Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent

Text: John 12:3
Mary took half a litre of a very expensive perfume made of pure nard, poured it on Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair.


Love requires sacrifice

What are we to make of Mary’s excessive show of devotion for Jesus?  Some have tried to play down the cost of what Mary did by saying that this was leftover oil from the burial of Lazarus.  Others have tried to connect Mary to the prostitute of the same name saying that this oil was only a small part of the wealth she had gathered as a lady of the night (as told in Luke 7:36-50).  None of this can be substantiated. 

The fact remains.  Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, takes half a litre of this massively expensive perfume and pours, not just a few drops but the whole lot, not on Jesus’ head as would be expected, she pours the whole half litre on Jesus’ feet.  As I said this perfume is not some cheap watered down supermarket perfume.  This is the purest most expensive perfume that money can buy and half a litre of it.

The value of this perfume is evident by the way Judas is upset at what Mary is doing and exclaims in disgust, “What a waste.  Maybe a few drops on Jesus’ head but a whole flask worth a whole year’s wages – that’s way over the top”.  Put that in today’s dollars and you realise how much Mary poured onto Jesus’ feet.  If you witnessed something like this and saw a year’s wages just poured away like this, wouldn’t you agree with Judas?  This could have been used to feed and shelter hundreds of refugees.

Let’s try and understand why Mary ‘wasted’ so much in this act of devotion and love.  This story might help us a bit.  Recently a novel by Nicholas Sparks was made into a movie entitled, ‘The Longest Ride’.  Sophia, a contemporary art student falls in love with a bull rider at a rodeo but their relationship falters as they realise their interests and dreams for the future are so different.  Parallel to their rocky relationship an old man, Ira Levinson, who pines for the wife of his youth, tells Sophia the story of when they first fell in love. 

Ira met Ruth in the 1940s.  Their relationship wasn't always easy. Ruth, for instance, desperately wanted a large family, so when an infection robbed Ira's ability to give her children, she tried hard to sacrifice the dream of a large family for a life with only Ira.  Ruth wasn’t happy to have just a two-person family so Ira sadly opened the door—showing a willingness to sacrifice his own happiness for hers.

Ira said to Ruth in a very touching moment, “I love you so much I just want you to be happy even if that happiness no longer includes me.”  Ira is prepared to sacrifice his happiness to make Ruth happy.

After a short time apart, Ruth returns.  She sacrifices her dream of a large family to be with Ira and the two build a wonderful life together, even in the midst of disappointment.  And now Ira tells Sophia a truth that will help the two young lovers overcome the problems in their relationship.

“Love requires sacrifice,” Ira tells Sophia. “Always.”

And so we come back to Mary.  Her brother Lazarus had recently been raised from the dead – that was enough reason to be grateful.  The love Jesus had shown to her and Martha and Lazarus was amazing and in return she expresses her gratitude, her love, her trust through this act of service and sacrifice as she poured this hugely expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet and wiped them with her hair. Her love for Jesus led her to sacrifice the most precious thing she had and in doing this, she gave herself as a living sacrifice to her Saviour.

She didn’t care what other people thought.  Such sacrificial love is risky business.  To wipe Jesus’ feet, she had to let down her hair in public – something an honourable woman would never do.  This was the trademark of a woman in the sex industry.

A report of Mary’s dedication to Jesus and her extreme demonstration of love would have found its way to Jesus’ enemies who were becoming bolder and more determined to get rid of Jesus.  They even plotted to kill Lazarus because he openly went about telling everyone that Jesus had brought him back to life.  Devotion to Jesus was risky business.  It was risky for Lazarus, Mary and the disciples to openly show their loyalty to Jesus.

In the year 203, a young mother, Perpetua, was undergoing instruction in preparation for baptism, when the whole class was arrested by the authorities.  The group were jailed for not worshipping the emperor and were sentenced to be executed on his birthday.  Her father pleaded for her to give up her Christian faith but she stood firm and was baptised in the prison.  During her imprisonment a gaoler was so impressed by the courage and faith of this group of believers that he became a Christian. 

Finally, the emperor’s birthday came and the group were put into the arena with wild animals.  You can imagine the rest.  Perpetua was savaged by the animals but didn’t die.  A young centurion was sent to finish the task but he didn’t have the courage to slay the young mother so Perpetua helped him by bringing the blade of his sword to her own neck.  Perpetua’s story is one of total and complete devotion to her Saviour even to the point of sacrificing her life. As the old man said in the movie, “Love requires sacrifice – always.”

The kind of love that Mary was showing Jesus was sacrificial, generous, genuine, overflowing.  This kind of generous extravagance is something that Mary had learnt from Jesus himself. 
Right from the beginning of his ministry at Cana Jesus showed this extravagant generosity providing 600 litres of wine at a wedding. 
Jesus told the story of the extravagant love of a father who forgave his undeserving runaway son.
Again and again Jesus reached out and touched lepers, the dead, the demon possessed, the sick, the outcasts of society – people no-one else would touch.
Jesus’ extravagant love reached out to his disciples even when their faith was so weak and they ran away and hid.
Jesus was harassed and abused by his enemies and yet how he would have dearly loved to embrace them as brothers and sisters.  He prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them”.

Jesus was always ready to meet the needs of others – to be their servant, their helper, their friend.    For Jesus, love was always sacrificial.

Showing extravagant, non-judgemental, unconditional love is not understood by everyone.  To some this is foolishness. 
To love the unlovable, those who would take you for a ride, those who no-one else wants to embrace, puts you at odds with the values of the world.  Mary was criticised for showing this kind of love. 
Jesus’ love for the unloved was misunderstood.  People didn't understand the sacrificial and servant nature of Jesus’ love.

Love caused him to give us the best that he had to give.  He gave his life so that we might live – so that our guilt and shame for all our sin might be destroyed and that we might have eternal life. 

As we approach Holy Week and Good Friday again we see the extravagant love of Jesus again and the sacrifice that he made for us.  He could just have easily turned away from Jerusalem and followed the advice of his disciples not to go there.  But he deliberately went down that path because his love for us is so unrelenting and generous.

When we look at Jesus and how much he loves us and what it cost him;
when we note again this Good Friday the pain and suffering, the mockery and the nails, the dying and death that he endured for us;
we would be terribly mistaken if this didn’t produce in us a similar response as that of Mary’s.

Maybe we don’t have flasks of expensive perfume to pour on Jesus’ feet if that were a possibility, or bags of money to give to the poor, but what we can do is the ‘Jesus thing’, that is, to imitate Jesus and give ourselves in humility and generosity and service to others, that will most likely involve sacrifice of some kind. 

“Love requires sacrifice – always.” Does that mean that love can be a painful thing?  It sure does! 

When we read this story about Mary’s devotion to Jesus, we can’t help but ask ourselves,
How unselfish and sacrificial am I in my commitment to serving Jesus?  Am I generous and sacrificial in how I love and serve others? 
Am I ready to serve others,
show kindness and helpfulness to those who need it,
show patience and tolerance
as generous gifts from my heart, willingly given, given sacrificially, even if it is painful to make this gift of love?

We would like to say that we love sacrificially like Mary all of the time but unfortunately too often we are like Judas.  Sin gets the upper hand and the worst in us comes to forefront and we turn in on ourselves and shut out everyone else.  We start to see ourselves as the centre of the universe and say “to hell” with everyone else.  We may not say it quite like that but that’s at the core of our sinful nature.  We shut out kindness and tolerance toward others and shut out the way God wants us to be as his people.

That’s why there had to be a Good Friday.  God sent Jesus to die for us to make it possible for us to be more like Christ, to be generous like Christ, to be sacrificial like Christ, to love unconditionally like Christ. 

Lent gives us an opportunity to realise again that Jesus loves us sacrificially and unconditionally and we are called to love like Christ and to renew our commitment to be God’s holy children in every aspect of our lives.

“Love requires sacrifice - always.”


© Pastor Vince Gerhardy
13th March 2016

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