Worshiping Jesus

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church 

John 12:1-8

March 13, 2016

 

There is a Peanut’s comic strip where Charlie Brown approaches Lucy about the problem of world hunger.  Lucy shrugs her shoulder in implied indifference.  Charlie Brown then goes to other friends and asks them their thoughts on world hunger.  He receives essentially the same reply.  Finally, Charlie Brown explodes and yells at his friends, “I least I feel guilty about it.[1]

“At least I feel guilty about it.”  Guilt can be a great motivator and perhaps parents are its best practitioners and worse offenders.  When I was a kid, my parents would say, “Eat your green beans, don’t you care about the starving children in China?”  I did and would have gladly given them my green beans.

There is another Peanut comic strip that illustrates how parents are masters of motivation by guilt.  Linus is eating lunch on the playground.  As he opens the bag packed by his mom, he finds a letter.  It reads:

 

Dear Son, I hope you enjoy and also appreciate the lunch I made for you today.  Did you have a nice morning?  Did you volunteer in class as I suggested?  Teachers are always impressed by students who volunteer.  It is a sure way to better grades.  Remember, better grades now will mean a better college later on.  Did you eat your carrots?  Proper nutrition is essential to good sight.  Are you sitting in the sun?  I hope so for a little is good as long as you don’t overdo it.  Perhaps ten minutes a day this time of the year is just about right…

At this point in his letter, Charlie Brown comes over and joins Linus on his bench.  “What’s for lunch, Linus?” he asks.  “Carrots, Peanut Butter and Guilt!”[2]

Guilt is a productive yet terrible motivator.  If you’re feeling guilty about the poor and need an excuse to relieve your conscience, Jesus gives you one in our morning reading.  “You will always have the poor with you,” he says.  I’ve heard people use this passage as a way to justify doing nothing about poverty.      However, Jesus was and still is concerned about the poor.  In the parable of the judgment of the nations, when Jesus speaks of separating the sheep and goats, he informs us we better be concerned about those who are in need.[3] Let’s go to the Scriptures and see what this text is all about. Read John 12:1-8

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Why does Jesus dismiss Judas’ suggestion that the perfume be sold and given to the poor?  Why does he, the one who fed the multitudes, say something as crass as “You’ll always have the poor with you?”

Jesus, I believe, in this text is speaking about his upcoming crucifixion and not making any statement about God’s desire that there always be poor people.  If anything else was intended, he was affirming the truth of human sinfulness.  Jesus was paraphrasing a passage from Deuteronomy where the fact that there will always be those in need is tied to the need for Israel to always be generous.[4]

Let’s look at the characters in our story and see what we might learn.  First of all, there is Lazarus.  He and his sisters have invited Jesus (and we presume his disciples), over for a home cooked meal.  Lazarus doesn’t say much in this story.  He’s fresh out of the grave.  He’s probably still in a bit of daze.  He wonders what he missed out on during those days he was in the tomb.  The stench of death may even still linger a bit. Although Lazarus doesn’t participate in the dialogue, his presence is noteworthy for in John’s gospel his “resurrection” is the event that precipitates the authorities’ decision to have Jesus killed.

As long as Jesus was wandering around in Galilee, he was safe.  But when he enters Bethany, having heard of Lazarus’ illness, Jesus moves closer to Jerusalem, to the power center of the Jewish religion.  His disciples have warned him of impending trouble, but Jesus brushes off their concern.[5]  Then, to make matters worse, Jesus finds Lazarus dead.  Instead of quietly consoling the family, Jesus raises Lazarus from the grave.  When the word of Lazarus’ resurrection is received by the Jewish leaders, they call a meeting of council.  Their decision is that Jesus must go.[6]

The little dinner party at Lazarus’ home may have been to celebrate his return to the living and to thank Jesus for his role in the miracle.  Martha takes her familiar place in the kitchen, preparing the meal.  Unlike the other meal Jesus had with the sisters, Martha doesn’t complain about her work and Mary’s inattention to the task at hand.[7]  Obviously, she his glad for her brother’s return and does what she does best to honor Jesus.  While Martha cooks, Mary goes out and finds the Avon lady and purchases a bottle of wonderful perfume.  This is the good stuff, made from pure nard imported from Northern India, no artificial ingredients in this ointment.[8]  She, too, is thankful for her brother’s return and wants to do what she can to honor Jesus.

Mary comes into their home and to everyone’s surprise, pours out the perfume on Jesus’ feet, not exactly the behavior you’d except from a proper woman of Palestine.  The fragrance fills the room.  John uses our senses in retelling this story and the reader of the gospel is immediately reminded of a contrasting smell at Lazarus’ tomb. [9]  There, it was the stench of death.  Now, it’s the fragrance of heaven.

Following the anointing of Jesus, in what is one of the more sensual scenes in Scripture; Mary knells down in front of Jesus and soaks up the excess perfume with her hair.  I’m sure for a week or so, everyone knew what she’d done.  That scent would have lingered in her hair!

John only mentions one disciple being present, although the others may have also been present.  Judas, however, is the one who participates in the dialogue.  When Mary comes in and begins to pour the perfume on Jesus’ feet and then to wipe them with her hair, he has had enough.  Perhaps he’s jealous.  Perhaps the fragrance bothers his allergies.  But more likely Mary’s tenderness hardens his heart even more.  He shames Mary for wasting an expensive bottle of perfume, one that cost a year’s wages for a laborer. Had Mary been concerned about the poor, she could have sold the bottle and taken care of a working class family for a whole year!

Of course, John doesn’t let us get sucked into accepting Judas’ logic.  Right away he provides an editorial comment that shows Judas’ true intention.  Judas doesn’t really care about the poor.  In fact, Judas has been the stealing from the fund that was used to take care of those in need.  Perhaps Judas felt if he had been given those 300 coins, he could replace what he’d stolen and no one would have known.  Or maybe he just wanted more.  Whatever was his reason, Judas attempts to motivate Mary out of guilt.  He shames her in front of Jesus in an attempt to get Mary to respond in a way that he feels appropriate.

What is this passage about?  On one level it gives us a clue about what’s going to happen to Jesus.  Mary’s anointing of Jesus foretells his death.  Furthermore, Jesus himself announces that he’s not going to be around much longer and that what Mary did was an act of noble worship.  I think the passage has more to do with worship than with just being a sign of Jesus’ impending death.

As humans, we have a need to worship.  God created us with this need and hopes that when we realize all he’s done for us, we will, as Isaiah says, “declare his praise.”[10] Although God has given us this need, he doesn’t force us to worship him.  So quite often we inappropriately express our need to worship.  This is idolatry, a substitution of a god of our own making for the God that is the creator of all things seen and unseen.

As I said, this passage is really about worship.  As Christians, we are to offer our best to God and one of the primary means we do this is in worship.  In a way, worship is a performance; yet, quite often we are performing for the wrong audience.  Sometimes I come to worship hoping to impress you with my words and jokes, just as I’m sure musicians sometimes perform for your pleasure.  However, that’s now what this is about.  True worship is not directed at those of you in the pews.  Sorry to inform you, but you’re not that important!  True worship involves all of us: the preacher, the musicians, the ushers and you, the congregation.  All of us are in this grand drama of offering our best to God.  Instead of the one at the pulpit being an actor, we’re all actors and God is the audience.  At our best, the preacher and the musicians are prompters or stage directors.  We help focus the attention on God.  We come to worship out of gratitude for what God has done for us.  We offer God our best, just as Mary came to Jesus with a limited edition bottle of perfume.  She offered her best to her friend and Savior and we’re to do the same.

Now back to guilt.  We shouldn’t feel guilty about offering God our best because we can’t out give God.  And God doesn’t want us to try.  To do so would be to attempt to usurp God, which is idolatry.  Instead, when we realize what God has done for us and respond out of gratitude, the burden of guilt is lifted. Guilt has no place in worship or in a Christian service.  God doesn’t want us to offer or our best in worship or to give to the poor out of guilt. That would make us resentful of God and of those who are in need of our help.  Instead, we need to respond to God out of appreciation for what God, in Jesus Christ, has already done for us.  Mary’s gift of perfume and Martha’s wonderful home-cooked meal are examples of graciously responding to the love of Jesus Christ.

“How will we respond to the love of Jesus Christ?”  This is an important question. Take some time to ponder it this week.  How will you respond to the love Christ?  Amen.

 

©2016

 

[1] As told by Andrew Purves, The Search for Compassion: Spirituality and Ministry (Louisville: WJKP, 1989), 17.

[2] See Abraham J. Twerski, MD, When Do the Good Things Start (NY: Topper Books, 1987), 62.

[3] Matthew 25:31-46.

[4] See Deuteronomy 15:11 and Gerard Sloyan, John: Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Atlanta: JKP, 1988), 153.

[5] John 11:7

[6] John 11:45-54.

[7] Luke 10:38-42.

[8] Nard came from the root and spike (hair stem) of a plant known as “spikenard” which grew in the mountains of Northern India.  See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII (New York: Doubleday, 1966), 448, n.3

[9] Cf: Frederick Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 702.

[10] Isaiah 43:21


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