NRSV ISAIAH 43:16-21
16 Thus says the LORD,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
17 who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
18 Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
19 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.
20 The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
21 the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
NRSV JOHN 12:1-8
12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
We ministers of the word and sacrament love to talk about newness – newness and change. Sometimes we forget how it is received by our congregations, who generally shirk from such words. But we use them anyway, like ‘changing this’ or ‘changing that’ is going to help a church more faithfully live out its mission to be a living witness of God’s love in the world.
Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. And it’s not just ministers who fall into the trap of thinking that changing anything in and of itself will make a big difference. There are certainly times when making changes, maybe even big changes, does make a difference, as I discovered in my doctoral work on the changing nature of the church. I still enjoy reading about new worshipping communities in our denomination – those places which are not fully congregations but are small, fledgling communities seeking to live out the gospel in new ways. From coffee houses to book stores to college campus organizations, there are some really neat stories of how some folks – almost always young folks – are letting the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ be lived out in new and fresh ways.
But I also know that just because something is new doesn’t necessarily make it better. There are places where people have sought to express Christ’s love in new ways that turned out to be ego trips for certain leaders, or places where people were just wanting to be new for the sake of being new, rather than following God’s lead. It can happen anywhere, not just in churches. Slap the word ‘new’ on something and expect it to grow, to be popular, to have a following, to impress people. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. And the tragedy is that when it doesn’t work it can handicap any serious movement toward making the really significant changes that need to be made.
I recently found out the hard way that change is not all it is cracked up to be when we came home from our two plus weeks away. In our backyard are some woods and behind that is a power line. We knew that sooner or later the power company might come through and do some pruning, so over the years we made an effort to keep things cut back. It was nice foliage but we knew we needed to keep the trees and brush away from the wires lest a weather event cause them to create a power shortage.
Well, we knew all that but last week the power company came by and created something new back there – by taking out about half of our trees. Imagine my shock at coming home on my first day back in the office to find our backyard decimated. We talked with one of the company’s representatives in the field, a nice enough guy who talked about 15 foot easements and the need to create a safe place for everyone.
But I still wanted my trees back. Or at least some of them. But newness came and it looked pretty barren.
That’s the way it is with all of this new thing, or new life stuff. It can be really good. It can be super good. It can be amazingly, life transforming good. But that doesn’t mean it won’t hurt. We have had some new things around here and hopefully it hasn’t been too painful. But no one can make any guarantees about that. If you are going to follow Christ into the world, if you are going to be an “Exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the World,” as it says in one of our “Great Ends of the Church,” there is going to be a cost to that. Newness comes with pain. Change comes with pain. As Ronald Heifetz, the noted observer of change in organizations once noted, “People do not fear change. People fear loss.” And when there is change, when there is newness, there is going to be loss.
All of this is not just trendy church talk. It’s in the Bible, too. In fact it is in both of the texts we just read. Newness is wonderful; newness may be necessary. But newness, even God’s radical newness, brings with it some pain.
The text out of Isaiah 43 is one that I have used on many an occasion to call church people to recognize the necessity of newness, and that it may be God who is bringing it. And if God is bringing it, it has to be good, right?
Well, maybe. We have to be careful there – who knows if God is really behind it or not? But even if God is behind the change, that doesn’t mean it won’t have an edge to it.
These words are from the prophet known in scholarly circles as Deutero-Isaiah. He is writing in a time when the people of Israel are still in exile, still in Babylon, still captives in a foreign land. But something new is coming. Events are swirling in the world which will bring Cyrus, an enlightened ruler from Persia who will overthrow the Babylonians and allow the children of Israel to return to Jerusalem and wherever else in the Promised Land they came from. Good news, great news. Newness as a blessing.
But think about it. Would you be willing to drop everything and leave the only home you have ever known – even if it was Babylon – and move through the desert toward a place you had heard of but had never seen? That was the situation for most of the people of Israel. They were being called to envision a new future that was unlike anything they had ever witnessed. What was going to happen to them would be so wonderful that not even the most significant point of their history – the Exodus – could compare with it. God was not just going to be seen in the past. God would be seen in their very lives. Newness would bring freedom, but it would also bring a disconnection with everything they had known.
Then there was all that business about transporting themselves across miles of desert. I’ve just been to a section of the desert in the United Arab Emirates, and I can tell you that is no easy thing. It’s hard to find direction in the desert. Every sand dune looks the same.
Really, God? This is the great new thing you are calling for?
Yes. Because Isaiah sees that just as God long ago parted the waters of the sea to allow people to move on, God will now part the desert and create rivers in the wilderness so that people can come back home. Newness will be tough, but it is God’s new life, and they will be provided for. They will be equipped for this new life, even with all of its costliness, even with a certain amount of loss. Because this new life will bring a deepened sense of trust in the God who will free, and who will provide.
We are now deep into the season of Lent, and it is in the Gospel of John that we find the costliness to newness most pronounced. Lazarus has been raised from the dead, and the religious authorities are deeply concerned about what this means for the people. There is a plot to kill Jesus; tensions are mounting; terror is all around. Through it all there is the movement of new life from God, but it will come when death is encountered, embraced, and experienced. Then and only then will resurrection happen.
In the face of that, the ultimate in costly and death-embracing newness, Mary breaks open some perfume – a lot of perfume. Enough that the fragrance of it fills the whole house. It touches everyone. As will the new life of Jesus, leading as it does to the cross.
But not everyone wants that newness. Not everyone gets what this means. Judas, the one who will betray him, wonders why the waste of this expensive perfume when it could have been sold and given to the poor. Not that his motives are pure, far from it. But contained within his words is a resistance to the newness Jesus gives by his very presence.
Jesus then lifts up words that continue to haunt us. “The poor you will always have with you,” he says, and we cringe. We cringe because down through the years, even to last week among politicians in our country, this text has been yanked out of context and used as an excuse to keep from helping those in need. Remember the temptations of Jesus, when the devil used Scripture to justify his devious purposes? So these words of Jesus have been yanked out to roadblock our call to serve the humblest of our brothers and sisters.
In writing about this, Dr. Justo Gonzalez noted, “This does not mean that the poor are not important. On the contrary, Jesus establishes a parallel between himself and the poor. Now he is present, and Mary rightly feels the need to be extravagant. When he is no longer present in the flesh, the poor will still be there – to be served with the same extravagance.”
What is at issue here is not the issue of helping the poor, but recognizing who Jesus is and what he is about – and included in that is a call to reach out and help those in need. It is a call to say that Jesus is Lord of every part of our lives, and to live out our place as people of his realm by following him into a hurting world with an extravagant discipleship. One that is open to new life. But one that also recognizes that there is a cost to that new life.
Rev. Jill Duffield reflects that cost as she writes about these words and notes that what Mary is doing is pouring out to Jesus the very best of what she has. She is not holding anything back. Do we? Do we worship Jesus as Lord of our lives with everything we have? Or are we holding back lest his new life cost us too much?
Duffield goes on: “The answer to that question begins with recognizing what I am holding in reserve and keeping from Jesus. On this fifth Sunday in Lent, the time is now. Jesus is at table with us. God is right now doing a new thing. We are given this opportunity to recognize this kairos moment and act with abandon, showing Jesus how we feel and pouring ourselves out for his sake. Even as we grieve what once was, we can trust what lies ahead. We can risk it all for the sake of the gospel … We can bring out the pure, expensive nard, pour it out completely, give ourselves totally and trust that in so doing we are perceiving the new thing God is about to do and striving toward a resurrection future with the Savior who holds nothing back from us.”
New life is costly. New life is dangerous. It requires loss – the loss of our self-absorbed egos, the loss of those things, those attitudes which are inconsistent with following Jesus. It means letting go of anything that resists loving God with everything we have, with loving our neighbors as we love ourselves. It means dying to anything that gets in the way of letting the love of God flow in the world, even to difficult people, even in difficult situations.
Jesus calls us to new life. But is not an easy life. Will we hold back, or will we pour out ourselves in loving service in his name? That is our work – not just during Lent but throughout our lives. Amen.