I thought I'd do something a bit different this morning and offer you the chance to exercise your inner Art Critic. I'm no expert but before the kids came along I used to enjoy a wee jaunt around an art gallery in the vain pretence that of being cultured.
So let me invite you to join in and have a look at this. This is "The Symbol" painted in 1881 by Victorian artist and illustrator Frank Dicksee. I wonder what you make of it?
As far as art works go – It might not be your cup of tea. But it's actually a really clever picture. Because down in the left-hand corner there is a guy who looks like he's begging at the side of the pavement. And intriguingly he is offering the passers-by a little crucifix out of a portable box of knick-knacks.
But everything about the picture is designed to draw your gaze away from the beggar and his crucifix: So the nobleman is fiddling with his necklace. His Lady is plucking an orange out of the tree. The shading is brighter on the right-hand side than the left. I don't know a lot about this – but I've been told that even the lines of the picture channel your eyes back through the arch they are all walking through. Everything is designed to take your eyes off the beggar and his cross – Only the nobleman in the picture is making even the faintest acknowledgement of it as he looks down his nose at the beggar's wares.
As I say it's called "The Symbol" – But the subtitle is this: "Is it nothing to you… all you who pass by?" That is the challenge of the picture. "Is it nothing to you… Is the cross nothing to you all you who pass by?"
And that is the challenge of the second half of John's gospel which we're looking at over the next few weeks in the run-up to Easter. The cross on which Jesus died – What does it mean to us? Is it nothing to us?
Or could it actually mean everything to us? And be the one thing our lives revolve around?
Well here in John chapter 12 the shadow of the cross looms large. Jesus death has been in the background all the way through John's gospel, but from this point on it dominates the horizon. Verse 1:
"Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany…"
The clock is ticking. Six days. "Something big is going to happen anytime now," John is saying.
At the end of the previous chapter we have seen:
- The religious authorities plot to kill Jesus.
- And the people speculate as to whether he would dare to turn up in Jerusalem for the Passover with such a fate hanging in the air.
And here he is… in Bethany… a mere stone's throw away from Jerusalem… six days before the Passover.
The time has come. The hour is at hand. It's six more days till D-Day. And therefore… it's time to take sides.
So let's take a look at two people – each with very different responses to Jesus and his impending death on the cross. The first is…
1. Mary Treasures Jesus With Extravagant Love
As Jesus isn't just in Bethany passing through on his way to the cross. Have a look at verse 1 again – As we start chapter 12 they are holding a "Resurrection Thank You" dinner for Jesus:
"Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there."
You are not kidding! Can you imagine - their brother's back from the dead! "I think we'll have a dinner." I think you would have a dinner, wouldn't you? But can you imagine Lazarus' sisters sending out the invitations here? Can you imagine it as it comes through the door?
Thanks so much for coming to my brother's funeral last week. Please do come and have dinner with the man who raised him from the dead this week.
Lots of love,
Mary & Martha.
P.S. Lazarus looks forward to seeing you.
P.P.S. Can those who so kindly took his clothes down to the charity shop please bring them back."
Can you imagine? Imagine the joy! Imagine the party?!
I mean what sort of dinner would you give for a beloved family member if Jesus raised them from the dead. What would we give just to be able to pick up the phone and chat or give them a hug again? Think of the party you would throw if that became a possibility! A simple dinner party doesn't seem enough, does it?
Which is probably why we read in verse 3 that as Martha served dinner, and Lazarus her brother reclined at the table with Jesus and the other guests:
"Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."
Folks, I have only twice in my life plucked up enough courage to go to the cosmetics department in John Lewis to buy perfume for my wife – and both times I nearly had a heart attack! Perfume is eye-wateringly expensive.
But this stuff has got nothing on Mary's spicy musk drawn from the spikenard found in the foothills of the Himalayas. Verse 5 tells us it could have been sold for 300 denarii – which is essentially a year's wages. Can you imagine blowing a whole year's wages on Jesus' dusty feet?
Well Mary can because she's got her brother back! And in doing so she has discovered that life's greatest tragedy can end in triumph. Life's biggest enemy can be defeated.
Death is manageable. It is still painful... but it is beatable. Because Jesus holds the keys to life and death.
And so nothing is worth more than knowing him! And no gift is too lavish to shower upon him! And so Mary poured out her most treasured possession in love and adoration of the Lord Jesus.
And it asks us the question – as those who live this side of the cross and resurrection, knowing far more than Mary ever did – What would you give for Jesus? What is your most valued possession?
- Maybe it's our home.
- Or our bank account.
- For some it maybe a relationship or our children.
- For others it might be our career.
The question is, would we give it? Will we make it available for Jesus' use? Will we pour it out for him?
Well Mary doesn't give a second thought to giving Jesus her best. John adds at end of the verse 3:
"The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume."
Which tells us that Mary did not use just a tiny pinch of this costly stuff. No! She did not hold back. She broke the container… and the whole house soon caught the scent of what Mary had done.
The aroma of Christ, so honouring to him and so refreshing to others, does not occur when we give:
- half our heart,
- or half our talents,
- or half our tithe,
- or half our ambition,
- or half of our attention,
- or half of our lives.
It comes by giving him everything.
Folks – If you are not a blessing to others… if knowing you does not make others think of Jesus… if your life seems dry and unprofitable… do what Mary did. Get down on your knees before Jesus and give him your all. Pour out your life before him.
He's the life giver. The lover of your soul. And it's only in offering it all back to him that we will truly be set free to be who he made us to be.
But as you do that don't expect that everyone else will join in. Or even like it. For as Mary treasures Jesus with extravagant love, Judas can't stand it! He can't stand what Mary does here.
2. Judas Despises Jesus With Greedy Intent (v.4-6)
Have a look at verse 4 will you:
"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?'"
Which seems at first glance to be a fairly reasonable objection, doesn't it? I mean look at all that expensive perfume poured out all over the floor. "What a waste," we might say.
But Judas isn't really concerned for the poor. He was more concerned about himself – verse 6:
"He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it."
Judas was a thief. And doesn't that fact make you wonder how someone who had been so close to Jesus, someone who had even been entrusted to look after the finances of "Team Jesus" – how could someone like that use such apparently moral excuses to do such dishonestly evil things?
Judas is a warning bell for us here, isn't he? Can you hear him ringing?
Money is such a temptation for us. So much so that money scandals are only slightly behind sex scandals as the most prominent cause of Christian leaders falling from positions of authority and of churches being ripped apart.
Which is why anyone who has responsibility for handling money here at church has to do so witnessed and signed for by another. No one is immune from temptation! So we need to protect ourselves from it as much as we can.
Judas did not betray Jesus for high sounding principles – it was money that drew his heart away.
Even more profoundly, Judas misses the whole point of Mary's symbolic act. Jesus has come not primarily to feed the poor. He has come to die. So Jesus steps in, in Verse 7 and says:
"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."
Now stay with me here people! This is the technical bit of this sermon – and it's the absolute crunch point!
Verse 7 is a bit of a muddled translation from the original Greek this was written in. If you look at the footnote in your Bibles you'll see an alternative translation is suggested there of: "She intended to keep it…" (i.e. for the day of Jesus' burial).
Perfume like this would often be used to anoint someone's body after their death. But Mary's gone early – and anointed Jesus now while he's still alive.
And while we can't be sure whether Mary really knew that was what she was doing or not – many Bible scholars think she might have. But whether she did or not – The point is that Jesus' response to Judas' question is to say: "No Judas! This is the best thing Mary could have done with these resources. The very best thing."
Ok, now just think about that. Knowing what was in his heart… how would you have responded to Judas?
I think I might have been tempted to call him out: "The poor?! What do you mean 'give it to the poor'?! You're having a laugh! You only want it for yourself mate."
But Jesus doesn't. It's almost like he takes Judas at face value and says: "No, no, - you're wrong! Because there is actually something more important even than meeting the needs of the poor."
Now obviously – it's not that Jesus isn't concerned about the poor. This is Jesus we're talking about! He's the champion of the poor and the needy, the widow and the orphan, the outcast and the stranger. We see that throughout the gospels. And he calls his people to follow him and do likewise. I don't think you can be a follower of Jesus without having a heart for the poor!
But Jesus is saying here: "There is something bigger than material poverty going on. There is something more important. I am more important. Because I am about to die!"
"Within one week I am going to die to meet an even bigger need. I am going to be stretched out on a cross to pay for the sins of the world. Therefore Mary's use of this perfume is the best possible use of resources – because it honours and proclaims my death."
Jesus seems to be saying that for all our bold claims of "making poverty history" – this side of heaven, that's not going to happen. That is no reason not to care for the poor of course. But it is a reason to prioritise the saving work of Christ, which empowers service of the poor and rich alike with the message of the cross – The cross that Jesus prioritised while he was here.
Folks, temporal poverty is a terrible thing. But there is something worse than poverty. An eternity without God is worse. Which is why I would want to encourage any Christian here to give only to Christian relief organisations like Tearfund, Anglican International Development or the Barnabas Fund and not to secular ones like Water Aid or Comic Relief.
The Cross must control every aspect of our lives – including giving to meet needs. Jesus is not presenting us with the competing loyalties of spiritual versus material giving. We must try our very best to do both together!
Which is one of the reasons why here at St Joseph's we do the Christians Against Poverty Debt Centre – because through it we are meeting the needs of the poor, but we are also praying for and offering opportunities for them to hear the gospel.
This is also why every event, every programme we do as a church has to have Jesus' priorities – gospel priorities right at the heart of them. So that KidsZone and Fri-Up and Women's and Men's events and any future events we do – all provide folks with an opportunity to encounter the message of the cross – whether through a talk or a testimony or through at the very least an invitation to hear the gospel elsewhere. The message of the cross is to be prioritised in everything we do.
Do you see folks? Mary's action here in John 12 is not a waste. Because it spotlights the message that saves sinners, brings hope and changes the world.
That should be wonderfully encouraging for us. It is so easy for us to think of our acts of service – as amounting to something of little significance in the end. For many of us time is the costliest thing we have to offer – And the time we spend:
- serving Jesus well in teaching our children or young people the gospel,
- in leading Bible studies,
- or evangelising,
- in praying,
- in serving teas and coffees,
- in organising rotas,
- and serving in creche,
- and in music group,
- in preparing talks and preaching – I know only too well how the devil tempts me to think it's a total waste of time every time I sit down to write a sermon...
But here is Mary, pouring out a valuable offering to Jesus – and none of it is wasted or inconsequential. So all of the time we pour out for Jesus – as we pour into serving him – is a pleasing aroma to our Lord and Master. And matters now... and forever.
The cross is not nothing to us. Because it's everything to Christ. It's why he came.
So I pray for each one of us this Easter that we will be like Mary not Judas and sit at Jesus feet – listening to him, obeying him, marvelling at his sacrifice on the cross, holding a party because he rose from the dead and can therefore be trusted even with our death – so that more and more we will abandon ourselves in lavish praise and worship of his name.