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Sermon and Reflections For The Fifth Sunday in Lent - Year C
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
"And Love Is Its Name"
Barry Robinson

From time to time we feature "Keeping The Faith in Babylon: A Pastoral Resource For Christians In Exile", a weekly set of comments and reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary texts by Barry Robinson (Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada).   Barry describes his resource this way: "Keeping The Faith in Babylon... is a word of hope from a pastor in exile to those still serious about discipleship in a society (and, too often, a church) that has lost its way".   Contact Barry at to request samples and get further subscription information. Snail mail inquiries can be sent to Barry at the address at the bottom of this page.
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
Barry J. Robinson
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
"And Love Is Its Name"

     Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, 
     the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the
     dead.  There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served,
     and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 
     Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard,
     anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair.
     The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

The front of the unemployment office was all brick.  No one ever saw what 
happened inside. Next to it was a bakery with a plate glass window; and it 
was never a secret what went on inside it.  Every day everybody who passed 
by could see the baker "doing his thing".  And that is why people noticed.

The baker everybody liked to watch had taken to doing "unbaker-like" 
things.  Making sandwiches at lunchtime and giving them to people standing 
next door in the unemployment line.  Not charging anybody, just walking 
down the line and handing them out.  Never saying a word.

This was news.  So the local TV station decided to "scoop" it, sent in the 
mini-cam crew and a journalist to get the story.  "So, why are you doing 
this?" the young woman asked.

The baker just stood in the doorway to his shop like a giant jellyroll. 
"When I was twenty, I went hungry for a week.  Then a man who didn't know 
me from a hole in the wall took me in until I got on my feet."  He said no 
more.  He just smiled as if everything was now accounted for.

Whatever happened to that baker when he was twenty, from a Christian point 
of view he got the message.  He not only remembers what was done to him he 
does it in turn to others.  It is what John is intent on telling us this 
week: that there is a fundamental response to the story of Jesus; and love 
is its name.


John uses the twelfth chapter of his gospel as a kind of balance sheet. 
Jesus has returned to the home of his friends, Martha, Mary and Lazarus of 
Bethany; and it is not surprising.  Things have not been going well for 
him. The chief priests and Pharisees are hot on his trail for defying 
their traditions and challenging their authority.  Raising Lazarus from 
the dead has made them apoplectic with rage.

     …from that day on they planned to put him to death.  (Jn. 11.53)

The keepers of power have put Jesus on their "most wanted list" and will 
pay anybody good money for information leading to his arrest.  It is the 
beginning of the end. 

But here, in chapter twelve, John gives Jesus a break before what is to 
come.  Here the spotlight is turned on Jesus' supporters.  The people who 
believed in him are highlighted.  So the day before he enters Jerusalem 
for the last time, Jesus is back in Bethany with his old friends.  Two 
sisters, and their brother.  The only people named in the gospels as 
Jesus' "friends", which presumably meant two things: not only did he like 
to hang out with them, let his hair down and just be "a friend".  They 
also understood what he was all about.  They were on the same wavelength. 
They, of all people, believed in him.

The story, which appears in different guises in each of the four gospels, 
was in all probability a story about a woman who intruded into a male-only 
dinner party and washed and anointed Jesus feet.  In Luke (7.37) the woman 
was a sinner.  She sheds tears on Jesus' feet and then wipes them with her 
hair, which she has obviously let down (an undignified and, therefore, 
shocking thing for a woman to do in public).  She then anoints his feet 
with perfume.  In that story, you may recall, Jesus reprimands his host, 
an upstanding Pharisee named Simon, who has neglected the customary 
courtesy and neither greeted Jesus with a kiss nor anointed him with oil.

The author of the Fourth Gospel has taken this original story and set the 
scene creatively.  His favourite characters are there - Mary, Martha and 
Lazarus.  It immediately follows the story of the raising of Lazarus.  In 
John's story, Mary's activities are foreshortened.  She anoints Jesus' 
feet with expensive perfume and then wipes it off with her hair, rather 
than washing his feet and then anointing them. 

There are other differences worth noting.  Martha isn't the busybody who 
is reprimanded by Jesus for being so distracted with her chores (Luke 
10.40).  In John's gospel, she is one of the first to receive the 
revelation of who Jesus is and she is one of the first to declare her 
faith in him (John 11.27).  The community for which John was writing was a 
church in which women played a prominent role.  As a "beloved disciple" of 
Jesus, Martha was the spokesperson for that community.  She was the one 
who presided "at table", just as she does here in this story.  Her 

     "Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son 
     of God, the one coming into the world."

parallels that of Peter's for the Matthean community.  Martha, in other 
words, is the one responsible for the primary articulation of faith for 
John's community.  She stands in the centre of the church's life.

However, here in this passage, it is her sister Mary who is the centre of 
the action.  Mary, too, played a central role for John's church.  She had 
many followers who came to believe in Jesus because of her, John tells us 
(John 11.45).  But what is it about Mary that inspires faith?  That is the 
focus of John's heavily styled story.

She is a longtime friend.  He knows she loves him.  She knows he loves 
her.  Which makes what she does and the way she does it seem even more 
awkward.  She loosens her hair, then pours balm on his feet, not on his 
head, as was the custom.  A single woman caressing the feet of a rabbi. 
Even if he was a friend, it was completely out of the ordinary.  The fact 
that the balm she used was the kind that would have cost a small fortune - 
enough to feed a family for year, for instance - was even more bizarre.  
It was enough to make at least one of them present, Judas, complain about 
the extravagance.

     "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii 
     and the money given to the poor?"

From the standpoint of discipleship, in particular service to someone who 
championed the plight of the poor, it was a response that made a lot of 
sense then and still does today.  How often do we waste money on 
extravagant luxuries while turning an indifferent eye upon those who would 
have benefited from the expenditure?  We all know the answer to that.

Even Jesus' response makes us do a double take.

     "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it
     for the day of my burial.  You have the poor with you 
     always, but you do not always have me."

It was about as odd as what Mary did.  John wants us to believe that this 
one who was always thinking of others before himself was letting his needs 
come first.  Whatever he meant by it, whatever he didn't mean, there is no 
doubt that John wants us to look favourably on Mary's act, to see it as 
the act of a true disciple rather than a false one.  Not only John's 
deliberate criticism of Judas, suggesting he was a traitor (for whatever 
reason) and Jesus' uncharacteristic defense of a good work done to him - 
all of it is intended to state one simple fact: what Mary does is a sign 
of true discipleship.  Her actions reveal that she understands and 

     "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of 
     my burial."


It is not the sermons we preach or don't preach that matter.  It is not 
the words that we get to say or that we don't.  It is neither the 
theological formulations that we manage to articulate nor the scientific 
explanations that we provide.  It is not the confessions of faith with 
which we manage to impress others.  Nor is it the reasonably cautious, 
perfectly sensible, eminently logical rationalizations we provide for the 
ways we are not prepared to stand by those who suffer in this world simply 
for being who they are.

In the end, my friends, it does come down to that.  Whether or not we are 
prepared to demonstrate our love for and fidelity to the people who need 
to know that they do not go to their Jerusalems alone.  When that kind of 
prospect lies threateningly over such victims, when it becomes crystal 
clear what the world is capable of doing, it makes perfect sense to lock 
up our hearts and head for the cellar.  What doesn't make sense is to make 
ourselves look just as extravagant, just as vulnerable and just as 
generous as he was.  From the gospel's point of view it is the only 
response that counts and love is its name.


Isaiah 43.16-21 - The fact that Second Isaiah returns to this theme - a 
second Exodus, this time from Babylonian exile - so frequently tells us 
that it was a hard sell.  At the time he kept repeating the message the 
people had not seen any signs of deliverance and were far from hopeful. 
"Don't remember the past! Look ahead!" the messenger seems to be saying. 
"Can't you feel it?"  The God of old, the God who once redeemed you is 
about to do it again.

1.	In what ways do three religious communities - Jews, Christians and 
Muslims - legitimately claim to be the fullness of the people Israel 
in exile?
2.	What wilderness now needs to be traversed before people's misery can 
be relieved?
3.	In what sense do we need to stop remembering "the former things" and 
considering "the things of old" before deliverance can happen?

Philippians 3.4b-14 - The passage is both a confession and a diary.  We 
can guess that the opponents to whom it was addressed were Jewish 
Christians who insisted on keeping the laws of Torah, especially the law 
of circumcision.  Paul is adamant.  Trying to establish our identity and 
to find our security in such things as family background, social and 
religious status, and legal rectitude is an unfaithful and useless 
exercise.  All of these advantages that Paul could claim in spades finally 
became of no consequence.  What we see here is a spiritual consciousness 
turned inside out.  Ironically, having given up the quest for status, 
privilege and moral superiority, Paul, as a result of his encounter with 
Jesus of Nazareth, finds himself on a new quest.  Only this time it is for 
something he can neither get nor own.  It is only something that can be 
given to him as a result of complete surrender.

John 12.1-8 - It is likely that there was a single, original story from 
which all four gospel writers penned their own version.  The different 
interpretations each of them gives to the story are significant.  John 
places his story immediately after the story of the raising of Lazarus and 
before Jesus' final entry into Jerusalem.  It takes place in Bethany, both 
the place where Jesus' closest friends live and where the single most 
important event happens that Jesus enemies will use against him.  It is 
also during the time of Passover, which for this Evangelist is death time. 
The friends of Jesus preside at table, including Martha, which is possibly 
a reference to her prominent status in John's church.  But the focus of 
the story is on Mary and what she does that is so important.  Little 
explanation for the event is given, leaving us to draw our own conclusions 
about what John is saying about "true discipleship".

1.	Why do you think Mary did what she did?
2.	Why would it have been so important to Jesus?
3.	Do you think Mary thought about what she was doing or not?  Why or 
why not?
4.	Tell someone about a time when you did something spontaneously for 
someone else or had something done for you - that had a life and a 
power far beyond any intention or expectation that may have prompted 

HYMN  A Prophet-Woman Broke a Jar  (Voices United 590) 
Keeping the Faith in Babylon:
A pastoral resource for Christians in Exile
A publication of FERNSTONE:
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
All rights reserved.
Transformative Resources for the Human Journey
R.R. 4, Lion's Head, Ontario Canada N0H 1W0
Phone/Fax: (519) 592-4551

copyright - Barry Robinson 2004
            page by Rev. Richard J. Fairchild 2004
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these sermons.

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