The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C), 7 April 2019

April 7, 2019 | by Nathan Mattox

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Isaiah 43: 16-21 Psalm 126 Philippians 3: 4b-14 John 12: 1-8

Isaiah 43: 16-21

“I am about to do a new thing.” Process Theology perceives God as the “ground of novelty.” In this text, the novelty of God is even more pronounced than usual, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” God desires a forward focus, but oddly, the frame of reference is the exodus. In the Law, the commemoration of the Passover and Exodus are commanded to be kept in the memory banks of the people of Israel. So, why would Isaiah hear God commanding the people not to “remember the former things?” This shows that a forward focus also respects the things of the past. In process theology, God lures us toward the best possible outcome out of a universal comprehension of every action. God remembers the immediate past and the distant past, and in this occasion wishes to draw “the people whom I had formed for myself so they might declare my praise” to simply look for the occasion to praise God in the moment and perceive the “new thing.”  

Process Theology echoes the Bible’s account of a God who is in relationship with non-humans as well as humans. In this passage, Isaiah hears God praising the wild animals “who will honor me” as the provider of sustenance in the wilderness. God wishes the same kind of honor given by the human beings in the wilderness.


Psalm 126

Psalm 126 is titled “A Song of Ascents,” and as such was a pilgrimage song on the way up Mt. Zion. “Our mouths were filled with laughter….we were filled with joy.” It seems like today’s texts all portray something “filling” something else. This also forms a nice contrast with the “emptying” of the jar of nard in the gospel story, which “fills” the house. Paradoxically, a vessel can be most purely filled if it is first emptied. As Paul writes in the Philippians text and Mary demonstrated, it is by emptying oneself that one then becomes filled with the goodness of God. From a spiritual perspective, there is a correlation between emptiness and “being filled with the fullness of God.” It is a paradox that such emptiness and fullness coexist.

As the gospel text also has a corresponding pericope in Luke 7, we see the woman anointing Jesus’ head with oil and crying on his feet as she wiped them with her hair. This scene resounds with the Psalm’s mention of “those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy.”


Philippians 3: 4b-14

Though it’s not really the point of this scripture’s connection with the gospel text, it is interesting that verse at 4:8 describes quite the opposite as the beautiful fragrant nard that Mary uses to anoint Jesus’ feet. Here, Paul says, “But indeed I also regard everything to be loss on account of the surpassing knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord, on account of whom I have suffered the loss of all things; and I consider them shit so that I may gain Christ.” (For those process preachers who would like to keep our congregations on edge for a sermon, throwing in the most accurate literal translation of Paul’s words to the Philippians might be an interesting idea—especially to point to the contrast with the gospel text.)

As the theme of the day in Isaiah and this text explicitly point out, God is about doing a new thing. Here, in this “de-facto” last Sunday in Lent before the dramatic story begins to unfold in Palm/Passion Sunday and the events of Holy Week, it is a good occasion for us to attune ourselves to the “new thing” that is unfolding in the story of the lectionary. As Mary correctly intuits, that “new things” sometimes involves pain, heartache, and mystery. This is why she prepares him for this journey with a display of devotion and preparation for death. As Paul says, “I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead” (10-11). Identifying with Christ involves our own submission to the sacrificial love that is part of the perfect display of creative-responsive love. “Knowing Christ” is experiencing Christ and embodying Christ. Process Theology sees this embodiment of Christ as being shaped by the field of force of the event of Jesus’ impact on the world in such a way that we participate in his sufferings, death, and resurrection. In so doing, the confidence that we might otherwise put in the stable things of the world around us are replaced with a confidence in the trajectory toward which we are headed.

Like Isaiah hears God instructing his people, Paul reiterates, “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (14). This “straining” stretches our spirits and our very being. It is the kind of “straining” that provokes tears from Mary and consternation and misunderstanding from Jesus’ disciples, but which Jesus praises as “doing a beautiful thing” to/for/with/in him.


John 12: 1-8

The nature of Christ as “kenosis” is here exemplified by Mary, who spares nothing in her devotion to Jesus as she empties the burial nard on his feet and anoints the Messiah as “the whole fragrance fills the house.”  I’ve always enjoyed this detail about the story. The fragrance of the nard is a foreshadowing of the imminent death of Jesus. In other gospel portrayals, Jesus has to defend Mary from the scorn of the disciples — “leave her alone, she has done a beautiful thing to me.” The “beautiful thing” of the anointing of Jesus contrasts with the death foreshadowing of the nard itself. Indeed, preparing a body for the tomb is a beautiful thing and an ugly thing — this is the paradox presented here — a heartbreaking anointing. Mary is attuned to the meaning of Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem, and there is also a contrast between the discipleship of Mary and the discipleship of Judas, who is about to betray the mission of Jesus (or fulfill it). Mary is described as the disciple who spares no expense to show her devotion to Jesus. Judas is described as one feigning concern for the lack of social justification for such a display (contrasting the care for the poor with the expense allowed for devotion) while at the same time outed by the gospel writer as a thief. No doubt, the gospel writers would be quick to upend any merit to Judas’ concern by saying he was duplicitous anyway. But, the contrast between Mary’s extravagant devotion and Judas’ sneering criticism on behalf of social justice is an interesting paradox to tease out with a congregation.

In any case, the “pouring out” of Mary’s nard represents well the “kenosis” portrayal of Jesus the chapter earlier in Philippians, and as such, points to discipleship embodying the very essence of Jesus. She is perceiving the “new thing” that God is about to do in Christ, and is preparing him for that task that he will also tearfully accept with fear and trembling in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The “new thing” must first pass through death. The phoenix must rise from ashes. Birth involves birth-pangs. As the last Sunday that many of our churches will focus on the theme of preparing for the experience of Holy Week, it is a summarizing theme that this preparation is part of our “growth” of Lent. Newness often requires death.

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four children, a dog and a cat.