The gratitude - John 12:1-11
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
Let me begin by telling you the story of two brothers who were well known about town for being as crooked as anyone could possibly be. If there had been a robbery or some shady dealing you could be sure these two were behind them and as a result they had amassed a small fortune. Suddenly one of them died. The surviving brother searched out a minister who would be willing to put the finishing touches to the funeral. He found one and made an offer the minister simply couldn't refuse. "I will pay you anything," he said, "if you will just grant me one favour. In eulogising my brother, I want you to call him a 'saint,' and if you do, I promise I will make it worth your while." Well, the minister being a practical person thought, 'Why not? That way we can get the church roof fixed and the extra cash would certainly come in handy'. So when the funeral service began, the church was filled with local folk, including many of the businessmen the two brothers had swindled down the years. Unaware of the deal that had just been made they were expecting to be vindicated by a public exposure of the man's criminal character. And so at last the much-awaited moment arrived as the minister climbed into the pulpit to speak. He began: 'The man you see in the coffin was a vile and debauched individual. He was a liar, a thief, a deceiver, a manipulator, a reprobate and a hedonist. In his time he destroyed the fortunes, careers and lives of countless people in our community. This man did every dirty, rotten, unconscionable thing you can think of. But compared to his brother here, he was a saint."
You see, whatever we may claim for ourselves or want others to claim for us, the fact is, what we are truly like on the inside is revealed by how we act on the outside and no amount of spin or whitewashing will successfully conceal that. Similarly, whether we are devoted to serving God or serving self will, will to a greater or lesser degree, be shown by what we do with what we have. And that is a lesson which is certainly driven home by the episode we are looking at together this morning in John chapter 12.
Now the story begins with a double focus- a man who was dead and is now a live and a man who is alive but who will soon be dead. That Lazarus is key is brought out by the double reference to his having been raised from the dead which forms the two bookends of the entire episode, you see it there in v 1 and then again in v 9 'Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead.' Whatever miracles may have taken place up to this point, they are all crowned by this one, the raising from the dead a man whose body had been decaying in a tomb for four days. This is not your average resuscitation. This man should not have been lying down here eating a meal; he should have been back laying down back in the cemetery. You can bet that all eyes would have been fixed upon him, he was something of a local freak show, hence the crowds turning out in v 9. This is the man who has been to the grave and back, the sort of person you would love to get on the Richard and Judy show to ask, 'What was it like?'
But then you had the man who had performed the miracle -Jesus. And we have a similar emphasis to that of Lazarus top and tailing the story , v 1 ' Six days before the Passover Jesus arrived in Bethany where Lazarus was , whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in his (Jesus) honour'. Then v 9, ' Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus , whom he (Jesus) had raised from the dead.' Now, the question is, 'Who alone can give life to the dead?' Well, the Jews knew the answer to that one: it was Yahweh, the LORD. But here it is 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 is he here? Well he is here is to accomplish the miracle of miracles of which the raising of Lazarus was just a foretaste, a shadowy pointer. For he came to die as a sacrifice for sin so that those who put their trust in him will be raised to life at the end of time. And this divine rescue mission is hinted at in two ways. First, in v1 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 Red Sea. It was the time when a lamb was sacrificed as a sin offering. And six days from now on the seventh day, the day of rest, the day completion, Jesus would give his life as the true Passover lamb for the sins of the whole world. That is the first hint. But secondly, as we shall see in a moment, we have 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 upon 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 at these and see with which of them we identify.
First we have a passionate devotion vv 2- 3, '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.' Now everyone in this drama seems to be acting according to character. You have Martha the matriarch who is 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 that the food is prepared, plenty of cucumber sandwiches and quiche. Someone has to make sure things happen-well, that's Martha. But then there is Mary the mystic, no doubt dreamily listening to Jesus, as she always does, transfixed, thoughtful, when all of a sudden she leaves the room. Maybe at last she is going to help Martha and the others. But, no. Instead she unlocks a cupboard in which the family heirlooms are kept and she brings out a beautiful alabaster pot containing a pint of pure nard. Why, this is so precious that even when Lazarus had died this was not 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 now? Slowly she kneels before Jesus with his legs outstretched, 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, 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 has gone too far. This time her spiritual aspirations have got the better of her. What does she think she is doing, embarrassing everybody like this?
Well, as we have seen over and over again in John's Gospel, what people say and do operates at two levels- a surface level and a deeper spiritual level which is not always initially grasped. At the very least Mary is showing a humble loving devotion to her Lord. It is humble in that she is washing Jesus feet, an act he himself was going to do a few chapters 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 is already doing. So the women beat the men to the post yet again, as they were to do at the resurrection. And there is something deeply moving when someone behaves like this isn't there? I must say I was quite taken by an incident related at the funeral of President Regan last Friday which in some ways mirrors this. After he had been shot in the assassination attempt on his life, he lay recovering in hospital. At one point he reached out for a glass of water to drink but he dropped it. A few minutes later the nurse on duty came in and was shocked to see the President on his hands and knees mopping up the water because he was concerned that the nurse might have got the blame for what had happened. Mary is not concerned about what people may think of her, she just wants to show her devotion to Jesus.
Neither is she going to hold anything back from him. This is worth a year's wages. So what? Isn't Jesus worth that? So what that it appears extravagant, can't we from time to time be extravagant for God who day by day is showing his extravagance upon us? In the 12th century, Bernard of Clairvaux preached a sermon in which he said this: ' Brethren, the tears of Christ overwhelm me with shame and fear and sorrow. I was playing outdoors in the streets, while the sentence of death was being passed upon me in the privacy of the royal council chamber. But the King's only- begotten Son heard of it. And what did he do? He went forth from the palace, put off his diadem, covered himself with sackcloth, strewed ashes on his head, bared his feet and wept and lamented because his poor slave was condemned to death. I met him unexpectedly in this sad condition. He tells me the whole story. What am I to do now? Shall I continue to play and make a mockery of his tears? Surely, I am insane and devoid of reason if I do not follow him....' Sadly, it is all too easy for Christians to continue playing games like everyone else without showing that commitment to Christ Mary is showing. Isn't there something liberating in this spontaneous act of devotion which actually costs something? Why not, in a gesture of shear 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 which you would not normally do simply as an expression of your commitment to him, even if other people think you are overdoing it? That is the least we see her happening here with Mary.
But Jesus sees something more, something that perhaps even Mary herself does not fully appreciate, something fare more profound- he sees an act of prophetic symbolism v 7, "Leave her alone,""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."
In other words, there is a divine intention in Mary's act of devotion. In the one act, the pouring of the perfume, there is 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 for ever, Jesus occupies in our place so that we might receive eternal life. That is what the anointing points to, a body being prepared for burial. Here is 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 will always be those who refuse to see that. And so we move on to a sickening deception vv 4- 6, 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.' It is amazing, you know, how even theology can be used as a mask for evil. A friend of mine who had an older brother who was constantly warned not to venture to near the local pond, one day came back home dripping wet. But he had his excuse ready at hand. When he was asked by his parents what had happened he said, 'I stood by the pond and I said "Get behind me Satan!" and he pushed me in.' Well, Judas found theology useful too. He knew his Old Testament and Dt 15 and its call for God's people to take care of the poor. The trouble was the poor for Judas was himself. He was the church treasurer and so when the collection came in, he was not only to take care of the needs of the disciples but also any poor that came their way. And Judas was always on the lookout for a big collection because that meant he could help himself to a bigger portion of the income. The bigger the better. And so to see an opportunity like this pass by must have hit Judas where it hurt- his wallet. For all his pious rhetoric about 'Giving to the needy', Judas was only concerned with the needs of number one- himself. For Judas when it came to a straight choice between Christ or cash, he took the cash every time.
When I was at theological college we had a vice-principal who was insistent that we should have a St Judas day. At the time I didn't quite see what he was getting at, but now I think I do. In many ways it would be quite easy to look at how Judas used his religion as a cloak for his greed and say the modern parallel is obvious- some of the American TV evangelists who are raking in the millions by playing upon the religious susceptibilities of their vast audiences. But 'St' Judas has a habit of sneaking into all of us if we are not careful. Slowly and almost imperceptibly it is all too possible for any one of us to maintain a Christian- face and yet develop a Judas heart. We can so readily siphon off the material blessings of God for selfish ends and not gospel purposes. Surely, this is the only explanation to account for why despite all the affluence of Christians in the West, churches and missionary organisations are perpetually strapped for cash. I say this not to stir up guilt induced giving but to flag up a marker of the subtle way our hearts operate- well mine at any rate. You know there is a line in Robert Robinson's hymn, 'Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing' which is quite scary, it runs, 'Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it, Prone to leave the God I love.' That was Robinson's own experience. He had been converted under George Whitefield's preaching in 1752 and towards the end of his life drifted spiritually. One day he was travelling by stagecoach when a fellow passenger, who unaware of who Robinson was, said how much she found that hymn to be such a blessing. He burst out 'Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who composed that hymn many years ago; and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.' What is the antidote towards becoming a St Judas? Well, to pray the words of Robert Robinson , ' O to grace how great a debtor Daily I'm constrained to be; Let that grace now, like a fetter, Bind my wandering heart to thee.' You see a wandering heart if not checked can soon become a Judas heart.
And the responses to Jesus both positive and negative reflect a universal division vv 9-10, 'Meanwhile a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and putting their faith in him.' Isn't it amazing how good and evil exist side by side? Here you have 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 all the religious authorities can do is to connive how they can kill him and the one who performed the miracle-Jesus. They cannot stand Jesus' claims to deity and they must be rid of the evidence which backs up that claim- murder Jesus and murder Lazarus. And of course people have been doing the same ever since. A few years ago a group of theologians met to form what was called the Jesus seminar. And what they did was to go through the NT Gospels with colour pens striking out those parts which they considered 'unhistorical', by which they meant of the removal of all references to the supernatural, reducing Jesus to a Palestinian sage- a well intended wise man. In effect they killed Jesus off as a Saviour. They are simply repeated the sin of the Chief priests. The evidence is unpalatable? So much the worse for the evidence-get rid of it. And it may well be that you are here this morning and all this talk of Jesus being a divine Saviour is offensive to you, you would rather have him as a moral teacher. Then all I would ask is that you at least pay Jesus the courtesy of taking what he says and does seriously and see where it leads. That is surely not asking too much is it?
And in fact you might well 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 the last 2000 years. These people 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 for ever, so that we can know him personally now as ruler and rescuer. That is why this Gospel was written, 20:31, '...that you may believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and that believing you may have life in his name.' What is it that God is calling for? It is for us to renounce a deceptive heart and to ask for a devoted heart.
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