Remember to Claim Your Prize

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 5C, March 17, 2013, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Columbus, OH.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126.1-7; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This morning is the first day of Passiontide, the two weeks prior to the great Easter celebration. It is a time to focus on our Lord’s suffering and death and all that it means, and you may have noticed the tone of our gospel lesson has gotten darker with Mary anointing Jesus and preparing him ahead of time for burial. Passiontide also signals that Lent is drawing to a close and so it is worth our time to look briefly today at why we have been observing a holy Lent these past four weeks. Specifically I want us to look at why it is so important for us to remember all that God has done, is doing, and will do for us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This past week I learned that two of my cousins suffered miscarriages at about the same time and stage in their pregnancies. Closer to home, Sarah and Tom have lost a beloved family pet and several of you continue to struggle with personal and family issues that not only distract you but can suck the living energy right out of you. Without a doubt, the powers and principalities have been very busy of late, at least from my perspective. And even if things are going well for us at the moment, we understand the toll life’s hurts, failures, and losses can exact on us because unfortunately at one time or another we’ve all been there and done that. When things go wrong in our life it can make us feel like we are all alone and have to deal with life’s problems all by ourselves. It also makes us afraid and causes anxiety about the future. We feel this way, in part, because we are such control freaks. We want to be able to control everything in our lives but if we are honest with ourselves, we are forced to admit that we have control over precious little in our lives.

Then of course when life gets rough or makes us sorrowful, it can have a negative impact on our relationship with God. When we suffer loss or setbacks or failures we tend to wonder where God is in it all. The dark times of our life tend to reinforce the false and unbiblical notion that God is no more than an absentee landlord who really doesn’t care about us and our problems. That is why it is so important for us as Christians to remember our Story and Whose we are so that we are not overcome by all that life can throw our way.

Take our OT lesson, for example, with all its breathtaking promises. Do you know who the intended audience was? Those Israelites who were living in exile and slavery in Babylon in the 6th century BC! Think about how they would have read these gracious words from Isaiah. Jerusalem with its Temple, the very dwelling place of God, had been destroyed and God’s people had been carried off into exile and slavery. It was simply inconceivable to them before it all happened. It would be like us trying to imagine an enemy destroying Washington, DC and subjugating the rest of our country to a cruel and oppressive regime. Most of us simply cannot envision a scenario like that and neither could most Jews imagine that their nation would be effectively ended in 586 BC, especially because they were God’s chosen people. But it happened just as God had promised and now they were suffering in exile (cf. Psalm 137.1-9).

Yet even in the midst of their darkest national hour, here is God speaking through his prophet and reminding his people that he is a God who rescues his people from their slavery and inviting them to see the new thing he was doing even then in their very midst. Like many of us, I suspect there were those who read these words in disbelief and scoffed at them. What rescue? That was centuries ago! What new thing? As far as we can tell we are still living in exile and are slaves to the Babylonians. Are you kidding us, Isaiah? What a joke, and a cruel one at that! But as we know, God did free his captive people and a remnant returned home to Judah and Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple. And speaking of Egypt, we don’t have to read any further than the book of Exodus to see that God’s people were equally skeptical of God’s promises to free them from their slavery there! But God delivered his people from their slavery as well.

What all this is pointing to, of course, is the need for faith on the part of God’s people. But God does not ask us to adopt a blind faith or whistle through the graveyard, so to speak. No, we are invited to develop an informed faith that is based on the knowledge that God always delivers on his promises, whether they be good or bad. In other words, we are invited to look at history and the biblical narrative to see that we can trust and depend on God to deliver on his promise to rescue his people from our slavery to sin and death. Faith is required because unlike God, we are not all-knowing and do not have an eternal perspective so that we know exactly what the future holds and how God plans to deliver us. All we have is our present limited perspective, which can get badly skewed at times. That is why we must make a conscious effort to remember all the ways God has acted on behalf of his people so that we have an informed basis to believe his future promises and recognize God’s modus operandi. And when we expect God to be active in our midst and act with mercy and grace on our behalf to deliver us ultimately from our sin and death, we will be like those people in today’s psalm, whose mouths were filled with laughter and joy. Sorrows and troubles there will be, but God promises to deliver us from them all and help us even in the midst of our trials and tribulations. Do you really believe this?

This is essentially the reasoning behind what Paul is talking about in our epistle lesson. Before Jesus claimed him, Paul had relied on his identity as a Jew to determine his status before God. And Paul was no ordinary Jew. He was a man among boys and had the pedigree to back up his claims. But after his encounter with Jesus, all that changed for Paul. He realized that basing his identity on his ethnicity was rubbish because he would still be a slave to sin and death. The Greek word Paul uses, skybala, literally means dung or excrement. In other words, Paul is saying rather crudely that all he considered to be good and valuable as well as the idea that the righteousness he claimed based on being a good Jew was crap. Paul said this not because he hated his people. To the contrary, Paul loved his people and was very concerned about their welfare as his writings in Romans 9.1-11.36 and elsewhere make clear. Rather, knowing Jesus made Paul realize that God’s people had failed to live up to their calling to be God’s light and salt and to bring God’s healing love to his hurting and broken world. Paul realized instead that Jesus is the world’s only true light and life and only in Jesus could Paul or anyone else hope to find real freedom from all that truly enslaves us. Without Jesus’ saving death on the cross and the hope of resurrection and new creation that Jesus’ resurrection inaugurated, we are still lost in our sins and have no future or hope. Put another way, Paul believed God delivers on his promises.

That’s why Paul thought it was so important to identify himself with Jesus (i.e., to live like Jesus) because only in Jesus do we have a future and a hope. Our hope has certainly not been realized in full yet, but it is surely coming and when we really believe that we are set free from our slavery to sin and death by Jesus’ death and resurrection, it makes all the difference in the world in how we live our lives in the present. We don’t need to be fearful or anxious anymore because we are reconciled to God and we understand that God is fully in control of things. Moreover, Paul understood that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was a sheer act of grace on God’s part. In other words, Jesus had accepted Paul, undeserving as Paul was, and Jesus does likewise with us. This is what made the race worth running for Paul as he struggled to become just like his Savior. In fact, for Paul it was the only race worth running.

We see this kind of transformed life illustrated poignantly in Mary’s act of devotion in our gospel lesson this morning. Our Lord had raised her brother from the dead and here we see how clearly this had transformed Mary’s life. As a result, she acted extravagantly and anointed Jesus with expensive perfume and then rather scandalously wiped his feet with her hair. Mary’s letting her hair down in public was tantamount to a woman today raising her skirt to her upper thighs at a dinner party. Proper Jewish women simply did not do such a thing in public. It would have (and did) cause quite a stir. But Mary didn’t care what the world thought. She only cared about showing Jesus her great love for him because Jesus had claimed her as he would do with Paul. John seems to be telling us to pay attention to Mary because her extravagant and heartfelt act is a worthy response to the great and saving act that Jesus is about to perform for her (and all of us) by going to the cross. This is also what made Judas’ response so tragic. For whatever reason, he did not have the eyes of faith to see Jesus as Mary saw him, but rather remained a slave to his sin. No wonder he reacted so strongly against Mary and it is not beyond the stretch of our imagination to think that Jesus rebuked Judas as much out of sorrow and pity as out of anger.

And as we reflect on all this we realize that we will miss the richness of these stories and God’s love for us in Jesus if we don’t stop to learn the broader Story of Scripture and then remember it. If we don’t remember all that God has done for us in and through Jesus, if we don’t stop to remember how God has acted for the sake of his people consistently throughout history to rescue us from all that enslaves us, we will likely succumb to the temptation to think of God as an absentee landlord when things go wrong in our lives because we won’t know what to look for or how to recognize Jesus’ presence among his people and in the power of the Spirit. That’s why we need to be in prayer, Bible study, worship, and fellowship so that we don’t forget that God is a God who delivers and who is actively involved in the lives of his people, even when we cannot ostensibly see him at work. We need to remind each other of this and support and encourage one another when trials and tribulations afflict us. And that is why this season of Lent is so important with its emphasis on self-examination, confession, repentance, and self-denial because doing these things enables us to put to death with the help of the Spirit all those things in us that want to keep us skeptical and hostile toward God. So this morning I encourage you to stop and ask yourself how you are doing in keeping your eyes on the prize of new life in Jesus.  In other words, what are you doing to remember your Story? What needs to be overcome so that you can grow in grace and faith and have the power of the Spirit to help you persevere during the dark times of your life? The more you can remember God’s mighty deeds of the past, especially Jesus’ death and resurrection, the more confidence you will have that God is always good to his promises for the present and future. And if you remember this regularly, it means you will also remember you have Good News, now and for all eternity.

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.