5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 12:1-8;
Isa 43:16-21; Phil 3:4b-14
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Rm8PHc1p_SY
DOING A NEW THING? WHERE?:
LEARNING TO SEE THE NEW THING GOD IS DOING
Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? – Isaiah 43:18-19
Let’s begin this morning by taking a pause. For five months now, you’ve heard me preach about revitalizing the Gospel message in terms of New Creation — namely, that God in Jesus Christ is not just saving a few souls of believers in the afterlife but working to save the whole creation. I just quoted the prophet Isaiah from 2500 years ago, proclaiming God’s new thing of renewing creation, extending even to the wilderness and the wild animals, and including the phasing out of armies and war. Do you perceive it?
That’s the question I’d like for us to pause on this morning for a moment. Do you perceive it? Isaiah wrote at least 500 years before Jesus. We proclaim that Jesus launched God’s project of New Creation for real on that first Easter 2000 years ago. So what’s changed? Where is this new thing? One of the main issues facing us and our children right now is climate change — and a war in Ukraine. Where’s this new creation launched on Easter. Do we perceive it? Come on now, Pastor Paul! Where have things changed?!
For a few minutes this morning, I’d like to step back to take in the whole picture and suggest an answer to the basic question we might formulate as: ‘If God has been doing a new thing for 2500 years, where is it? Where might we perceive it?’ And my answer begin with the universe itself. The latest calculations are that the universe is 14 billion years old, with the earth finally taking its current shape about 4.5 billion years ago. Life did not appear on earth until 3.5 billion years ago. Our first humanoid ancestors appeared between seven and five million years ago, with the more evolved human species about two million years ago. Our species, homo sapiens, first appeared about 300,000 years ago, with our brains evolving to its current larger size only about 100,000 years ago.
So my first answer to our question — ‘If God has been doing a new thing for 2500 years, where might we perceive it?’ — is that it involves the perspective of a 14 billion year-old universe. If God has taken billions of years to bring life and humanity into being, then doing a new thing might take 2500 years or more. 2500 years is a drop-in-the-bucket to 14 billion years. You see?
The next part of an answer involves that change in our human perspective itself. How and why did we go from seeing God making the universe in an instant a couple thousand years ago to seeing things from an evolutionary perspective of 14 billion years? In short, I believe that science itself is one of the new things God is doing. As recently as the Middle Ages, when plagues like the bubonic plague came along, we had to find someone to blame. That was our human way when confronted with big challenges, especially life-threatening ones like plagues. We blamed some Jews or witches for the plague, and we killed them to try to make it go away. In facing COVID these past two years, you can see how this blaming, conspiracy-theory, way is, unfortunately, still strong for us. I propose to you that science is one of the new things God is doing in guiding us into a better, nonviolent way of living together and facing such challenges as COVID and climate crisis — together.
And here’s the crux of the new thing I believe that God is doing that’s launched in the cross and resurrection: human beings evolved with a violent answer to the problem of how our violence constantly threatens to keep us from living together in peace. We’re seeing terrible, heart-breaking evidence for it right now on the news. I believe that God in Jesus Christ, in submitting to our violence on the cross, is showing us nothing less than a nonviolent answer to the problem of how to live together in peace. God in becoming human through Jesus is pioneering a new way to be human. The old way of violence isn’t sustainable. We can see it right now, so vividly, so tragically. It’s not sustainable!
So God is doing a new thing. Where do we perceive it? In things like science. Several Wednesday evenings ago, I read for us the Hindu story of creation. It is typical of ancient creation stories in revealing our violent human solution to violence. It tells the story of creation in terms of the gods sacrificing the primal human being, tearing his body apart into the various elements of creation. Genesis 1 and 2 give us already a very different, nonviolent version of creation. Science goes further. Instead of God instantly creating the earth by tearing a human being apart, science gives us the picture of God lovingly and playfully creating the universe through evolution freedom, letting new things appear randomly and guiding it eventually to the species, Homo sapiens, who would have the freedom of choice.
This is kind of why we get married, right? It involves the reality of love and freedom taking time. It takes a long time for two people to come together in freedom and bring out the best in each other. It takes a while. Because love doesn’t use force. Love and freedom take time! It’s much easier and faster when one uses violent force! It takes time when one lovingly allows for freedom. For us to begin to be able to see God’s way of creating through love and freedom is itself one of the bold new things God is doing.
Where do you perceive it? In things like the bold experiment of democracy that America has pioneered, even if we haven’t fully realized it yet. Former human arrangement involved empires using crushing, deadly force — things like the humiliating execution of insurrectionists on crosses — to get and maintain its ways. That’s how empires do things. The emperor, and the wealthy power-holders at the top, control the ways of human community by force. Democracy is a step away from that. In giving every person a vote — something which the United States has yet to achieve in fullness, meeting recent resistance to it — giving every person the vote begins to flip the power relations in a society upside-down. Even the masses of the people at the bottom of the wealth and power scales get to, ideally, have the same power to vote as those at the top. It is truly revolutionary. We have been seeing it almost on a weekly basis in Luke’s Gospel how God’s way of ruling in Jesus Christ flips the power relations upside-down. We’ve been singing it in Mary’s Song every Wednesday in Lent, how the might are brought down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up. This is what democracy can help to do, a powerful tool for evening out power relations. I believe it is one of the new things God is doing in Jesus Christ. We should do everything we can to try to protect and extend this experiment of democracy.
Let me end today with our Gospel Reading as an example of how to begin to read these things from the texts in a new way. It’s now six days before Jesus’ death, and he is having dinner with his disciples at the home of his friends, Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Everything around this passage suggests that the disciples are still thinking in the old way — namely, that the Messiah is about raising armies for a revolt in which they kick some Roman butt. The Messiah will unleash a violent force which will turn the tables on their enemies. But Jesus is about to show them something completely new: a Messiah who submits to our violence, and God raises him on the third day in order to say to us, “Stop! There’s a new way! There’s a new power, which is actually the same power which has been creating the universe for the past 14 billion years (which is why John’s Gospel begins with the Word of Love creating everything; John 1:1-5). It’s the power of love and freedom, a nonviolent power that allows for new things to come into being.”
And it will be Good News for the poor. Judas, somewhat ingenuously (as John tells us), brings up, “Well, she could have sold it and given the money to poor” — which ordinarily might have been a valid point. Except at this very point in the story. First of all, John doesn’t get quite as accurately, I think, the point as we read it in Mark’s version of this story (Mark 14:1-9). What Jesus says in response to Judas is based on a very important verse in Deuteronomy, where it says, “Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, ‘Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land’” (Deut 15:11). Jesus isn’t saying, ‘Forget about the poor right now, because they’ll always be around’ — which we sometimes incorrectly interpret him to say. Jesus is there to help us understand that, ‘Yes, there will always be those in any group who are weaker and more vulnerable, more in need of the group’s help. And that’s exactly why we have to begin doing things differently! Constantly opening our hands to the poor and the needy neighbor! And this woman is signaling to you the launch of this new way to do things right now. I’m about to take the place of one of those powerless and marginalized folks, and God will raise me up in order to show the true power in the universe.’
This is Good News for the poor — something we see again and again from the Hebrew prophets right on through to Jesus and the New Testament message! It’s Good News for the poor, because it’s a flipping upside-down of those power relationships. We prioritize serving the poor rather than the wealthy and mighty. Where do we perceive this new thing God is doing? In this past year, we can talk about the Child Tax Credit (compared to the tax breaks for billionaires a couple years before), which has reduced child poverty by huge, huge margins. Is that one of the new things God is showing us to do? I don’t know, but we can talk about it, right? It’s important to talk about it.
God is doing a new thing. Together, let’s learn to perceive it. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, April 3, 2022
YouTube version: https://youtu.be/Rm8PHc1p_SY