Lent rarely evokes images of extravagance. Lent conjures up images of austerity. The challenge of Lent is to make an arduous journey of the spirit in hopes that the journey will change the mundane parts of our lives, too.
Lent is not–or should not be–a time for spiritual self-indulgence where observers congratulate themselves for sacrifices. Doing so would be an extravagance that cheapens the journey. Self-congratulatory, self-indulgent observances of Lent would be gaudy, undoing the purpose of following Jesus into the wilderness to be tempted, or following Jesus toward Jerusalem and the cross that awaits him.
Ironically, Lent offers a cause for authentic extravagance. Along the path we are reminded that our hearts and minds need to be sifted like the ashes that were smeared upon our foreheads several weeks ago.
Confronted by our mortality–that is the power of the ashes on our foreheads–and our need for repentance, we have trudged along. With each step the promises of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle, and the Gospel have sifted our souls and reminded us of the grace of God poured out on our behalf. With each step we have the chance to confess our finitude and sinfulness. With each step we have drawn closer to finding our voices that swell with extravagant confessions of gratitude.
On the fifth Sunday of Lent a common thread runs through the prophet, the psalm, the epistle and the Gospel. The threat of death and sin is chased away by the confession of the grace of God.
The book of the prophet Isaiah spans more than 200 years from the mid-eighth century to the mid-sixth century before the birth of Jesus. Isaiah of Jerusalem bore the message of hope and holiness during the dark days of Kings Ahaz and Hezekiah.
So powerful was his witness that his style and courage survived him and was embodied in succeeding generations of prophets who bore witness to God’s care for Judah through the Exile in Babylon and into the period of the restoration of Jerusalem.
The scope of the book of the prophet Isaiah helps us frame the words we ponder on the fifth Sunday of Lent. “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old” (43.18), the prophet writes.
Isaiah 43 recalls “things” from hard days of the invasion of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and harder days of life lived in exile. The fall of Jerusalem and the Exile brought death and destruction to God’s people. It was hard for them to avoid interpreting their horror as a punishment for their sins and the sins of their ancestors.
On the eve of the end of the Exile the prophet challenges on God’s behalf, “Do not remember the former things…. I am about to do a new thing…. I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43.18-19).
Death and sin are about to be washed away because God will “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise” (43.20-21).
The short six verses of the psalm for the fifth Sunday of Lent are set against the backdrop of the restoration of Jerusalem once the Exile ended. The psalmist describes his generation as “like those who dream” (126.1) because of the great reversal that was unfolding.
“The Lord has done great things for us” (v. 3), he writes. A prayer follows: “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb” (v. 4). And, then, the anticipation of answered prayer: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” (v. 5).
Oh, the beauty of the images! “Watercourses in the Negeb” sown by the tears of returning exiles: “Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (v. 6). Water in the wilderness sown by tears and transformed with shouts of joy is, indeed, a cause for extravagant praise.
The epistle carries us back to Paul’s prison cell as he writes to his friends in Philippi. Enlarging upon the theme of the prophet and the psalm, the apostle looks back and forward at the same time. He confesses his spiritual self-indulgence as “a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteous under the law, blameless” (Phil 3.5b-6). From the perspective as a prisoner for Christ Paul sees how gaudy such boasting is and regards it as “rubbish” (v. 8).
Looking forward is Paul’s cause for authentic extravagance. “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings” (v. 10), he writes. “This one thing I do,” he continues, “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus” (vv. 13-14).
On the fifth Sunday of Lent the Gospel captures a cause for extravagance is a single frame. The scene is the house of Lazarus and his sisters. The sisters of Lazarus lavish upon Jesus gratitude for restoring their brother to life. Martha prepares a meal of celebration. Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with a costly ointment, appraised by Judas to be worth a year’s wages. Mary’s act was extravagant.
The irony of the act, as interpreted by the Gospel, is that it was not merely gratitude for restoring life to Lazarus, but was preparation for the burial of Jesus. “Leave her alone,” Jesus says. “She bought [the ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12.7).
The Lenten journey is an arduous one, demanding the energies of our hearts, minds and bodies. Also the journey is a cause for authentic extravagance, striving for the promises of the prophet, the psalm, the epistle and the Gospel.
Richard F. Wilson is Columbus Roberts Professor of Theology and Chair of the Roberts Department of Christianity at Mercer University in Macon, Ga.