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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

God of the Unexpected - 03/13/2016

“When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, then we were like those who dream,” (126:1) the Psalmist says to us today.

I think we've all experienced something like that before. Something that is so unexpected that you wonder if it has truly happened. Often that realization is trying to sink in, part of us is hanging on to the idea that it cannot be real. Am I dreaming?

One example where I see this phenomenon taking place is in videos of people being surprised by the homecoming of a loved one returning from active duty in one of the armed service branches. I just watched one the other day. A young woman was getting married and her brother was serving in the Army. He didn't think he was going to be able to get leave to go home for the wedding and then at the last minute, it came through. The video showed him walking into this huge back yard where his sister was having her picture taken in her wedding dress before the ceremony.

You see her look hard at the person across the big yard and you can tell she doesn't fully understand or believe what she is seeing. Is it a dream or a mirage of something that her heart wants so badly that her brain is tricking her into thinking that she is actually seeing her brother walking toward her across the lawn? And then you recognize that moment on her face when her disbelief falls away and she realizes – this is really happening. They start running toward each other and embrace and that's usually when I start crying.

Of course this experience of the completely unexpected can happen for situations that are far less joyful too. I remember when my daughter was in elementary school and she, along with thousands of other school children, were watching the launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger in their classrooms on a cold January morning. It was a horrible morning that left the whole nation looking at these unacceptable images of the shuttle exploding over the Atlantic Ocean and thinking “Are we dreaming?”

A couple of days later I learned that many of the school kids who had been watching the live footage of the disaster were asking to watch the video of it over and over again. They just couldn't believe that it was true and they thought that if they kept watching the video, it would eventually have a different ending and those astronauts would not die. The launch into space would continue, as expected, and they would end up in orbit around the planet doing all the experiments and tasks they were scheduled to do.

It took a long time for that unexpected reality to sink in.

Those are the kinds of experiences that  might come to mind when we try to imagine what it must have been like for those gathered around this dinner table in Bethany in our story today from Gospel of John. Everything that happens in this story can be filed under the heading of “unexpected” or “Am I dreaming?”

At this point in Jesus' earthly ministry, at the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary at Bethany, only six days before the Passover feast that would come to include the execution of Jesus, his inner circle of disciples and friends are beginning to sense more fully where things are going from here.

After Lazarus was raised from the dead, after Martha's proclamation  “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world,” (John 11:27), and after the high priest Caiaphas had determined that Jesus must die for the sake of the nation, Jesus and his closest followers hid out for awhile in the wilderness.

But now, here he is, back in Bethany. Prior to the so-called “security wall” that exists in that place today, you could easily walk from Bethany to Jerusalem. To have dinner there was very risky for someone who everyone knew had a target on his back and a price on his head. But Jesus is determined to finish the work he has come to do and he is drawing closer to where all that will culminate.

When we enter the story today, Jesus has paused this relentless journey to the cross to eat with his friends and what a strange visit it turns out to be. First of all, at the dinner table with Jesus is Lazarus – a man who was dead four days and is now welcoming the Messiah into his home and eating with him. And then Mary enters this scene, which isn't unusual in itself. Although the women would not have eaten with the men in this culture, they would have been in and out of the room serving their guests and tending to their needs. The dinner guests would not be seated in chairs around the table like we would be. Rather they would be reclining on their left sides and eating with their right hands while they talked over a long meal time together.

But Mary doesn't enter the room to bring in more food or see if anyone needs more wine. No. She does the unimaginable when she gets down on the floor with Jesus and begins to anoint his feet with abundant amounts of expensive, scented ointment. And then she takes her hair down and wipes his feet with it.

It's intimate. It's not just crossing social boundaries, it's obliterating them. And, because this is a story written for a people who already know it so well and want to dive into it again and again – Mary's unexpected act is beautiful too. It is a prophetic and extreme act of comfort and love to help prepare Jesus for the death he is about to experience for us.

For the people there witnessing this, it had to have been shocking, provocative, uncomfortable – we can imagine how they must have felt paralyzed for these moments trying to make sense of what they were seeing as the room filled and the air got heavy with the smell of the perfume.

Also unexpected and hard to comprehend would have been Jesus' reaction and response to all of this.

First of all, he doesn't stop Mary. He lets her continue this very unorthodox behavior and then he gives us one of his famous redirects when he rebukes Judas for his outburst about what Mary should be doing with that perfume. Suddenly the attention shifts to Judas, whose actions sit directly opposite of Mary's.  In the Gospel of John, the opposite of having faith is betrayal. Mary and Judas are representing those two polar opposites.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus says and then clearly alludes to the certainty of the his death. “She bought this perfume so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

Jesus is making reference to what would have been a familiar teaching from Deuteronomy that says, "Since there will never cease to be some in need on the earth, I therefore command you, 'Open your hand to the poor and needy neighbor in your land.”(Deut 15:11). In other words, Jesus tells Judas, the law is clear on what God commands regarding your care of the poor, but let me also be clear – I am anointed in this way because I am going to die and this unexpected gift of care and love from Mary is absolutely appropriate and necessary for what God has in store for the world.

That is how this God of ours does things sometimes – a lot of the time really. Through unexpected people with all kinds of motives, God moves mountains and creates new realities. This dinner gathering in Bethany, our gathering here for the Lord's supper today, this familiar story of ours that we want to dive into again and again – it all serves to remind us to expect the unexpected when it comes to God. When we do, we find that we are looking in all kinds of places no matter how dark, how broken, how hopeless, to see God at work.

Where we worry about whether we are bringing enough of our young people up in the Way of Jesus we see that we have a confirmation class that is small, but whose participation in our Midweek Lenten services is inspiring people from throughout the community in their own journeys as Christians.

God works in unexpected ways.

Where we find that more than half of our kids qualify for free and reduced lunches and don't always have enough to eat on the weekends, we also find a small group of people passionately and powerfully combining efforts to get a backpack program off the ground to address that problem.

God works in unexpected ways.

Where you expect to find a Messiah who will march into Jerusalem, throw out the tyrants and restore goodness to the people of Israel, instead you will find the Son of God who comes to be humiliated and die on a cross for the sake of our eternal lives. You find the unexpected news at the tomb that we will encounter in just a couple of weeks. You find that the power of tyrants and bullies everywhere and in every time has been overthrown. And you find a Messiah that comes to save not just one nation of people, but all of creation … even the tyrants and the bullies.

God works in unexpected ways. We were like those who dream.  But now we look to those unexpected places and we find our mouths are filled with laughter and our tongues with shouts of joy / for the Lord has done great and unexpected things for us.

Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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