Isaiah 43: 26-21. If the sea represents the forces of chaos in Hebrew iconography, a path or way through it - the “new thing” prophesied in verse 19 – should resonate with Christians as being the way of Christ – the water in the desert, “the well springing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)
Philippians 3: 4-14. Paul explains how knowing the power of Christ’s resurrection has made everything he once prized “rubbish” in comparison and provides the impetus propelling him forwards in his ministry.
John 12: 1-8. In an act of extreme gratitude for the raising of her brother Lazarus, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with extremely expensive perfume. There is a parallel here with the foot washing at the last supper indicating loving service and gratitude towards Jesus outweighing present concerns for the poor voiced by Judas. The gospel is at pains to point out that this concern was actually self-interest because he stole from the common purse rather than any genuine concern for poor people.
Putting on our spiritual glasses it becomes easier to understand this passage because both the sea and the desert wilderness represent the chaos and barrenness of life as it is experienced by all too many of us.
The sea has symbolised the forces of chaos in the Bible. The creation story for example is of God hovering over the waters and bringing life and order out of it by dividing the waters. Similarly Jesus walking on the water symbolises God’s power and authority over the world’s unruly and chaotic appearance; And the desert wilderness speaks for itself as a dry and inhospitable place for people to inhabit.
But the message from both scenarios is the same. God will do a new thing by providing a way or a path through the sea and the desert and in the desert, God will be as refreshing water that keeps us alive and refreshed. Water transfigured from something dangerous and threatening to something life giving and essential to life.
This reminds me of Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman at the well in John’s gospel where He offers her water that will become in them “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (John 4:14)
In that same exchange Jesus says those immortal words “God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must do so in Spirit and in truth” (V. 24)
Words which I think fairly describe Paul’s understanding of faith and order in our second reading. Everything Paul had known before is reduced to what the NRSV describes as rubbish but actually Paul uses the word “dung”.
His whole religious life had been turned upside sown by the earth shattering revelation that this man who had been crucified on Good Friday had appeared to him in a vision on the road to Damascus and Paul understood with every fibre of his being that this was the new way, the path through everything that life could throw at us and would lead you through the wilderness to an oasis that would connect you directly with God.
Paul had met with the reality of God on that road and he came to see that Grace was the defining feature of God’s relationship with humanity. He no longer had to earn God’s love and neither do we.
The only qualification needful to make God’s grace effective in our lives was faith. Not circumcision, and not slavishly following every dotted “I” and crossed “T” . Paul had found freedom in Christ. He had been overtaken by his reality, which he describes as the “Power of his resurrection”.
The power of that resurrection is the living water that gushes up to eternal life made present to us by God’s Holy Spirit and Paul wants to know more of it.
For here’s the thing. Often Christianity is preached as the answer to all of our problems and questions. Paul doesn’t see it that way. Actually it upset everything he had ever known and believed and set a completely new set of questions in front of him.
And that is just the same for us. Christianity provides some specific insights into the nature of God and the nature of humanity and our future after death but that opens up a completely new set of questions about how we can and should respond and about some of the deeper questions of disease, wars and disasters etc.
Rather than answer the questions we have about life it simply changes them.
It is just before this extract we have today that Paul says in Philippians “continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling for it is God that is at work in you, enabling you to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2: 12-13)
One major response to the power of resurrection life is exhibited by Mary, the sister of Lazarus, who Jesus raised from the dead. Not the same resurrection as Jesus because Lazarus was in a sense just resuscitated only to die again, but God had demonstrated his command over life and death as a prelude to the miracle of raising his Son to eternal life as an eternal sign and source of power for us all.
Mary responds in what is a mixture of devoted worship and loving service reminiscent of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet when she anointed his feet with oil and dried it with her hair.
This is as fine an image of true discipleship that you will find anywhere. Humility, Love, Devotion and Service.
And there is always an honoured place for that even as Jesus points out a truth we all know that in fact the poor will always be with us, even if in just a relative sense, and Jesus knew he was near the point of being crucified so the devoted love was being directed to the right place.
In a conversation with Trevor Jones yesterday he noted that we are always being asked to be generous with our time money and talents but generosity only emerges from first being grateful. When you are truly grateful you can be truly generous.
Our show our gratitude today in worship and communion with the God who has provided a way through the choppy waters of life, through the desert of emotional and spiritual desolation to find our peace with God.