Sermon for the 5th Sunday of Lent; preached at Castleton Church, Sherborne, on Sunday, 3 April 2022 by Canon Charles Mitchell-Innes.  (Isaiah Ch 43: v 16 – 21; John Ch 12: v 1 – 8)

Not far from the Dead Sea, in the arid Judaean desert in southern Israel, lies the settlement of Ein Gedi. In contrast to the whole surrounding area, its natural springs provide an abundance of water, which in turn creates lush grass, trees, flowers and ideal habitat for wildlife. I visited it way back in the last century and stayed overnight. These verses from Isaiah kept coming into my mind: “I will even make a way in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert. The beast of the field shall honour me, the dragons and the owls: because I give waters in the wilderness, and rivers in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen” (Is. 43: 19-20). Today Ein Gedi is a flourishing agricultural and horticultural centre; there is a botanical garden; and, yes, they still bottle the water for drinking.

That passage from Isaiah is a remarkable love song from God to his people, revealing his deep affection and care for them, and providing both beauty and a gift of great practical value. For love is many layered and complex, and shows itself in varied and sometimes unsuspected ways. We see a couple of them in the picture which St John paints of Jesus’ visit to Mary and Martha’s house in Bethany the day before his final, fateful entry into Jerusalem. They, together with their brother Lazarus, sat down to supper. We are not told what they had to eat, only what they did. “Martha served” – a bald statement, but expressive of her love and the practical way in which she showed it. Consider this poem of U.A. Fanthorpe, which she called Atlas:

There is a kind of love called maintenance,
Which stores the WD40 and knows when to use it;

Which checks the insurance, and doesn’t forget
The milkman; which remembers to plant bulbs;

Which answers letters; which knows the way
The money goes; which deals with dentists

And Road Fund Tax and meeting trains,
And postcards to the lonely; which upholds

The permanently rickety elaborate
Structures of living; which is Atlas.

And maintenance is the sensible side of love,
Which knows what time and weather are doing
To my brickwork; insulates my faulty wiring;
Laughs at my dryrotten jokes; remembers
My need for gloss and grouting; which keeps
My suspect edifice upright in air,
As Atlas did the sky.

And then there is Mary. She shows her love for Jesus in an extravagant outpouring, both of the precious ointment and of obvious emotion. Yet this is no ostentatious display. She kneels humbly at his feet and wipes them with her hair; all is quietly restrained, and the more telling for that. Her love does not count the cost, and, like the ointment, it fills the house with its fragrance. We can see in it a reflection of God’s own love:

Morning glory, starlit sky, soaring music, scholar’s truth,
Flight of swallows, autumn leaves, memory’s treasure, grace of youth.
Open are the gifts of God, gifts of love to mind and sense.

W.H. Vanstone’s hymn winningly captures God’s gifts of love to us, gifts which all can see. Yet today, as Passiontide begins, we know that is not the whole story. As Mary anoints Jesus she is probably aware, as Jesus certainly is, that his love – God’s love – is about to lead him to a horrible death. Vanstone’s hymn concludes:

Hidden is love’s agony, love’s endeavour, love’s expense.

Over the next fortnight we shall become closely involved with the story of that final journey into Jerusalem: Palm Sunday next week, then Holy Week and Good Friday. That is, I dare say, as far as the imagination of that little family group in Bethany could stretch: the events of Easter were far beyond reason and imagination. It is a time when we may ponder on the expense of love, the sorrow which can attend it, the sharing of pain as well as joy that it brings; yet we would not for a moment stop loving because of it, for that sharing is all part of love’s glorious tapestry, as Martha and Mary are only too aware. But they know too, from Jesus’ previous raising of their brother Lazarus from the tomb, that death should not have the last word.

How about Judas’ churlish response to Mary’s overwhelmingly generous action: it’s a waste of money that could have been much better used for assisting the poor? Both Jesus and Mary would be fully sensible of the need for charitable funds and generous good works – as we are, especially at the moment. Such charity is enshrined in the Jewish Law. Jesus’ response, “the poor always ye have with you” has often been taken as a rather cynical and resigned dismissal of charitable works; ‘it’s too big a problem, there’s no point.’ That is to take his remark entirely out of context: his next words are, “but me ye have not always.” In the words of William Barclay, “Some things we can do almost any time, but some things we will never do unless we grasp the chance when it comes. We are seized with the desire to do something fine and generous and big-hearted. But we put it off – we will do it tomorrow; and the fine impulse goes, and the thing is never done. Life is an uncertain thing. We think to utter some word of thanks or praise or love but we put it off; and often the word is never spoken.” I think of a small opportunity years ago which I still regret when I think of it. The distinguished counter-tenor Alfred Deller had been giving a concert in the Abbey with his son Mark, and his singing, as always, had been wonderful and inspiring. After the concert we happened to be walking just behind them down Church Lane, and I felt I ought to tell him how much I had enjoyed the music. But, being young and gauche, I hesitated – and the moment was gone. A few months later I heard on the news that he had died suddenly. Since then I have always had it in mind not to hesitate when praise, encouragement or gratitude are due.

It is the same when we approach God, in prayer or in simple wonder at His creation. Remember His words at the end of our first Lesson: “This people have I formed for myself: they shall show forth my praise.” A command!

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