Scripture: John 12:1-8
“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” ~ John 12:3
‘Do you believe in Resurrection?’
You might think this an odd question with a full week left in Lent, after all, we need to get through Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, his final days and final meal with his disciples on Maundy Thursday, his betrayal and trial before Pilate and finally the brutality of the Crucifixion on Good Friday before we can even begin to contemplate the Resurrection on Easter Day.
This question, or at least the topic would have hung thick in the air of Martha, Mary and Lazarus’ home in the Gospel story we heard this morning. You see more often than not we hear this story in a vacuum, which colours our hearing of it. Typically, when I have heard this preached or reflected on it deals with the interplay between, Mary, Judas and Jesus – focusing on Mary’s expensive perfume, Judas’ greedy critique and Jesus’ comments about the poor.
But lost in all that is the fact that days before this dinner party scene – Lazarus was sick and dying, Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus, who took his sweet time getting there. In the intervening days, Lazarus died and when Jesus arrived at Bethany he had already been in the tomb for 4 days. It was not the smell of sweet nard filling the air, but the stench of death and decay. Grief and loss had set in, the sisters in turn each scolded Jesus in their way saying “If you had been here he wouldn’t have died!”. And Jesus’ response was to ask them “Do you believe in Resurrection?”
As faithful Jews, their response was, of course, they believed in the Resurrection on the last day, the day when God’s Kingdom would come in its fullness. And then Jesus did the impossible and showed himself to be greater than death, to be in himself the Resurrection and the life in his own words.
If we remember who these people gathered at this particular dinner are, what they have seen and felt, and what they have been confronted by, then we should have no issue understanding Mary and her extravagant gift of anointing with perfume.
After all, in chapter 11 John doesn’t tell us how the family responded to Jesus’ act of bringing life from death – so perhaps this dinner is the family’s way to say thank you, perhaps the story of Jesus’ anointing is the way Mary responded to the gift of life that Jesus had given her brother Lazarus mere days before.
Theologian Chelsey Harmon writes “Mary anoints Jesus as the one in whom death becomes life. In Jesus Christ, death becomes life.”
Mary’s act of anointing was at the same time an act of thanksgiving and grace in response to Jesus’ gift of life to Lazarus, and a recognition of who Jesus was as the very life of God, the promised Messiah, the Son of God who would bring life out of death not just in their lives but for the whole world.
The Hebrew word Messiah means the one anointed with oil or God’s anointed one. With her gift of perfume and her act of anointing, she demonstrated how Jesus was the Messiah, that he was God’s anointed one. Two things, however, stand out about her anointing of Jesus.
Firstly, how she anointed him, was filled with intimacy and love. As a first-century single Jewish woman, Mary would have been expected to keep her distance from men who weren’t in her family and to keep her hair tied up. And yet Mary does not care about these cultural norms, her love for Jesus was so strong, that no social convention could stop her from expressing her gratitude to Jesus for what he had done for her and her family.
Secondly, it is notable that Mary anointed Jesus’ feet. Typically, Jewish Kings and the expected Messiah were to be anointed with oil on their heads whereas the dead were anointed on their feet to prepare them for their burial. Mary’s act of anointing Jesus’ feet is therefore a testament to the way that Jesus would turn our expectations upside down, pointing to the paradox that God would bring abundant and eternal life through the very suffering and death of the Son of God, the Prince of Peace and Life.
Mary’s act of pouring the perfume was also a sign pointing to the way that Jesus would pour out his own life, every last drop of it, as a blessing that would fill the whole world with the sweet scent of salvation. Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor writes: “Jesus is the bottle: This bottle will not be held back to be kept and admired. This precious substance will not be saved. It will be opened, and used, at a great price. It will be raised and poured out for the life of the world, emptied to the last drop.”
As we come to the close of this season of Lent, a Lent infused with greater meaning since it is the first Lent we have been able to worship together in two years we should heed Mary and her extravagant offering of thanksgiving. If ever there was a time to draw closer to Jesus, to embrace the intimacy of his love for us and the whole world it is now.
Unlike Mary, most of us have not experienced the reality of resurrection in our lives – at least not the way she did. Lazarus was living, breathing proof of Jesus’ power to command the destiny of death. This is a truth that Mary’s household knew well. This truth had pervaded and overwhelmed her family. There was no ignoring someone who was dead but is alive again.
We may not have experiences of this kind of resurrection, but that doesn’t mean we can experience the power of God to bring new life into the midst of death. How many of you have thought you were at your lowest point, only for new opportunities, new life to spring forth in the most unexpected places? The story of this church and the new life which came through the amalgamation is a reminder to each one of us of what God can do when we draw close to his love, embrace his love, share his love with our neighbours and the whole world.
Even as we as a congregation face challenges, even as war rages in Ukraine and the sixth wave of Covid-19 rears its ugly head, even as we receive bad news about loved ones and their health or receive the news ourselves – God’s love endures, God’s love poured out for us in Jesus offers us a vision of a future when all will be made well, where death will be no more, where more tears will be shed, where pain and suffering will be no more.
This reality will not come until God’s Kingdom comes in its fullness at the end of days, but as we lean into love, love of brother and sister in Christ, love of neighbour, love even of our enemy we will experience glimpses of that Kingdom here and now.
As we draw close to Holy Week, I encourage you to cleave close to Jesus and his ways of love – a love which pours itself out for the sake of others, even others like Judas who scoff at Jesus’ immeasurable and limitless grace. Between now and Good Friday I challenge each one of us to pour out our love for the sake of someone else, someone who cannot hope to repay you for the love that you give them. Because that is why we live out the resurrection in our lives because that is the way that we offer our gratitude to Jesus by passing on the love we have received.
Pay it forward might be a cliché and a terrible movie that I remember from my childhood, but it is the way of Jesus. There is no way we can repay Jesus for the outpouring of love that he has offered to us and the whole world, and so we are invited instead to share that love with others so that through us others might come to see Jesus and know about his immeasurable grace and mercy.
While Mary’s offering of nard perfume was meant for Jesus, John tells us that the house was filled with its perfume, blessing all those who smelled it. As we love Jesus, as we offer like Mary the things most valuable to us, others will benefit as long as we don’t like Judas become consumed with greed and self-interest lead us astray.
Do you believe in Resurrection? Love of God, love or neighbour offers us a window into the truth of life’s victory over death. Embrace that love over the next two weeks, as we await to celebrate Jesus’ victory once again on Easter morn.
Let us pray.