March 13, 2016
By John Partridge*
Scripture: Isaiah 43:16-21 Philippians 3:4b-14 John 12:1-8
Have you ever watched Mission Impossible?
It doesn’t really matter if you’ve seen the newer movies with Tom Cruise or the original television series that ran from 1966-1973 with Peter Graves and Barbara Bain. All of them begin with the Impossible Mission Force being offered a mission that most sane people would find to be either completely impossible or totally suicidal. But somehow, through good planning, quick thinking, enormous talent, and more than a few cool gadgets, the IMF team always manages to get things done. In real life however, all of us know that things don’t usually work out that way. But imagining that the impossible might actually be possible can be encouraging, even if it is a momentary fantasy.
But our scriptures today remind us that even though Tom Cruise and the Impossible Mission Force don’t belong to our church, what seems to be impossible is not always really impossible. We begin this morning with the words from Isaiah 43:16-21, where we hear God make two significant declarations.
16 This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.
God’s first declaration is found in the very first verse where he says that he was the one who “made a way through the sea.” God reminds his people that he is the one who has already done the impossible. No human being, nor any other god that has been worshipped on earth, has ever done, nor could ever do what Israel’s God has already done.
But then, just a few verses later, God says, ““Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. 19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.” The desert wilderness of Israel is one rocky mountain after another and mile after mile of desert that is strewn with boulders. Making a path through the wilderness and making rivers flow in the desert is pure, impossible fantasy. But, God says, this is exactly what he is doing.
Israel’s God, our God, is the god that has already done the impossible, and even today, continues to do the impossible.
If we have any doubts, let us turn to John 12:1-8, where we remember these words:
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6 He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
As we continue to prepare our hearts for Easter and the resurrection of Jesus, we are reminded that even before his death on the cross, Jesus had already done the impossible. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead after he had been buried for several days. Not even the greatest of the ancient prophets had ever done such a thing.
But then Mary did something that was, although certainly not impossible, undoubtedly unexpected. While Jesus was having dinner (our scripture says he was reclining because that was how people often ate at that time) Mary came and poured a year’s wages worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. Let’s think about that for a minute. In order for us to see that in today’s perspective, the average annual income in the United States is $46,481. Since Chanel No. 5 is $325 per ounce, a year’s pay would buy just a little over a gallon. But Ralph Lauren’s perfume “Notorious” costs $1416 per ounce so a year’s pay would only buy about a quart. And so Mary was being extraordinarily generous with her sacrifice. And, as we imagined a gallon of Chanel No. 5 or a full quart of Notorious, we have no difficulty in understanding how the fragrance of the perfume would have “filled the whole house.”
But we also see how Judas might have been shocked at the extravagance of her sacrifice. Despite Judas’ protests, Jesus understands that Mary’s gift was given in order to bring him honor. Jesus understands that God’s people will be fighting a battle against poverty and attempting to help the poor from that time until the end of time. But in the end, honoring Jesus as Mary did, while not impossible, was something that could only be done for a short time before Jesus’ death.
And then, in Philippians 3:4b-14, Paul explains that we too have been given an “impossible mission.”
If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: 5 circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; 6 as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.
7 But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. 8 What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ 9 and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. 10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.
12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. 13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
Paul says that he has given all that he has to God and everything that he used to have, although nearly priceless in the world and culture in which he lived, is worthless compared to the gift of Jesus. His goal was once to follow the law and to look good to people that he thought were important, but having met Jesus, his goals changed.
Paul’s new goals in life are to know Jesus and to one day live with him.
Paul knew two things. First, Paul understood that fully knowing Jesus is impossible. Because Jesus is a part of the Trinity, God in human flesh, he is unknowable. And second, Paul knew that understanding the power of Jesus’ resurrection and fully grasping our own resurrection, is utterly impossible during our mortal life here on earth. But all the same, Paul refuses to give up his dogged pursuit of this impossible mission. Every day of his life, he allows his past and all that he once valued, to be forgotten, to disappear into the mists of history. And every day, he refuses to give up and relentlessly presses forward. Every day, Paul tries to know Jesus better than the day before, and every day he tries to become more like Jesus.
This is our mission.
And although this is our “Mission Impossible,” we know that we worship a God who has done the impossible and, even today, continues to do the impossible.
There is no Tom Cruise or Peter Graves that can do it for us. But nonetheless, we, like Paul, must press forward. This goal is no momentary fantasy. We must never give up. Every day we must try. Every day we must strain to learn more about Jesus, to better understand Jesus, and every day we must do whatever we can to become more like Jesus.
This is your mission… should you choose to accept it.