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Sermon – March 21, 2010: New Thing

Sermon for Sunday, March 21, 2010 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

New Thing

Isaiah 43: 16-21; 2 Philippians 3: 4b-14; John 12: 1-8

One of Muhammad Ali’s late-career fights had the usual big buildup. Just before the

fight began they introduced Ali’s opponent, and I can’t remember which fight this was, so I

don’t recall who that was. The cameras panned the great arena with the ring in the center,

seats filled to capacity. Over the loudspeaker came the introduction of the man who was to

box Ali that day, and he and his handlers appeared at one axis of the arena. Immediately

the whole place was filled with the musical theme from the movie “Rocky,” the famous fight

film done by Sylvester Stallone.

That’s big, loud, bass-thumping, pulse-pumping music, and it’s the theme of a story

about a scrappy fighter who makes the big time. The whole crowd goes wild. The next

thing that has to happen is for Ali to be introduced, but what music can be played now that

won’t be a letdown? You feel like the promoters, like the designers of this spectacle have

rushed to the climax before it’s time, and there’s a slight anxiety on behalf of Ali’s fabled

image while the seconds tick off as his loudspeaker introduction begins. Then he’s there, on

the opposite side of the arena, and suddenly the whole place is full of the musical theme

from “Star Wars.” It’s perfect. The “Rocky” theme fits a great fight story, but the “Star

Wars” theme is epic, it’s cosmic, it’s on a whole other plane–and the crowd gets it. They go

even wilder than before, and the boxing begins in an atmosphere of delight, the fans

savoring the symbolism of the “Rocky” theme and the surprising one-upmanship of “Star

Wars.”

It’s rare, but it’s splendid, when you think things can’t get any better, and then they do

get better. All three of this morning’s scriptures characterize God’s saving efforts on behalf

of human beings in exactly this way. It’s not that God had some second-rate scheme going

and finally came up with a decent approach. It’s that God had a marvelous, gracious, fulfilling

salvation achieved and then God came up, astonishingly, with one that is even better.

In the part of Isaiah we read today, Isaiah refers back to the great, fundamental

miracle of deliverance. God brings to mind God’s making a way through the sea, and then

sending the pursuing preventers of liberation and new life into the sea and extinguishing

them like a candle’s wick. That’s the great story celebrated in the song of Deborah and over

and over in the psalms. It’s the great salvation which sets the stage for covenant and land

and the Chosen People’s call to be God’s people.

Here, in Isaiah, God gives us that saving story–and then says, forget that story, now

I’m going to do something even greater. Here’s the reversal: before I made a dry place

through the waters–now I’m going to make rivers in the desert. Where it was all wet and

my people needed me to make it miraculously dry, I did that. Now, where it is all dry and

my people and even the creatures of the wasteland require it to provide water, I’ll do that.

That will signal a great new salvation. There’s a common feel to it, there’s something familiar

about God intervening, but it all will be new. Before it looked like a negative, now it will look

like a developed photo. That’s part of the newness. That’s a sign of how everything is

new.

We get the same idea in what Paul writes to the Philippians. Paul is emphasizing

just how astonishingly new and different-looking this salvation through Christ is, and Paul has

to, because of what’s going on with his churches. Paul has become the great evangelist to

non Jewish congregations. All around the Mediterranean basin, in every big city, in the

colonies of Jewish traders, there have been synagogues. Those synagogues have

intrigued non Jews. People that we now might call “religious seekers” existed then. They

weren’t content with the myths and philosophies and cults that were built into their culture.

They were drawn by the God they learned about listening around the synagogue.

Not many of them had converted to Judaism. When Christianity began to blossom

out of Judaism, however, and Paul encouraged his fellow Jewish Christians to embrace the

entry into Christian life of people with no Jewish background, there was the sudden

possibility of gaining the moral authority and divine power of the God of the Bible apart

from the more stringent demands of Judaism. Paul saw this as part of the miraculous grace

of God. Some other early interpreters of the evolving Christian way saw it as slipshod and

inauthentic. So some of these who felt that more Jewish rigor needed to be included in

Christianity went around to the churches founded by Paul and told them that Paul hadn’t fully

taught what God demanded, and they wanted to impose more Jewish practices on the

new converts.

That’s what Paul’s reacting to in today’s reading. Paul begins by going into this great

Jewish rant, like a Borscht Belt comic, one-upping hs Jewish opponents. “They think

they’re Jews?” he asks, and asserts, “I’m twice the Jew they are.” Then he says that all the

great things, the real, authentic, saving things of Judaism have been his–he had a good life

with God on the old terms, but now they are something he’s moved beyond, by his

reaching out to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. There has been a way of hope with God

in Judaism, Paul says, and Paul says “I’ve done it as well as it could be done” but this

Christianity based on faith in what God’s accomplished in Christ is better. The first thing, the

old thing, was wonderful, but now there’s something which surpasses it.

This theme of astounding reversal, of an even-better overtaking the established

good, is a little harder to detect in the gospel. It’s there in this obvious way– Jesus is at

table with Lazarus. Lazarus has been dead and is alive; Jesus is alive and will be dead.

Lazarus is already, in anticipation of Christian hopes, resurrected to share the table of the

Lord; Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet anticipates the crucifixion.

There’s a deeper level of the pattern, however, and we are clued to it by what

Judas says in response to Mary’s pouring the perfume on Jesus’ feet. Judas objects–and

we don’t really need Luke’s parenthetical remark that Judas wants to steal from the money

box to know this is wrong, because we know that Judas is the Betrayer–Judas objects that

the perfume ought to have been sold and the money given to the poor. Right there Judas

is in complete harmony with an overriding theme of Luke’s gospel.

Luke’s gospel, and its companion piece of Acts of the Apostles, are passionate

about God’s concern for the poor, Jesus’ service to the poor, and most radical in

commending social reforms to benefit the poor. It is only by understanding that first that we

appreciate how Jesus’ putting Mary’s gesture above relief for the poor is part of a

surprising reversal in the gospel reading.

In a way the story is similar to the tradition about Martha serving tables by herself

and Mary sitting listening to Jesus and Martha suggesting that taking care of guests–being

hospitable, and sharing the labor of the household–should be important to Mary. Jesus

surprises Martha and annoys generations of Christians by saying that Mary is doing

something even better by listening to what he says. See; we have an ethic in our culture

that productive work is good, and better than spiritual yearning; and we have an ethic in our

culture that poverty is the result of the refusal to do productive work. Jesus, on the other

hand, says that getting spiritual things right is even more important than practical concerns,

and Jesus regards poverty as something which always can be relieved by charity–and

should be. In one of the other gospels the version of this same story has Jesus saying,

“you will always have the poor with you, and whenever you want to, you can do them

good–but you will not always have me.”

So the gospel introduces the way God has been working in the past–here in the

discredited suggestion by Judas to use great gifts to benefit the poor, which you might as

well say is the whole gospel up to this point–God’s own son being sent to save and serve

the poor, and God’s miracles being spent on vast feedings and spontaneous healthcare

and uplifting companionship and encouraging preaching–you have to realize that almost

everyone is poor in first-century Palestine, that it’s a world of a small power elite being

supported by a sea of peasants–so that’s what God has been up to so far. That’s what

God was doing in John the Baptist, to whom all the everyday people flocked but who the

educated classes doubted and dismissed. That’s what God has been doing through

Jesus, who stirs the masses but offends the leadership class.

But it’s not the most important thing after all. The important thing is coming in Jesus’

sacrifice of himself, and in John’s gospel, with its emphasis on signs, this is one more big

heavenly hint about how God is going to remake the cosmos.

These three scriptures together remind us that freeing the slaves from Egypt is

great, and that being faithful to the law is great, and that serving the poor is great–and that

God’s Servant coming to the world to give his whole life to loving others and being true to

the ethic of love and service, courage and confidence is greater. That’s the astounding new

reality we will be celebrating together at Easter.

 

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