13 March 2016, Lent 5
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Canon Professor John Rodwell
Isaiah 43. 16-21; John 12. 1-8
I wouldn’t want to be thought a nosey-parker, but creative eaves-dropping, well that’s a different matter. Or so the writer Alan Bennett has taught us, catching other peoples’ conversation and, fashioning it into stories, thus telling us something true about human life. So it was that, rattling down Airedale, I couldn’t help overhearing two women who had got on the train at Bingley and sat down in front of me. Handbags on laps, they were discussing the respective claims of fashion and comfort on the various items of the female wardrobe: coats, frocks, hats (oh yes, hats, for they were, after all, women of a certain age) and, finally, shoes, when, after a thoughtful silence, their exchange was brought to a close by the following definitive statement: ‘Of course, with shoes, they do say that, in death, you take one size smaller’.
Now, this was a new one on me though, having attained pensionable age, I am becoming familiar with those diminishments which the passing years bring, what my GP touchingly refers to as the ‘natural history of the ageing male’. There is, for example, my gathering deafness (if only Rosemary would SPEAK MORE CLEARLY); the prospect of some anti-cholesterol pill in place of a generous helping of Wensleydale Blue cheese; and those occasions when, in full flow in the middle of a sentence, I come to an empty space where the name of the person standing in front of me used to be. It’s laughable still, though I know that it is no joke at all when these intimations of mortality accumulate in plenty. Then they take the edge off the enjoyment of life or erode the very personality of someone who was at one time real and close – a someone who is maybe myself, if only I could remember. And, yes, at death, slow or sudden, expected or a shock, there comes that final diminishment which leaves us all, apparently, smaller.
For those people who have no Christian belief, such a scenario can exhaust the meaning of the life we live, and eventually die to, and there’s nothing else to say, no matter how enjoyable and heroic has been our existence here on earth. Yet we Christians talk as if our faith brings some enhancement of ourselves, an enlargement of our vision, a journey of discovery which should progress, on and on, no matter how ordinary or burdensome our lives become … on and on, even beyond our death. For whatever kind of life it is that brings us eventually to our earthly close, death, we believe, will not spell an end to our worth or to our significance to God. Therein lies our hope for a fuller life beyond, a life that is larger still than whatever we have known here. ‘I am about to do a new thing’ says the Lord to the prophet Isaiah, as we heard just now (Isa 43, 16-21) … ‘I am about to do a new thing’ and this reassurance will resound even as we take our last breath.
In that Old Testament lesson, Isaiah proclaims a central truth about God’s relationship with his people, not simply that he has rescued them, but yet greater things he will reveal. ‘Don’t hark back’, they are told, ‘not even if you think things went well for you. Don’t hark back, for I am about to do a new thing … a way will open where you thought you were lost, springs will gush forth where you thought things were parched, refreshment will come when you are fainting with thirst. ‘I am about to do a new thing …’
In the Gospel today (John 12, 1-8), this promise of deliverance into a new and more expansive life comes down from the grand sweep of history to the scale of a human home, like yours and mine. And it is comes no longer from a God whose form and face were hidden from our sight less we perish at his presence but as a promise made manifest in flesh and blood like our own, in the person of Jesus. The Feast of Passover is approaching, the great springtime commemoration of God’s rescue of his people, when he brought them out of slavery in Egypt, and the crowds are flocking to Jerusalem to celebrate. Jesus is among them on the road but he pauses in the village of Bethany, to have a meal with his friends.
The two women, Mary and Martha, know very well God’s power to surprise, for Jesus brought out from his tomb their brother Lazarus, whom they mourned as dead already, but who came forth in the power of God having outgrown his grave-clothes. And to welcome to their table the one who brought such good news into their lives, Mary takes some costly ointment and proceeds to rub it into Jesus’ feet, wiping them with her hair. This intimate and extravagant tribute fills the whole house with a luscious fragrance. She could not have known, but the lovely ritual of anointing was like a prefiguring of Jesus’ own burial.
In the life and death of Jesus, whose way we follow again this Lent, we see God sharing our own predicament, as vulnerable humankind, prey to those intimations of mortality which are part of the fabric of our daily lives, prey as we are to disappointment, to rejection, to pain and eventually to a human death. The calamities that befall us in all innocence, the accidents and disasters that we experience in our lives, our failing and decline in this way or that, these are not a penalty and punishment that God exacts from us. They are part of the fabric of human life. It is a fabric which God takes upon himself in Jesus Christ, and thus shrunk to a span, he opens for us the way into the fuller life of his presence. At Eastertime, we see that, in habited by the divine, such human life as ours cannot be done to death.
To proclaim this human vulnerability made divine – through our prayers and in doing what we can to alleviate such loss – this is part of our calling is to give voice in the Church to the anguish and perplexity people feel when the dignity and meaning of their future seems to shrivel away. In this common humanity, we proclaim solidarity with all those who are themselves too powerless or too puzzled to make anything of their gathering frailty or loss, and with those for whom there are but few tomorrows left. Some such people are to be found among us every week and someday it will be us. Others we shall pass in the street, see in the newspapers or on television – or overhear on a train journey.
It is never God’s intention that we are diminished in the end, but that we should attain a full maturity, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ himself. Nothing we have learned of the power and richness of his love, while in the flesh, will be taken from us, nor diminished by our failings, nor by gathering weakness, not even by death. For in death, we shall take one size larger.