Lent 5C Sermon (2001)

5th Sunday in Lent
Texts: John 12:1-8;
Phil. 3:4b-14; Isa. 43:16-21


Things are not what they appear to be in this morning’s gospel lesson. St. John has to fill us in on the background to make sure that we know that things aren’t what they appear to be.

First of all, Judas appears to be right. Jesus had been in ministry for three years, and everyone knew him to be on the side of the poor. Mary’s coming in with that expensive bottle of perfume, and washing Jesus’ feet with it and her hair, is a bit like having Mother Theresa over for dinner with your best china and silverware and then serving her the most expensive caviar. Judas was probably only saying what everyone else was thinking: ‘How embarrassing! How out of place for Mary to do that for Jesus!’ Judas is right to say what he said. Or at least he appears to be.

It reminds me of one of my favorite episode’s from Garrison Keilor’s Prairie Home Companion. Pastor Enquist of Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church is heading on a wonderful trip with his wife from the frozen tundra of Minnesota in January to the tropical setting of Orlando, Florida. They are going for a rural pastor’s continuing education event, but it is also a trip of a lifetime. Pastor Enquist has worked very hard for many years for the people of Lake Woebegone Lutheran Church, and he’s never had a trip like this to spend with his wife.

They are all set to leave the next morning, the morning after the monthly council meeting, when long-time council person Val Tollefsen speaks up. He notes that it is really a shame, the pictures they have been seeing of all those poor children suffering in the drought in Africa. He wonders if there isn’t something they could do for them. Maybe they could find some extra money to send them, some deadweight somewhere in the budget, maybe travel or something like that. Silence. After a long pause, Pastor Enquist says, “Well, the Mrs. and I could always give up our trip to Orlando.” Again, there’s a long pause, with Pastor Enquist hoping and praying that someone will jump in immediately and say, “Oh no, Pastor Enquist, you and your wife deserve that trip! You have worked so hard for us through all these years. You’ve been there for us whenever we’ve needed you. No, you deserve this trip.” But, instead, after a long pause, Val Tollefsen simply says, “O.K., Pastor, if that’s the way ya feel about it.” And that’s how Pastor Enquist lost his trip to Orlando for he and “the Mrs.”

On the surface, Val Tollefsen appears to be right. That money would better be spent giving it to the poor, right? But underneath the surface, those of us who know the wonderful characters of Garrison Keilor’s imagination, we know that Val Tollefsen has always been a nemesis of Pastor Enquist. He’s probably been a nemesis for every pastor. He’s the kind of person that lives with a lot of resentment and so tends to make life difficult for others. No, Val Tollefsen didn’t really speak up out of feelings of great charity. Things are not what they appear to be on the surface.

Likewise, Judas. What he says seems right enough. But St. John makes sure that we know his heart, too, that things aren’t what they appear to be on the surface.

And there’s something going on at an even deeper level, isn’t there? Because Jesus’ response to Judas is absolutely off the wall. First on their list of expected responses, might have been something more like Pastor Enquist’s capitulation, ‘Yea, Mary, you’d better save the rest of that and do like Judas says.’ What Jesus does say is what I’m sure no one else in the room expected to hear, not even Mary. It’s not that he defended Mary’s actions. It’s the reason that Jesus gives for defending them: “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” Even Mary’s ears must have perked up at that point: ‘I bought it for what?! For your burial?!’ No, things aren’t what they appear to be in this story. For Jesus knows something. Jesus knows something that no one else in the room knows. Jesus knows that he himself is about to give much more than three hundred denarii. He is about to give himself. Things are definitely not what they appear to be.

In recent years, many biblical scholars have scoffed at the idea that Jesus knew such things, that he made such predictions about his death. But I’d like to lift up a time in our more recent history that things weren’t quite what they appeared to be. In 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. had already accomplished many things in his long battle for civil rights. Together with so many others, they had already accomplished many things. But he knew there was still a long ways to go. The poor and downtrodden of this world weren’t going to go away tomorrow. There was still a long ways to go.

And, quite frankly, he was tired. On Saturday night, April 3, 1968, he had arrived in Memphis, TN, for another big showdown, to fight for the rights of sanitation workers on strike in that city. He was tired; he was even feeling under the weather. So, at first, he decided to stay in the motel that night from the planned rally at Mason Temple, Church of God in Christ. He began listening to rally speaker Ralph Abernathy on the radio. But as he listened to the overflow crowd that had come out on a night despite severe storm warnings, he changed his mind and moved over to the Temple.

When he finally took his turn, to the great delight of the crowd, and with thunder and lightning crashing in the background, he began by saying:

As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” — I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the promised land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there.

He went on to travel through time, pausing periodically to touch the refrain, “But I wouldn’t stop there.” No, he wouldn’t stop until:

Strangely enough, I would turn to the Almighty, and say, “If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the twentieth century, I will be happy.” Now that’s a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land. Confusion all around. That’s a strange statement. But I know, somehow, that only when it is dark enough, can you see the stars. And I see God working in this period of the twentieth century in a way that men, in some strange way, are responding — something is happening in our world. The masses of people are rising up. And wherever they are assembled today, whether they are in Johannesburg, South Africa; Nairobi, Kenya; Accra, Ghana; New York City; Atlanta, Georgia; Jackson, Mississippi; or Memphis, Tennessee — the cry is always the same — “We want to be free.”

And then Dr. King went on with what they needed to do there in Memphis.

But there was a different tone in his voice, a somewhat different look in his eyes, if you’ve seen the tapes of this speech. But you probably only notice these things watching in retrospect, knowing what happened. Looking back we can better see that things weren’t quite what they appeared to be, just another civil rights rally. Because after beginning his speech about being glad he had been part of this time in history, he ended his speech with a foreshadowing of his death. He talked about the time in his life, years before, that a woman had stabbed him, leaving the knife blade next to his aorta, so that just a sneeze probably would have killed him. No, he was glad to witness and be a part of all the wonderful things that had happened since then. And he ended his speech with these words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

The next morning, of course, April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot to death by James Earl Ray. Did he know?

Did Jesus know he was going to die? More surely than even Martin Luther King, Jr. And it’s because Jesus knew something else. He knew the truth about us. He knew that things aren’t what they appear to be with us. He knew that our problems with sin run deeper than it appears on the surface. He knew that for Val Tollefsen of Lake Woebegone and for the rest of us, that we live with resentment toward others in ways that need regular venting off somewhere. And he knew that that process of venting off is represented in practices of sacrifice, and that he himself would become a Lamb offered to us by God. He knew what Caiaphas the high priest had said only a few verses earlier in John’s Gospel: “It is better for one person to die than the whole nation.” In other words, instead of our resentments boiling over into a bloodbath, it’s better to let it out on one person. That’s what the old form of sacrifice is all about.

But things aren’t what they appear to be with us, and Jesus knew that the logic of sacrifice runs even deeper than those occasional events of venting resentment, important as they are. Jesus knew that the logic of sacrifice had woven its way into the very fabric of our societies. We operate, for example, as if the poor will always be with us. In fact, we count on it. We believe falsely that there isn’t enough to go around, so that somebody will always be left out. I say falsely because we know today, for example, that the Great Plains of Val Tollefsen all by themselves produce enough grain to feed the whole world. But we persist in a politics of leaving someone out, of sacrificing someone. No, the problem runs much deeper than whether Pastor Enquist gives up his trip to Orlando or not. It begins with each of us having a conversion to trust in the God of Jesus, a God who provides even when there’s only apparently five loaves and two fish to feed five thousand.

And Martin Luther King, Jr. believed in that same God of Jesus. He was a disciple. And that’s how he could believe in someday seeing the promised land, even though he could very well see the sacrificial darkness of present things. He knew that that darkness was no longer what it appeared to be, either. Yes, he had come to know the darkness of things like systemic racism and poverty. But he had also come to know the grace of Jesus Christ, the beginning of a new creation. Just when a person sees deeper into the darkness, in what we who normally sit in the darkness don’t even perceive as darkness, we learn to also see the far surpassing light and life of Jesus Christ. Things are not what they appear to be. First, we can’t even notice the darkness in which we normally sit. Then, as we begin to see the darkness, we also come to see the light which shines in the darkness and will not be overcome by it.

We once again travel that road in the coming week, entering into the darkness of our Lord’s Passion, only to come on the other side with the bright light of Easter. May we be disciples like Mary, faithful in our worship of the one who came to give us light and life. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Zion Lutheran,
Racine, WI, April 1, 2001

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