Mt. McKinley in Alaska, originally known as Denali, "the Great One." .... "Lead me to the rock that is higher than I; for you are my refuge..." (Ps. 61:2-3)

       "Who do you say that I am?" Jesus asked.  Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."  And Jesus answered, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! ... You are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church..."  Jesus then began to speak of the rough road ahead. And Peter took him aside and rebuked him... "Get behind me, Satan!" Jesus replied. "You are a stumbling block..."
                                                (Matthew 16:13-23)

May these words of this Peter be like a rock,
not a stumbling block!

"Donít steal the gift"

Message preached March 25, 2007
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon  John 12:1-8

Order of Worship

            "Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesusí feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume." (John 12:3, NRSV) What an extraordinary thing to do! The aroma lingers even now. Not the musty smell of old paper in an ageless book, but the scent of love expressed in a recklessly extravagant act.

            It was a foolish thing to do, you know. Judas said what would have been uppermost in our minds had we been there when Mary did it. Three hundred denarii for a pound of cologne was a bit much to waste like that, one denarii being equivalent to a full dayís wage. Think about it. Suppose someone makes a minimum of $6.15 an hour. Multiply that by eight hours of work, and we have a possible present day equivalent for a denarii of $49.20. Three hundred denarii might today be equal to $14,760 (if my math is right). Thatís not cheap perfume! Quite extravagant, wouldnít you say?

            How incredibly irresponsible to squander such wealth on ... on an act of service, washing the feet of none other than Jesus himself. Good old Dunker frugality crashes head-on with the tub and the towel. This episode tosses our best impulses up in the air like a salad. God has a way of doing that, you know. In the process, we absorb some of that fragrance.

            To better understand this recklessly extravagant act of Mary, we need to place what she did in the wider context of the gospel story as told by John. Perhaps you recall something else that happened in Bethany, the hometown of Mary, her sister Martha, and bother Lazarus. Turning back to the previous chapter, we find Jesus returning to his friendsí home in Bethany - only he has come too late to save Lazarus. Maryís brother had died three days earlier.

            When Jesus arrived, he faced the mixed emotions of this woman who had clearly sent word of her brotherís illness in time for Jesus to get there and heal him. How would you have felt, had you been her? Jesus was a close friend of the family. He was known far and wide for the miraculous things he did. He healed strangers, but didnít arrive in time to save a friend. "Had you been here, Lord," Mary cried at Jesus feet, "my brother would not have died." Thatís all she could say. In scripture, Mary is a woman of few words. Most of the times we read of her, she is found at the feet of her Lord, which is a place of honor.

            However, on this occasion, being overdue by three days was intentional on Jesusí part, according to the gospel of John. You might remember what he did next. Taken to the tomb in which Maryís brother had been laid, Jesus cried out to his friend, "Lazarus, come out." And he came alive. Can you believe it? Do you hear in this account a foretaste of what was soon to happen? Three days in a tomb ... rising from death to life. What took place in Bethany would come to pass in Jerusalem. Had anyone figured it out, they would have been on tiptoes with excitement.

            As it was, those who figured out enough, those who knew the law of Moses and were responsible for guiding the faithful, understood the danger of the situation. "If Jesus keeps this up," the chief priests and Pharisees said when they heard what happened in Bethany, "everyone will believe in this Jesus, and the Romans will come and destroy us." It was then that the conspiracy to kill Jesus commenced. "It is better that one man dies for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed," the high priest, Caiaphas, said in words that were truer than he realized.

            In the verses just before the account of Mary anointing Jesusí feet with perfume, a corner is turned in the story. Events are quickly moving toward his arrest and execution. His last stop before entering Jerusalem for that final Passover celebration was again the town of Bethany, and the home of his good friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was during dinner together that Mary performed her recklessly extravagant act. Why did she do it? What possessed her to pour that cologne over his feet, and wipe them with her hair? Who knows. She doesnít say. The place is filled with quite a fragrance, but Iím not sure if itís only the perfume we smell.

            Judas speaks the words of responsibility, though coming from his lips they sound hollow. Was his concern really for others? When it states that "he said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief," the wording is similar to what Jesus had said earlier about himself being the good shepherd. "The hired hand runs away (when the wolf comes)," he said, "because a hired hand doesnít care for the sheep" (John 10:13).

            "Leave her alone," Jesus, the good shepherd, said to Judas. "Donít steal the gift." And then he made reference to his own burial, which must have made no sense whatsoever to those sitting around that dinner table. He said she bought this perfume to anoint his dead body. Said what? Imagine the table talk afterward: "Letís get this straight. Mary bought it to anoint his body after he dies. I didnít know he was planning his own funeral so soon, but... okay, the oil is for then, but she just used it up now. This is not making sense. Letís start over: Whoís on first?..."

            The point is, nobody understood what was really happening here but Jesus. Not even Mary. Unwittingly, though, her act of gratitude (thatís what I think it was, how about you?) has a deeper purpose, which goes beyond anything she ever planned. In this story, as Johnís gospel tells it, Mary anointed Jesus for his death, and for the healing of the world that would come out of it. The gears are already in motion, clicking toward Calvary. The inevitable can not and will not be stopped. Jesus will die on the cross, and three days later rise. Somehow, three hundred denarii (or $14,760) does not seem to be very much at all. What value do you place on a personís life ... especially this person - the Son of God?

            The fragrance that flowed through that dining room in Bethany was more than the smell of a plant grown only in the mountains of India. It was also much more than the aroma of one womanís act of devotion to her Lord. Most importantly, it was the fragrance of Godís graciousness in giving his own to die for us that we might really and truly live. Donít steal the gift!

            Itís interesting that in this brief dinnertime story, two acts significant to Brethren are combined. One is anointing, the other feetwashing. It is from the latter that we have derived our emphasis upon service, doing in this world what Jesus commanded us to do to one another. After all, as Jesus said, "the poor will always be with you," (see Deuteronomy 15:11) a statement not for resignation but for mission. As I have been saying, though, servanthood is not just what we do, it is who we are. Itís fitting that this sermon series ends in the gospel of John, because it is in this gospel that the feetwashing story is told, and we hear our calling to be servants of the Lord. Itís a gift, friends. Donít steal it!

            Servanthood is our identity. Jesus, our Savior and pattern for living is our magnetic north. We orient ourselves, we compass our way through life, discovering in ever-deeper ways who we really are - as we look to him. This identity, however, is not something we create, which can become a heavy burden as time goes by, always trying to keep up appearances. No, who we are, our identity as servants - itís a gift from God. Donít steal the gift, my friends!

            As servants we are all accountable to God, and through Christ to one another. Accountability is a good thing, it signifies "whose" we are - we are connected in this world, not alone to fend for ourselves. Remember, though, the purpose of accountability. Itís not for "just getting by." Neither is it for knocking each other down. Accountability is for becoming like the One to whom we are ultimately accountable. Thus, it is a gift from God. My friends, donít steal the gift!

            Obedience is a key word for servants of the Lord. It is a listening for Godís voice, and a moving out in the direction that God is calling us. Itís a process, a direction, not a conclusion to our journey. Too often, though, we can use obedience as a weapon to control others. We can heap all sorts of shame on one another, to get us to "do" whatís right. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it, none of us fully does whatís right. We all fall short. Are any of us really any better than Judas Iscariot, who betrayed our Lord? No. By the way, did you feel the shame in Judasí words to Mary concerning that expensive perfume? Such shame-induced obedience is not Godís way. After all, the ability to follow Godís voice is a gift. My friends, donít steal the gift!

            Servanthood is a relationship with a God who is a loving parent. God lets us go. Our Creator does not control us like puppets. We have the freedom to make mistakes. But God is ever waiting, drawing us home with a passion we can barely comprehend. This passion, this radical, unconditional love is what powers our service. Without it, we starve. Without it, our service is self-serving. Without it, we damage ourselves and others, offering bad news instead of good. This love is a gift. My friends, donít steal the gift!

            Thus we come to the end of our wandering and wondering about Servanthood, something very central to being Brethren - to being Christian. I donít pretend to have said it all. Neither do I wish to have the last word. The wandering and wondering goes on. It is my prayer that this household of servants we call the Church of the Brethren might be more like that house in Bethany - filled with the fragrance of Maryís perfume. But, you know, for as extraordinary as her act of anointing Jesusí feet was, the aroma that really filled that place was the recklessly extravagant love - or, to put it in Paulís words, the grace of God. May that servant scent permeate our clothing, as well as our very lives. Itís a priceless gift from God. Sisters and brothers, whatever you do, donít steal the gift! Share it!

(para traducir a espaŮol, presione la bandera de EspaŮa)


©2007 Peter L. Haynes
(you are welcome to borrow and, where / as appropriate, note the source - myself or those from whom I have knowingly borrowed.)

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