13th March 2016 - Hugh Perry
Isaiah 43: 16-21
This part of Isaiah is dealing with the return from Babylon and our section begins with a reference to the exodus and the rescue from the Egyptian army. Rather than looking back this reference points to a new exodus, what God is doing for the people now. ‘The main thing’ Maurice Andrew says ‘is not even a prediction of what God is going to do but a soaring effort to get the people to recognise that the creative event is what lies immediately before them.’. Verse 19 says ‘I am about to do a new thing; see now it springs forth, do you not perceive it.’
John 12: 1-8
In returning to John’s Gospel as Easter approaches we once again return to the Jesus who is very aware of his divine status and aware, if not in control, of his destiny. Both Mark and Matthew carry the same anointing scene by an unnamed woman at Bethany, just before Jesus’ death. Luke’s scene is different and has a sinner woman washing Jesus’ feet with her hair which suits Luke’s theme of repentance. John’s episode with a named woman obviously foreshadows Jesus’ death, and is in the house of Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead, and so gave the reader advance warning of the resurrection.
Mary’s extravagance is criticized by Judas who suggests that the money would be better spent on the poor and for many of us that would seem a fair call. The Gospel writer however says that Judas doesn’t care about the poor but has his fingers in the till. That comment may be intended as an explanation of Judas betrayal of Jesus.
I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43:19)
Surely an appropriate passage as we approach Palm Sunday and the parade towards Easter. It is also appropriate for us as a parish as we approach the completion of our building and the new mission opportunities that presents.
Writing of this passage of Isaiah Maurice Andrew suggests:
It is hardly less than a revolution in faith to stop placing the main emphasis on looking back to what happened in the past—even if we need to be reminded of the past so that we can look forward to what God is going to do now. The new thing is what counts, and it happens in the context in which people are involved; getting back home through the wilderness.
The passage mentions the way God had rescued them from slavery, cut them of from the army of Egypt and set them on the wilderness journey towards nationhood. The passage then implores the reader:
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 (Isaiah 43:18, 19)
Maurice Andrew suggests it is a revolution in faith to stop placing the main emphasis on looking back to what happened in the past, and he is absolutely right. Our Christian faith is grounded in the past, grounded in first century Palestine, the Roman Empire and the brutal treatment dished out to Jesus in the name of order.
As Methodists our denominational identity and religious culture is firmly grounded in the mission calling of John Wesley and his followers.
As Presbyterians we are grounded in the reformation and the way both Calvin and Knox moulded those reforming principles into a ruling church. Of course as Presbyterians we have to be more complicated than that. Therefore we remember the disruption, the division and reunification of the Church of Scotland and for some strange reason the Westminster Confession. For liberal Presbyterians we also put great stress on the Declaratory Act. Important to the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand is the Otago settlement and the final unification of the Southern and Northern Presbyterian churches which kept the wealth of the Otago gold fields south of the Waitaki.
Those are all events that help chart the church’s historic journey and are important in defining who we are and what is important to us. It is that understanding of who we have been that instructs us to look towards the ‘new thing that God is doing.’
Our history must never be an excuse to wallow in the splendour of who we have been and lament the loss of past glory.
The problem is of course, the very real difficulty in discerning the divine will, except in hindsight. Without doubt the mainline churches are facing change in a society that is gripped by rampant consumerism that promises health wealth and happiness to those who work hard and overspend. However God will do a new thing and the way forward is not to be found in consolidation and funnelling the churches wealth into a few super churches. Neither should our future be sought in a fortress mentality that locks parish life into past practices.
In the work with the wider church that my tradition and my ordination vows call me to be involved in I am continually distressed by people and parishes and individuals who are locked to the past way of being church and are pulling congregations into an ever decreasing spiral of self destruction.
People want children in church but they want them to participate in the ‘seen and not heard way’ they participated as children. When the world fills football stadiums with people who want to be part of concerts that celebrate a wide variety of contemporary music style we remain locked into music and instruments that came into being before the electronic amplification of music was possible.
However while we are avoiding the temptation to remember the former things, or consider the things of old we should not simply mimic the world of pop concerts or copy the auditorium performances of the super-churches. To do so would in fact be considering the things of the past. Certainly not the same as reminiscing on the great debates on the sinfulness of organ music, but in our world of change the past is yesterday and the place God is calling us is called tomorrow.
Today may well seem like a faith wilderness but the promise of Isaiah’s poem is that God ‘will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert’ (Isaiah 43:19)
That is an assurance we must grab hold of as we look towards our new beginning in our new building and it is our gospel reading that points the way for us.
Judas, in today’s gospel reading, is the personification of those church officials who guard and redirect our resources. Judas is the personification of some of the behaviour of strategy committees and property trustees who always know best.
However we should not take all the blame on ourselves because Judas is also the evil little trolls who sit in front of a computer screen criticising everything. Whenever something worthwhile is announced in the press, television or social media the trolls are the people who write letters to the paper or post snide remarks and disparaging comments on social media.
Such individuals never make constructive suggestions but delight in raining on the parade of others. They point out what the money could have been used for, or that the initiative won’t work because it hasn’t worked in the past.
I once heard of someone who would never invest in commercial property because their father did so during the great depression and lost a fortune.
Mary lavished a costly perfume on Jesus’ feet and the Judas troll made the snide remark that the gospel writer made sure we knew he would never carry out. Judas didn’t care about the poor we are told.
Mary’s action, or more particularly the way the gospel writer used the story, reminds the reader that Christianity is a resurrection faith and resources poured out in worship are never wasted. John also has Jesus explain that Mary had bought the perfume for Jesus’ burial. Our reading stops at verse eight but verse nine goes on to explain that a good number of people came, not only because Jesus was there, ‘but also to see Lazarus whom he had raised from the dead.’ (John 12: 9) So John clearly gives us a foretaste of where the gospel journey is going and stresses the point that the religious movement that was building around Jesus was and will continue to be a resurrection faith.
In Jesus God was doing a new thing and Marys extravagance was a commitment to that new thing. Mary’s action was recognition that Jesus would no longer be with them. It was a ‘no expenses spared thank you’ for who Jesus had been.
Bill loader makes a significant point when he points out that ‘Both in Mark and in John, as in the common tradition which feeds them directly and indirectly, Jesus is pictured as abandoned by his inner circle of disciples’.
Like the church of today Jesus’ other supporters were too busy honouring the traditions of the past and were not open to the new thing that God was doing.
The gospel is moving to the point where it will only be a few women who are left standing near Golgotha. Women who will venture to the tomb. In the gospel writers world the women were the most unlikely ones to become the models of the movement that was coming into being.
In our world we mostly accept women in leadership roles in the church therefore they are just as capable as men of being so good, so devout, and so busy being so, that they miss the point. In fact I sometimes wonder if it is the marginalised gay and lesbian members of our churches who are most attuned to the new things that God is doing in our time and place.
That would certainly fit the gospel model we find beginning in this reading which Loader suggests is deliberately subversive and reflects so much of the experience of Jesus’ ministry.
In many ways the completion of our building is subversive. We were drawn into endless conversations as, at least subconsciously, people tried to make a decision by drawing out the process so time made the decision for us all. After all we are a small aging congregation and it is utterly illogical to pour out the churches valuable capital funds on a group who will be all gone in a few years’ time.
However the Reserve Bank is pouring out the interest rates on invested money and without the protest voice of spiritual people the poor will not only always be with us their numbers will increase. Certainly the money we are spending on our building will not solve the problem of poverty any more than the money spent on Mary’s jar of perfume would have changed the imbalance of wealth in Jesus’ time.
What changed the world, and continues to change the world, was those followers of Jesus who were not just extravagant in poring expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus. They were extravagant with their lives, pouring out everything of themselves to bring the resurrection faith into reality.
The first followers of Jesus were open to the new thing God was doing in their time. In so doing they challenge us to be equally generous with all that we are in this time and place.
When we open our new building on the 21st of May we will have poured out slightly more than two million dollars onto the ground at the corner of Nancy Avenue and Knowles Street.
The challenge now for St Albans Uniting is to open ourselves to the ‘new thing’ that God is doing and let the Spirit lead us into whatever resurrection journey that ‘new thing’ takes us on.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p.430.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p.430.