Time and Dying and Rising with Christ.
Readings: Isaiah 43.16-21, Philippians 3.4b-14, John 12.1-8
A sentence in a SMH book review yesterday caught my attention: “At a certain point in your life, you stop getting older and start ageing.” I think that is true and the change usually manifests itself in a greater consciousness of time and its passing. Our future, with its hopes and dreams and health suddenly appears to be very short, while our past, with its memories of good times, but more often of regrets, guilt, failure and loss gets longer and looms larger in our consciousness. Memory constitutes so much of our understanding of our identity. We are locked into our past because our memories so much determine who we are; and because our future is often so bound up with a past that we can’t change, we lose hope. Our present is over in a nano second as our future quickly passes into our lengthening and unchangeable past. It is poignant that just at the time memory comes to consume most of our waking lives, we fear losing it to dementia.
What usually causes this change in perception is the sudden and powerful awareness that Death is approaching. It’s not that we have not been aware of death before; it’s that we have not been so aware of OUR certain Death. What was once abstract suddenly becomes concrete, an awareness usually reinforced by a decline in our physical and mental powers. And past, present and future suddenly become more distinct concepts in our minds.
Time gets its power over us from Death; if there were no death, there would be little consciousness of time. Together they raise the central human question: is life simply “one damn thing after another, and then comes death”? Is it “a tale told by an idiot signifying nothing”?
We wouldn’t be here if we believed that! The church exists to proclaim another tale, the gospel – the story of God’s creation and salvation of the world; and one of the ways it has chosen to do so is through the Church Year, where time is redeemed, transfigured and redefined by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In those events, Death has been defeated and its control of time has been broken. The past, present and future, previously sources of despair, disappointment and futility through being dominated by death, are now reconfigured and become means of grace, hope and recreation through Christ’s resurrection from the dead. The end of life is now understood not as termination, but as purpose or goal. Today is 13th March, 2016 captive time, Death-time; it is the 5th Sunday in Lent, Life-time. Not one damn thing after another, but God’s mercies new every morning. (Lam.3)
Each of our readings this morning feature God’s saving, life-giving power over deathly time to do something new, something unexpected, bringing life out of death, freedom out of slavery and the importance and power of what is remembered in determining our future.
The central event of God’s salvation in the OT is the Exodus, where God delivered the Hebrews from captivity in Egypt. The festival which celebrated this event each year in Jerusalem was the Passover Festival which remembered God’s salvation when the Angel of Death passed over the Hebrews’ homes because they had sprinkled the blood of a lamb on their doorposts. This was their liberation and the foundational event which made Israel a nation, God leading them through the desert to the Promised Land from death to life.
However, Isaiah’s prophecy in our reading uses the language of the Exodus to describe the LORD’s promised liberation of Israel from their present captivity in Babylon. The language about the LORD work is in the present tense but refers to the past in anticipation of the future: “who makes a way in the seas, a path in the mighty waters, who brings our chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished like a wick.” The saving LORD is not restricted or controlled by time. Past, present and future are as one in God’s time. As their covenant partner, God is always the liberator, always the rescuer, always the saviour his people. God is not locked into the hopelessness of time; he is the free one for whom all things are possible.
Focussing on human time leads to despair. So the LORD says to his captive people: “Do not remember the former things”(18) – exile, pain, suffering, abandonment, loss. “I am about to do a new thing.”(19) “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert, just like I did for your forefathers. I am the same LORD, your LORD.” They are not to remember their sin, their failure and their hopelessness; they are to remember the faithfulness of the LORD and trust him.
Paul, too, has an exodus story, where he was saved by the faithfulness of the LORD and led from death to life. He tells us in Galatians 3 how his encounter with the risen Christ on the road to Damascus radically changed everything for him. His past which, unlike Israel’s captivity, was full of honour, success, recognition and glory, actually gave him reason to boast – and boasting was important in the Greco-Roman world. It provided status. But a successful past can be as much of an oppression and burden as one of failure and regret. Paul’s experience of life in Christ led him to see his previous life as ultimately worthless, ‘rubbish’, ‘dung’ in comparison with “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He came to look at his past differently, as deathly. He had undergone a radical transvaluation of values. He could echo the words of the hymn: “My richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.” God had done a new thing in him. He was a new creation, and was even given a new name: Paul instead of Saul.
The centre of Paul’s life was now the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection of the dead.”(10) In Christ, Death is no longer to be feared as loss but gain, as it becomes the doorway to life. Even his sufferings are to be understood to be life-giving, a sharing in Jesus’ death that life may result. This is not only physical death, but the dying to the self-centred, ego-driven life where self-justification and self-preservation, which he once saw as ways to secure life and cheat death and now revealed to be the very ways that in death-time, we cheat life and gain death. Paul was now made new and was given a new name: Saul became Paul.
As a result, Paul’s view of time has been changed. He talks freely of his life in Christ in past, present and future terms: “But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”(13-14) Again, we find the call as in Isaiah to forget the past and its power over us and find our freedom in remembering what Christ has done, is doing and will do for us through his death and resurrection. Paul calls us to live in time as redeemed in Christ.
Our reading from John’s gospel draws many of these threads together. The scene is at Mary and Martha’s house on the eve of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It is a tableau of figures representing different ways in which time, life and death are viewed, with past, present and future moving in and out of the scene continually. There is Jesus, the life-giver, who will soon be dead; there is Lazarus, the man who was dead, but is now alive. Either end of the reading are accounts of the Chief priests plotting to kill both Jesus and Lazarus; they, like many, try to secure life by the death of others. The reference to Passover places this scene in the context of remembering the past; remembering the liberation from death and oppression through the life-giving blood of a lamb, a death leading to Life. In the words of John the Baptist earlier in the gospel, Jesus is “ the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the World.”
Central to the scene is Mary pouring the expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair in an act of intimate, self-forgetful and extravagant devotion. What frees her to make this generous, life-affirming offering which fills the whole house with its fragrance, as the prayers of the people did in the Jerusalem temple, pleasing to God? It is the fact that Jesus, the life-giver, is there with them. He embodies the life of God. For the same reason, Martha is content to serve him. They are forgetful of self as they remember Christ. Like Paul, they regard all things as loss compared with the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus their Lord.
Only Judas offers the jarring note. He is right; the perfume could have been used to feed the poor. But clearly, Judas could not have understood the meaning of the raising of Lazarus. He didn’t really know him. He didn’t recognise that he was in the presence of the Life giver, the transformer of time. Judas claimed to be focussed on this world and so applied Death-time values to Mary’s action. He was not self-forgetful in Jesus’ presence. But Jesus tries to expand his vision by telling him that Mary was anointing him in preparation for his imminent death, a death which will give life to the world, including the poor. But Judas didn’t understand. For him life was one damn thing after the other and then comes death.
While all the other figures in this tableau are secure in the presence of Jesus, even on the eve of his death, knowing that in his presence and even in his death, they find Life, Judas is not. Jesus’ presence and death do not lead to Life for him, but ultimately to death by his own hand.
In a moment we will be sharing around the table in Holy Communion where we celebrate our liberation from the chains of past, present and future. The sacraments are another key way the Church proclaims its gospel of the transformation of time through the death and resurrection of Christ. In him, the power of death is broken and life triumphs. Baptism represents our sharing in his death by being symbolically buried with him under the water, and then being raised to new life through the waters of rebirth. We die and rise with Christ. In Communion, we share in the broken body and shed blood of Christ in bread and wine, sharing in his death that we might live his risen life. It all happens in God’s time. We look back to the past, remembering the events of the first Good Friday and Easter Day; we look forward to the future when we will feast with him in the Kingdom; and in the present , we remember Christ as we die and live a day at a time in faith, hope and love in the power of the Spirit. All is being made new and for that we have all the time in the world. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Time, is your sting?
We will be gathering around a table having a meal where we will eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus. And in remembering him, we remember who we are in Him. We will share in his death –his broken body and shed blood – that we may also sharing in his resurrection from the dead.