Engaging the Word: Readings for 3/13/16 (The Fifth Sunday in Lent)

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By Barbara Klugh 

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8. Go to www.lectionarypage.net to read or print the weekly lectionary text. In this week’s readings, God promised to deliver his people from exile in Babylon, Paul realized living according to the law was worthless compared to the great gift of knowing Jesus Christ, and Mary of Bethany anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair.

Crossing the Red Sea by unknown artist (c. 1552). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Crossing the Red Sea by unknown artist (c. 1552). Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Isaiah 43:16-21: Our reading this week comes from what is known as Second Isaiah, chapters 40-55, which was addressed to the people in exile in Babylon c. 540 BC. At this time they had been in captivity for around 40 years. In chapters 1-39, Isaiah warned the Israelites of the coming of God’s judgment (and later restoration) because of their idolatry, economic injustice and exploitation of the vulnerable.  But the Lord has forgiven his people and will bring them back home.

In this week’s reading, the prophet Isaiah recalled the Exodus—God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. God parted the waters of the Red Sea, allowing the Israelites to cross on dry land, and then drowned Pharaoh’s pursuing army by making the waters flow again.

Then God promised a new Exodus, one which will deliver his people from captivity in Babylon. Yet God didn’t want his people to look back, but to look forward because, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” With echoes of the 40 years spent wandering in the desert wilderness, God promised to “make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Because of God’s past triumphs on Israel’s behalf, they could trust that God would protect them as they left Babylon and returned to the Promised Land. God kept this promise through his instrument—King Cyrus of Persia, who gave permission for the Israelites to return home.

This is such a great message for the people of Grace during our transition. God is not finished with us any more than God was finished with the Israelites. God is about to do a new thing—we can look forward to the future with confidence in God’s sustaining presence, power, and protection.

Psalm 126: Our psalm is one of three in the prayers for Noonday in the Prayer Book. It’s one of the Songs of Ascents, also known as pilgrim psalms. It celebrates the saving acts of God so far and prays that they will continue until completion. “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed.”

St. Paul by Montagna, 1482. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

St. Paul by Montagna, 1482. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Philippians 3:4b-14: In this week’s reading, Paul takes on Christians, known as Judaizers, who argued that the Gentile followers of Jesus needed to be circumcised and follow the laws of Moses. Throughout Paul’s letters, he strives to make the point that righteousness comes from faith in Jesus Christ, not from following the law.

Paul uses himself as an example. He had all the Jewish credentials—circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew, a Pharisee, blameless under the law, and even a persecutor of the early church. But he counts all that as worthless because of his faith in the risen Christ. Paul writes, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Although Paul had made progress, he keeps striving:  “Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”

Here’s another message we can apply to our Grace community—that we strain forward and press on to discern God’s call for our future in Christ.

The Anointing of Jesus. Window at St. Pierre Church, Druex, France. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Anointing of Jesus. Window at St. Pierre Church, Druex, France. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

John 12:1-8: In the previous chapter of John’s gospel, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and the Jewish authorities worried that Jesus’ rising popularity would draw the attention of the Romans. They believed that the Romans would then “come and destroy our holy place and our nation.” So they planned to put Jesus to death.

In this week’s reading it is six days before Passover. Jesus went to Bethany, which was the home of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. They gave a dinner in Jesus’ honor. “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Judas Iscariot complained that the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor–not that he really cared about the poor—he wanted control of the money so he could steal it. “Jesus reprimanded Judas, and said, ‘Leave her alone. She bought it that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’”

Mary’s act of humble and generous devotion in anointing Jesus signaled his coming death. And just a few days later, Jesus would wash the feet of his disciples at the Last Supper. Although Jesus’ phrase, “You always have the poor with you” has sometimes been used as an excuse not to help the poor, I think Jesus meant that we always have the opportunity and the duty to serve the poor.

With the Fifth Sunday in Lent, called Passiontide in some Anglican circles, we enter into “deep Lent,” and begin to turn toward toward the cross and ponder Jesus’ passage through death to life beyond, with greater intensity.

 

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