April 7, 2019
Hope Lutheran Church
Rev. Mary Erickson
Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
An Extravagant Sacrifice
Friends, may grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and Christ Jesus our Lord.
Fragrances are extremely powerful. Aromas are so evocative. The smell of
Firing up neighborhood grills after a long winter
That first scent of grass clippings in the spring
Lilacs in the spring
Aromas can transport us to places or events from the past. I’m sure you’ve experienced this, too. For me, there are certain scents that take me back to my grandparents’ house. Every so often I get a whiff of something in the air, and suddenly, I’m eight years old and back in Iowa.
Our text today from John has an aroma to it, the smell of exotic perfume. Jesus is attending a dinner party at the home of Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Just a few days earlier, Lazarus had been dead. And he’d been long dead – four days in the grave! Jesus arrived at long last. He ordered the stone in front of Lazarus’ grave rolled away. And then he commanded Lazarus to stand up and come out from the grave. Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead.
News of the miracle spread like wildfire. Everyone knew that Lazarus had died, long enough that his body would have started to decompose. And now, here he was walking around, a living sign of Jesus’ power over life and death.
It stirred up the Jesus frenzy even more. The chief priests and other religious leaders were worried. If the enthusiasm for Jesus went on unchecked, the delicate equilibrium between their Jewish religion and the Roman authorities would be destroyed. Something had to be done!
So they plotted. Jesus had to die. Nothing short of his death would do. They ordered that anyone aware of Jesus’ whereabouts should let them know so they could arrest him.
This is the atmosphere on the evening of the dinner in Jesus’ honor. Outside, the air was pungent with tension and impending doom. But inside the house in Bethany, there was joy and celebration. The three siblings put on a lavish meal for Jesus. Martha serves, as she so wonderfully does. We get the sense that nobody cooks or serves up a dinner like Martha can. The house was filled with the wonderful aromas emanating from her stew pot.
Lazarus is there, too. He’s at the table with Jesus. And then at some point, Mary does something remarkable. She has acquired a bottle of precious perfume. It’s pure nard, imported all the way from the Himalayan mountains. It was outrageously expensive. We’re told it cost about a year’s wages.
How did she get this thing? Is it something she had? Was she saving it for a rare occasion? Or did she spend all of her savings in order to purchase it in the market? Had she shared with her brother and sister what she was going to do?
Mary breaks the normal flow of the dinner party. She enters the dining area and kneels at Jesus’ feet. She breaks off the neck of the perfume vial and proceeds to pour its entire contents on Jesus’ feet. Then she unbinds her long hair and wipes his feet.
It’s a scene of remarkable intimacy. A woman would not have let down her hair in front of men, and she certainly would not touch a man, let alone his feet. But Mary must express her deep appreciation for Jesus. Not only had Jesus resurrected her dear brother, he has saved the future of Mary and her sister. Without their brother, their future would have been doomed. Jesus hasn’t only saved Lazarus’ life; he’s saved hers.
Mary shows her deep appreciation with a gesture of pure extravagance. She pours the expensive perfume all over Jesus’ feet and the house is filled with its scent. John’s words are so evocative we can practically smell the perfume ourselves as he describes the moment. Mary pours out the perfume, and it’s all spent. Her great offering is complete.
Contrast her actions with those of the chief priests and Judas. The religious leaders had just witnessed a tremendous outpouring of divine power. Jesus had raised someone from the grave! But they don’t want anything to do with it. They want to stop this flow of divine energy, to reverse it.
And Judas can only grumble. He’s possessed by a complaining spirit. Motivated by his own greed, he puts up a front of phony concern for the poor. He makes a snarky comment to put Mary in her place.
But Jesus will have none of it, for Jesus is about to make an extravagant sacrifice of his own. He reveals that he will soon be buried, too.
Jesus is about to break open the precious vial of his life. He will pour himself out on the cross. He’ll completely expend all that he has, all that he is. There’s no turning back. The bottle of perfume has already been broken open, and soon, Jesus will be broken, too. What has been poured out cannot be returned to the bottle.
The duplicitous Judas and the Chief Priests will both be involved in breaking him open. Fueled by greed, Judas will betray Jesus. And the Chief Priests will have Jesus arrested.
They think they’re quenching a fire before it leaps out of control. But his death spells something entirely different to Jesus. He’s making his extravagant sacrifice to create a new way.
Jesus wants to transform not just Lazarus’ tomb. He wants to change every grave. He’s going to break himself open and pour out his life. Jesus is on a path to the cross. He’s about to make an extravagant sacrifice. It’s the most precious thing he has, the gift of his life.
He’s about to do a new thing. He aims to create a new pathway to life eternal. His death on the cross will not be an end. It will establish the new beginning. His death will open every grave. He will transform the grave into a portal to heaven.
Mary broke open a vial of expensive perfume and poured it all over Jesus’ feet. And the fragrance of her offering filled the house. Years later, when the company present at that meal smelled that fragrance, it transported them back to that day, the day that started it all. They could still see Mary on her knees, pouring the precious offering onto Jesus. Just a week later, Jesus made his own extravagant sacrifice. And it changed everything.