Sermon delivered on Lent 5C, Sunday, April 7, 2019 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. – Ps 73:25-26
Dear friends of Jesus Christ,
The lines I just quoted are from Ps 73. They express the psalmist’s complete satisfaction in God to the point that “there is nothing on earth that [he] desires besides God.” The question I want to put before you is whether that is also your prayer. Do you delight in the Lord? Does he satisfy you? Or are there things that, if we’re being totally honest, stand ahead of him? What do you really, actually prize? Are your affections rightly ordered?
As you know, this is the 5th week of the season of Lent. I want to suggest that the arrangement of your affections is the fundamental issue of Lent. How is that? Lent is a season of self-evaluation and pruning leading to repentance and holiness. That’s why we “give stuff up.” We give things up for Lent not simply because we think a little self-deprivation is good, though it is, but because in giving things up we strip away whatever stands in the way of Christ and our affection for him. In Lent we put into practice what the author of Hebrews exhorted us to do when he said “Let us strip off every impediment and every controlling sin, and let us run with endurance the race set before us, looking to Jesus” (Heb 12:1). “Giving stuff up” is a means to an end, which is to focus ourselves on a better, truer, lovelier, holier affection, which is Christ. So, again I ask, What, or Whom, do you cherish? And does your your daily life corroborate your answer – how you use your time, your resources, your talents, your imagination, how you treat your family, your neighbor, the poor, the resources of Creation? What would it look like if we, individually and collectively, truly cherished Jesus above all else?
Today’s epistle and the gospel readings give us a glimpse of that might be like. For Mary and for Paul, Christ is everything. He is all surpassing in worth. The thing – the One – than which no greater can be imagined. So let’s consider at how Mary and Paul express their affections for Christ, and perhaps even more importantly, what undergirds their love for him. Whydo Mary and Paul deem Jesus so worthy of their devotion?
In our epistle lesson from Philippians 3, we hear the clearest and most heartfelt proclamation of Paul’s devotion to Christ of all his letters. He begins “If another person thinks they have reason to be confident for worldly reasons, I have more” (Phil 3:4). He then runs out his résumé backing that sentence up:
- He’s a child of the covenant of Abraham, circumcised at 8 days old.
- He is a man of pedigree: A man of the chosen people of God, of the tribe of Benjamin; a Hebrew among Hebrews.
- He’s a religious man: A Pharisee, a man who followed the law scrupulously and blamelessly.
- He’s a zealous man: A persecutor of the church.
A résumé doesn’t get better than that in the context of 1stcentury AD Judaism. In a system in which one’s worth is determined by personal merit, by personal pedigree and achievement, that is top of the line.
But look at what he says next: “Whatever was a (worldly) “gain” to me, I have considered these things a loss because of Christ. (8) Indeed, I consider all things to be a loss because of the surpassing thing, which is the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (3:7-8a). In a world of profits and losses, Paul doesn’t just think of his pedigree and merits as neutral; in comparison with Christ, he considers them to be damages, disadvantages, losses. They move things in the wrong direction. So these things that, in the worldly systems of 1stcentury Judaism would have made Paul regarded as an elite and accomplished Jew, he rejects because they are precisely the thing that keeps him from the thing – or rather, the person – who is altogether surpassing in value.
As Paul continues, he emphasizes his point, saying “I have endured the loss of all things. In fact, I consider them rubbish so that I may gain Christ and be found in him”(v. 8b-9a). Paul considers all his achievements and accolades as rubbish! Trash, spoiled leftovers, manure; smelly, filthy, and vile. In a worldly economy, Paul’s resume is first-rate. In an economy where Christ is supreme, where Christ is all in all, whatever does not incline us toward him is for the dumpster or commode.
That purpose clause at the end of v. 8 is very important. Paul counts his pedigree and merits as rubbish so that he might gain Christ and be found in him. The key to getting Christ is disregarding all tokens of personal worthiness. The issue isn’t that the things Paul surrenders are bad or wicked in their own right. There is nothing implicitly wrong with being an Israelite or a Pharisee or a keeper of the law. These things become problematic when they hinder one from Christ, as they did for Paul. Paul rightly saw that no human resume, indeed no thing in the world, was better than Christ. To get Christ, Paul deemed all else worthless.
This is very costly devotion, isn’t it? Would you renounce your education if it hindered you from Christ? Would you renounce your citizenship? Your proudest achievements? What undergirds a discipleship that is so costly? It is nothing but Jesus’ prior love for Paul, which Paul intimately knows.
As I reflected on today’s gospel passage over the last week or so, I came to see it as a really beautiful passage. As we heard, Mary anoints the feet of Jesus with a very costly perfume and then proceeds to wipe his feet with her hair.
This is not your run-of-the-mill gift. It’s a gift fit for a king. John tells us that this perfume was “pure nard.” The nard plant is not native to the Middle East; it comes from India. So this ointment would have been imported from very far away, which means it was very rare and very expensive. According to Judas, Mary’s ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii. Just to give you a sense for what kind of number that is: A denarius was the going wage for a day of manual labor in 1stcentury Palestine, so 300 denarii would be equal to roughly a year’s income for an average laborer, factoring in days off for the sabbaths, holidays, and so forth. Imagine putting your entire annual salary into the offering plate, and that’s something along the lines of Mary’s gift to Jesus.
Actually, though, hers is still more than that, because it isn’t as if she simply handed Jesus a bag of coins and said “this is my offering.” It isn’t just that Mary’s gift is high in value, it’s the way she gave it. This is a gift from the heart. You can envisioned her there: down on the floor, wiping his dirty feet with her hair. She displays an attitude of humility before Jesus that flows from a heart full of love and devotion. This is a bold act of service and humility. It should be noted, by the way, that foot-washing was not a dignifying activity in the ancient world, any more than it is now. Feet are gross, especially feet that travel dirt roads in sandals. I dare say that even Jesus’ feet were gross. Foot-washing was a servant’s job. Of course, this makes it all the more significant that in the next chapter (John 13) Jesus will be the one doing the foot-washing.
Why does Mary treat Jesus in this manner? This is a profound act of love; Mary makes very much of Jesus in this passage. Why? The answer, I think, is that Mary knows who Jesus truly is. Not only that, Mary has experienced Jesus’ own love for her, which has drawn her into reciprocal, imitative love. Let me explain what I mean, focusing for a moment on John 12:1.
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”
John 12:1 is the kind of verse that is very easy to mistake as more or less insignificant background material. Actually, verse 1 is critical to understanding Mary’s act of anointing Jesus, for two reasons.
First, John’s brief chronological note telling us that Jesus arrived in Bethany 6 days before the Passover is of profound importance. Why? Because John is reminding us where Jesus is headed and who Jesus really is. Where is Jesus headed? To the cross. Why? Because he is the end-all-be-all, once-and-for-all Passover Lamb. Whenever you see a reference to Passover in the NT, especially in John’s gospel, your mind should instantly go to Good Friday. That’s because Jesus is the Passover sacrifice, crucified on the eve of Passover to take away the sins of the world (John 19:14-19; cf. John 1:29, 36; 1 Cor 5:7). Mary, of course, knows this. She’s heard Jesus’ teaching. She knows what he’s about to do. Tomorrow, Jesus will enter Jerusalem on the back of a donkey to shouts of praise. Five days later, he, the Lamb of God, will be slaughtered on the alter of the cross, making a just and perfect atonement for Mary’s sin, for my sin, for your sin. John knows this. We know this. So does Mary. And she cherishes him for it, so she loves him and serves him as the lamb of God who is about to die by anointing him with sweet-smelling perfume in preparation for his burial.
That’s one reason why Mary makes so much of Jesus – indeed, an important reason. There is a second, also referenced in 12:1. Let’s look there again:
“Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.”
Did you catch the second half of that verse? “…Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.” It is impossible to grasp Mary’s affection for Jesus in John 12 without reference to John 11, which tells the story of how Lazarus fell ill and died, how is sisters Mary and Martha mourned his death, how Lazarus was in the tomb for 4 days, and how on the fourth day Jesus arrived from the other side of the Jordan and called Lazarus out from the tomb. Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life (John 11:25), and no one knows that better than Lazarus, Martha, and Mary. So, a second reason why Mary pours out such affection for Jesus here in John 12 is the fact that she knows that Jesus is the Lord of life, the author of life, the restorer of life, the one who raises people from the dead. She has seen it first hand in her brother, whom Jesus brought forth from the tomb.
Parenthetically, I think here of that beautiful verse we read every year on Easter Sunday from Isa 25:8, which says that God will swallow up death forever and he will wipe away the tear from every face. Mary gets that because she saw Jesus overcome death, and she experienced the comfort that only the Lord of the Resurrection can give. Happy are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted by Jesus. That’s Mary. That’s all of us who put our hope in the Resurrection.
Now, let me pause right here to bring us into the story. If you are in Christ through faith and baptism, you are in this scene too. What do I mean? If you are baptized, then there is a way in which you are Lazarus. You have died a spiritual death to be resurrected to new spiritual life. If you are in Christ, then you have been crucified with him so that you might rise with him. If you are in Christ, then you have denied yourself, taken up your cross, and followed Christ all the way to Golgotha – walking the humble way of the cross with the promise of resurrection. In this sense, all Christians are Lazarus – having been raised from the dead by Christ; and all Christians are Mary and Martha – rejoicing in the resurrection of our beloved brothers and sisters. Jesus Christ is in the business of raising the dead. He is the resurrection and the life, not just for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, but for all the saints past, present, and future. And that includes each of us.
The question is, What kind of response is appropriate for the one who takes away sin, who is stronger than Death, who brings people back to life? You’re looking at in John 12, with Mary kneeling over Jesus’ feet and wiping them with her hair. If Mary’s gesture in John 12 does not resonate with you at all, let me suggest that you don’t know who Jesus is, or at any rate, you have not grasped who he is for you, what he has done for you, the love he has first shownto you.
Application and Conclusion
You know as well as I do that we live in an age of pandemic cultural discontentment and dissatisfaction. People always want more – more money, more education, more clothes, more toys, more power, more glory/honor/prestige. Just 5 minutes of commercials will show you that this is basically true. The irony is that we also live in an age of too much. We already have too much stuff, too much to do, too many places to be, too many meetings, too much work, too many practices, too many extra-curriculars, too many obligations that keep us from the things that really, truly matter.
The antidote to that is to make much of Christ. Make him king. Make him first. And everything else falls into place. Because when Christ is king of your life then you know who you are, and you know what is important. You will take your place in the Kingdom of Christ and dedicate yourself to loving him and serving him, especially by loving the things he loves.
So, who is Christ to you? Is he your source? Your joy? Your prize? The focus of your love and devotion?
Or is he something less than that? Is he for you a ticket to a social club or status? Is he merely a means to an end? Is he just interesting, a good moral teach but functionally not much more? I should tell you, Jesus hates lukewarm devotion; it’s an insult to him. If you know him, the worst thing you can do is be iffy on him (Rev 3:15-17). Either he is Lord and King or he is not. And if he is, then consider him so.
So again I ask you, do you delight in Christ? Is he the object of your affections? Does your life – in thought, word, and deed – show that he is worthy? To help you answer that question, let me say again that if Christ is your chief affections, then your subsequent affections will be toward the things that Christ loves.
Jesus loves the Father. How is your prayer life?
Jesus loves Scripture. Are you feasting on the word of God?
Jesus loves holiness. Are you repenting of your sin, striving to become more like him?
Jesus loves his poor neighbor. Do you?
Jesus loves his lonely neighbor. Do you?
Jesus loves his confused neighbor. Do you?
Jesus loves children, these children. Do you?
Having been one himself, Jesus loves the foreigner, immigrants and refugees. Do you?
Jesus loves the mission of God to redeem the word with the good news of salvation by faith. Are you playing your part in that mission? The Spirit has equipped you for it.
Jesus loves the fatherless, the abandoned and neglected, those who are vulnerable in the world. Do you?
Jesus loves the Church, his living body on earth. Do you love the Church, in spite of its imperfections?
I will close with this: As you come to the table in a few minutes, don’t just go through the motions. Be mindful of what you’re doing. We call it communionfor a reason, which is that we believe that we fellowship with the risen Christ in the bread and wine. So as you eat this meal, eat it with gratitude and with mindfulness of the one with whom you dine. Cherish it. Think upon the one whose flesh you eat and whose blood you drink.
Now to him who sits upon the throne, and to Christ the lamb, be praise and worship, dominion and splendor, now and forever more. Amen.