An Extravagant Gift
| John 12:1-6
||Sun, April 1, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|What would you say is the average yearly income of a labourer?
Thirty thousand dollars? Forty thousand? More? “Three hundred
denarii would be nearly a year’s wage for a labourer.” That’s
what it says in the footnotes of my Bible. That is the value of the
pound of expensive perfume - pure nard - that Mary ‘wastes’
anointing Jesus’ feet. Judas is stunned. Even if he is a thief, he has
a point. It is hard to imagine that Jesus could ever be in favour of
such extravagance. Thirty or forty thousand dollars on one pound
of perfume ... and then it is not even poured over his head but,
instead, on his feet. When Mary washes Jesus’ feet with her hair it
is not simply an act of devotion ... it is foolish extravagance. A
year’s pay in perfume ... for a single foot-washing.
This is not the kind of offering that we are accustomed to making
Jesus. We are more likely to imagine that something a little more
reasonable will be enough. Then along come the vows that we are
invited to offer in this service of Covenant Renewal:
“I am no longer my own, but yours
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
let me be employed for you or laid aside for you,
exalted for you or brought low for you;
let me have all things, let me have nothing;
I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed Triune God,
you are mine and I am yours. So be it.
And the Covenant which I have made on earth
let it be ratified in heaven.”
It is not hard to imagine Mary saying words like these as she
bends over Jesus’ calloused feet, washing them with her hair and
that precious pound of pure nard. But it is hard to imagine people
like us making such an extravagant promise here today. “I am no
longer my own ,but yours.” It is hard to imagine this act of
submission in a culture that so highly prizes the freedom of the
individual. Let’s be honest. We thought that we were just coming
to church ... just coming here to praise and thank God ... just
coming for a little moral guidance ... just dabbling, hoping to
receive some inspiration for the week ahead. We didn’t come here
intending to giving everything up. So it is hard to imagine us
saying “let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let
me have nothing”. Yet some of us will say precisely these words
today. Some of us have said them before and will say them again.
Others of us will join their voices to the chorus for the first time
today ... even though you may not have come here intending to
do so. All week I have been wondering why ... why do we make
such an extravagant promise ... a promise which is surely
impossible to keep.
And it set me to exploring Mary’s extravagance. Taken out of
context, the expenditure of a year’s pay in an act of devotion
seems, to say the least, foolhardy. But, see this. The scene is set
with this telling first verse:“Six days before the Passover Jesus
came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from
the dead.” It is six days before the Passover and Jesus is arriving
in Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It is now th4e last week
of Jesus’ life. Tomorrow he will enter Jerusalem as the crowd
shouts ‘Hosanna’. Mary knows that Jesus will not be back in her
home again. This is to be his last supper with them. With them.
With Mary and Martha ... and Lazarus. Lazarus who was dead
and gone. At the table sits her beloved brother Lazarus whom
Jesus raised from death. Mary stands between great gratitude and
great grief. She seeks the words to say “thank-you” and “good-
bye”. Instead of words she finds the pound of pure nard ... an
extravagant gift for the man who has brought her an extravagant
gift of new life. Now do you see why Judas sounds so petty ... so
ungrateful ... so right and, yet, so terribly wrong. Mary gives her
all to Jesus because he has given his all to her.
This is how it comes to pass that we, too, dare risk making such
extravagant promises this morning. We do not come to this place
because God demands it of us. This is no ‘shotgun wedding’. But
it is a wedding. It is a covenant. That means that there are two
parties making promises to one another at this font and table. We
stand on one side of the aisle facing our marriage partner, the
God whose human face is seen in Jesus Christ. As at any
wedding, we stand ready to risk pledging mutual faithfulness.
But hear this. Our vows come after, not before, our marriage
partner’s promises to us. In Christ, God is not waiting for our
pledge of faithfulness but is making a vow of love and waiting ...
hoping ... for our reply. Like Mary, our extravagant offering of
love comes as a response to amazing gifts of love showered upon
us. Do you see? The signs of the covenant faithfulness of God are
all around us. The font is front and centre, sign of the new life
given the lost and the least by God in Christ. Behind it the
welcome table, with bread broken and wine poured, the wedding
banquet of the new covenant. Over it all the cross ... place of
God’s own self given as an extravagant offering of love for the
world. As Paul reminds us, this is foolishness to sensible people
and confounds religious people. Everyone - secular and religious
- knows that nothing comes free in this world. Since the love
of God is so highly prized it follows that it must be hard-earned.
But that is not how marriage works. You can never earn the
marriage vows of another. No amount of hard work can cause
that special someone to say “I am no longer my own, but yours”.
No. These vows are always the mysterious result of the gift and
joy that each discovers in the other. More than that, they are a
risky act of sheer courage. In an age when marriage vows are not
required it seems more sensible to live common law knowing that
promising more than today is foolhardy. It is foolhardy because
we know from too much painful experience that promises can go
awry. They can be broken. The relationship can come unglued.
Perhaps it is better not to overstate the case at the beginning ...
not to make extravagant promises that may not be kept. Yet
couples keep coming to be married. They keep coming in spite of
the risk that is entailed in leaping hand in hand off the cliff of the
present into the unknown future. They understand that in a
marital relationship of trust there can be no half-way ... just as
it is impossible to be ‘a little bit pregnant’ so there is no ‘partially
married’ status. It is ‘all or nothing’. One is either covenanted to a
partner ... or not.
So it is with us. When God, in the person of Jesus, says to us “I
do” we can say in reply: “I do” or “I don’t” ... but not “maybe”.
Given these options the sane, common sense response must
surely be to play it safe and say: “I don’t”. After all, how can any
of us ever live up to such promises? Which is precisely what I
wonder whenever two people, who appear to be completely sane,
stand here and promise one another: “till death do us part”. They
know that these extravagant promises of love are the only
possible response that they can make to the one who has already
given so much ... and who now promises everything. So they risk
making fools of themselves in front of a crowd ... a crowd
that includes the God of heaven and earth. Which is precisely
what we will be doing today when we stand to repeat our vows.
In promising our all we admit that we are, in Paul’s memorable
phrase, “fools for Christ”. For here - in the midst of this
acquisitive society - we promise to let go of everything ... except
our unending love for the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ.
God’s beloved, April fools ... indeed!