Weekly Preaching: April 7, 2019

April 2nd, 2019

On April 7, it will be hard not to preach on the Gospel, given the timing — just a week until Holy Week! — and a dramatic scene intimately rooted in the events of Holy Week. I'll still touch on other texts, or at least try to learn something from pondering them for my own personal ruminations and growth. 

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Isaiah 43:16-21 is vivid and eloquent. It reminds me how little we, or at least I, expect any new thing, and we certainly aren’t expecting the miraculous. Sure, maybe a little help with a medical situation, but a real new life? Real change in the political and social order? A vivid alteration in church life for the good? Claus Westermann suggests that “Israel requires to be shaken out of a faith that has nothing to learn about God’s activity.” I do, too. The prophet is, of course, speaking of the nation and world, citing the miraculous deliverance from Pharaoh's grip at the Sea (Exodus 14) as proof of what God can and will do.

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Philippians 3:4b-14 is a rich text with endless preaching possibilities and wisdom for clergy spirituality. I love Paul’s trembling uncertainty in verse 11: “If somehow I may attain the resurrection…” Is it a rhetorical stratagem? I get the “if” and “may.”

Karl Barth once asked, “Can even the clergy be saved? With the clergy, this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

We may sing “My richest gain I count but loss” (or delight in the powerful anthem by Gilbert Martin), but what losses can we point to or even seek because of Christ’s cross? Paul talks like an accountant, but between the lines we feel his harrowing heartbreak. Paul lost... everything? Property, yes, potential for making money, yes, but also “he lost his Jewish friends, his high status, and perhaps his wife” (Ben Witherington). Most of the early Christians suffered financially because they refused to strike deals at pagan temples and no longer curtsied to the emperor’s claim to total devotion. Families were ripped apart; husbands dispensed with wives who converted, Christian children were disinherited by parents. Nero burned Christians as torches in his garden.

Jesus senses our hesitation, the way we get tentative and hold back. We calculate, we play it safe and never leap. Is it because we are contriving to maintain total control over my life and not risk handing the steering over to anybody else, including God? Or do we simply not understand the magnificence, the wonder, the glorious beauty of what God is literally dying to give us?

In life as in preaching, we’d best notice all the passive verbs the Bible uses to describe life with God. I am “found” in him; I do not “find” God. What I do is I flee from God, I mosey about as if there were no God. But God is what the poet Francis Thompson called “the Hound of Heaven”: “I fled Him, down the nights and down the days… I hid from Him.” But “with deliberate speed, majestic instancy, came on the following Feet” of God who never stops finding us.

Paul also wants to “share his sufferings” — not be spared suffering because of Christ, but actually to suffer with Christ! Spiritual giants can show us the way to a deep love for Jesus that is so hinged to Jesus that we want to be as close to him as possible, that we want to know not just the resurrection but also the immense love in that hour when he exhibited the heart of God most profoundly. 

St. Francis prayed before a cross, “My Lord Jesus Christ, Two graces I ask of you before I die: the first is that in my life I may feel, in my soul and body, as far as possible, that sorrow which you, tender Jesus, underwent in the hour of your most bitter passion; the second is that I may feel in my heart, as far as possible, the abundance of love with which you, son of God, were inflamed, so as willingly to undergo such a great passion for us sinners.”

Or this from Mother Teresa: “You must give what will cost you something. This is giving not just what you can live without, but what you can’t live without or don’t want to live without. Something you really like. Then your gift becomes a sacrifice which will have value before God. This giving until it hurts, this sacrifice is what I call love in action.”

I fear a Philippians 3 sermon on goal-setting. If you go there, be clear: Paul’s goal is established by God, defined by God, and Paul’s achievement of his goal rests entirely in God’s hands, not Paul’s! Paul presses on, but it’s the way a hungry man presses on through the line for the food that awaits, the way a young lover presses on to put his arms around the one he’s longed for but missed for some time. Yes, I make Christ my own, but really it is a spontaneous reflex to the larger wonder that Christ made me his own!

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The Gospel portrays one who got all this. John 12:1-8 is the opening scene of Jesus’ final pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It’s worth painting the scene. He would stay in the town of Bethany, nearby, in walking distance. Once upon a time when I took groups to Israel, we would walk from Bethany into the city of Jerusalem. Now, the Wall blocks the road, and it’s about a twenty-five minute drive to get all the way around. Proverbial are humanity’s lunges for security, to keep the peace, when Jesus, the one who walked courageously into the teeth of hostility and death, is our peace.

The anointing: it’s good to portray the moment, the shock of onlookers trying to figure out what was unfolding, the scent, the nervous panic when they realized how expensive the oil was, and that it was soaking not only into Jesus but into the dirt of the floor, down in the cracks. How lavish, how unstinting, how absurdly generous is this woman’s devotion to Jesus!

Jean Vanier suggested that she understood, perhaps uniquely, the depth of beauty of Jesus’ love, that his love “is liberating her love.” And yet, quite unashamedly, we see in this moment that Jesus is “also revealing his need for her love.” Jesus Christ Superstar played on the notion we’d be troubled by this, but the true God of Scripture isn’t the omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent remote one, but the one who is vulnerable, who needs, who risks everything dreaming of our love, which he may receive, and often won’t, to God’s own heartbreak.

The fragrance wafting through the room had to have struck those who sensed it as a striking contrast to the stench of Lazarus’s dead body, which filled Bethany just before, in chapter 11. The Gospel happens around death, always. The oil is muron — myrrh — as in the gift of the Magi, the oil set aside for preparing the corpse for the grave. This woman alone understood Jesus’ path... and hers.

The objection of the disciples is worth pondering. I love James Sanders’s assessment of Judas and his persnickety fixation on practicality, calling him “a masculine Martha gone wrong.” His complaint? “It should have been sold and given to the poor.” As a clergy person, I’m weary of hearing this from stingy church people when we ask for building money, if we print a nice brochure, etc. Christians are always thinking of what someone else should be doing for the poor. It was given to the poor — to the poor man Jesus, and Jesus praises her.

Can you think of some extravagant gesture, some absurdly generous gift given to God that might strike the world and even holy people as wasteful? I think of those carvings up high and in the attics of medieval cathedrals where no human can see. These were for God, only. Recently, some of my people complained our church people are too dressy and they’d prefer wearing jeans to church. I’m delighted if they wear jeans, but I did respond by explaining when I go to Bayonnais, Haiti, the poorest place in the poorest country in the world, where the people have nothing, on Sunday morning they put on suits and dresses not to impress anybody but God Almighty.

What can we say April 7? Lent 5 originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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