Fifth Sunday in Lent John 12: 1 – 8

Someone who had lived a long time told the new preacher,  “We know about our sin and guilt.  Tell us about God’s love and forgiveness.” The story of Mary and her ointment tells us all we need to know about sin and guilt,  and the reality of God’s love and forgiveness.  

Jesus was invited to a black tie occasion. Important people were there.   Now here comes Mary.  Who knows what was hidden behind her simple and pure act of worship? She doesn’t need anyone telling her what is wrong with her life.  “We know about our sin and guilt.” We all know more than we want to know about neglecting God, deceiving others, cheating or meanness, or withholding love or despising somebody; or idol worship, or false prayers – have we missed anybody?  Who of us could carry a bag with all our sins in it?

Promises we broke, hopes we didn’t live up to, great things we might have done if only this or that — there is no bag big enough. No one is free from the torment of things gone wrong.  We may tell a close friend that we were victimized, overcome by circumstances or forces beyond our control, or whatever. We can say, “The devil made me do it,” and there may be truth there.   But we cannot lie to God.  He sees us as we really are, not the mask we so often hold before our face.

When our first parents heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, the man and woman hid themselves. “Where are you?” God said.  The man replied, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.”  God said, “Who told you that you were naked?  Have you eaten the forbidden fruit?  The man said, “The woman gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.”   Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.”    Is there any hope for us?

Now comes, in our Gospel story, a moment of revelation not only for Mary but also for us. “Is there yet hope?  Is it possible God still loves me?  Am I not condemned to the fires of hell or to a nameless outer darkness with an unresolved ache in my heart?”  Perhaps Mary would have led the refrain, “We know about our sin and guilt.  Tell us about God’s love and forgiveness.”

She is well acquainted with inner conflicts, frustration, remorse, regret, sighs too deep for words,   and now she wants to worship Jesus Christ for being the Messiah.  She feels beaten, a failure, and yet this man Jesus speaks of God on familiar terms.  He embodies all that he says about God being the Father, the loving Father of us all.  If she could find some way to thank Jesus for being the Messiah, would he say that God’s kingdom is open to her?

She wants to hear this godly man say yes, God’s kingdom is open to you even though you have lost your religious roots and have no hope in the future. She buys some expensive, perfumed, soothing ointment that refreshes tired feet. The banquet is in progress, but she cannot wait.  With all the tension of wanting his forgiveness, but still uncertain whether it is true for her, she lets her tears fall on his feet and uses her hair as a towel.

The dinner party comes to a halt. Jesus lets her complete her ministry, while everybody looks and waits for him to do something, say something. Judas complains.  “Shouldn’t the money have been used to feed the poor?”  But Mary puts God at the center of her attention.  She worships Jesus with her ointment.  Now it’s our turn.  We have to decide what place Jesus is to have for us, and live accordingly.   The question of the ages, the question for our faith, the question for our everyday decision-making process is this, “Who is Jesus?”

Is he someone we should look to for forgiveness and new life with God? Or will we push him away from the action? Jesus, who are you that we should take you seriously?  The answer is in Isaiah 43:25.  God says, “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.  I am about to do a new thing/”  Jesus is the new thing that God is doing.  Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s love.  Jesus is God’s answer to his people who are in the wilderness.

God has always been delivering his people from our sins. When we left captivity in Egypt, it was God who made a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters so that we walked on dry land.  When the Egyptian chariots and horses came, it was God who made them fall down, stuck in the mud.  We crossed safely to the other side. Nevertheless, even that remarkable deliverance of the people of Israel is not the greatest thing God has done.  There is more to God than his past deeds. The Lord, who makes a way in the sea, who puts a path in the mighty waters, gives drink to his chosen people, the people whom he formed for himself that we might declare his praise.

We can find new life in the wilderness. God gave his son whom we crucified to make a new life for us in the wilderness of this world. The living Jesus stands before us while we are yet alive in history.  He looks into the inner person.   We recognize him as the Lord of every day of life.  We belong to him.  Can we come to wash his feet as a sign of our repentance and our searching for new life?

“We whom sin has wounded sore, find healing in the wounds he bore.” Those who do the will of my father in heaven, Jesus said, are the chosen ones of God.  And those who want only a non-committed general belief in God in a vague sort of way, which costs nothing and demands nothing, should not be surprised to discover that their life is an empty stage where nothing real ever plays out.

There’s another take on God coming to the world in Jesus Christ. He came not only to bring a spiritual revolution in general, but also to tell us, the little people, that God is interested in us. The sacrificial life of Jesus demonstrated his teaching and his preaching, and his life tells us how to live. Give a cup of water in my name, he said.  Order your life by mine.  Forgive one another.  Open your heart to the reality of God.

And in that moment, you will find the child of Christmas. You will find the man in agony as he prays in the garden where in his anguish he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down on the ground.

You will see his suffering on the cross, and you will meet the victorious, risen Son of God. Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah of the ages.  He gives himself to his people, and that is his secret.  Jesus Christ is the new thing that God is doing in us.

Jesus Christ demonstrates the kingship of God and asks us to join him in that great and grand enterprise. By him, we shall live and die, and by him, we shall live  forever.   He gives us water in the wilderness, even rivers in the desert.

We are his chosen people whom God formed for himself. We know Jesus. We have heard him talk about the kingdom.  Now we see him in a new way.  As in the ancient Passover, we see him as the Lamb of God.

Jesus Christ has revealed God himself to us.  The nature of the kingdom is to bring the love of God to sinners.

“We know about our sin and guilt. Tell us about God’s love and forgiveness.”

Mary was doing what she did out of her thanksgiving for God’s grace. Her extravagant gift offended some, but God in Jesus Christ loved her and received her gift and there is the Gospel for us.

In giving ourselves to God, we will find God’s gift even as we live in the wilderness.

We will discover that we are saint and sinner at the same time. God alone can bring us new life in the wilderness where we live.

Let us believe with all our heart that Almighty God in his mercy has given his Son to die for us and for his sake forgives us all our sins. Not all that we might do, nor all that we might give, is too much to return to him.