Bible verses for reflection: John 12:1-12

Our text for today comes from chapter 12 of the gospel of John. In chapter 10 of the gospel of John, Jesus had attended the festival of Dedication in Jerusalem. At the festival, the Jewish authorities were pressing him on whether he was claiming to be the Messiah. During their exchange of words, they even took up stones to kill him. Then later, they tried to arrest him, but it was not yet time, and Jesus and his disciples were able to get away from Jerusalem.

They left Jerusalem and were, in effect, hiding out somewhere across the Jordan River
when, in our chapter 11, they receive a message from Mary and Martha that their brother Lazarus was ill. After receiving the message, Jesus stay two days longer in that place.

In the background of our text for today is the real danger that Jesus faced.
It was evidently a significant risk to go to Bethany at all. Bethany, where Mary and Martha lived, was only two miles from Jerusalem. Rumor had it that some Jews would again try to stone Jesus if he came near. When Jesus finally arrived, Lazarus had been in the tomb four days. Mary and Martha both seemed very upset with Jesus for his delay. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went beyond the village to meet him, but Mary did not. When each of them saw Jesus, they both said to him, if you had only been here, he would not have died. And when Jesus saw Mary grieving, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. There existed a strong emotional bond with this family.

After Jesus called Lazarus from the tomb, the risk increased even more.
The High Priest, Caiaphus, even retorted that it would be better to have one man die, i.e. Jesus, than to have the whole nation destroyed. The Pharisees and others feared that if the people believed in Jesus, the Romans would come and destroy the Temple, and even the nation, and so they made plans to put Jesus to death. As a result, Jesus could no longer walk about openly, but for a time returned to the wilderness with his disciples.

As the Passover celebration approached and many pilgrims were gathering in Jerusalem, everyone wondered if Jesus would make an appearance at the festival.
The Jewish leaders gave orders that if anyone knew where he was, they should report it immediately to the authorities, so they could arrest him. Then, on the night before what became his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, which has become for us the Palm Sunday celebration, at the risk of being arrested and killed, Jesus showed up for dinner at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany. While the threat of Jesus’ death hung heavily in the air, the Bethany community was still celebrating over Lazarus’ return from the tomb.

Some events in human life are so important that we do not use words alone,
but we act them out with high drama. A wedding, for example, the joining together of two persons for life in holy commitment to one another, is highly important.
A wedding changes everything for two persons and their families. Both families and both sets of friends will forever be impacted. The whole world takes a small turn as two people commit their lives to each other and the future is altered by the impact that they and the children they may bear have upon the world.

Weddings are high drama, and, as you know, human beings expend extravagant amounts of time, money and effort in communicating to ourselves and to all the world that what we are doing is important. We wear special clothes. We surround ourselves with beautiful flowers. Special music is provided and arrangements are made for a grand celebration. Certainly, one could argue, some families go overboard,
so that the limits of healthy stewardship are stretched, and the amount spent on flowers or the reception or the wedding dress, or whatever, is simply too much, and could have been put to better use. In a world of limited resources, in a world where so many are hungry or homeless or dying of illness, should anyone really spend thousands of dollars upon one day, upon one dress, upon one celebration?

Whatever Judas’ motivation in our text, he asked an important question.
He asked a question about wastefulness and providing for the poor. This is a question that should not be dismissed, but should remain before us, that requires prayerful consideration. But the fact remains that the occasional extravagant expenditure of time, money, and effort are part of how we communicate to ourselves and to the world
the importance of a person or an event or even a place.

What do you say to someone who has saved the life of your brother? What do you do for that same someone whom you dearly love and you know is about to die?

On Friday morning, I was in the ICU at Northside Hospital with one of our young families. The time had come to unplug the machines from his mother and allow nature to take its course. His father and his siblings all gathered around her bed, and as one of his sisters rubbed his mother’s feet, it reminded me of my friend and seminary professor, Wade Huie. Some of you knew Wade and his family, who lived in the Winnona Park neighborhood. Wade and his beloved wife, Vee, raised four strapping sons in Decatur. Their family was an integral part of the community for many years.
When Vee was dying of cancer and enduring the trials of chemotherapy, Wade was by her side constantly. With the effects of the medications and the dry air from the oxygen machine in her room, Vee’s skin would become very dry. One act that brought great relief and comfort to her was for Wade to rub lotion on her feet.
As Wade described to me some years later, with tears in his eyes, every day during those long, sacred months of decline, he would gently, lovingly, and extravagantly rub Vee’s feet with soothing lotion. He claimed that he loved her more in those hours than he ever had before, as he prepared her and himself for the inevitable journey of death that she was soon to face.

The Mary of our gospel story did not know how or when, but she realized that Jesus’ time was near. This person whom she loved dearly would not be available to her much longer. This person who had saved her life by his words of grace, and saved her brother’s life from the grave, would soon face death himself. While Martha served dinner and Lazarus sat at the table, entertaining the guests, Mary stepped forward and performed a beautiful, extravagant act of loving service. Mary brought forward a very expensive bottle of perfume, worth a year’s wages, something that she may have been saving for many years, perhaps even saving for her own wedding. She opened the bottle, filling the house with its sensuous fragrance. She anointed Jesus’ feet with the oil, then let down her hair and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair.

There are many layers of meaning in this story.
Mary shows her deep gratitude for Jesus saving her brother.
Mary anoints Jesus as royalty, as Samuel anointed Saul and David to be king.
Mary is most certainly preparing Jesus for his burial, not waiting until he is gone,
but expending her love and sacrifice while he is still in her presence.
Mary engages in an extravagant, expensive act of worship.
She uses the entire bottle, holding nothing back.
She pours out her ointment, allowing it to flow over Jesus’ feet
and fill her entire house with its sweet, powerful fragrance.

Can you smell the expensive perfume?
Can you catch a glimpse of the intimacy of that moment around the low dinner table?
This could have been an uncomfortable scene for others seated on the cushions around the table, with the woman of the house offering such extravagant, intimate care to her guest of honor. Perhaps the most striking aspect to this story is the intimacy of her love, the show of complete devotion, of total abandon in his presence.
This is no act of measured love, nothing is held back. Mary holds little concern for moderation or social mores or proscribed boundaries. There is far more going on in this scene than a simple, everyday foot washing. Those who were present remembered this event well, and eventually recorded it for all posterity.

The next day, Mary and others would be waving palm branches and shouting
“Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” Within a few days, Mary and others would witness Jesus carrying his cross through the city, then dying a terrible, violent death on Golgotha. Within a few more days, she would be arriving at another tomb, early in the morning, when she would hear a familiar voice, calling her by name.

My heart is heavy today, and yet there remains a sense of deep peace.
As many of you know, we have had a number of funerals since the beginning of the year
in our congregation. We dearly miss Julia Carter, Anne Jackson, and Ann McKinley, among others. Then just yesterday, after the fun and joy of the TourDecatur 5K run,
Melanie and I spent significant time in two different sanctuaries of Decatur.
I am often on this side of the chancel, but yesterday I sat in the pews, offering worship,
but receiving far more than what I brought. In Columbia Presbyterian Church yesterday, we gathered with Mizo Christians, from the region of Mizoram, India,
who had come for the funeral of Mapuia Hmar. From ten different states, from all across the country, many extended families gathered to worship together in an extravagant show of love and support for the Hmar family, whose beautiful 19-year-old son died tragically from the illness of clinical depression.

In the next hour, we sat in the packed sanctuary of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church
for the memorial service for Laurie Foley, a 53 year old, with a loving husband and son,
who finally succumbed to the cancer cells that invaded her bright and well-lived life.
On yesterday’s beautiful spring afternoon, hundreds, young, old, and everyone in between, gathered for a time of moving worship, of scripture, of song, of remembrance and communion. Somehow, by God’s grace, the extravagance of the music, and the holy reverence, and the show of love and support for these families in their grief, lifted the spirits of all present, and there was a tangible difference of spirit between the beginning and ending of these services.

What we do here is important. Whether the negotiations that a family goes through to gather everyone for a baptism, or the myriad of small decisions and negotiations that a couple makes for a wedding, or simply the challenges of the Sunday morning routine for a family to gather in the presence of Jesus for weekly Sunday School and worship,
what we do here, what we expend here, what we offer and receive in this place,
in the very presence of God, is important, is life-altering. And the world, or at least the world around us, will not quite be the same because of what we offer and receive in this place.

Mary had been lost in her grief, but now she was found in Jesus’ love. Mary had been disillusioned by Jesus’ absence, but now she was inspired by his presence. Mary had been disgusted by the pain and suffering of human life and her brother’s death,
but now she was overwhelmed by Jesus’ power over death. Mary had been alone in her suffering, but now she was surrounded by others who also wanted to honor and follow Jesus.

The threat of illness and death, of human suffering and violence, are ever before us.
And yet, so too are the hope and the promise, the beauty and the extravagance, of Christian worship. Let us never take for granted what we do in this place, and may we always worship with some sense of high drama, acting out in word and sacrament and song what is more important than words alone can express.
To God be the glory as we do so. Amen.

Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Decatur, Georgia
March 13, 2016