Words of Life on the Road to Death: Priorities Matter
A Sermon on John 12:1-8
Only a few days ago I returned home from a week long ski trip with the youth. We had a really good week, some learning to ski for the first time, others enjoying playing in the snow. Some tried snowboarding for the first time, and Chris was so confident about learning he forgot to sign up for lessons. So I found myself taking on the unexpected role of snowboard instructor, one of many unexpected surprises over the week.
One of the things you should know about snowboarding is that it is an incredibly awkward thing to do at first, there is nothing natural about it. And learning it, you will fall. A lot. Even if you end up a pro, I guarantee you fell down at least 50 times learning. And with poles or anything to keep you standing, it hurts.
You have to do a couple of very unnatural things. First, and probably hardest to learn, you have to lean downhill, a shockingly terrifying thing to do when you have both feet strapped to a waxed piece of wood on a mountainside. But if you don’t, you fall. So I kept saying to Chris “I know its unnatural, and your body is screaming at you to not do it, but you have to lean forward.”
Often our normal, natural reactions to the world around us are sufficient to getting by. We know to walk carefully when it is dark outside, to cut away from our bodies, how to keep our balance when we are about to trip. But in some situations, like snowboarding, our natural reactions actually work against us. We encounter a new “normal” where going quickly downhill is actually safer for us than leaning back trying to stop.
I say all this, because I feel the discipleship that Christ calls us to is one of these new kinds of “normal.” Surely, if we can say anything about Christ, it is that he was not up to anything that was expected. Yet, there is that twist. Christ was present at the creation of the earth, before any of us or any of this existed. So equally expected, we can say that the hands that crafted us probably had something to do with what the real “normal,” or natural way of doing things was set up.
We were created by a loving God, with a natural impulse to be friends with God, to give of ourselves, to love. Yet, we made our own normal. Such that it is no longer our impulse to give of ourselves, yet it is far more natural to us to hoard for ourselves. It is more natural to judge one another by race, class, or appearance, than it is for us to love our enemies. So the same advice could apply here as from snowboarding: “I know its really unnatural, and your body, your mind is screaming at you how stupid it is to care for someone who hates you, to give to someone who doesn’t care, but you have to step out.”
The scripture today is precisely about such an understanding of discipleship. Were I to be present in the house of Lazarus at this moment in scripture, I have a feeling my jaw would have been dropped to the floor when Mary began to anoint the feet of Jesus. Women dont anoint Jewish men. 2 sorts of people are anointed: Kings and dead people: Jesus is neither at that moment? Both? And you anoint the head, not the feet. And women simply don’t let their hair down in the presence of men. And single women certainly don’t touch a single man in public. This whole tale just screams Impropriety! Offense!
These customs are long gone, we no longer are offended in a woman lets her down. But the controversy we can relate to, on an almost daily basis is the use of money. Judas protests: “Jesus Christ, why did Mary hide this perfume in her room, and why don’t we sell it for a years wages (~$40,000) and give it to the poor?” John immediately dispenses with his comment reminding us of Judas’ status as a traitor and thief, but the question lingers with us does it not? It speaks to the push and pull within the church, I’ve heard and made a similar argument when talking about a new building for the church, or any big purchase for religious reasons. Something within us goes: that costs HOW much? Think of what could have been done with so much money? These are tough questions: How do we responsibly walk the line between giving up all things for God, and giving extravagantly like Mary did?
If we are to pry any truth from the scripture, we have to look a bit deeper at the context of this story. The name Lazarus may be familiar, Jesus just raised him from the dead. Jesus was late getting to Bethany, so Lazarus had been dead about 4 days. Suddenly it makes a bit more sense why Mary might have had this extremely expensive jar of spikenard, a rare perfume imported from the Himalayas.
And you also may recall Jesus’ previous engagement with Mary and Martha, and their disagreement on discipleship: Martha being busy in the kitchen, and Mary learning at the feet of Jesus. Mary is again at the feet of Jesus. Her perfume fills the house, replacing the dreaded smell of death, as Martha so elegantly says in the KJV: “He stinketh.” A smell which never came to pass for Lazarus.
In other words: In the gospel of John the woman anointing the feet of Jesus, and using her hair to wipe his feet is not some random woman, she is Mary, the woman who dared to learn at his feet. The woman who personally knew and loved Jesus, Mary was a devoted disciple. In the gospel of Luke, an unknown woman known to be a notorious sinner runs into the room and anoints the feet of Jesus. But here, we do not have a unnamed person. Mary knew Jesus loved her and cared for her, they were close friends.
So what was Mary doing? She wasn’t desperately seeking forgiveness, or seeking attention from Jesus. Why the nard? Why the feet? In the footsteps of many men and women of Israel, Mary was performing a prophetic act. With her actions she anointed the feet of Christ declaring to the disciples, to Martha and Lazarus, that Jesus would die. She was preparing him for burial, quite literally. Mary was saying “I understand who and what you are, and I know you must die. Let me honor your sacrifice.” So in this way, Mary was miles ahead of the 12 disciples that just didn’t get it yet. Mary was action-preaching with perfume and bare feet. Mary shows us what the strange world of discipleship is about.
Mary’s act wasn’t about money, it wasn’t a transaction. It was an extravagant gift, it was completely over the top, and according to Jesus, it was entirely appropriate. Once again, how do we read this scripture? Do we read it from an economic perspective? Because if we do, the only conclusion is that Jesus was a terrible businessman. The financial model he advocates here is simply not sustainable for another quarter, its amazing he made it three years like this, despite the embezzlement of Judas.
On the surface, Judas was at least concerned for the poor. Judas taps into an economic truth. All money has to go somewhere, and if it can go one place, it can go a thousand other places. So here, he says what he thinks Jesus wants to hear. Give it to the poor, of course Jesus cant argue with that. Here Judas misses the point. He knows the gospel of Jesus, he learned at his feet, but he was never fully inside the strange world/ the new normal of Christ. Judas never ceased looking at everything through the lenses of money, finance and material goods. Judas lived by absolute cost/benefit analyses, and as such was unable to see Jesus as someone worth giving such an honor, simply because of the money involved.
Jesus tells Judas. “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” We often read this as Jesus saying poor people will always exist in the world, yet this is a statement about the disciples, and by extension, the church. The poor will always be among us, as members of the body of Christ, as family, as loved ones. What is needed here, what Mary gets in that moment, and Judas fails to grasp, is that the new normal is to set Jesus as the lens by which everything is viewed. Mary gives extravagantly because she knows a life in Christ is one of abundance. There is always more found within the Kingdom of God, she gives freely of her perfume without a second thought, that’s where her heart leads her. A mentality of love, and abundant giving.
Whatever our priority is, whatever occupies the lenses we wear, is where we are naturally guided. Judas’ concern for money led him to steal, and ultimately betray the Lord for a stack of silver. Yet Mary understood Jesus was the center of all things, the beginning and end, the prince of peace, and the lord of hosts. So looking through that lenses of Christ, it makes sense to give all for him, to honor him, to break social norms, to be seen as a harlot, a lunatic or worse. To use your hair as a towel, because Jesus asks us into a radical discipleship. One that is not easy, and one that is not natural. Especially at first.
The prophetic message of Mary that day is a challenge to us today. What is Jesus to us? How do we honor his sacrifice? Is he crammed into our natural understanding of our lives? Is Jesus just an answer to a problem we have, nothing more than a missing puzzle piece, a means to an end like he was for Judas? When Jesus demanded everything from us, he was saying precisely this: to hold God as the center of our lives, to shape our lives around that one truth.
Jesus is the center, not because he was selfish, but because he is God-with-us, and deserves our thanks and praise. There is simply no clear cut way of going forward, no pre-determined guidelines on how to be a disciple. Yet, the message of Mary is clear, that when Jesus is the very center of our lives, our actions can be trusted to be on the path God laid before us. And the rest of the details of our lives fall around that. It will not feel natural, you may be criticized, but over time, it will feel right, good and holy.
Following Christ will lead us to a strange world where giving abundantly and loving extravagantly are the new normal. The kingdom of God will be like this: a woman will anoint the feet of the bridegroom with expensive, costly perfume while her onlookers criticize her.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.