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"One Act, Two Interpretations"

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MESSAGE FOR MARCH 20 2011 Text: John 12:1-11

          Last week, we looked at the kind of impassioned and intimate love Jesus as our bridegroom has for his church and noted that a revived church responds with that same love to Christ.  This week, as we begin moving toward the passion of Christ, we find in John chapter 12 an account of an incident occurring about a week before his death, the day before Palm Sunday.  This account, perhaps as powerfully as any story in the gospels, shows us up close what it looks like for a person who is impassioned in their love for Christ to relate to him.  John has told us at the end of the previous chapter that the Jewish leadership was seeking a way to put Jesus to death.  In John 11, Jesus had been in the little, secluded town of Ephraim away from Jerusalem, where he and the disciples had evidently been laying low.  However as we come to chapter 12, Jesus once again appears in public—at a dinner held in his honor in the town of Bethany.  Bethany was just a couple of miles outside of Jerusalem and was a city in which many Jews temporarily stopped on their way to Jerusalem for a feast like Passover.  In the first two verses, John introduces this story. “1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.”

          John tells us that at a dinner in Jesus’ honor, Lazarus, Martha and (as we will see) Mary were present.  It would be easy to assume this dinner was held at the home of Lazarus because that was a favorite stop for Jesus when he was in Bethany.  Though Lazarus’ presence there—as one Jesus had raised from the dead, would have made this a well-publicized gathering, it was in fact not held at the home of Lazarus.  Matthew and Mark in their telling of this event record that it was in the home of a man named Simon the leper.  That makes it even more noteworthy when in verse two, John tells us that “Martha served…”  Martha is not even the hostess, yet John highlights the fact that she served—in some way cooking or otherwise catering.  We’re first introduced to Mary and Martha in Luke chapter ten and from that account we know something of their personalities.  There, while Jesus was staying in Lazarus’ home, Martha was distracted by her meal preparations and complained that Mary needed to help her instead of sitting at Jesus’ feet, adoringly listening to his teaching.  So, in both that account and in this one, Martha is serving—though here is no complaining and it is not in her home and Mary (as we’ll see) is once again worshipping Jesus. 

          John here tells us that the men were “reclining” with Lazarus.  On special occasions, men in the Ancient Near East didn’t sit to eat, they reclined as they often do in the east today.  There was a table for the food, but it was much shorter and the men would lay on the ground leaning with their left hand on the table, while eating with their right.  In this prone position, Jesus’ feet were exposed.  Let’s read verse three as we see in Mary, the sister of Lazarus a model of this intimate, impassioned love for the bridegroom his bride should possess.  She is acting very much as the adoring bride to her spiritual bridegroom, Jesus.  3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”  I want us to examine two of Mary’s qualities that model the kind of impassioned, intimate love the church at Ephesus and many of us have lost.  The first quality of this love that Jesus delights in from his disciples is extravagant love.  Jesus is worthy of an extravagant love. We see the extravagance of this love in at least two ways.  First, we see it in the self sacrificing nature of her love’s expression.

          Extravagant, impassioned love is always costly because ultimately, it’s a profoundly personal and selfless giving of yourself.  God’s impassioned love for his people was the most extravagant of all because in his love for the world, he gave his only Son.  When King David sought to buy the threshing floor of Araunah as a place to atone for his sin of taking a census of Israel, Araunah offered to give David the threshing floor.  It would have been good business for David to take that deal, but David knows this wasn’t about business.  It was about giving an offering befitting the Lord of the universe.  So, David refuses Araunah’s offer saying, “No, but I will buy it from you for a price. I will not offer burnt offerings to the LORD my God that cost me nothing.” [2 Sam 24:24]  Impassioned love for God is sacrificial and we know that Mary’s love was extraordinarily sacrificial because John tells us that “she took a pound of expensive ointment made of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus…  In our system of measurements, this would have been about 12 ounces.  Nard is an extract from an aromatic plant native to Nepal, just north of India.  The distance between Nepal’s capital and Jerusalem is 3000 miles as the crow flies.  This was long before Fed Ex and it took a minimum of two weeks to travel that far on foot.  The cost just to import nard was extravagant, but the ointment itself was even more expensive.

          Some of you are tapping trees to make maple syrup these days. You know it takes a LOT of sap to make 12 ounces of syrup.  The same holds with the making of nard.  It requires large amounts of plant material to yield only a small amount of oil. That means that producing it is very labor intensive and required a LOT of nard plants to make this much ointment.  Because we are nowhere told that Lazarus and his sisters are wealthy, scholars speculate this nard was probably an heirloom of some kind—like when a family has a very expensive painting or piece of furniture passed down from generation to generation.  We know from what Judas says later that its market value was 300 denarii which was the equivalent of a laborer’s yearly income—so a laborer would work an entire year and if he saved every penny, he could buy 12 ounces of this fragrant oil.  The assumption is that Mary would never have used this nard for anyone else—she would have done so already. This was something that was held in safe-keeping for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

          When I was in seminary, one of my professors, Bob Stein grew up during World War Two and he had many relatives in Germany.  The American Steins sacrificially saved all their extra money and spent it on rations and clothing for their German cousins because after the war Germany was destitute.  Little Bobby used to ask his father why he couldn’t have a bicycle like all the other kids on his block and his dad would take him to the storeroom on the back of their house, point to the abundant provisions stored up and say, “That’s why, Bobby—that’s your bicycle.”  About 25 years later Bob grew up, and headed for Germany to complete his PhD studies.  One of his first stops was the home of one of these German uncles who was by now doing just fine, but who remembered what little Bobby had given up for them decades earlier.  After the war, the German Steins were so grateful for the provisions, they had decided that an old and treasured vintage bottle of wine would be held back to drink with members of the American Steins when they met in the future.  As it turned out, this meeting with Bob and his family was the first opportunity the German Steins had to share this wine with their American family.  After dinner, the uncle brought out this dusty old bottle of vintage wine and said with tears of joy in his eyes that they had been saving it for 25 years in gratitude for their American cousins keeping them alive after the war.  With great love and enthusiastic joy, they opened the bottle and served the wine to Bob and his wife.  Incidentally, Bob and his wife were both tea-totelers, had never consumed even a drop of alcohol and so were able to say with complete honesty that “it was the best wine we’ve ever tasted!”

          The point of the story is that if you love someone enough—have been profoundly impacted by their life, then you give the best you have—a once-in-a-lifetime extravagance and you make that sacrifice with joy in your heart.  Mary here is thrilled to be giving this up to Jesus—there’s no hesitation.  Everything about this encounter screams an unreserved willingness to surrender her all for her bridegroom. Another expression of Mary’s extravagant love is seen in the fact that she wiped Jesus’ feet.  It was common practice to anoint your guest’s head with oil when he came into your home.  In Luke seven in a different story about a sinful woman washing Jesus’ feet with her hair, Jesus rebukes the host for not anointing his head [Luke7:46].   But remember, Mary is not the host of this dinner—she didn’t have that responsibility.  She had brought this nard with her from home.  It was not even common practice to anoint the feet.  The feet were to be washed and that task was considered so lowly that it was reserved for slaves.  To wash someone’s feet was considered to be an extremely humbling thing to do.  John the Baptist is saying a lot when he says of Jesus, “the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.”   John names the lowliest service he could perform for Jesus and said, “I am not worthy even to do that.”  When it came to foot care—even removing a man’s sandal was considered to be a very lowly task, much less washing someone’s feet.

          What’s interesting here is the emphasis John places on Jesus’ feet.  In both Matthew and Mark’s account of this same event, they record that she poured it over Jesus’ head, but this quantity of nard would have been too much for that one application.  In Mark, Jesus says that “she has anointed my body...”  John is not contradicting Matthew and Mark.  In the gospels, the Holy Spirit has laid on each writer different burdens from the same event.  Matthew and Mark bring out the anointing of Jesus’ head because kings were anointed by pouring oil on their head and they want their readers to see that royal picture of Jesus.  John wants us to see an impassioned lover of Jesus who joyfully humbles herself before him.  One reason John does this is to draw a contrast with what happens in the next chapter.  In chapter 13, he tells us of the upper room scene where none of the disciples would wash their dirty feet—even the feet of Jesus who they called “Master.”  John contrasts the humble, impassioned, self-sacrificing love of Mary that showed itself in the anointing of Jesus’ feet, with the disciples’ prideful self-centeredness that kept them from doing what everyone knew needed to be done and which ultimately Jesus set an example by doing.  This is a very typical instance where the same event is described in multiple gospels, but certain details are highlighted, while others are left out by the different authors.  These are not contradictions, just the authors bringing out their own, Spirit-inspired emphases from the same event. One truth from the giving of the nard and the anointing of Jesus’ feet is that this impassioned love for him is self-sacrificing in its nature.

          A second quality of intimate, impassioned love for Jesus Mary displays is seen in that  she not only wiped Jesus’ feet with oil, but for her anointing cloth, she used her hair.  Another quality of impassioned, intimate love for Christ that Mary exemplifies here for us is the absence of self-consciousness in her love’s expression.  In the Ancient Near East and in many eastern cultures today, women did not let down their hair.  That was not considered an appropriate thing to do.  Their hair was considered their “glory” as we know from First Corinthian 11 and was not to be seen except by a woman’s husband. This was not part of Old Testament law, but it was a common social convention and to divert from it would have been considered to be at best awkward and probably, taboo.  Mary certainly could have found a cloth to anoint Jesus’ feet and it would have been a lot easier on her hair, but that would not have been personal or intimate enough to express the impassioned love she had for Jesus.  She wanted her anointing of Jesus to be as personal and as self-surrendering as possible.  What better way to do that than to use your hair to wipe the anointing oil from Jesus’ feet.  To us this may sound a bit gross and it must have seemed even worse to the original onlookers, given the social norms surrounding women’s hair.  But John wants us to see that at that moment Mary was completely oblivious to what people thought—so great was her passion for Christ.  There is an absence of any self-consciousness here on Mary’s part.

          We’ve seen this quality in Mary before. In Luke ten, as Martha is working so diligently to prepare dinner, many sisters would have felt the pressures of social convention and gotten up to help Martha.  I would guess that before Martha verbally complains to Jesus about Mary’s indifference to her, she probably cleared her throat a few times and maybe even said things under her breath like, “I’m never going to get these vegetables washed and prepared before dinner.”  That’s the way frustrated people express their frustration.  There would have been some pressure on a woman in that position to get up from the feet of Jesus and “do her share.”  But, as in this story, Mary is so enraptured with Jesus; all the social conventions…are meaningless.  She was focused so tightly on Jesus, it was like she was wearing a set of blinders toward everything and everyone else.

          Was this because Mary was an insensitive person or a selfish person?  No, in fact, Jesus commends her for both of these expressions of love for him.  So what causes her to buck social convention and be so incredibly absent of self-consciousness here?  She is simply not at all concerned about what these other people think.  It’s not because she is socially inept, it’s because something has over-ridden her normal inclination to stay within the social norms.  If another man were to come to Mary’s house—maybe even a good friend or relative and asked Mary to wipe his oily feet with her hair, she would never have consented.  Her sense of propriety would likely have found that suggestion to be repulsive. But with Jesus, she does it with joy and without a thought to what others are thinking. The reason is because her love for Jesus trumped every social pressure.  Her lack of self-consciousness was caused by her extreme level of Jesus-consciousness.  The puritan preacher, Thomas Chalmers preached a sermon entitled, “The Expulsive Power of a New Affection” and that is what happened here.

          The gist of this truth is that when we are battling a sin of some sort, we certainly need to practice self-denial and actively war against that sin.  But what enables us to get ultimate victory over that sin is not only self-denial---telling yourself, “No, I can’t do that—that’s not who I am.” There’s another piece to it.  Sin is so deeply entrenched in our souls, attacking it through self-denial isn’t enough; it must be violently expelled by a new affection.  Sexual lust is replaced with a bottomless passion for God.  Greed is replaced by energetically seeking your treasure in Christ.  Self-worship and a passion for your fame is replaced by Christ-worship and a passion for his.  This is very important in our walk with God as we battle sin.  We must not only dislodge the sin by God’s grace through self-denial, we must also expel it with a new and better affection.  That is what has happened with Mary.  She probably has a normal level of self-consciousness about publicly wiping a man’s feet with her hair, but when it’s Jesus; her love for him expels that self-consciousness.   The absence of self-consciousness is accounted for by the abundance of Christ-consciousness.  Her normal desire to please people is expelled by her supreme desire to please Jesus.

          If you are by nature a people-pleaser and are often unfaithful to Christ because of what others might think of you, your problem is--you love people more than Jesus and when pleasing people will displease Jesus you’ll do that because people have your higher affection.  In those cases, we must not only fight sin through the faith seen in self-denial--plucking out your eye and cutting off your hand.  We must also work and pray to receive a higher affection for Jesus.  It’s not ultimately that you love people too much; it’s that you love Jesus too little.  Two qualities of this intimate, impassioned love for Christ its the sacrificial nature and an absence of self-consciousness.  That’s what Mary shows as an impassioned lover of Jesus and that’s what we desperately need.

          The story turns next to a familiar foil, Judas.  Beginning with verse four we read, “4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”

You don’t have to be a literary critic to see that John, through the Holy Spirit, wants us to see the contrast between Mary and Judas.  In Mary, you have the real deal—she genuinely and passionately loves Jesus.  In Judas, you see the counterfeit—the anti-Mary.  So let’s look at two expressions of his counterfeit love and then measure ourselves against Judas and Mary. The first quality of counterfeit love is in Judas’ overriding pragmatism.   When Judas sees the nard, he doesn’t see a fit vehicle for the worship of Christ, he sees money.  He was (at least outwardly) being pragmatic and practical as were the other disciples.  We know from Matthew and Mark that they all were saying, “We are called to minister to the poor but here we have completely lost an important opportunity to do that.”  As if texts like Deuteronomy 15:11 had escaped Jesus.  11 For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.”   It’s no coincidence that Jesus uses this very passage that Judas and the others would have seen as rationale for using the money for the poor, and instead uses it as proof of why Mary has done the right thing with the nard.

          When you look through Biblical and church history, the decisions that made the most impact were almost never practical.  If the guiding principle in history had been pragmatism—do what you can see working the best; Abraham would have never left Mesoptamia, Moses would never have freed the Hebrew slaves, David would never have fought Goliath, the prophets would have kept their mouths shut, Luther would have backed down when the church confronted him about his gospel and missionaries like John Paton (who we saw portrayed in the missions play) would never have gone to New Hebrides.  In each case there were probably many people who, in what they thought was love, told these believers that they needed to use their limited resources more wisely rather than attempting this daring and impractical thing they were considering.  Being pragmatic can be wise at times, but when God tells you to do something that requires faith, pragmatism is often of necessity thrown out the window.  It wouldn’t require faith if it were practical or predictable or assured of an easy path to success.  Judas is arguing for pragmatism and it is not love for Jesus or the poor.

          Another quality of counterfeit love as seen here is Judas’ naked pretentiousness.  Judas here feigns a concern for the poor, but John reveals that what really bothered him about this act of Mary’s is that it kept him from a large sum of money that he, as the treasurer, would have had a chance to pilfer. It’s no accident that in Mark’s gospel, it’s at this point that Judas goes to the High Priest to betray Jesus.  He fails to get any money through this deal and that drives him to find another way and so he goes and sells Jesus out.  Judas is pretentious because he deceptively hides behind a Biblical agenda, helping the poor--to advance his own, selfish and twisted desires. 

          Before we close, I want to allow these truths in this text to shine the bright light of truth in our hearts.  Let’s think about Judas first and see where we meet ourselves in his counterfeit love.  Here are some examples of pragmatism that reveal a counterfeit love for Christ, “I would love to pray an hour tomorrow, but its Monday and that’s the day I sweep the floors and clean the bathroom and vacuum the carpets.  There’s nothing wrong with keeping a clean house, but when we use those practical concerns as reasons for not seeking hard after God, we are saying to God that dust bunnies are more noxious to us than Jesus is precious to us. Or, how about, “Honey, I would love to be more involved in church, but if I don’t work 60 hours a week, we’ll never be able to cover our big mortgage?”  Paying your bills is a good thing, but if that practical concern trumps your involvement with the bride of Christ, then what you are really saying is that a Jacuzzi or a big yard or an expansive floor plan is more important than your interaction with God’s people.  How about, “Honey, you know we need to go to the cabin in the summer—the family would have a fit if we didn’t come.  Maintaining peace in the family is a good thing, but if it means missing worship, then family and fishing and maintaining a second residence has become more important than Jesus. 

          Or, is our love pretentious?  This is seen when our stated purpose for doing something—(like feeding the poor) is not our real purpose.  Your stated purpose for going to a particular church is because it ministers to your family, but your real intention is because the church has money and it’s advantageous to your business to be around people of means.  Your stated purpose for tithing is because you love God so much, but frankly, the real reason is to keep you in a lower tax bracket and if the government deduction for charitable giving were to end, so would much of your giving.  Your stated purpose for going to a nightly prayer meeting is because you want to pray, when in your heart, you just want to get away from a needy spouse.  You read the latest Christian best-seller, not for the stated purpose of your discipleship, but because you want to impress people with how well read are.  Your stated purpose for not going to the Concert of Prayer meeting is because you just have a hard time praying that way and you tell others how frustrating it is to you because you too long for revival.  If you long for revival, why haven’t you started a prayer meeting that prays in a way you are more comfortable with?  These are pretentious expressions of counterfeit love and in those cases; you’re not really loving God as much as you are using him to further some selfish, personal agenda you have.

          In our closing minutes, let’s focus in on Mary’s impassioned love for Jesus.  Is our love for Christ marked by an absence of self-consciousness?  That is—you are so in love with Jesus that the opinions of others are mostly off your radar screen. Do you express your love for Jesus in ways that go against the grain of social convention?  One quick diagnostic question is—do you love Jesus so much that you are excited to share him with others even though some will think you a fool?  When you come to worship, do you worship as vibrantly and passionately as what is in your heart, or do you hold back more impassioned expressions of love to fit into our decidedly dispassionate northern Minnesota culture?  Mary didn’t have any problem standing out from the crowd and we should notice that she is the only one in the room Jesus commends in this narrative.  If you love like Mary loved, you will stand out and Jesus will be blessed.  The issue is not what others think of you, but what Jesus thinks.  And he puts his unqualified seal of approval on Mary’s oblivious love.  How important is that to you? 

Finally, how sacrificial are your expressions of love for Christ?  When was the last time that you gave away so much to Jesus—time, money or ministry that if many people knew about it, most of them in and out of the church would think you a fool—like they did Mary. Often, it’s the criticism of lukewarm believers (perhaps even in our own families) that tempts us most strongly refuse to do something radically sacrificial for Christ.  Mary gives us an example of what we spoke of last week as intimate and impassioned love.  It’s radical and not even possible unless we have a revived heart.  If God has revealed to you that you are lacking this love for Jesus today, go to the cross and confess your lack of sacrifice, your self-consciousness, your overriding pragmatism and the phoniness of your pretentions.  Find forgiveness in Christ and continually cry out with the rest of us for revival.  May God give us the grace to love him with great passion for his glory and our joy.


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