Sermon – Fifth Sunday in Lent (John 12:1-8)
No one would spend a year’s wages on an expensive perfume and then waste it on someone’s feet. No woman in Jesus’ day with any self-respect would let her hair down in public. No self-respecting rabbi would allow such a woman to treat him in this way. So why is this story in the Bible, and why do we hear it today on the Sunday before Palm Sunday?
First, it is a story about gratitude. Mary, the sister of Lazarus, whom Jesus brought back to life, was grateful. She loved Jesus for all he had done for her and her family. But more – it was an extravagant love, one she was not embarrassed about. It poured out of her like the perfume poured out of that bottle. It is the kind of love that can’t be stopped. It rushes out from deep inside. It borders on no explanation. It has no calculation, no formula; it is not even rational. It is the kind of love that responds to Jesus’ love. It borders on the scandalous.
Last week we heard again the parable of the father with two sons. That father loved his sons so much that he abandoned all sense of propriety. He lifted his robe to run out and meet his prodigal son. No self-respecting man in the Near East ever runs! No one lavishes love on a prodigal, reinstates him as a son, and gives him a party.
Jesus told this parable because the religious leaders were grumbling about the way he ate with and accepted the low life around him. By eating with such riff-raff, Jesus was approving of them. No self-respecting, genuine rabbi would carry on like that. And Jesus did it to show that God was like that. God wasn’t sitting above the world in a safe place untouched by human misery. God was among his people, in his creation suffering right along with his people – all of them. And God was in Jesus reconciling all kinds of people unto himself in and through the life of Jesus.
The love Jesus showed, and still shows, goes way down deep into the souls of people and brings out a response like Mary’s. She doesn’t stop to think about it. She doesn’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing. Her response to Jesus is like Jesus’ response to God! She was doing something for Jesus that possibly no one else could or would do. Without knowing it, she was preparing him for burial! What Jesus does for people is costly, extravagant, life changing – it goes all the way into death. It lives beyond death – this love of God poured out in Jesus. And it is poured out for you here every Sunday at the table. You will participate in the banquet of Jesus’ life right here during our regular celebration of worship. But hear this: It’s not common! Because we do it frequently does not make it common. It’s not just another communion service. It is the gift of God in Jesus’ suffering and death for each one of us – each person in the world. And Jesus doesn’t throw his life away on junk – his life, death, and resurrection give value and meaning to every person. You count, no matter what anyone thinks, because Jesus Christ came to get you, turn you around and send you out from yourself to love and serve others.
The reason we exist as Church is to share with the community around us that kind of love. Love like Jesus shows, like Mary showed is expensive, it’s extravagant, it’s dangerous and it changes people. Often it receives a negative response, like that of Judas in our gospel story. The writer of John’s gospel seems to imply that Judas didn’t really care about the poor. He wanted to continue stealing from the common purse. Judas was probably not as bad a person as the writer of our gospel pictures, but Judas, like so many religious people, so many church members, just couldn’t let the love of Jesus unleash a fragrance in them like it did in Mary. He had to leave the room later at the Passover meal to stop Jesus from filling other rooms with his love. Many today try to stop others from sharing the love of Jesus because the cost is just too great. I heard about a humble shoemaker who was so grateful to God that he gave 10% of his income to the church. Then he gave 20, 30, 40, 50, and at last count, he was giving 60%. Foolish, you say. That’s what love does. It always leaves you in the red.
It’s sad that Jesus’ love has not yet motivated a room-filling fragrance from all in his Church. It’s sad that some in church and state still criticize those who let go and let God fill them with so much love that it spills out all over. It could be a matter of control. Many are uncomfortable and afraid of losing control – afraid of losing their money, their standing with others, their self-respect. We’re often afraid of that which we cannot explain, that which we cannot fully understand – any yet, we can all think of someone or many who have filled this room with the fragrance of Jesus. We breathed it in – and it changed us, if even for a moment. Some have joined the Church Triumphant. Some are still here. Some have wandered away, and many have been long forgotten by all but God. God never forgets anyone. And Jesus, God’s man, is still pouring out the fragrance of his love on us all so that we, like so many, can be set free to pour out his love on others. Is it too much to believe that even though not everyone responds positively to our love, some will – and maybe not today, but soon – and whether they tell us or show us, all need and want the love of Jesus which has been poured out so extravagantly, so radically, so faithfully, week after week after week, in churches, in homes and in communities all over the world? Is it too much to believe that we have that love poured out for each one of us every week right here at this table?
As we move toward Holy Week and Good Friday, the smell of death is in the air – Jesus’ death. As we participate in the events of Holy Week, we are being prepared to receive the most lavish display of love the world has ever known. As we take it into ourselves, we can become like Mary, like the prodigal father, like Peter and Paul and billions of others down through the centuries because the love of Jesus changes lives – ours and the lives of those we minister to here at Good Shepherd, in this neighborhood, through our New England Synod, and through our ELCA to the ends of the earth.