A letter was sent to a national newspaper last week about a revered 'cuddly' pop legend, whose concert the writer had attended. He wrote: "Shortly after the start of his set, he berated a female steward who was simply asking people to be seated so that others could see. His use of very obscene foul language ensured the woman's embarrassment in front of a large crowd. I now no longer listen to him." Now we all sin, but what we're truly like on the inside is often revealed by how we act on the outside. Similarly, whether we're devoted to serving God or serving self, will to a greater or lesser degree, be shown by what we do with what we have. Keep that in mind as we consider the differing responses to Jesus at Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem and just six days from the Passover.
Jesus' visit begins with a double focus – on a man who was dead and is now alive and on a man who's alive but who'll soon be dead. That Lazarus is in focus is underlined by the double reference to him in verse 1 and verse 9: "Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead." Whatever miracles may have happened so far, they're all crowned by this one, the raising of Lazarus, whose body had been decaying in a tomb for four days. This man shouldn't have been lying down eating a meal; he should've been lying back in the cemetery. The eyes of the crowd drawn by Lazarus and Jesus, would've initially been on Lazarus, for some, the local freak show, yet for many the one leading them to believe in Jesus.
But the one who'd raised Lazarus from the dead is also very much in focus, even more so – Jesus himself. Verse 1 "Six days before the Passover Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead." There a dinner was given in Jesus' honour. Then verse 9, "When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, so many of the Jews were believing in Jesus." Now, the question is, 'Who alone can give life to the dead?' Well, the Jews knew the answer: it was Yahweh, the LORD. But here it's Jesus acting as LORD giving life to the dead. Well, he shouldn't be here anymore than Lazarus. The LORD should be back in heaven, instead we find him walking the earth. So why's he here? Well he's here to accomplish the miracle of miracles of which the raising of Lazarus was just a foretaste, a shadowy pointer. For Jesus came to die as a sacrifice for sin so that those who repent and put their trust in him will be raised to life at the end of time. And this divine rescue mission is hinted at here in two ways.
First, in verse 1 when John tells us that this party took place, "Six days before the Passover". The Passover was the Jewish festival which remembered the Exodus, the rescue of Israel from slavery in Egypt, so, as it were, passing from death to life through the waters of the Sea. It was the time when a lamb was sacrificed as a sin offering. And six days from now, on the day of completion, Jesus would give his life as the true Passover lamb for the sins of the whole world. And secondly, we've a hint in an act of prophetic symbolism, as Mary anoints Jesus' feet with perfume, something which would normally be done to a dead body. And whether we receive or forfeit this offer of forgiveness and eternal life depends on our response to him as represented by the two groups of people - Mary and the crowd on the one hand, and Judas and the priests on the other. So let's take a look and see which group we identify with.
1. A Passionate Devotion v2-3, 7-8
"So they gave a dinner for Jesus there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, an expensive perfume; and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."
Now everyone in this drama seems to be acting according to character. You've Martha the matriarch, who's busy organizing the party, all very practical, all very down to earth, and all very necessary. There she is in and out of the kitchen making sure there's enough food. Someone has to make sure things happen - and that's Martha. But then there's Mary, no doubt listening to Jesus, as she always does, transfixed, thoughtful, when suddenly she leaves the room. Maybe she's going to help Martha. But, no. Instead she unlocks a cupboard in which the family heirlooms are kept and brings out a beautiful alabaster pot containing a pound or pint of pure nard. This is so precious that even when Lazarus had died this wasn't used to anoint his body and who could be more precious to Martha and Mary than their own brother? And as she re-enters the room puzzled looks greet her. What on earth is she up to?
Slowly she kneels before Jesus who's seated on the floor, and she breaks the neck of the pot and suddenly the whole room is filled with the most intoxicating fragrance, as if a paradise garden has suddenly bloomed. Now everyone is silent looking on in disbelief as Mary pours the perfume over Jesus' feet and begins to massage them, lovingly and tenderly. But disbelief soon turns into disgust as defying all convention and normal standards of decency she takes out the grip from her hair allowing it to fall around the feet of Jesus to wipe away the excess ointment. Well, this time she's gone too far. This time her spiritual aspirations have got the better of her. What does she think she's doing, embarrassing everybody like this?
Well at the very least Mary's showing a humble loving devotion to her Lord. It's humble in that she's washing Jesus' feet, an act he himself was going to do later with his disciples. But here Mary's action anticipates and pre-empts that. What Jesus expects his disciples to do - serve one another in humility, Mary's already doing. So the women beat the men to the post yet again, as they were to do at the resurrection. And there's something deeply moving when someone behaves like this isn't there? Mary's not concerned what people think of her, she just wants to show her devotion to Jesus.
Neither does she hold anything back from him. This is worth a year's wages. So? Isn't Jesus worth that? So what if it appears extravagant, can't we from time to time be extravagant for God who day by day shows his extravagance to us? Are we ever extravagant for God? Sadly, it's all too easy for Christians to just drift along without showing that commitment to Christ Mary's showing. Isn't there something liberating in this spontaneous act of devotion which actually costs something? Why not, in a gesture of sheer gratitude, give some extra money for God's work beyond the regular planned giving, just to say 'I love you Lord'? Why not do something for God's people you wouldn't normally do simply as an expression of your commitment to him, even if other people think you're overdoing it? That's the least we see happening here with Mary.
But Jesus sees something more, something that perhaps even Mary doesn't fully appreciate, something far more profound - he sees an act of prophetic symbolism. Verse 7, "Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me."
In other words, there's a divine intention in Mary's act of devotion. In the one act, the pouring of the perfume, there's both a divine and human purpose. The human purpose is simply to show human love. The divine purpose is to show divine love. This is how God will demonstrate his love to mankind by giving up his Son to die for people who have offended and grieved him at every turn. The grave we should occupy forever, Jesus occupies in our place so that we might receive eternal life. That's what the anointing points to, a body being prepared for burial. Here's the extravagance, then, of divine love, not the pouring out of perfume which has a limited value, but the pouring out of the Son of God's blood which has infinite value. But there'll always be those who refuse to see that, which brings us secondly to
2. A Sickening Deception v4-6
An Army Major, Charles Ingram, his wife, Diana and a college lecturer, Tecwen Whittock, were all convicted of cheating on 'Who Wants To Be A Millionaire'. Diana, who'd previously won £32,000 on the show and who was writing a book on how to win on the programme, set up the scam. Tecwen coughed at the appropriate moment and the Major after much deliberation chose the answer that'd been coughed at. They were full of covetousness and deceit. They tried to defraud the programme of £1million. As the show's then host, Chris Tarrant, put it after the verdict, "it was a very cynical plan motivated by sheer greed". The Bible puts it like this in 1 Timothy 6.10: "The love of money [note not money but the love of money] is a root of all kinds of evil."
Judas Iscariot, one of the twelve disciples of Jesus, was, in fact, a secret materialist. He had significant religious privileges. But he didn't love Jesus. He loved money. He was full of covetousness and deceit too. Jesus calls him a devil in John 6 and his unrepentant materialism led to a bitter end. According to Matthew 27, Judas was seized with remorse after handing Jesus over for 30 pieces of silver. He returned the coins and told the chief priests that he'd sinned. But he confessed to the wrong people. He didn't go to Jesus. He didn't repent and believe the good news. Instead, he threw the blood money into the temple and went away and hanged himself. Acts 1.18 adds that "falling headlong, his body burst open and all his bowels gushed out." Peter said he left the twelve "to go where he belongs" – the darkness of hell.
Yet Judas had been 'one of the twelve'. He was called by Jesus and "shared in the ministry" (Acts 1.16). Now for those of you with a statistical turn of mind, "one of the twelve" means just over 8% of the inner circle of Jesus' disciples. So that could mean, say 24 out of 300 heavily involved in this church, are infected with the same materialism as Judas. That's when the Bible's account of Judas begins to get close to home for some of us. This is when it makes us ask "Lord is it I?" as the disciples did on learning that one of them was to betray Jesus.
Here we see Judas' covetousness and deceit as he cloaked his true desire to line his own pocket from the sale of Mary's perfume under a plea for it to be used to help the poor. Look at v4-6:
"But, Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples, he who was about to betray him, said, 'Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor? [It was worth a year's wages]' Judas said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; and having charge of the money bag he used to help himself to what was put into it."
Judas saw only denarii signs when he saw Mary pour expensive perfume on Jesus' feet. In fact, in that incident there are four fascinating contrasts between Mary and Judas.
1. Judas' greed vs. Mary's generosity.
2. Judas' covert deception vs. Mary's open act of worship.
3. Judas' pride vs. Mary's humiliation.
4. Judas' cool detachment vs. Mary's unmeasured devotion of Christ.
Which are we? Immediately after this incident, Luke's Gospel tells us that Satan entered Judas who then accepted the chief priests' offer of just 30 pieces of silver. What a contrast between Mary who anointed Jesus with ointment worth a year's wages, and Judas who betrayed him for a relative pittance.
Which are we? Judas didn't repent and trust Christ, but we still can. Thirdly and finally, these responses to Jesus both positive and negative reflect
3. A Universal Division v9-11
"When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus."
Isn't it amazing how good and evil exist side by side? Here you've one of the most wonderful things seen since the creation of the world – a man restored to his family after all hope had been extinguished by the grave – and yet all the religious authorities want to do is kill him and the one who performed the miracle – Jesus. They can't stand Jesus' claims to be God and they must be rid of the evidence which backs up that claim – so murder Jesus and murder Lazarus. And people have been doing the same ever since. And it may be that all this talk of Jesus being a divine Saviour is offensive to some of you, you'd rather have him as a moral teacher even though all the evidence points to the former. So why not pay Jesus the courtesy of looking seriously at what he says and does and see where it leads.
You might be surprised as to where it brings you, as did the crowd. They followed the leads and the result was putting their faith in Jesus. And countless people have been doing the same for centuries. The crowd were blown away by the raising of Lazarus from the dead, but even that pales into insignificance compared to the raising of Jesus from the dead. Lazarus was raised only to die again. Jesus was raised to live forever, so we can know him personally now as ruler and rescuer. That's why John's Gospel was written, 20:31, "...that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God and that by believing you may have life in his name". What's God calling for? For us to renounce a deceptive heart and to ask for a devoted heart.