Fifth Sunday of Lent
Deep into Lent, it seems appropriate to have a gospel reading that focuses on preparing Jesus for his death. It is also refreshing to have a set of readings that focus on transformation and renewal.
In Isaiah, just before the passage for this Sunday, the LORD announces the immanent defeat of Babylon. From there, today’s reading begins with an allusion to God’s deliverance of the Israelites and the defeat of the Egyptians at the Red Sea. Although this is Israel’s climactic moment of redemption and liberation, Isaiah admonishes readers not to dwell on past acts of redemption – as wonderful as those were. Something new is about to happen. Isaiah’s audience is challenged to focus our vision so that we can see it. Instead of dividing waters that already exist, in order to save the people of God, God is going to bring water to all the dry places. In the desert water means life. The thirsty people of God will drink and praise God.
Psalm 126 offers us language for this type of praise. Restoration ignites laughter, joy and gladness. Despite the tears of the past, now is a time for joy. Both Isaiah and Ps. 126 address people in exile or other difficult straits, promising something new. God will transform their current condition of tears and weeping into joy.
The transformation in Paul is of another type altogether. Saul the Pharisee described in the first part of the reading from Philippians was at the top of his game. Nobody was more devoted to the LORD. According to the righteousness found within his Pharisaic understanding of the Law, he was blameless. This was not prideful boasting. Rather, it was the simply recognition that Paul devoted himself to the study of the Law, to obeying it, and seeking and finding forgiveness when needed. Paul’s claim reflects the depth of his love for God. As a mark of his devotion, he was willing to kill those he thought to be threats to Judaism. From the perspective of Saul the Pharisee, he had every reason to think that he was loving God with all his heart, soul and mind.
Of course, God does a new thing with Saul the Pharisee. Nothing in that past could have prepared Saul for this new thing. Indeed, he quite literally did not have the eyes to perceive it. Nevertheless, when the resurrected Christ confronts Saul, he is transformed and renewed. This transformation is less like a rescue from exile and more like demolition and remodeling. From the perspective of being in Christ, Paul looks back and re-evaluates his past. Now that he has the eyes to see the new thing God has done and is continuing to do in Christ, he offers a very different evaluation of his past. Without for a moment renouncing his Judaism, Paul comes to see that he must learn anew what that Judaism looks like in the light of the death and resurrection of the Messiah.
As he narrates it, this will be a lifelong process of unlearning old things and learning new things. Instead of seeking the deaths of those who follow Jesus, he now seeks to conform his life to that of the crucified Lord. The primary way in which this happens is by re-ordering Paul’s desires and affections, those things he loves and pursues. We have no reason to think his love for God is more ardent than before. It is refocused and redirected. He no longer strives for or even values those things that marked his former life. They are so much garbage to him now.
Having been grabbed by Christ, Paul now wants to grab that for which Christ first grabbed him (3:12). The new thing that God has done in Christ has shaken Paul up, redirected his goals, and reformed his desires and hopes. Reaching out to grab that for which Christ first grabbed him, requires Paul not only to love Christ, but to learn to love those things which Christ loves for Paul. Paul is learning how to be a friend of the cross (cf. 3:18). Not that he realizes how thirsty he had been, Paul is drinking deeply from the new waters God has provided.
Nothing that Saul the Pharisee did could have prepared him for the transformations and renewal God had in store for him. Indeed, in many respects his formation and devotion kept him from seeing the new thing God was doing in Christ.
One of the blessings of Lent is to find that through an increased or changed discipline in our lives, God is able to begin to reform our hopes and desires in ways that will better enable us to perceive the new things that God is doing in and around us. Most of us will not go into exile as the Israelites did. Few of us will have the type of dramatic readjustment that turned Saul into Paul. Even so, The Book of Common Prayer attempts to gather up these readings from Isaiah, Psalm 126, and Philippians under the wings of this prayer that seems as apt to exiles and to Paul as it is to us:
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.