This is the message that I presented at Walker Valley United Methodist Church for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 1 April 2001. The Scriptures for this Sunday were Isaiah 43: 16 – 21, Philippians 3: 4b – 14, and John 12: 1 – 8.
I find it interesting that the both the Old Testament and Epistle readings for today are scheduled for the final weekend of the NCAA Division I Men’s basketball tournament. Of course, since the readings were established a long time before the tournament was scheduled, it would be more appropriate to say that the tournament finals were held the same weekend as these two readings.
When I read Paul’s words to the Philippians and the commentary concerning Isaiah’s words, the immediate thought was that Paul was bragging about himself and Isaiah was bragging about the power and abilities of God. And if it seems like Paul is bragging, perhaps it is because he is.
But, as is often said, it isn’t bragging if you can do it. As long as you are able to back up your words with your actions, no one is going to complain. The problem in society today is that, more often than not, we speak loudly and hope that our bragging covers our faults.
Paul was prompted into this uncharacteristic outburst because others had come to Philippi claiming to be superior to Paul and offering a different version of salvation, one based on good works and not faith. We get a good insight into the character of Paul with this passage.
He was not the type easily intimidated by other’s claims. He was able to respond to the claims of others by identifying his own, rather impressive, credentials. He pointed out that, if there was anyone who had reason to believe in his or her own abilities, it was he. As a faithful child of God, Paul was a true Jew with impeccable credentials.
But just as quickly as he listed his credentials and accomplishments, he quickly listed his deficits. Paul quickly pointed out that all that made him what he was worked against him and that what counted the most was what he was trying to do. Paul reminds us that when we put our true and complete faith in what we do, we are very likely to lose sight of our goal.
Paul pointed out that the rightful goal for any follower of Jesus Christ was to be like Christ. Paul said (in verses 12 – 14),
"Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Jesus Christ has made me his own . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press onward toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ." (Philippians 3: 12 – 14)
When we put our faith in what we have, we quickly lose our relationship with God. It is important that we realize that while salvation is free, that doesn’t mean our relationship with God comes easily. There will always be a struggle.
But it is a struggle that we need not face alone. If we listen, we can hear God calling to us, offering words of hope, encouragement and ultimate salvation. When Isaiah proclaimed the message that God is doing a new thing, "I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert" (Isaiah 43: 19), he gave hope to all who life closing in on them in some way.
When we struggle to find our way, to find our purpose in things that can never provide the answer, we only need to know that God never will abandon us. Although we cannot know what the future brings, we do know that God will be there with us. When Isaiah wrote that God would provide the water in the wilderness and the rivers in the desert to give drink for His people, he wasn’t bragging about God; he was telling us that we can know that God will be there when we need him.
Lent is a time of personal journey, of renewing one’s relationship with God. It is definitely not an easy journey. A Christian life doesn’t just pop into existence overnight. It is constructed over time, piece by piece, moment by moment.
With each moment, with each piece that is added to this new life comes change and the difficulty arises when we fear the changes that occur in our life. It is those moments of change when we realize that we cannot stand up to the demands of life; we can neither tame nor conquer life. We find that our growth in Christ comes sometimes in conflict with the demands placed on us by society. It is that moment when we come to realize more fully that Christ needs to be a part of our life.
That is what happened to Mary. The Mary of today’s Gospel reading was the Mary Magdalene whom Jesus had earlier rescued from seven devils. Mary’s actions in the Gospel reading came because she was filled with a great gratitude for her own salvation and because she felt a greater need to express her love for Jesus.
Can we pay the price? That is an interesting question to consider this week. Like Mary and Paul and countless others before us, we need to realize that it isn’t what we do but what has been done for us. We don’t have to pay the price for Christ’s death and resurrection paid the price. Those who expect that what they do will bring them rewards will quickly find that the rewards are not there. But those who understand that our appreciation for the price that was paid by Christ will always show that appreciation in what they do and say "Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small; love so amazing, so divine, demands — yes, shall have — my soul, my life, my all." (verse 4, UMC #284)