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Sermon for April 3 – 5th Sunday in Easter Preparation

Speaking Of Life 4019 | A Path Through the Jackals

Have you ever felt like you were alone in a wasteland? Maybe during a break-up, financial crisis, or losing someone dear to you. Even in the wastelands, when all is hopeless, Jesus continues to meet us wherever to restore us and make us whole again.

Program Transcript

Speaking Of Life 4019 | A Path Through the Jackals
Cara Garrity

Have you ever been to a place you’d call a wasteland? Perhaps the depths of a junkyard or the parched ground of a dry riverbed? Isaiah 43 brings some similar imagery to mind talking about Israel in exile, describing the landscape as populated by wild beasts, owls, and jackals. This is a place where there is nothing left—nothing grows and the wind never blows.

Perhaps this describes how you feel at times – especially in this season of Easter preparation. The celebration of Jesus’ birth is long behind us, the celebration of his resurrection is ahead of us, but we are nearing the liturgy of the passion when we focus on his suffering and death and we can find ourselves feeling overwhelmed and in a kind of spiritual wasteland.

This is the kind of environment Israel seems to be in—exiled, away from home, under the thumb of Babylon. But this passage in Isaiah 43 is right here at the turn of hope. God’s deliverance was soon to appear for Israel.

[Look Down]

This is what the Lord says—
he who made a way through the sea,
a path through the mighty waters,
who drew out the chariots and horses,
the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:

Isaiah 43:16-17

[Look Up]

The first thing Isaiah does here is remind them who they are dealing with—the God who brought them out of Egypt, who brought them through the desert. He draws their attention to the past—God the way maker.

Isaiah then used the familiar desert imagery to show God turning the tables—bringing their deliverance:

See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland. 
The wild animals honor me,
the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
Isaiah 43:19-20

Even in this wasteland—a place only populated by scavengers and bone-pickers—God makes the way. In this place of uselessness and complete loss, he shows up.

Has this happened to you? Has God met you in the wasteland—economic ruin, a disintegrated marriage, the depths of depression? Has he made a path through the jackals for you? Or maybe something in or around you seems like a wasteland right now. There is good news for us. No wasteland is too barren for our God to meet us there.

In the incarnation, God meets us, once and for all, in the wastelands of the human experience and reveals to us that Jesus Christ himself is the way in the wilderness, the river in the desert, a well of living water for the thirsty.

During this season of Easter preparation, we recognize the wastelands in and around us and embrace our deep need for Jesus. We do this in confidence that the victory of resurrection is upon us, that our God is making all things new.

Until that time when the Kingdom comes in fullness, watch for signs of life in the wasteland—for the flowers coming up through concrete and that trickle of water on the desert floor. Jesus is HERE; he is HERE for you.  

I am Cara Garrity, Speaking of Life.  

Psalm 126:1-6 • Isaiah 43:16-21 • Philippians 3:4-14 • John 12:1-8

Our theme this week is the abundance of God. The call to worship Psalm talks about mourning being turned into rejoicing by God’s abundant provision. Isaiah 43 describes God’s deliverance for Israel, creating abundance in the wasteland. Philippians 3 shares Paul’s “riches” in his past life that he gave up to know the overflowing riches of Christ. Our sermon comes from John 12 – a portrait of the abundant worship of Mary at Jesus’ feet.

The Lingering Fragrance of Grace

John 12:1-11 ESV

Have you ever smelled good perfume? Most of us have, and unless we are allergic to perfume, we enjoy the fragrance. If you put a dash of perfume or cologne on the neck or wrist it gives a whiff of a nice fragrance. But perfume isn’t just used for that pleasant fragrance when someone walks by. It can also be used to hide other fragrances – or odors. Some early burial ceremonies included perfume being poured over the body to cover the smell of decay or disease. It was typically used after a person died, but in today’s story, Jesus was anointed with perfume prior to his death.


Note: there are three anointings in the Scriptures regarding Jesus. The first occurred in Bethany at the house of Simon the Pharisee – when a woman (apparently one known to be a sinner) approached Jesus, broke open a bottle of perfume and began crying. She anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. This seemed to occur when John the Baptist was still alive – early in Jesus’ ministry. The third anointing is found in both Matthew and Mark, and it occurred in the house of Simon the Leper in Bethany. Two days before the Passover, an unnamed woman broke an alabaster jar of fragrant oil and poured it on Jesus’ head.

This sermon covers the 2nd anointing, which we find in John 12.

Read or have someone read John 12:1-11 ESV.

This story in John is taking place after a darker turn in the narrative. Jesus is approaching his death, and has been for the last few chapters, especially since the raising of Lazarus. All the gospels slow down immensely when it comes to the last week of Jesus’ life—about a third of each one is dedicated to the events of just a few days. Think about that—they skip through a lot of Jesus’ life. We see him as a baby, then as a twelve-year-old, then as a full-grown man. Then they skip around through his ministry career—a whole year might pass within a few verses. And yet when it comes to his last few weeks, the narrative slows down significantly. Jesus’ dialogue and prayers are reported in detail, and conversations are jammed right up against each other.

Today’s story is like that.

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. (John 12:1-2 ESV)

The name Bethany is translated by some to mean “house of figs,” as there are many fig trees in the area; others translate it as “house of misery,” speculating that Bethany was a designated place for the sick and those with contagious diseases. It’s a small town about two miles outside of Jerusalem, and it is speculated that it was more of a subdivision than an entire town. It reached to the Mount of Olives, and it is the place from which Jesus ascended. Today it is still a small town with a population of about 1,000 and the traditional tomb of Lazarus is still marked.

So Jesus comes to dinner with his friends and Mary does something extraordinary.

Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard. (John 12:3 ESV)

Mary we’ve met before. She is the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Martha had earlier complained to Jesus that her sister wasn’t helping with Martha’s “many tasks.” He reminded her that Mary had chosen the better part—to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen. From early on, Mary seemed to “get it.”

Jesus and Mary seem to have a special relationship, a special understanding. For example, Jesus kept it together for the most part when he heard that his friend Lazarus had died. He told everyone to wait and see, and he talked theology with Martha. He only loses it when he sees Mary. Then the shortest, and one of the most poignant verses in the Bible, John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” He keeps it together until he sees her.

That’s what I love about this moment here. Mary, who gets it. Mary, whose sister thinks she’s not doing what is most important, she’s the one who “gets it.”

That’s one of the telling studies as you look at the gospels. The people that Jesus reveals himself to, or who first note who he is, are often those considered less than by others. We have a demon-possessed man who lives among the tombs and cuts himself. Or we have the Samaritan woman who has been through several marriages and is living with someone else, who comes to the well in the middle of the day to avoid everyone else. Then we have Mary, the one who doesn’t help her sister, who comes in with an expensive bottle of perfume and…

..and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. (John 12:3 ESV)

It’s almost like everything stopped and silence took over the room. As I’ve said, the narrative is running along at a clip—Jesus has been healing, teaching, dodging the bad guys. Miracles and near-misses left and right—the cultured elite and the politically powerful closing in on him; Jesus showing his own emotional side, weeping at the tomb, and then….STOP.

The story will go slowly from here on out. Detail after detail, teaching after teaching, we will walk closely with Jesus in his last days.

John wants us to know that Mary poured perfume worth a year’s wages on Jesus’ feet. One of the more expensive perfumes in the world is Henri Dunay’s Sabi, which is about $30,000 a bottle. That’s what we’re talking about here.

You can imagine the fragrance from the perfume not only going through the room, but outside the house, drawing others in to see what’s going on.

The disciples’ reaction is painfully predictable:

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?” (John 12:4-5 ESV)

Other translations say this was a year’s wages. There were similar reactions to the other two anointings in the Scriptures. Why this extravagance? Why this waste?

Why this waste? How many times have we said that? We live in an interesting time now when people don’t seem to have time for anything. Books take too much time and energy, so we put them on audio so we can listen to them while we are doing something else. Shopping takes too long, too much effort, so we do it from home online—with one click—so that it’s taken care of and we can get back to doing other stuff.

Yet even in this crazy time, we faithful believers still choose to stop everything and go to church. That seems a little nuts to the rest of the world—there’s no product produced that they can see; there’s no entertainment value, you actually give money rather than make it. And church is imperfect—if you want to hear music, turn on your iTunes, if you want to hear a sermon, look one up. Why this waste? Why waste your time—the most precious commodity you have—on this humble gathering?

Yet that’s the deal. That’s the point. We have a deeper thirst, and only this “humble gathering” will do. Just as Mary had a deeper thirst and a deeper understanding—that this particular moment was worth her special bottle of perfume. She somehow knew it was time to stop and anoint Jesus.

With all the stuff we have going, all the other “deadly important” things we’re up to, we also need to STOP. Stop and let the fragrance of worship fill our house.

Judas’s question is so classic: Why wasn’t this perfume sold to feed the poor? Here we go. He was recommending a “good” thing. Do you know what the enemy of the best always is? The good. The good is the enemy of the best. Judas is offering the sensible alternative, and in the other anointing accounts in the other gospels, the other disciples recommend the same. The sensible thing to do would be to give this money to those in need.

Yet here is where we see Jesus, once again, telling them he is more than just another prophet, more than just someone who’s calling them to moral action or stricter obedience.

Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. For the poor you will always have with you, but you do not always have me. (John 12:7 ESV)

He is accepting this act of worship; he is commending this act of worship. Every prophet worth his salt would have torn his clothes at this point—worship is only meant for God.

And Jesus says….YEP.

“You will not always have me.” May those words echo to us. They already echo in our desire to share God’s love and life with others. We love others not because of who they are or what they do, and especially not because of who we are, but because of who HE is.

Steven Hawking, the great British physicist, died not long ago. As an avowed atheist he is known for saying there is no heaven. He believed heaven is just a fairy tale that people tell each other to make themselves feel better in the face of a short life and a long death. I would offer a slight modification on that: “there is no human goodness, it’s a fairy tale.” Human goodness, the goodness of the human spirit, is a myth that people tell themselves to make themselves feel better. As James tells us, “Every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17)—all the goodness, graciousness, love that we see in the world and in ourselves is a gift from God. And the best good, the best graciousness, the best love happens when we love Jesus first – when we pour that bottle of perfume over his head or anoint his feet – when we give our hearts to him!

When we give our perfume to him first, that’s the only way there’s enough for everybody. That’s the only way there’s enough left. When we give our time and attention to him first, that’s when we have time and attention left over for the people we love, even the things we love.

Finally, a parallel here. Judas’s reaction, and the real reason behind it…

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. (John 12:6 ESV)

Here he is, being secretive, taking care of himself. Judas at least has some understanding that he’s part of something real and new here with Jesus, and yet he is still focused on what doesn’t matter. He is selling his soul here for a handful of quarters. His priorities are obvious, and in the end, he doesn’t care, he doesn’t trust, he doesn’t believe.

He speaks with secretive, hidden, double meanings. Many addicts in recovery will have on their wall, if not tattooed on their arm the proverb: “Keep it simple.” Simplicity, let your yes be yes and your no be no. When meanings start to get doubled, when secrets start to get whispered, watch out—this is fertile territory for sin. Secrecy is the petri dish that sin grows in.

Parallel that with Mary’s act.

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. (John 12:3 ESV)

This is an extremely intimate act. She is transgressing several cultural boundaries here—doing some big no-nos. An unmarried woman was not to even touch a man, and never a Rabbi teacher like Jesus! This alone was presumptuous – and then letting her hair down, that was huge. Letting her hair down in the presence of men was strictly forbidden.

Yet that is the parallel here with Judas. As he takes things in secret and puts them away in secret, so Mary is out in the open, spilling the perfume, letting her hair go everywhere, kissing feet. This intimate moment is an act of utter openness, complete abandon in worship. The perfume is gone in a moment, and yet the fragrance of it remained.

An entire bottle of perfume poured on Jesus. Jesus smelled like perfume – he smelled like adoration and worship. Between this anointing and the one that took place shortly before his death, it’s possible that he smelled sweet even as he died. In the stink and heat and smell of blood at the cross, Jesus had the fragrance of worship, the fragrance of grace still lingering on him.

May we worship with the same kind of abandonment that Mary expressed. May we see Jesus as he is and worship him. May the fragrance of grace linger on you today. May you have that fragrance of worship, love, and freedom that we know as the children of God. May people smell you coming and be lifted up and lightened by your presence. Breathe deep. Amen.

Extravagant Worship w/ Dan Rogers W1

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Extravagant Worship w/ Dan Rogers
April 3 – 5th Sunday of Lent
John 12:1-8 “Extravagant Worship”

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Program Transcript

Extravagant Worship w/ Dan Rogers W1

Anthony: I’m going to read our first pericope, John 12:1-8. It is the Revised Common Lectionary passage for April the 3rd, which is the 5th Sunday of Lent.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus Leave her alone,” Jesus replied.  “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” [NRSV]

Dan, what do you consider to be the main thrust of this passage and how it ties into the Lenten season?

Dan: The main thrust of this passage is explicitly given in the passage itself. It’s the anointing of Jesus in preparation for his burial. John evidently wants his readers to see Mary of Bethany, seemingly unknowingly performing a prophetic action that foreshadows Jesus’ death.

It was common at that time to anoint a person’s head as the sign of honor and hospitality, and to wash (not anoint) a guest’s feet with water. However, one did not anoint the feet of a living person. It was customary to anoint the body of a corpse with spices prior to burial.

Now, one can only imagine what the dinner guests (other than Judas) may have thought of Mary’s actions, but John states clearly for his readers, the meaning of the anointing. And thus, invites his readers (including us today) to reflect back on its significance, especially at this time of the year, as we remember Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Anthony: It seems that Mary’s way of honoring Jesus was very extravagant. What do we have to learn, Dan, from her action?

Dan: The value of the perfume Mary used to anoint Jesus’ feet has been estimated to be a year’s salary. That’s a lot of money, and we’re not told how Mary came to have this expensive perfume. John simply wants us readers to understand Mary’s actions, and probably hopes his readers can make application in their own Christian lives.

Her actions remind me of a hymn. Maybe you’ve heard it. Give of Your Best to the Master written by Howard B. Grose, and hymn stanza 3 says:

Give of your best to the Master;
Naught else is worthy His love;
He gave Himself for your ransom,
Gave up His glory above.
Laid down His life without murmur,
You from sin’s ruin to save;
Give Him your heart’s adoration;
Give Him the best that you have.

And Mary, in front of a room full of dinner guests, humbly and adoringly, knelt at Jesus feet, poured very expensive perfume on his feet, and unabashedly let down her hair in front of everyone, which was just not the custom for women to do at that time, and used her hair to wipe the feet of Jesus. What can we learn from that? May we as Christians, humbly and adoringly kneel daily at Jesus’ feet. And whatever we may have, our lives and our treasure, let’s make sure we give of our best to the Master.

Anthony: In verse 8, I’m just curious, is Jesus being dismissive of the poor and their needs? How can we rightly understand what he’s communicating?

Dan: I think we need to understand that, as Jesus said, the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart. And the second is to love your neighbor.

The priority in our lives is to love God. And indeed, it’s only in loving God that we are empowered to love our neighbor who is created in God’s image. When we love and honor God, it will result in our loving our neighbors. The scripture says the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Now Mary had a unique opportunity to honor God. And so, she did. She did so with all our heart and all she had at her disposal. And as so doing, she set an example for all Christians who would follow and read her story.

Now look, if her perfume had been sold and the money given to the poor, it would not have solved the human problem of poverty. It would have remained as indeed it does to this very day. Now should Christians help the poor? Of course, as much as we can! But we’ve got to realize our human efforts are not going to make poverty go away. Only God – the return of Christ in glory – can accomplish that. So, we as Christians do what we can for the poor but recognize that only when (like Mary) all worship and adore God, can human poverty be ultimately eliminated.

Yes. We must help the poor, but the answer to poverty lies in all people coming to Christ and worshiping as Mary did. And only when that day comes, will there be no more poor.

Anthony: [I have] a follow up question, as I look at this text. Obviously, the theological question on any pericope is: who is God? Who is the God revealed in Jesus Christ? Any comments you’d like to share about the God that we see revealed in Jesus in this passage?

Dan: We’re coming up to the time of the Triumphal Entry, and we’re going to be talking about. We see Jesus as the king, as the ruler and our Lord and our God. And we’re going to cover all of that, I think, today in the pericopes that we have laid out.

But one thing I would like us to think about is Jesus is our best friend. Mary loved Jesus. Jesus loved Lazarus. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He loved Martha. He loved his disciples. And he was one of the nicest guys! Let me put it this way. He was the nicest guy who’s ever lived, and what a joy it was to be around him and be with him.

And yes, we know he’s King; he’s Lord; he’s God Almighty, but he’s also our best friend. And the fellowship that we can have with him in the Spirit is priceless.

Anthony: Yeah, and it always strikes me how in that culture, how the people of that day, who would be considered outsider, felt like insiders with Jesus. Talking about this God, who you were drawn to, that you wanted to be with, that there was an experience of the embodiment of joy when you’re with him. It’s a powerful thing to look into the eyes of Jesus and draw more and more in love with the one who ultimately loves our soul.

Small Group Discussion Questions

Questions for sermon:

  • Have you ever had an exorbitantly expensive drink, or an expensive bottle of wine? What was the experience like? Can you imagine spilling it or otherwise using it up?
  • What do you make of Jesus’ statement “For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me” (John 12:8)? Jesus tells us to serve the poor and yet he takes this act of worship for himself—what does that tell us about who he is and what our response should be?
  • We talked about the contrast between Judas—secretive and duplicitous, and Mary—simple generosity. Do you believe that God often blesses us with much more than we need? Share a story of God’s generosity in your life.

Questions for Speaking of Life:

  • Have you ever been to a wasteland setting like Isaiah describes? Have you been to a spiritual and emotional wasteland?
  • Isaiah reminds them of their past with God by invoking the story of the Exodus: “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters” (Isaiah 43:16). How can it be helpful to remember past blessings when we face current trials?
  • In this passage, after reminding Israel of their past, Isaiah turns their attention to future hope. How do we keep authentic hope without being foolhardy? Is hope more than simple luck or optimism?

Quote to ponder:

The very least you can do in your life is figure out what you hope for. And the most you can do is live inside that hope. Not admire it from a distance but live right in it, under its roof. – Barbara Kingsolver

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