new creation (lent 5, year c)

Almighty God,
you alone can bring into order
the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
Grant your people grace
to love what you command and desire what you promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen.

We will pray this lovely Collect in worship on Sunday, our last “normal” Sunday in Lent.  Together, we will ask God to help us to love the things God loves, to help us to want the things God wants for us.  We will ask God to help us to keep our hearts and minds focused on what is real and eternal, rather than what is fleeting and false.  And we will recognize that only God can truly bring order, peace, and joy to us… though, if you’re anything like me, you’ll probably forget this as soon as you say Amen.

A New Creation, by jonty.fisher
A New Creation, by jonty.fisher

Our readings this week all talk about God’s new creation, the new work that God is planting and nourishing and nurturing within each of us and throughout the world.  The gospel lesson does this through story, and the epistle does this through exposition, the reading from Isaiah relates this through beautiful poetry, and the psalm gives us a response to this work of God in us.  And through these parts of our worship for Sunday, a plan emerges that we can follow, to help bring this new creation of God to life.  Here’s our handy-dandy, four-part New Creation Plan.

  1. First, we let go of the things of the past, the things that hold us back.
  2. Second, we look forward to see the changes ahead of us, to find the new thing that God is bringing about.
  3. Then we get up and start walking toward God’s new thing.
  4. And when this new creation finds us, we give thanksgiving and praise to God.
"Requiescat in pace, Ted's old couch" by Kilgub
"Requiescat in pace, Ted's old couch" by Kilgub

It is not easy to set aside the things of the past. We’re used to them. They’re comfortable.  How many of us have one really old, really ratty piece of furniture that we just can’t bring ourselves to throw out — or maybe, we just can’t bring our husbands to throw out 🙂 — because we’ve had it for so long, and it’s comfortable?  Or maybe an old shirt that has been worn and washed so many times that, even though it’s a little threadbare, this shirt has become the softest and most comfortable one that we own?  We hold onto these things, because they bring us comfort.  In the face of the swift and varied changes of the world, we cling to these objects, these remnants of our past.  The thing is, no t-shirt lasts forever, nor does any sofa or recliner.  Only the gifts of God are eternal: joy, peace, love.  We may find fleeting comfort from these things of the past, but true comfort, true peace, true joy only comes when we set our eyes and our hearts on God.

The Anointing at Bethany, by Loci B. Lenar (Copyright 2009)
The Anointing at Bethany, by Loci B. Lenar (Copyright 2009)

When Mary washes and anoints the feet of Jesus in our gospel for this week, Judas complains at the extravagant cost of the perfume she uses.  But Jesus chides Judas, knowing what lies behind this extravagant action… and what lies ahead in Jerusalem.  Swift changes are indeed coming to all of the disciples and friends of Jesus, but his dear friend Mary already has her heart fixed on God and on God’s promise.  Jesus knows this, just as he knows that none of his friends or disciples can understand this just yet.  He accepts the love of Mary, the love from God, as part of setting aside the things of his own past — his physical, human body — so that he can embrace the new creation in his future.

In his letter to the Christians in Philippi, Paul begins by describing his former self, the things of his past as an upright Jew, a righteous Pharisee, a stalwart of the faith.  And once he has encountered Jesus, Paul regards these as rubbish.  This may sound a bit harsh: surely these are things Paul should celebrate, right?  But Paul is smart.  He knows that when we’re caught up in celebrating our past successes, we aren’t fixed on God, and we aren’t fixed on God’s promises for us.  No, we must put aside those honors and achievements, and for most of us, that means we have to discard them, treat them as rubbish, so that we can fully embrace the new creation that is gestating within us.

Now that we’ve set aside the things of the past — or have prayed to God, asking for God’s help to leave these things by the wayside — so we move on to Step Two in our New Creation Plan.  We look ahead, trying to discern this new thing that God is bringing about.  The beautiful poetry from the prophet Isaiah can help us see what this looks like.  God promises to us

A wadi in the Sinai desert, by Lars Ploughman
A wadi in the Sinai desert, by Lars Ploughman
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.

This new creation God is bringing about, it is not a small thing.  Rather, God promises us complete reversals.  God promises to take the wilderness within us and build a path through it; God takes the desert places within us and makes a river to flow through them.  And all parts of Creation — even the wild jackals — give honor and praise to God.  This is huge!  This is exciting!  This is wonderful!  These promises are made to us by the very same God who can take a dead body and bring it back to life and health; the opening of our gospel story reminds us that the host for this meal is Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  And we know what is coming for Jesus, the change from a living, but mortal, body of a man into an eternal, resurrected body.  On Ash Wednesday, we heard the words Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return; we were reminded that we are a wilderness, we are a desert.  But on Easter, God’s new creation springs forth, bringing water to our dryness and life to our deadness.

What an amazing promise God makes us!  How do we not run forward to embrace this, as the father in the parable of the prodigal son does?  Well, that’s Step Three in our four-part New Creation Plan.  One of the most wonderful things about God is that God never forces anything on us.  God yearns for us to love God, to be in relationship with God, to want these things.  But God never forces this; no, God invites us, and then lets us choose how we will respond.  We can accept the invitation, or we can turn it down, or we can set it aside to look at later because everything is just so busy right now.  So it is not enough for us to merely see and marvel at God’s amazing promise.  The promise is just the invitation.  Now we have to RSVP and then show up.

The tough part is, this isn’t just a tupperware party.  It’s not something we show up to for an hour or two, and then return to our previously scheduled lives intact and unchanged.  Paul tells us that he hasn’t gotten all the way to the new creation yet, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.  Paul has seen God’s promise, has cast away his past, and is now straining forward to what lies ahead.

Make a joyful noise, by allspice1
Make a joyful noise, by allspice1

The last part of our four-step New Creation Plan may seem obvious, but that doesn’t make it unimportant.  God gifts us a great gift in this new creation.  What did our mommies and daddies teach us?  When someone gives us something, we say thank you.  And that’s Step Four.  Sunday’s psalm gives us some words for this.  God’s new creation is a dream come true; it brings us laughter and joy.  Once we sowed with tears, and now we reap with songs of joy.

I’ll bet this all sounds too good to be true, huh?  And we all know what they say: if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  So what’s the catch?  Well, there’s no catch… except a little one.  There are no strings tied to God’s grace; grace can’t be earned or bought or bargained for.  The new creation God promises us, this is a gift; it is grace.  So the only little catch is this: the four-part New Creation Plan never ends.  God is always promising us a new thing.  No matter how long we follow God, there will be places of desert and wilderness withing us, waiting for God’s living water to spring up.  Only in resurrection and reunion with God do all of our dark places finally see the light.

But even this little catch is good news.  God’s grace never runs out!  God never stops giving us gifts!  Isn’t that wonderful?  I know it fills my mouth with laughter, and my tongue with shouts of joy.  Thanks be to God for bringing God’s new creation to us, every day!  Thanks be to God for inviting us into this new creation, for inviting us onto the path where we can be focused on the things that are real and eternal!  Thanks be to God for showing us, in the life of Jesus and all those he touched, that we too can experience God’s new creation!  Let us pray.

CREATOR OF HEAVEN & EARTH, by Fergal OP
CREATOR OF HEAVEN & EARTH, by Fergal OP

Almighty God,
you alone can bring into order
the unruly wills and affections of sinners:
Grant your people grace
to love what you command and desire what you promise;
that, among the swift and varied changes of the world,
our hearts may surely there be fixed
where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Amen! Thanks be to God!

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