Here we are. We’ve made it to the 5th Sunday in Lent. We’re just one week away now from singing our, “Hosannas,” and walking with Jesus into Holy Week. We’re at a hinge point of sorts. We’re not where we have been, and we have not yet arrived at our final destination. We’re at this place where we can pause and look and take stock in both directions: where have we been and where are we going?
There is so much in those questions. In the immediate moment, on this 5th Sunday in Lent, we can say that we entered the Lenten wilderness on Ash Wednesday. That’s where we’ve been. And when we think about where we’re going, we know that when we enter this sacred space two weeks from now, there will be signs and symbols that we have arrived, that we are meeting the culmination of something. Before we can even name it out loud, our eyes and ears, and yes, our noses (more on that in a bit), will alert us that we are not in the Lenten Kansas anymore. Easter Day is upon us.
Where have we been?
Ash Wednesday and the Lenten wilderness.
Where are we going?
Next stop: Easter.
This is what we can see when we pause and look backwards and forwards on this 5th Sunday in Lent.
But these questions are also deeper than dates and destinations. Where have we been in this Lenten wilderness? On Ash Wednesday, we were reminded that we are dust and to dust we shall return, and we were invited to a season of self-examination and repentance. (1)
We were called to new and continued practices of prayer, fasting, self-denial, and dwelling in God’s Holy Word (2). So where have we been? What has been our experience in the wilderness? What holy memories from the past 4 and ½ weeks catch us and beg us to hold on?
And then as we think about Easter, as we think about arriving on that day and being greeted with all of the sensory clues that say, “You’re here. You’ve arrived. Easter Joy is present,” have we thought about how we will greet that news? What path are we following to get to Easter? With what posture and attitude will we arrive? Where are we going?
These questions: Where have we been? Where are we going? – they’re faithful questions. They are questions that we share as God’s people all the way back to the beginning. We see these questions reflected upon today in the reading from Isaiah. The prophet is speaking to a people in exile – a people who have been conquered and separated from all that is familiar to them.
Where have the people of Judah been? Yes, they have been in exile, but the prophet also reminds the people of their holy memories: You are the people who escaped from Egypt and Pharaoh by the path God made through the sea (3). This is where you have been. You walked on dry land through the mighty waters.
And part of remembering where they have been – maybe THE important part of that holy memory – is remembering how God has been with them.
Where have you been?
Crossing through the Red Sea.
And where was God in that?
Well, God parted the waters and led us through.
These questions are deep.
And the prophet continues, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old (4).” Not because it’s not important to reflect and to look back – but not to do that to the point of distraction so that you miss where you are going and where God is in that: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”(5) And the prophet continues with more words of promise – promise of a way made in the wilderness, of wild beasts held at bay, and rivers of water to quench the people’s thirst (6).
Do you hear where we are being called to go – along paths of promise and abundance? It sounds like hope – that the way of God is hope – held in the sacred memories of where we have been and propelling us forward to where we are going. Just like the people in exile, we may not even have a clear destination or date in focus, but we know the path forward, and it is the path of hope.
As we heard hope in the words of Isaiah – maybe even pictured hope in the images of abundance in the wilderness – then as we turn to our reading from the Gospel of John, we also begin to smell it – to smell hope.
Jesus comes to Bethany – to the home of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary – and in the Gospel of John, this is his last stop before his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. He comes here – to be with these people who know and love him and have offered him hospitality so many times. Jesus comes here because perhaps he knows that he needs to fill his senses with hope before what lies ahead.
Each person named in this story asks those faithful questions: where have we been and where are we going? Maybe Lazarus even still smells like where he has been. The last time Jesus was here was when he raised Lazarus from the dead; has the stench worn off? Is Lazarus now fully back in the land of the living, or does the smell of Lazarus emerging from his tomb still linger in the air?
Lazarus has been dead and is now alive. We are told that Jesus is alive but will soon be dead. Death and life linger together in the thin space of this home in Bethany, but with Lazarus, death has been broken open. He now sits at the table with Jesus and his siblings sharing food and fellowship – tasting hope.
And it is a meal prepared by the devoted Martha. Martha who serves hope on a platter. Martha who knows the holy memories of water and manna in the desert – and who follows the path of hope as a servant. Her home smells of both death and new life, and yet with all of the questions and uncertainty that remain, Martha serves. Wherever she is going, she is serving. Martha cooks, and serves hope, and lets the conversation of her table be her prayers of thanksgiving to God.
And then there is the extravagance of Mary. Where has she been? Where is she going? For Mary, the answer to both of these is wrapped up in Jesus. Jesus has brought her brother back to life, and she will follow Jesus who is resurrection and life (7). Mary commits her full self, her very body, to following Jesus – anointing his feet with the costly perfume and then wiping them with her hair. This is embodied hope. Mary is embodied hope, and Jesus receives her extravagance. He knows Mary and her hope will go with him into Jerusalem. Mary’s hope rises into the air and envelops everyone in the home.
Almost, everyone, because finally, there is Judas. Where has he been? Where is he going? Judas’ words and his actions described in the Gospel reflect fear and scarcity. Judas has a very clear idea of where he is going and anyone who might get in the way of that path, be damned. Judas’ hope is in himself and the savior he has cast in his own image. Judas is moving towards betrayal – does he even pause to look back?
Where have you been? Where are you going? Today, we are invited to pause and consider these questions – with Isaiah and the exiled people of Judah – with Lazarus, Martha, and Mary – with Judas – and with Jesus. Where has God been in our Lenten journey – and where are we going? How are we moving towards Easter? Are we on the path of hope?
“I am about to do a new thing [says the Lord]; now it springs forth, do you not [smell] it?”(8)
1) BCP, p. 265
2) BCP, p. 265
3) Isaiah 43:16
4) Isaiah 43:18
5) Isaiah 43:19
6) Isaiah 43:19-21
7) John 11:25
8) Isaiah 43:19