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Lent 5C RCL March 13, 2016

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

Our first reading today is addressed to the people of God exiled in Babylon. They have been there for about fifty years. Elders have died, babies have been born. Hope is almost gone. The prophet we call the Second Isaiah speaks the word of God to the people and to us.

The opening portion of the text is reminding us of how God’s people escaped slavery in Egypt. God parted the waters; the people ran with all their might; the chariots of their captors tried to follow but sank in the mud. The people escaped. And God is saying that God is going to do a new thing that is even greater than freeing the people from that slavery.

God is going to make rivers in the desert. God is going to make a path in the desert for the people to follow.  There will be plenty of water and the desert will bloom.  The people are going home.

Our gospel for today is also found in the three other gospel accounts. In Matthew and Mark, the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet is not named. In Luke, she is described as a sinner, and, in one of the greatest misinterpretations of Scripture that has ever occurred, an ancient writer said that this sinner was Mary Magdalene. Nowhere does the text say that.

In John’s gospel, the woman is one we know well—Mary, the sister of Martha. Mary is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus to learn from him. She thus becomes one of the disciples.

It is six days before the Passover. Jesus comes to the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany, just a little way outside Jerusalem. Some time ago ago, he had raised Lazarus from the dead. This home in Bethany is one of the few places where Jesus can feel safe. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus are good friends and staunch supporters. He can talk with them and seek advice from them. He can relax with them.

After dinner, Mary brings a pound of pure nard, very expensive because it comes from the Himalayan Mountains. She anoints Jesus’ feet just as he will soon wash the feet of his disciples. She wipes his feet with her hair. Judas raises a point about the expense. Couldn’t that money have been used for the poor? This is the height of hypocrisy on his part. We know that he took money from their common purse. He was an embezzler in addition to being a traitor.

Jesus defends this faithful woman disciple. Mary is actually anointing Jesus for burial. She knows the price that he is going to pay, and she honors him with her love and loyalty. She will be there until the end.

In our passage from his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says so much. He has many reasons to be confident according to the world’s values. He holds a very high status. He is a Pharisee and a Roman citizen. But it is as nothing to him. He calls it “rubbish.” All his former prestige is worthless to him. It’s actually a loss on his books because of the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” he writes.

Because of Jesus, Paul is now in right relationship with God, and he says that he wants to get to know our Lord more and more and he wants to become like our Lord in his death so that he can know the power of his resurrection. In other words, we have to give up all the old worldly stuff as Jesus gave up everything. We have to give up the idea of our power and prestige and empty ourselves of all that so that we can live in Christ and he can live in us.

And then Paul says something that gives us great hope, He says that he has not fully arrived. He has not reached the goal, but “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Here on the fifth Sunday in Lent, we are looking forward to one week from now, Palm Sunday, when we will be witnesses at the crucifixion of our Lord. We know that we are not 100 percent living in Christ and allowing him to live in us. We are on the road, but we are not fully there. What a comfort it is to hear that Paul is not fully there either. But then he gives us a powerful example. We are runners in a race. We are spiritual athletes.

There is a great deal of the past that we need to forget. Yes, learn from it and remember those learnings so that we do not make the same mistakes again, but then let it go. Let it go because our Lord has taken care of it. We are forgiven. And then put our energies into living in Christ and letting him live in us. No, we are not fully there, but let us let go of the pain and failure of the past, ask our Lord for help, and move firmly, one step at a time, into the future with him.

We are partners with Christ in this journey. We are called to do our part. He has made a great sacrifice. He did it out of love for us. But he can’t run the race for us. We have to do it in partnership with him. That is what Paul is talking about today.

When Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with that priceless nard, she was giving all she had to honor our Lord. We are being called to follow her example. Will we commit ourselves to walking with him? Will we press on toward the goal, counting on his grace but also giving it all we have?

May we follow him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength that we may live in him and he in us.   Amen.

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