This week we begin a sermon series that will carry us through Easter, all the way to Pentecost Sunday. This series comes with an unapologetic agenda. I believe that we have become so comfortable worshiping Jesus the Christ that we do not know Jesus. I do not know if Jesus would be comfortable in most American evangelical congregations. I believe he would expect something much more from them and from us.
It is easy for us to embrace the Jesus with the flowing white robe, the pleasant smile, and the bright hallow just behind his head. But, honestly this is not the Jesus of Scripture. Jesus walked in the highways and byways among the spiritually frustrated, the social outcasts, the diseased, and the desperate. Jesus was soundly rejected by the religious leadership and those comfortable with the status quo. Jesus came to heal, renew, and restore. He ate with sinners, talked to a questionable woman in the middle of the day at a well, and invited tax collectors and others that the culture would have pushed away to come and follow him. I fear the clean, comfortable, religiously predictable and socially acceptable Jesus is an unreasonable creation of the Church. The Jesus of Scripture came to seek and save the lost, not to bless the religious. The Jesus of Scripture is the incarnation of God who came to walk among us to make the way for our salvation so that we might be called the “children of God.” “At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, ‘I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.’”[i] So, over these next weeks I want us to walk so closely with Jesus that we can smell the sweat on his brow and feel his breath on our skin. I want us to walk so closely with Jesus that his words echo in our ears and his teaching resonated deep within our hearts. I want us to take time to know Jesus so that we can feel the pain of cross, know the joy of Easter morning, and relish in a walk with a living and loving God.
This week we begin our journey toward Easter in just miles outside of Jerusalem. The passage we heard earlier in our service brings us to Bethany, where we find Jesus eating dinner in the home of Simon the Leper. As they ate, unexpectedly and uninvited a woman entered the room. The passage does not provide a single word of dialogue. It simply reports; a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table.
This scene is remarkable on so many levels. First, Bethany is no ordinary town to Jesus. It is the home town to some of his closest friends. It was also the early version of the suburb, located just outside the action of Jerusalem. This small town would be the launching pad for Jesus’ journey into Jerusalem and toward the cross. Second, The banquet occurs at the home of Simon the Leper. Simon the Leper is not known outside of this story told in Matthew and Mark. Jewish law would have prohibited a banquet at the home of someone with leprosy so biblical scholars have speculated that this is the home of someone that Jesus has healed. And third, there were only two kinds of woman who would have access to expensive perfume. One would be a woman of great wealth. But, a woman of wealth would not have come to a house like Simon’s and would have never anointed one like Jesus. The other choice is an uncomfortable one. The only other kind of woman that would have had perfume like this would have been a woman of a questionable lifestyle.
Let’s pause right here. Remember that no one in that room, save Jesus, knew what was ahead. This makes this moment – this act of this unnamed woman even more powerful. Her anointing of Jesus’ head would have had a profound symbolic impact. When she anoints Jesus’ head it is an act of preparation of burial, an act of service and an act of worship all wrapped up in one. She does not interact with others at the banquet. She is singly focused on her task. Can you see her moving through the crowd to Jesus – not speaking – coming to Jesus – anointing Jesus? Can you imagine how we might react if someone did something like this in the midst of our worship service here this morning or in a more formal environment like a wedding reception or retirement banquet?
This unnamed woman was a woman on a mission. She gave the best gift that she could imagine. She gave Jesus her undivided attention. This was an unapologetic, extravagant act of worship and sacrificial love. We have to wonder what Jesus had done for this woman for her to choose this grand act of devotion. Had he healed someone she loved? Had she listened to his teachings in the crowd? Had he offered her redemption or had his word brought her hope? Had Jesus stepped into her brokenness and helped her find her way to the feet of God? What brings you to Jesus? What do you bring to Jesus?
Jesus disciples could not deal with what they were seeing. The passage tells us; 8 When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9 “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” The disciples were shocked! They were shocked to see this kind of woman come to Jesus. She was outside any and every boundary. They were shocked that she would do what she did? They were shocked that she would use the expensive perfume. We can imagine a grand act of generosity that points back to the giver like naming a football stadium, a hospital wing or a church building for them but, the idea of money being poured out – wasted – is more than we can put our minds around. It was the same for them. They were shocked at the sense of waste. They we shocked that Jesus would allow it. But Jesus was in the habit of welcoming those others would reject. Let's be clear, anytime we try to define who can come to Jesus we are on the wrong side of the gospel. Jesus welcomes people to his side regardless of what they may have done in their past, what addiction that defines them, what failures that shape them, what sexual orientation that identifies them, or what brokenness makes them weep. Only Jesus can decide who is welcome at his side and his life and ministry teaches us that his boundaries are bigger than our and his love is greater than ours. Jesus was in the habit of taking moments like this one to teach those around him - and us - what it meant to really follow him.
The disciples offered a veiled act of piety to explain their reaction. Rather than pour her perfume out, she should have sold it and the money given to the poor. But the passage makes that the poor had been invited to share the evening meal with them. None of them had offered their food – their shelter – their resources. Their comment is a shallow shot –a religious thought with no action or relationship to sustain it. We hear them and like Jesus, need to be able to disregard them. Do you think maybe our wallets and how we value things sometimes get in the way of service and worship? Does money become so important – so valuable to us – that we are more focused on its value than the value of others? Are we eager to recommend how others might best spend their resources, while holding tightly on to our own?
Jesus does not let the quiet whispers continue. Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” Jesus affirmed the act of the woman and acknowledged what would lie ahead. The disciples could not hear it. They were too consumed to with their own thought and fears to understand what Jesus was say. Don’t miss it. Jesus was not minimizing the call to love and serve the poor. He had articulated this need, this call, this command over and over again throughout his ministry. They would have the poor with them and the work among the poor would continue to shape their ministries. But in Jesus’ acceptance and blessing of the act of the woman we see his embrace of the journey to the cross. The death that awaits Jesus is not something that happened to Jesus. While we will see many players involved in how the story plays out, in this moment we see that Jesus chooses to move forward, always knowing the outcome. Jesus will walk to the streets of Jerusalem with purpose. Jesus will walk into the streets of Jerusalem knowing that the pain and the agony that awaits him. Jesus will walk into the streets of Jerusalem smelling of the perfume that would prepare him for his death and burial, but that would also make the way for salvation and the joy of Easter morning.
It is important for us to remember that the story of this selfless act by this woman is set against two scenes of brutal duplicity. The passage just before our story we hear the priest and the elders plotting Jesus’ death. Those that were to represent God among the people saw Jesus as a threat to the established religious order. They wanted to make sure that no one challenged the culturally acceptable religious rituals and routines. Jesus called people to a very different kind of life and a very different kind of walk with God. On the other side of our passage we find the story of Judas commitment to betray Jesus. Judas the Zealot, the one among the disciples with the best religious pedigree, the one that was supposedly most devoted to the way of God, rejected Jesus because Jesus did not fit his preconceived religious understandings. Instead of being conformed to the Way of Jesus he wanted Jesus to conform to the way he expected – no, that he demanded. Do we come to Jesus seeking for Him to bless our comfortable faith, or do we seek Jesus and shape our lives to his Way? Are we ready to know and to walk with Jesus no matter the cost?
Our journey to the cross begins. Our journey toward Easter begins. Our journey with Jesus begins. Draw close and smell the perfume and celebrate this woman’s grand act of worship. Draw close and see Jesus rise from Bethany and begin to move toward Jerusalem. Draw close and see the sweat on Jesus’ brow as he moves forward for your sake and mine. Draw close and walk with Jesus that we might embrace Jesus as he seeks to embrace us with his love and grace. Draw close and walk with Jesus and never settle for less.