Fifth Sunday in Lent

Redeemer, CairoIsaiah 43:16,21, John 12:1-8, Philippians 3:4b-14, Psalm 126

Sam and George were neighbors. They both had houses that backed up against a beautiful small lake. They also both had dogs, and enjoyed a little friendly competition over whose dog was smarter or more clever or knew how to do more impressive tricks. One fine afternoon they were both in their backyards, and George said to Sam, “Watch what my dog Spot can do.” He took a stick and threw it about forty yards into the lake. Spot dove right in, swam out to the stick, grabbed it with his teeth, and proudly swam back and brought it to George, first shaking off the water from his coat the way dogs do, and getting George thoroughly soaked in the process.

Sam then said with a grin, “Well, that’s nothing. Watch what my dog Rex can do.” Sam then threw a similar stick out to the same spot in the water, and commanded Rex to “Fetch!” Rex then walked on the surface of the water, getting only the bottoms of his paws wet, and then walked over the water back to Sam and presented him with the stick, and everybody stayed dry. Sam smiled over at George, and asked, “Well, what do you think of that?” George just kept a straight face and said, “What’s the matter with Rex? Can’t he swim?”

Haven’t you had that experience? When you’ve been with someone who witnesses something completely amazing, utterly spectacular, and they just don’t get it? They just don’t have a clue? They offer a response, like George’s remark, that can only be described as a lame gesture. I think this applies, much of the time, to how we think of God. As silly as this might sound, we sometimes take God for granted. We’re like George after watching Sam’s dog walk on water. We’re clueless about what God has done for us.

What, indeed, has God done for us? According to the Apostle Paul, it is through God’s mercy and grace that we who have responded in faith to that mercy and grace are what he calls “in Christ.” We have shared with Christ in his death—his death becomes ours and ours becomes his—all that we may share in a resurrection like his—his life becomes ours and ours becomes his. This reality is so astonishing, so completely amazing, Paul says, that all the advantages he was born with—Roman citizenship, the best available Jewish education, elite status in the Jewish hierarchy—he counts all of this as so much trash, so much rubbish, in comparison with the supreme advantage of being found in Christ.

There’s a song I remember from my childhood in church; perhaps you’re familiar with it too. “Count your blessings, name them one by one; count your many blessings, see what God hath done.” What are some of those blessings? How about the gift of life itself, down to every single breath we draw. Every breath is a gift; every breath is a blessing. It’s so easy to obsess over our problems, isn’t it? I get that. Our problems are real, and it’s not hard to feel like we’re being crushed under their weight. But nobody in this room, I would dare say, is without blessings—the blessing of adequate food, the blessing of shelter, of human connection, of opportunity and vision. There’s a wonderful prayer called the General Thanksgiving, which you’re familiar with if you know the services of Morning and Evening Prayer. In the General Thanksgiving, we offer our gratitude to God for “the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and the hope of glory.” Redemption, grace, glory—way more impressive than a dog walking on water!

This is, indeed, what God specializes in; this is what God is about. We heard this morning from the prophet Isaiah:

Behold, I am doing 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. The wild beasts will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, 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 that they might declare my praise.

A new thing. God is doing a new thing. Jesus’ friend Mary of Bethany, sister of Martha and Lazarus, saw Jesus as the bright and hopeful sign of this “new thing” that God talks about doing in Isaiah. After all, Jesus had raised her brother from the dead! Mary wants to respond to Jesus in a way that corresponds to the greatness of who he is and what he represents. She doesn’t want to be clueless. She doesn’t want to “not get it.” So what does she do? She takes incredibly expensive perfume—probably about $50,000 worth!—she takes this immensely expensive perfume and pours it on Jesus’ feet as he reclines at dinner. And then she spreads the perfume around his feet with her hair. This was an astonishing act, one that nobody was likely to approve of. But Mary could think of nothing else that rose to the level of her esteem for Jesus. She had definitely counted her blessings. She had definitely seen the “new thing” that God was doing in Jesus. It was the complete opposite of a lame gesture!

What is our response to God’s new thing? We probably don’t have $50K in perfume lying around, nor do we have access to Jesus’ feet. But we have our lives. We have ourselves, our souls and bodies, that St Paul invites us offer as a “living sacrifice” to God. We have time—time that, for most of us, is precious. How are we making a Mary-like living sacrifice of our time? We have talents and abilities. How are we putting those talents and abilities at God’s disposal, how are we making them available to God in a way that advances his kingdom, and may not necessarily bring us any praise, acclaim, or recognition? How are we making a sacrifice of our gifts and talents? And we all have money, some more than others. From those to whom much has been given, much is required, but some is required of all. How are we making a living sacrifice of the financial resources that God has entrusted to us?

So, whether it’s time, talent, or treasure we’re talking about, Mary’s example invites us to be extravagant in our response. As the Psalmist reminds us: “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. Those who went out weeping, carrying the seed, have come again rejoicing, carrying the sheaves.” The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed. May our response not be a lame gesture. May our response be, instead, a living sacrifice.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

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