God is doing a new thing in Christ, an extravagantly loving drawing of the whole creation into God’s life and love: do you perceive it?
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Fifth Sunday in Lent, year C
Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
God says: I’m about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
This is the God who made a way in the sea, Isaiah says, rescuing Israel from slavery, but God’s people are told to forget all that. “Don’t remember the former things. I’m about to do a new thing,” God says.
But do you perceive this, my people? God asks. Do you see my extravagant love for you and the creation, a love that makes even the Exodus story forgettable by comparison? A love that will restore the creation, pouring rivers into desert dryness, creating lush abundance that feeds and nurtures all? A love that ensures all God’s children, even the foolish ones, God says elsewhere, will live safe and whole and in love with each other and God? Do you perceive this, my children? God asks.
And now, look into the Bethany house of Jesus’ dear friends, days before he will be arrested, tortured, crucified, buried. God’s new thing is right there, in that dining room. In that week of suffering to come. God’s restoration of the world is right there, for you. Do you perceive it?
Because right now, only two people in this dining room do perceive it, Jesus, and Mary.
Mary’s extravagance cannot be overstated.
And it all flows from her perceiving God’s extravagant love unfolding before them.
As far as we know, only Mary senses what’s about to happen. Maybe not Easter’s surprise. But this One who is God to her, who raised her brother to life, who constantly filled her heart with God’s extravagant love as she sat at his feet, this One, she knows, she perceives, is about to die for that extravagant love.
And she in turn offers an astonishingly extravagant gift: a pound of pure essence of nard, the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars’ worth. Unheard of wealth to most of her day.
And she gives the gift with equal extravagance. Days before Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as model and command, Mary poured her love on Jesus’ feet, with this essence used to anoint the bodies of beloved dead. She applied it with her hair, not her hands. She offered her whole self in love. And the house was filled with the scent of her extravagance.
Mary perceived God’s new thing, even though what she saw for Jesus was suffering and death. She responded to such love with this love, to surround him in his death. No matter what happened after.
But others didn’t perceive the new thing.
Judas doesn’t perceive what God is doing in Jesus. Or why Mary responded as she did.
In Mary’s response all he sees is utter waste. Of course, his suggestion that the perfume be sold and donated is sheer nonsense. The perfume was never his, or Jesus’, or the disciples’ to decide over. They didn’t own this jar of perfume; they had no vote as to what to do with it. It was always Mary’s, and her extravagant pouring out was entirely hers to offer. Or hers to keep on a shelf if she chose.
To be fair to Judas, this lack of perception was likely more widespread. Matthew and Mark say it was “the disciples” that objected to the waste, not just Judas. And if you have a limited ability to rejoice in Mary’s extravagant love, there’s likely some limit to how you perceive the extravagance of God’s love she was responding to.
So does that mean that our evangelist also has a perception problem about God’s new thing?
That sounds ridiculous.
John’s Gospel is the one that says God so loved the whole cosmos that the Son of God came. This Gospel of the Johannine community tells us Jesus said that when he was lifted up on the cross he would draw all things to himself, into the abiding life he knows within the Triune God. This Gospel tells us Jesus wants abundant life for all God’s children and no one can snatch any sheep from his hands. Surely John’s Gospel perceives God’s new thing as clearly as any we can imagine.
But apparently Judas isn’t included in that expansive love. All the evangelists list Judas among the 12 and mention he would betray Jesus. All tell a version of the betrayal, from the authorities to Gethsemane.
But John’s Gospel slanders Judas throughout the telling in ways the other three don’t. In John, Jesus ominously warns early in his ministry that, while he chose all 12, one of them was “a devil.” This Gospel not only singles Judas out for criticizing Mary, it adds that Judas was a thief from the common purse, something no one else tells. Only this Gospel says Judas was “destined” to be the betrayer. It seems clear that Judas was a despised figure in the Johannine community decades after these events.
So, the author of John perceives God’s new thing, this act of vulnerable love that lifts all creation into God’s abundant life. But one part of that creation seems left out of the extravagance, Judas.
Pay attention to these blind spots John’s author and Judas have.
Do you rejoice in God’s extravagant, abundant, vulnerable love for the creation, for you, for all God’s children, but have some people you don’t see God’s love embracing? People that you know that you’d rather avoid? Groups of people you can’t get your heart to accept God loving in Christ’s new thing? If the author of John can have a blind spot, you and I can, too.
And pay attention to Judas. Not just because we’ve betrayed God’s new thing in Christ before and probably will again. But because whatever Judas’ reasons for betrayal, would it have happened if he perceived that God’s new thing in Christ, this extravagant love, included him? If he can believe himself outside of God’s love, you and I can, too.
Mary knew three things this day: One, Jesus was nearing his death. Two, Jesus loved her utterly and completely. And three, she needed to respond to that love with her love, to that extravagance with her extravagance. If Judas could have trusted Jesus’ utter love for him, maybe he wouldn’t have betrayed Jesus.
Today’s Prayer of the Day is the lifeline you want to cling to.
“Open our hearts to be transformed by the new thing that you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son,” we prayed. Whether your blind spot to God’s extravagance leaves others out or leaves yourself out, your prayer is that the Spirit will open you up to see God’s new thing as all-inclusive, all-embracing, and transform your life to be that extravagant love to all.
Because in the end the only hope you have, the only hope I have, the only hope all God’s children have, the only hope this creation has, is that the new thing God is doing in Christ is just as extravagant as Mary believed, as extravagant as John’s Gospel proclaimed, as extravagant as the cross and empty tomb proved.
“Open our hearts, O God, to be transformed by the new thing that you are doing, that our lives may proclaim the extravagance of your love given to all through your Son.”
Amen, is all we can say. In the love of Jesus, Amen.