John 12:1-8; Phil 3:4b-14
5th Sunday of Lent
St Barbara’s 07.04.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
I wonder, have you ever experienced one of those uncomfortable social gatherings where everything has all felt a little bit awkward and embarrassing. Maybe you’ve turned up for dinner at someone’s house, but you got the time wrong, and you’re an hour and a half late – the food that your host has lovingly prepared is cold and slightly burnt. Or you’re at a party, where someone has had too much to drink, and they start behaving in a way that you know they will regret later. Or when there is tension between the hosts – “how come you get to spend all the time with the guests and I’m in here in the kitchen?” Special celebrations and meals that may have been long anticipated and looked forward to are spoiled.
Well, I imagine that there may have been high levels of discomfort and awkwardness at the dinner being held in Bethany at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It had all started so well. After all, Jesus clearly loved Mary, Martha and Lazarus. He enjoyed their company; he enjoyed their warm hospitality. Their home was the perfect base away from the crowds to rest and relax during the intensity of a Passover week.
And here they were, with Jesus’ disciples and other guests, enjoying a special dinner in Jesus’ honour – a celebration, a thanksgiving, that Jesus had brought Lazarus back from the dead. If ever there was a cause for a party and a celebration, this was it! And Martha is busy again, serving, but maybe that is okay on this occasion, using her gifts as part of the celebration, enjoying being the hostess, her expression of thanks.
But then Mary does something that would have totally changed the atmosphere, something that left people feeling awkward, confused, embarrassed, downright angry.
She takes some nard perfume. Nard is a plant that is grown and prepared in India – hundreds of miles from Palestine – incredibly expensive, in all likelihood the most valuable thing she owns.
She takes the whole pint bottle and pours it on Jesus. If one of my boys took a newly opened bottle of Aldi’s cheapest shower gel and poured the whole of it on themselves in the shower I would be pretty cross – what a ridiculous waste. But Mary takes a whole, large bottle of the most expensive perfume imaginable – think Chanel No 5, think of the equivalent of a year’s wage (ten, twenty, thirty thousand pounds) – and pours it on Jesus. Its so totally over-the-top as to be shocking.
And she pours it on his feet. Who here puts their most expensive perfume or deodorant and sprays it on their feet? Certainly not in a country where dusty and muddy streets will mean you will have to wash them again pretty soon anyway. If you are going to anoint anyone with perfume, you do it on the head, especially anyone you regard as special, such as a king or a prophet. The only time feet are anointed is when a dead body is being prepared for burial.
As if this isn’t enough, Mary let’s down her hair to dry Jesus’ feet. In a culture where women only ever let their hair down in the bedroom or when in mourning, this act must have left people feeling deeply uneasy. But those who knew Mary well will have remembered that she did this once before, in more understandable circumstances, falling at Jesus’ feet when weeping and grieving at the death of her brother Lazarus.
For Mary’s act is the equivalent of rolling into the dining room a beautiful, oak, gold-decorated, made-to measure, coffin, and offering it to Jesus. Imagine if such an act had come from the Pharisees or the authorities – it would have been seen as a threat, a grisly act of intimidation. But not from Mary. From Mary, Jesus helps us to see, it is the act of the most extraordinary love. And that love is worked out in three remarkable ways.
For one thing, it is an act of grief for one whom she loves, but who she senses will not be around much longer. How did she know? Maybe the time she spent sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to him talk, had helped her to understand Jesus’ mission better than anyone else. Maybe she had picked up the fury and fear of the authorities following the bringing back to life of her brother, Lazarus, and guessed that Jesus’ life was now in danger. Or maybe, just maybe, because she loved Jesus so much, she just sensed, knew, without necessarily understanding, that she was called to do this act. Certainly, more than anyone other than Jesus himself, she had picked up that things had changed, that the future contained grief and suffering.
I wonder, to what extent are we attuned to experiencing the suffering and grief of our times, the suffering and grief that our God experiences today. The suffering and grief he experiences in seeing a drug addict’s life waste away, or an elderly person remain trapped and friendless in their own home; or a family fall apart; or refugees desperately seeking a safe place to call home. I wonder, where has our God already been this morning – with who has he already been present? what events has he already witnessed?
These next two weeks provide us with a framework to walk that journey to the cross that remind us that Jesus takes the suffering, the grief, of the world on himself. We can begin that journey this evening with our service of reflecting on the cross. I wonder, whether like Mary, our love for him, calls us to grieve as well as to rejoice, to intercede as well as to celebrate. How might you do that this week?
Mary’s love prompts her to an act of grief. It is also an act of extravagance. In pouring out her perfume, she takes her most valuable possession and gives it all to Jesus. In drying his feet with her hair, she lets go of her dignity and standing amongst others, and offers her whole life into Jesus’s hands. She could echo the words of Paul in our epistle reading: “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ my Lord.” It is the most extraordinary act of self-giving. For those looking on, it may have seemed over-the-top, inappropriate, hysterical maybe. But not to Jesus. He welcomes her act and defends it. Why? Because this is what true love does. It gives unconditionally; it doesn’t count the cost; it doesn’t care about reputation and social standing. It gives. It is what Jesus does for us, most ultimately of all, on the cross.
We need such love today, extravagant love. Love in our politics, that people may be willing to reach out with acts of generosity and grace and risk, and not assume the worst of the other. Love in our relationships, willing to go the extra mile for others, willing to risk being misunderstood or taken advantage of. Love in our worship of God, willing to offer him our whole hearts. I wonder, how might you extravagantly love God this week?
An act of grief. An act of extravagance. And an act of hope. Mary’s act takes place within the context of a meal of celebration. Lazarus, who had died, had been brought back to life. Mary knew first-hand, almost better than anyone else, the power that Jesus had over death. Maybe, even then, she sensed that her grief, deep as it was, would only be temporary. That death would not be able to hold him.
I wonder, can we look back, as Mary did to Lazarus being brought back from the dead, and find those times in our lives, maybe even in the last week, when God has been our light in the darkness, our source of strength, our answer to prayer, our salvation. Hold on to those moments – indeed allow them to infuse your thoughts and your feelings, just as the fragrance of Mary’s perfume infused the house – and allow them to give you hope for the future. For beyond the cross is the empty tomb; beyond death is life in all its abundance.
Let us, like Mary did, grieve for the suffering of Christ and his world; love extravagantly, risking being misunderstood; and live with hope, knowing that in two weeks time we we declare the greatest truth of all – death does not have the final word, Christ is risen!