(with apologies for late posting!)
Isaiah 43:16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8
Love that goes upward is worship;
love that goes outward is affection;
love that stoops is grace.Donald Grey Barnhouse [https://www.azquotes.com/quote/819289]
There are many stories of amazing people, who despite adversity seem to radiate the grace of God. So the readings today are full of images of people who experience this grace of God as transformative to life in several different ways.
The witness of Isaiah
Isaiah’s prophecy indicates a situation of great difficulty, where drought & exile give way to refreshing and thanksgiving:
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. 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. Isaiah 43:18-19
In all likelihood, the person writing these words, may well have been born in Babylon, only knowing the temple in Jerusalem and the families’ homeland from tales passed down through the family. Writing towards the end of the exile in the sixth century BCE, here is someone who is convinced, in the verses prior to this passage, that ‘the Holy One of Israel’ will redeem this group of people living in exile (v. 14). He likens their coming journey to the exodus from Egypt (Exodus 14-15) and announces that God is ‘about to do a new thing’ (v. 19). A series of images follow that suggest a triumphal procession through the desert back to Jerusalem in which the wild animals, fed and watered by God, will declare God’s praise as the Israelites march on unharmed. While the restored watercourses in a dry and barren land can only mean one thing – refreshing for the land & the people; food and giving thanks. I wonder if the people returning home sang Psalm 126 on their journey. Remarkably, one translation of this Psalm is entitled ‘a harvest of joy’! What a delightful phrase for this wonderful psalm.
The witness of St Paul
The theme of God doing something new is found throughout scripture (Isaiah 51.10 also, Jeremiah 16.14f, 2 Corinthians 5.17, Revelation 21.5 to name but a few). Paul knew first-hand something of the new work of God is his own life, and he ‘boasts’ – by birth, linguistically, racially, culturally, religiously, Paul was a fanatical Hebrew.
Yet he was to learn that trusting in human performance, status and religious duty does not really bring progress toward the righteousness God requires. In fact, in a very real sense, these things prevented him from seeing the true light for a long time! Wonder how true that might be for those of us who also have been members of the household of faith, almost since birth?
But Paul has had his eyes open to the grace of God: this man who persecutes Christians, found himself drawn to Christ. What once appeared important is now in comparison, only fit to be consigned to the rubbish. Imagine. All our deeply held views on what the church is about and who is able to partake just thrown away when we consider what God has done for us! God invites us to reach full potential by graciously-changed lives: in Christ all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden (Colossians 2:3).
The witness of Mary
The richness of God’s hospitality was discovered by Mary and led to this huge act of devotion before the events of Good Friday & Easter – She broke open a container of precious perfume and anointed Jesus’ feet.
There is a tremendous amount of symbolism in this account:
Socially, the act of washing and anointing feet was strictly reserved for slaves. When Mary, one of the people hosting the dinner, anointed Jesus’ feet, she was taking on the role of a slave. Her devotion to Jesus was so great that she dared to lower herself to the humblest position in the household. Furthermore, she let down her hair and dried Jesus’ feet with it. Not only was it scandalous for a woman to let down her hair in public, but also to use one’s hair as a towel was something only a slave would do.
Financially: spices and ointments were quite costly because they had to be imported. So they were frequently used as an investment because they occupied a small space, were portable, and easily negotiable in the open market. Mary’s offering, valued at three hundred denarii, was the equivalent of a year’s wages for an average working person. In all probability, this could have been Mary’s investment for her old age. And it was lavishly given in one moment.
And finally, there is something deeply sacramental in this extravagant gift, given in total abandonment, devotion and reverence. To stoop is indeed an act of grace.
Fred Kaan reminds us in the hymn ‘Now let us from this table rise’, of the sacrament of care: To fill each human house with love it is the sacrament of care; The work that Christ began to do we humbly pledge ourselves to share.
At coronation, a king was anointed on his head. At death of a king, his feet were anointed in preparation for burial. Mary anointed Jesus – she was acting toward him as if he were king, and the fact that she anointed his feet indicated that soon he would die. That was how Jesus interpreted her behaviour in his concluding comment; She has kept this for the day of my burial.
And Judas complained
Jesus is unlikely to have found poverty winsome, but he knew well Judas’s tendencies with the funds, using his office for his own enrichment. ((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. John 12:6) Judas would do well in the 21st century where financial values often seem to be viewed above human values. Judas already had occasion enough to help the poor and needy should he really have so desired.
The difference? Mary offers her best to Jesus in sacrificial love; Judas is coldly utilitarian in his use of Jesus to achieve his own ambitions. So where have we learned our own attitudes and behaviours?
Love that goes upward is worship; love that goes outward is affection; love that stoops is grace.
The only way to anoint feet is to stoop: in less than a week later Jesus will stoop to wash the disciples’ feet; he will stumble & fall beneath the weight of a rough-hewn piece of wood. In Bethany Mary demonstrated extravagant waste in pouring out something like £30,000[i] worth of perfume in devotion to Jesus. A week later, Jesus would demonstrate extravagant waste of untold value, by pouring out his life in devotion to God for the sake of the world. The history of the church is the history of men and women who have dared to waste their lives in devotion to God.
In an increasingly confused and frustrated society, I sense a deep need to give ourselves away in reckless abandonment – big television charity appeals are fine – but I suspect people are really looking for a cause, something or someone really worth following.
Perhaps it’s time once more for extravagant giving of ourselves in devotion to God. Perhaps it is time to look to the new, and become streams in the desert?
[i] Average full-time UK salary in 2022 = £31,285 – and whilst it is tricky to make an accurate comparison, it does at least indicate the level of generosity found in this story.