Yr C ~ Lent 4 (readings from Lent 5) ~ John 12:1-8
Today we get to embrace a story that’s told in varying forms in all four gospels. That means it’s one of those scripture ideas that’s so important everyone knew they had to include it. But, of course, each story-teller tells it a bit differently. That means it’s important for us to think about the theme of it more than the minute details. The details may change from gospel to gospel but the truth of the story is common. It’s a story about love.
Wait, that’s not good enough.
It’s not a story about love – it’s a story about extravagant, gushing, overflowing love.
It’s a story about a woman offering Jesus an expression of love that is astoundingly extravagant.
Why does she do it? What does it mean? Why is it important for us today? Let’s find out!
The scene is the home of the recently raised Lazarus. You remember him, the one who was dead and Jesus called him back to life. Clearly, that’s another complicated sermon – but it’s enough today to know that he’s now alive and well enough to host a dinner party. He’s hosting with his sisters, Martha and Mary. You’ll probably remember them from the story about how Martha was upset that she was doing all the work while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet learning and that Jesus said Mary’s way was better. Again, that’s another complicated sermon!
At this party we find Mary once again at Jesus’ feet but this time is very different. The range of theological opinion about what’s going on in this scene is breathtaking.
Is this a foreshadowing of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet?
Is this a foreshadowing of anointing Jesus for burial?
Is this a woman anointing a king and therefore claiming feminist power?
Is this an inversion of class as a peasant woman performs a nobleman’s role of anointing a king?
Is this a sexual act?
A woman taking down her hair in front of a man usually meant sex – and then to use her hair to wipe and anoint his feet is a profoundly intimate and somewhat shocking action.
Is this an example of transforming a common ritual into a radical act of love toward Jesus?
Washing the feet of guests was basic hospitality for them – doing it with expensive perfume? Not so much!
Let’s talk about the perfume. It was said to cost 300 denarii, which is about one year’s wages.
Let that sink in for a second.
One year’s wages!
What’s a yearly wage today? Let’s pick $50,000 — Can you imagine spending $50,000 on a one-off expression of extravagant love of God or Jesus with nothing tangible to show for it afterward?
If you had 50 grand wouldn’t you use it to help the needy or do something that had some tangible lasting good attached to it? Not Mary. $50,000! – poured out on Jesus’ feet – gone.
What might be an equivalent today? How about a fireworks display? What if I told you we were going to have a giant $50,000 fireworks display to celebrate our love for Jesus and let the whole community know why?
Be honest – Judas isn’t the only one who might question such wisdom.
So what’s going on here?
Is Jesus encouraging us to be wasteful?
To abandon our commitment to the poor?
To lavish ourselves with expensive things while the less fortunate suffer?
I hope we’ll look deeper.
First of all, I don’t for one second actually think that Mary poured $50,000 worth of perfume on Jesus’ feet. The detail is a story-tellers tool designed to shock you and make you think. Mission accomplished!
The point is not how many dollars are spent, as if there’s some sliding scale of value where we’d say a certain dollar amount is ok to waste in a gesture but any more than that is suddenly unethical.
The point is to convey to us that Mary was lavishing love on Jesus.
She was loving extravagantly.
She was loving him to the moon and back. (Again, not literal, but something poetic that we say to express a deep meaning.)
And the choice of it being an anointing, like a burial, is genius. We all know the end of the story. We know what’s coming in a couple of weeks. The people who wrote John’s gospel knew it too. A death and a burial is imminent. Now, look at what they have Jesus saying here in verses 7 and 8…
v.7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”
At first this might seem like a confusing and apparently contradictory verse. If she bought it to keep for his burial why is she using it while he’s still alive?
What if the answer is not nearly as complicated as we might think?
Could it be as simple as this: anointing him now allows him to enjoy it?
Loving him now allows him to receive it. Waiting until he’s dead accomplishes a very different function.
v.8 “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Perhaps the lesson is this: Don’t wait until it’s too late to show love and adoration!
Why not love NOW?!
And of course there are two simultaneous levels going on here. One is the very human level of a person demonstrating extravagant love for another person.
Don’t let another moment pass by without expressing your love for those you love.
Don’t keep putting off living until you run out of life.
Love extravagantly while you can.
Love selflessly and sacrificially.
Love by giving yourself away for the sake of another.
Love like Mary loved her friend Jesus.
That’s the human level. Why not love now? Why not love extravagantly?
Then there’s the spiritual level.
Jesus isn’t just another friend. Jesus is understood as the incarnation of the Presence of God. By loving Jesus extravagantly Mary is showing us that we can love God extravagantly too.
Why not now?
Ok, on the count of three everybody love God or Jesus extravagantly…1, 2, 3!
Did you do it?
Did you love God extravagantly?
Are you a little unsure what that might look like?
I think the default position most of us have is that if we’re encouraged to love God we go out and do something for somebody. But if you think in terms of the commandments Jesus gave us that’s the second commandment – to love your neighbour as you love yourself.
Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great commandment. By all means, go out and love your neighbour extravagantly as an expression of God’s love for you.
But what about the first commandment?
What about loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength?
What does that look like?
And by the way, if you’re sitting there wondering why God is so insecure that God needs us to slobber all over ourselves grovelling and saying we love God, you’re misinterpreting what this means. God doesn’t need us to love God, we do.
God is love.
God emanates and radiates love.
Love is God’s nature and being.
For us to love God with our whole being is to suggest that we need to be in harmony with God’s love – to resonate with it and let it shape and form us.
The best analogy I have is music.
If God was music emanating throughout the universe and permeating everything and everyone then for us to love God would mean for us to be in tune with that music. To be in tune you need to listen, be open, and allow yourself to come into resonance with the music.
If you obstinately refuse to change your tuning you will not resonate and harmonize. You’ll feel “wrong” or out of sorts.
And you come into tune, into harmony, and stay in tune and harmony by being constantly aware of the larger music and constantly striving to listen and harmonize.
And when you do – when you make harmony – the original music is amplified, strengthened and blossoms.
When we learn to harmonize with God’s love God’s love blossoms.
So what was Mary doing?
You might say she was in the shower, oblivious to everyone else, singing her guts out!
She was transforming her ordinary life experience into an extravagant outpouring of love for God by radically opening herself and expressing herself without fear or care for what others thought.
What does extravagant love for God look like for us? I have no idea! I think it’s probably different for each one of us.
But I do think there are some common things to think about.
The biggest is the idea of wholehearted openness and the mindful and prayerful intention to love.
If you want to love God then think about loving God, be mindful of loving God.
How do you love a human person?
You think about them,
you spend time with them,
you get vulnerable with them,
you let down your guard with them,
you share your hopes and dreams with them,
you share your passion with them,
you use words to tell them how you’re feeling when you’re connected,
you feel warm when they come to mind,
you feel like you’re one.
Loving God is no different.
We use words like worship, praise, prayer, and contemplation but at the heart of it all is awareness, attention, and affection.
We in the mainline church have inherited a tradition that intellectually loves God but has a hard time physically or emotionally expressing it. There are days I wish I was a Pentecostal because they seem to really understand how to freely embody their love of God without worrying about what the person down the row might think. I’m not suggesting we ought to be jumping up and down and rolling around on the floor. But if you feel so moved then please feel free!
What might extravagant praise look like for us? A raised hand? Closed eyes? A tear?
What might extravagant love sound like for us? Can we even say the words, “I love you, God! I love you, Jesus!” with authenticity?
Maybe Brother Lawrence can help us?!
Adoration of God, loving God with our whole being, is the greatest commandment. Brother Lawrence encourages us to “make our hearts a spiritual temple where we continually adore [God],” and that we should strive “to be the most perfect adorers of God in this life, as we hope to be throughout all eternity.”
Make your heart into a church for God and worship there.
Adore God now, while you can, while you’re here, to make this life abundant!
Brother Lawrence identifies “a typical error among the spiritually minded [of] not…withdraw[ing] from what is external from time to time to adore God within themselves and enjoy his divine presence in peace for a few moments.”
Lawrence stresses that “a brief lifting up of the heart is enough. A brief remembrance of God, an act of inner adoration” even while in the midst of seemingly unspiritual circumstances draws us deeper into God’s presence. To assist us with this Lawrence suggests short little sentences declaring our desire, declaring our intention, and declaring our love of God.
Lawrence writes, “It would be appropriate for beginners to formulate a few words interiorly, such as: ‘My God, I am completely yours,’ or ‘God of love, I love you with all my heart,’ or ‘Lord, fashion me according to your heart,’ or any other words love spontaneously produces.”
When we practice being present to God we are in a position to truly love God.
Allowing your heart to sing in harmony with God’s love – expressing adoration anytime, anyplace, any way that feels loving – and being extravagant in that love as a gushing and overflowing response to the inconceivably wondrous harmony that resonates around, within, and through you is something of what it means to follow that first commandment.
Brother Lawrence urges us to make our hearts a temple or a house for God:
John 12:3 – Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. [And] the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
May your heart be filled with the fragrance of your extravagant love for God!