Sermon: The Joy to Come

Sermon preached at Wesley Chapel Guildford on 28 March 2021. Palm Sunday

John 12:1-8

At that time, it was …

Six days before the Passover.

Six days to the Cross

Six days to death

And then a few more to resurrection …. AND LIFE!

In our time it is just before our remembrance of the Palm Sunday procession into Jerusalem and time to brace ourselves for Holy Week, Good Friday and Easter Sunday. Our readings point us towards that time and they are hopeful.

ISAIAH 43

18 Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.

The prophet and the psalmist are, in their context, pointing to a time beyond the Babylonian captivity. You will remember that the people of God had been taken into exile and were separated from their homeland for 70 years before they were allowed to return. He reminds them of their exile in Egypt, of their miraculous escape through the waters.

Isaiah who had stayed behind when the people were taken to Babylon wrote several letters to them, promising that God would restore them, and that they were not to worry – plant fields, he said, marry, have children. That must have been hard – imagine waiting 70 years for a promise to materialise. (Prince Charles waiting to be king!)

BUT … when the release came … we have those words from Psalm 126

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
    we were like those who dreamed. 
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
    our tongues with songs of joy.

Imagine the abounding joy! Psalm 126 is one of the Songs of Ascent … the songs that Jewish pilgrims sang as they ascended the hills to the Holy City and the Temple of the Lord.

I remember going up those hills from Jericho in a tour bus and the guide switched on Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus at full volume as we wound our way over the hill to the city. It gave me goosebumps … I can imagine the thrill of joy as the exiles returned from Babylon and sang this song for the first time … laughing, bubbling, full of joy.

In our Philippians reading, Paul shared his testimony. He tells of all the good things he has done, of his qualifications and his accomplishments but when he came to faith in Jesus he counted all those things as loss for the sake of Christ …

Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

There is such a hopefulness in our faith. Whatever may have happened, whatever dangers or disappointments we might have faced, whatever risks lie in wait for us, there is always hope. 

The words of Kennon Callahan (Twelve Keys to an Effective Church) have been with me for years … we are not only the people of the Cross, we are also the people of the Empty Tomb.

And as we have journeyed our weary way through Lent, reminiscent of the 40 years in the desert on the way to the Promised Land and Jesus’ 40 days in the wilderness before he began his ministry, we are reminded in these readings that ahead of us lies the full satisfaction of our hope in God.

But what about the reading in John’s Gospel … surely it doesn’t fit this message. What does a dinner party, an extravagant wasting of perfume, talk of a burial and the poor always being with us have to do with hopefulness?

Let’s set the scene.

There is a dinner party in the village of Bethany. Jesus is the honoured guest at the table, he is surrounded by his most intimate friends 

  • Lazarus, the friend who died and over whom he wept. The one whom he raised from the dead.
  • Lazarus’ sisters, Martha and her sister Mary, with whom Jesus seemed to stay whenever he visited Jerusalem
  • And, of course, the disciples.

Martha is serving the food, and Lazarus’ is there at the table.

Mary takes a pint of pure nard and pours it on Jesus’ feet, the room is filled with a wonderful fragrance but Judas is upset at this extravagant waste.

This story of the woman who pours perfume over Jesus’ feet appears also in each of the other gospels but she is only named in John. In Luke’s gospel she is identified as a sinner – “that sort of woman!”

Some have suggested that this Mary could well be Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Migdol (a little village near Galilee on the main road to Nazareth). Mary of Migdol was the former prostitute from whom Jesus had cast out seven devils.

Here she comes and pours out a pint of pure nard, worth nearly a years’ wages, on the feet of Jesus. In those days prostitutes invested in perfume as a saving for their retirement. The alabaster perfume bottle worn around their neck was a symbol of their profession.  

Mary comes to Jesus – and she had no doubt been with Him many days – and pours out this perfume (all her savings for the future) at the feet of the Lord. It is powerfully symbolic – she is surrendering her past, as a sinner, and giving her future as a gift to Jesus. 

Judas is angry! What a waste, he says, but really he was only interested in helping himself to this valuable perfume.

Jesus is pleased! This gift is for my burial … it is only six days to go. Six days to the Passover, six days to the Cross, Six days to death…

In Jesus’ mind, the hope for mankind is nearly here. He will die for the sake of sinners. In the giving of his life he will give new life and new hope for all those who put their faith and trust in him. 

Perhaps Mary Magdalene knew this too … She was no longer the prostitute who served travellers on the road between Jerusalem and Galilee. That life was gone – dead, finished. She had found a new life in following Jesus, and perhaps, of all his followers, including the disciples, she understood the good news of his message.

She gave up her old life, she gave up her perfume – her saved-up hope for the future, to put all her trust and hope in him.

At his death, she was there at the Cross with his mother, At his resurrection, she was there at the dawn of the new day to bear witness to the empty tomb and the risen Christ.

As we approach the remembrance of those momentous events 2000 years ago, Palm Sunday on the way into Jerusalem, Good Friday on Golgotha and Easter Sunday at the Garden Tomb … let us also know that putting our sin behind us is not a loss … that putting our trust in Jesus is a good investment and that there is great joy beyond the trials and the suffering.

Let us be like those who dreamed. Let our mouths be filled with laughter, and our tongues with songs of joy.

To God be the glory, in Christ Jesus, both now and forever!



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