John 12:1-11 (click to display NIV text)
March 17, 2013: Fifth Sunday in Lent
Pastor Dwight A. Nelson
“Then Mary took about a pint of nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
Somehow Mary came into possession of a very expensive jar of perfume, worth a whole year’s wages for a working person of that day. She could have kept it and used a little from time to time at weddings and special occasions. She could have saved it, in case there was a family emergency and it could be sold to meet the need. She could have sold it and given the money to the poor. Judas said that would have been a good use. But Mary chose the best. She used it to anoint Jesus, just before he went to the cross. She gave a costly gift to Jesus.
Sometimes we are confronted with a choice, and we have to decide what is best. One last picture in my mind from this year’s Iditarod is that of Jake Berkowitz making a decision towards the end of the race. His team had done very well, and at a certain point, if he could have made a strong move forward, he might have been in contention to win the race. A former musher, Sebastian Schuenulle, was writing the daily reports. He saw Jake’s team sleeping in the warm sun, taking a rest. He said that if Jake woke up the dogs after two hours of sleep, he could challenge for the lead. If he let them sleep longer, he probably would not have a chance to win. Jake let them sleep for a few hours more. Sebastian wrote that for winning the race, it was probably not the best thing to do. But to let them sleep was best for the dogs. There is something beautiful, and quite counter-cultural, in the picture of a musher who cared enough about his dogs to let them sleep in the warm sun, because he knew they needed the rest. He chose the best.
Mary chose the best. She used her costly perfume to anoint Jesus. Those interested in winning, in reputation, in getting ahead, did not agree with her choice. But she was not wrong to give her costly gift to Jesus.
There was a plot against Jesus, so he took his disciples out into the wilderness for a time and stayed out of public view. But at Passover, he returned to Jerusalem, stopping to see his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. They held a dinner in his honor, and many people were there, but we are only given the names of four: Lazarus, Martha, Mary and Judas. The story tells us that before Jesus went to the cross, there were friends who prepared themselves for the week ahead, and there were others who were caught completely off guard. Lazarus, Martha and Mary give to us a picture of witness, service and devotion to Jesus. These three chose the best.
We read that a large crowd has come to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, who was raised from the dead. The chief priests plot to kill not only Jesus, but also Lazarus, to put him where they think he belongs. But, Gary Burge writes, “Lazarus now knows the power of Jesus over the grave.” So it says that the crowd came to see Lazarus. I think he was not passive in his reception of them. I think as people came to him, that Lazarus took time to speak of the Savior, to bear witness to Christ and what he had done.
I think back to my friend Ken Shough, the young man who had a serious lung disease and who owned a shoe store. He was a witness to Christ. When his disease finally overcame him, and he had to stay in his home, he worried that he would no longer have the opportunity to share Christ with people. But one day when I visited, he told me the Lord had been sending people to him, that people he did not know were coming to his house, and in his last days he was able to continue his life of witness for Christ. Lazarus chose what was best. He received people and pointed them to Jesus, the Savior. His gift was one of witness.
Martha gave the gift of service. In Luke chapter 10 we read of another dinner when Jesus was present. There Martha was preoccupied with all the details and work of the meal. Mary spent the time with Jesus, but Martha was completely focused on the dinner. Jesus rebuked her for that. I have known may people who identify with Martha and forcefully defend her actions. This is a hard story for people of the Protestant work ethic. But in John chapter 11 we meet Martha again, and this time she does seek out Jesus and talks to him. In the course of their conversation Martha makes a bold statement of faith, really the strongest statement of faith in the Gospels. She says, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”
Now there is a dinner and it simply says, “Martha served.” Previously she had served dinner. Now she is serving Jesus. So Martha also makes the best choice. She gives a costly gift. She serves Jesus before he goes to the cross.
I have spoken several times of Tillie Lathrop, the cook and baker at Pilgrim Pines Bible Camp and also at the Cromwell Children’s Home. She served Jesus by baking untold loaves of limpa bread and cooking endless rounds of breakfast, lunch and dinner. She worked hard in the kitchen, usually from about 4 a.m. on. But she was never just about the food. With Tillie, she was always serving Jesus. There is quite a difference. It can be a costly gift to serve Jesus. It involves work in the heat of the day. It is always the best choice.
Mary also serves Jesus, but it is with her devotion. Every time she is mentioned in the Gospels, she is at the feet of Jesus. She knew that you cannot give extravagantly to Jesus unless you spend time at his feet. The treasure she gave to Jesus was not the perfume, the jar of nard that may have been a family heirloom, the perfume that cost 300 denarii. Judas could only see the cost in terms of money. But the real gift of Mary to Jesus was her willingness to sit at the feet of Jesus, to humbly listen, to wait and to love the Lord with all her heart. She chose what was best.
The service of Mary, her costly gift of anointing Jesus before his death, prepared him for burial. The fragrance filled the whole house. It also lingered in her hair and on Jesus. At his trial, on the cross and in the resurrection, this fragrance was present. It helped to sustain Jesus. It gave assurance to those who met him after the resurrection. This was an important gift.
I think of many people who have been good models for me because of their devotional lives. I think of Ted Nordlund, who in his retirement years has developed a mentoring ministry called “A Shepherd’s Counsel.” He meets with pastors to help them in their prayer life, in their devotion to Christ. The heart of his mentoring is not in teaching management or counseling or conflict resolution, although those are important. The heart is in their prayer life. In this way, time with Christ is not left for “when I have time,” but time with Christ is what shapes the use of all of my time. Martin Luther would say when he had a very busy day ahead that he must get up early to spend extra time in prayer. Only then would the work duties fit the hours of the day.
Many people consider prayer and bible reading to be “wasted time” or perhaps important, but of necessity a low priority. But Mary knew what it was to give the best gift, the costly gift of time spent at the feet of Jesus.
Judas had other ideas. He felt the perfume should have been sold and the money given to the poor. But John tells us that his heart was not really with the poor. He had been corrupted by the power of money, and money was always first in his thinking. He had been stealing from the fund that was used for the poor. He would soon be tempted by 30 pieces of silver. In choosing to serve money, he was not choosing what is best. His life ended very tragically that next week. His love of money had compromised his witness, service and devotion.
It is these three areas–witness, service and devotion–that draw us to the choices that are best in life. All three keep us near the cross.