I started coming here to St James in the second half of 2018. So, you’ve put up with me now, pretty much once a month, for nearly 4 years. And a lot has changed, hasn’t it? We’ve had two years of lockdown and now the war in Ukraine. Within our small community here, some old friends have gone, and some new friends have arrived. I get to wear a scarf now, whatever the weather. At the very least we’re all four years older, if not four years wiser, than when we first met.
And as you know the church has a 3-year cycle of readings which means I’m now retracing – or avoiding – texts that we’ve looked at together before.
You almost certainly won’t remember but when we last looked at our passage from John 12, where Mary washes the feet of Jesus with perfume and fills the house with the fragrance of it, that I brought some spikenard with me and you each had a sniff of it. You were about 50/50 on whether you liked it or not. I’ve got another bottle here if you want to refresh your memories.
It’s strong stuff and I speculated last time whether the smell of it would in future forever remind those present in Bethany of that special, intimate time together before the events that would follow in Jerusalem. And was the fragrance still on Jesus’ feet and on the hem of his robe as he went to his crucifixion, just a few days later. Would the soldiers have noticed it as they hammered in the nails and divided up his cloak?
But I also wondered about the exuberance of it all. Deep in Lent when we are all sombre and giving things up, we have this wildly over the top, blowing the doors off, outpouring of love from Mary. Was she completely oblivious of everything else and so completely focussed on Jesus that nothing else mattered? Or did she do it slightly self-consciously but felt driven to do it all the same?
As far as I know, it’s not clear how long Mary and Martha had known Jesus. He obviously considered them as friends and their home as a sanctuary, a refuge. How did their relationship change over perhaps the 3 or more years of his public ministry? Mary had sat at his feet before to hear him teach – much to the frustration of Martha – and now she’s at his feet again and this time she anoints them with perfume. Something had changed in that time.
Jesus had just brought their dear brother back from the dead. The perfume would have been out for Lazarus too just days earlier, anointing his body for burial. And you can imagine that up until this point, all eyes would have been flitting back and forth between Lazarus and Jesus, looking at them both in wonder.
So, maybe this was an extravagant thank-you to Jesus. And perhaps Mary sensed what was about to happen as Jesus headed to Jerusalem and realised that this might be her last chance – to make the most of the moment. Was more grief and loss heading their way – a prophetic act, anticipating what was to come? Maybe she also recognised him, and anointed him, as Messiah and King? It feels like this was a special moment in time of all of these things – one of past, present and future all rolled into one.
Anointing at Bethany
It’s wonderfully summed up in this poem, called the ‘Anointing at Bethany’, by Malcolm Guite:
Come close with Mary, Martha, Lazarus
So close the candles stir with their soft breath
And kindle heart and soul to flame within us
Lit by these mysteries of life and death.
For beauty now begins the final movement
In quietness and intimate encounter
The alabaster jar of precious ointment
Is broken open for the world’s true lover,
The whole room richly fills to feast the senses
With all the yearning such a fragrance brings,
The heart is mourning but the spirit dances,
Here at the very centre of all things,
Here at the meeting place of love and loss
We all foresee, and see beyond the cross.
3 years on from when we last considered this text, how do we now come to the feet of Jesus? The world has changed – and so have we.
Contrast with Judas
And note the contrast with Judas. Writing towards the end of the century, decades after the events which happened, John has a couple of digs here at Judas. Is the story contrasting Judas, who was still firmly fixed on an earthly Messiah, a Messiah who would bring a political or military liberation – against Mary who was recognising that a new reign of God was at hand? Did she perceive that God was doing a new thing?
A new thing
Which is the message that Isaiah is conveying today. Isaiah is talking to a people in captivity. They’ve been displaced from their home in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is largely in ruins and most of the people are forcibly deported to live in the country of their biggest enemy.
And Isaiah starts with a reminder of their earlier deliverance from Egypt. He taps into their great escape. But no sooner has he done it then he tells them to forget it! Don’t remember the former things. Don’t consider the things of old.
The prophet is using the past to talk about the present and the future: ‘I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ In the midst of the bleak horror in which they find themselves, have hope, for something new is about to happen.
And Isaiah carries on using the same trick. He talks about the future but using imagery from the past, of times in the wilderness. There will be wilderness and desolation in the future too, but God got you through it last time to a Promised Land and God will again. But don’t spend all your time looking back or you’ll miss what’s happening now. God’s mercy isn’t just past tense – it’s present and future tense too.
Do you not perceive it?
At the Exodus from Egypt, God turned a river into dry land. For the exodus from Babylon, he’s promising to do a reversal. For the 900-mile trek from Babylon back to Jerusalem he will turn dry land to rivers.
We’re being invited not to fear what will come next but to welcome it with expectation. Perhaps that’s what we need to hear right now? There’s so much changing in the way our churches are organised that it’s hard to know what it will mean for us. New deaneries and mission communities. Not to mention what’s happening in the world around us and in our personal lives.
Perhaps we need to hear again and be reminded again, as the readings come round again, that the character of God hasn’t changed. God sustained us in the past and will take us through the present and into the future too.
But, but, he may do it in a completely new and different and transformative way. We just need to perceive it. Do you not perceive it? Amen
- The poem: https://malcolmguite.wordpress.com/2015/07/29/mary-martha-and-lazarus-2/
- Some background on Isaiah: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fifth-sunday-in-lent-3/commentary-on-isaiah-4316-21-2
- And that previous sermon from 3 years ago: https://stjohnstmarkchurchbury.com/sermons/blowing-the-doors-off/