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Sermon: A Fragrant Offering unto God

A sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill on March 13, 2016.

The 5th Sunday in Lent; Year C: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8     

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts,

be always acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.   

           Not so long ago, that house in Bethany was filled with sadness and the sound of weeping. Friends and neighbors had gathered to mourn with Mary and Martha at the death of their brother Lazarus. With their brother dead, the two sisters were alone.

           But then Jesus arrived and changed everything. With a gesture, with tears, with a blessing, with prayer to his heavenly Father, he defeated the power of death and called Lazarus back to life.

           Now, in what seems to be just a little time later, they are all gathered again. It is a joyful reunion, but I can’t help but imagine that there is also an undercurrent of awkwardness and tension. For one thing, it must have been pretty strange to have Lazarus there. We’ve all been to funeral dinners, where family and friends gather for a meal lovingly prepared by the church community and aided by our neighbors. We fill our empty stomachs with ham, fried chicken, scalloped potatoes, dreamy bean casserole, Jell-O salad, and all sorts of cakes and pies.

           We fill our empty hearts also by reminiscing about the deceased — sharing stories about his shortcomings or laughing over her peculiarities. It’s how we cope with our grief and keep the memory of our loved ones alive.

           This scene in Bethany may well be the only funeral dinner in history where the deceased was actually present. Think of how awkward that must have been. What happens when the deceased is no longer dead? How do you feel and what do you talk about?

           Furthermore, by raising Lazarus from the dead, Jesus has graduated from the category of "manageable nuisance" to "serious threat." News of the incident has sent his opponents over the top. It is time for Jesus to disappear before he leads hundreds to their deaths. His days are numbered and he knows it.


So as Jewish pilgrims were in Jerusalem making preparations for the Passover, Jesus arrived in Bethany, where a supper was given in his honor at which Martha served and Lazarus sat with Jesus as a fellow guest. At this supper Mary, who knelt at Jesus’ feet in tears, began to anoint his feet with a very expensive perfume, an oil of pure nard, and then wiped his feet with her hair.

           The synoptic accounts from Matthew, Mark, and Luke each tell a similar story, although they differ in detail. In Mark’s account of the anointing of Jesus, for example, it is an unnamed woman who anoints the head of Jesus. Readers are left to infer that she anoints Jesus as a king, yet as a king who would soon lying in a tomb, before entering fully into his heavenly kingdom.

In John's Gospel, the action of that woman who anoints Jesus, while also illustrating the same sympathetic insight as Mark's account, is clearly contrasted with the treachery of Judas Iscariot. Here Mary consecrates her Lord for death and burial as she pours her perfume over his feet; while Judas, one of Jesus’ disciples, who is destined to betray him and so bring about that death, sharply voices the disapproval of her extravagance.

I find that all of these anointing accounts have something to tell us about what true discipleship really looks like. It shows us what it means to be a follower of Jesus. We come to understand more of what it is to be a believer in Christ. For in these stories, we see examples of abundant love, the kind of love that Jesus has shown his disciples all along.

Despite the starkness of John's version, the story is not meant to be about Judas’ greed or his leanings elsewhere, though he does seem to accentuate the abundance shown and how offensive it might seem to some. Matthew's account in the house of Simon the leper has Jesus saying that "wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what [Mary] has done will be told in remembrance of her." But sadly, our Gospel for today shows that in what he perceived as wastefulness, Judas revealed he just doesn’t see the true nature of who and what Jesus is.       

This story shows us God’s abundant grace, grace upon grace, again and again.

This is the extravagance of Love. Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes the most costly thing she owns and expends it all on Jesus. This is the kind of Love that need not calculate its cost. It is something that gives its all and leaves only our human to regret that there was not still more to give. Unlike nard, God's love never runs out.

In this story we also see the humility of Love. It was a sign of honor to anoint a person’s head. First priests and later kings were anointed by oil which would flow down the head, over the beard and onto the collar. But in Bethany, while Martha served, and as Lazarus sat at table with his friend, Mary knelt before her Lord. She would not look as high as to see his head; instead with her costly, fragrant gift, she anoints Jesus’ feet. I imagine it was far beyond Mary to think she conferred any honor upon Jesus. Her own humility probably prevented her from thinking herself special enough to do that. She pours out all of herself in her unconscious display of love.

Finally, in this story, we see the unselfconsciousness of Love. Mary begins to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. In those times in Palestine, no respectable woman would be seen in public or even polite company, with her hair unbound. When women married, their hair would be bound up, never again to let flowing tresses be seen in public. No, flowing hair was apparently a sign of immoral women.

But I think we need to see something else about Love here. John’s Gospel reads: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” Often in this fourth Gospel, many of John’s statements have been thought to have double meanings, one that is immediately on the surface and another which lies beneath. Throughout the ages, fathers of the Church and scholars have taken this sentence to mean the whole Church is filled with the sweet memory of Mary’s lovely action.  

C. S. Lewis once wrote, “The allegorical sense of Mary’s great action dawned on me the other day. The precious alabaster box which one must break over the Holy feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done. And the contents become perfume only when it is broken. While they are safe inside, they are more like sewage. All very alarming”       

Maybe it’s easier to hear this way: "Love wasn't put in our hearts to stay. Love isn't love until we give it away." C. S. Lewis is suggesting our hearts are only good for sewage if we keep them locked up and away.

Garbage, waste, junk, of sorts, comes up in this week’s epistle as well. Writing to the Christians in Philippi, Paul states that his Jewish heritage and reputation give him more reason than most people to place confidence in his spiritual pedigree. But the overwhelming grace of God in Jesus calls Paul to a new set of values. Paul wrote, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith.”           

Sewage!? Rubbish!? Those are some strong smells, hardly to be confused with nard perfume or any pleasant fragrance! What is it that made these people of faith believe that it is only in extravagant giving that the things we cling to can be transformed into a pleasing fragrant offering to God? Did they recognize that the death of this man, this Jesus, this costly outpouring of life and love, is worth far more than the things we think of as precious?

We remember Mary’s actions as faith that rings full of all that we know and believe of Christ our Lord, the High Priest of God, who is King of our lives and who goes to the Cross of Calvary to heal us of our sins.

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair.” This kind of anointing is about love, about honoring, about preparing, about expecting the action to result in understanding somewhere, somehow. It is about breaking open our hearts, our very selves, to share that love.

Come, seek the abundant Love of our God, find the never-ending Grace of our Lord and Savior Jesus, be filled with healing, and inspiration, and be empowered by the Holy Spirit. I hope you hear your clergy speak and preach about, and offer regularly the act of healing prayers offered by our Church within the context of Holy Eucharist, something we try to honor the third Sunday of each month. It is a sacramental rite involving the laying on of hands, anointing with holy oil, and prayers by which God’s grace is given for the healing of mind, body and spirit. This sacramental action recalls Jesus' own anointing, and reminds us to let ourselves be broken open to receive God's Love. Then we are ready and able to go forth into all the world to preach the Good News as Disciples of Christ.

My sisters and brothers in Christ, I invite you as we walk these final days of Lent up to Holy Week, to take in the extravagance of that precious love that was poured out for each of us by Jesus. “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”