love and significance beyond what she can fully appreciate. You cannot so honor Jesus without honoring the poor for whom he lived and died. Standing with Jesus is acknowledging the full humanity and value of the poor in the fullest possible measure. Judas did not grasp that because he could not see beyond his balance sheet. His chief crime here is neither greed nor theft. Judas’ worst crime is his lack of imagination. That brings us full circle to where we began with Isaiah. Commitment to mission is good. Bible knowledge is good. Theological education is good. But without imagination, all are worthless.