Faith first, the rest will follow.
First Reading Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm Psalm 126
Second Reading Philippians 3:4b-14
Gospel John 12:1-8
“The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.”
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Scripture speaks to us in these lingering days of Lent. It is tempting to fast forward to Holy Week and the celebration of Easter, but we are called to remain in this penitent time a little longer, and reexamine how God is filling our empty spaces, strengthening our foundation of faith, and equipping us for what comes next.
Paul seems to be working through a Lenten self-examination in his letter to the church in Philippi. He contrasts his former and present status. Paul is a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin, thus God has not rejected his chosen people. Paul was circumcised on the eight day according to God’s Law. Paul was a good Hebrew, even a Pharisee, following the Law with such zeal that it led him to persecute those he deemed to be outside the Law. Jews of the day could not argue with Paul’s righteousness. As a person of faith, Paul has quite a resume.
But in self examination, Paul considers who he was and all he did in the past and tells us what it adds up to ... Nothing. Zero. Rubbish. Garbage. Paul does not apologize for any of this, but rejects all the things that others might count as accomplishment. Paul rejects a righteousness on his own account that comes from Law in favor of righteousness that comes through faith in Christ. Paul is on a faith journey, longing to experience the power of the risen Lord. ‘I want to know Christ’ ... to share in his sufferings and the power of his resurrection. The language is even stronger in Greek. Paul hopes with Christ to be ‘formed together in his death’.
The goal of our Lenten journey is to draw nearer to Christ in faith. Paul warns of ‘confidence in the flesh’, measuring our righteousness by our own efforts. Our own plans and designs of good works are useless unless given completely to God in faith. It all starts with faith, and that is what we offer to God. Our foundation is faith. That is what God builds upon.
The gospel today offers an example of faith, focused with laser precision, in contrast with human concerns and our own ideas of righteous action.
Friends have gathered for a dinner in Jesus’ honor. Jesus has already demonstrated his power over death by raising his friend Lazarus. They gather in Lazarus’ house, and he is there as host in his reborn human body. Martha is serving, because that is what Martha is called to do. Mary has acquired a costly jar of nard, a perfume imported from the Himilayas. It is blessed by the presence of Jesus, and she breaks it open and begins to anoint Jesus’ feet and wipe them with her hair. Mary is focused in faith on sacred worship. Theologian Gregory Dix has described the shape of the Eucharist as ‘take, bless, break, and give’. This is what Mary does. Jesus will implement this sacramental formula at the Lord’s Supper. We do likewise when we celebrate Eucharist.
Mary obtained this perfumed oil to anoint Jesus at his burial, prophetically foreshadowing Jesus’ impending death. She wipes his feet with her hair, as Jesus will soon kneel before his followers, wash their feet, and wipe them with his towel. Mary’s anointing of Jesus is a holy, sacred scene. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Sacramental actions draw us into following to where they lead, with a laser focus on God. In her silence, Mary draws attention not to herself, but to the one she worships and anoints.
But the sacred silence is broken by Judas’ protest. There are many distractions from our worship and our works. Others will attempt to alter our focus with the concerns and expectations of humanity. At least on the surface, Judas protests that the money spent on the expensive perfume could have been given to the poor. Some may make the same argument on the money we spend painting our church, renovating stained glass windows, or caring for our grounds. But Judas and this argument have missed the point of worship. Our beautiful worship space is not for us. The material surroundings of beauty and holiness invite us into a sacred space to worship God. In the tiniest country chapels and the most grand cathedrals, we are called to worship and build our faith. The care and resource of these sacred spaces are part of our worship of God.
At a clergy conference on stewardship, the speaker suggested we practice offering our gifts directly to God. As the clergy yawned, the speaker took a $100 bill and said, “God, I offer this gift to you and you alone.” Then, he proceeded to burn the $100 bill. The group gasped, fidgeted, and protested. Perhaps they had the same objections as Judas. He said, “Don’t you understand? I am offering it to God, and that means it will cease to be useful to the rest of us.”
Now if any of you want to run this little experiment, you might wait until the offering plate passes, insert your bill, and we will be sure God receives it. The point is that we offer our whole selves, souls, and bodies to God, and the works will follow from faith. Our foundation is faith. That is what God builds upon.
In an uncomfortable truth, Jesus proclaims there will always be the poor and pitifully suffering. Our faithful worship does not justify neglecting those in need. To the contrary, we serve the poor in response to our faith. And as our faith overflows in compassion and works, those in need are invited to be drawn to Christ, and inherit riches unimaginable.
Our challenge is to recognize the stability of our faith in God, accept the changes God is working in us, and respond with love and service to God and others. As we continue our Lenten self-examination, do we like what we find? Are we satisfied with our righteousness resume, or are we filled with despair because we fall woefully short? Which pleases God more, money given to the poor, or lives given to Christ? Does our faith begin with works or worship? Perhaps our worship is the wellspring of works, our response to faith in God who calls us to love God and neighbor. The foundation is faith.
We live our lives in the shadow of the cross, but also in the light of the risen Lord. In both is an invitation to daily companionship with Jesus, to pursue the mind of Christ. Even the Apostle Paul proclaims he is still pursuing the goal. We are in good company on the journey. ‘I press on to make it my own because Christ Jesus has made me his own’. Paul encourages us to forget the old and strain toward what lies ahead. Like a sprinter in the blocks leaning forward, so committed that if they do not bring their feet underneath themselves, they will fall. Compelled and impelled forward toward the work at hand, accelerating through the fall, feet pawing at the ground, striving for the finish line. Paul urges us to press on for the prize of the heavenly call of God ... not the goal, the call. We are to focus on the race, on the running, knowing God runs along side us, and is also waiting at the finish line. This is the journey formed and fueled by faith.
As we move through Lent toward Easter, through the cross and tomb to resurrection, pay attention to and recognize the ‘new thing’ God is doing. Be prepared to let go of the old, all the things we cling to misguidedly expecting them to give life, and experience the water springing forth in the wilderness. This is our faith. The power of God to create and raise from the dead is always at work, making old things new, recreating, and offering righteousness. Thus says the Lord, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? ... I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my [chosen] people.” Amen.