Pastor Sherry’s message for April 3, 2022,
Scriptures: Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:4b-14; Jn 12:1-11
This week, I attended two clergy meetings. The first took place Tuesday evening. George and I were present at Good Samaritan Church, Tallahassee, to learn the Conference’s response to the potential split over the issue of marrying and ordaining LGBTQ persons. George will tell you more about it in days to come; but, because of the latest variation of Covid, and the problems Methodists worldwide were having getting Visas into the US, it was decided to move the General Assembly meeting to vote on this issue to 2024. The second meeting was an Anglican one held at St. Peter’s Cathedral in Tallahassee, Thursday and Friday (As you know, I was ordained an Anglican but—with the consent of both bishops–I serve y’all here at Wellborn United Methodist Church). At the second meeting, we clergy renewed our ordination vows. Then we sat through a 2 day teaching on how to recognize signs one is headed toward clergy burn-out; and what to do to prevent what they are now calling “moral failure”—when a clergy person “crashes and burns” or falls apart in their ministry.
In his sermon during a worship service, my Anglican Bishop, Neil Lebhar, told of his recent encounter with a Ukrainian woman named Nina. He had been asked to stop in Poland, as he returned home from a trip to Jerusalem, to ordain Nina to the deaconate. As most of you know, to be ordained in both the Methodist and the Anglican denominations, it is necessary that a Bishop lays hands on you (usually your head) and imparts the Holy Spirit to you for empowerment for ministry. Nina is attached to Christ Church, an Anglican church in the Old City of Jerusalem. However, she had been home to teach in a Bible College in Kyiv, and got trapped by the war. By the grace of God, and a few miracles, she was able to leave Ukraine on the 5th day of the war. She had waited with hundreds in the cold for a train. The first one filled up before she could get on, so she waited in the cold another 3 hours for a 2nd one. Meanwhile all those waiting were told not to eat or drink anything because the train would lack sanitary facilities. Finally, she boarded the 2nd train for Poland. The usual 3 hour trip took 12, again with no food or water.
Nevertheless, Nina made it to Poland and Bp. Neil was able to ordain her. He said he was struck during the service by the contrasts presented between celebration and sadness. Nina, and her few witnesses, were filled with joy over her ordination. She had safely made it out of a war zone. She connected with Bp. Neil in Poland for the ceremony. A Polish Baptist pastor, Kristoff, offered to host the service at his church. And her boss and another female deacon from Jerusalem were also able to witness the event. But she was also grieved that none of her family could attend; none of her home church family from Ukraine could be there either. Like so many refugees from the war, she had left her country with just what she could carry in one suitcase. The few people at the service were delighted for Nina, but most were also very aware the odd juxtaposition of joy in the midst of devastation.
As God would have it, our Scriptures today also reflect this contrast between celebration and sadness:
Our Isaiah 43:16-21 passage briefly recounts the Red Sea crossing of the children of Israel. With the ocean before them and the Egyptian army at their backs, the former slaves appeared to be trapped! Even though Pharaoh had agreed to let them go, he later changed his mind when he considered he was losing a free labor force of 2 million persons. However, God miraculously saved them, while the Egyptian chariots and army met their watery grave (celebration and sadness).
Later, in the wilderness, God miraculously provided them with water (vv.21-22) The wild animals honor Me, the jackals and the owls, because I provide water in the desert and streams in the wasteland, to give drink to My people, my chosen, the people I formed for Myself that they may proclaim My praise. The wilderness is a bleak place; living things can and do die there (often one can find skeleton bones of those who didn’t make it). But God was doing a new thing (v.19) He provided enough water for 2 million people to slake their thirst. And He intended to send Jesus into the world at a much later date to redeem us from sin. Imagine their relief at escaping the Egyptian army and their delight over God’s provision of water—fear and sadness, then celebration.
Psalm 126 celebrates the end of the Babylonian captivity. The folks from Judah, the Southern Kingdom, had been carried off to Babylon due to their idolatry. Despite numerous warnings from God through the prophets, they had been spiritually unfaithful to Him. So he allowed the Babylonian King Nebuchanezzar to carry them off to Babylon in 578BC. But this psalm celebrates their freedom. After 70 years as prisoners in that country, they are set free to return to the Promised Land. In verse 3, the people rejoice The Lord has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy. The background, however, is one of sadness: of the thousands of Israelites deported, only 4,000 decided to return home. We can only assume the others had settled into life in Babylon—by then a part of the Persian Empire—and decided not to return to their homeland. The returnees celebrate their release, but they also experience sadness at leaving some friends behind, as well as revisiting their devastating ordeal when they arrive to find Jerusalem and the Temple in ruins.
This theme of celebration and sadness is even present in chapter 3:4b-14 of Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul first lists all the ways he was both qualified and competent to be a high-place-enemy of Christianity. He had a near perfect Jewish pedigree. He had become a respected and influential Pharisee. And, he was trusted by the Sanhedrin to pursue and arrest new Christians, followers of what they first called “the Way.”
But after his dramatic encounter with Christ, he realized all those things that he had previously viewed as important—when compared to following Jesus—were of no worth at all. When Paul came to Christ, those credentials and credits were lost to him. We could say he was somewhat like Nina, who had to leave everything behind to dedicate her life to knowing Jesus (vv.7-8) But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.
The Bishop knew this is what Nina felt. Despite any sadness related to the loss of her family or her country, she rejoiced in being anointed into God’s service. The same is true for you and for me, isn’t it? Maybe we gave up carousing and cussing, doing whatever we wanted, living out our dream for our lives until we realized that that did not work well for us. Living a Godless life, or a life in rebellion against God, was really a life of grief and sadness. True peace and joy come from loving God and trusting that He loves and forgives us. True peace and joy come from turning our lives over to Jesus Christ. For many of us, our conversion experience constituted a voyage from sadness to celebration.
The Gospel lesson, John 12:1-11 paints this contrast most vividly. Shortly after resurrecting Lazarus, Jesus circles back around to visit at his home. Lazarus calls for a celebratory meal in Jesus’ honor. Martha offers her gift of hospitality as she cooks and serves a meal. Mary worships Jesus by anointing His feet with costly perfumed oil. Some scholars believe she may have purchased it earlier for her own burial; but six days before the Cross, the Holy Spirit moved her to anoint Jesus with it instead. It was probably worth approximately $30,000-$40,000 in today’s economy. It was certainly an indication of her respect and love for Jesus that she would lavish Him with such an extravagant gift.
When Judas criticizes her gesture as a waste of money, Jesus chastises him. Mary may not have known that Jesus was walking toward His death only days later, but Jesus knew she was anointing Him for the grave.
Then, a great crowd shows up—most like out of curiosity—but perhaps also to celebrate both Lazarus and Jesus. However the religious leaders of the day planned to kill them both. Celebration and sadness:
1.) Jesus opened His public ministry with a wedding (joy), and closed it (sadness) with a family dinner.
2.) We see in this intimate portrait a picture of the soon-to-be-Church:
Lazarus has new life in Christ; Mary worships and adores Him; while Martha serves Him.
3.) But we also see a symbol of His coming passion and death. Jesus’ return to the vicinity of Jerusalem has, in a sense, signed His execution order, and Mary has unwittingly anointed Him for burial.
4.) Nevertheless, we have joy in knowing Jesus’ coming death provided a “sacred exchange” for us: Our sins for His holiness; Our death for His eternal life; and Our fate exchanged for His spiritual fortune.
We certainly resonate with Nina’s celebration and her sadness, don’t we? But we also realize the Christian walk is a mix of both. Jesus never promised us a rose garden, but instead said, (Mark 8:34) Pick up your cross and follow Me. When we turn our lives over to Jesus, the evil one comes after us—as though we now have a giant bulls-eye painted on our chest. There can come to us numerous times of trial, testing, pain, and sadness. He doesn’t prevent these dark times in our lives, but He does both use them to mold and shape our characters, and He remains present to us as we journey through them. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
©2022 Rev. Dr. Sherry Adams