5 Lent C—3/13/16
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-18
Pr. Scott Kramer
Imagine yourself taking a walk this afternoon with a friend. After worship, you set out through the neighborhood. Looking around you, you say, “Wow! Look at the magnolias, the azaleas, the daffodils, the camellias, the cherry trees, the plum trees, the hyacinths, the forsythias—all in bloom! Look at the color! And oh, the fragrance! Not only that, but as of today we have an extra hour of daylight. Isn’t it wonderful!”
And your friend turns to you, and says, solemnly, “It’s…still…winter.”
Well, they’d be right, wouldn’t they? According to the calendar spring doesn’t arrive until next Sunday! On the other hand, will the calendar make any difference to someone who can’t see and rejoice in signs of spring now?
In today’s first reading God speaks through the prophet Isaiah: 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? St. Paul writes much the same thing to the Philippians: Because Jesus Christ has made me his own…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on…
Well, it may be easier to appreciate flowers in bloom during winter than it is to take to heart the words of Isaiah and Paul. “Do not remember the former things?” “Forget what lies behind?” Who among us is able to do such a thing? Is not the person you are today largely the product of past experience, and habits of thought, word and deed laid down in response to these past experiences? Forget what lies behind? Who among us is able to do that?
But rather than soften this message, our spiritual ancestors sharpen it! After listing all the things about his life that he was proud of and grateful for in the past, Paul says, All these things I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake, I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish…
Paul is in prison as he writes. He knows what it’s like to lose everything! Paul’s life is in a season of winter, and yet it is as if he is walking through the neighborhood, gawking at signs of spring bursting forth everywhere. From prison he seems to say to us, “Can’t you see it?!”
Well, maybe not. Maybe we can’t see. For people who have experienced fresh loss, that’s normal. It’s not their job to point to signs of spring. That’s our job to do for them as they grieve. The danger is that winter gloom can become a way of life, marked by a strong attachment to the past.
One of the marks of spiritual health and vitality is joy. We do remember the past. We do acknowledge the grief and loss that are a sacred part of each of our stories. But for people of faith the power of the past is not in what we’ve lost, but in God’s faithfulness in sustaining us through that season of loss.
We take our cue from our spiritual forebears, such as the psalmist who proclaims in today’s reading, When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy…The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed!
The reason joy is a sign of spiritual health and vitality is that it shows we have subjugated our personal story to something greater. For Christians, that “something greater” is God’s story. God’s people, those before us who endured unspeakable suffering, death and destruction, discovered that God is faithful, and testified to God’s faithfulness. As the psalmist proclaims, Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering the sheaves.
Joy is a form of praise. Joy is a spiritual attitude of seeing signs of spring, even in winter.
Next week we will catch a glimpse of that joy in the story that includes palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” What a contrast to Jesus’ conversation with the Pharisees in that Palm Sunday story! At least some of the Pharisees were the joyless, serious-minded, religious people of Jesus’ day, and they told him to make his disciples stop shouting praise. Jesus replied, “Well, they could stop, but if they did, the stones themselves would shout out!”
This is an example of what Isaiah seems to be saying when he implies that if the human creation can’t or won’t be joyful, somebody will. “The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches.” Apparently it’s true—if we God’s beloved insist on being winter people, jackals, ostriches, and even stones will bear witness to spring bursting forth all around! With or without us, God will be praised!
We’re heading toward the cross. And yet, here in these readings for Lent we see signs of Easter. Just as in winter we see God’s creation not waiting for the calendar to turn, so also we, God’s beloved, refuse to wait. God is about to do a new thing. Now it springs forth! Praise be to God!