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Mark 14:1 -- 11

The 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 Scripture:

The 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 sly
way to arrest Jesus and kill him. 2“But not during the Feast,” they said, “or the
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 she
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

The 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.

It 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.

This 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.

It is in this context that I remind you of the characteristics of an act of devotion:

  • It must be very expensive to the giver
  • It must appear to the world to be worth very little
  • It must stem from a deep love of Jesus.

As 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.

One 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.

Built 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

The 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:

  • You 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.
  • You 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.
  • You 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.

That last attitude is the “I have to” that springs from devotion.

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.

Mary 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

You 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?

  • We 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.
  • But 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.
  • This often rises to the point of anger. Judas betrayal was triggered by this event.
Cover for our own sins

Let’s 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.

Do 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 drastically.

Smarter than God

There 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:

  • Acts of devotion are closely related to the power of the Holy Spirit which indwells us. Why would you quench the Spirit?
  • Isn’t this, really, our pride talking? That we thank God for the help he gives us, but really we can take care of it ourselves.

Our Devotion

To become a devoted Christian is to seek the pearl of great price:

The 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.

(Matthew 13:45-46)

I 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.

Why is it that we are so lukewarm? I submit that it is because we do not believe God will reward those who seek him.[1] It’s OK to have God handed to us – but seeking him with all our heart is too much like work.

Perhaps 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.

[1] Hebrews 11:6

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