Faithlife Sermons

God Moves Us to Empty Ourselves

Lent 2019  •  Sermon  •  Submitted
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God moves us from fears of scarcity to lavish worship and celebration.


Mary Anoints Jesus

(Mt 26:6–13; Mk 14:3–9)

12 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3 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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (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.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

We are drawing close to the climax of the story. Just 6 days before Passover. The next day in the narrative is Palm Sunday, which we’ll celebrate next week. We are about to enter the familiar, haunting, powerful, overwhelming stories of Holy Week, taking steps ever closer to Easter.
In today’s text, Jesus is in the home of his dear friends, Lazarus, Mary and Martha. Every time we see these three in the story, I get the sense that Jesus is with his people, his true family, the ones he holds close in his heart and goes to be with for restoration.
Think for a moment about who those folks are? Who are the ones you go to be with to truly unwind, to be yourself, to let your guard down? Elsewhere in Jesus’ ministry, Jesus is confronted by the disciples to go out and greet his mother, Mary, and his brothers, who have come to visit. Jesus questions the disciples about family — the ones who hear the word and “get it”, those are my family, he remarks. So who are your people, your chosen family?
I grew up at Calvin Presbyterian Church in Shoreline, WA. It was a good sized church and it was populated by my family members: Both sets of grandparents attended there during my childhood, before they moved away in retirement. My parents had been in the youth group together there and were married in that church. My sister and I were baptized there. Calvin Presbyterian sponsored my Aunt and Uncle when they went to Nairobi, Kenya to serve as missionaries with Wycliffe Bible Translators. In church, I grew up around my family.
And yet there was this other family in that congregation. People we went on summer camping trips with. The kids that I grew up alongside in youth group. The people we would BBQ with in the summer and do white elephant gift exchanges with before Christmas. These people became the chosen family.
There is a group of folks from those days at Calvin Presbyterian who still spend time together in meals and fellowship, long after their children have left home and they have left that congregation for various reasons. They are dear friends who call themselves, “Forever Family.” They have chosen a way of life together, a commitment to be themselves, to be known.
I think about my life now in Bellingham. Having been here for almost half of my life, I feel like I have started to find this kind of “forever family” myself. The people you share the joys and sorrows of life with. The people who you celebrate job opportunities with or sit in sorrow alongside through a divorce. A forever family.
Jesus is sitting with his forever family. We can include the disciples in this mix too, though with any family group, there are the ones who resist belonging or have intimacy struggles. We’ll come back to Judas in a moment, because he’s got a key part to play in this forever family. Jesus is with the people who he can let it all out with and who also are willing to be their authentic selves.
Mary comes to him. Mary the one who has throughout the stories of Jesus’ ministry been a focal point of God’s restorative power and intimate grace. Mary comes to Jesus and does something uncomfortably lavish — she blesses him, washes him, anoints him with very expensive perfume. It might have felt like an awkward moment, her intimate and lavish sharing with her beloved Rabbi. But her act was one of great generosity and trusting abundance — turning to Jesus with an abundant, lavish gift of welcome and hospitality.
This act of anointing signals, in John’s gospel, a marking and preparation for what is to come. Clear enough, if we know the story, the anointing of oil and perfume is fitting for burial, for a person who is ready to die.
But Mary’s motives are more complex than this, it seems, at least in how John tells the story. Because he pairs this lavish gift with the scrutiny of Judas and a word about celebration amidst a world of poverty — “the poor you will always have with you.”
Let’s pull back the layers here, slowly.
Mary offers Jesus this lavish blessing and anointing. Let’s start there. When you walk in the door of someone you love, someone who is in your circle, think about how they can welcome you in a similar fashion. Perhaps they offer an embrace — not perfunctory, but a deep, knowing embrace of a friend. Perhaps you walk in, after they’ve taken your coat, and you see that they have laid out good food to eat and opened a nice bottle of wine from their cellar to share. Perhaps you walk in to their bathroom, to freshen up, and see that they have set out a towel and good smelling soaps and lotions. In the home of your people, you know these are set out for you and you do not worry about using them because they are gifts, abundant, simple offerings of friendship and fellowship.
In her own way, this is what Mary offers.
Hold on to this sense, this abundance and generosity in Mary’s hospitable welcome to Jesus. Savor it. Breathe it in. Because, as the text unfolds, we acknowledge that these moments are fleeting.
I can imagine that scene and the others gathered around in that moment of anointing. Some, I suspect, would be brought to tears. They know what this gift means. They know what it means to Mary, to both welcome Jesus into her home and expectantly say goodbye to her dear friend. Others, perhaps among the disciples, have had this sense too. This is a sweet time and one that marks some sense of transition in their relationships.
Before we move on, I want to make a note of something in this text that we might miss. Let’s take a roll call here, just to consider who really was in the room. Verse 1, we see that it’s the home of Lazarus. In vs. 2, Martha is serving and Lazarus is at the table with Jesus. In vs. 3, Mary is pouring perfume. In vs. 4&5, Judas chimes in about the value of the perfume. And in this moment, we might want to paint in the whole rest of the disciples, because, hey, if Judas is there (that scoundrel) then certainly the rest are.
I want us to consider that we might be rushing to conclusions about Judas. Why not list or reference the rest of the disciples? Sure, maybe it’s assumed. But why not make it explicit?
What if, instead, it’s actually just Jesus, Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and…Judas?
Knowing the rest of the story, at least how we most often hear it, we would balk at this idea that Judas was a part of that inner circle, that forever family, that intimate gathering with Jesus. What’s the betrayer doing there? You don’t invite your enemy to that kind of table.
Ok, hold on — first, if you’re Jesus, you....actually do. You eat meals with your betrayer. You welcome them in the same way you welcome your beloved. You offer them grace forever and always.
But second, and this is a kicker for me because it changes the game from this point on — what if Judas is at the table because he is just as important and intimately known and loved by Jesus as Mary, Martha and Lazarus?
Judas asks the question that everyone is thinking: why waste all that expensive perfume when we could have helped people in need with it? It’s a valid, real question. He’s thinking “I’ve been keeping our accounts and we cannot afford to spend like that. It’s not prudent. It’s not responsible.” And he’s right!
Certainly, vs. 6 helps us out as John tells us that Judas actually wasn’t concerned with caring for the poor, but was lining his pockets with some of the common purse money. Sure — he’s asking for the wrong reasons.
But regardless of Judas’ motivations in the moment, his question makes sense and he serves a purpose. And beautifully, Jesus doesn’t condemn him, but uses his realistic question to offer a deeper truth that they all need to hear.
Jesus turns their attention back to the good life at hand — this moment with your dear friends, gathered around the table. He wants them to see that Mary is marking him for burial, preparing for the thing they have all wanted to deny.
None of these people want Jesus to die, to leave them. Certainly not Mary, Martha and Lazarus. And I want to argue not Judas either.
If Judas can deny that Jesus is preparing for burial by deflecting the issue toward some sort of pious care for the poor, he can deny the role he must play in it as well.
There is a stream in Christian thought that looks upon Judas as one of the most faithful disciples for the very fact that he betrays Jesus. What? Yeah! In this intimate setting, what if Judas knew that this was his calling, his road to walk. To betray his Lord who he had spent years with, wandering the Judean countryside?
Philosophers and theologians have wrestled with the meaning and purpose of Judas and have asked this question — what if the highest form of faithfulness to Jesus, for Judas, was to help carry out his arrest and crucifixion? What if Jesus’ ministry needed this part to be played? The leaders of the synagogue certainly hadn’t had the guts to do it yet, so what makes us think they would? No, it needed to be an inside job and it was Judas’ calling.
Can you hold that possibility?
Think back to your “forever family”, your people. The people who would lavish you with fine foods and bath salts and a nice warm blanket. Aren’t these also the same people who you need honesty from? The people who you would expect to tell you the truth. The people who would sit you down and have an intervention if they saw something unhealthy going on in your life? If not them, who?
I think Jesus’ final words of the passage are meant to unmask Judas’ deflection. “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.”
Put it this way: “Let Mary celebrate, in fact, we should all be celebrating. The days are coming for my work to be finished. There will always be poor, needy, hungry, struggling people and we should most certainly always be attentive to their needs. But tonight, in this intimate setting, we need to celebrate, mourn, weep, smile, laugh — the work is almost done.”
And perhaps in an aside to Judas, Jesus might say or even simply glance at him: “Judas, you know this better than anyone. Don’t hide behind your piety. I know you do not want to do what you must do. But let your faithfulness win. Be here with us now and be true to your calling. Let go of the things you hold so tightly, your money and your position. Pour yourself out now and in the days to come so that all of this might be completed.”
Ok. So what about us?
In closing, I want to link Judas and the Older Brother from last week’s Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Older Son has all the gifts of the father, all the love. And he is bitter and concerned about the party being thrown. Similarly, Judas is at this intimate table and complaining about the extravagance being shown by Mary.
In both stories, the invitation is to the good life, right here, right now. For both Judas and the Older Son, there are important parts to play, roles in the celebration of the Messiah and the Good Father’s love. To become bitter is to miss the opportunity to join in with the good life. For the Older Son, his place is at the table with the brother, offering steady welcome and restoration. For Judas, his place is at the table to betray, to walk the harder road that brings the cross and ultimately, if we trust in this story, brings the overpowering of death itself.
So what about us? A few simple directions we can take this:
First, we mustn’t get in the way of another person’s lavish, abundant worship, the gifted response. In fact, we must find ways to acknowledge it, to welcome it, to bless it ourselves.
Second, as we are invited to the intimate table with Jesus, we are called to find our own way to pour out perfume, to bless our Lord, and to bless God’s creation. This might end up meaning doing the hard work of leading something to death, knowing that life could be on the other side. This might mean speaking a word of truth to God and to others. And this might mean simply accepting that we are beloved even when our life is less than lavish, less than grand, marked by struggle and strife.
Finally, as a people, I think this text reminds us that we are called to curiosity and openness about the ways God calls each one of us and uses us. Maybe you’re a Lazarus, a story of resurrection. Maybe you’re Martha — a doer, a faithful one right by Jesus’ side. Maybe you’re Mary, the effusive, passionate, lover of God who let’s the whole world see it. And maybe you’re Judas — intimately beloved by God, one who has had all the gifts of God at your disposal, and one with a difficult calling to live out, but one of power and impact nonetheless. We must be a community of faith that is welcoming and open to all of these kinds of calling. To deny one type is to miss out on a facet of God’s resurrection power. To open ourselves to them all is to make space for the abundance of God’s gifts, lived out, poured out, in our midst and for the life of the world.
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