sermon preached at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Bellingham, WA
by the Rev. Josh Hosler, Associate Priest for Adult Formation
The Fourth Sunday in Lent, March 26, 2017
|David Anointed by Samuel, Dura Synagogue, Syria|
(3rd century C.E.) Wikimedia Commons
Have you ever been anointed?
David was anointed king many years before he was crowned. The prophet Samuel came to Jesse’s house, where young David was the eighth son, a spare, an afterthought, the one keeping the sheep while the older boys were being considered for greater things. Yet God called David to be king over Israel. He was a fresh, bright, talented upstart, a little too handsome for his own good. David was a thorn in the side of King Saul for years before finally deposing him.
David was obviously flawed, a sinner many times over, a poet who gave voice to his passionate, tumultuous relationship with God. David went down as Israel’s greatest king not because of his virtue, but because he kept coming back to the one who was his shepherd, who made him and set him on the throne. David was anointed, and his son Solomon was anointed, and his descendants were anointed kings of two Jewish kingdoms until the Assyrians and Babylonians carved up the land. But God loved the people so much that he promised through the prophets that Israel would someday have a descendant of David on the throne again.
What would that look like? Well, obviously, some new bright young upstart would come along to lead a revolution and throw off the chains of the Jewish people’s oppressors. There would be a Jewish kingdom on earth again. What else could it look like to have a descendant of David on the throne? And so the people waited for the new Anointed One, the new Messiah.
When we think we see clearly, it’s hard to imagine any other way of seeing. But we’ve been warned: God does not see as mortals see. God did not choose Jesse’s oldest son, but his eighth. God passed right over the perfect number of seven and kept going into new territory. When we think we see clearly what must happen, it might behoove us to be skeptical.
|Faces of Easter Image 5|
(Godly Play Resources)
Centuries later, another anointing did occur. A remarkable young upstart did appear, in Galilee. This Jesus of Nazareth turned water into wine. He cured a young boy’s fever. He caused a paralytic to walk. He fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fish. He walked on water. And then, for a sixth sign, he anointed a man who had been blind since birth. He anointed him not with oil, but with saliva and mud applied to the eyes for the purpose of healing. He sent the man as an apostle is sent, sent him to wash the mud from his eyes. And then this newly anointed, newly sent apostle could see more clearly than any of the others around him.
This wasn’t in the script. Worse yet, this took place on the seventh day, the Sabbath, the perfect day that completes God’s perfect week. This was the day when the people rested. They did not go around giving sight to the blind. It just wasn’t done. Come to think of it, it had never been done.
Have you ever been anointed? When Jesus anoints you, don’t expect to be honored and placed on a throne. Life will probably get much more difficult. And don’t expect it to be clean: your anointing is likely to be full of spit and dirt. Oil smells good, and oil is for royalty, and we are anointed with oil at our baptism. But you can’t get too deep into a body of water without churning up some mud. After all, God got down in the mud to make the first human being. And God came to us as Jesus, allowing himself to get mired in the everyday concerns of our bodily lives.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes:
You might expect to find Christian people near to those places where humanity is most at risk … being baptized is being led towards the chaos and the neediness of a humanity that has forgotten its own destiny … You might also expect the baptized Christian to be … in touch with the chaos in his or her own life—because we all of us live not just with a chaos outside ourselves but with quite a lot of inhumanity and muddle inside us. A baptized Christian ought to be somebody who is not afraid of looking with honesty at that chaos inside, as well as being where humanity is at risk, outside.
So anointing is messy business. But when you wash the mud from your eyes, you’ll see much more clearly. Jesus anoints this man, opens his eyes, and sends him to open the eyes of others. He gives the blind man a clarity of purpose, of vision, that those in positions of power cannot afford to see. They have their script, and neither this formerly blind man nor Jesus is following it. Where is the war leader, the military figure who will lead the people to bloody revolution on any day except Saturday? You won’t find him in the person of Jesus.
It is to this disappointment, that of a failed Messiah, that parts of our gospel passage today refer—and also to the disappointment of being expelled. The gospel writer tells us that the man’s parents are afraid of being expelled from the synagogue. But this is an anachronism. Synagogues were local worship houses for small communities of Jews. There were no synagogues in Jerusalem—not at this time, not while there was a temple. This reference comes from later times, perhaps around the year 100 when this gospel was written. The temple had been destroyed several decades before. The Jewish people were trying to figure out how to reemerge as a people faithful to God. Jesus’ followers would jeopardize the continuing viability of Judaism, so these Christians could not be called Jews. The original hearers of this gospel would have understood the anachronistic reference, because they were still stinging from being excluded.
|An incredible amount of suffering has resulted from |
misreadings of the gospel writers' accusations against "the Jews."
(Image: Persecuted Jews, 13th century) Wikimedia Commons
Never forget that Christianity is not against Judaism, but a branch extending from it. The blind man’s parents are “afraid of the Jews”? Nonsense: they themselves are Jewish. So is everybody else in this story. So whenever you hear “the Jews,” you might substitute “the Jewish authorities,” or, “those of God’s chosen people who thought they knew the script.” Better yet, substitute, “You and me and all of us, because we usually think we know better than God, too.” We’ll see this play out very clearly when we get to Holy Week, when the tide turns against Jesus.
So as I was saying, Jesus of Nazareth turned water into wine. He cured a young boy’s fever. He caused a paralytic to walk. He fed 5000 people. He walked on water. For a sixth sign, he anointed a man who had been blind since birth. And for a seventh, as we will hear next week, he raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. Seven miracles: a Jewish number of perfection. But that’s not all. At the conclusion of John’s gospel, we read: “Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book. But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
These seven signs are given to help us arrive at fullness and perfection. But when we think we see clearly what must happen, it might behoove us to be skeptical. God didn’t stop at the perfect number of seven but kept going into new territory—past the seventh son, past the seventh miracle, past the seventh day of Sabbath and into an eighth day of new creation. On Monday of Holy Week, we’ll hear how Lazarus’ sister Mary anointed Jesus’ body for burial. She did it while he was still alive, and she spent a fortune on it. Six days later the women will go to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body—on the eighth day—but it will not be there.
We are Christians, and this is our story. We are always telling the story, but Lent is the time we tell the guts of the story. Don’t pay it polite attention and then not let it transform you. Did Jesus literally heal a man born blind? Good question, but apply a new lens and catch more light: is Jesus healing you?
Did Jesus literally raise Lazarus from the dead? Good question, but apply a new lens and catch more light: is Jesus raising you to new life, right here, right now? If you’re not sure, then dare to believe it and see what happens. These stories are written down “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”
Like the blind man, you were born so that God’s works might be revealed in you. In your baptism, you are anointed as a new kind of royalty, a spiritual descendant of David, a new kind of monarch who serves others instead of ruling over them. You are anointed for healing, sometimes surprisingly quick healing, but oftentimes painstaking and slow as you come to see new realities in a larger world and wash the mud from your eyes. You are anointed and sent as an apostle to spread Good News. And you are anointed for burial, for though the death of your body is imminent, God is already raising you into new life.
Is this poetic? Sure. Is it literal? It’s beyond that: it’s supra-literal. This is the stuff of a world that includes our “real world,” denies none of it, yet is even more real, a world that includes all the everyday stuff of our lives but applies a new lens to it so we can catch new light—the light of Christ who has come into the world. The darkness can never overcome this light. Jesus comes to make us what he is—a priest anointed to approach holy things, a prophet anointed to bring a message, a king anointed to serve. Can you see it from where you are? Step into the water and accept your baptism. Ask to be healed and accept the mud applied to your eyes. Step into the light and accept your anointing, and then go and tell others. Amen.