Monday, March 18

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

There’s a prayer you may have heard of, it’s called the serenity prayer. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. One thing I try to remember when saying that prayer is I cannot change the past. There is no way to go back in time and do things differently.

Today’s scriptures speak of letting go of the past and looking to the future. Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. Forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead. Interesting indeed since so much of scripture reminds us again and again of the glorious deeds of God in the past, even in this very passage from Isaiah.

There is a spiritual principle here. Holding on to the past can keep us from moving forward. Regrets, disappointments, resentments, judging others based on past actions even if they’ve shown growth in the meantime, can inhibit the free use of our hearts as we attend to the present. And yet, it’s not just that spiritual principle that’s being spoken of here, there’s something else going on.

Before we get there though, Paul again ups the ante. He doesn’t merely not dwell on the past, he counts it all as rubbish, throws it all away. All in order to gain Christ, admittedly a much higher goal.  The goal mentioned in Isaiah, though, seems at first much simpler. So that they might declare my praise.

I had a moment of clarity at prayer then other day...

I was praying the psalms and it was yet another of those, "you've totally crushed me to bits, but you need to rescue me cause the dead can't sing your praises" type of psalm.

And honestly, I often thought that was a lame reason to ask for help. Not that I think some kind of bargaining promise would be better, save me and I’ll give to the poor for example. A simple appeal to God’s mercy and love would have seemed more appropriate to me. On the other hand, that could also end up sounding like, “If you really loved me, you’d give me what I want.”

But in that particular moment of prayer I remembered a few of the many stories in John’s Gospel where Jesus says, "This happened for the glory of God, that God may be glorified through the Son.” And I had a sense of something, something much like what Paul is talking about. That in letting go of all the things I value for their own sake, the things I might on my own value scale deem worthy to pursue or pray for, I can live a very similar life to the one I’m living, but more fully dedicated to the greater glory of God.

And so the inkling that mercy and love would be more appropriate for prayer, is realized in the very singing of God’s praises themselves. Because to speak of God’s glory is to speak of love. As Jesus says in prayer, “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”

In contrast to glory – and this really is a minor digression – I find it interesting to note how in each successive gospel Judas is more and more maligned. In Mark, Judas’s motivation isn’t made explicit, but it does happen immediately after the anointing incident (where it is not Judas alone that objects to the use of such expensive ointment) and is offered money after he agrees to betray Jesus. In Matthew, Judas asks for the money up front. By Luke the devil enters into Judas. And by John, Judas is a thief long before the betrayal, and the sole disciple objecting to the anointing. 

Now, earlier I spoke of something else going on in today’s scripture. The Lords says “I am about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” What might this new thing be? Let’s look at a moment of perception in the Gospel. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Perfume for the day of Jesus’ burial. This something new God did involved Jesus’ suffering and death. His resurrection too, to be sure, but let’s for the moment look at death.

In a culture so obsessed with success and material wealth, in a culture that demands we are happy all the time, that extolls the “high” of romantic love but rarely mentions the deeper love of relationships that have survived trials of fire, it doesn’t seem to make sense that glory involves suffering, death & loss. Yet Jesus tells Peter that Peter will glorify God through Peter’s death. Paul has suffered the loss of all things.

But loss, grief, suffering doesn’t have to hold us back any more than regrets, disappointments or resentments. We press on because Christ Jesus has made us his own. We can be found in him. The Lord has formed us for herself. Psychologically, it’s been suggested that if a child is raised with a firm foundation of being loved – being delighted in for their own sake – that establishes a security that will give them the coping skills to endure most any tragedy.
Let us then, delight in God’s love for us. Let us remember that whatever we have done or failed to do; however much time we may think we’ve wasted in vain pursuits; however much we have to genuinely repent of; however unsure we may be of the choices ahead of us; we are all basking in the glory of God. That God is love and God first loved us. That loving God back, no matter our fate, that loving God back is glorifying God.

Isaiah 43:16-21 - Philippians 3:4b-14 - John 12:1-8