Sunday, March 21, 2010

C, Lent 5 -John 12:1-8 "Anointed & Embalmed as King"

Text John 12:1-8

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. ”It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

1. Buried Feet

Why did Mary smear the pure nard over Jesus' feet? The gospel reading we just heard doesn’t tell us why she went to such extremes. This perfume from the nard plant in India was expensive ointment prepared from the roots and stems of this Himalayan plant. So when she cracks open the pot of perfume and spreads the entire contents of it over his feet, about half a litre, it makes me wonder what motivated her to do it. Half a litre is a lot of perfume. The bible tells us it was worth a year’s wages, 300 denarii, close to thirteen thousand dollars worth, a lot of money in anyone’s language. Imagine the scent it would leave. Think of aftershave or perfume poured on you feet, not just a drop but a half litre. Why did Mary do it? Putting a little on sandal sore feet was normal when the host’s guests arrived from some distance. But Mary buried his feet in so much ointment the pleasant scent would have been smelt just as far away.

2. Jesus raised Lazarus

Looking back at recent events in John’s gospel sees Mary at Jesus feet once before. Both Mary and her sister, Martha, pleaded with Jesus when he arrived after Lazarus’ death, saying, ‘Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died!’ Mary fell at his feet weeping, so much so it moved Jesus, and he wept too.

So Jesus raised Lazarus, he had earlier told Martha he was the resurrection and the life, and that’s exactly what he did, he gave life to Lazarus. He cleared the stone away and raised Lazarus from the dead, and in the process made himself ritually unclean through his association with the corpse. Jesus was the cause of Lazarus’ resurrection, it brought glory to God, but it also caused him to be covered with the stench of death.

3. Jesus didn’t cleanse himself

As these events were occurring the Passover festival was drawing near. With in a week lambs would be slaughtered so the Jews could commemorate, remember, and teach their children how the Angel of Death passed over the homes of the Israelites, sparing the lives of their first born sons, the night before Moses raised the nation of Israel to life from the land of Egypt. This festival called for the Jews to make their way to Jerusalem to be cleansed and purified for the Passover meal of bitter herbs, unleavened bread, and Passover lamb roasted over the fire, just as God had commanded Moses and the Israelites many years before.

But Jesus doesn’t go to Jerusalem to be cleansed. Rather he and his disciples leave Lazarus and withdraw to a region near the desert. Jewish ritual expected a person to be cleansed, purified, and made holy, so they could stand before the Lord, who is holy, especially those who had come into contact with a dead body. In chapter eleven just prior to the meal and Mary’s perfume pouring at Bethany, many stood in the temple area waiting for Jesus to appear. After all he had raised Lazarus from the dead and was unclean. But Jesus didn’t show, nor did he receive any cleansing. No! Jesus didn’t go to Jerusalem rather he returned to Bethany. There is a knock at the door; Lazarus opens it to reveal God standing there with his disciples, still covered with the stigma of his death.

4. Mary serves Jesus

If I were to ask you to flick through the pages of John’s gospel and find the Last Supper where Jesus gives us the Words of Institution, you would come up empty. In fact John doesn’t give us an account of the Last Supper. Instead he speaks of two meals. Both meals are linked by the attention given to the feet. At the first meal Mary washes Jesus’ feet and then at the second meal Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.

It is true that at both meals foot washing caricatures service. The very nature of foot washing shows both the humility and greatness of serving. Mary serves Jesus with faithfulness and sheer gratitude when she smears the pure nard on Jesus' feet. Probably overwhelmed at Jesus’ resurrecting power over her brother Lazarus, she served him with the same passionate emotional fervour as when she cried tears over his feet when Lazarus was still dead.

Mary’s actions came from deep within. We know that these actions were great. So great I find it hard to comprehend! The perfume’s purity is not lost on John as he reports Judas Iscariot’s disapproval and tells us the nard was worth a year’s wages. Lazarus, Mary and Martha were not excessively wealthy; after all there are no servants to do the tasks of washing feet or serving the meal, which Martha serves.

Mary’s action was also great from another perspective too. It would have taken a great deal of courage and faithfulness for this woman to let her hair down in public. It was not something done by respectable Jewish women. In her action all honour is taken from her and given to Jesus. Perhaps the perfume that might have been reserved to cover the stench of Lazarus’ death was now floating around the house as the fragrance of life and love. Or maybe Mary was still covering the stigma of death; Lazarus’ deathly uncleanness in Christ and the upcoming death that awaited him on the cross?

5. Jesus Anointed and Embalmed as Messiah and King

So what was happening to Jesus at Lazarus’ house when Mary poured or smeared the pure nard on his feet? Another word to describe Mary’s action of pouring or smearing is anointing. Mary anointed Jesus. In fact she anointed Jesus Christ, Son of God, King of the Jews.

When a king or queen is enthroned into their office, they have a coronation. In recent times we haven’t seen a coronation; in fact the last was Queen Elizabeth many years ago. But like any royal event their coronation to the throne involves much royal regalia, long processions through the streets, pomp, ritual and ceremony.

Jesus was on his way to a coronation too. He was soon to be glorified on the cross. A little later on in the gospel Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified… But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (12:23, 32). Jesus took his throne when he was nailed to the cross, on that throne he draws all to himself.

Mary anointed the King, maybe a little prematurely before his coronation, which would begin on the next day as he rode the donkey into Jerusalem over palm branches thrown down by the crowds. Therefore, how could she not anoint the King of Kings with such an expensive perfume? After all he is the king who draws all people to himself. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

But paradoxically in a seemingly contradictory way Mary anoints the body of Jesus just as all bodies are anointed before they are buried. Jesus even says of Mary’s anointing, ‘it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial’ (12:7). How can a king’s coronation and his enthronement be the very same thing that kills him? How can the King of Kings draw all to himself if he is hanging dead on his throne? Well, this is the mystery of the cross, this is the contradiction of the cross, this is the glory of the cross, this is the victory of the cross, and this is the beauty of the cross, where our Lord was enthroned.

Just before Jesus was crucified he washed his disciples’ feet. When he came to Peter, Peter said no to his feet being washed, but Jesus said, ‘Unless I wash your feet you have no part with me (13:8)’. Mary may have served Jesus at the first meal, but it was Jesus who served, when he washed the disciples’ feet at that second meal, when by his word he raised Lazarus to life, and when he took the ugliness of death to the cross for Lazarus and also for you. Jesus has washed us too, eternal death is no more, we are washed and now have a part with Jesus in eternity.

6. Jesus’ Service as our Passover Lamb

When we hear that Mary broke the bottle of thirteen thousand dollar scented oil over Jesus' feet, it makes us sit up and take notice. Why she did it, we can only speculate. But this double action anointing, together with the events before and after, tell us of God’s Son who was anointed and embalmed as King of Kings, was sacrificed and enthroned on the cross, was buried in death but at the same time buried eternal death, and who was raised to life is also your resurrection and your life. Sit up and take notice, Jesus serves you, he has cleansed you! Smell the sweet scent of life bought at great cost for you by our Passover Lamb. He is the resurrection and the life! In this King death has lost its stench, and now the power of death has passed over you and me. Amen.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

C, Lent 4 - Psalm 32 "My Brother"

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My brother, don't get me started.  He's such a little up-start.  How dare he show his face around here again after all he's done to our family name! 
You know, we've had to struggle since he's left.  I have to do all the work for dad and he expects perfection you know!  And that little scamp just got up one day and decided he was bored, farming was no fun, so off he trots to town.
But that's not the half of it!  He had the audacity to demand the inheritance from dad.  He wanted it then and there, and dad being such a sucker takes an overdraft and gives him what he wants.  Surely he knew what was going to happen?  But he just gives the lot to him, knowing full well what type of person he is.  Has dad gone mad?  My brother's not fit to be a part of this family, let alone take all our money!
My brother's never been responsible!  Money always seems to burn a hole in his pocket.  And work!  Well!  If he did some perhaps his pearly white soft hands might get a blister.  And we can't have than now can we?!  What he's done is just straight out flamin' wrong!
And now after all this time he comes home.  I can't believe what happened.  Dad runs out to meet him.  He treats him like royalty.  I'd like to know exactly where all his wealth is gone.  He's blown the lot I bet!  And look at him!  His clothes are rags, he's filthy, he stinks like pigs, and I bet he hasn't been to church since he's left.  And to think, he's got the nerve to come back here after what he's done to us!  He's such a conceited little brat.
What will people think of us?  He's brought the whole family down!  We will be a laughing stock.  And I'm the one who's going to have to keep on working to get us through.  Dad takes me for granted, you know.  Perhaps "I" should run away and live like a fool.  But dad probably wouldn't even realise I was gone!  Am I the only one around here who gives a stuff?  Ahhh!  What's the use anyway?
Stress is a major part of everyone's life.  When we look at the parable of the Prodigal Son, all three of the main characters are burdened by stress of different kinds. 
The father's stress; he's lost a son.  Perhaps he knew he was going to lose him even before his son had left.  Imagine dividing up the family property suspecting it might be squandered, but regardless, still hoping for the best for your son. 
Then the younger son, who's taken the inheritance and squandered it on wild living!  After his money had gone and he was belittled and broken so he had to eat with the pigs his conscience returned.  How great his stress would have been, knowing what he'd done to his family.  And the humiliation of having to crawl home and beg to be one of the servants! 
And then there's the older son, from whom we've already heard.  He was incensed with rage over his brother.  He was frustrated with the situation in which his family was left.  And he was deeply hurt but his father's seemingly careless attitude towards him.  But at the same time his willingness to bend over backwards for the son who showed no respect for the family, the farm, his upbringing, and his own sense of right and wrong.
It seems, in this parable, we have bottled here all the same stresses of our complex human relationships today.  Taking the lid off your human heart, do you see mirrored in this parable's stress - your inner reality, your guilt, your fears, your anger, sinful pride, prejudices, and discrimination?  A mirror of me, into the deep dark hidden recesses within - you might say of yourself.
There's no denying that stress exists.  But how do you deal with stress?  To where does stress lead you… into yourself or God?  When we let stress drive us into the darkness of our selves, are we not submitting ourselves to a personal world of hurt and pain?
Blessed are those whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer. Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, "I will confess my transgressions to the Lord." And you forgave the guilt of my sin. (Psalms 32:2-5)
Stressful situations can and do lead us to wallow and brood over the darkness of our inner thoughts.  Is this not only deceitful to God but also dishonest to yourself? 
When we mask our stress, when we keep silent, mumbling to our sorry selves, God tells us the truth of what happens.  We just heard what it does in Psalm 32.  We waste away, we smoulder and groan.  Problems big and small turn up the pressure inside us until we explode with all the ugliness of our inner sinful selves.
Luckily you have a God who knows you better than you know yourself.  We his children still struggle with the childish ways of our sinful centred selves.  So having been baptised God faithfully remains with us but he weighs heavily on us and our sinful conscience in a bid to uncover us and correct us.
Hiding our darkened inner self destroys us from the inside out.  Our bitter thoughts burn away under pressure.  Implosion is imminent.  However God also is imminent!  He is nearer than our thoughts.  In fact our cover-up kills us, and it also led Christ to the cross.  But when we allow the Holy Spirit to lead us to confess and we hear the words of God's forgiveness spoken through the pastor, our ever-present ever-ready Father is so willing to run to us and welcome us into his arms.  Just like the father of the Prodigal Son.  And what a sigh of relief it is to have the weight of sin lifted off us.
Ironically God also covers up our darkness.  But not as we do by allowing it to stress us like the Father's older son in the Prodigal Parable!  Rather, he vents the stress on his son on the cross, and he covers our sin, with the crucifixion of Christ.  God does a far better job of covering our sin than we ever will.  And even more so, his cover is stress free for us, having taken all the sin and stress off our shoulders and placing it on his Son Jesus Christ. 
Subsequently we can acknowledge our sin to God.  We can uncover it and let off the pressure of our stress and sin.  By doing this the light of God's forgiveness in Christ exposes sin and depressurises it of all power.  The power of pressure is only so because it is confined and hidden.  So too the power of sin which stresses and causes all sorts of deceit in our hearts.  But once God enters into our secret dark pressure cookers the tension of sin is vented and deemed powerless on the cross.
Therefore, in the secret part of our being, right where the darkness of sin begins to smoulder, the Holy Spirit works to vent your steamy sin.  You can allow God access into the darkness by not smouldering to yourself and causing yourself undue grief.  Instead you can allow the Spirit to lead you into prayer. 
The older brother in the parable certainly burned with all sorts of sin seeing the farce his younger brother was living.  And he mightn't have let it manifest itself in such sinfully destructive inner thoughts.  God too knows your deepest darkest thoughts.  But until we acknowledge them to him in prayer they remain in us causing us no end of harm. 
Accordingly we surely ought to add a "Dear Heavenly Father" to the beginning of our evil struggles within and end them by asking for forgiveness in "Jesus' name Amen".  It's in our best interest to do so while God gives us the chance and is with us.  Like those in the days of Noah it was too late once the chaotic mighty waters of death rose and God was no longer present. 
So too for you, seek forgiveness while God can be found.  Trust God to cover your stress, your woes, your worry, your sin!  Don't let your woes and worries lead you into the woes of the wicked.
Therefore let all the faithful pray to you while you may be found; surely the rising of the mighty waters will not reach them. You are my hiding place; you will protect me from trouble and surround me with songs of deliverance. I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you. Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you. Many are the woes of the wicked, but the Lord's unfailing love surrounds those who trust in him. Rejoice in the Lord and be glad, you righteous; sing, all you who are upright in heart! (Psalms 32:6-11) Amen.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

C, Lent 3 - Luke 13:1-9 "Repentance & the Sinner"

1. Be a Sinner!

Churches are places where the ugliness of sin is seen and at the same time there's a beauty to be seen as well! From the church in Corinth, right through history, and even here today is no different. Beauty seems to be fleeting because congregations struggle with sin. However, church's hold a hidden splendour as well. This is the presence of God’s grace in the midst of sinners. In fact this beautiful grace would not be fully revealed if the ugliness of sin wasn't known.

Martin Luther writing to his friend and fellow theologian Phillip Melanchthon says, ‘Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one.’ And again, ‘God does not save people who are fictitious sinners. Be a sinner and sin boldly but believe and rejoice even more boldly… As long as we are here in this world we have to sin.’

So be a sinner, know your sin is the reason God’s grace has come and now resides in and amongst you in the person of the risen Lord Jesus.

2. What is this Repentance?

The gospel reading tells us we must repent. Jesus says, ‘unless you repent you too will perish!’ So now it seems we have a problem? In one breath I tell you, ‘be a sinner’, now Jesus says, ‘Repent!’

Repentance is a change in direction, where one stops doing what they are doing, about faces, and then finds themselves on the correct course of action.

So why do we need to repent? Why has Jesus commanded us to do this? After all if we do not repent Jesus says we too will perish!

Repentance is not something we choose to do. Do you think a person has the energy, know-how, or will to stop, turn and walk into the light of God when we are content keeping our sin hidden in the dark?

It’s like the bloke who fell through the slats of his piggery into the waste pit. You can imagine the state he was in. He kept to himself for days even though straight after the accident he washed the muck off his body. However, washing was of little use because the pig smell had permeated every pore of his skin—a modern day Pepe-Le-Pew.

You can understand why he kept clear of everyone. How much less does a person hidden in the darkness of sin want to come out into the light of God’s holiness and repent?

The reality of repentance is it's not our self-saving work, we can’t choose to repent by ourselves. But unfortunately a logical, rational understanding of repentance combined with our sinfulness usually brings us to a false conclusion that if first we repent only then God will accept us!

3. The Reality of Repentance.

To get a grip on the reality of repentance one only needs to have a close look at the context into which Jesus speaks. What is going on between Jesus and those around him?

There's a report brought before Jesus; one of Pilate’s murderous actions against the Galileans. A great calamity has fallen upon these people. News has come to Jerusalem from the province of Galilee that some have been killed. Right at the time when they were before God offering up sacrifices!

Jesus responds not as we might expect. There's no questioning over the details of the horrific tragedy, nor was there a statement made over the actions of Pilate.

Rather Jesus asks those who heard the report with him, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way?’ In this question Jesus cuts right to the issues at hand. He addresses the problem in his presence rather than the crisis in Galilee.

In Jesus' presence stood sinners who saw sin, not in themselves, but, in others. Jesus knew logic was telling them, ‘the Galileans must have done something really bad to deserve death, if they weren’t ‘sinners’ it wouldn’t have happened to them.’ Jesus responds to the unspoken thoughts of those who brought the news, not the actual news?

Jesus continues to shed light on their lack of understanding by switching locations to Jerusalem, the home of the temple, the place where God resided. A city where one would assume no guilt existed because the correct rituals were performed daily; where sins were worked off with appropriate living.

But hang on—stop press—18 killed in a tower collapse. Surely it couldn’t have happened to Jerusalemites, they must have been ‘sinners’ from somewhere else!

Again Jesus addresses not the tragic events but rather the flawed assumptions and thinking of those to whom he speaks. Jesus says to those around him, ‘Unless you repent you too will all perish!’

4. The Reality is: Jesus is Present.

So what is your reality into which Jesus speaks? He calls for the repentance of those with him, those who are the close to him; those whose logic would tell them they don’t need to repent because they already have access to the Lord. He calls you, to repent.

Jesus calls all to stop thinking we are without sin, to stop believing the other person is worse, or we are better. He calls us to stop, abandon our current thoughts and beliefs, and return to a reality grounded in God. He called you to return to God who loves you and has already chosen you.

The reality of repentance is; God did not call humanity to repent so then Jesus might come. No! In fact he comes amongst those he calls to repent. He was sent to be with sinners, dying for them, so all might repent because of him.

So what is the reality into which Jesus speaks here today? It's the same flawed logic, the same tragic thinking that everyone else should repent, I am right and everyone else is wrong, my sin is not really that bad, I am better than the next person, and they need to clean up their act.

God has chosen you before you were created in you mothers’ wombs, he chose you, a sinner, before you actually sinned.

We don’t know why tragedy, terror, and horror, falls on some and not others. That's for God alone to know. But we know why tragedy, terror, and horror fell on God’s own Son. We know our sinful nature warrants each and every one of us be flogged with whips till we become so disfigured not to be recognised, that each of us be condemned to death, that each of us be nailed to a cross and receive the curse of everyone who passes by.

The reality is this: an innocent man was put to death enabling you to be carried from darkness into the glorious presence of God.

Jesus calls you to repentance right now. He continually calls you to repentance even after you have been forgiven, even after you have received eternal life. Do you know this is what's happening in this and every divine Sunday service? We enter God’s service by our baptism (where we hear and receive forgiveness and cleansing), then we're called to repent at confession and are forgiven in the absolution, and even after the absolution still the call to repent remains in his Word.

In this service God is with us, Jesus is present. Jesus doesn’t ask you to repent first so that he might dwell with you; rather he is already here and is now asking you to repent so you might remain with him not just today but into eternity.

5. Be a Repentant Sinner!

So Jesus died for sinners! You are a sinner! Therefore, he died for you!

Repentance is the faith driven act which enables us to stop, admitting we are lost, letting Jesus pick us up, and bearing us back to the Father. Grace always precedes repentance in the lives of sinners.

Repentance is for sinners, because ‘God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Rom 5:8)

Jesus knows you have a sinful nature, and he also know you have sins from which to repent. He's got your nail marks to prove it! But the truly amazing thing about grace is: Even though you and I still sin the gardener still keeps returning to prune you and fertilize you.

So be a sinner. No! Be a repentant sinner, and sin boldly. But even more boldly believe him, trust him, and repent before him. And praise him boldly too, for he is in your presence making you shine before the Father as if we were not a sinner at all. Amen.