SS 02/28/10 and 03/07/10
3 While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. 4 But some were there who said to one another in anger, ‘Why was the ointment wasted in this way? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, ‘Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. 7 For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. 9 Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.’
When was the last time you were thunderstruck, flabbergasted, blown away. I remember feeling that way once when I went backpacking in the mountains. The night, without any streetlights, without any car lights, without any houselights was very black, but it was an absolutely clear night and when the stars came out, they astounded me. I never knew that there were that many stars. It was literally a breathtaking moment. The word we use for such moments is “miraculous.” We say, wow, look at that. I feel the same way when I hold a newborn baby. It is so small. That is the first thing you think, and then you think, from this tiny creature a person is going to grow and that person may one day have thoughts and do things that effect many other people and in some cases effect the whole planet.
That is a miraculous moment. People in the Bible had such moments. When Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple, he cried out, "Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!" (Isaiah 6:5 ESV). In the book of Revelation, speaking of the risen Lord, John said, “When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead.” (1:17 ESV). It would be an understatement to say that those were breathtaking moments, moments of pure, unhindered worship, moments of adoration of God.
However, do we have to wait until we see Jesus in heaven to have breathtaking moments with Him? No. Actually, that is the kind of relationship we should have with Jesus right now. We should be floored, amazed, by Jesus. We should be like this woman in the verses from Mark.
I suppose that I should tell you how this sermon came to be written. Last Sunday, I taught the adult Sunday school lesson, and the scripture was Matthew’s version of the anointing at Bethany. Each of our four gospels has a version of the anointing. Most scholars think that Mark was the first gospel to be written, and Matthew seems to have used Mark as a source, because Matthew’s account follows Mark very closely.
Anyway, last Sunday, in Sunday School, I rather hastily compared Matthew/Mark’s version of what happened at Bethany with John’s version and concluded that they are both talking about the same event. But are they? I have reread the passages several times since then, and I am not sure.
Both Mark and John say the incident took place in Bethany, but Mark said it was at the home of Simon the leper and John said it was at the home of Lazarus. That certainly raises a red flag. Mark does not identify the woman; John tells us that she was Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Both accounts agree that she had a flask of nard
Nard, sometimes called Spikenard, is the oil from a plant that grows in the Himalayan mountains. The plant is crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic amber-colored oil, which was one of the best and most expensive perfumes of ancient times. According to the Greek poet Homer, when Patroklos was killed before the walls of Troy, the hero Achilles used nard to anoint his body. Nard is mentioned a number of times in the Old Testament. It was used as one of the eleven herbs for the Incense in the Temple in Jerusalem.
It was expensive stuff. Both John and Mark tell us that it was worth 300 denarii. One denarius was a day’s wage for a working man. 300 denarii was a year’s salary. That says something about the woman of Mark. She was not poor. And if John is right and Mary was the woman, then Lazarus was not a poor man.
Was John right? Was the woman of Mark 14 in fact Mary, the sister of Lazarus. The scholars are deeply divided on this issue. Some say that John is describing an altogether different event, but I do not see how that could be. How many people could there have been in Bethany who had jars of nard?
Remember that Mark was written by A.D. 65 and the tradition is that John was written close to A.D. 100 when the apostle John was as very old man. I can imagine John thinking about what happened at Bethany, remembering that anointing. Maybe his thought process went something like this. “You know there was a woman who anointed Jesus. What was her name? It must have been Mary. Mary was the kind of person who would have done that.” And John is of course right, from what we know of Mary in the gospels, Mary is the kind of person who would have done that.
This is the same Mary who hung on Jesus’ every word while her sister Martha was busy doing the housework. Mary adored Jesus as her teacher. The housework could wait. She was going to give her full attention to this astounding rabbi from Nazareth. And in our passage from Mark, the woman adores Jesus as her master. Nothing was going to stand in the way of her whole-hearted worship of the Lord.
Which leads us to a more practical question: How is our worship this morning? Are we letting anything stand in the way of our whole-hearted worship of Jesus? What do we have in our lives that is more important than the Lord? We need to adore Jesus, and not just this morning, but adoration should be an ongoing part of our lives.
Ask yourself this, why do Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all have an account of this anointing at Bethany. Because this woman, Mary if you like, shows us what we should be doing—worshipping the Lord.
Notice how she worships. Her adoration is unrestrained. Picture the scene with me. It’s Saturday night, the night before Palm Sunday, the end of the Jewish Sabbath, that is why Martha is serving, if we follow John’s account. A few days previously, Jesus resurrected Lazarus from the grave. That may have been the reason for the meal at Lazarus’ house. They are celebrating. In Mark’s account, they are at the house of Simon the Leper. Obviously, this Simon is no longer a leper, or he would not have guests at supper. Perhaps Jesus healed him, and that would also make Mark’s meal a celebration.
Now I cannot prove this with any biblical scholarship, but I like to think that John got it right and the woman was Mary. Everyone else is laughing and talking and eating, but Mary is not. She is not concerned with the meal. Her focus is only on Jesus.
In her hand, she held an alabaster bottle. Alabaster is a beautiful semi-transparent mineral that the ancients worked into small bottles and jars. I have seen pictures of several such jars that have been recovered by archaeologists in Egypt.
And apparently this jar had been made so that the only way to empty it was to break the container. It was the ultimate extravagance, very expensive perfume in a very expensive jar. I mentioned that the perfume alone was worth a year’s salary for an average person. To put that into current figures, in 2005, the average income per worker in the USA was about $42,000. That is not household income and not the average per person, but average per worker. So, that would be about the value today of the perfume the woman had. And she knew that. The woman fully understood the value of the bottle she held in her hand. But she was also fully devoted to Jesus. So she broke the bottle and slowly poured the perfume over his head. The fragrant oil ran down His hair, down His face, and into His beard. According to John’s account, Mary poured the perfume on his feet, and then knelt down and wiped Jesus’ feet with her hair. This is a totally unrestrained act of adoration.
The financial cost did not restrain her. Worrying about what other people would think did not restrain her. By the way, it was a undignified thing for a first century Jewish woman to take down her hair in public and wash a man’s feet with it, even a somewhat erotic thing. People would talk.
In Mark’s account, the disciples were already talking about her. They were kind of muttering. “Did you see what she did?”
But Jesus told them to let her alone. He asks, “Why do you trouble her?” Why should you care any way. It is not your money, it is not your perfume.
He told them that Mary had done a good thing. Now, when Jesus said this, He was not drawing a contrast between helping the poor and worshipping Him. What He was saying was that helping the poor is a good ongoing thing to do, but worshipping Jesus is a crucially important thing to do.
Mary’s devoted, dedicated, worship of Jesus was the best work, because it was an adoration. Do you have that same adoration for Jesus? Do you adore Jesus in such a way that you do not care what other people think? Mary did not care. Adoring Jesus was her whole focus. Nothing would stop her from offering Him her best, most costly act of worship. She gave her best, gave her all, gave extravagantly, gave lavishly.
The disciples said what she did as impractical. They were right; It was gloriously impractical. What in the world was that woman thinking! How could she pout our $40,000 worth of perfume on a man’s head. I can hear the disciples now, saying something like this: “I like Jesus, he is a great rabbi, but this is just too much. Do you realize what you could do with $40,000? Jesus talks about the poor all the time. You could feed a lot of people with that kind of money. We could have sent the money to Haiti or Chile.” In Mark’s account, we are told that the disciples were indignant. They were not just calmly suggesting that the woman made a mistake. They were angry about it. They saw her act as just a waste. They saw what Mary did as tremendously, totally impractical.
All worship is impractical. It is impractical to spend time in church when life is so busy. It is impractical to spend time prayer when your schedule is so tight. It is impractical to give to the Lord when you live from paycheck to paycheck. Those things make no sense. What Mary did made no sense.
But what Mary did showed us how much she adored Jesus. How much do we adore Jesus? Do we show our adoration in ways that cost us? Do we show our adoration in ways that really matter to us?
Here is key point. The disciples are concerned about the money. Mary is concerned about Jesus. All of the money in Judas’ moneybag had a certain value. Later on, the 30 silver coins that he earned for betraying Jesus had a certain value. Mary’s alabaster bottle had a certain value and the nard perfume had a certain value, but where is that money now? Where are the 30 pieces of silver now?
Most people would say, Mary should have kept that bottle of perfume, treasured it, but if she had done that, if she had kept it on a shelf somewhere. Where would it be now? The priceless alabaster bottle would be broken in shards and scattered amongst the millions of pottery shards buried underneath the mud and brick of a dozen towns of Bethany that have existed since then. And the costly spikenard perfume would be dust. Even if Mary had chosen to use it on herself, it would still be gone, but instead, she chose to use it to anoint the body of Jesus.
But she gave it up in worship of Jesus. By doing so, she did something with eternal significance.
If you have ever had one of those ladies at the mall spray you with perfume, you know how even cheap perfume will stay with you, but the perfume that Mary used must have stayed with Jesus for days. Think about it. The sweet smell must have lingered as he sweat great drops of blood in the garden of Gethsemane. The soldiers may have smelled its fragrance as they beat Him till the flesh hung off His back. As they were casting lots for His garments, perhaps those garments still carried the aroma of Mary’s act of worship. What Mary did will never be forgotten. The powerful aroma of unrestrained worship is eternal.
So, how is your worship this morning? Is your worship summed up with a couple of hymns and prayers on occasional Sunday mornings? Are you too caught up in the so-called practical things of life to have time for worship? Those “practical things” always turn to dust and ashes.
You need something better. You need to invest in eternal things. You need to pour yourself out in the worship of Christ. Give your best, give your all, give extravagantly, give lavishly.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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