Sermon delivered on Sunday, Lent 5C, March 13, 2016 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. Passiontide begins today.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.15-21; Psalm 126.1-7; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Lazarus had died, but Jesus restored him to life; this was not some sort of metaphorical death, but an actual lying in the tomb without breath or a future type of death. For in John 11:39 Martha helps us to understand how dead Lazarus really was: “Martha, the sister of him that was dead, said to him, Lord, by this time he stinks: for he has been dead four days.”
A man who has been brought back to life by Jesus now reclines at the table with Jesus and the others. No longer does the man smell horrid because of the natural stench of death, a smell that would turn even the most iron of stomachs, but rather in this very room that stench is replaced by another smell.
Mary begins to anoint the dirty feet of Jesus. These feet have tread a long distance, have likely stepped in some foul things along the way, and were well beyond the acceptance point for anyone in this culture to touch them. Mary doesn’t just touch them, she anoints them with pure nard, a very costly perfume that filled the room with its sweet aroma, like the taste of honey. And she does so in an intimate way, taking down her hair and wiping his feet with it. She displays closeness and a love for Jesus.
Watching on is Judas, the treasurer of the group of disciples who followed Jesus. Sitting in the room is red faced, almost fuming from the ears with anger at watching this woman touch his master’s feet. She was pouring onto him an expensive perfume!
Under the guise of doing the work of God, giving freely to the poor with a wide-open hand, Judas shouts out “this perfume should be sold and given to the treasury to be distributed to the poor!”
Judas has other motives here. Judas is a greedy man, a shortsighted man. Judas is a man who looks out for his own interests. He has been with Jesus a good amount of time now and has seen the miraculous signs and wonders, he has heard the teaching and seen lives being transformed from death to life, both figuratively and literally. Judas has been given a glimpse of the Kingdom of God that has broken into the human story. Yet, he has been skimming off the top of the money in the bags to keep for himself. And he is missing what Jesus is showing him in this moment. Mary is being a true disciple; Judas is being false.
Jesus responds to Judas, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” Mary continues with what she has been doing, filling the room with the beautiful aroma of her devotion to her Lord. She loves him so much that she sits at his feet, anointing them, and showing him honor in this moment with every fiber of her being, even down to the last strand of hair.
At this point Judas turns two more shades of red before Jesus finishes speaking. In short order Judas would be the one who betrayed Jesus into the hands of those who sought to kill him. The odor of Jesus’ impending death also hovers over the room.
Jesus continues speaking. It is said clearly in this room that all may hear. Attention turned towards the teacher, every eye looking at him and every ear bent in his direction, Jesus says to them, looking at Judas, “For the poor you always will have with you, but you do not always have me.
Right here Jesus is saying in this room of mingling scents that he will be gone from among them very soon. The most costly of things he can possibly give in this world is his life, and he is preparing to give it. He will open up to his brothers and the poor in the land his hand, offering them life-sustaining gifts through the generosity of his sacrifice.
Gathered around this table are average people, people who have not been exceptionally important in the course of history. There are no all stars or power elites recorded as being in this room. Just average people. They sit and dine with one another, and see and hear the Gospel of Jesus’ sacrifice, even if they don’t yet fully recognize what it means. They see true devotion, and not a legalistic piety. They smell the scent of a magnificent and expensive offering being offered to God from a life that has been captivated by Christ; there is no price too high to bless him.
Scents are powerful reminders. They are clear signs of things that are happening: if there’s the smell of smoke somewhere there is also a fire. When one smells the rhododendrons in full bloom we know that springtime has come. And there are few regular scents we catch a whiff of that can beat the smell of a freshly brewed pot of coffee on a cold winter morning. Scents fire the imagination into high gear, and paint mental pictures of what has been, and what could be.
The smells that are in the air in this room where Jesus, Mary, Lazarus, Judas, and the others are sitting reminds us of the real sweetness of Jesus’ sacrifice for us. In Judas’ deceitful breath we recognize the way that leads to death. Through Mary’s devotion and the pouring onto the feet of Jesus the perfume we can smell the fragrant way of life. And in the midst of all of this we see Lazarus: he was dead, but has been raised again by the one who is soon to die and rise permanently. The Kingdom of God is in this room, filling it with the heavenly aroma of the hope of the resurrection, yet still mingled with earthly scents.
The Kingdom of God is present in this room. The poor, the hungry, shall be filled with good things. Christ fills us with himself, moving us from saying the right things but not doing them towards quietly stooping to clean filthy feet in humility, presenting to the Lord the best that we have to offer in response to his presence among us. Through his words he redirects us from false discipleship towards the authentic, and it’s made manifest in our lives through the Holy Spirit’s action through our own hands, by how we treat our neighbor, by how we serve Christ as we serve others. In Christ, the people of the Kingdom of God are fed, and through us, the people of God, called by Jesus Christ into an intimate relationship with the holy, sovereign, and merciful Lord, we feed the hungry and serve the poor. Our prayers rise up as the smoke of the incense before God in his holy temple, filling the nostrils of God with a sweet aroma, like that first intoxicating scent of an early morning springs dew as it hits our noses.
At this table, today, we come together to join in a feast, prepared and offered to us by the Lord himself for our benefit, and to cure us of our hunger. Jesus presents among us with the wealth of his love, lavishing on us the riches of his grace. This precious and expensive gift is given to us if we are true disciples, filled with the scent of his glorious passion, and uniting us with him in an intimate way. Taste. See. Hear. Feel. Smell that the Lord is good.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.