(A Lenten sermon based on Isaiah 43:16-21 & John 12:1-8)
We have arrived at the last Sunday in Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, the day on which we will commemorate the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem. Then, we will move through Maundy Thursday, the night on which he was betrayed, through Good Friday, the day on which he was crucified, and finally to the day of all days, Easter Sunday, the day on which he was resurrected. Here toward the end of our Lenten journey toward Holy Week I want us to consider some transitions that may need to take place in our lives. Specifically, I want us to ponder how past experiences need to give way to some new perspectives. I want us to think about how a healthy life of faith moves past the past and learns to live in the present.
Think for a few moments about what has happened to you in the past. Do you value it? Do you regret it? Do you hold on to it? Do you wish you could let go of it? This summer, a 1957 Plymouth Belvedere will be dug up from underneath the lawn of the Tulsa, Oklahoma courthouse. When it was brand-new it was placed in a vault and buried there. Back in 1957 people were given the chance to guess what the population of Tulsa would be in 2007. Those guesses were placed on microfilm which was put in the car. The person whose guess is the closest, or the heirs of that person, will win the car. The question is whether the winner will have a classic car or a pile of rust or something in between. They may uncover a treasure or they may uncover a mess.
For all of us, some of what is in the past is a treasure, some of it is a mess, and lots and maybe most of it is somewhere in between. It is possible to overvalue the positive experiences of the past, even when those experiences were glorious. It is a stunted faith that always looks to the past and wonders why it can’t be like that again. If you’re always looking backwards you can’t see the things that God may be up to now that may be just as great as or even greater than what he did back then. Therefore, we need to be looking for the new thing that God will do.
The Lord spoke through the prophet of the Babylonian Exile whose words are preserved for us in Isaiah 43 and said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old” (v. 18). To what “former things” and “things of old” was he referring? Only the exodus from Egypt! Just a couple of lines earlier he had said, “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…” (v. 16). The exodus from Egypt, which had happened some eight centuries before the words of our text were spoken, was the salvation event par excellence for the Hebrew people. It was seen as the mighty act of deliverance by the Lord. Everyone looked to it as the greatest thing that had ever happened. It was that event to which the Lord was referring when he said, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” While what God had done back there was very important, what the people needed to be looking for was what he was going to do in their present. What was he going to do? “I am about to do a new thing…. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (v. 19). He was going to bring about a new exodus, this time taking his people across the desert instead of across the sea. What made that new event more important was that it was for them; it was for the present generation.
Some of us have times in our past that we look upon as the apex of our walk with the Lord. It may be a time when we were very active in the Lord’s work. It may be a time when we were making a home with our spouse and raising our children. It may be a time before the illness struck. You will have to examine your own heart to see if you have such a time in your life. As strange as it may seem to say, you may need to repent of holding too tightly to that time in the past. Once we put such a time on the shelf and start polishing it up and making a shrine of it, we turn it into an idol. The really dangerous part of such an action is shutting ourselves off from the possibilities for the present.
It is a dangerous way of life for a church, too. Granting that God has done some remarkable things in the past of our church, we dare not make an idol of those times. Instead, we need to be looking for what he wants to do now. Now, this does not negate the value of our past experiences. We can be inspired by them. But the crucial thing is to be open to his new mighty acts in our midst. The life of faith is life lived in the present. What does God want to do to us, with us, and through us now? If we’re always looking backward, we can’t see forward—so let’s look forward!
Adequate looking forward requires some depth and sensitivity. In the case of the Jews whom God delivered from Babylonian captivity, their future deliverance did not lead to days of easy victory and obvious fulfillment. Yes, they went home and yes, they reestablished their nation, but the way was hard and they had to struggle through some tough times. But, for those who had eyes to see, God was at work.
We see a similar dynamic at work in Mary of Bethany. It was six days before Passover. Apparently, it had not been too long since Jesus had raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Not surprisingly, the family was having a dinner for Jesus in their home. At that dinner, Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped them with her hair. As always happens in the aftermath of acts of extreme faith, Mary was criticized for that action. She was criticized by the traitor Judas but you and I know that such criticisms can come from “good” Christians, too. Jesus said, “Leave her alone, in order that she may keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12:7 NASB). In other words, Jesus was saying that Mary was, in a prophetic kind of way, anointing his body ahead of time for the burial that was to come.
Did she know that she was doing that? We can’t know, of course, but I suspect she did. I have two reasons for saying that. First, John had just told us that some of the Jewish leaders started plotting to kill Jesus from the time of the raising of her brother Lazarus. Word of that could very well have trickled back to the family. Second, in the famous story about Mary, Martha, and Jesus that is told in Luke, Martha is the one busily serving while Mary is the one actively and attentively listening and learning (Luke 10:38-42). Mary seems to me to be the type of disciple who, unlike most of the other disciples, was sensitive enough to who Jesus was and to what he was about to have at least something of a grasp on where his journey was leading him.
Mary could have just basked in the afterglow of what had happened to Lazarus. And no doubt she did celebrate that; such may have been the occasion for the dinner with Jesus. But she still set her eyes on what was yet to come. What was yet to come was even more significant than the raising of Lazarus. That was a great miracle but Lazarus was going to die again one day. What was coming for Jesus was hard and terrible but it would lead to eternal life for Mary and Lazarus and for all others who would believe. That was what she had her gaze set on. It was hard reality but a glorious one.
I want to challenge us to seek to develop the kind of sensitivity and insight that will cause us to know and understand who Jesus really is and what he is really all about. If we will, he will lead us in the ways that we should go. Are we taking the time and expending the effort truly to learn of him? If we will be sensitive to the old, old story and humbly ask God to unleash its power in our present, there is no telling what he will accomplish. Are we looking for what he will do?