“Where Oil and Water Mix”
Isaiah 43:16 – 21
Chilmark Community Church
March 13, 2016
Rev. Vicky Hanjian
When I first started contemplating the texts for today I thought there might be a way in which they are linked, although I couldn’t see the connection clearly. The Isaiah verses seemed to draw my attention more. So I decided to go with them and see where they would lead. What I realized is that, when these verses are inserted back into the context of the verses that immediately follow, they point to an extraordinary love story.
In the part that we read, God is identified as the Lord who presided at the parting of the Reed Sea so that Israel made a safe passage out of Egypt. The verses describe the chaotic drowning of Pharoah’s army. If you recall the Cecil B. DeMille images, the scene is one of watery chaos as chariots and horses and troops swirl around under the water as the sea closes in on them. For many generations, Israel was encouraged and prompted and exhorted to remember and be thankful for the way God had saved them.
Somewhat paradoxically, Isaiah is saying that this same God now calls to Israel not to get stuck in the past – – but rather to be alert and wakeful to perceive the new thing that God is about to do – – and some really lavish promises roll off the tongue of the prophet:
I am about to do a new thing…do you not perceive it?….I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert. The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for I give water in the wilderness and 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.
The lectionary selection stops there. But I think it is only in reading a bit beyond this that we begin to see the Lenten and Easter message for us today. The verses that follow retell, in poetry, the rocky relationship between God and Israel. And the voice of God continues: Yet (even after all I have promised and done for you) you did not call upon me O Jacob; but you have been weary of me O Israel! You have not brought me your sheep for burnt offerings, or honored me with your sacrifices,…. but you have burdened me with your sins; you have wearied me with your iniquities (43:22-25)…….I have been just and gracious – you have ignored and offended.
This sounds to me like a broken hearted Lover pursuing the beloved….but the beloved doesn’t respond and perhaps even ignores the Lover. In seminary, I heard the term patri passionis for the very first time. It is a Latin term for the suffering of God. In the centuries after Jesus’ death, as the primitive church argued and hammered out its understanding of who Jesus was, there was a lot of in-fighting about whether God could suffer. People were insulted, excoriated, and excommunicated in these arguments about whether the Holy One of Being could possibly suffer.
Isaiah shows us a God who does indeed suffer when there is a breach – when God’s beloved people choose to either ignore or even outright reject the grace and love and yearning of the God who, as Isaiah says, “formed these people for myself, so that they might praise me.” It is as though the only reason human beings were brought into being was so that God could have a relationship with us.
But, in spite of ignorance and rejection, God continues to promise the abundant moisture of life – – Isaiah 44 begins this way: But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen! Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear. For I will pour out water on the thirsty land, and streams upon the dry ground. I will pour my spirit upon your descendants and my blessing on your offspring. Thirsty land – – dry ground – – images of our human lives when we lose touch with our Source.
Isaiah points us toward a God who suffers – – but also to a God who is always hopefully and extravagantly moving toward us even though a more pragmatic mind might say “Why waste your holy time and effort? These human beings are slippery and they just don’t get it!”
But we read a second story this morning too – – a story about a human being who just might get it. A woman who has been the recipient of the passionate love of the Lover. She co-hosts a dinner party to welcome Jesus into her home. She and her family serve the best food. They celebrate the presence of the Jesus in their midst. Mary even goes so far as to break open a vial of costly perfumed oil to anoint the Jesus’ feet. And then in an act of utter extravagance, she wipes his feet with her hair. Mary gets it. Even in the face of the pragmatic criticism of the resistant voice in the room – – – the voice of one who doesn’t get it – – Mary lavishly and extravagantly returns love to the Lover.
The gospel writer’s interpretation invited us to think about the story of Mary anointing Jesus as a metaphorical preparation for Jesus’ death. And this may well be. But when the story is juxtaposed with the extravagant nature of the Lover in Isaiah, the story might also be telling us something about what our role is in the Divine – Human Love story.
From the beginning of our faith saga, God is a creative, extravagantly gracious, long-suffering source of Love and Justice and Grace in the pursuit of the Beloved – humankind. The words in Isaiah might help us to know that when we ignore or neglect, or take the Lover for granted, we wound the heart of God – in much the same way that a child is capable of wounding a parent when the child rejects the love that the parent offers. But Isaiah also assures us that the Lover doesn’t ever give up.
Mary becomes not only the gracious receiver of the overwhelming love of Jesus for her and her family, she also becomes an extravagant lover in return – – her expensive, perfumed oil and her beautiful hair are her love gifts – – and in a quick and subtle turnabout, Mary puts a very human face on the nature of the passionate love of the Holy One of Being – – She makes something of the nature of God visible as she offers back to Jesus her love and devotion. When we love and serve extravagantly, we may indeed become the face of God. When we love and serve extravagantly, we bless God and bring joy and fulfillment into the relationship between us and the Lover.
The story will continue to unfold beyond the loving encounter between Mary and Jesus. We will see that while loving so extravagantly will bring great joy – it will also bring great suffering. Jesus’ death is on the horizon. Loving him costs a lot. Mary will suffer because she loves him. But she will also rejoice when she discovers that this is one love affair that will never end.
As we draw closer to Good Friday and then to Easter morning, we are challenged to hold in creative tension the idea of a God who loves passionately and extravagantly on the one hand, and the idea of a God who suffers when the relationship with the Beloved is distant or fractured on the other.
The interface between Mary and Jesus is a visual image of the point where God does a new thing! It is where the Lover’s ancient promise of life giving waters in the wilderness and rivers of water in the desert meet the perfumed oil of the beloved’s devotion and gratitude. When we are able to love God just as passionately as God has loved us – – when our hearts over flow with gratitude and with service to the Beloved, then we are in the place where, indeed, oil and water do mix – the place where the Lover and the Beloved meet and there is celebration and rejoicing – – giving and receiving – – blessing and blessed – – even though the world doesn’t always get it. This is what the Holy One desires – – simply that we turn toward God with our heart and soul and mind and strength and love God back as much as we have been loved. Mary gets it. Loving Jesus and loving the God that Jesus reveals is costly. – – but as Mary will discover, her passionate devotion will carry her through the devastation of death to a clearer understanding of what it means to live on the other side of crucifixion.
Isaiah and Mary confront us with the question: are we willing to become the place where God will do a new thing? Are we willing to be the people who will serve as the point where the water of God’s great promises mix with the perfumed oil of our willingness to love as extravagantly as God has loved us? If we can say “yes” – then God’s new thing is already happening – can you see it? It is ready to break forth from the bud.