How do you feel about extravagance? Extravagant gifts, extravagant gestures? Lent may seem like an odd time to talk about extravagance, but really, isn’t Lent about extravagance in the other direction? In Lent we are called to an extra level of self-abnegation – to more intentional prayer and fasting, to giving our attention to God, and our physical lives, our time, our talent and our treasure, to the needs of the world around us. In Lent, we are called, in fact, into extravagance.
What about extravagance of emotion? How do you feel about that? Kids are good at this, aren’t they? Babies with belly laughs, toddlers who throw themselves on the floor and scream out their frustrations. Extravagant expressions of emotion are less acceptable the older you get. At least in our culture. We train our kids out of this. Being able to control your emotions is a sign of maturity, and refraining from public demonstrations of strong emotion is a sign of respect for the people around you. And then, some of us are introverts, and extravagant emoting is exhausting to us.
There are lots of cultures in the world that are much more comfortable with extravagance of all kinds than we are in Canada. Or in the Anglican Church, come to that! Places where you belch at the dinner table to compliment the food; where you weep and wail at funerals to express your grief, and if you didn’t, that would be weird; where you come to church to dance and sing as loud as you can!
The cultures represented in Scripture come from this more extravagant, emotive tradition. What do you experience when you hear extravagant gestures or expressions of emotion in Scripture? The fact that it comes to us through the medium of the written word adds a level of comfortable distance for those of us who aren’t comfortable with extravagant displays, doesn’t it? My own experience of hearing things like this in God’s Word is that I relate them to my interior life. Just because I don’t wail when I’m grieving doesn’t mean I don’t feel grief. Just because I don’t dance doesn’t mean I don’t feel joy. I do connect with the expressions of extravagance in Scripture, whether or not anyone can see me doing it!
I want to point out and celebrate the expressions of extravagance in our Scripture readings today. That is the thread I see running through all of the Scripture we heard this morning, and frankly, it’s getting me fired up. I might even gesture widely with my hands!
To begin with, look at what you yourselves said aloud this morning in the words of Psalm 126. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.” Isn’t that gorgeous? “Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.” When was the last time you were completely overcome with laughter? The kind where your muscles feel weak, and you can feel the extra oxygen in your blood and endorphins in your brain? Laughter as relief and release. The Psalmist is reminding their listeners about the Exodus; how God brought the whole nation up out of slavery, through the years of wandering in the desert, into a place of their own. The people who felt like they were dreaming were the ancestors of the ones listening to the song in the present. In the present, their joy mixed with grief. God restored the fortunes of their ancestors, but now in the present, the people need restoration again. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb. May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.” The language of agriculture, of sowing and harvesting, puts bounds on the period of waiting for fortunes to be restored; for weeping to turn into joy. It also connects the emotions to one another, and the bad fortunes in the present to the anticipated restoration in the future. Like the nation of Israel, our lives are never all one thing or another. The joy of our salvation is not unmixed with the grief that comes from our sin, and from life in a fallen world.
What we are being urged against in this psalm is despair. If your life is looking rotten to you at the moment, giving up is not the right response for a child of God. Maybe right now you’re “going out weeping.” But the promise of God to us is that somehow, some way, sometime, you will “come home with shouts of joy,” bearing the harvest of what God has made of your life.
“Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.” The imagery of water in the desert continues this theme of extravagance that runs through our Scripture readings today. The prophet Isaiah also uses this imagery, as well as the reminder to his listeners of what God had done for the nation of Israel in their past. “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters.” But then, having reminded the people of what God has done for their ancestors, he says, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” That is, don’t live in the past. Don’t rest on your laurels. “I am about to do a new thing.” Goosebumps! Shivers! “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. We who live on the prairies know a little about feast or famine when it comes to water in our land, but not compared to water in the desert.
Here’s a little science lesson. I got this description from the National Geographic website. “Humidity—water vapor in the air—is near zero in most deserts. Light rains often evaporate in the dry air, never reaching the ground. Rainstorms sometimes come as violent cloudbursts. A cloudburst may bring as much as 25 centimeters (10 inches) of rain in a single hour—the only rain the desert gets all year.
Desert humidity is usually so low that not enough water vapor exists to form clouds. The sun’s rays beat down through cloudless skies and bake the land. The ground heats the air so much that air rises in waves you can actually see. These shimmering waves confuse the eye, causing travelers to see distorted images called mirages.
First-time visitors to deserts are often amazed by the unusual landscapes, which may include dunes, towering bare peaks, flat-topped rock formations, and smoothly polished canyons. These features differ from those of wetter regions, which are often gently rounded by regular rainfall and softened by lush vegetation.
Water helps carve desert lands. During a sudden storm, water scours the dry, hard-baked land, gathering sand, rocks, and other loose material as it flows. As the muddy water roars downhill, it cuts deep channels, called arroyos or wadis. A thunderstorm can send a fast-moving torrent of water—a flash flood—down a dry arroyo. A flash flood like this can sweep away anything and anyone in its path.
Many deserts have no drainage to a river, lake, or ocean. Rainwater, including water from flash floods, collects in large depressions called basins. The shallow lakes that form in basins eventually evaporate, leaving playas, or salt-surfaced lake beds. Playas, also called sinks, pans, or salt flats, can be hundreds of kilometers wide.”
This is the kind of landscape the people of Israel knew. They would have been completely familiar with the extremes of water in the desert – of weeks and months of heat and dryness, and then a sudden cloudburst that dropped buckets of rain in just a few minutes, filling up basins and canyons, rushing torrents just as dangerous as the lack of water was. This is the sudden extravagance God’s actions will seem to his people. “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (How could you not perceive the flash flood that just roared past your house?!) “I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, to give drink to my chosen people, so that they might declare my praise.” No water, all the water. That is the image of the extravagance of God’s provision in this passage.
In Philippians, Paul uses extravagant language to describe his reaction to experiencing the extravagance of God in his life. As we so often see in Paul’s letters, he has planted a church in Philippi, and they have joyfully received from him the extravagant Good News of God’s free gift of salvation for them. Then Paul moves on to another town, and other preachers move in to Philippi behind him. Their version of the Gospel is always less good news. Sure, you can be saved, but you have to do X, Y and Z for God first. Be good, get circumcised, stop eating meat that’s been used in sacrifices, whatever. Follow the Law if you want to be saved. So Paul writes to his church to remind them of what they received so joyfully in the first place.
I’ve done all those things, Paul tells them. Make a list of all the law-abiding actions you want, and I’ll meet them. “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day [that is, from day one, not as a second-rate adult convert,] a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews [that is, my genetic bona fides are perfect, for what that’s worth]; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet, whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ.”
I give all that up, he means. What once meant everything to me is worthless to me now, because I met Jesus, and now that’s the only thing that matters. But more, “I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” It’s not that my old life was okay, but being with Jesus is better. It’s that my old life was actually worthless. Garbage. This is the extravagance Paul feels about what he’s found in Jesus. Not degrees of goodness – that life was okay but this life is better. But that life under the Law, trying to attain salvation under your own strength and effort, is total bullshit. “For [Jesus’] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Paul responds to the extravagant gift of God to us in Jesus Christ by going all in on following him.
Mary too goes all in in our Gospel reading today from John chapter 12. Things are really starting to heat up at this point in John’s gospel. In chapter 11, Jesus raises Lazarus, Mary’s brother, from the dead. He did this in front of all the mourners who had come for the funeral and stayed to comfort Mary and Martha, and the news spread like wildfire. Many became disciples, but when the religious leaders heard about it, they were more resolved than ever that Jesus had to die, and Lazarus too, while they were at it.
This is the atmosphere of the nation in the days leading up to the Passover. Tensions are ramping up, and we follow that example as we head toward Palm Sunday and Holy Week. In this atmosphere of heightened tension and awareness, Jesus’ friends hold a party for him and Lazarus in Bethany, just outside of Jerusalem. Can you imagine the intensity of the scene? The chief priests and Pharisees are looking for Jesus and Lazarus to get rid of them. Jesus has just raised a man from the dead! What will the coming Passover bring, with its crowds and festivities and heightened national and spiritual meaning? So this group of friends is sitting around the table, talking and eating, and Mary, who mourned her dead brother for four days and now sees him sitting and eating and laughing, who has earned censure before for dropping all her responsibilities to sit at Jesus’ feet as a disciple, though she isn’t a man – this Mary comes in with a jar of perfume worth tens of thousands of dollars, cracks it open, and pours it over Jesus. Then she uncovers her hair in front of all those men, which would be enough to get her stoned in that culture, and uses it to dry his skin again. It is difficult to imagine a more extravagant gesture of love and devotion. Mary lays her whole self down at Jesus’ feet in this gesture. If he rejected her in that moment, her life would be over. This is a picture of complete devotion to Jesus. And every one of our senses is engaged in this picture: seeing her actions, hearing the crack of the jar as she breaks it open, the perfume so thick in the air you not only smell it but taste it as well; Jesus feeling the texture of her hair on his skin. Extravagance.
God acts, and we react. God acts extravagantly toward us, and we have a choice. How will we react to God’s salvation extended toward us? Are we prepared to lay our whole selves down, as Paul did? As Mary did? It’s scary, no question. It means making yourself wholly vulnerable. But God doesn’t ask us to lay ourselves down and he may or may not pick us up. God is always reaching out to us, has already made all provision for us. We need only say yes. Amen.