World Day of Prayer 2006
Wesley United Church Petite Riviere
Luke 21:5-19 Ezekiel 37:1-10 Matthew 26:6-13
Tonight we give thanks for and are encouraged by the faith of the women of South Africa who have prepared this service of worship, which is being prayed in churches all over the world this day. And we are blessed year by year at these ecumenical services to know something of the variety of expressions of the Christian faith and experience and hopefully to be awakened to the needs and inspired by the loving responses of our sisters and brothers in other parts of the globe, sometimes to the monumental challenges that they face.
The theme that the World Day of Prayer International Committee has assigned for this year is Signs of the Times.
And our readings, chosen by the women of South Africa, are rich in wonderful and stark contrasts and seeming contradictions – a reflection perhaps of the liveliness of their faith in the midst of the most trying outward circumstances – high poverty and unemployment, HIV/AIDS pandemic, great numbers of orphans and a very young average age of population, and they battle with drugs, high crime rates and violent crime – a society in great transition as it seeks justice and reconciliation in a new climate of freedom.
Our first response might be to think, poor them, what can we do for them, or, to be despairing of the problems that they face. Yet that might not be a fair response. We would not wish such suffering on anyone, but I wonder as I pray through this service if they are not more alive to Christ than we are?
The readings are about building up and being broken down; about death and resurrection; about loving Christ and loving our neighbour.
In the reading, from Luke’s Gospel, perhaps the thing that strikes us first are hearing the signs of our own time spoken of by Jesus – Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues. And yet it would be hard to draw the clear conclusion that the end of the world is at hand – there is a way that the world around us is continually coming to an end, it is passing away before us, it is not eternal in the heavens, though the souls of the faithful are. And while we are on this earth we can expect trial and temptation, Jesus says, When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.
But before the dreadful portents and great signs from heaven that announce Christ’s return, we must suffer much. Jesus says, You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls. Somehow bearing faithful witness, the doing of God’s will here on earth will be very costly – it will cost us our lives.
The women of South Africa who live in the midst of great trial outwardly, encourage us by first giving thanks to God, whom they know reigns supreme above all the clamour of the world. They give thanks to God for “giving us ears to hear you,” and for “eyes to see you”. They remind us that it is God that revitalizes and that we in some way can be and are called to be prophetic witnesses to that.
In that second reading, Ezekiel is given a vision of Resurrection, of bodies coming back together in response to his speaking the prophetic word from God – bone to its bone, sinews and flesh and skin covered them; but, it says, there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
There is a danger when we hear about the troubles that others suffer, that our response is to give money or some other material assistance to help relieve the suffering – and that is in a way very true Christian response.
And yet the women of South Africa are pointing us through Scripture to the underlying source of all revitalization – it is not enough to be flesh and blood – it is, as Jesus says, the Spirit the gives life – it is the four winds, the Breath, the Spirit of the living God. And when the Spirit moves on us, we stand on our feet, a vast multitude, ready for true acts of love and compassion inspired, not by self righteousness, but by Christ Himself.
The third reading, from Matthew’s Gospel, is a wonderful choice, especially when we look at it with the first reading.
It is the story of the woman who comes to Jesus with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment – Mark says it was worth 300 denari about a whole year’s wages – very costly, and she poured it on Jesus head – an act of great extravagance.
Now remember, in the first reading, we saw the disciples speak in awe of the acts of devotion in the adornment of the Temple with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God. Jesus tells them that the Temple will be totally destroyed.
This time, when they see a woman come to Jesus, and to adorn the temple of his body, in a sensual act, with a costly gift, they are not in awe. But, Matthew, who was one of the disciples who was there, says they were angry at her. Why the waste? For this ointment could have been sold for a large sum, and the money given to the poor.” But Jesus, aware of this said to them, Why do you trouble the woman? She has performed a good service to me. For you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. By pouring the ointment on my body she has prepared me for burial. Jesus tells them the Temple of His body will be destroyed.
Who knows exactly why they were angry this time. Perhaps they were jealous of her act of loving devotion to Him, one that they could not or would not dare to do themselves. Perhaps they were zealous for the poor – Jesus had told them to be so – but then they had forgot their Lord who was right in front of them with only hours more to be with them on earth.
The woman with the alabaster jar of very costly ointment, had seen more clearly than the disciples, and understood the signs of the times, and acted with what she had in love. A year’s labour’s worth of costly ointment – poured on the body of her Lord. And what she did, as Jesus said, has been told in remembrance of her all around the world even today, and will continue to be told.
We’re left with this strange question. Who are we to anoint with costly ointment?
Jesus says that when we give a glass of water to the thirsty, when we feed the hungry, when we visit those in prison, we are ministering to Him. He is to be seen in the face of the poor and the needy.
But Jesus also says that the Church, the people of God, are his body – we are the temples of the Spirit. But we don’t replace Christ with our bodies.
How do we anoint our Lord, the head of the body, with costly ointment?
Is it really the poor in South Africa that is in need of the greatest attention? Or is it a prophetic witness to us to concern ourselves with our churches in North America and Europe that are dying? Or is it some act of devotion and worship? Is it all of these? Is it one before the other?
Can we be a prophetic witness by simply giving money to the poor? or, is something more being asked of us? even our whole lives?
What are the signs of the times and what is Jesus calling on us to do today?
Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath, Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.