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Fifth Sunday in Lent

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

I first took my daughter Chloe, and my twin sons, Connor and Lachlan, to the Australian Open tennis tournament in 2008. That was the beginning of what became a family tradition. Each year since then, we have gone to the tennis together. I don’t know how much longer it will last though, because as the size of the family keeps increasing, what with all of my grandchildren being born, it is going to be more difficult to do. But it has been something that we all enjoyed, and looked forward to each year.

I’m sure all of you have your own family traditions. Our church here, at St Andrew’s, also has its own traditions, one of which we are about to follow soon, when we hold the Dawn Vigil at the Maribyrnong River on Easter Day. 

The Merriam–Webster dictionary defines a tradition as “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behaviour”. Something that fits this description perfectly is the Jewish observance of the Sabbath Day, a tradition which has existed for thousands of years. Jews are commanded to remember the Sabbath; but remembering means much more than merely not forgetting to observe the Sabbath. It also means to remember the significance of the Sabbath, both as a commemoration of creation and, as a commemoration of the Jews’ freedom from slavery in Egypt.

In Exodus 20:11, after the Fourth Commandment is first instituted, God explains, “because for six days, the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them, and on the seventh day, he rested; therefore, the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and sanctified it.” By resting on the seventh day and sanctifying it, Jews remember and acknowledge that God is the creator of heaven and earth and all living things. Jews also emulate the divine example, by refraining from work on the seventh day, as God did. If God’s work can be set aside for a day of rest, how can they believe that their own work is too important to set aside temporarily?

In Deuteronomy 5:15, while Moses reiterates the Ten Commandments, he notes the second thing that the Jewish people must remember on the Sabbath: “remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord, your God brought you forth from there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the Lord your God commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”

You might wonder what the Exodus has to do with resting on the seventh day? Well, it’s all about freedom. In ancient times, leisure was confined to certain classes of people; slaves did not get days off. Thus, by resting on the Sabbath, Jews are reminded that they are free. But in a more general sense, the Sabbath frees them from their weekday concerns; from deadlines and schedules and commitments. During the week, people are slaves to their jobs, to their creditors, to their need to provide for themselves; on the Sabbath, they are freed from these concerns, much as their ancestors were freed from slavery in Egypt.

In this morning’s first reading, from the Book of Isaiah, the prophet reminds the Jewish people who are in exile in Babylon, of the Exodus event when he writes, “Thus says the LORD, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick.” He reminds them of the great things that God did for their ancestors, but in the next sentence he tells them “not to remember the former things, or consider the things of old”. This seems to be contradictory to commemorating the rescue of their ancestors from freedom to slavery in Egypt.

But it’s not a contradiction at all, because what Isaiah is really saying, is that what God is about to do, by bringing the Jewish people back from exile in Babylon, will overshadow anything that God has done in the past. Of course we know that God will do something far more significant than that. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God reconciles all of humankind to Himself, and frees it from slavery to sin.

And it is that event, to which today’s passage from the Gospel of John alludes to. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom Jesus has just raised from the dead, anoints Jesus’ feet with a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, and wipes them with her hair. Mary is anointing Jesus’ body for burial. Jesus himself confirms this, when he tells Judas Iscariot that Mary has kept the perfume for the day of his burial. 

Mary’s abundant generosity, is in contrast to the highly critical objection that Judas raises, in his question of why the perfume wasn’t sold and the money given to the poor. The fact that Judas is introduced as “he who was to betray him” (v. 4b), indicates that social concern is not the motivation for his concern. He is not interested in the poor. He is a thief, and has taken from the money box that he is supposed to administer. 

Mary’s generosity reflects her love of Jesus, and her actions in anointing Jesus, are recognition of  the significance of Jesus’ oncoming death. Paul also acknowledges this in his letter to the Philippians when he writes, “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul knows that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God has reconciled all of humankind to Himself, and freed it from slavery to sin. And unlike the tradition of the Jews, which believed that people could only be reconciled to God through observance of the law, Paul believes that this happens as a result of faith in Jesus Christ. For he writes in Philippians, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”

Paul knew the Jewish law and traditions better than most. As he tells the Philippians, he was circumcised on the eighth day after his birth; which was in accordance with the tradition. He was a member of the tribe of Benjamin; one of the twelve tribes of Israel. He was a Pharisee; a teacher and protector of the law. But he regards all of this as nothing in comparison to what he has gained in knowing Jesus.

So today’s readings serve to remind us we that have been reconciled to God and freed from slavery to sin through the death and resurrection of Jesus. All that we need to do, is have faith in Jesus.

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