Facing a Changing Future (Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8)
I think we all know that we live in a world where things are changing. There are immense cultural changes in every aspect of experience, from personal and institutional ones, to larger societal ones. We cannot just assume that what we thought would always be around, will. In church life, such situations, of course, breed their own experts who pronounce on what we need to do to make ourselves relevant or adapt ourselves to the changed environment, circumstances, paradigm, or whatever the right word is at this moment. At this point I need to issue a warning, this is not going to be one of those horrible sermons on “change” that I have read and used to hear regularly when I was where you sit (and still am aware of). These sermons usually go something like, “If you’ll just be like the good people in whatever scripture text I’ve got (and, probably, handpicked) that accepted changes in procedure or structure A, B or C in this local church as God’s will, then the church prosper.” If we change the music we’ll be OK, if we rip up the pews, we’ll prosper, if we…well, you fill in the blank, because you’ve heard as many of these speeches as I have. Little of it is true. What I’ve said of future changes in churches is only an example of the political, social, educational, etc., speeches about every facet of life. As if we could just change one or two things and be adapted to the changing future.
Our biblical texts today are more radical than that. By radical I mean that they go deeper, and get to the root (Latin radix = root). Our texts speak of transformation rather than change. Our texts say things like, “Although it’s crucial to be shaped by the tradition and the past; learn from the tradition and the past; don’t be limited by the vision of the tradition and the past.” Our texts this morning speak primarily of God’s action, and only secondarily of ours. God acts in magnificent freedom.
We often, it seems, find Old Testament Lessons from the poems found in Isaiah chapters 40-55, such as today’s from chapter 43. Once again, the context was Israel’s terrible exile in Babylon, which in essence ended their national hopes. The leaders of the nation had been carried away into a distant place, where they were trapped under the heel of an oppressor who called all the shots. The basic abuse of Babylon was that it robbed the people of their hope. The words of the great poet of Isaiah 40-55 point beyond loneliness and estrangement and marginalization to comfort and release and ministry in a very different future. But the poems in this part of Isaiah offer much more than hope at that time to that particular group of God’s people in the isolation they felt in the 6th century BCE. One of the glories of poetry is that it may speak of historical specifics on one level and, at the same time, speak of universals on another. Before our Lesson, God had reminded that small group of dispossessed Israelites of who it was that was speaking to them.
I am the LORD, and besides me there is no saviour. I declared and saved and proclaimed when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses, says the LORD.
God reminded those exiles that there is no saviour beside the Almighty. God had, of old spoken to them and delivered them. they are simply witnesses of all that God had already done in their midst.
In our passage God reminds Israel that, before in its remembered past, it had been in slavery, and at that time, God delivered their ancestors from bondage in Egypt. They came through the sea, and God crushed the imperial power that threatened their lives. Of course, the exodus, as we call it, is a powerful image of God’s saving love and power even now. It is used as a picture many times throughout the Bible and beyond. To exiles, this image evokes the hope that God would “do it again”! The thought that comes bursting through the night is: “It can be “just like this for us!” Lead us through a changing future.”
But almost as soon as this poet-prophet evokes this image of exodus, he says, “Forget it.”
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
What can this mean? From time to time, this divine saying is ripped out of its context and made to say something it does not. “Don’t pay attention to anything that’s traditional.” “Do only new things.” In fact, such a meaning is not what is intended here, and if such a course is followed, it really only leads to the same kind of rootless exile that it aims to flee. How will you recognize what God says in Exile if you do not know from your tradition what God sounds like? What our poet, rather, meant here was “Think about the exodus, and imagine that kind of freedom, but don’t limit yourself to that.” God’s grace is bigger than that. The new thing that God was doing, in that historical setting, was sending the exiles in Babylon back to Judah, and, then retooling their ministry completely. But don’t let even that kind of historical meaning limit your thinking about what God’s grace is doing in the world. To use another image, it’s about water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert — wherever the desert and the wilderness are for you, and for us. In short, this passage speaks of God’s transforming grace and steadfast covenant love as primary characteristics. We often limit God to what we have known, and some of that is inevitable and important in order to recognize God. The poet-prophet simply reminded exiles not to limit God’s grace to the past, or to the things of the past, and in the modes of the past. Let your spirit soar in new ways. God’s grace wasn’t just important to our parents or grandparents or great-grandparents. God’s grace is for us now. Seeing God’s grace in an ever more graceless world requires a transformed mind for thinking about and acting in the world. While we must never despise what the past has given us, our poet-prophet from Isaiah 43 tells us: “Be willing to let the ways you think about God’s grace in the world be transformed by being attentive to God’s new acts. God still calls for witnesses to grace.
When such transformation takes place, we discover that it makes a difference in what we value and what we do. We find this in our Epistle from Philippians. This passage is, on one level, about Paul’s life. It is undoubtedly wise, however, not simply to concentrate on the old thing of information about Paul’s life, but on the transformation in Paul’s life. We can learn that God still transforms minds and hearts and values.
When Paul (whose birth name was Saul) started out, the most important things to him were his own qualifications – the story was about him. And through the early part of this passage in Philippians 3 we learn that Saul had a wonderful résumé to be an important Jewish rabbi. And we’ve read the passage, so I won’t enumerate all his qualifications, save to say that he was top-notch. A search committee might seize upon such a one.
Then, Paul experienced that transformation of his values and his motivations. He realized that life was not about him, but about the overwhelming grace of God for others. And Paul found that not only was his passion changed, but out of that his pilgrimage was, too. He discovered that all his shiny credentials did not make him spiritually wise, only spiritually arrogant.
Paul wrote Philippians from a prison cell, and yet, in essence, he found that it was before, when he thought he was free, that he was in prison. Those things that once were cheap and unimportant are now the most valuable. All the one-time treasures were now worth no more than rubbish. The word used here is actually rather crude. The King James politely translates it as dung. Not many healthy people go around with fond and wistful thoughts of dung. Paul had to be transformed to get where he was, and furthermore, he understood that he hadn’t yet transcended the old things to look to the new, but his passion to know Christ, and to be like Christ led him daily on a pilgrimage of discovery and his life was both exciting and scary.
His words about his life of discovery are interesting and we ought to take them to heart. In verse 10 he wrote:
I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death…
Most of us would have expected Paul to start with sharing Jesus’ sufferings and working through to the victory of resurrection. Rather, what Paul says to us is that Jesus’ resurrection (the new thing God has done) empowered him to share Jesus sufferings in the world (the old thing). We’re not taken from the world and placed above the world’s sufferings as God’s grace leads us into a changing future. Rather we’re most often going to be put right amidst the hurt and suffering of the world. Following Jesus into the world becomes a pilgrimage to respond to God’s call in Christ. It is a call to serve as Jesus served, not in ways that make us look important in the eyes of others, but in ways that enable others to have access God’s wholeness in Christ. That’s the upward call of God in Jesus Christ: to empty ourselves as Christ did into our worlds for the sake of the gospel and to be channels of God’s transforming grace in a changing future.
As we finally arrive at the Gospel lesson we have a strange contrast between two disciples and two actions. Mary, lovingly anoints Jesus’ feet with costly perfume. Judas objects to such extravagance because the money could have been given to the poor. Jesus accepts one kind of discipleship and rejects the other. Mary’s act of discipleship is accepted because it is based in a love for which no generosity is too great. Jesus says, in essence, “She understands the moment, she has grasped the new thing that God is doing.” Judas’ act of discipleship is rejected because it is based in a greed and a duplicity that no supposed generosity can cover up. The lesson is clear, the new thing that God is doing is ever grasped in the heart by love not by money. It is not easy to judge true transformation by external appearances, it’s really a matter of inner motive that is crucial.
Being grasped by God’s new things does not mean that we stop being shaped by and learning from our pasts, either separately or together. We never transcend our need for the shaping influence of tradition to give meaning to those new things. It does require the sometimes painful realization that God didn’t do everything significant yesterday, in those days and in those ways. No, as Jesus says in another place, “My Father is working still and I am working.” And so should we, his disciples, be working too. It is the transformed heart and eye of the soul that grasps that work and offers our aid in the project.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.