subject today concerns perfume and other, less delightful aromas. Think to
yourself; can you recall any good memories that are associated with an aroma?
(I’m partial to the mixed aroma of Thanksgiving dinner, and I’m all in favor of
a barbeque.) Aroma clings to the memory, as it does in this passage of
Holy Bible, New International Version
1Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were
only two days
away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some
way to arrest Jesus and kill him. 2“But not during the Feast,” they said, “or
people may riot.”
3While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home
of a man known
as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive
perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his
4Some of those present were saying indignantly to one
another, “Why this
waste of perfume? 5It could have been sold for more than a
year’s wages£ and
the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
6“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why
are you bothering her? She has done a
beautiful thing to me. 7The poor you will always have with you, and
you can help
them any time you want. But you will not always have me. 8She did what she
could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. 9I
tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what
has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
10Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve,
went to the chief priests to betray
Jesus to them. 11They were delighted to hear this and
promised to give him
money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
The Cardinal’s Cathedral
Roman Catholic Church in Los Angeles is in the process of constructing a new
cathedral. For those of you not acquainted with the regulations on this, a
cathedral is required as the parish church of an archbishop or cardinal. Now,
Los Angeles had one – called St. Vibiana’s – but Cardinal Mahoney decided that
it made more sense to build a new one that to try to renovate (and earthquake
proof) the old one.
is not my purpose to decide whether or not this was a wise decision. But to
say that the Cardinal has met with opposition is a mild understatement. There
is a tribe of Indians who claim the new cathedral will be built on their
ancient, sacred burial grounds. (Readers not acquainted with the phenomenon
should understand that ever since the Federal government decided that all
Indian tribes were entitled to a reservation – and the state government has
decided that any reservation can have a casino – we have seen the “reemergence”
of many tribes thought long extinct.) More cogently, there is a great deal of
opposition within the church to this expenditure. A pointed contrast is made
between the opulence of the cathedral (it will more translucent alabaster for
windows than any other building in the world) and the poverty of the area
surrounding it. Fingers are pointing in all directions.
is not confined to the Roman Catholic branch of the faith. Several years ago
Dr. Schuller built the Crystal Cathedral – with about the same reaction.
Indeed, this controversy is not strange to our rather fundamentalist brotherhood.
Some years ago we attended Westwood Hills Christian Church – which is a very
good replica of a cathedral in France.
is in this context that I remind you of the characteristics of an act of
must be very expensive to the giver
must appear to the world to be worth very little
must stem from a deep love of Jesus.
to whether or not the new cathedral meets these tests, I could not say. But I
can say that the objections were very much predictable. Our section of Mark
documents the very same thing.
thing in this fascinates me: the contrast between Mary and Martha. At the
first encounter we find that Mary listens while Martha serves. To the shock of
all the pragmatic people in the world, Jesus commends Mary, not Martha. The
distinction remains in this last incident. Martha serves; Mary pours out the
perfume on Jesus’ body.
into this situation is an observation that might surprise many of you. Martha
looks like she’s the devoted one – but it’s really Mary. We are ambivalent
about such gestures. Why? Because you can do a lot of work in the church to
cover up – even to yourself – the fact that you are only half-hearted in your
service to Christ. Sometimes “being practical” is being lukewarm. You don’t
think so? Have you ever seen a proposal to spend the church’s money turned
down because we can’t afford it?
The character of devotion
devoted Christian is seldom encouraged these days. We live in a time of “good
enough.” This is a pity, for the life of the devoted Christian is a life of
joy. Look at it this way: have you ever been told you “have to” do
something? Of course – but that phrase has more than one meaning:
can say “I have to do that” because someone is pointing a gun to your
head. The consequences of failure are very high – so your motivation is
fear. Effective? Yes, but not very pleasant.
can say “I have to do that” because you know it’s your duty to do it.
Something like jury duty – you approve of its being done, especially when
done by someone other than yourself. Effective? Yes – but what drudgery.
can say “I have to do that” because of the sheer joy that springs from the
love of the work, or of the person you’re doing it for. Effective, and
indeed a joy to perform.
last attitude is the “I have to” that springs from devotion.
is characterized by some unusual thoughts in this passage:
- A Beautiful Thing – there is a sense in which the
act of devotion just “fits” – it has that sense of being the right extravagance
at the right time. It’s that sense of timing some men have when they
bring home a dozen roses to a wife who knows that the romance has gone out
of her life. No value, but beauty, that is the key.
- Timely –
the act is just before Jesus’ death. We can see in it that Mary has done
this at precisely the right time
- It is all inclusive – Mary had nothing else so
precious, one would think, and so the act was everything she could do.
- Insightful – her devotion matched his thought; he was going to
the Cross; she was anointing him for burial.
sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha served. She chose the high, hard road of
devotion – and got her sister’s rebuke for it. She anointed her Lord, and was
rebuked again. Those on the high road to Christ often make excellent targets.
Reaction of Others
might think that most Christians would approve of devotion to Christ. They do
– as long as they’re not exposed to it. Mother Theresa was just fine in
Calcutta; when she came over here to raise funds, it got a little sticky. Why
do we react this way?
often get a bad case of the “should’as”. We can usually think of any
number of more pragmatic things to do with the money.
don’t you see that this is a lack of faith? We are reasoning as the world
reasons when we do this. We are saying that our devotion to God must be
suppressed – because we can’t afford it. It would be very interesting to
see what would happen to the church if we suddenly became devoted.
often rises to the point of anger. Judas betrayal was triggered by this
Cover for our own sins
face it: devotion in other Christians is embarrassing to us. Oh, it’s OK for
the preacher to pray a little more than we do (it’s his job, we expect it).
But something like this would be downright embarrassing. It shows us up; it’s
grandstanding, or worse it’s letting the ego run riot.
you see the problem? We’re worried about what other people will think of us if
we were to become devoted to our Lord. But to see it in black and white just
might be the cure. If we decided we didn’t care what other people think – only
what Jesus thinks about it – our actions and attitudes would change
Smarter than God
is a worse case. It can happen that we decide that we know better than God in
something. We won’t usually put it in those words, but we simply say, “Here,
let me handle that. I know how.” But consider:
of devotion are closely related to the power of the Holy Spirit which
indwells us. Why would you quench the Spirit?
this, really, our pride talking? That we thank God for the help he gives
us, but really we can take care of it ourselves.
become a devoted Christian is to seek the pearl of great price:
Holy Bible, New International Version
45“Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a
merchant looking for fine pearls.
46When he found one of great value, he went
away and sold everything he had
and bought it.
would challenge you this morning: is your life one of prudent balancing, or
have you understood this parable? If your life is in “balance” then you have
not sought this pearl. The kingdom of God is not sought halfheartedly.
is it that we are so lukewarm? I submit that it is because we do not believe God
will reward those who seek him.
It’s OK to have God handed to us – but seeking him with all our heart is too
much like work.
this is why we have so much trouble seeing ourselves as children of God. The
God some worship is powerless; his worship is feeble at best. The Jesus of
the Scriptures is completely different. His challenge is this: put everything
you cherish in second place, and be devoted to me. Then see if your blessings
can be contained in one single life.