Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 7 April 2019.
I was never any kind of sportsman at school but one thing I do recall was that when going into school games, I had to change into the correct outfit.
The normal school dress did not apply and was not suitable for the new circumstances and environment. It would not have withstood the wear and tear of the games field, the gymnasium or wherever. And its aroma would have been something else.
No: the new environment and setting demanded different clothing. It is not as if by changing into the sportswear I was ever going to become any kind of athlete, footballer or whatever, but at least I had the potential to look the part.
In my case, that is just about all I succeeded in doing. I am sure however that all of you were far more accomplished in these things.
But there is something of this in our lessons today. In Isaiah, there is God’s promise of doing a new thing among His people. There would be streams in the desert and paths in the wilderness. What was wild and desolate would become a place of refreshment and there would be clear paths to follow instead of directional chaos.
Nobody would be lost and nobody would suffer from thirst in even the most hostile of places and the most unforgiving of climates.
God would do a new thing among His people, both for their sakes and so that they might live for His purposes and declare His praise.
And this living for the praise of God was not going to be about telling Him anything He did not already know: ‘Oh am I really – that’s awfully good of you to say so’. Rather it is to so live that they might indeed be open to His new blessings as they come day by day, and encounter by encounter.
It is when we wholly depend on God that He is most able to bless us and it is when we are most self-sufficient that we are also most closed to His love and His blessings.
The new thing that God was going to do among His people would tell a story that would echo down the generations and across the world.
But the people would have to be open to these blessings – and hence the picture of the desert – the only place where they might learn to be open to this new kind of providence.
In writing to the Philippians, Paul makes a similar point, for having listed the respects in which he might consider himself fortunate he then dismissed them as so much waste and refuse.
He would no longer rely on his heritage as a Jew, or his education as a Pharisee. He would no longer take pride in the marks of social or religious standing, but would set them all aside in his understanding of himself as a disciple of Jesus Christ.
He would make no claim at all for himself, relying only on Jesus Christ and in His suffering and death. These would be the only things that would give meaning or direction or significance to his life.
These were the things that would last forever while all other aspects of social position or education or influence would lose their meaning and their currency in the shades of death.
For Paul, life outside of Jesus Christ was meaningless and directionless. It was empty and futile, trivial and superficial. And none of it would last or have any meaning in the world to come.
For Jesus, His visit to the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus was tinged with the foreboding of the cross. Here He would have a short personal rest before the pace of everything accelerated.
It is shortly after this account that John gives us the Farewell Discourses, which themselves lead into the account of Jesus’ passion.
And it is here that Mary comes and anoints Jesus’ feet with costly ointment – worth a great deal. And instead of objecting to this extravagance Jesus accepted it as a final act of dedication before His death.
It was that sense of giving the best and the only into the service of God, and doing so beyond recall. The only objector to this was the one who was already pilfering the common purse and would go on to betray Jesus. And he was using the poor as an excuse for his existing resentment.
But for all of us there is that sense of letting go of one thing in order to be able to gain something else. Some of us have already made life choices, now far beyond recall and may wonder whether it was worth it.
For each of us the thing abandoned will be different – and some may yet be challenged to do more. But where this is done in love and trust, in dedication and commitment, then the Lord will in no way despise it or reject it.
For this also was our personal offering, beyond price and beyond recall.