Lent 5 C Give Up Being a Good Christian for Lent

The lessons for the Fifth  Sunday of Lent are:

Old Testament      Isaiah 43:16–21

Psalm                    Psalm 126

New Testament     Philippians 3:4b–14

Gospel                   John 12:1–8

Today we delve deeply into the mystery of Lent, the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ, and the mystery of being a follower of Jesus. It is the mystery of giving up in order to receive back again.

During Lent we give up things, right? Well, Jesus tells us to give up the life we love, and hate our life in this world to keep it for the life of the age—the “eternal life.”

It’s all about a seed. Jesus helps us picture this mystery a few verses after our Gospel reading by thinking of the green that we see, rising from beneath the soil and the snow of these past months—full of new life. Yet, in a way it had to die in a way, and be buried before it could emerge.

So it is with eternal life. Abundant life. New life. (John 12:23-26)

And our Gospel reading for this Sunday sets us up for just that.

All four Gospels tell of a woman anointing Jesus. Mark, Matthew and John all say it is for his burial. Luke and John point out that his feet are anointed.  So, here, John wants to stress this isn ‘t a common courtesy anointing. And it’s not a royal anointing or anointing of Jesus as Messiah. Those would be an anointed head.   No – this is all about death. is anointed by Mary not for earthly kingship——but, by anointing his feet, she prepares him for death and burial.  

Yet, ironically, John stresses throughout his story of Jesus, his burial will be a time of glory, because he is like a grain of wheat which must fall to the earth and die in order to bear fruit.

So our little scenario at the beginning of chapter 12 sets the whole glory of death and life in motion:

We know of the six days of creation from Genesis. Now, John tells us we have the  six days of New Creation. This story happens six days before the Passover when Jesus dies. So this may be John’s way of telling us that this week of his death is the week of Jesus glory because it is the week of a new creation and new life.

It is Bethany, where Lazarus was revived for new life—a powerful sign of that new creation in Christ.

Mary lavishes costly perfume on Jesus feet and even more lavishly wipes them with her hair. She is emptying herself. If Mark is right and this bottle of ointment was worth more than 300 days wages, it was probably a life’s savings for Mary.

This act disturbs Judas, the betrayer, and he indignantly protests: “Why was this costly perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?”

So, here is another irony:  Judas seems to be advocating what Jesus repeatedly charges people to do in Luke’s Gospel: sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.

Another irony, which John frankly points out, is that Judas has an ulterior motive. John tells us he doesn’t care for the poor. He cares for money.

A final irony—this time back to Mary–is that giving up her costly perfume makes Mary a participant in the coming new creation. She finds life by pouring out her life’s costliest possession. She saves her life by giving it up.

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But let’s, for a moment, take special note of what Judas is doing. He is about to do a couple of things morally wrong. He will betray an innocent friend. And he is a thief, and so he wants to steal. So, to give himself cover for these terrible things, he deflects. He accuses Mary and the disciples, and perhaps even Jesus  of a moral lapse: “Why are you wasting what could feed the hungry and clothe the naked? And why are you disobeying Jesus’ very command?” He displays moral outrage to throw sand in people’s faces. Judas weaponizes the ethical. He deflects and hopes no one will notice the evil he is up to.

Such a tactic is much in vogue today, as it has been for a long, long time. We learn it in the school yard when someone catches us lying and we say, “No, you’re the liar.” Or we double down and say, “No, you’re the  big fat cheaty rat around here!”

You see what Judas is doing? For him the good isn’t the solid rock you build your life on. No—it’s the rock you throw at others.

Morality is no longer something he practices—the good he humbly aspire to—but it is the handful of sand he throws out there to blind people to the truth of what he is up to.

It seems some people have gone on to perfect Judas’ tactic. “Don’t think Vladimir Putin has invaded a sovereign nation, and is murdering thousands and uprooting  millions? No, Zalinsky is the dirty rat! Putin is using his special military operation to stop nasty Nazis, and he’s just bombing  biological weapons labs. And Trump and his allies were not trying to overturn an election. They were stopping the deep state from stealing our nation out from under us. And silencing the teachers from leading conversations about racism, sexuality, or equal rights, is the only way to stop people who are trying to rob parents of the right to teach right and wrong to their own kids. The ends justify the means. I can be harsh toward you because you are the real immoral one.”

I appeal to you who read this, for the love of God, notice when people are hurting or killing, or attacking the very best traditions and institutions of our country, or denying people’s rights and respect, then giving themselves cover by saying, “Hey we’re just doing this to stop the bad, immoral stuff those other guys are doing.”

The point is, the people who work hardest to point out the speck in  the eyes of others are very often trying to distract you from the huge log in their own—and Judas is a prime example.

Another way we can look at this whole affair between Jesus and Mary and Martha and Judas is to see it as a lesson about what it means to be true followers of Christ.

Martha is all about doing.

Lord knows the followers of Christ needs doers. Think of Jesus travelling the countryside of Galilee and Judea with at least a dozen followers, but likely dozens more if you count women and those 70 disciples Luke tells us about. So, when  he visits Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, where does Jesus go? To  Martha’s house. And who makes sure this motley crew can wash off the dust and have something to eat?  Martha.  Jesus needs Martha.

And where would our congregations be if it weren’t for the people who clean and maintain the heating and cooling and prepare the bulletin and play the organ, and sing the songs, and bring goodies for coffee hour? Followers of Christ have to be busy.

Judas is all about the poor—or at least that’s what he claims.

And surely, this is the Lord’s will—not to blame the poor for their poverty, and not to put your trust in your trust-fund–but to use your wealth to alleviate the suffering of the poor.

And where would St. Luke be if it said lots of pious words and prayed for the poor—but did nothing but spend money on itself?

What if the church on earth cared only for its comfort and forgot that the Lord desires mercy.

What if the church forgot that fasting is to “loose the bonds of injustice, share bread with the hungry and welcome the homeless poor into our homes,” as God has told us through Isaiah? We wouldn’t be the church, would we?

And the reason this is our true fast is because we need the hungry and homeless of the world. We must care for the poor in order to keep alive the Circle of Life God has placed us in. We need people who are hurting today because we will be hurting tomorrow. And if we have a nice car to drive we need people who build the roads we drive on.

But it is Mary who shows us that dying with Jesus is also necessary.

Mary shows us that doing hard work, and helping the poor, as important as they are, are cannot be all there is to being Christ followers.

I use the term “Christ followers” because the word Christian just isn ‘t good enough today, is it? Indeed, this country is crawling with people who call themselves Christians, but who don’t seem to have a clue about what Christ stands for—what he calls us to do with our lives—what he has done to empower us.

Jesus has told us. Pick up your cross. Lose your life. Die to live.

Where would St. Luke be today if it weren’t for this. We are called to work hard, to give for the poor. But we are called also, and even more fundamentally, to die and rise. Without this, Martin Luther said, even our greatest good deeds would be mortal sins.

Mary signaled this when she poured out costly perfume—perhaps the most expensive thing she had in the world, onto Jesus feet. When she prepared him to walk into Jerusalem, in her heart she walked on with him to confront his haters, give of his life, to be buried as a grain of wheat, so he could be raised by God to bear fruit for the world.

We do our dying and rising every day of our lives when we renew our baptisms.

Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:3-4)

Martin Luther reminds us that we live the significance of baptism when, every day, we die to our old, sinful selves, and rise to live newness of life.

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In the light of this exchange in Bethany we can say two chief sins that cloud our lives are sheer busyness and the weaponization of our ethics.

Both busyness and taking the moral higher ground are ways we show that we care more for own images than for the lives of others. We love our old selves that we must let die.

And it is only by shifting our trust from self to the dying and rising Christ that we become free.

We learn that we need no reputation of success or hard work.

We need not be morally superior.

We are alive in God’s love alone so that we can truly care for the poor, and every living thing.

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So, Jesus tells us, if there is one thing we should give up for Lent, it is life itself. We do it by dying to our old self and rising to a new one every day.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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