As Isaiah announces that the Israelites’ exile in Babylon is about to end (see Bible notes on page 18), he celebrates God’s new act of salvation in terms that recall their exodus from Egypt and their journey through the wilderness. God looked after them then, and God will look after them now, restoring their original calling to be ‘the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise’ (v.21).
The importance of this calling was highlighted by the English and Scottish reformers who drafted the Westminster Catechism in the 1640s, saying: ‘Man’s chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever’. In what ways do we glorify and enjoy God? How might we develop our worship and grow in our devotion to God?
New Testament: Philippians 3.4b-14
In Philippians 2, Paul described how Christ ‘emptied himself’ to take human form and die on the cross, before being exalted once again to reign with God. Here, Paul describes his own journey of faith in similar terms. He has emptied himself of all the things he once held so dear – his status, his zeal, his righteousness under the law – regarding them as rubbish now that he has found the ‘righteousness…that comes through faith in Christ’ (v.9). That is not the end of the story, however. He wants to keep moving forward towards his goal, which is ‘to know Christ’ (v.10), and to complete with him the rest of his journey through suffering and death to resurrection. For Paul, faith
is never static. If we are not moving forward, we are moving backwards – that is why he twice emphasises the importance of ‘pressing on’, constantly striving to keep on growing in Christ. Given the athletic imagery underlying the passage, we might like to reflect on our own levels of spiritual fitness, and set some specific training goals that will keep us moving forward.
Gospel: John 12.1-8
In John’s Gospel it is Mary of Bethany who anoints Jesus with perfumed oil. Presumably she had bought the nard to anoint her brother’s body, but now that Lazarus has been raised from the dead she finds another purpose for it. Judas is shocked by her passionate display, and asks angrily whether the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. Even though John doubts Judas’ integrity, it is a fair question. Many of our churches are full of ornate statues and paintings that glorify God, but have we enhanced our worship at the expense of those in need? Our devotion to God needs to be held in tension with our calling to serve the poor.
Mary’s action is prophetic in two ways. First, as Jesus says, it is a sign of his own imminent burial. Like the women who follow Jesus to the cross and the tomb, Mary does not look away as Jesus’ suffering and death draw near. Second, this may well have been the act that inspired Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet in the following chapter. Acts of love and kindness often prompt those who receive them to show the same love and kindness to others – and this infectious principle underlies the new commandment that Jesus then gives his disciples: ‘Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another’ (John 13.34).
The links between the readings
The season of Passiontide begins with three readings that examine our passion for God. In Isaiah, the emphasis is on worship. The Israelites are called once again to be the people God made them to be, ‘so that they might declare the praises of God’. In Philippians, the emphasis is on faith. Paul celebrates the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, and challenges us to keep on growing as that faith matures. In John, Mary’s passionate act of anointing Jesus’ feet is both a sign of his burial and an inspiration for him – and for us – to wash the feet of others.