Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Sunday, December 08, 2013
Sermon 2010 01-31
Mike Turgeon “God’s extravagant love” January 31, 2010
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." John 12:1-8
I remember as a kid when we would go to my grandmother’s house in Cleveland during the summer. And sometimes my folks would leave my older sister and I with Grandma for a week or two. I know this is a long-time practice among families that continues even today, and these were memorable times for me as I was just starting to explore the world through no longer baby eyes, but those of a young kid.
I remember an instance when my sister and I, being curious, decided it would be a good idea to go through Grandma’s dresser drawers. Well, as we plunged in, it quickly became an oddessy of vast dimensions, as if traveling through a foreign land of exotic sights and smells. We covered a lot of territory in those few short minutes in her bedroom. I recall that she had these intense breath mints that I still have in my taste memory, they were that overwhelming. You know, kinda’ like alt-oids before there ever was such a thing. But that was nothing compared to the really pervasive sensation that lingers still in the aroma of a particular bottle of her perfume.
From the perspective of a 6 year-old kid, this exotic and intoxicating aroma was an utter mystery. I recall that just cracking open the cap about halfway was enough to fill up the room with its essence. I remember puzzling over what this stuff might be used for. My 8 year-old sister had figured it out long ago as girls do and she rubbed some of it on herself and then me. Of course, little kids at that age are not prone to subtlety, so we both took another few dabs. Now, if we had meant to be sneaky about going through my grandma’s stuff, we certainly weren’t very good at it, especially now, as we stood there stinkin’ to high heaven. Well, Grandma busted us in short order and made it real clear that we were not to do that again.
What is it about strong aromas? I can also recall the awful, awful smell of ether when it was used as an anesthetic to put me out in order to have my tonsils removed when I was about 9 or 10 years old. They say that the human olfactory system is that part of brain function that is most closely linked to the survival mechanism of fight or flight. The quicker you could smell danger coming, the better off you’d be.
So of all the elements of this short passage, that’s the part of the story that grabs me the most, the exotic aroma of the costly ointment that Mary uses here to anoint Jesus. Mary has somehow gotten a hold of something extremely precious-the fruit of the spikenard plant.
This stuff was rare, expensive and exotic, and it filled the room with its essence, just like my grandma’s perfume. Obviously, however much this perfume was worth back then--300 denarii, a year’s wages--it was a total extravagance, completely out of proportion to what a poor person, or even a person of modest means back then would ever have in their possession.
But here is Mary, letting it all hang out. Her actions are totally out of proportion. The proper place for this anointing would be at a burial. Women were expected to wrap the corpse with spices and ointments in the privacy of the tomb. But what Mary is doing is a priestly function, this anointing, something women didn’t do, and to do it in public is edgy to say the least.
So this act of Mary’s is extravagant at every level. It’s the same way with God’s overpowering love for you and I. Like the aroma of that perfume, the love of God in Jesus Christ is the gift that keeps on giving, and it is totally out of proportion to our meager understanding of it--a mere whiff being enough to change everything about us.
But the heck of it is, God’s love is not that exotic. We don’t have to travel to distant lands to find it. Being created in God’s image, this love infuses our very nature. It’s built in, factory installed, and if we ever do get it like Mary gets it, we’ll be dumping our treasures at Jesus’ feet in gratitude and praise as well.
And what about the intimacy of this scene between Mary and Jesus. Mary lavishes this precious liquid on Jesus’ feet, and proceeds to wipe them with her hair. No wonder not every one in that room was comfortable with this. But Mary doesn’t seem to care, she is going for it like she’s got nothing to lose.
Nothing to lose, everything to gain. Jesus, too, takes it all in, submitting himself to this royal treatment. Mary’s action is meant to be over the top, over the cliff, especially as far as what is ‘appropriate.’ How did Bob Dylan put it, “When you ain’t got nothing, you ain’t got nothing to lose?”
Nothing to lose is the theme that runs through this whole story. Remember, this incident takes place 6 days before Jesus enters Jerusalem where he will suffer and die at the hands of the Romans. Jesus’ days on earth are numbered.
Also, remember that this is the immediate family of Lazarus, the dear friend whom Jesus brought back to life. You talk about nothing to lose. How do you think Lazarus sizes up each day now, after the fact? Dead, buried and out of the way, and then bam! A second chance at life. What would you do? What will you do? Last time I checked, our days are numbered as well.
You know, as followers, Jesus tells us every which way that life is a gift, we are forgiven, he is there when we need to start over; but Lazarus, man, he lived it, died it, and is living it again.
And Lazarus‘ sisters? Mary gets it. This is the same Mary who plopped herself down at Jesus’ feet way back at the beginning of his public life. Remember that? The same Mary who blew Martha off and left her to be the hostess with the most-est when Jesus came to visit, much to Martha’s chagrin.
Mary, more than any of his disciples, has had her eyes opened to who Jesus is. She’s taken to heart his final words in the passage, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” That statement is not trashing the poor, that statement is a prophesy. Jesus is saying the poor are your responsibility, but I am your savior. Get that straight. Mary gets it straight.
Now, Martha may not have gotten it as quickly, but she does seems to be coming around. It says she served. Only this time she serves without any snippety comments under her breath. An up close and personal witness to her brother’s resurrection has flipped her attitude.
In fact, Lazarus and his family are a step ahead of the disciples. Throughout the Gospels, the disciples are portrayed as dense, only partially able to comprehend what’s going on and who Jesus is. Here’s Mark’s version of this same story, only instead of Judas, it is the disciples who are slandering Mary’s act of worship toward Jesus every bit as much as Judas:
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her.
But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her." Mark 14:3-9
We’re not in the home of Lazarus here, but that of Simon the leper. The characters are different but the message is the same; get a clue, it’s not about the money.
And that brings us to Judas Iscariot. Aren’t you glad we’re not him? We aren’t him, are we? Would we sell Jesus out for a few pieces of silver? No? How about a few pieces of gold?
Of all the characters in John’s Gospel, Mary and Judas have the clearest priorities. Judas keeps the common purse, and it brings about his ruin. Judas was chosen as one of the original twelve, but now he’s defined by his relationship with money. Judas doesn’t see the world through rose colored glasses, but shades of green.
Like the very religious accountant. Let me tell you about him. This man lived his life according to the strict, posted rules of his religion. Never missed a church service, never missed saying his prayers, gave of his resources exactly what the sacred writings prescribed.
He was so good at following the rules that he figured his pious life entitled him to take something with him from this life to the next when he died. So, as he prepared for death, he carefully packed a suitcase with gold bars, figuring this would be a security in the afterlife. And gold bars, well, you can’t get more basic as far as riches are concerned than gold bars.
So the man arrives at the Pearly Gates.
He encounters St. Peter standing there by the metal detector. The first thing Peter said was, “Open the suitcase and place it on the conveyor belt.” Excited now, the man unlocked and opened the bag, sure that Peter would be impressed.
Upon seeing the gold bars, though, St. Peter said, "So, you brought pavement?"
Judas Iscariot was playing the same game. By all accounts, he was a devoted follower, dotting his ‘i’s and crossing his ‘t’s, but he had a secret plan B that only he and Jesus knew about. He gives himself away when he questions Mary’s passionate outpouring to Jesus.
We like to heap ridicule and scorn on Judas Iscariot, he is useful to us in this way, useful as a scapegoat. If we can keep the spotlight on Judas, perhaps that same spotlight can be diverted from the darkness that lurks in our hearts. If we can scapegoat Judas, we get to feel smug about our own behavior. This is tempting but dangerous. If you only name the demons in your brother, then you are lost.
Remember the time in Matthew’s Gospel when Jesus said:
“Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” Matthew 7:3
We refuse to name our own logs because we believe we have too much to lose. What is it about naming things? There’s power there.
Jesus used the power of ‘naming’ the demons in order to exorcise them. He would call the demon by name, and only then, did he complete the task and cast the demon out. In the 12-step recovery movement, you must admit you have a problem before you can deal with it.
We ignore Judas at our own risk. He is the anti-Mary. He let’s us see what happens when we ‘sell out‘ to the wrong buyer. Are you Mary, or are you Judas? Do you see yourself as someone with too much to lose or nothing to lose?
And while you’re thinking about it, let me add this--Jesus collected losers...and sinners.
Are you holding on to your alabaster jar of precious ointment? Maybe planning to take it with you? Today, maybe just for a moment, can you loosen the cap on what’s precious within you? Let some of your power escape into the world to do some good?
Are you clutching the purse strings of your treasure too tight?
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” If only. It turns out that at Jesus’ burial, Mary, the sister of Lazarus, is nowhere to be found. It is Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who came to Jesus by night who bring a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloe and other spices to wrap Jesus’ body according to the custom of the Jews.
Mary really did know something about the importance of being extravagant now, no matter the cost. She learned early how to ‘waste’ her love and devotion on Jesus when it counted.
She took Jesus for what--and who--he was.
Have you ever taken your most precious resource and spilled it on the floor? Without reason. On purpose? Don’t wait until life strips away all of your useless defenses before coming to Jesus. God’s extravagant love in Jesus Christ has already been bought and paid for. Let it in and let it out.