Fifth Sunday in Lent

Waterhole

The readings for the Fifth Sunday in Lent from the lectionary used by the Anglican Church in Australia are Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:3-14 and John 12:1-8.

This Sunday continues the time of preparation for Easter, and looks forward to next Sunday – Passion Sunday (also called Palm Sunday).

The reading from Isaiah deals with God’s mercy, which persists even though Israel has been unfaithful. The reading is taken from a section which deals more widely with God’s love for an care of Israel, even though Israel has neglected to love, follow and obey God. The nation of Israel has been carried off into captivity by the Babylonians, and in the passage prior to the set reading God reminds the Israelites that he is their only saviour. The reading opens with a reminder of God’s action in leading the Jews out of slavery in Egypt, through the Red Sea. God, who is mightier than the forces of the Egyptians, is capable and willing to continue to save the Israelites, even though they have failed in love and obedience. The “former things” of verse 18 refers to God’s previous predictions and accomplishments, and the Israelites are commanded to forget them, not because they are unimportant, but because God is beginning a new work of salvation and redemption (“see, I am doing a new thing”), different in quality and nature from what has gone on before. The new thing involves making paths through the previous desolation – a new way in which to walk and follow God. Verse 20 reminds the Israelites that all creation worships God, who provides for all, even in the midst of adversity. Verse 21 describes the purpose of God’s creation of man – “… people I formed for myself that they may proclaim my praise.” God acts first, in creating, loving and sustaining, and the response of human kind is to proclaim praise.

The Isaiah reading reminds me that even when I forget the love and sustaining power of God, and the evidences of God’s working in my life (and in the world), God continues to be faithful, continues to act, and continues to make new paths in the wilderness and desolation. Even when I don’t see the paths, or can’t see them, or won’t see them, they are there, and God gently and quietly continues to point towards them. Verse 21 reminds me of what my response to God’s act of creation should be – to give him praise, from which all other responses to God also flow.

The beautiful and poignant Psalm 126 can be seen as a response to God’s call in Isaiah. This is a song of joy for restoration to Zion. If the psalm wasn’t composed for those who returned from the Babylonian exile (the name of the place of exile isn’t given), it surely served to voice the joy of that restored community. The psalm is divided into two stanzas, in the Hebrew of four lines each. The initial lines share a common theme, which is reinforced by repetition and other key words. Psalms 125 and 126 form a pair of thematically linked psalms, and are precisely balanced, each being composed in Hebrew of 116 syllables. Perhaps the most beautiful lines come at the end, in verses 5 and 6, where it is promised that those who suffer now will be consoled and given their needs in abundance.

Philippians 3:3-14 offers much to think about. Ancient tradition has it that the letter was written by the Apostle Paul. The letter was written whilst he was in prison, sometime around 61CE and probably in Rome. The letter was written to the Christian community in the city of Philippi, a prosperous Roman colony which prided itself on being Roman. The inhabitants dressed like Romans and often spoke in Latin. Paul’s purpose in writing the letter was to thank the Philippians for their gift to him, but he also uses the letter to other purposes – to report on his circumstances, to encourage the readers to stand firm in the face of persecution and rejoice regardless of their circumstances, to exhort them to humility and unity, to commend his fellow workers Timothy and Epaphroditus to the church there, and to warn against the opposing extreme elements of the legalists (Judaizers, who wanted Christians to conform to Jewish law and tradition) and the libertines (antinomians) amongst them.

It is the latter reason that is dealt with in the reading set for today. At the beginning of the chapter Paul is arguing that a merely physical circumcision is of no value to the believer, and is indeed mere mutilation. The covenant of circumcision derives its true inner meaning in believers who worship God with genuine spiritual worship and who glory in Christ as their saviour rather than trusting in human effort (“the flesh”). In the second part of verse 3, to verse 6, Paul restates his credentials and his pre-Christian confidence, rooted in his Jewish heritage, privileges and attainments. Paul is unambigiuously of Jewish heritage, entering into covenantal membership and following the laws and customs with zeal. Paul differentiates between a false righteousness, produced by using the law as an attempt to merit God’s approval and blessing, and true righteousness, through faith in Jesus.

The second part of the passage, verses 7-14 deals with Paul’s confidence in Christ. Verse 7 speaks to the great change which God brought about in Paul through his conversion (see Acts 9:3-16) on the road to Damascus – from being self-centred to being centred in Christ. Whatever false merit Paul had is lost, and that loss is itself again, because of the great and “surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” This knowing is an experiential, continuing and unifying thing – not a mere knowledge of facts or concepts, but the knowing of a real person – Jesus. The knowing includes the experience of the “power of his resurrection”, “participation in his suffering”, and of being “like him in his death”. This is the challenge and call for every follower of Jesus – to live daily in the resurrection and suffering of Jesus. In verses 12 to 14 Paul uses athletic imagery, as he sometimes does in his writing. He likens his own faith-journey to a race towards obtaining his goal, using the resources Jesus supplies to everyone who seeks to walk in his way. This is an ongoing thing, accomplished not through losing all memory of the old sinful past, but leaving it behind as something done with and settled. The goal, for the Christian, is the unperishable reward of everlasting glory – an aspiration found not in this life, but in the one to come.

As I said – this is a very meaty reading. We can take some thoughts from it, though. We’re reminded that it is through faith, trust and obedience in Christ that we are called to walk in righteousness. Mere obedience of law and custom has no merit or use without such faith, trust and obedience. It is Jesus who supplies the resources for this walk, obtained by the follower through a union with the living and real person of Jesus, day by day. The goal of the walk is the unperishable reward – which comes after this life – and indeed the rewards of this life are unimportant in this context, not useful, illusory and possibly distracting from the real goal.

The reading from John 12:1-8 is similar to others found in other gospels (see Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:3-9 and Luke 7:36-50, though Luke’s account is probably of another event). Jesus is travelling to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with his disciples – this is the final and summatory chapter of his earthly life. While he is having a meal with his disciples he is anointed with expensive ointment, in an action which points towards the end of his life. The verse in which Jesus speaks of the poor always being with us, but him not always being with his disciples does not imply a lack of concern for the poor, for their needs lay close to his heart. Rather it simply speaks the truth.

Jesus is the new way, the new promise of God, referred to in Isaiah. In him the old laws, customs and traditions are done away with, and a new order begins to reign. It is through relationship and union with him that the disciple, the follower of Jesus, obtains the resources needed to walk the pilgrim road, to run the race. It is through him that we reap in joy, abundantly, and more than we need. And it is in Jesus that we find our destiny, our call to praise God always and everywhere. Our works of righteousness spring out of this relationship and praise – they don’t cause it to be formed or even maintained. These readings remind us that God begins something new in us from moment to moment. We only need to look to see it, only need to grasp hold of it and begin to walk the path.

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