Fifth Sunday in Lent
New Life, Dripping Springs, Texas
John 12:1-8 Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Blessings with spikenard with the intrepid setup crew at the land. We had to cancel worship (for only the second time in 5 years - the other being during Hurricane Harvey) because of lightning. But I had brought the spikenard so we could smell it, and we felt like God poured our baptismal waters over us as generously as Mary poured the costly perfume over Jesus. "Remember your baptism and remember that you are loved abundantly."
This story about Mary and the nard - the oil - made me think about bucket lists. And about saving special things. My husband Mike and I are at the stage in our lives when we are reminding ourselves not to save the best things for later. We are helping care for aging parents and seeing friends enter retirement, and just trying to remember that now is the time to do the things we want to do.
We are about to be empty-nesters: now is the time to be with our young adult children. Now is the time to care for our relationship, too.
Now is the time to use the good dishes — what are we saving them for?
Now is the time to use up the travel points —while we know we can.
Now is the time to do things in our careers, too —now is the time to be present at this job, in this place, do the things we dream here together.
Because the reality is that life is full of death, and death comes, to everyone, and usually unannounced. This story about Jesus and his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus is about death. It is about how we respond to the inevitability of death.
Some memories are strongly associated with smells, and this story is told with smells at the center, and if we hear it that way, we can feel it viscerally. Just before this story, in this same house with these friends, Jesus has performed his last sign in the Gospel of John: his greatest miracle to date. Jesus had raised his friend Lazarus from the dead. And in that story, the smell in the house was the stench of death. They were afraid to open the grave after four days.
I wonder, now, a little while later, if you can still smell death in that house. I wonder if Lazarus still has a whiff of the grave about him.
There might be the smell of fear, too. That miracle, raising Lazarus from the dead, was the one that tipped the scales against Jesus. It made him too powerful, too famous. Bethany is too close to Jerusalem, and he is too dangerous now - raising Lazarus from the dead has made the authorities decide to neutralize this radical rabbi Jesus.
And there’s another smell, too, the smell of food and the feelings that evokes of home and friends. Jesus goes to this house, where three siblings live, when he wants to rest. Mel, one of our New Life friends, told me she loved it that I said, “Jesus needed friends.” He didn’t have his own house, though he seems to have had bases: Peter’s house in Capernum, the other Mary’s house in Magdala perhaps, but when he wants rest he goes to the house of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, in Bethany near Jerusalem. Not disciples, not the 12, but good friends. When Lazarus dies, Jesus weeps. And now Lazarus is alive, but things are very tense, and Lazarus, becoming a popular legend, is in danger of being eliminated as well. And Jesus is headed to Jerusalem for the last time, and he knows that. Right after this story comes the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, Palm Sunday. So first, he stops at his friends’ house. For food, for rest, for comfort. His ministry is a hard one - Jesus needed friends.
John 12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
They gave a dinner for their friend, the one in danger, the one walking right into that danger. The one who loved them, and the one they loved.
So probably the house was filled with the smell of good food. And maybe still the lingering smell of death, or at least the memory of it. And maybe the tang of fear.
And Mary goes for broke. She puts aside convention, breaks all the rules. It is as if she knows that this is her last time with Jesus, her last moment to tell and show him her love.
John 12:3 Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
So strong. So much perfume. The house was filled with that smell.
John 12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,
John 12:5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
A denarii, we think, was equivalent to a day’s wage for a laborer. So this is a year’s income for a working person in Judea. Mary, Martha and Lazarus are curious characters in some ways, perhaps rich, and certainly strangely unmarried and living together as adult siblings, owning their home, hosting their friend when he needed rest. And Mary had used a year’s income to buy nard to anoint Jesus’ body when he died, as she must have known, then, that he would soon do.
John 12:7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
John 12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Mary bought a huge amount of costly perfume to bury her friend, because, why not? Why not spend money on the most important thing? Well, Judas says, you could give that to the poor, that’s one reason. But Jesus defends Mary. He doesn’t say don’t give to the poor, but he does say to do the big and important things now - you might not have a chance later. He’d probably say to give big to the poor now, too. Why wait? Do the bucket list now — show all the love you have right now, the big demonstration, the grand gesture.
Mary poured it all out on her friend while he was still living, instead of waiting for the funeral. Because why not? Why not show him now, why not show everyone now, what she felt—-what they all probably felt—and how much he meant to them.
So today I’m letting Mary remind me to love extravagantly and demonstratively now, while we can. To not be afraid to make a scene and be inconvenient if it means showing how we really feel.
Poet Mary Oliver said it so well, I think:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life? “
This modern poet Mary said the words for what Mary of Bethany did that day:
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
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