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Fifth Sunday in Lent

Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Readings: Isaiah 43:16–21; Philippians 3:3–14 & John 12:1–8

The tennis world was shocked last week by the news of Ash Barty’s retirement, especially at a time when she seemed to be so dominant. Of course this isn’t the first time that she’s retired from the sport. In late 2014, at only eighteen years of age, Barty made the decision to take a break from tennis to play professional cricket. She pursued this endeavour with the same level of commitment and enthusiasm that she had previously displayed in her tennis career. And upon returning to professional tennis in 2016, she once again exhibited a real devotion or zeal for the sport, which was a significant factor in her winning 3 grand slam singles titles, and also achieving the number 1 ranking in the world, a position that she enjoyed for two years.

There is speculation that at some point in the future Barty may turn her hand to another professional sport, such as golf, and many sporting commentators believe that if she does, she will also prove to be successful in that field. To be successful in any walk of life, requires the type of commitment, enthusiasm and zeal that Ash Barty has demonstrated throughout her sporting career thus far.

Arguably the most influential figure in Christianity, outside of Jesus himself, is the Apostle Paul. Those words that I just used to describe several of the characteristics of Ash Barty – commitment, enthusiasm and zeal – can also be attributed to Paul. In today’s reading from the Letter to the Philippians, you can almost feel the passion with which Paul writes to the members of the church in Philippi, warning them against the Jewish teachers who have followed after him trying to undo his work among the Christian communities that he established. Referring to these teachers as dogs, which was a derogatory term that Jews themselves used for Gentiles, Paul criticises them for their arrogance and superior attitude. 

Wherever Paul went proclaiming the Gospel, certain Jewish teachers would follow behind him and try to convince people not to believe what Paul was telling them. Paul had taught the Gentiles that we are saved by God’s grace alone, that salvation is a free gift from God. These Jewish teachers, however, believed that salvation could only be achieved by strict observance of the law (Torah), and that salvation belonged only to the people of Israel, who were God’s chosen people. 

The practice of circumcision was an external mark or sign of the special relationship that Jewish people enjoyed with God. In today’s reading, Paul says it is the Christians who are the circumcision, meaning that Christians share a special relationship with God, and that this relationship is not based on circumcision of the flesh, but rather on a spiritual circumcision, that is, a changed heart, mind and character. 

Paul says that he and other Christians have no confidence in the flesh; meaning he doesn’t believe that physical circumcision brings someone into a relationship with God. And he then points to himself as the perfect example of someone who should have confidence in the flesh. After all, he was circumcised when he was 8 days old, in accordance with Jewish tradition; he himself was a descendant of the tribe of Benjamin; he had been a Pharisee, schooled in the law; and he had been zealous for the law, as proven by his persecution of the earliest Christians. But he counts this all as nothing, as worthless. 

For Paul, knowing Jesus isn’t just everything; it’s the only thing. He knows that righteousness, that is being found in a right relationship with God, comes not from observing the law, but from the grace of God for those who believe in Jesus. Having once been zealous for upholding the law and persecuting Christians, Paul is now zealous only for Jesus, wanting to know Jesus and to share in the suffering and death of Jesus, if it means he can someday be resurrected from the dead with Jesus. 

Today’s gospel passage presents us with a scene involving Lazarus, whom Jesus had already raised from the dead, and who is representative of all those whom Jesus is going to die for. Six days before the Passover, which is the time when he will be put to death, Jesus is a dinner guest in the house of Lazarus in the town of Bethany. Martha, the sister of Lazarus, serves dinner for everyone while Mary, her sister, anoints the feet of Jesus with a large amount of expensive, perfumed ointment. We are told the ointment is worth three hundred denarii, which is the equivalent of a year’s wage. 

Judas Iscariot, who will betray Jesus, is one of the other dinner guests, and he bemoans Mary’s act of anointing as an excessive waste of money, saying that the money could have been put to better use in supporting the poor. John tells us that Judas isn’t really concerned for the poor, but rather he, as the one who kept control of the funds available to Jesus and his disciples, could have taken the money and used it for himself.

Jesus announces that Mary bought the ointment to use for the day of his burial. So by anointing the feet of Jesus, Mary is anointing Jesus for his burial which will follow his impending death on the day of Passover. Mary, like Ash Barty, and like Paul, is also zealous. She is zealous in her love of, and devotion to, Jesus.

The prophet Isaiah, encouraging the Israelites who are in exile in Babylon, writes of God’s zealous love for His people. He reminds the Israelites of how God brought their ancestors out of slavery in Egypt by making a path through the Red Sea, a path which He then closed over on the Egyptian army that was pursuing them. God will once again save His people, but this time He will make a path through the desert and return His people to their homeland. 

Through God’s zealous love for us, Jesus sacrificed himself on the cross so that all of us might be saved. Paul reminds us that salvation is open to us by the grace of God alone. All that we are required to do, is to open our hearts and minds to believe in Jesus. 

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