“And the Fragrance Filled the Whole House”
A Sermon Preached at St. Stephen the Martyr in Stuebenville, Ohio, Five Lent, March 17, 2013
By the Rev. Dr. Leander S. Harding
When we gather for the liturgy of the church, when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are remembering what God has done in the past. We are remembering the past in a particular sort of way. By the power of the Holy Spirit as we are obedient to the command that He gave us on the night in which He was betrayed, “do this in remembrance of me.” What God has done in the past, the Father’s costly deed of saving love in sending the Son to save us by the Power the Holy Spirit has been made into a present and living reality – transforming our present existence and opening up a new future – whose horizon is heaven and the coming Kingdom of God. Just as the past is made present, the future is made present and we are given a foretaste of the world to come.
The future that God has in store for us will, until we die or the Lord returns, be already and not yet. But the glimpse – the taste – the down payment – St. Paul calls it arabon, that we get here in the bread and wine that is both the Last Supper and the feast of heaven, gives us hope that goodness and mercy shall follow us all our days and we shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
This is the power and purpose of liturgy. There is also a liturgical reading reading of the Scripture. The prophet Isaiah is doing that in this passage that we have just read (Isaiah 43:16 – 21). God has rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He made a way out of no way and led them through the Red Sea dry shod and defeated their enemies. He led them to the mountain where He gave them a holy and righteous way of life. 11 for the desert into a promised land. All with the purpose – so they could live toward God and toward their fellow human beings in such a way that all people would recognize that they knew the true and living God and so God’s wayward children would be brought home and reconciled and say. The world then as now is perishing and needs to be saved – the evidence is no further away than the front page of the newspaper. God’s plan to save the world is the formation of the people to be His witnesses. Such were the people to which the prophet Isaiah spoke. Such are we gathered here today.
When the people of God had forgotten their vocation – when they departed from the holy way of life God had given them and had fallen into personal and corporate and social immorality, God sent the prophets to call them back. The prophets warned that if they did not repent disaster would befall them. They didn’t and it did. The nation was conquered and taken into captivity in Babylon, about 600 years before the birth of Christ. The prophet Isaiah, the messenger of God, is telling the people who are defeated – who are captives – who are without hope – the story of the original salvation from Egypt in such a way as to bring the power of this mighty deed of God into the present – changing the meaning of the present and giving hope for the future.
In the same way that God rescued Israel from bondage in Egypt – God is going to rescue the people from bondage in Babylon. They are going home. They’re going to be redeemed and restored. Just as God made a way out of no way before – he’s doing it again – just as he made a way to the desert before – he is doing it again – even the wild animals in the desert cannot fail to see what God is doing – “behold I am doing a new thing, can you not perceive it.”
They were returned to the holy land. But the promise of Isaiah was not completely fulfilled. There was a partial restoration but not a complete restoration. One was yet to come who would complete the work – the ultimate and final Messiah who would cleanse and re-consecrate the people.
When Jesus arrived on the scene the prophecy of Isaiah was being completely fulfilled – but you needed the eyes of faith to see the new thing that God was doing – how once again he was rescuing his people from bondage – this time the bondage of sin and death – cleansing and re-consecrating them as his witness people – as His missionary people.
The way He would do this – the way He would reestablish His Lordship over His wayward subjects is with the sacrifice of Love – this sacrificial love that has the power of the Resurrection hidden within it – it is this suffering love which gives new life and which restores us to the dignity of the witness and work God has given us to do.
It is through this sacrifice that Jesus is anointed to be our King and ruler in our lives and be our priest and reconcile us to God and consecrate us for lives of service.
St. John is showing us how Mary of Bethany’s anointing of the Lord’s feet with costly ointment is the outward sign of the Lord’s anointing as Priest and King in sacrificial Love. She fills the whole house with the odor of a costly devotion. Jesus says she is anointing Him before hand for His burial. Through his death Jesus fills the world with the fragrant odor of His costly sacrifice for the salvation of the world. In and through His death He is anointed our priest and King. Risen from the dead and ascended He reigns from on high.
Whenever we gather to hear the Bible read as the Living Word which makes God’s deeds present to us to transform our present and open our future – whenever we obey His command – “do this in remembrance of me” – this whole House of God is full of the fragrance of the costly seeking, searching. Suffering and saving love of God brought to us by Jesus Christ the Lord. When we leave here this fragrance of God’s grace clings to us—the fragrance of sacrificial love. By God’s grace may we preserve the scent of love among us and not let it be drowned out the bitter odors of this world with its hatred and cruelty. Amen.