Fifth Sunday in Lent
Jesus therefore said, Suffer her to keep it against the day of my burying. For the poor ye have always with you; but me ye have not always.
There is a song that is played and sung around Christmastime written by Mark Lowry called, “Mary, Did You Know?” It is a song about Mary, the mother of Jesus asking the question we all would like answered – did she know what her son would accomplish? Did she know the miraculous things He would do? Did she know He would touch so many lives? Heal so many and speak God’s Word into the lives of those lost and suffering in this world? Did she know that He would make so many people mad? Did she know how He would die?
March 25th is the day we celebrate the Annunciation – the day Mary received the word of God that she was to have a child. (On some calendars the celebration is moved to Monday March 26th.) The lectionary Gospel reading for that day is the story from Luke of the annunciation, an amazing witness of trust and faith in God. Though Mary was about to begin a journey that would be ridiculed by the society in which she lived and that are even grounds for death in that society, she willingly embraced what God had spoken and received it with her whole heart. “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Did she know then what would become of the Son she had been given in such an extraordinary way?
We are just days away from the end of Lent and the final preparations are being made in our churches for the great celebration. There are still many things to see and hear in the story of Christ – the triumphant entry into Jerusalem, the footwashing and Lord’s Supper, the arrest and trial, the crucifixion. We wait in expectation of what will happen, even as we look back to what has already happened. Sometimes it is hard for us to see that the promise is real and that God is faithful. We look to our past and wonder, is what is going to happen really all that better than where we have been? We don’t know what will happen. If Mary had known everything, would she have agreed so willingly? Can a mother bring a child into the world knowing that His purpose is to die?
We have the advantage of seeing the story with hindsight. We know the rest of the story. We know what happens on Easter. Even if we try to walk through Lent week by week and day by day, it is impossible for us to get through Holy Week with the same point of view as His mother and His disciples. We know. Did she know? Did she know that He was to die, and that He would live again?
We can ask the same question about another Mary, the one found in today’s Gospel lesson. In this story Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, presented Jesus with a most extravagant and extraordinary gift. Did she know what she was doing? Did she know that she was anointing Him for His death.
John tells us that Mary took a bottle of nard which was a very expensive perfume. It was expensive because nard, also known as spikenard, is made from a plant that in that day was only grown in what is now Nepal, above 13,000 feet in the Himalayas. It was used for several purposes – to anoint a bride for her wedding night, to anoint the feet of the dead and to anoint the head of a king. Now, we might see this act as a sacrifice by Mary for the one whom she deemed to be the King. Certainly the crowds that were gathering in Jerusalem thought the same thing. They were ready to anoint Him as we will see very clearly next week during the procession of the palms. When He entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the people roared with joy and expectation, honoring Him as they would honor their king. Perhaps Mary thought she was doing the same thing. Yet, Mary did not pour the nard on His head. She chose to anoint His feet with the costly perfume.
Nard is still available and is used today in aromatherapy and for religious anointing. Though not quite as expensive as it was in Jesus’ day, nard is still a valuable oil. Pure nard is too strong to be used on the skin alone; it is mixed with other types of oil that enhance the aroma and medicinal qualities. Nard is used to help relieve stress and insomnia, headaches and indigestion, skin rashes and to rejuvenate the skin. It was popular with Roman perfumers who used it to produce Nardium, most likely the blend Mary used that night.
Did Mary know she was buying this nard to anoint Jesus in His death? Perhaps she got a two for one special at the local market when she purchased the jar for Lazarus just days before. However, nard, as most essential oils, has a very short shelf life – only three to six months. This is not a substance that anyone buys ahead to keep on hand “just in case.” It isn’t something that would have been bought on sale and kept in the pantry until needed. Nard was purchased with a purpose; the purchaser expected it to be used in a short period of time. Did she know?
We can not possibly know what was in her heart that day, or what was in her mind. We do know a little about her. Mary was the sister of Lazarus and Martha. We expect that they were probably financially secure if not wealthy because Mary was able to afford the costly perfume. They were also able to be gracious hosts to Jesus and the disciples providing food and rest for crowds. In one story, Mary was found sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to every word He had to say. To her sister Martha, Mary was lazy, never helping to serve the guests who often invaded her home with Jesus. It was certainly hard work to feed so many, to clean up after them and see to their well-being. But according to Jesus, Mary chose what was better – to listen to Him and His words. Did Mary hear the words the disciples missed? Did she know something that they were unwilling, or unable, to understand?
We do not have an exact timeline for these events, but it was probably not long after Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Many of the Jews that had come to mourn with Mary and Martha saw what Jesus had done, and they believed. However, John says, “But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them.” John is very clear here: many believed, but some went away. They told the Pharisees what Jesus was doing and the Pharisees decided that Jesus must be stopped. Jesus disappeared for awhile – we do not know how long – but six days before the Passover He returned to the house of Lazarus. Passover was the right time; it was the time for Him to fulfill His purpose as the Lamb.
Until this point Jesus seemed to have a much different purpose. He did incredible things. He healed the sick and cast out demons. He fed thousands on just a few morsels of food. He gave hope to the poor, talking as if they would inherit some magnificent kingdom. He talked about justice and peace. He welcomed the outsider and lifted the downtrodden. It is no wonder that Judas saw Mary’s sacrifice as irresponsible, after all the cost of that nard could have been used to purchase food for someone starving. Jesus seemed concerned about these things, it sounded like a good excuse.
But for Judas, it was just an excuse to complain. He did not care about the poor. Three hundred denarii would have fed a lot of people, but Judas was thinking of other ways that he could use the money. He held the purse; he was a thief looking for a big payday. Imagine if Mary had given that money to Jesus to use for His ministry instead of wasting it on costly perfume? After all His talk, I can almost imagine Jesus thinking the same thing.
Yet, that is not what Jesus was thinking. Judas was looking back over what had come before, but Jesus was looking forward. It was a new day; the time had come for God’s promises to be fulfilled. It was time for a new thing to happen.
We do not do well with change. We do not do well with new beginnings. We look back to the past and think that the good old days were better than today. Remember the good old days? We probably have some memory, some special remembrances about our childhood or a previous job that brings us joy. I know that I sometimes think about the past with a sense of nostalgia. While it is a pleasure to remember the joys of our past, we can’t continue to live in those days gone by. We don’t get very far on a journey if we keep turning back from whence we have come, and we miss out on the joys of the adventure.
Spring began this week, though I know for many of you there is still snow on the ground and a chill in the air. Here in Texas the first signs began to appear. Texas is known for a flower called the bluebonnet. These lovely little blue flowers appear everywhere for a few weeks in March and April. Grassy fields and the hillsides along the highway are covered with blue. We have been very dry for a long time, in the midst of a drought, but it rained last week. I wondered when we would see the bluebonnets, and they appeared as soon as the sun came out. They needed water to grow. For us, at least here in Texas, winter is behind us and spring is upon us. We can wallow in the memories of winter or look forward to all that spring will bring.
In the passage from Isaiah, God tells the people to forget the things that have gone before. “See, I am doing a new thing.” He speaks of making water flow in the desert, bringing life into the wasteland. Lent is nearing an end. The next Sunday will be Passion Sunday and then we will be in Holy Week. The long winter is coming to an end and something new is about to happen. In Isaiah, we hear the promise of what is going to be – do you not perceive it? It is like waiting for those first flowers of spring to burst forth – we wait longingly for it to happen and then when it does we can expect warmer days and green grass.
After the long wander in the wilderness of Lent, we are waiting anxiously for this new life that he has promised. The God of Isaiah, the God of the Israelites, can do amazing things. He made a path through the Red Sea for those who left Egypt to travel as they escaped slavery and oppression. We are not slaves to Egyptians, but we are slaves to our flesh. We are oppressed by the expectations of this world and by the burdens of the Law. But God is about to do a new thing – to create a path through the sea of oppression so that we will be free. Jesus Christ is the living water that He promises, water in the wilderness that we are given to drink. Soon, very soon, as the blossoms spring forth in the joyous proclamation of the resurrection, we will sing praise to God with all the hosts of heaven.
The old is past and the new is coming. The psalmist sings praise to God because He has delivered the people from exile. They rejoiced as they went home, laughing and singing along the journey, giving praise to God in joy and thanksgiving. They once sowed in tears, but they returned with songs of joy.
Paul also knew what it was like to set aside the old. Paul had a great set of credentials. He had a long list of reasons why he should be respected among his people. His credentials give him authority; his voice is one of power and influence. He was qualified to be a leader, to speak on behalf of God about Jewish Law and practice. He could easily have held his genealogy and his blamelessness above all others because he was right with God according to the Law of Moses.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul reminded the Church of his background, how confident he could be if his salvation were based on his flesh. Yet, he sets all that aside for the sake of Christ. He does not believe that he has already obtained it all; as a matter of fact Paul calls himself a sinner greater than all other sinners. Yet, he was striving for that which has already been promised and is assured by God’s faithfulness. He encourages the Philippians, and us today, to set aside all that has gone by and continue moving forward toward the promise.
Judas was looking back. Mary was looking forward. Did she know? Did she know that her anointing would signify the death that was to come? We might think that she did this to proclaim Jesus was her king, but if that was true then she would have poured it over His head. Instead, she poured the perfume on His feet and wiped them with her hair. This unusual act was not only extravagant, but it was disreputable and humble. A woman did not display her hair – her crown – in public, and she should not have used it in such an intimate way. Attending the feet was the work of a servant, and though we do not know the financial status of Lazarus and his sisters, it is likely they had enough wealth to have servants to do such work. Everything about the act was disgraceful – the waste, the wantonness, the humiliation. Yet, Mary willingly gave herself to Jesus in this way. Did she know?
I think she knew. I think that she heard with her heart what Jesus had to say each time she sat at His feet, unlike the disciples who were often distracted by their fears, expectations and desires. Though the disciples all listened intently as Jesus taught, they often missed the subtleties of His message. They ignored some of His comments, or at least set them aside because they were either messages they did not want to hear or they were too busy considering what it meant to them. Mary heard and she believed. She was looking ahead to what was to be, believing in the promise and willingly sacrificing so much for His sake.
Jesus said to Judas, “Leave her alone. The nard was meant to be saved for my funeral.” Mary, however, did not want to wait until Jesus was dead to anoint Him with the nard. She wanted to share her grief with Him while He was still with her, to love Him and humble herself before the King while He could still feel her touch and smell the perfume. The final road to the cross begins this day as Jesus sets His anointed feet toward His purpose. Did Mary, the mother of Jesus, know, when she heard the words of the angel, that her baby boy would be the suffering servant king? Did Mary, the sister of Lazarus, know that she was anointing the feet of the suffering servant king who would die in just six days? Whatever they knew, they looked forward to the fulfillment of the promises of God. We, too, like Paul, are called to set aside what is behind and strive toward the promise, which his assured in Christ Jesus. We are new creations, reborn like the bluebonnets in the spring, brought to the new life that comes from believing and trusting that God is faithful.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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