Sunday, 13 March 2016

Lent 5: A new thing

“Do not remember the former things,” said the Prophet Isaiah in our first reading. Memory is a tricky thing. It deserts us when we need it, when we are scratching around to remember people’s names or what it was we came into the room to fetch, but there are also times when we would love to be able to forget something, but can’t. Painful memories linger. We find ourselves continually raking over some old shame or disappointment or loss.  

That’s what’s happening to the people Isaiah was writing for. They are in exile in Babylon, far away from their homeland. Jerusalem and its Temple have been destroyed, and they’re overwhelmed with sorrow and regret. What makes it worse was that their prophets had warned them that this would happen, that they needed to wake up, change their ways, turn back to God. But they’d gone on in their own sweet way, behaving as if they could do what they liked, as if nothing bad could ever happen to them.

So now, in exile, they are stuck in the mire of their memories, picking them over, bemoaning the past, convinced that there is no future for them. But Isaiah begs to differ.

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old,” he says. Why? Because God is “about to do a new thing”. Change is in the air. The Persian king, Cyrus, is on the move and he’ll overthrow their Babylonian captors. They’ll soon be going home, something they’d never imagined possible.  Their God, says Isaiah, is a God who can make a way where there is no way, a path in the sea, a track through a trackless desert. They may not know how, but with God new things can happen, things that are outside their experience, outside their imagination, however hopeless the world appears

In our second reading St Paul had also seen a new thing happen which he could never have imagined. He had found a new way, but he’d had to leave behind some of  “the former things” in order to embrace it. He used to think that he knew all there was to know about faith, about God, about how to live. He’d been a Pharisee, a religious expert. He’d been to all the right training programmes. He had all the right certificates and badges. He was a bona fide, paid-up member of the establishment, right at the heart of everything that mattered. And he’d been sure that those who followed the crucified carpenter, Jesus of Nazareth, who said he was God’s Messiah, were wrong, and deluded, and dangerous. He’d persecuted them with every ounce of his being. But then one day on the road to Damascus, where he was heading to root out some of these followers of the Way of Jesus, a bright light had blinded him and he’d heard Jesus’ voice, apparently speaking to him from the heavenly places. How could this be? Paul had realised that all those old certainties he had trusted in – the former things – would have to be re-examined. His life and his priorities were turned upside down as a result. Instead of persecuting the church, he joined them.

The letter he wrote to the church at Philippi, many years later, came out of that experience. In it he told the Philippians that the things he’d once relied on for his sense of identity and status weren’t worth the paper they were written on. He describes them as rubbish. In fact, in the Greek, he describes them as dung. It was following the way of Christ that really made a difference to his life, living as Jesus had lived and taught, preaching his good news of inclusion and welcome, of resurrection and new hope.
His family background, his tribe, his education don’t add up to a hill of beans, he says. It is the “righteousness that comes through faith in Christ” that really matters to him now.  

But what does that mean? Righteousness can be a difficult word for us. It sounds very boring and dull. We confuse it with self-righteousness; a “holier-than- thou” lumpen thing. But that’s not what the Bible means by righteousness. There’s an old English word which catches the meaning much better, the word “rightwise”. It’s better because it can be a verb as well as a noun, a doing word, not just a word for a static thing. Rightwising something means setting it to rights, healing, recreating. You know how it feels after you have cleaned up a really messy room, when everything is where it ought to be, and you can see the floor again, and you know where things are, and it feels like a place you’d like to be?  You have “rightwised” it.

That’s what the Bible means when it talks about righteousness – it’s the act of restoring things to the way they should be, healing hurts, mending broken relationships, bringing new hope and a new future. It doesn’t happen all at once, of course, and this side of the grave it is never perfect, but day by day we can be changed. Paul had experienced God “rightwising” him as he had followed Christ. The Christian community he’d once persecuted had loved and accepted him and that had transformed him. He’d thrown his lot in with them, joined them as they followed Christ. That’s what faith in Christ really means. It’s not believing things about Jesus – that he is the Son of God, that he rose from the dead – it’s about trusting ourselves to his hands, walking in his footsteps, letting ourselves be changed by his love. A trapeze artist may believe that their partner is capable of catching them, but it’s when they let go of the trapeze and sail through the empty air towards them that they show faith. In this context, Paul’s faith isn’t an academic belief about Jesus, but a willingness to follow in his way, wherever that leads. That’s what rightwises him, sets him to rights.

The faith and trust that shine through this letter are all the more extraordinary when we discover that he wrote it from a prison cell. He’d  been arrested by the Romans for the message he was preaching. Eventually he’d be taken to Rome and executed. But he was willing to pour out his energy, his love and even his life because he has found something of infinite worth and value.  “I am about to do a new thing” says God, and Paul answers “Amen – bring it on”.

There is a glimpse of that same exuberant self-offering in today’s Gospel reading. Mary of Bethany pours out her precious ointment on the feet of Jesus, three hundred denarii worth. That’s the better part of a year’s wages for an ordinary person. What is going on? What is she thinking of? The answer is that we can’t be sure, because she doesn’t give us a word of explanation.

Judas is quick to speak into her silence though, denouncing this as a waste. Maybe we have some sympathy with his views – it could have been sold for the poor. But Jesus tells him to leave her alone. He sees this act for what it is, a dramatic, radical demonstration of her love, and of her commitment. She knows that it is likely Jesus will suffer and die. He is clearly heading for a showdown with the authorities, and when a troublemaker came up against the might of Rome it was only likely to end one way. But she is right with him, giving her all. In for a penny, in for a pound – a pound of nard in this case. She’s not hedging her bets, keeping some back, just in case. And she’s not going to be able to scoop this oil back into the pot again. Once it’s gone it’s gone.

This is an act of commitment – she’s not just pouring out the nard, she’s pouring out her life at his feet too. She is committing herself to him, and to the way of life that he has taught. Judas is right to say that the cost of the nard could have fed the poor, but her commitment, in the end, will help them far more. Walking the way of Jesus will mean a lifetime of service to those around us, not just a token gesture, however generous.  

There’s another thing we should notice about this ointment though. It isn’t just any ointment, It is the ointment which traditionally was used to anoint the dead. Jesus points it out. But he is still alive, so why is she using it now?

It is as if she knows that something different is about to happen – one of those “new things”  that God is in the habit of doing.  She’s already seen Jesus raise her brother, Lazarus, from death – he is there in the room when this anointing happens – so maybe she has an inkling that though death lies ahead for Jesus, it won’t be the end of the story. His death is going to be a gateway to life.
“Do not remember the former things” said Isaiah, “I am about to do a new thing.”

All these readings, in their different ways, ask us the same questions.  Do we assume that it will always be the “same old, same old” in our lives? Do we look at the past and see a ball and chain, shackling us to our regrets and failures? Do we believe that what we have been is all that we can be? Or dare we act as if things could be different, let God change us, rightwise us?

We might not see people being raised from the dead, like Lazarus, but the message of the Bible, the message of the death and resurrection of Christ, is that God is always doing new things if we have eyes to see them. The God who makes paths through the trackless wastes of the sea can make a path that lead us to new life too.
Our part in the process is to walk along it. To take the first step, and the next, and the next as God “rightwises” us. We can’t make the journey and stay where we are at the same time. Clinging to the “former things” will mean we never find the new ones.  And we can’t make the journey with just a part of ourselves, either. Either the whole of us goes, or we don’t go at all. In for a penny, in for a pound, as Mary showed us. God calls us to hope and love and service, to real change, real rightwising, real life. It’s up to us whether we answer that call.

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