Based on Isaiah 43:16-21, Philippians 3:4-14, John 12:1-8
Last July I was driving back to Arlington one Sunday afternoon with Ms. Hope in the back of the Subaru. She was not quite 5 months old at the time, and still learning to be a good passenger. She started creating a fuss while I was driving in a congested area. She was making so much noise that I turned around to try to speak directly to her and ended up rear-ending the SUV ahead of me. My act of spending too much time looking behind instead of forward resulted in us having to purchase a new vehicle.
Distractions from our past can result in a similar fate when we focus too much or too long on them. It might be an indiscretion, a heroic moment, a lapse of judgement, a moment of throwing caution to the wind, an ethical lapse, a time of great joy or success, maybe a longing for the “good old days”. Whatever the thing is in our past, it can latch on to our present and keep us from looking forward and living into the future. A healthy and whole life is lived in the present and in the future – not in the past. This is because we have a loving God who continues to create today and into the future. What God has done in the past is important to remember and learn from (so we don’t repeat the mistakes of our ancestors) but is not so important that we continue to drag it along with us into the future.
Our scripture passages this week remind us of the need to continue to look forward while we celebrate what has been done in the past on our behalf by God through Jesus. This is possibly the most important lesson of Lent each year. This is also an important lesson each month when we come to share in Holy Communion which was established for us so long ago. Jesus knew that He had to keep moving forward towards Jerusalem and the conflict with the Jewish leadership, but that he also needed to leave something behind for us to remember. Let us go to God in prayer and thanksgiving that Jesus always lived looking forward…
The Apostle Paul is writing to the believers in Philippi about his understanding that while he could have rested on his worldly laurels as a pious Jew of the Tribe of Benjamin, a Pharisee, and righteousness under the Mosiac Law – his encounter with Jesus changed this worldview. He realized that all those worldly accomplishments were, in his words, “rubbish” compared to “…knowing Christ Jesus my Lord….” Paul notes that he must constantly “press on” toward the goal of knowing, “…Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him…” Paul knew he could not live looking backward, but that in order to gain righteousness of faith in Christ, he needed to continually forget his past and “…press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus….”
Isaiah is telling the Israelite people about God’s promise to protect and restore those who had been exiled. God reminds them through the prophet that, “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King….” Our reading begins with a recitation of the Exodus miracle where the Egyptian army was destroyed in the Red Sea. Then the important new teaching comes when God tells the people, “…Do not remember former things, or consider things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?…” God reminds the remnant of Israel that the Exile will end and that the people will be restored in Jerusalem. God continues to create God’s preferred future – it is up to them to be faithful and live looking forward to that day with hope.
Jesus is in Bethany with his dear friends Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the Disciples. In this story in John, the anointing of Jesus’ feet happens among friends by a dear friend. Judas Iscariot takes offense that the pungent ointment worth a year’s wages was not sold and given to help the poor. He is living in his present and worldly mind. He did not understand, as Mary seemingly did, that Jesus would not be around much longer and she needed to live in the moment to honor and consecrate him as her Lord. Mary was living looking forward, aware of what Jesus had said in the past about what must happen to him.
We are in the latter stages of Lent now – this is our fifth week of traveling once again the path through the Cross with Jesus. Jesus has set his face towards Jerusalem and arrived in the neighboring town of Bethany. Next week is Palm/Passion Sunday which kicks off Holy Week. Two weeks from today we will be celebrating the joy of the resurrection of Jesus and the realization that all Christians since that first Easter have been tasked with living their lives as Easter people. This means that we are supposed to live looking forward as a new creation which exists without the fear of death because death is no longer the final answer. We seek to live into the fullness of the reality of Christ now, as the Apostle Paul writes, understanding that our giftedness from God is our starting point in our spiritual growth and journey, not somewhere to complacently rest and believe ourselves to be good enough or have achieved enough to get into heaven when we die.
Mary, the prophet Isaiah and Paul are all living looking forward – neither avoiding the challenging reality of the present, nor living in the glories of God’s accomplishments in the past. The reason for this is that God is a God whose name is “I AM” – a God of the now. God’s love continues to create newness out of seemingly dead-end times. Mary anoints Jesus because she intuits that He will not be with her much longer. The prophet tells the exiled Israelites that though they are in diaspora now, God is creating a future where they will be released and restored. Paul tells us believers that we must also be prepared to discover anew that truly knowing Christ means simultaneously knowing the power of his resurrection (the part we like) and sharing in his sufferings (the part we do not like) so as to be conformed to the likeness of Christ’s own death and thus to gain the resurrection.
We find ourselves looking forward to and becoming excited about the pomp and joy of Easter – this is as it should be in response to the miraculous creating of God. However, we must also look forward to the reality that between now and then stands the cruel reality of the Cross. Resurrection cannot occur without crucifixion – new life cannot happen without death. For us Christians, our spiritual journey must always look forward to dying to our worldly selves and our achievements so that God can create in us a new thing. We cannot live looking backward, because we will be wrecked by what lays unseen in front of us. Scripture teaches that everything old must pass away. Therefore, we must choose to relinquish the hold that the past and our egos have on our lives and instead look forward to growing into the likeness of Christ. In these final weeks of Lent, let us learn to live looking forward, expecting God to create something wonderful and new in each and all of us. Amen and amen!