Windsor Community United Methodist Church
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Mike Turgeon “God’s extravagant love” May 6, 2012
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
God’s extravagant love
In looking back over my sermons, I told this story a couple of years ago. It is the one about going to stay at my grandmother’s house for two weeks with my older sister during the summer.
For a small child like myself, grandma’s house was the equivalent of going on a long trip to a foreign land; she lived in Cleveland, four hours away from our home in Detroit.
Grandma’s house was easily 50 years older than ours. Even by a child’s standards, everything seemed well-worn, compared to the new luxury of suburban living.
God’s extravagant love
The crux of the story happened when my sister and I decided to go through Grandma’s dresser drawers. You talk about a foreign land. To a 6 year-old, we might as well have been in the Casbah of Morocco.
As we plunged in to our venture, it quickly became an odyssey of vast proportions, with 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 pervasive sensation that lingers still from the aroma of a particular bottle of her perfume.
From my perspective, this exotic and intoxicating aroma was an utter mystery. I recall that just unscrewing the cap about halfway was enough to permeate the entire room.
I puzzled over what this stuff might be used for. My 8 year-old sister, on the other hand, 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 stinking 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?
God’s extravagant love
I can also recall the 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 nine. 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. She’s gotten a hold of something extremely precious and exotic and it filled the room with its essence, just like my grandma’s perfume. Obviously, however much this product 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.
Mary’s actions are also out of proportion, but she does not hesitate. The proper place for such an anointing by a woman, would be at a burial, wrapping the corpse with spices and ointments in the privacy of the tomb.
You see, what Mary is doing, anointing a person still alive, is a priestly function, most certainly not a woman’s task by any stretch, and to do it in public is edgy to say the least.
To say this act of Mary’s was extravagant is an understatement, and it is 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 permeates our being, and it is out of proportion to our meager understanding of it--a mere whiff of God’s love is enough to change everything about us.
And perhaps most surprising is that 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, too, would dump our supposed treasure at Jesus’s feet in gratitude and praise, preferring instead the real deal that he offers.
The other compelling part of this scene is the intimacy between Mary and Jesus. Mary lavishes this precious ointment 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.
Our loss is also our gain
I wonder how often we think of ourselves in this way, with nothing to lose, and everything to gain?
Well, Jesus takes all of this in, submitting himself to this royal treatment. Mary’s action is meant to be over the top and over the cliff, especially as far as what is appropriate is concerned.
Nothing to lose is the theme that runs throughout this story. Mary certainly acts the part. For Jesus, this incident takes place 6 days before he enters Jerusalem where he will suffer and die at the hands of the Romans, so his days on earth are numbered.
And speaking about numbered days, remember, this is the family of Lazarus, the friend Jesus brought back to life. Talk about nothing to lose. Lazarus, dead, buried and out of the way, is now on a new way, each day more precious than the next. How would you view life if your days were that precious? Actually, what will you do? The last time I checked, each one of our earthly days is numbered and precious. And are we not similar to Lazarus, in that Jesus calls us friend as well?
To follow Jesus is to receive the stunningly good news that we have everything to gain. But we only gain it when we live it, one loving act at a time.
Half answers, vindictive attitudes, presenting our false selves only mimics what is popular, not what is required of us. The holiness of a follower’s life only reaches others when we have the courage to open our hearts and give from God’s love as it has been given to us.
The truth of Mary’s action shines and it threatens. It shines because it is pure, welling up from the deepest of places. It threatens because it exposes the half-hearted gesture and the calculated action.
Martha and Mary
Remember the half-hearted gesture of Martha, Mary’s sister? This is the same Martha who did the serving the first time Jesus came to Bethany. Then however, she served with resentment, not joy, while her sister Mary worshipped at the feet of Jesus. This time we hear no snippety comments from Martha. Perhaps her witness to the resurrection of brother Lazarus has flipped her attitude? If ever the benefit of the doubt is in order, it is here.
But it is the calculated comment of Judas Iscariot that gives us deep pause.
We know enough about Judas to say that he was a devoted follower of Jesus, up to a point, the point at which he chose to serve his own needs.
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 persons we encounter in John’s Gospel, Mary and Judas have the clearest priorities--Mary keeps Jesus uppermost in her life, Judas keeps the common purse. Judas, chosen as one of the original twelve, is now defined by his relationship with money. Judas doesn’t see the world through rose colored glasses; no, his glasses are colored by shades of green.
We heap ridicule and scorn on Judas, 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 own hearts. If we can scapegoat Judas, we get to feel smug about how we behave. This is tempting but dangerous. If you only name the demons in your brother or sister, without seeing the same demons in yourself, 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 see our own logs when we believe, like Judas, that we have too much to lose. We ignore Judas at our own risk. He let’s us see what happens when we ‘sell out‘ to the wrong buyer.
God’s extravagant love
How tightly are you holding on to your costly perfume? Maybe you are planning to take it with you when you go? Today, maybe just for a moment, can we loosen the cap on what’s precious within ourselves. Let God’s extravagant love escape into a world that could sorely use it.
And how tightly are you clutching the purse strings of your treasure?
“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. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, who came to Jesus by night, are the ones 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 to ‘waste’ her love and devotion on Jesus when it counted.
She took Jesus for what--and who--he was.
God’s extravagant love
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.