Psalm 126, Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Two weekends ago Julia and I went back to Ohio for a few days. It was fun. We had some goals, some things to get done, but it was a good time. We stayed with friends of mine from the church youth group growing up, we visited some of my friends and Julia’s family, and we drove around and looked at the houses I grew up in, and the parsonage we lived in when we were in Dayton. It was a nice chance to re-visit the past and brush off some old memories.
I often wonder what it would be like to live in Tipp City again. That’s the little town I grew up in, and it’s about ten miles north of Dayton, Ohio. It’s a small town, about seven thousand people probably, but the interstate is right next to it and it’s easy to get to a lot of different places. Whenever I visit Tipp I like to drive around and remember who used to live in what house, and what business used to be where, and I like to look at real estate magazines and dream of living there again. That’s especially tempting when I see the prices of real estate compared to here.
So if I moved back to Tipp, would it be as good as I remember it? Probably not. Most of the people who were my best friends when I was in High School have moved away physically, and I can tell from Facebook that many of the ones that are still there have moved away emotionally or culturally or politically. The houses that are so charming on the outside? Chances are that they need a lot of work. Yes, but with the lower real estate prices I’d have plenty of money to get that work done! No, because along with lower real estate prices and lower cost of living would come a substantially lower salary. Costs are inflated out here, but salaries are higher so that we can keep up with those inflated costs.
Dayton is growing north, and Troy (the next big town up the road) is growing south, and the schools I went to all need a ton of repair and air conditioning installed and that’s only if they decide not to tear them down and build new. In a few years Tipp City could easily be this little small-town historical district surrounded by the typical suburban sprawl and strip shopping centers and big box stores. You can see it starting already.
We post all our sermons online, and I know some of my Tipp City friends read them. Let me just say for them that I am not dissing Tipp City, and that this doesn’t mean Tipp wouldn’t be a really good place to live. I think it probably would be. Especially because Tipp City still has breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches. It just means that it would not be the same as I remember it. The city isn’t the same, the people aren’t the same, and the times and the surroundings aren’t the same. I am caught between the realities of two sayings: “Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” and “You can’t go home again.”
That’s the theme – the idea of past, present, and future – that runs through all four of our scripture readings this morning.
Let’s start with the past. Isaiah refers to the past of the people of Israel when he talks about how the Lord made a path for the Israelites through the sea, and that Pharaoh’s chariots and horsemen who pursued them were destroyed. The first verse of Psalm 126, our call to worship, talks about “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dreamed.” In Philippians, Paul refers to his own past, to his own sterling credentials. As the theologian Krister Stendahl put it, Paul is reminding them that he took all the honors courses. His birthright, his enthusiasm, his successes, his righteousness under the law – Paul says that no one can beat his history, his resume in any of these areas. In the beginning of the reading from John there is a quick reference to the past: “Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Each of these passages touch on the past.
However, none of them stay there. None of them are living in the past. Isaiah even includes a warning about that in verse eighteen: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” The past is worth visiting, but you don’t want to live there.
So we turn to the present. It’s interesting that neither of the Old Testament passages talk about the present. Isaiah skips from the past to the future, and Psalm 126 kind of alludes to the present when it says that some are sowing in tears and others are going out weeping, but that’s it. Other than those two references the Old Testament scriptures don’t really talk about the present circumstances of the writers.
Not so with Paul and Jesus. In Philippians Paul dismisses his discussion of his fantastic credentials with this statement: “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.” Whatever good things I did before, whatever awards I won or diplomas I got or fame I had obtained does not matter. What matters now is Jesus Christ.
Not just that, but in verse eight Paul says that everything, not just the awards and the accolades but everything is loss, everything is trash because of knowing Jesus Christ. Nothing besides Christ matters in the here and now, says Paul.
Our reading from John has a focus on the present as well. When Mary Magdalene starts to wash Jesus’s feet with expensive perfume, Judas says that she should have sold it and given the money to the poor. It says the perfume is nard.
Nard is a big deal in the Bible. The full name is spikenard, and the Asian version of it is grown in the Himalayas. There is an American spikenard, but that’s a different plant. Spikenard is mentioned a dozen or so times in the Bible, and was used as a perfume, a sedative, a flavoring for food, and as an herbal remedy. It isn’t hard to believe that nard, since it was grown so far away, would be very expensive and would require a single woman living under Roman occupation to save for quite a long while.
Judas says that Mary should have sold the perfume and given the money to the poor. John says that Judas didn’t say this because he cared about the poor, but that Judas was the treasurer, and wanted more money to go into the treasury so he could skim some off the top. Jesus says no to Judas, and Jesus shifts the discussion from the present to the future.
Jesus says that this nard, this perfume was not bought to be used here; it was to be used to anoint his body after his death. Jesus says that this present moment is one that points forward, one that looks ahead to his death, which then leads to his resurrection.
Just a quick side note. That part about the poor will be with you always? That’s not a rebuke of Judas for his saying we should help the poor. Of course we should help the poor. It’s a rebuke of Judas for his selfishness, for Judas’s wanting to sell the perfume so he can take a cut of it. It’s another way of saying that Judas does not really care about the poor.
And with that one sentence from Jesus, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial,” we have moved into a future orientation. Jesus is obviously referring to his death and resurrection. The Psalm, our Call to Worship, points ahead with a prayer for those who sow in tears, a prayer that they will reap in joy. Perhaps like Mary Magdalene herself, who on Easter morning went to the tomb in sorrow, found the body missing and collapsed in tears, only to be confronted by the risen Christ of whom she then joyfully told the disciples.
Paul in Philippians, having discarded his gaudy past to embrace Jesus Christ in the present, continues on towards his future; a future where he learns more about Christ and his resurrection and suffering through suffering a death like Christ’s. Paul presses on toward the future, even knowing that future may contain death, because his home is no longer in the law. It is now in Jesus. Paul keeps his eyes on the prize, and Christian tradition says that Paul was beheaded by Nero in Rome about thirty years after Jesus’s death and resurrection.
Do you remember Isaiah? The prophet who told us to forget about the past and skipped over the present to look ahead to the new thing that was about to be done? God, speaking through Isaiah, says that “I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches; for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise.”
That brings us full circle in a way, doesn’t it? Not to the beginning of the sermon or to the beginning of the service; that brings us full circle to the beginning of Advent back in November and December. That brings us full circle to the birth of Jesus, the little baby in the manger. “I will make a way in the wilderness.” How often did we read about John the Baptist saying that, or something like it? How often back in November were we looking ahead to Christmas, the birth of Jesus? And now here we are in March, reading a scripture that told us to forget the former things, but that points us back to Christmas, which itself points forward to Easter.
The birth of Jesus at Christmas means nothing without the death of Jesus on Good Friday, and the resurrection of Jesus on Easter Sunday. The past, the present, and the future, all pointing at one another in a cycle of birth and death and resurrection.
I always get excited driving back to Tipp City about the time we hit Springfield. That’s when it starts to look familiar again, and I know there’s less than an hour until I’m back in my hometown. Then when I leave my hometown, I always get excited again when we get to the American Legion Bridge, and it all starts to look familiar again, and it’s less than an hour (usually) until I’m back home. You were excited heading into Christmas, weren’t you? Sure – that’s the trip into the past, into the beginning of Jesus’s story on earth. Now it’s time to get excited again because we are coming home again. Coming home soon to the risen savior. Coming home to Christ, who creates a new heaven and a new earth. Coming home to Jesus, the ruler of the kingdom of love and mercy and justice that we live in now, and that we seek to sow in all the world around us so that in the days to come the world may be able to reap with joy. Amen.