Those Who Dream | Lent 5 | April 7, 2019

Texts: John 12:1-8; Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126

Speaker: Mark Rupp

“Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.”

It is a strange command from a prophet who only moments before had wasted so much breath and spilled so much ink to remind the people about those former things, to recall their story of God liberating them from slavery and bringing them through the sea.  This Exodus story looms large within the identity of the Israelite people.  It is, in many ways, their founding story; it defines who they are.  They remember, and re-remember, and consider, and reconsider this story through rituals and worship, not unlike we do in this space with our founding story of Christ. 

The prophet invokes the story of the Exodus, claiming to speak for the God who brought the people through the sea and extinguished their enemies like a wick, so when he suddenly makes a u-turn and tells the people not to remember these former things, it would have come as a surprise.  Rather than a denial of the importance of remembering, however, I see this line as a rhetorical device meant to get people’s attention, to make readers perk up and say, “What’s he doing here?” 

There is a pregnant pause…then the voice of God continues through the prophet, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

To understand this new thing, it is important to understand the context in which the prophet is writing.  The book of Isaiah is actually better understood as the books of Isaiah, with different authors writing during different movements in the history of the Israelite people.  The passage here in chapter 43 falls in the second major movement where it is widely thought that the prophet is writing during the exile in Babylon but at a time when new possibilities are stirring and hope of return is becoming a reality. 

The empire that had exiled them was crumbling, making room for new light to break through the cracks.  It is a liminal space, full of possibility and hope, but also uncertainty and fear.  New things, especially new things that God is doing, are often scary, and change is almost always hard.

The people had spent so many years in exile, torn from their homeland, wrestling with questions about where God was in this whole mess.  We, today, may not know or experience exile in any way that comes close to the audience of Isaiah, but we do know what it means to be haunted by past tragedies.  We know how the things that have happened to us can keep us stuck in the past. 

Into this timeless situation of wrestling to figure out where God is, the prophet speaks and reminds the people of what God did for them, how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, through the sea, and into an identity as a liberated people. 

But then he tells them to not even consider these former things because something new is about to unfold, to spring forth like an oasis in the desert.  It is a spring that will turn into a river and lead them toward an even greater liberation than they could imagine. 

He tells the people not to remember because he knows how easy it can be to get stuck in the past. 

Sometimes that looks like allowing the bad things that we have done or that have been done to us to define our entire reality and keep us from seeing anything new.  One writer describes the work of the prophet here in Second Isaiah as battling against cognitive surrender.  The people had been in exile for so long that perhaps they couldn’t even recognize their need for liberation. 

Sometimes we don’t recognize what holds us captive because we have just come to accept it as the new normal. 

On the other hand, sometimes getting stuck in the past is about remaining fixated on the “good old days.”  Our nostalgia about the days when we were more sure of God’s liberating movement can keep us just as stuck in the past.  Our wistfulness for the days when things were better, happier, more peaceful, more just, can keep us from recognizing what new things God is doing among us. 

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the societal shift when it comes to how people approach spirituality and religion.  In these conversation, the Church can so easily get stuck in the past, remembering when the pews were fuller, the choir sang louder, kids were less squirrely, and everybody knew the Bible cover to cover. 

We think, “It will never be as good as when…[fill in the blank]”

But what if God is doing a new thing?

Can we see what God is doing, or can we only see what God has done?

In this passage from Isaiah, water imagery is used in two ways.  At first, when the prophet is reminding the people of their past, he draws on the image of water as a barrier and God opening a way through it.  But then, when the prophet describes this new thing that God is doing, instead of a barrier, the image of water he uses is of a river in the desert, a means of conveyance and sustenance that allows the people and the animals a way through the wilderness. 

Sometimes the new thing God is doing flips what we think we know on its head.

“I am about to do a new thing,” God declares through the prophet.  “Do you not perceive it?”

In the same way that our awareness can so easily get stuck in the past, we can also find ourselves missing what God is doing when our awareness is too mired in the future. 

Our passage from John opens by letting us know that we are just six days from Passover, the Passover that we remember during Holy Week when Jesus moves toward the cross.  This little dinner party at the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus comes right before Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  In John’s gospel, the story is placed far enough along in the arc of Jesus’ ministry that we, the readers, along with the disciples and the crowd that had been with him know that tension is building, that forces are beginning to actively work against Jesus, plotting how they can kill him. 

And it was largely the raising of Lazarus from the dead, only a chapter before, that was the final straw that precipitated this negative response.  Some of the religious leaders feared that the miracles Jesus was doing would rouse the people in a way that would gather the attention of the Romans.  As an occupied and oppressed people, you did not want the attention of the Romans on you.

Jesus and the disciples must have caught wind of their plotting against him because after he raised Lazarus from the dead, it says that he no longer walked in the open but spent time out near the wilderness. 

It’s impossible to tell how much time he spent laying low, but in our story today we find him back in the home of Lazarus.  He is not just out in the open but out in the open in the place that started the plot against him.  I imagine there must have been a little bit of tension in the room.  Perhaps the disciples had tried to convince Jesus to keep a low profile a little longer.  Perhaps they had one eye on the door the entire night. 

The disciples had been with Jesus long enough to know that he was the real deal.  Even if they never quite seem to understand completely what he’s up to, they have seen and heard enough to start believing that maybe Jesus really could be the Messiah, the anointed one who would come to set things right. 

And maybe with this growing realization came a growing preoccupation with all the things Jesus should be doing, all the ways that their little group needed to be moving forward, healing more people, setting up a few more meet-and-greet picnics on the hillside, doing good things for widows and orphans and continuing to build a movement. 

Perhaps an intimate dinner with friends didn’t quite fit the strategy the disciples had in mind, especially if it was going to gain the attention of those who were already out to stop Jesus. 

And in the middle of this tension, we have Mary.  Just like the other dinner party story, we find her at Jesus’ feet.  But instead of just listening, this time she is moved toward an intimate act of devotion.  It’s an act of gratitude for the miraculous return of her brother.  It’s an act of love toward her friend.  It’s an act of blessing and consecration and commitment to the one who she recognizes as God’s anointed.   

The text says that “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” but I imagine that the house was filled not only with the sweet smell of the perfume but alive with the spirit of Mary’s devotion. 

We find out later that Mary had bought the perfume to use at Jesus’ burial.  She had been saving it for the future, but she was so moved by the present moment that she let go of those plans.  Because she was practicing a deep awareness of the present, she was able to recognize that the oil she had planned to use to prepare a dead body for burial could be used, instead, to anoint a living messiah. 

Do not remember the former things or hold tightly to the future, for I am doing a new thing.  Now it springs forth like oil running down from the head all the way to the feet.  Do you not perceive it? 

Into this beautiful moment of responding to the movement of love enters Judas.  “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”  It can be easy to project all sorts of negative things onto Judas, and indeed the writer of John makes sure we know that Judas didn’t really care about the poor…oh, and he was a thief too.  See how much we’re not like him.  But it’s important to note that when this story shows up in other gospels, this comment was shared among the disciples much more broadly. 

So as much as we might want to scoff at Judas and think of him only as a miserly thief, we can probably admit to ourselves that he raises a good question, one that we could definitely hear ourselves asking.  If the perfume really was worth 300 denarii, that would be almost a year’s wages, which could do a lot of good for a lot of people. 

Now, if my husband were here he would probably tell you that I should be the last person who should have anything to say about costly perfume.  He likes to make fun of me because I carry around in my backpack a folder filled with cologne ads that I have torn out of magazines; if I need a quick refresher I just crack open a free sample and rub it on my wrists and hope I don’t get a papercut.  Why spend money on fancy bottles when I can get it for free?

I hear a lot of old-fashioned Mennonite frugality in the voice of Judas.

The response Jesus gives to Judas has often been misconstrued to justify a complacency toward the poor.  We might think, “We will always have the poor with us, so what’s the point.”  But Jesus is most likely referencing a portion of the book of Deuteronomy, which, in it’s fuller form, says, “For the poor will never cease out of the land; therefore I command you, You shall open wide your hand to the needy and to the poor in the land.” 

So rather than a complacency toward the poor, Jesus is pointing toward a way of life that remains committed to generosity at every moment. 

His rebuke to Judas could be read as a caution against getting so wrapped up in the future and what could be that we miss the present moment. 

If our awareness is always stuck in the future, we can end up keeping our love tucked away in alabaster jars, convinced we’ll be able to tell when that right moment finally comes. 

But Jesus and Mary seem to be reminding us that the time is always right for love. 

The Psalm assigned for the lectionary this morning is Psalm 126, which Robin adapted for the call to worship.  In the opening line, the people sing of looking to the past and remembering when God restored the people.  As they remember, they say, “We were like those who dream.”  The psalm goes on for three verses full of remembering and the idyllic, dream-like state that comes with thinking back to the good old days. 

And then it shifts suddenly.  It becomes a prayer for the future.  What was “Remember when God restored our fortunes” in the opening line becomes a plea, “Restore our fortunes, o Lord” and goes on with other prayers for the future. 

I don’t know what it looks like in your Bible, but in mine there is a space between these two sections.  There’s no mystical reason for this formatting and maybe your version looks different, but I found myself being drawn into that symbolic space, meditating on what it means to live between remembering the past and holding out hope for the future. 

That symbolic space is where we all live.  And as we practice and hone our awareness within that space, that elusive present moment becomes an always available opportunity to know and respond to God’s love. 

Practicing awareness doesn’t mean we don’t remember.  It doesn’t mean we don’t dream of our hopes for the future.  What it does mean is being aware of the opportunity for love that exists in every moment, because the truly good news is that God loved us yesterday, God will love us tomorrow, and as the new thing that God is doing unfolds around us, we can rest in the knowledge that God will love us in every single moment.

And so, my wish for us, my friends, is:

  • That our remembering would anchor us in this kind of eternal love
  • That our dreams of the future would ignite your imagination for all the ways that love could show up in the present.
  • And finally, that as God continues to do new things, we would be aware of that love that is new every morning, every moment, every day.