Monday, 22 March 2010

Sermon for 21st March 2010 Fifth Sunday of Lent

Delivered at Eyke and Tunstall

Readings: Phil. 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8

This is the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Next Sunday will be Palm Sunday, and after that the pace hots up as Holy Week rolls on relentlessly towards the Cross on Good Friday.

A good time, then to reflect on Lent so far, the readings we’ve heard and what they mean.

It began with Jesus in the wilderness and the temptations - the way to begin our own time of discipline for Lent. I hope you’ve done better than I have with keeping to whatever you might have adopted as either ‘giving up’ or ‘taking on’ for Lent.

Did anybody actually memorise the verse from Psalm 91 I recommended back then? verse 2: “You are my refuge and my stronghold, my God in whom I put my trust.” Well, there’s still time. He still is our refuge and stronghold, and he’s still there for us to put our trust in him. The Psalm is always worth taking home and reading, even if we don’t have it read in the service. The Psalms are a wonderful resource for us.

Then in week 2 there was the reading about the messy, bloody animal sacrifices when God came down to Abram’s level and sealed an agreement with him in a way Abram could understand. (Genesis 15.1-12, 17-18) And there was Jesus grieving over the state of Jerusalem, which he is surely still doing today. (Luke 13.31-35)

In week 3 we had the parable of the fruitless fig tree, which was given another chance when the gardener pleaded for it. (Luke 13.1-9) But the warning of judgement was there too.

Last week was the holiday from Lent that is Mothering Sunday, but even then, with the story of Moses in the bulrushes, and the Gospel telling of Simeon greeting Mary with her infant son in the Temple, there were hints of danger ahead. The wise old man, Simeon, after a lifetime of obedience to God working and praying in the Temple, knew that all would not go well all the time for the Messiah he recognised in the little baby he held in his arms.

Each week, there has been a contrast of light and shade, and this week is no exception.

Taking the epistle first: the extract from Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Read the rest of the letter; it isn't very long. From the beginning it is clear that Paul loves these people. In some of his other letters to his other churches, he scolds and berates them in no uncertain terms, but not the church at Philippi. He says right at the start: “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy…” So instead of chiding them, Paul berates himself for his old ways, before he met with Christ and was converted.

He demonstrates that mix of humility and pride that does characterise his writing. Paul is proud of the fact that if anyone wants to get into some kind of macho contest over righteousness in Jewish tradition, he would win.

He’s got it all,

· from circumcision

· to full Jewish identity,

· Benjaminite lineage,

· knowledge and practice of Jewish law,

· training and identity as a Pharisee

· AND a persecutor of the church!

Paul ticks all the boxes!

But Paul’s encounter with Christ has led him to treat that entire heritage as “rubbish”. But the Greek word he uses in the original text is much earthier than that. It means not just rubbish, but dung or excrement. It is hard to overstate just how shocking this choice of words is here, or how offensive it must have been to the original readers, or those who heard the letter read, that Paul could so thoroughly insult and reject his original heritage.

But Paul isn’t worried about that as he writes. He has turned decisively
away from every aspect of his former identity and counted it as worthless. He has turned decisively towards a new identity. The one who fiercely persecuted the new Christian church has now come to value a relationship with Christ just as fiercely - this relationship is the entire purpose of his existence.

This complete about-turn is an example of real repentance. This is what the word repentance means: to turn around and take the opposite direction.

Before, his righteousness was of his own doing, by being blameless under the Law: knowing what all the rules were and sticking to them. His pride was in himself. He also knew that the Law made provision for impurities to be cleansed, transgressions forgiven, and therefore righteousness under the Law restored.

But now, having met Jesus and had his eyes quite literally opened to real righteousness, Paul sees that what he thought was righteousness was nothing. The right-ness that comes through faith in Jesus as our Saviour is what Paul now values above all else. He sees now that sharing Jesus’ experiences in life reassures him that he may also share in his experience of death and resurrection and eternal life with God.

Paul surrenders all that he valued before for the sake of his faith in Jesus Christ.

And thinking about lifestyle and the value of things brings us to the Gospel, where we hear about Jesus’ friend, Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, pouring hugely expensive perfume over Jesus’ feet. It would have been customary to wash the feet of a guest, but this was a gesture of enormous extravagance.

Where had Mary got this pure nard from? - an intensely aromatic, thick oil, made from a plant not native to the country (which probably accounted for its outrageous cost).

Was it a jar left over from when her brother Lazarus died? - this man that Jesus had brought alive out of the tomb after he had been dead in there for four days?

Whatever its original purpose, Mary takes a pound –a whole pound – of this thick, sweet stuff and slathers it on Jesus’ feet.

We give our most precious things, whether valuable in monetary or emotional terms, to those we love best, but this was more than that: Mary did this as an act of worship.

And then she wiped his feet with her hair! This was breaking social taboos on a scandalous scale.

A woman’s long, loose hair in mixed company?

And it’s such an intensely intimate and physical act! On her knees on the floor before him, bending low and close.

[Have you ever stroked anybody’s feet with your hair? Neither have I.] And when she’d finished, her hair would be damp and heavy with the scented oil; and Jesus’ feet would be glistening with it, and the smell would fill the whole house. (As the fragrance of the incense is filling the church now…)

Whatever the reactions of the others in the dinner party, Judas is the one recorded as commenting first. He criticises the injustice of the act. Think of the poor who could have been fed for what that perfume cost! (Think of the Haiti relief it could have funded!)

But Jesus interprets what she has done for those at the table: “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Just as Simeon in the Temple sensed sorrow ahead for the infant Jesus, so Mary senses that there won’t be much more time left with Jesus in his earthly life. She takes her chance and worships him while he is still there.

These contrasts are there for us to ponder:

· Paul’s change of attitude, from being satisfied through his own efforts, to being satisfied only in working for and suffering for and following Jesus.

· The difference in the smells! The dung Paul writes of, which represented his former life without faith in Christ, and the expensive perfume filling the life of those who do follow him.

· The difference in attitude between Judas, who steals the group’s money then lectures about waste, and Mary, who seizes an opportunity to give the best she can to Jesus without counting the cost.

The starkness of Paul’s statements does challenge those who claim to be Christians today. How much of an about face is required of US, for us to fit Christian faith into normal life in western culture? We don’t have to count it all as excrement - do we?. . .which can be confusing.

But if we find ourselves sort of identifying with what Judas said… it WAS a bit of a waste, wasn’t it - ?

Where do WE stand in the giving of ourselves?

Maybe we need to examine our own ethics as Paul did.

But the total giving of self, whether in the way Paul describes in his letter, or in the way Mary demonstrates by her actions, that is something else.

Paul sets out the rationale for Mary’s actions, which are not rational by worldly standards.

But then, Jesus’ actions are not rational either, by worldly standards.

Mary’s gift is lavishly and completely poured out for the One who will make of his own death a gift for the whole world.

The Psalm for today, 126, states it for us: The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.

Let us be glad. The Lord has done - and does do - great things for us.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Refs: Textweek, several contributors

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