Sunday 21st March 2010
Year C, The Fifth Sunday of Lent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Isaiah 43:16-21
John 12:1-8

Do we suppose that there really is anything like a complete surprise? When we walk into the dining room on our birthday with a zero and are greeted by a blast of congratulation, can we really honestly say that we didn't suspect what was coming; and wouldn't we have been rather disappointed if it hadn't happened. That's the trouble. We are so clued up about the past and the future that the present is populated by memory, entitlement and anticipation but this takes the savour out of life. How can we really be jolted with pleasure or shock?

Perhaps for a previous generation the great event, the end of the Second World War, was not so much a surprise as a relief; the social historian David Kynaston records that other than burning lights and lighting fires, people didn't really know what to do. Conversely, the great event of our generation is surely the collapse of the Berlin Wall some 25 years after it was constructed; this was, perhaps, the great event which corresponds with Isaiah's Messianic promise: "I will make all things new".

Such surprises are, as I have noted, the exception; it is usually only with some historical perspective that we see what has changed radically. There are great events like the beginnings and endings of wars and revolutions but the big changes usually creep up on us, inevitable but either speeded up or slowed down by conscious intervention: fire, wheels, printing, anaesthetic and antiseptic, electricity, air flight, have all crept across the globe and into our consciousness, often dismissed as frivolous novelty, only to dominate. So many developments promise and fade.

Thus, it is hardly surprising that an anointing in a private house in Bethany did not set the Jewish world alight, well, not immediately. For most of the 20th Century, New Testament scholars thought of this anointing purely in the terms in which Jesus signified its purpose of pre-figuring his imminent embalming but more recent scholars, notably Richard Bauckham, see the event as the ritual anointing of the Messiah, the event which, when news got out, triggered the final, fatal intervention of the Jewish religious authorities.

Such an interpretation is not as arcane as it might seem. King Saul was anointed by the priest and prophet Samuel in private (1 Samuel 9:25-27; 10:1) before he was publicly crowned (1 Samuel 10:24); David was brought from his flock to be anointed by Samuel in a private ceremony (1 Samuel 16:11-13); Solomon was hurriedly anointed in private to head off a coup by one of David's other sons, Adonijah (1 Kings 1:38-4); and Jehu was hurriedly and privately anointed King of Samaria on the instructions of the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 9:1-6). All these events served to underline the central axiom of the Jewish state, that it was theocratic, that what mattered was the direct connection between God and the king. It was, then, not at all surprising that after the Babylonian exile the former line of theocratic rulers became the prototype for the Messiah. Ultimately, when Jesus stood trial, the language of king and prophet were inevitably fused. This Messiah-King was to make all things new but, in the manner of most reformers, making all things new meant bringing back the past.

What Jesus the Messiah signified, however, was totally new. Saint Paul, in a reflection of Rabbinic symmetry, portrays Jesus as the Second Adam, in yet another depiction of the future in terms of the past; but we should not be distracted. Jesus the Messiah made all things radically new but this could not wholly be seen by the participants at the dinner party except, perhaps, Mary and, externally, the religious authorities. If we look at the evidence we see a man who: claims to have a special relationship with YHWH; has brought Lazarus, one of the diners, back to life; and is anointed. Admittedly, the anointing is of his feet rather than his head and it is by a woman but, still, it makes you think. Well, anyway, it made Mary and the religious authorities think!

What does it make us think? What does the Messiah mean to us? In order to tackle this big subject we tend to break Jesus into bite-sized pieces: prophet, priest and king; teacher and healer; shepherd and Paschal Lamb; victim and victor; but the typology that gives us most trouble is that of Saviour.

What do we mean by Saviour? From what and for what are we being saved? These are pivotal questions posed on the day that is traditionally the beginning of Passiontide and, if we don't have some grasp of the answers, the next few days will not make much sense except as a tragic narrative with a happy ending.

From what are we being saved? Well, essentially, from ourselves, from the wrong choices we make when we choose to behave contrary to our nature by turning away from God when we were made to love God and each other. And this fits with the answer to the second question, for what were we saved and the answer is the same, for ourselves.

We were saved from ourselves for ourselves. Now this may seem rather egocentric but that is because of our puritan heritage which thinks that the essence of piety is self-denial whereas the essence of piety is actually self affirmation in Jesus. As a teacher Jesus had plenty to say about the way we should treat other people but the vast bulk of his teaching was about how we should live in ourselves and what faithful living means in the context of being the children of God.

Any sense of the egotistical in this analysis is surely taken away when we contemplate the mystery of how we are God's children created to love our Creator and each other. The Messianic purpose of Jesus, in making all things new, was to give us a concrete clue, in himself, to the infinity of the love bestowed upon us and, wondrously, the infinity of love available within us to bestow on God and each other. The real surprise is to see ourselves for the first time, not as pinched and poor creatures who fail but as God's agents, equipped to establish the Kingdom of love, right now, here.