A lot of the bible is about going from one place to another. The Old Testament is a rags to riches to rags story about the people of God. Israel escapes from Egypt, wanders for 40 years, and finds the Promised Land. Israel gets into trouble with God a few generations later, and now, when the prophet Isaiah is writing, Israel is in exile in Babylon (the area of Iraq today). It’s 700 years before the ministry of Jesus and they are 800 miles from home. They are dreaming of the good things they miss… will we ever go home? And Isaiah tells them how God will save them. God is going to do something new.
Isaiah 43:16-21. Long ago the Lord made a road through the sea, a path through the swirling waters. He led a mighty army to destruction, an army of chariots and horses. Down they fell, never to rise, snuffed out like the flame of a lamp!
But the Lord says, “Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now! I will make a road through the wilderness and give you streams of water there.
Even the wild animals will honor me; jackals…
and ostriches will praise me.
In scripture, jackals and ostriches show up when people have abandoned their towns. I took these photos at the southern tip of Africa, so it’s amazing that the people of the ancient Middle East know what they are – they were part of the natural habitat. Ostriches and jackals are not bad animals themselves, but a sign of hopelessness in that place. They have taken over a ghost town.
So Isaiah is saying even Hopelessness makes way for the new thing God is doing. Hopelessness, get down on your knees and praise God.
…for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.
This is a journey. It starts with a dramatic escape – from Egypt. God is asking, do you remember that? There was an army and horses and chariots, remember that? I saved you. I’m the God who did that, and I can do it again. In fact, I will do it again. God says I know that you have been languishing where you are, suffering in exile, and I would like to bring you home, so…
Do not cling to events of the past or dwell on what happened long ago. Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now! (Isaiah 43:18-19)
God says, look ahead; we’re going to a new place. Just take the first step; I promise, you will finish the trip. I never promised it would feel good or be easy. But I’ll be with you and we need to get on with the next step of the trip. I’m taking you through the wilderness places where nothing is easy. There are wild animals and water is hard to find, but I will take care of you.
I know that the church has been through a lot in the last few years. It’s not been easy. Can you hear God saying….
Watch for the new thing I am going to do. It is happening already—you can see it now!
How do you feel about change? Maybe not so much. How do you feel about progress? Better, right? But you can’t have progress without change!
God wants to know if you’re ready for the next step in the journey. God says, we’re turning the page. We are leaving the town of Hopelessness. Maybe this is the year you let go of your personal hopelessness and let God fill the empty place. God will be doing new things, so get ready.
Of course, the ultimate new thing, the thing that no one saw coming was the empty tomb of Jesus. If God can do that, think of what God can do with us, with you and me. Keep in mind that the path to the empty tomb goes through a cross. God is making a new way.
Easter is two weeks away, and today, we’re farther along the path to Jerusalem with Jesus. We’re almost to Jerusalem.
It’s a journey, it really is. I mean it. One thing that seems clear to me from the ministry of Jesus is that he when he asks his people to follow, he doesn’t mean for them to sit in one place and think about following. They agree with Jesus by getting up and going where he goes.
Now, of course he’s asking us to be a part of the new thing he’s doing. That’s a heart decision – to say yes to Jesus. But then, if you’re truly committed to following Jesus, you go where he’s going. He says, “Okay, we’re going to Galilee next week. Get your stuff together.” We stay for a few days, then move on. We keep moving. Things to do, people to see.
How about this for a Lenten discipline? Walk about 120 miles over 40 days (the distance to Jerusalem from Galilee). About 3 miles a day. About 6,000 steps on your wrist device!
This morning, we’re just outside Jerusalem with Jesus. You can call this the beginning of the end or the end of the beginning. You can cut the tension with a knife. The week we think of as “holy week” was not a spontaneous event; Jesus knew the kind of danger he was walking into and went anyway.
John 12:1-8. Six days before the Passover, Jesus went to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, the man he had raised from death. They prepared a dinner for him there, which Martha helped serve; Lazarus was one of those who were sitting at the table with Jesus. Then Mary took a whole pint of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard, poured it on Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The sweet smell of the perfume filled the whole house. One of Jesus’ disciples, Judas Iscariot—the one who was going to betray him—said, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred silver coins and the money given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief. He carried the money bag and would help himself from it. (John 12:1-8)
It’s important to know what’s just happened: Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead and the chief Priests and the Pharisees are very upset. They now want to know where Jesus is so that they can kill him. This threat is no secret; Jesus has come back to the Jerusalem area knowing that there is a “contract” out on his life. But they need help. They need Judas to get upset enough to betray Jesus.
The scene opens at the house of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (they are siblings), and there’s a party going on and there’s a festive atmosphere. The family of Lazarus is grateful to Jesus.
This is like the victim of an accident (and his family) thanking the rescue worker. That’s what’s going on at this banquet. This is a dinner being given in Jesus’ honor. People are happy, maybe a little in awe. They still can hardly believe that Jesus brought Lazarus back from the grave, but there he is. Hugs and kisses and tears all around.
And in the middle of the party, Mary puts the most expensive perfume she could find on the feet of Jesus. She’s using nard (aka spikenard), which is a rare perfume made from a plant found in India and the Himalayas (think about that). I’d love to know what it smelled like. The smell must have filled the house. And Mary’s hair was soaked in it; she was probably smelling it for weeks; she wanted to carry the experience with her for a while.
But it was expensive. And outside of an obvious use around a tomb (probably used under the nose of a mourner; remember, they had buried Lazarus not too long ago), it was also used in ancient times to anoint kings and priests. Mary was wiping it on the feet of Jesus, an invitation for somebody at that feast to see dollar signs evaporating into the air. In a few of the Jesus movies, this was the moment that Judas decided to betray Jesus.
Judas was right to point out that it was worth a year’s wages, which brings us to the other side of the experience. In my imagination, at this dinner, somebody has said, “Hey, let’s get a group photo!” I wonder if we could pick Judas out of the group. In traditional artwork, he is the guy with his face in a shadow, the unhappy one. He never smiles.
And at the party, Judas is on a slow burn. He is not happy. He is disgruntled, he is concerned about the money, he is not happy about the way Jesus is doing his ministry.
Ministry has to be practical, it has to fulfill some tangible purpose, something for the obvious good of all. The purpose of ministry is social action, right?. The social action department of Jesus disciples really could have used the money that was spent on that perfume. And apparently, Judas could have used it too.
So, we have two completely different perspectives on the same event. Mary sees the expensive perfume as something she can devote to God. Judas does not see why anything should be spent on the worship of Jesus, even if he is the Messiah.
Did Jesus ask for this? No. The perfume flows out of the bottle and Judas watches dollar signs flow across the feet of Jesus, into Mary’s hair, and onto the floor.
The story ends with a punch-line by Jesus which only makes sense if he’s saying it to Judas: “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.” He may already be aware of what Judas is up to. “You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (vv. 7-8)
In one line he reads the mind of Judas and gives the church a mission statement. We always have the poor among us. If we’re grateful to God for what God has done for us in Christ, then we always have the opportunity at our fingertips to express our gratitude through ministry to the poor. You have an opportunity to express gratitude to God through One Great Hour of Sharing today. When was the last time you were extravagant on God? Or extravagant on the Body of Christ, the church, in some way?
Back to the journey… If I ask, what new thing is God doing in your life? Can you remember where you were spiritually 2 years ago? 5 years ago? 20 years ago? 40 years ago? Has God taken you places beyond where you were and shown you new things? Was it easy? Maybe… A new tolerance? A new forgiveness? A new ability? A new understanding of Christ?
I imagine that these new things didn’t come on suddenly. It took time. And some hard journeying, and some difficult following of Jesus to get there with your fellow travelers. We’re almost there.
O God, just as we’re tempted to feel hopeless, we hear your voice saying, “These are my people, with whom I am well pleased.” Fill us with your Spirit; give us strength to live up to your blessing. Give us the courage to be extravagant in our love of you. Make us deeper, stronger in our faith. Help us remember that you spared no expense on us, and that your love took you through a cross and a tomb, and that Jesus is alive. We know that you walk with us every step of the way through your son Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.