A sermon on Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, and John 12:1-8 delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 4/3/22. The manuscript is edited below for reading, and you can find it in the full service via this YouTube video.
We’re beginning the fifth week of Lent, which means that Holy Week starts next week, and Easter is two weeks away. Honestly, this is a really awkward time in the church calendar. Lent is a powerful and heavy season of self-reflection and repentance that helps prepare us to encounter the death of Jesus on Good Friday and to hear the good news of his resurrection on Easter Sunday. But if you’re a parent or a church leader or a host, you’re probably already planning and shopping for your Easter celebration. We’ve got Ash Wednesday in the rear-view mirror, Easter a few miles ahead, and we’re hanging in between.
If you’re participating in a Lenten fast, week five is the point at which you really start to feel your human limitations and may, uh, question your Ash Wednesday commitments. Week five is when I start to get creative in my rationalizations, with questions like, “Does it really count as ‘dessert’ if it’s a piece of pie that’s mostly fruit?”
Here at LaSalle, this year for Lent we’ve structured our worship life around the theme of “Being Human.” I think today’s lectionary texts speak directly to a particular tension that is right at the heart of human experience.
Isaiah 43 is part of a longer message likely offered to an Israelite audience near the end of their exile in Babylon. They have been displaced from their homes in a foreign land. Throughout this prophetic text, Isaiah comforts and encourages the people by urging them to remember who God is and what God has done for them. He says things like, “Remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other” (46:9).
I have to imagine that while the Israelites were facing unpredictable and bleak circumstances in exile, they spent a lot of time remembering. I imagine it was especially crucial for them to think about their history, particularly the story of the Exodus, when God used signs and wonders to deliver them from their enslavement in Egypt. Isaiah brings this story up explicitly in v. 16:
“Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters…” If you’re an Israelite listening to this, you’re probably thinking: Yes! That’s what we need! God, deliver us now like you delivered us then!
But then the prophet surprises them in v. 18: “Don’t remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” Don’t remember. Don’t think about what happened before, even the remarkable stuff. This is really surprising—why would he say that? Well, the prophet continues in v. 19, and remember, he’s speaking on behalf of God: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, don’t you perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
Here’s what Isaiah is telling the people, people who are desperate for a rescue, the kind of rescue their ancestors got: If the Israelites keep looking out at the sea, waiting for God to make a way out there like God did before, they’re going to miss this amazing new thing God is doing. Making a way through the wilderness. Rivers in the desert. And so Isaiah tells them: Forget it.
Not because your history doesn’t matter, not because God has changed with the times. No, Isaiah tells the people that God is the same as God has always been. But God is living and active, present to the people, and the way God shows up today might be very different from the way God showed up before.
Paul the apostle knew something about letting go of former things in order to embrace the new thing God was doing. You heard it in today’s reading from Philippians. Paul describes his devout life of Jewish faith before his radical, dramatic conversion to following Jesus. He lists all the things that made him exemplary, and he does so in a matter-of-fact way.
Paul can remember a time when those qualifications gave him confidence that he was righteous and that he was part of the family of God. But you heard what Paul said next: He said those things have lost all value to him. As far as he’s concerned, they’re just old, useless junk.
In v. 7 Paul says, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” The old thing was “having a righteousness of [his] own that [came] from the law”—it was all the self-assurance and control and, yes, the anxiety of knowing exactly what the rules are and being willing and able to follow them. That’s in v. 9, and that’s what no longer holds value for Paul. The new thing is “[the righteousness] that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”
Jesus is the new thing—what holds value for Paul is what he has found in Christ. And where does that leave Paul? He says, in v. 10, “I want to know Christ.” He wants to know Christ. If Christ suffers, Paul wants to suffer with him. If Christ dies, Paul wants to die with him. And because Christ was raised from the dead, Paul hopes, against all odds, that he can share in that resurrection, too.
Paul shows us how we might let go of the old thing in order to embrace the new thing. Paul doesn’t belabor the point, dwelling on his past motivations or whether his previous religious life was effective. He just…lets those things go. They’ve lost their value for him because they served their purpose: they prepared him for this new thing. Paul says that what he has found in Jesus has “surpassing value” for him, and that’s all he wants to think about now.
In Paul’s case, the new thing interrupted his life. He was fully committed to the old thing until the new thing literally knocked him to the ground and started him in a new direction. Sometimes that happens to us.
But I think for most of us, it’s more like what the Israelites felt in the exile. I think we live a lot of our lives in between the old thing and the new thing. I think that’s a lot of what being human consists of. Like one of you described it to me this week, it feels like being in the desert. We’re looking for the river.
Sometimes it’s easy to identify what God is inviting us to surrender—the sinful compulsion, the toxic relationship, the nasty manipulations we adopted in order get what we want. But sometimes the old thing isn’t so easy to identify. Sometimes the “old thing” is good. Maybe it’s a perspective that we internalized from a young age to help us survive in the world, but we’ve outgrown it, and it no longer serves us. Maybe it’s a spiritual practice that drew us right into the heart of God, but now it just feels dry. Maybe it’s a relationship that once brought us to life, but now both of you can see it’s run its course. The “old thing” might have been meaningful and necessary for us. But even good things that serve a purpose can become a burden when they keep us from that gentle tug of God’s Spirit, tugging us forward.
Being human involves a lot of sifting—sifting through the old and new, asking God to show us what we need and what we need to let go of. The last few weeks, I’ve had a particularly vivid experience of this. When Pastor Randall opened the door to my office on my first day here, we discovered hundreds of books left behind my Pastor Oreon, who was previously on staff here for many years, and whom so many of us know and love. Randall told me to keep any books that seem useful, and we’ll figure out what to do with the rest.
I face a similar project with my own book collection at home, all these volumes that were crucial in my professional and personal development. I’ve been bringing them to the office one bag at a time, but I recognize that some of them that were so crucial to me 10 years ago aren’t really beneficial today. Like many of you, my understanding of who God is and how God works in the world has changed a lot over time. So, off and on, I’ve been physically sifting through the volumes, Oreon’s old books and mine, making my best guesses at which ones will benefit me and my work at LaSalle at this precise moment in our history. It’s difficult because I don’t know what’s ahead of us, not even in the near future. I don’t know what the new thing is ahead of me, or ahead of us.
You might be feeling that here at LaSalle, too. Churches are always in transition, but we’re in the middle of a particularly significant one. I think for many of us, it’s just starting to feel real that Pastor Laura, whom so many of us loved and depended on, is no longer our pastor in the way she had been. We hoped we would have an interim pastor in place by now—I hoped we would, too—but in spite of the diligent and deliberate work of our transition team, God hasn’t provided the person yet. We don’t really know what to expect. So we continue to fast and pray together, trusting that God is about to do a new thing.
Add that to the list of major transitions we’re each facing, right? Sometimes it feels like we’re living in a historic period of in-between, where all the headlines have existential stakes, whether it’s the climate crisis, the viability of our democracy, or the next covid variant. Some of us are watching and praying and agonizing over what’s happening in Ukraine. Of course their suffering and striving is not about us, but you might find yourself wondering: What does this mean for global politics? What does this mean for democracy?
Three weeks ago, Ukrainian president Zelensky spoke to the United States Congress making an appeal on behalf of the citizens of Ukraine. If you saw images or video of the meeting, you might have noticed a strange detail: He attended the virtual call in a t-shirt. It was an olive green shirt, with the emblem of the Ukrainian military—a cross—right on his chest. Vanessa Friedman, who is the chief fashion critic for the New York Times, wrote about Zelensky’s green shirt, which he has frequently been seen wearing in public during the Russian invasion. Here’s some of what she said:
The T-shirt was not a sign of disrespect to those Mr. Zelensky was addressing; it was a sign of respect and allegiance to those who he was representing; a reminder of what was going on just outside his doors…By wearing their uniform, rather than the uniform of the people in the room, he was making the surreal real, just as the video he later showed of bombs raining down on his cities did.
Did you catch her phrase? He was “making the surreal real.” He made a simple aesthetic decision that starkly illustrated for all the people in the room just how dire the stakes are. Previously the burden of leadership required him to wear a suit, but today the burden of leadership requires him to dress in solidarity. The formality and elegance served a purpose, but it was only to bring him here, serving and leading these people who are in crisis. A suit is no longer the uniform he needs.
Anyone who has spent much time with the Bible may miss just how surreal today’s gospel reading was. A version of this story appears in all four gospels, but I particularly love John’s version. The way he tells the story, it’s like it’s hanging in midair, suspended by all these wires connecting it to the past and the future.
Check it out: The story takes place “six days before the Passover.” Sitting at the table to eat is Lazarus, “whom Jesus raised from the dead.” If we take the chronology of John’s gospel literally, that event would have happened in the last few months before today’s story, likely the last couple weeks. Also at the table is Judas, “who was about to betray Jesus.” Finally, Jesus references “the day of his burial,” with the implication that his burial is coming in the near future. In John’s gospel, the crucifixion will happen in less than a week.
Talk about surreal! This story occurs right in between, in between the old thing and the new thing. It’s a simple scene: Mary washes Jesus’ feet, and Judas criticizes the gesture. What we see in Mary and Judas are two different ways we might respond to the awkward discomfort of living in between the old thing and the new thing.
Judas’s response may be embarrassing, but it’s relatable. Judas watches what plays out and asks, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” We all know this guy, and many of us have probably been this guy. I know I have. He’s the one who fundamentally misses the point of what’s happening and uses the opportunity to remind everyone what a great person he is.
The gospel writer sees right through Judas and tell us: “[Judas] said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” In this version of the story, the only reason we even know the value of the perfume is that Judas brings it up.
Anyway—as ugly as it is, I think Judas is showing us one way we often respond to that discomfort of living between the old thing and the new thing: We shore up what’s ours. In the midst of change, we start to feel the grip of scarcity, and we double-down on whatever it is that helps us feel secure, even if it comes at the expense of our community or our neighbors. We tighten, we close, we restrict. I’m not talking, of course, about the kind of locking down that helped prevent the spread of covid. I’m talking about the way fear and instability can shrink our imagination for who deserves our concern until the only person we’re thinking about is ourselves.
We recognize how Judas responds. What does Mary do? Mary makes the surreal real without saying a word (at least as far as John reports it). It wasn’t especially out of the ordinary for a host to wash their guests’ feet, even with perfume; but the tenderness and intimacy with which Mary washes Jesus—particularly the evocative detail that she uses her own hair to dry his feet—that cuts right through any conversation or activity in the room and forces everyone to face what they might have been trying to ignore: Jesus is their beloved friend and teacher—he’s the Son of God, walking in their midst for this fleeting moment in time—and Jesus’ public ministry seems to be headed toward a nasty, violent ending. Let’s hold right here, just for a moment, in this surreal space, where Jesus is sitting physically at the table but may not be for much longer.
Mary knows how much the perfume is worth. She knows the exact price, because she paid it. But whatever value the perfume had, now Mary considers it loss. She considers it loss compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus.
So she pours it out. She gives, lavishly. She surrenders and releases. Remember: This is the man who raised her brother from the dead. This is all the radiance of God’s love and mercy and kindness sitting in the room with her. Jesus is the new thing she has been waiting for. So she brings out her best: the good wine, the fine china, the precious perfume. It is an offering of pure love.
And did you catch what Jesus says about all of it? Verse 7: “She bought the perfume so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” That’s poignant, right? It’s an ambiguous statement. We don’t know exactly what Mary knows. She’s literally living through the first Holy Week, and she doesn’t know for sure how that story will end. This incredible journey she has shared with Jesus in the flesh, his brief years on earth, all the newness of it—even that reality is changing for her, too, giving way to some new, new chapter. But whatever lies ahead, Mary is all in. As much as it might frighten her, as uncertain as everything is, Mary welcomes the new thing that Jesus is leading her toward.
Constantly we find ourselves between the old thing and the new thing. Constantly we face that dilemma of whether we’ll keep grasping, keep clinging, whether our imagination will narrow…or whether we’ll release, and surrender, and pour out. This dilemma is fundamental to the condition of being human. What if we let go of the wrong things? What if the new thing never comes? These transitions carry such high stakes for us.
But the steadfast love and presence of Jesus are never at stake. Jesus is drawing us in, inviting us to the table, offering us a gift of pure love, pouring out everything. And that’s what it’s always been about, right? Everything God has done in this church, every single person God has called to work or serve or minister—it’s all there to prepare us for this new thing, for this incredible gift of God that is offered to us again and again and again. It’s all there to lead us to Jesus, who is always with us. In all our humanity, we discover the same good news that surprised Paul and Mary both: that Jesus is the new thing our hearts long for.
Mary makes it look easy, but we know it isn’t. Hear this: The same God who made a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. Our righteousness and our confidence come not from any Law but through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.
So we press on together, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.