“Thus says the Lord: Do not consider the things of old. For behold, I am about to do a new thing.” In our Old Testament reading, the prophet known as Second Isaiah was addressing God’s people in exile from their homeland, exiled in Babylon, in a time of deep darkness and despair. He reminds them that theirs is the same God who delivered their ancestors from suffering and slavery in Egypt, who made a path in the Exodus through the waters of the Red Sea and brought them into the promised land. But then, surprisingly, according to Isaiah, God goes on to say, “do not remember the former things, do not consider the things of old.” By which he means, do not keep your faith stuck in the past tense and do not try to keep God contained in the old categories of the past. Because God is capable of and indeed about to do something dramatically new. God is about to make a way through the wilderness you now are presently stuck in, God is about to bring rivers of water in what now seems like the driest of deserts. “Thus says the Lord. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
Our Gospel lesson is proclaiming much the same thing. “For I am about to do a new thing.” God is about to do something far beyond the old categories; In Christ, God is about to do something dramatically new. Remember, at this point in the Gospel of John, the smell of death is very much in the air. Immediately prior to this story of the dinner in Bethany, Jesus has just raised his friend Lazarus from the dead, after four days in the tomb, which, in turn, so frightened the religious authorities that they decided Jesus simply had become too dangerous a problem and that he must be put to death. And, then and there, they began to plot exactly how to have Jesus killed. Immediately after this dinner at Bethany, the very next day, Jesus will make his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, following the road which he knows will lead inevitably to his death on the cross. So, this little story is buffeted on both sides by waves of intrigue, assassination plots, Jesus moving inexorably toward the cross - the smell of death is distinctly in the air. Jesus speaks of new life, but paradoxically this new life seems to be all wrapped up in the old death. And, at this point, it would appear that the line between life and death and the hope of resurrection is blurry at best. But in Christ, God is about to do a new thing.
Jesus came to Bethany, to the home of Lazarus, Martha and Mary. There they gave a dinner to honor him. Notice that Lazarus himself is one of those present at the table. Just a few days before, Lazarus was dead, reportedly beginning to smell of death, lying in a tomb for 4 days, covered by a stone. Now he is alive and sitting among the guests at the table, enjoying a meal with Jesus. It would seem to be a celebratory meal to give thanks for this miracle that, out of death and grief, Jesus has brought new life. And once again we encounter Martha and Mary, those two very different sisters. Practical Martha, being Martha, her way of expressing gratitude is to serve this nice celebratory dinner. But impractical Mary, being Mary, goes completely overboard. Her way of expressing her gratitude was to take a pound of very costly perfume made of pure nard, an exotic plant which came all the way from India and cost the equivalent of a year’s wages, she took this incredibly expensive perfume and poured it over Jesus’ feet. And then Mary, both literally and figuratively, let down her hair and tenderly wiped his feet, clearly not worrying in the least about what was sensible, practical or appropriate. And the fragrance of her incredibly extravagant gesture of love - that fragrance filled the entire house.
Not surprisingly, Mary’s extravagance is called into question by the chairman of the Business and Finance Committee, who turns out to be Judas. “Why was this perfume not sold for a large sum of money and that money given to the poor?” Say what you will about Judas, but is this not a valid question? I mean, “Judas may have been a thief and an informant, he may have embezzled money from the common purse occasionally, he may have had other motives besides the high moral ground he seems to project, and he evidently didn’t really give a flip about the poor. But does he not have a point? Couldn’t that pound of expensive perfume dumped on Jesus’ feet have been used for a better purpose?”(Frank G. Honeycutt). Translated to today’s economy, this is something like $30,000 poured onto the feet of Jesus. Isn’t that going overboard, or worse, isn’t it a sinful waste of resources? Judas may have been a traitor, but he does have a point.
However, Jesus says, “Leave her alone.” There is something else going on here. Mysteriously he says, “She bought it for the day of my burial.” But, as all of you will see in just a few days, God is about to do a new thing. “The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.” Now, here I have to pause and say that these oft-quoted words of Jesus, “the poor you always have with you” are in no way to be taken as a biblical excuse for callous neglect of the poor. In fact, as he often does, Jesus is citing a line from the Book of Deuteronomy, “the poor you always have with you, therefore” it continues, “I command you, you shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and the poor in the land.” As followers of Jesus, our responsibility to the poor remains constant. But here in this moment, something else is going on. God is about to do a new thing. Mary’s beloved brother Lazarus has just been brought back from the dead, and at that moment Jesus is preparing to give his own life for the resurrection of all, you and me included. So Mary anoints Jesus’ feet in this gesture of extravagant love.
It is interesting, in the Gospel of John, that in the very next chapter Jesus is washing the feet of his own disciples, an action that clearly points to service in the highest sense of the word. John seems to be suggesting that there is a connection between honoring Jesus and serving Jesus. A connection between honoring God, “loving the Lord your God, with all your heart, mind, soul and strength,” and serving God, “loving your neighbor as yourself.” Maybe Mary goes overboard in honoring Jesus. Maybe she overdoes it. But, let me ask you, what are the appropriate limits to this relationship, our relationship with the Lord? Mary’s extravagant gesture of love is a response to her experience of Christ’s love for her. Where do we draw the boundary that properly limits our loving God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength? I guess in a very real sense, what we do for God depends on what we think and feel that God has done for us. And so, the more I think about it, the more clear it becomes that this story is not about money, frugality or economic matters at all; it is a story about gratitude and love. Love and gratitude.
G.C. Jones tells a story from the life of Thomas Becket, 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury. When Thomas was a baby, his grateful mother would literally weigh him in a basket on each of his birthdays, then fill the basket with coins, food and clothing to the identical weight of the child she loved so much. Then she would go and share this basket, the measure of her good fortune and love, with the poor. Maybe that is an answer. Maybe we are called to give in the same measure that God has given to us. Maybe Mary finds the freedom to be so extravagant because she recognizes just how much Jesus has given to her. You see, Mary has moved from the “calculating mind” to the “awakened heart.” She has moved from arithmetic to love. What monetary value can you possibly place on getting back the life of someone you love dearly? How could you adequately express your gratitude to someone who is willing literally to give his own life in love for you? In this context, the value of the perfume Mary pours on Jesus’ feet may seem to her not an extravagance at all, but a pittance when compared to the value of what Jesus has done for her and for all of us. I love the quote from William Blake: “And we are put on Earth a little space that we may learn to bear the beams of love.” When we come to the cross of Christ and consider the infinite and eternal weight of God’s love for us, then we have come face to face with true extravagance. In the face of a love “so amazing, so divine,” moderation, practicality and respectable limits are simply thrown to the wind. (G.Curtis Jones, paraphrase)
This little story of the dinner at Bethany has a triple meaning, reflected in the three main characters. Judas of course, was acting on behalf of himself. Mary was acting on behalf of Jesus. And Jesus was acting on behalf of all humanity, you and me included. Mary is offering thanks for her brother being brought back to life. Jesus is pointing forward to his own death to bring resurrection for all. And Judas is counting the change. It reveals the ugliness of narrow, calculating human self-interest, the beauty of human gratitude, and the breath-taking scope of Jesus’ self-giving love for us and for all of humanity.
For the most part, we like to be reasonable and practical in the way we give. How do we buy gifts? Generally, we want to spend a reasonable, appropriate and respectable amount, but we do not want to go overboard. We try to figure out, to calculate, what will others be spending? If they spend $50 dollars, then we would be embarrassed to spend only $25 dollars and even more embarrassed to get carried away and spend $200 dollars. In some ways we also like to be calculatingly reasonable in the way we love. Normally, we wouldn’t want to declare our love for someone until we first find out whether they feel the same way about us. I know some people who actually keep something like a score-card in their love relationships. We love the people who love us back, and we try to keep that score-card in balance. We love God, for that matter, and we certainly want to follow Christ, but you know, as Episcopalians we don’t want to go overboard and be like religious fanatics. We do the calculations and we generally prefer to be moderate and practical, in our giving, our faith, our love..
Judas was practical, but the problem with Judas’ practical approach is that it kept him from truly being a true disciple of Jesus. Indeed, it may be that Judas’s betrayal did not begin on the night of the Last Supper. It may be that his betrayal began with a calculating way of life that could not stand or understand the relatively impractical life and love of Jesus. Could it be that one way of betraying Christ is to live an overly careful, practical, calculating kind of faith when Christ calls us to live and love extravagantly?
It may very well be that God has extravagant possibilities in mind for each of us, that God is calling you and me to live an extravagant faith and to love beyond all calculation. You know, common sense says, ‘grow beans and onions.’ Which is fine, but faith says, grow flowers too. Common sense says, ‘love your friends, the ones who will love you back.’ Faith says, ‘love even your enemies.’ Common sense says ‘share the good news when it is convenient, appropriate and in good taste.’ Faith says ‘spread the good news like a crazy farmer throwing seeds in every direction.’ Common sense says, ‘be kind to those who can help you.’ Faith says, ‘care for even the least of these, my brothers and sisters.’ Common sense says, ‘love until you can say, well, I think I’ve done my part.’ Extravagant faith says, ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself.’ Common sense says, ‘be good like Martha and do what other people expect.’ Jesus says, ‘live and love like Mary and do what God expects and longs for.’
Not many people actually go the way of Mary or the way of Jesus. The people who really overdo it, who tend to go too far in their love, too far in their faith, too far in their gratitude and their self-giving, those people are eventually called saints. And we remember them even after they die because they’ve lived in the power of resurrection - because they’ve lived in the power of that love which is stronger than death. Yes, the smell of death was indeed in the air that day. But, John tells us that in this extravagant gesture of gratitude and love, the fragrance of Mary’s perfume filled the entire house. This is the fragrance of resurrection, the fragrance of a love that is stronger than death. This Easter, I hope and pray that each of us will move from arithmetic to love, from the calculating mind to the awakened heart that we will breathe in deeply the endlessly fresh and life-giving fragrance of Christ’s resurrection. As we truly follow the way of Jesus, the glorious fragrance of our own lavish faith, our own unlimited gratitude and our own extravagant love will fill our church, our homes, our community and our world. For this is the fragrance of Christ’s resurrection, the love that is stronger than death, alive in us. “Behold, God is about to do a new thing, now it springs forth. Do you not perceive it?”
*Footnote disclaimer: parts of this sermon were drawn from a sermon Ipreached years ago and, unfortunately, I cannot locate the source references for that sermon.I am relatively sure that some of this material was drawn from other sources, but I am notable to give proper attribution.