Saturday, March 16, 2013

Marked for Death

Lake Grove Lutheran Church, Waubun, MN
Lent 5—March 17, 2013
John 12:1-8

In the name of Jesus.  Amen.

When you hear a story, what do you notice?  What grabs your attention?  What shocks you?

This morning’s gospel tells a story that is found in some form in each of the four gospels:  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Some features of the story are consistent in all four versions.  

·      A woman comes to Jesus, in a public setting, and does something to him that is intimate and shocking—arousing strong reactions from onlookers.

·      In each of the stories a woman anoints Jesus with very costly perfume.  The anointing evokes various interpretations from those who are watching, and they respond to it—always unfavorably.

·      In each of the stories, though, there is one person—Jesus himself!--who defends the woman—stands up for her and receives her anointing for what it is:  an act of sheer devotion and pure love.

As you hear this story, what do you notice?  What captures your attention?  What shocks you?

Perhaps, like so many others over the years, you wonder if it was appropriate for a woman to take such liberties with a man.    Lots of the negative reactions to this “floating tradition” focus on the ways the woman broke first century social taboos by touching Jesus’ body—entering intimate space normally reserved only for a spouse.

We could go down that familiar road, I suppose.   Sexuality—relationships--how men and women connect with one another—that’s a topic we’re always ready to think about, maybe even talk about, especially if we can talk about someone else’s sexuality!

But that’s not what John’s gospel focuses on.

We could, instead, zero in on the costliness of the perfume.   Three of the four gospels hint at an astronomical price-tag:   suggesting the ointment cost 300 days’ worth of wages.   Who would do such a thing?  Pour out ointment that cost the equivalent of nearly one year’s salary?

In three of the gospels, the extravagance of the woman’s act is what comes under scrutiny.   “Why wasn’t this money given to the poor, instead?”

Several times this past week, as all eyes were glued to TV reports about the conclave of cardinals electing a new pope in Rome, I heard folks remark on the extravagance and splendor of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome….raising the question of why “those Catholics” spend so much money on opulence rather than compassion for the poor.

We could go down that road, too, with this text.  That wouldn’t be hard to do.

But that’s not what John’s gospel focuses on.

No, what John’s gospel emphasizes is something else.   The dead giveaway is the part of Jesus’ body that Mary anoints with the costly perfume.

She does not anoint his head—as if she were marking him as the King of Israel!

No, Mary went to the other end of Jesus’ body—anointed his feet, something that was never done to a living person.

Feet were anointed by first century Jews—but only after a person had died.

There’s the shocker in this text.   Mary, a close friend of Jesus, treats Jesus’ body as if the life had already gone out from him.   Mary marks Jesus for death.

And Jesus gets that—and announces it, loud and clear:  “Leave her alone,” Jesus responds.  “[Mary] bought [this ointment] so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

There, right there is what should shock us as we listen to this story.    Our attention needs to be riveted not on any social taboos Mary broke, nor on her extravagant waste of resources that could have gone to the poor.

Rather, our attention needs to be focused on the Great Unmentionable, death itself.

Mary’s unsettling prophetic action fixes our eyes on what was about to happen to Jesus.  Indeed, she performed her act of devotion as if it had already happened.  

Mary treats Jesus like a “dead man walking”—and that is what’s most shocking here in John chapter 12.

Mary’s dramatic act prevents us from keeping death at bay, out of sight, out of mind.   Mary forces us to see what is soon to happen to Jesus.   Mary confronts us with death.

Mary does this in a setting, and among a cast of characters, over whom death has already cast a pall.  It’s the home of Lazarus, who not that many days previously had himself been dead for a while.

You know the story from the eleventh chapter of John’s gospel:  Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had fallen seriously ill.  Jesus had been sent for—but he arrived in Bethany too late.   By the time Jesus got there, Lazarus was already dead, buried-in-the-tomb dead.   Decay was already taking its toll on Lazarus’s body.

And it grieved Jesus so deeply that at first all he could do was to weep with all the other mourners at Lazarus’s grave.  And then, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, Jesus in his grief “roared so loud at death that he scared death away.”[1]

But death didn’t depart from the scene for long.  

Death hangs over this story in John chapter twelve.   For we know where this story is heading.  We see them sitting there in the living room in Bethany:  Lazarus who was dead and Jesus who will soon be dead….in conversation with Judas who will betray Jesus into death.

The air is thick with death, and Mary only makes matters worse by doing something so shocking that no one can ignore its implications.    Mary marks Jesus for death.   And Jesus receives Mary’s devotion and names it for what it is.

This is what John focuses on:  the gathering storm clouds soon to engulf Jesus, the conspiracy that is already playing itself out that will leave Jesus in the grave, switching places (as it were) with Mary’s brother Lazarus.

This is what John focuses on.  This is what should shock us in this story.

But, in truth, it is even deeper than that. 

It’s not just that Jesus will die that should shock us here.

It is that Jesus will die for us and for our salvation.

Mary marks Jesus not for some accidental encounter with the Grim Reaper.   It’s not as if Jesus will step off a curb and be run over by a careening truck or something…

No, Mary marks Jesus for a death that he is ready to take on freely, for you and for me.

·      There is something wrong with us, that only the death of Jesus will make right.   

·      There is in us a waywardness, that only the death of Jesus can heal.

·      There is in us a self-centeredness, from which only the sacrifice of the Son of God can free us.

·      There is in us a rendezvous with death—our mortality--that only the death of our Savior can undo. 

This time, when Jesus roars at death on the Cross on a Friday afternoon...when Jesus rails against death….he won’t just scare death away temporarily as he did at Lazarus’s tomb.

No,  Jesus’ words “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”…Jesus’ embrace of death will spell the end of death.   Jesus’ going down to the grave for us, will transform the grave from the End it used to be to the Beginning of the New Creation that walked out of the grave on Easter morning.

That, all of that, is what Mary’s astonishing action, a week before Jesus final Passover, signified….and not just for Jesus, but for you and for me and for all people.

Mary marked Jesus for death, but not just any death.   This is the death that puts an end to the old—puts an end to sin, death and the power of the devil.

This death of Jesus for us on the Cross puts an end to the old, as it paves the way for the new…God’s New Creation in which sin will not have a future with us, in which the power of the devil is neutered, in which death no longer holds sway over us.

In this New Creation, in which we are already privileged to live and move and have our being….in this New Creation we are not ashamed to love Jesus as extravagantly as Mary did, or to care deeply for the poor who are always with us, or to look forward eagerly and move ahead not in fear but in hope.

In the name of Jesus.   Amen.

[1] “The Prophet Mary,” a sermon by Barbara Brown Taylor on March 21, 2010 (accessed at

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