Father Philip Sang: God Doing a New Thing

Sermon delivered on Lent 5C, Sunday, April 3, 2022 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. Passiontide begins today.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; St. John 12.1-8.

What does it mean for God to “do a new thing”? 

In the days of Isaiah 43, the people were very discouraged and feeling quite unsure about God’s power as they saw the strength of the threatening super- power (nation) that was overwhelming them. Through Isaiah, God spoke a tremendous promise to the people, first reminding them of another time when a brand-new deed of God had been needed.
“Remember that I am the God who drowned Pharaoh’s army after making it possible for my people to walk with dry feet across the parted sea out of slavery. I did something new and marvelous then; I can do something new and marvelous now.”

The prophet Isaiah urges the people to forget the former things and behold the new ways that God is changing and renewing their lives for a greater good. But in order for them to see the new things that God is doing, they must open their eyes and see God. 

As human beings there are so many memories and experiences thwarting our movement into a fresh encounter with God. The windows of our hearts and souls are clouded with memories of the pain, hurt, and betrayal we have experienced over the years. But God wants to change all of that. God says, “Behold, I am doing a new thing. Will you not perceive it? Will you not know it? It springs up right before your very eyes. It is right before you. Can you not see it?” What new thing is God then doing in our lives?

As Christians, we point also to another deliverance, God’s deliverance of humanity from no hope to every hope through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God brought forth a new deed by doing something no “proper” god would have done: God became vulnerable to us by exposing to us his great love for us. It was a new thing, unheard of, inconceivable. And it had as its purpose one intent: to show us how to enter personally into new, joyful, freed-up life and relationship with God.

In today’s Gospel lesson, we saw a woman, in John’s version Mary the sister of Lazarus, who anointed Jesus’ feet. She would not have been a prostitute, unlike the woman in the story from the gospel of Luke (Luke 7:36-50), for she was Lazarus’ sister, also the sister of Martha. Martha served Jesus dinner. Let’s put the occasion into context. Jesus had just raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead. This was an action which caused the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jews, to decide that Jesus must die. “From that day on, they took counsel to put Jesus to death.” (John 11:53) Later, in the same chapter as today’s lesson, Jesus will announce that the hour of his death has come (12:20-36).

Facing death, Jesus, and apparently his close disciple Judas, who would soon betray him, ate at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Even as they ate, something new was happening, for Mary took a huge step outside of the social convention of her day.

While Martha did her usual part in the kitchen, Mary, never the practical one, anointed Jesus’ feet by letting down her hair and pouring some very high-priced ointment all over them.

According to tradition, nobody anointed feet in those days. “If one had expensive, perfumed oil, other parts of the body were anointed, but not the feet. Feet were not customarily anointed until after death, when a body was being prepared for burial.” This means that Mary was treating Jesus, who had just given life to dead Lazarus, as though he were already dead. And it is suggested that in her action, Mary could not have known that her act of extravagance prepared Jesus for the greatest act of extravagance of all – the Cross.

Judas was appalled at what happened between Mary and Jesus. He was offended by her extravagance, stating that the money she had spent on the oil should have been used in a more appropriate way, to feed the poor. The entire story for today, however, would tell us that God was doing something beyond what WE or any other religious group might define as “appropriate.” doing something New, God was being extravagant as Jesus headed toward Jerusalem to give up his own life so that others could and can live.

The religious folks of Jesus’ day couldn’t see the NEW things God was doing through Jesus, but a woman who seemed not only impractical but without propriety WAS able to see and embrace God’s new ways. Judas, a man who had walked closely with Jesus during his ministry, couldn’t accept what God was doing when it didn’t fit within his definition of what God should do. In John’s Gospel, those who should have seen never do, and the unexpected ones catch on just fine. The final irony in this story: Just as Judas sanctimoniously criticized Mary’s extravagance, he himself ended up being the catalyst for the largest extravagance ever, the pouring out of Jesus’ life. “Do not remember former things or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing…” (Is. 43:18-19)

Does anybody here this morning really think that God is doing something new today? Are we expecting it? Are we looking for it? Do we even want it?

In our Epistle lesson today, Paul outlines a lengthy list of his own accomplishments. He does this often in his letters to the early church, in part as a common way of giving credibility to what he was going to say in line with the rhetorical patterns of the day, and also because he often was up against others who claimed to be the religious authorities on this newly emerging Christianity (see the “Super apostles” in 2 Corinthians). At the beginning of our passage, Paul again lists his resume, and it’s a good one. He talks about his background and heritage, his education, his passion and religious convictions, and his righteous lifestyle. This is the total package.

Paul writes about dismissal of his resume. Eugene Peterson’s The Message interprets verses 7 and 8 like this:

The very credentials these people are waving around as something special, I’m tearing up and throwing out with the trash – along with everything else I used to take credit for. And why? Because of Christ.

God is doing a new thing.

Paul is so compelled, so transformed by the good news of the gospel that he cannot help but leave all that he knew, all that he had worked for and gained, all that he was, behind. It’s important here to note that what he was leaving wasn’t bad. As Fred Craddock reminds us: Paul does not toss away junk to gain Christ; he tosses away that which was of tremendous value to him. Therein lies the extraordinary impact of his testimony and the high commendation of faith in Jesus Christ . . . What Paul is saying is that Christ surpasses everything of worth to me. And let’s the worth go.

God doing a new thing.

Often times in talking about letting go of things in faith, especially during this season of Lent, we talk about giving up the things that are weighing us down– our sins and shortcomings. But here, we are also reminded that sometimes developing our faith involves giving up those things that can be seen as good, but still get in the way of our best relationship with God. 

For Paul, that is what happens when he lets all the other things fall away and instead is simply focuses on knowing Jesus Christ. This knowledge of his Savior is what allows him to remember what truly matters, and more importantly, who matters.  He can only get there by letting go, and pushing forward into the future.

What is it that is getting on your way in having the best relationship with God that you are called to let go?

I hear the words of the prophet Isaiah echoing in the background:
            “Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
Be alert, be present. God is about to do something brand-new. Don’t you see it?

Let us pray:
Lord, you know how un-new we are inside, how worn out and worn down, how much we need to be changed by this Lenten season and Holy Week as they show us your heart and then Easter promises Christ’s hope and promise. Touch us now, make our hearts new, and show us how to truly share in Jesus’ Passion and Life. In the name of God, the Father the son and the Holy Spirit, Amen.