Sunday, November 29, 2015
Sermon: John 12: 1-8 Extravagant Worship
I wonder if you’ve ever had a memorable meal. A dinner that really sticks out in the mind. Now, maybe you can remember every single meal you’ve ever had, but for most of us, you couldn’t remember much about what you had for dinner Tuesday week ago, let alone fifteen years ago. But you might remember some memorable meals. Perhaps you can remember the best steak you’ve ever tasted; or the most delicious dessert (all with no calories, of course).
But sometimes it isn’t the food itself that makes a meal memorable. Something happens, and the meal will be remembered for a long time. A wee while ago I was out for lunch with my mum and dad. Ordered a chicken Maryland, and the plate came out, piled high - bacon, chips, banana fritter, battered pineapple, peas and sweetcorn - it was all there; but no chicken! They’d forgot to put it on the plate. We’ll never forget that it happened! Or perhaps you’ve had a memorable meal when you pulled out a ring and popped the question (and had to answer the question...).
As John sits down to write his gospel, there’s a memorable meal that he includes, and it’s found in our reading today. We’re not told anything about the food, just that Martha served it; but it was unforgettable because of what happened - an act of unashamed, extravagant worship.
The setting is Bethany, the home of siblings Lazarus, Martha and Mary. Lazarus, you might remember, had been dead, but Jesus raised him from the dead. And so the family give a dinner in Jesus’ honour. A time of table fellowship they wouldn’t have thought possible a few days before. Practical Martha cooked up a treat; Lazarus reclined at table - they weren’t sitting at a dining room table the way you might when you go home for your dinner. Instead, they reclined on one arm, with the other used to eat; legs sprawled out behind.
And Mary? Mary does something unforgettable. Let’s watch as John describes the scene. She took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard. The other night at the Christmas Fair there was the guess the weight of the Christmas cake. It was about 6lb 12 oz, but this is one pound of pure nard - a rare and expensive ointment. This is a costly act of worship. Later we’re told that it could have been sold for 300 denarii - a year’s wage.
That’s like going into Boots and asking for the most expensive perfume. In fact, you probably wouldn’t even get close. This would be like flying to Chanel and asking them to make you up your very own perfume. A year’s worth of wages was a huge sum to save up in order to buy this perfume for this costly act of worship.
I wonder are we as deliberate, as thoughtful when it comes to deciding what we’re offering in worship?
This wasn’t just a costly act of worship, this was also unashamed worship. Mary... anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. Now we might not quite ‘get’ what’s going on here. For a single woman to let down her hair, to touch and anoint a single man’s feet; this was shocking in that culture. This wasn’t how you were meant to get on.
But Mary doesn’t care what other people think. She is pouring out her worship as she pours out her ointment, as she anoints the anointed one (the Christ). This is pure devotion, not held back by what other people think. It’s the same attitude that David showed when the ark of the covenant was brought into the city of Jerusalem in 2 Samuel 6. David danced before the Lord with all his might, wearing just an ephod. His wife Michal was raging at how David had behaved in front of his female servants. But David replies, ‘I will make merry before the Lord. I will make myself even more undignified than this.’ (2 Sam 6:21-22). He doesn’t care what other people think. And neither does Mary. Nothing will stop her as she offers this unashamed worship.
Sometimes we can hold back from really worshipping because we’re fearful of what someone else will think or say. They might not like it, but don’t hold back. Be unashamed in your devotion.
And all the more so, because this was a public act of worship. No one could miss what was happening. John says: ‘The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’ I’m not sure how I’d have coped in the house - I sometimes have to take a deep breath to walk through all the perfume counters in Debenhams in Belfast just to get to the rest of the shop. The candle shops can be overpowering. And the worship offered that day was just as unavoidable. Everyone could smell it. Everyone would smell of it.
Public worship, witnessed by all, missed by none. Are we in the same category? Is the fragrance of our devotion to Christ obvious? Or would people be surprised that you’re here today; that you identify as a Christian?
Extravagant worship is costly, unashamed, and public. It doesn’t go unnoticed, and can sometimes be misunderstood. Criticised, even, by those you would think would know better.
Judas, one of the twelve, speaks up. ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ What a waste! A year’s wages poured out in one go - think of the hungry mouths to feed. Think of the hands eager to receive even a fraction of it.
Perhaps you find yourself nodding along. Except we need to be careful of the company we keep. You see, the only hungry mouth Judas was worried about was his own. The only eager hand to receive even a fraction of the money was his own. John tells us (with the benefit of hindsight) that Lazarus didn’t care about the poor. He was a thief, helping himself to what was put into the common money bag. Judas was about to betray Jesus (4), but he already had many times before.
He was one of the twelve; he was with Jesus; he had a position of responsibility; but he was a thief. His time with Jesus didn’t lead to worship and wonder; he grew in selfishness and cynicism. Now for us gathered in church today, we need to face up to the same challenge. As we listen to Jesus, as we hear of all the amazing things he did, are we hardened to it all, and only watching out for how we can prosper ourselves? Or are we moved to worship?
Jesus speaks up in Mary’s defence. You will always have the poor with you. Now that doesn’t mean what one of our old teachers tried to say - there’s always going to be poor people, so don’t bother helping... It means we can and should be helping, and can do so all the time. But Jesus wouldn’t always be around. This anointing was done to prepare Jesus for burial, something which would happen in less than a week, that very Passover.
You see, Jesus is worthy of this costly, unashamed, public, extravagant worship. This Jesus who raised Lazarus from the dead would himself go to the place of the dead, crucified for us, dying the death we deserved, to give us hope. When we see his glory, then the only right response is to worship him with all that we have. To welcome him in.
As we begin this Advent season, as we’re reminded that Jesus is coming - will you receive him in? Will you make him Lord of your life, Lord of your home?
Nuala is going to come and share a poem she has found helpful and challenging on this theme of welcoming Jesus in. Let’s pray.
This sermon was preached in Aghavea Parish Church on Sunday 29th November 2015.