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God is About To Do a New Thing (Are You Ready?)

[photo credit Danielle Macinnes @dsmacinnes]

A sermon on John 12:1-8

[and audio version of the sermon is available here].

I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19)

So promises God, through the prophet Isaiah, to a people who had little reason to believe that any good thing was in their future. This verse comes from today’s first reading, which is found in a section of the book of Isaiah written to the people of Israel while they were exiled in Babylon. Their country had been decimated, the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed, and the people themselves taken as captives to a foreign land – separated by distance, and desert, and defeat from the place that gave them their sense of identity – the promised land that they had lived in as a fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to Abraham.

That promise now seems broken. But in the midst of that brokenness, the prophet speaks of a new promise. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing"(says the Lord) Isaiah 43:18-19.

This message is both comforting and a bit confusing. At least, the command NOT to remember is confusing. Because the verses that come just before it sound like a call TO remember, with their references to “making a way in the sea” and defeating “the chariot and horse, army and warrior.” The exiled people in Babylon would recognize those images from their defining story of the Exodus from Egypt, when God – through Moses – parted the Red Sea to let the Israelites through, and then dropped the waters back onto Pharaoh’s chariots and armies. This is a story that reminds them of their God’s power to save – to free them from captivity … So why would God tell them to forget that?

Perhaps the answer is found in what God wants them to focus on instead. Rather than looking back, God wants the people to look ahead – to the new thing that is coming. A new thing that will overshadow even the great saving act of the Exodus... Because the Exodus led to 40 years in the wilderness. 40 years of being sustained, but not flourishing. And here God is promising something new. God isn’t promising to sustain them in the wilderness. God is promising to transform the wilderness itself![1] To make rivers run in the desert. To make wild and unclean animals into worshippers.

God is saying to a people who don’t know how to hope even for restoration: “I’m going to do more than restore you back to what you were before. I am going to do a NEW THING. Are you ready?”

I wonder what it would look like to say “yes” to that question. To be able to really believe that God is about to do a new thing in our lives, something MORE wonderful than what we have known before.

Maybe, it would look like Mary from today’s gospel. Mary had previously had a profound experience of Jesus’s saving power in her life, as the text reminds us. Jesus had raised her brother, Lazarus, after four days in the grave. It was a tremendous miracle. The kind of thing that might permanently reorient one’s life. You can’t just go on as before after something like that.

And Mary doesn’t go on as before. But neither does she get stuck in the miracle she has already received. She doesn’t cling onto Lazarus and make his restored life the center of hers. Instead, she recognizes that Jesus is doing something new.

When Jesus returns to Bethany, on his way to Jerusalem for his final Passover in preparation for his ordeal… while Martha was busy preparing the meal, and Lazarus was busy hosting, and the disciples were enjoying the party … Mary saw Jesus. She saw that he was doing something new.

And so she went to the store room. And she got down the jar of pure nard – the perfume that she had used to anoint the body of her brother before he was laid in the tomb. And Mary brought that perfume, and anointed Jesus’ feet, as for his burial. And then she let down her hair, an intimate action of love and trust, and she wiped his feet – letting the scent that had soaked into his skin soak into her as well.

It was a beautiful scent – but it also carried the association of death, especially in that family.

By bringing that perfume, and pouring it out on Jesus’ feet, and wiping it with her hair, she was offering to Jesus a profound openness to go with him in what he was doing next…. Even though that “next” thing was death.

“I am going to do a NEW THING. Are you ready?”

Mary and Lazarus had experience restoration back to life, but Jesus wanted to do more. Not just restore mortal life, but to bring eternal life. And for that, he first had to die.

And Mary was ready. Ready to let death into the party room, without fear. Ready to move past the restoration God had already achieved and look for the new thing, no matter how scary the journey would be.

That’s one of the things that I think people often get wrong in interpreting this story. They read Jesus’ last line “you do not always have me” and they think that Jesus is trying to keep everyone there, in that moment… desperately clinging to the few days and hours they still had together. But there’s a different way to read Jesus’s words – a way that is more consistent with his journey to the cross, and with his ministry to the poor and oppressed.

You see, when English translators write verse 8 as “You always have the poor with you, but your do not always have me” they are making an interpretive decision. The Greek word for “have” can mean “you have” as a statement of fact, or it can mean “have” as a command, as in “make sure you always have the poor with you.”

And read that way, Jesus isn’t trying to hold everyone there in that moment, staving off his impending death, nor is he modeling apathy in response to the existence of poverty. Rather, he’s affirming Mary’s actions that put his coming death on display, and giving direction to his followers for what to do after. He’s saying: “As Mary just enacted for us all – my death is coming. You won’t always have me here, so make sure – when I’m gone – that you continue my work with and for the poor. There will never be a shortage of that work to do. But as for me, I’m doing a new thing.”

Mary saw that new thing. She recognized what Jesus was preparing to do, and she said yes. She didn’t hide from what she saw – she didn’t try to stave off the death that would come on the way to God’s promise, but instead she gave Jesus her love and care to prepare him for what he had to do.

And she modeled for us the willingness to face the fear of change, and even of the death of what we know, to prepare for the new thing God is doing.

Our Lenten focus for the last 5 weeks has been on transformation. We’ve explored transforming tables and transforming travels. I want to add one more challenge: transformed imagination – the capacity to imagine that God might be ready to do a new thing in our lives and in our congregation.

During Lent our assistant ministers have been leading us in the prayer after the offering, which includes the petition that God “receive our gifts of money, imagination, and labor…” So let us give the gift of our imagination today. Let’s open our minds and our hearts to the new thing that God is ready to do in our lives, and let’s offer those imaginations to God as our “yes”, to join with the scent of Mary’s perfume, as a sacred offering of our willingness to be transformed.

Here’s where, for the last time this Lent, you take your squares of paper, and write down what God’s Spirit is whispering to your soul. What new thing is God preparing to do in you?

[for those reading this on-line, you are encouraged to join in this practice. Take a minute to listen for God's voice, and then write message that down to reflect on in the coming days....]

God is doing a new thing. I truly believe that.

So, as my final word, I want to offer a blessing written by Christian contemplative John O’Donohue: a blessing For a New Beginning[2]

In out-of-the-way- places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,

This beginning has been quietly forming,

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,

Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,

Noticing how you willed yourself on,

Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety

And the gray promises that sameness whispered,

Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,

Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,

Your eyes young again with energy and dream,

A path of plentiude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear

You can trust the promise of this opening;

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning

That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;

Hold noting back, learn to find ease in risk;

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

“I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

We can, if we are open to transformation.

Thanks be to God.

[1] For a textual argument in favor of this petition, see Johan L. McKenzie, S.J., The Anchor Bible: Second Isaiah, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1968, p. 57.

[2] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us, New York: Convergent, 2008, p. 14.

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