My father is the original jack of all trades; in fact, he's even mastered some. One of his greatest skills is his ability to fix things-motors, appliances, automobiles. He developed these talents while growing up on a farm in western Minnesota and later as a mechanic in the army during World War II.
When he returned from war, he learned the trade of refrigeration repair and plied that trade on and off during his working career, fixing the big refrigerating units you see in the grocery stores. He once told me that he could go into the room where the compressor was running and just by listening tell what the problem was. It was like he had a sixth sense for fixing things. The usual fix was to adjust some controls or tweak some wiring, maybe add some freon or something to get the unit cooling again, but often he would come up upon a broken part, which he, even with all his skills, could not fix. He would have to send back to the manufacturer for a new part, which he would install, and everything would be as good as new again.
In our reading from Isaiah today, the people of Israel are in a fix. The whole nation - its social, political, and religious system -- is broken beyond repair. They have been conquered by the armies of Babylon and find themselves living in exile there. The temple is destroyed, the king is held captive, families are torn asunder. The whole system is broken, and there is no amount of bailing wire and bubble gum that will patch this thing back together. What Isaiah tells the exiled people of Israel in Babylon is essentially this: You have to send this one back to the manufacturer. In other words, the one who made you is the one who will fix you.
Isaiah 43 is essentially the Lord's resumÃ©, the presentation of his credentials as the one who was the maker and redeemer of Israel and alone able to save the people. Just two verses before our reading for today, the Lord says through Isaiah, "Thus says the Lord, your redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, 'I am the Lord, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King?.'" Isaiah's purpose is to convince the broken-down people of Israel to have faith in God's ability to fix the situation. And the manufacturer's instructions boil down to this: I created you. I will redeem you.
But if we read the fine print, we find this redemption will require a whole new world order. The old world order has resulted in the creation being laid to waste. It has resulted in a desert, and a desert is a place where life cannot be sustained. Greed, corruption, injustice, and, above all, unfaithfulness have turned the garden, sent from the manufacturer in pristine condition, into a lifeless wasteland-a desert.
But God, who created the garden, says, "There's no fixing this broken-down thing. I'm about to do a new thing. It will be a new creation-water in the wilderness-rivers in the desert-drink for my chosen people-the people whom I formed for myself, that they might declare my praise."
Now, fast forward 500 years or so and we find the more things change the more things stay the same. Just as in the Isaiah reading, the context of our Gospel lesson is also lifelessness. Only this time it's not a literal desert that the Lord has to make a path through to restore his chosen people as in the days of old, but a spiritual desert created by the old familiar greed, consumption, injustice, and, above all, unfaithfulness. The wages of all this, Paul says, is death, and we ought to know that if we had paid attention to the story of Adam and Eve in the garden. So, now, sin has not only turned God's garden into a desert but sentenced all its joyful inhabitants to death. It is quite a fix we're in.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus steps right into the middle of this deadly situation of human sin. Just as the wasteland of the exile is the context for the words of hope spoken by the prophet Isaiah, Lazarus is the context that the word of God in Jesus brings forth. And just who is Lazarus and how can a person be a context? Lazarus is what happens to us as a result of sin. Lazarus is the lifeless desert that awaits the spring rain. Lazarus, in the story that precedes our reading, is dead, and he represents all of humanity, all of whom are headed for the same end.
In the noble pursuit of healing, we often compare a surgeon to a mechanic, but even as we in modern medicine have made amazing strides in our ability to sustain human life by repairing parts, replacing worn out parts with still working used parts from similar models, even making new parts to replace the old ones-there is still one part of the human body that must come from the manufacturer, and that is the soul, which in the Bible is represented by the breath of life. That breath comes from God. The Book of Genesis tells the story of how God created the human being out of the humus-the dirt-and breathed in him. And when the breath of God entered him, the earth creature became a living being. Therefore, there can be no breath transplant. That part comes only from God, and when the breath leaves, life leaves. So when Jesus steps into the tomb of Lazarus and gives him back the breath of life, what are we to conclude? The one who created Lazarus has come to redeem him, for only the one who manufactured his breath could come to repair it. In Jesus all the power and majesty of God was pleased to dwell.
With the stench of Lazarus' tomb still in the nostrils of those who gathered around Jesus some days after Lazarus was raised from the dead, Mary breaks open a bottle of expensive perfume and fills the air with its exquisite fragrance. Suddenly, our minds and memories are turned from the wages of sin and death to the hope of new life in Jesus.
His death does not mean deadly humiliation but a blossoming glorification. The threats against Jesus and his impending death are not the putrid end, but a beautiful, fragrant beginning. Mary makes the threatening tomb of Jesus to smell like a garden full of flowering plants and trees.
I like to think of Mary as the new Eve, and we understand Jesus as the new Adam. As Paul says in Romans 5:18, "Therefore, just as one man's trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man's act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all." So we might say that Mary's act of devotion transformed the stench of death into the fragrant hope of new life, but it's more than that. I call Mary the new Eve because of what Isaiah said in the last verse of today's Old Testament reading, where God says, "I formed a people for myself that they might declare my praise." We were created to praise God. Mary shows herself to be the perfect creature in her act of devotion to her lord. Did you know that the perfume she used cost over a year's wage for a laborer of that time?
Talk about total devotion! Judas wants to portray this as an either/or situation: Either show devotion to Jesus or serve the poor. But that is a false distinction. If we would show even a portion of the same devotion Mary showed to Jesus, I have no doubt that our hearts would be moved to care for the poor and those whom Jesus calls us to serve. And we show devotion to Jesus in this way through talking to him in prayer, through studying his Word in the Scriptures, through worshipping him and his church, and through giving of ourselves, our time, and our possessions.
When Jesus says, "You will always have the poor with you," I wonder if it was his way of saying, "I will be with you always to the close of the age." For didn't he tell us that when we gave food to the hungry, clothed the naked, welcomed the stranger, cared for the sick, when we did anything for the least of these, we did it unto him? Devotion to Jesus is never misplaced, for when we devote our lives to him, his agenda for the care of the poor becomes our agenda, his forgiveness becomes our forgiveness, his life becomes our life.
Contrast Judas and Mary. Judas follows Jesus because Jesus serves his needs. Judas was interested in the poor because he could line his pockets from the money collected for them by the followers of Jesus. Mary follows Jesus because she loves him and is devoted to him. She simply gave him what he needed, giving all she had, even her beautiful hair, to serve Jesus. In this way she shows us not only how to be a disciple of Jesus, but how to live as God's creature in God's fragrant garden-for God made us so that we might declare God's praise.
A new thing is showing forth in Jesus. Do you not perceive it? At his table all will be fed with the food that does not perish but sustains us for eternity. He comes into the desert of our lives and drowned to sin in the waters of baptism, washed clean by his blood, we are no longer oppressed by the stench of sin and death but live in the fragrant garden of new life. Let us claim him as Mary did and serve Jesus with all we have. Amen.
Let us pray.
Gracious God, all good gifts come from you. You shower us with blessings far beyond the value of the perfume that Mary used to anoint Jesus. Help us to do as Mary did-to kneel at your feet and claim you as Lord, to give all that we have for your purpose. And so when we meet you in the hungry, the naked, the homeless and imprisoned, help us to respond in devotion by meeting the needs of those whom you have claimed as your own. We also praise and thank you that you have claimed us as your own, that you have graced us with your presence, shared a meal with us, and given us the greatest gift of all-life with you that lasts forever. Amen.