>The following was preached at Veedersburg and Hillsboro UMC on Sunday, March 21, 2010. The text for this week’s message is John 12:1-8.

We are coming down the home stretch of our drive towards Easter this week. Next week is Palm Sunday, in which we remember the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, and the week after that is Easter. It seems like it is coming up on us pretty quick, doesn’t it? This week we continue our journey with a story that is found in all four gospels, though the exact details of the stories vary as we read them in the different gospel accounts. We have to be very careful to approach this story just from John’s perspective because there are some changes in the details that may seem minor, but, in fact, are quite significant.
Last week, when we looked at the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, we noticed that both the younger son and the older son took a life-detour. We don’t see any kind of resolution at the end of the story, but we are left with the picture of the father pleading with the older brother to rejoice in the fact that his younger brother had returned.
The older brother was having a difficult time doing this because he felt entitled. He didn’t think it was right that they were celebrating the younger brother’s return with the fattened calf because he had never even been given a young goat so that he might celebrate with his friends.
The simple truth in this story is that both brothers separated themselves from the father. The younger brother because of the choices he made with his life. He lived poorly. The older brother was separated because of his refusal to celebrate the return of his brother who was lost. He loved poorly. And this tension between living poorly and loving poorly is the same kind of thing that we see in the Pharisees and scribes who were grumbling against Jesus because he ate with the tax collectors and sinners.
Sure, the tax collectors and sinners were far from righteous. They made a lot of poor choices in their lives, and they had a lot of sin in their lives. But aren’t those the kind of people that need exactly what Jesus has to offer? Aren’t those the people who need forgiveness and redemption all the more? In some sense, aren’t we those people?
Quick survey: who here has sinned in their lifetime? Go ahead, raise your hands. Good. Now, look around. We are all in the same boat. We may not lump ourselves together with the tax collectors and the sinners, but the truth is, we belong in that category just as much as the Pharisees and scribes, who we have no problem identifying as sinners when we read the gospels.
It’s easy for us to identify those who need Jesus; it’s not as easy for us to recognize that we are in that category as well. And simply because we claim to follow Jesus, it doesn’t mean that we don’t run the risk of going our own way. What we see in today’s Scripture is a story of two people. We see a story of contrasting motives. We see a story of one person who has her heart in the right place, and we see a story of one who has his heart on other things.
The way that John starts the story, it is six days before the Passover. According to John’s timeline, this happens the night before the Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem, which we remember as Palm Sunday. Matthew and Mark have a similar story; however, their story doesn’t take place before Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem at the beginning of the Passover week, but it happens the night before Jesus is arrested. There has to be a reason why John places this story at a different time than either Matthew or Mark, and a clue as to why this is the case is found in another detail that is slightly different in the accounts.
In Matthew and Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head with the oil; however, here in John, it is his feet. One possibility is that these are simply different instances that closely resemble one another; however, it is doubtful that we would see the same conversation if they were different instances. What is important to know here is that when one was anointing a body for burial, one started with the feet and work his/her way up to the head.
In John’s very subtle way, he is letting us know that this isn’t just some grand gesture that Mary is performing; it is the beginning of what will be the preparation of Jesus’ body for burial. In a sense, it is John’s way of signaling to us that things are going to really start picking up steam towards Jesus’ ultimate purpose on earth. The week that is to come is the week that will lead to Jesus’ death, and the preparation for burial is starting.
John tells us that Mary takes a pound of pure nard, pours it out on Jesus’ feet and wiped it with her hair. There are several things going on here that are important to know. First of all, the ointment that is used was a product that would have been imported from India. Even if we aren’t told a couple verses later how much they could have sold it for, we can guess just from what it is that it was a costly perfume.
Secondly, it was no small amount that she used. The translation says that it was a pound of pure nard, and the Greek word used is litran. A litran is the equivalent of about half a liter. We are talking about an abundance of perfume here. John even says that it was enough for the fragrance to fill the whole house.
Okay, so let’s put it in today’s terms. I don’t buy a lot of perfume or cologne for myself, so I looked up a few prices on bottles of perfume. Coming out of seminary, I never thought that I would be researching the price of perfume, but I found myself doing it this week anyway. The fragrance that was used was one of the most expensive perfumes in that area during the time. So, just for comparison’s sake, I looked up today’s most expensive perfume. The world’s most expensive perfume will run you about $2150 an ounce. Half a liter is a little less than 17 ounces. So, 17 ounces at $2150 an ounce means that we are looking at about $36,550 if we put it in today’s terms.
That seems like a crazy amount of money doesn’t it? I mean, there’s no way somebody would use that much perfume all at once, especially not something that expensive. In fact, Judas’ immediate reaction is that they could have sold it for three hundred denarii and given that money to the poor. We’ll get back to Judas in a bit, but first let’s understand how much he was saying this could be sold for.
Three hundred denarii is the rough equivalent of a year’s wages for a working person. A working person at this time would make about one denarii a day. Put it in your own context now. You know how much money you bring in over the course of the year. Now, imagine using all that money at once to glorify Jesus. Did anybody’s heart just stop at that thought? This is no minor gesture that Mary is doing here. It is a major sacrifice, and she doesn’t stop there.
John tells us that Mary goes on to wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. There are two things going on here. First, it was the servants’ job to take care of the feet of the guests. It was undignified for the host to do such a thing. This is why it is so shocking at the Last Supper when Jesus kneels down and washes the feet of the disciples, and also why Peter refuses to allow Jesus to do it at first. So, first of all, Mary is doing something undignified out of her love for Jesus.
Second, a Jewish woman would not typically let her hair down in the presence of any man but her husband. But here, as Jesus and his disciples are getting ready to eat dinner, she lets her hair down in front of all of them to wipe Jesus’ feet. It was a shocking gesture for her to do this, but she does it out of devotion and love for Jesus.
In Mary, we see an example to which we should all aspire. We could all use a little more excitement when it comes to spending time with Jesus. We could all use a little more uncontrollable gratitude for what Jesus has done in our lives. Don’t forget – just a chapter earlier Jesus raised Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. She didn’t do this just out of thin air. She does it in response to what Jesus has done in her life.
But hasn’t Jesus been at work in all our lives? Shouldn’t we celebrate what God is doing all around us? Shouldn’t we be filled with this same kind of spontaneous gratitude, love and devotion? Has anybody ever been to a worship service where people raised their hands during worship? Have you ever heard anybody shout “Amen!” in the middle of a sermon? There are faith traditions out there where this is commonplace. There’s an old joke in United Methodist circles – do you know why a United Methodist raises his hand in worship? To ask if he can go to the bathroom.
Now, I’m not saying that everybody has to start raising their hands while we sing your favorite hymn, or that people need to be shouting out during worship. But ask yourself – am I excited to be here? Is my life better because of what God is doing? Do I even realize that God is at work all around me? And ask yourself these questions because sometimes we forget. Sometimes we make a habit of coming to worship because it is what we are “supposed” to do, not because it is what we want to do.
Y’all, I want people here because they are excited about what God is doing. And, really, the only way to get excited about what God is doing is to open your eyes. Look around. God is doing awesome things all around us, and we need to stop sitting on the sidelines and start getting into the game. You aren’t too young; you aren’t too old. The congregation isn’t too busy, and it’s not too small. But God has us right where He wants us. We are perfectly positioned to make a difference for God. There is somebody in your life that is only going to hear the good news of Jesus Christ because you are excited about it.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed the quotes each week on the sermon notes page in the bulletin. I try to get a different quote each week, and I almost wish that I had waited a week for last week’s quote. John Wesley said, “Catch on fire with enthusiasm and people will come for miles to watch you burn.” Now, this isn’t some kind of pyromaniac creed, it is the result of what happens when we catch on fire for God. It is the result of what happens when the love of God burns deep in our hearts. People will come for miles to see what it is that God is doing. There is nothing better in this life than to be a part of what God is doing all around us.
But too often, and really one time is “too often,” we find ourselves in the shoes of a different person in the story – Judas. Let’s not forget about what Judas has to say here. He says, “Why didn’t we sell this perfume and give the money to the poor?” It seems like a legitimate question at first. But then, we have the benefit of John’s side comments to help us out here. John, in no uncertain terms, lets us know that Judas is not a guy that we need to be trusting. He says that Judas was about to betray Jesus before he even tells us what Judas says. And then, as if that wasn’t enough, after Judas speaks, we get another sidebar from John. Judas didn’t care about the poor, he just wanted more money in the community purse so he could have a little bit more cash to take.
In spite of the fact that Judas just wanted the money for himself, his question is legitimate. Why wouldn’t they have used the money to help the poor? And what we see in this story is contrasting motives and priorities. Mary does what she does out of love and devotion. Her priority is Jesus. But Judas says what he says out of false piety and greed, and his priority is selfish gain. As with so many things, it is a matter of the heart. And John lets us know that Judas’ heart is rotten.
Priorities. When we make Jesus our priority, we are apt to do things out of love and devotion, not habit and ritual. When we make Jesus our priority, everything else falls into place. This story is not about how we shouldn’t help the poor because they are always going to be around, as some people have suggested throughout history. This story is about the final preparations in our hearts. It’s about putting Jesus first and realizing that there will be time for the other things in life. As we hit the home stretch towards Easter, let’s not forget why we celebrate in this season. First, let us not forget to celebrate in what God is doing, and second, let’s not forget that Jesus has to be the priority in our lives.