The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C, St. Philip’s Church, Donelson

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair” (Jo. 12:3).

The prophets of ancient Israel sometimes engaged in what we might call “enacted prophecy,” where God’s word was delivered, not through speech alone but by action. Prophets, of course, prophesy: they announce the word of the Lord. They are not self-selected, and no Human Resources department can choose them. God chooses them. And sometimes the word that God gives them is not only a word but an action.

When the prophet Jeremiah went to proclaim to the People that God was to destroy Jerusalem through enemy invasion, God told him to buy an earthenware jug and to smash it to pieces. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: So will I break this people and this city, as one breaks a potter’s vessel, so that it can never be mended” (Jer. 19:11). God is going to smash Israel into a million pieces.

Later, when the city was besieged, Jeremiah was commanded to go and buy a field in Anathoth, in suburban Jerusalem, even then occupied by the Babylonians: a sign that even in the worst of times there was still a future when the People would dwell in peace (Jer. 32.15). No, it didn’t make any sense to invest in a field where the Babylonian army was parked: who knew whether the buyers would even be alive after the siege. Yet that’s what God commands Jeremiah to do.

Our Gospel reading is just such an enacted prophecy; one very similar to those of Jeremiah and the other prophets. Jesus stood in the prophetic tradition; part of what took him to Jeremiah’s city, to fulfill the role of the prophet, to announce both judgment and mercy. All during Lent our Gospel readings have kept Jerusalem in view, from the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness even to our Gospel today. “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those sent to it” (Lk. 13:34), Jesus told the crowd just a few weeks ago: a reminder of the nature of the path that Jesus is following.

By the time we come to this Sunday we are with Jesus in another suburb of Jerusalem, in Bethany. He’s at the home of Lazarus, the one whom he’d raised from the dead, with Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. What takes place is another enacted prophecy, one performed by Mary, who anoints Jesus’ feet with the spices identified with burial. It’s not only a lavish sign of welcome, one given after a hard journey, but also a sign that prefigures his death. “Leave her alone,” he tells Judas. “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (Jo. 12:7).

It’s this last detail that is crucial for us. The Gospel writer John is giving us a vivid picture of what Jesus’ ministry is all about. The enacted prophecy proclaims that Jesus came to Jerusalem to offer himself, to die and to be buried and to rise again. His death, like the enacted prophecies of Jeremiah, performs both judgment and mercy. The Lamb of God is sacrificed for us, so that sins may be forgiven. It is both judgment and mercy at once: a sacrificial death freely offered so that no one else needs to die.

You might say that Jesus is himself God’s enacted prophecy, because in his life and death God’s word comes not just in speech but in action. Jesus does not just tell us about the kingdom of God but he acts to establish it. His ministry is not just a teaching ministry (Jesus teaching us what the kingdom looks like), but the actual performance of the kingdom. Furthermore, he doesn’t just do the works of the kingdom in healing and miracle and raising the dead (“let me show you how this goes”). Rather, he himself is the kingdom, the fulfillment of God’s promise; himself the Resurrection and the Life as God raises him from the dead.

In Jesus Christ, God himself is taking action, enacting the prophecy of what God will do in our lives. God proposes to be powerful in your life and mine, triumphing over sin and death and reconciling us to himself. Jesus Christ is the first born of many from the dead. There are many brothers and sisters to come. Even now we wait in hope. Even now we can feel the Holy Spirit moving, breaking us (like Lazarus) out of the tombs where we languish. We’re locked up, locked in, powerless to help ourselves. It’s at just such a moment that God breaks things open and pours his grace lavishly upon us, giving us new life and a new start.

In a similar way this Sunday, God is sharing new life with our baptismal candidate, and with those who are renewing their baptismal vows. It’s not just a significant moment for them but also for us, as we each have the opportunity to renew our own vows. We each have the opportunity to place our faith in Jesus Christ, to trust in him for resurrection and new life here today. God is enacting and performing our salvation here in these powerful symbols. For each of us here today there is judgment and mercy, as God performs in our lives his mighty works of love.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee