Scripture Reading: Isaiah 43:16–21 | Psalm 126 | Philippians 3:4b–14 | John 12:1–8
“…forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)
There’s a lot we can say about fear: fear for our world… for ourselves and those we love. But this morning I want to specifically talk about our fears for the future of St. Luke’s Church and our Parish… fears shared by many Christian Churches these days.
Looking back a few decades, it all seemed like a very different situation: pews were full; Sunday School programs were packed; the younger generation seemed like a pretty solid foundation for our institutions. As we know, that’s not the case these days… for a whole lot of reasons. Some that we are responsible for, and others outside our control. For those of us who love and believe in the Church’s significance, this situation is a frightening one, and we naturally wonder where things are headed… and what we can do to perhaps head in a different direction?
Saying all this stuff out loud is important. We need to name our grief for what it is. And it’s ok to be sad that the story of St. Luke’s, and many congregations, has not turned out the way we had expected.
But as important as it is to acknowledge our disappointments, and to try our best to turn things around, there is the real danger before us of choosing to follow our fears… our fears of future loss… our fears of failure… anxieties which can only leads us away from God’s self-giving love, if we choose to focus instead on protecting ourselves.
But through our Scripture readings today, we are invited to follow a different path… to not be led by our fears, but to face the future with a heavenly hope. One which can help us gives thanks for God’s past mercies and grace… help us faithfully persevere amid the challenges that each day brings, and open us up to take our part in the New Life God is bringing about.
In our first reading, we heard from the prophet Isaiah a message of hope from God for Israel at a time when it seemed the future of their community was in jeopardy. They were facing tough times in the shadow of their powerful pagan neighbours, in large part because they had been unfaithful to the LORD their God. Yet alongside the words of warning that the prophet Isaiah offered came an invitation to turn to the Living God and trust in His saving love. Isaiah 43 begins this way, with verses 1-3:
“But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.”
These promises and assurances from God don’t just spring out of nowhere. They call to mind the many amazing things the LORD has done for Israel: redeeming them from slavery, providing for them in in the wilderness, establishing them in the Promised Land, and preserving them through countless catastrophes… even ones they had brought upon themselves.
But the hope that God is offering in Isaiah Chapter 43 is not simply found by dwelling on the past, or by desperately trying to fix their present problems all by themselves... Rather, it is to be found by looking to the LORD in active faith today… to turn to the One who has been faithful all along, who is with us, even in our present troubles, and who calls us to trust Him with our future, and the New Life that He is bringing about. Isaiah 43:18-19,
“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?”
The prophet points us forward to anticipate not a return to the glories of the past, but to the “new thing” God has in store… something far beyond what Israel, or you and I, could have imagined: God’s New Life, His New Creation breaking through at last.
Many centuries later, this ‘new thing’… this New Life from God was finally coming to light in Jesus Christ, God’s Son. And in our reading today from the Gospel of John, we catch a glimpse of a His rescuing hand at work in the life of one of His followers… bringing something to life that breaks the awful power of fear: grateful, self-giving love.
This passage takes place in the town of Bethany, at the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus, the now-famous friend of Jesus who had died, and whom Christ had restored to life after four days in the grave.
This is a significant point that we really need to pause and take note of: Not long before, there had been absolutely no natural hope left for Lazarus. He had no future at all, apart from the power of Jesus Christ to step in and set him free from the grave. But Christ had come… and so Lazarus lived again.
In a nutshell that is the Christian hope: Christ has come; in Him we live.
Returning to Bethany, we find Mary, the sister of Lazarus, offering a lavish display of gratitude to Jesus: she pours out on His feet precious anointing oil, then wipes it with her hair. It’s a beautiful moment. An example of humble, self-giving love… a striking picture of worship… filling the house with the fragrant offering of thanks and praise, in response to what Christ has done for her.
But there was a problem: after all, this gift was a huge waste. It was not at all practical… as Judas Iscariot points out. This act was not going to help feed the poor. Or draw more people into Christ’s growing movement. Surely these resources should have been used much more efficiently.
On the other hand, as the author, John, points out, this gift was also not going to feed Judas’ own selfish desires either… it did nothing to satisfy his greed… a temptation that rests on the lie that we don’t have enough.
How often do we let our own selfish desires and fears of not having enough lead the way? Lent is a great time to seek to become more aware of our own false motives, and consider how we too might need to let go of them.
Even so, Judas raises an important point: the practical matters of God’s kingdom work do matter, after all! The poor need to be clothed and fed. The Good News needs to be shared with our world, and we do need to invite other people to join us in pursuing it. And there are times when it really does seem like we don’t have enough to do what we’ve been called to do. Times when we can easily find ourselves simply acting out of fear.
But the WHAT of the Church, the things we are called to do in the present as God’s people, flows out from the WHY… from the Good News of what the Living God has already done in the past… from His ongoing presence with us even now… and from the hope of a future that only He can open up for us to share in. It makes perfect sense to be led by fear when troubles come if we are all on our own. But the Good News is that in Jesus Christ God our Saviour is with us.
St. Paul speaks to this same basis for hope in our reading today from his letter to the Philippians. If hope for the future of God’s people rested on our human efforts and success, than St. Paul had plenty of reasons to be confident in himself: as far as Israelite heritage, religious learning, and sincere devotion were concerned, St. Paul had it all. Or in his words: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more” (Philippians 3:4). Yet this same man had also experienced tremendous difficulties, struggles, persecutions… the loss of everything. And yet he did not despair, and let his life be led by fear.
For St. Paul saw himself as sharing in the sufferings of His Saviour… Jesus, God’s own Son, who had not grasped onto His identity as the Almighty One, but who emptied Himself, and took up the mantle of humble service instead. More than that, He took up the cross, embracing for our sake the loss of every conceivable sign of success… abandoned by both young and old, by the rich and poor alike… Jesus gave up everything, His body and blood… as an act of self-giving, faithful love for His Father in Heaven, and for a world of lost sinners like us.
The spectre of the cross was a truly frightful situation… the Gospel authors tell us Jesus dreaded facing it Himself. But even so, He was not led by fear, but by the love of the Living God. He could let go of all else as long as He stayed true in the love of God… a love that loss, betrayal, humiliation and even death could not overcome.
And so, following in Christ’s footsteps, St. Paul could now let go of all else too: let go of his past success… let go of his expectations for the present… led by the love of the Living God to pursue wholeheartedly the New Life that, in Christ, the LORD was now bringing about.
“…forgetting what lies behind” he says, “and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:14)
Today we’re invited to follow in St. Paul’s footsteps, as he followed Jesus our Lord: Not to place our hope in retrieving the glory of the past, but giving thanks for the good things God has done… grieving the loss of what has come to an end, and then placing the past in the hands of our faithful Saviour.
And we are invited not to be led by fear in the present either: but to faithfully share in the sufferings of our Saviour… honestly bringing our fears to Him in prayer, just as He calls us to! Remember the words of St. Peter, “Cast all your anxiety on [God], because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7).
Are we concerned about empty pews? Then let us pray, but not just that they may be filled for our sake, but that God would also help all of us to bring His Good News and self-giving love to those who may never darken our doors. Let us learn to pray for them just as earnestly.
Are we worried about small Sunday schools and the absence of younger generations? Then let us pray, but not just so that more young people will come here and make us feel more secure. The younger generation is not our future. We can’t place our hopes on them to save the Church… or for that matter, we can’t put that kind of pressure on their shoulders! What they need is not more burdens… what they need is to experience the freedom, and peace, and joy, and fellowship, and love, and New Life in Jesus Christ! That is why we want young people here… to share the Good News and God’s gift of love with them.
Otherwise, we’re not seeing them as they are… as beloved children of God. Otherwise, we’re just making them into a means to an end… to serve our own desires.
I’ll say this again: The future of the Church is not about having more young people. But the future of the Church invites young people into God’s story, just like the rest of us… because the future of the Church is God’s gift to us all in Jesus Christ. It’s the gift of freedom where once there was only fear. Joy where there once was sorrow and grief. Purpose and meaning where all once seemed hopeless. The future of the Church of Christ is New Life where there was none… a future that only the Risen Lord Himself can guarantee.
Back to John Gospel again. It once seemed that Mary had lost everything in the death of her beloved brother, but Jesus had done what no one else could do and brought them new life again. In thankfulness and praise, Mary offered back to Jesus a beautiful gift of love… an act of worship… a longing to bless the Lord, and share her love for Him.
When Judas protests, Jesus defends Mary’s so-called ‘wasteful’ gift. She was responding with all of her heart to the mercy and grace she had received, and her gift of worship and self-giving love became a part of the story of God’s salvation… preparing the way for the cross, and the New Life that Christ won for us there.
We are invited today to bring all our fears to the Lord and leave them with Him. And instead, to be led by the life-giving love of Jesus… to respond like Mary to His mercy and grace with worship, thanksgiving, and praise… like St. Paul to share in Christ’s sufferings and loss for a time, but filled with the hope that in Christ alone our future is on solid ground... pursuing our deepest calling as the Church to make known His self-giving love in all we say and do.
Love, not fear needs to lead us forward as a Parish. Love, not fear which is ours to share in Jesus Christ.
So let us bring our fears to our Heavenly Father, and pray that His saving will be done in our Church, and press on in hope together towards the heavenly calling of God in Jesus Christ. Amen.