“Are we there yet?” If you have ever taken a long trip wth a small child there is a good chance that you’ve heard this question… maybe more than once.
Most of us are settled people. There is something about the journey that we find unsatisfying. Maybe it’s the temporary feeling that we don’t belong, that there is unfinished business, or that getting there is secondary to whatever important things we have to do once we arrive.
Last Sunday found the Israelites on a journey into the land of promise. Before entering, they stopped for a period of remembering how God had redeemed them out of slavery, made a path through the Red Sea, and brought them to a special place. If you are going on a journey, after all, it is important to know where you’ve been before setting a course for the future.
The readings for this Sunday also find the Israelites on a journey. This time, they are coming out of a different kind of captivity, the Babylonian Captivity. They are reminded of the time God made a path for them through the Red Sea, but instead of stopping to commemorate that event the prophet tells them not to dwell on it. Now they should look for God to make new paths for them: a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:16-19)
Similarly, in writing to the Philippians the apostle Paul spends a few minutes remembering who he used to be; and to hear him tell it, he was quite an excellent Jew. At the end of the day though he says that all his achievements in religion are worthless as there is only one path to salvation and that is the new path created by the saving work — the faith — of Jesus. Nothing matters except Jesus’s faith in the salvific mission, in the power of the Holy Spirit to continue teaching and leading his followers, and in us to continue the work of reconciling the world to God.
Whatever faith you and I are able to muster in Jesus is an added bonus, the path has been cleared by Jesus’s faith in us! His faith alone is sufficient to save all the world, we are blessed when we are able to be part of his saving work, but all is saved regardless of our faith, our work, or our spiritual status. We may remember a time when we felt that spiritual achievements were key to our journey. Maybe we looked for signs, counted miracles, made great speeches that changed the world, or even racked up the extra credit points for spiritual experiences. But, like Paul, we have to say that those things are nothing. It is in Jesus alone that we are ultimately saved. (Philippians 3: 4-14)
In the gospel reading this morning Mary, the sister of Lazarus recently back from the dead, takes what is surely her most valuable possession and empties it out on the feet of Jesus. What if we could stop being so literal for a moment about perfume, feet, and Bible events and see this story as an allegory for what Paul was talking about in Philippians. You see, there is nothing wrong with being an excellent Jew, nor in spiritual experiences, making great speeches, signs, or miracles. These can be precious road signs on our spiritual journey. Even these good things, though, according to Paul are like rubbish, ready for the bin. Salvation is in emptying ourselves of even our most precious experiences and memories and resting completely in the sufficient faith of Jesus. (John 12:1-8)
Is there anything that you’ve sort of got in your back pocket, an event or achievement which marks you out as special in some way? Maybe you have had a vision, made a large donation, or attained some rank? It could be anything, and it’s probably a good thing. But pour it out. As we travel together into the final stretch of our Lenten journey, let’s empty out everything that is not utter reliance and dependency on the one who has saved us. Let’s search our hearts for the leven of spiritual pride and empty it out completely, for the days are coming when we can ill afford to be laden with such trivialities.
We are not there yet, but the Lenten journey is almost over. Make final preparations!
Linda McMillan lives in Shanghai.