A sermon based Psalm 126 and John 12:1-8 preached on March 22nd, 2015
The house was filled with the aroma of the perfume.
A couple weeks ago both Squares and Circle bible study groups met, and we talked about our sense of smell. We shared with one another all the sorts of smells that we grew up surrounded by—the scents that saturated our childhoods. Folks mentioned the smell of bread baking in the oven, the smell of warm brownies.
Whenever I’m home at my parents’ house, it’s the smell of my dad’s morning cup of coffee brewing in the kitchen. One of my dad’s favorite desserts is made from the scraps left over after my mom bakes a pie—they’re the remainders of piecrust that my mom covers with cinnamon and rolls up and tosses in the oven for a few minutes when the pie is cooling. Those are the smells that take me right back home. Whenever our noses catch even a hint of them, we’re transported.
Our sense of smell is our strongest and smartest of the 5 senses. Whenever we breathe in something familiar it triggers our memory quicker than sight or taste, sound or touch, sending us right back to the first place we encountered it—however long ago that may have been.
What smells send you back?
This story of Mary kneeling at the feet of Jesus and anointing his feet with oil sets us up well for the end of Lent. Next Sunday is Palm Sunday, and we will be invited to journey with Jesus as he enters the gates of Jerusalem on a donkey and as he and his disciples walk the paths up and down the streets of that busy ancient city.
Each day of Holy Week has a scent—some memory that sends us back as we imagine what Jesus endured that week, from one day to the next.
Lazarus, Mary, and Martha are siblings, and they live in a large house in a town called Bethany—less than 2 miles from the gates of Jerusalem. Jesus stopped at Lazarus, Mary, and Martha’s house often. It was his get-away. The 4 of them were friends. Jesus could relax at their place, be himself, rest his feet, and have a good meal. Lazarus, Martha, and Mary’s house was Jesus’ sanctuary—a place away from all the noise.
And this night, the house was filled with the scent of the huge dinner that Martha was preparing. It was after the meal, though, where we get to the heart of this story.
Nard was a very expensive perfume. In the ancient Near East, the act of anointing with oils signified selection to a special role or task. Kings were anointed with oils as a part of their coronation ceremonies. A priest or a prophet would pour expensive oils upon them to bless them as their new leader, appointed by God.
The Greek word Christos, Christ is a translation of the Hebrew word for Messiah, which means the anointed one.
But those oils were always placed upon people’s heads. Never once upon their feet. And in a culture where a where a woman’s touch was completely forbidden, never did a woman do the anointing.
Everyone in that house that evening must have stared at Mary as she knelt down at the feet of Jesus. This was not a regular way to treat a houseguest, and we can tell by the reactions of all who were there, especially Judas, that what Mary was doing was extraordinary, and strange, and reckless.
Mary, why Jesus’ feet? And why this oil? 12 ounces of one of the most expensive perfumes in the world, costing her a year’s worth of wages. It was worth everything she owned—and more.
And Mary doesn’t carefully open the jar and measure a small amount. No, she pours it all out—sparing nothing, nothing calculated or measured. She goes all-in, fully committed, giving every drop of it away for Jesus.
When I was in my last semester of college, I did an internship at a nearby church: Simonsdale Presbyterian Church in Portsmouth, VA. It was early in my internship and I was told to just show up for church and enjoy—it was Youth Sunday that day, and the youth were focusing on the parable of the Good Samaritan.
The chancel area was packed kids dressed in period costumes—it was almost like a Christmas pageant. For the sermon that morning, one of the older kids read through that story from Luke’s gospel very slowly while it was acted out by a few younger kids. And when it came time for the Good Samaritan to enter stage-left to encounter the hurt man, the boy in the role of the Good Samaritan got down on his knees and took out a roll of white gauze from the pocket of his costume and he began to wrap the boy’s arm.
We all know what Youth Sundays are usually like. They’re fast.Everything is spoken quickly and hurried through. Sketches are over in the blink of an eye.
But not this time—not this moment.
The boy playing the Good Samaritan looked like he forgot he was the center of attention, and he spent a good 2 minutes crouched down beside the boy who played the man injured along the road to Jericho, and completely focused on him, carefully treating each bruised place—his arm and his leg. Not counting time at all.
And for all of us in that sanctuary that morning, looking on as this boy, the Good Samaritan, nurtured the hurt of the other boy, we realized the very meaning of the story, even though it was preached to us without a single word by a 5 year old boy—a 5 year old who refused to count time or inches of gauze, and who for those few minutes gave the gift of his very self to another.
I’ve heard no sermon like it. Not before. Not since.
What that 5 year old preached that day was the gift of measuring nothing and loving generously, vulnerably, extravagantly—giving with passion and not one bit of restraint.
Mary poured out everything at the feet of Jesus—every last bit of everything she had. She wrapped her arms around his feet and embraced him. She rubbed the perfume into his skin with her hair.
Imagine being in that house, looking on as Mary devoted herself—whole-heartedly, all in—for Jesus. Pouring every last drop of that expensive perfume, and every last bit of herself into anointing Jesus.
If I was there, part of me would be embarrassed for her. It had to be an awkward scene for everyone in that house. I bet time stopped for everyone in the room as Mary gave herself, unrestrained and reckless, not measuring a bit of her perfume or her pride—but giving it all away for Jesus.
And then there’s Judas with his calculator, furiously punching in the numbers, measuring it all, and once he’s done adding it all up he presses the big Equal Button and he has a number. He turns the calculator around so Jesus can see the number for himself.
is worth a year’s wages! And she just wasted it.
Judas is small, calculating, miserly, stingy, and according to John, selfish and dishonest and cunning. Mary’s gift is big, filling the room with its aroma—engaging the most powerful of our senses. The smell of that perfume sent into the air as an offering. An offering that prepared Jesus for what was to come: nard was not only used to anoint kings. It was also used to anoint bodies just before burial. Mary becomes the first of Christ’s disciples to acknowledge his impending death.
There are lots of offerings sent up into the air. Ones we can never see or taste or touch. A church choir preparing an anthem—that last note sent up into the heavens and then gone, teachers preparing their lessons and then the bell rings,vacations that pass way too quickly before school starts again. And in each case, all we’re left with are the memories—the scent that they leave on our lives.
As we approach the final weeks of Lent, we are journeying with Jesus closer and closer to the cross. The cross is where Jesus will pour out all of himself for us. There, he will give of himself without measure. There, he will go all in, recklessly offering all of who he is so that we can be all of who we are.
Love doesn’t count a thing.
There are costs to loving as big as Jesus loves, but Jesus’ love doesn’t count the costs.
As the Roman soldiers hoisted Jesus onto the cross, right there in the center of Jerusalem on Good Friday, they sent Jesus up into the air as an offering.
Does love have an aroma? Does grace have a scent? What treasures of ours are we ready to pour out at the feet of our Master?
May we, like Mary, devote ourselves to Jesus without counting the cost—sending into the air around us the sweet fragrance of the Good News of Jesus Christ and giving our all to the One who gave His all for us.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!