learning extravagance

My sermon from this past Sunday, on John 12:1-8 – Mary’s annointing of Jesus.

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Growing up as a kid, one of my favourite novels was entitled Journey through the Night. It was a novel published in four volumes, written originally in Dutch by author Anne De Vries – we share a family name but he’s no relation to my family. 

Journey through the Night deals with events of the second world war in the Netherlands, in Holland. Specifically, it tells the story of a particular Dutch family that sees their homeland invaded and occupied by the Nazis. The main character in the story is eldest son of the family, Jan De Boer, who becomes actively involved in the resistance movement against the Nazis. The novel follows the family through their acts of resistance, through the dark night of war and occupation, and as they try to hide their resistance activities. For me this story was particularly compelling since it spoke of the country from which my parents and grandparents had immigrated – the novel spoke of experiences that directly touched the lives of my parents their immediate families.

For our purposes this morning, however, the titles of the four volumes that make up the novel are particularly interesting.

The first volume is entitled ‘Into the Darkness’.

The second volume is: ‘The Darkness Deepens’.

The third volume is: ‘Dawn’s early light’.

The final volume: ‘A New Day’.

The titles of these four volumes speak of a movement into the darkness of night, and then speak of the hopeful movement out darkness into a new day. This is a path that has been traced by many who have tasted war and lived to tell about it. It is a path traced by many whose lives have been touched by depression or grief or violence. The darkness approaches, the darkness deepens. And then perhaps when it was least expected, when we had perhaps given up hope that the darkness of night would ever pass, there is sudden lightening of the horizon – hope. And then, in the best of circumstances, the arrival of a new day.

John chapter twelve, verses 1 and 2: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him.”

There, in the town of Bethany, a dinner party is thrown for Jesus. There, in the hometown of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, a celebratory table is set for Jesus and his friends. It was, of course, in the town of Bethany that the glory of Jesus was recently displayed – it was there that his power over death was revealed – he raised his friend Lazarus from the grave. In many respects, we might say, this meal represents the high point of Jesus’ life and ministry. He comes back to the place of his glory. And as night falls, he gathers with his friends Lazarus and Martha and Mary – along with other friends and disciples. It is a night like no other.

You can imagine, as dusk settles, that wine flows and food is served – you can imagine the animated conversations flowing out of the windows of that house in Bethany. Jesus sits prominently at the table – he is feted this evening.

I recall travelling in Mexico quite a number of years ago. I was with a church group from Toronto. And for one of the weekends we were in Mexico we travelled out to a smaller , remote village. To get to the village we travelled for some time in the back of large pick-up trucks through coffee plantations. Because one of the trucks had broken down, we arrived later than expected –indeed, we arrived in the pitch dark. No street lights – no electricity in the village. But as we were led carefully through the pitch black, suddenly the warm orange glow of windows appeared – we were led into the bamboo-walled houses of our hosts. They showed us wonderful hospitality, providing us with a place to sleep and giving us more food than they could afford – that evening we shared in a meal of boiled eggs on fresh, warm tortillas.

Imagine yourself coming upon the town of Bethany that evening – through the pitch darkness. You approach the house; you look in through the glowing window; and there you see Jesus with friends and followers gathered together. It is a festive atmosphere – you look in on a scene of warm celebration and hospitality.  You watch through the window as an unseen observer.

But in the middle of this festive meal you witness an interruption that is nothing less than shocking. Mary approaches Jesus as he reclines at table. He sits on a cushion placed on the floor, with his upper body near the table and with his legs stretched away from the table. Mary approaches Jesus from the outer circle and doing so reveals a clay jar in her hands – she breaks the neck of the jar and the strong aroma of perfume fills the room – Mary pours the perfume over Jesus feet.

This is an almost scandalous turn of events. On top of the fact that Mary has just poured out expensive perfume – perfume that, if sold, would have fetched enough money to feed a family for a year. On top of that, it is completely inappropriate for this single woman to be touching Jesus. This just isn’t done. Indeed, from there it only gets worse – she lets down her long hair (an equally scandalous public action for a woman) and she wipes his feet carefully, taking away the excess perfume. It is an act of extravagance – an act of honour – an act of love – also an act that goes dramatically against the grain of the social conventions of the time. Judas will be the one to point out that the perfume could have been sold for a handsome sum, but others are no doubt equally scandalized by this inappropriate encounter between woman and man. Mary, though, will not be constrained by the social conventions of her time – she simply wants to show her love.

We might compare the extravagance of this action with an extravagant action recorded earlier in the gospel – when Jesus turned water into wine. We recall that Jesus turned gallons upon gallons of water into wine. It was an early, extravagant display of the joy and celebration of God’s kingdom. It was a dramatic, miraculous action that pointed to the glory of Jesus. Indeed, it’s important for us to realize that the breaking of God’s kingdom into our world is not something that is best expressed in words, in teaching or preaching – in Cana, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom is most fully displayed in dramatic form as new, delicious wine overflowed.

Mary’s extravagant action also says so much more than could ever be expressed with words. As she comes near to Jesus there is the loving action of pouring out the perfume itself; there is the value of the perfume; there is the wonderful fragrance that fills the whole house; there is the physical touch of her hands on his feet; there is spreading of her hair over his feet. It is a physically enacted extravagance that speaks of her love, and of the honour that is due to him.

This dinner in honour of Jesus, and this encounter with Mary, in many ways represents the high point of his narrative. Surrounded by friends and disciples, in the place where his glory shone forth in such a decisive way, he basks in the glow of conversation, laughter, and community. The whole house is filled with the aroma of Jesus’ glory. The whole house is filled with the aroma of Jesus’ goodness, his worthiness.

But as you stand in the darkness looking in on the warmth of this human display, the goings on in the house suddenly make it apparent that the darkness has not only fallen outside the house, with nightfall. The darkness has also begun to fall inside the house. It is a remarkable and terrible moment of tension and paradox – such love and friendship on display – such warmth and hospitality. Yet in the middle of this celebratory meal the prospect of death rears its head.

Mary has done more than she realizes.

When Judas attacks her, hypocritically, for wastefulness, Jesus simply defends her. “Leave her alone,” he says. “She bought this perfume so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Even at this wonderful, high moment of the narrative, there is a deepening darkness. Mary does more than she realizes – she anoints his body for burial. Now Mary may have some sense that the earthly road of Jesus is nearing its end. On a number of occasions Jesus has spoken to his disciples about the fact that his end is coming; he has hinted that his time with them is short; he has more than hinted that he will lose his life. And the disciples know that the religious leaders are plotting – they would like nothing more than to see Jesus dead. So Mary is at least aware that Jesus may not be with them a whole lot longer – she at least realizes that the window of opportunity for action is narrowing. Either she acts to show her love and respect for him now – or she may never have the chance.

Did Mary know that she had purchased this perfume for the day of his burial – did Mary intentionally purchase this perfume to anoint his body after death? I suspect that she only realized that she had purchased it to anoint him when Jesus said that was the case, when he said: “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Mary does more than she realizes. Her pouring out of perfume on his body is a prophetic act that points forward to Jesus’ death. Her wiping of his feet with her hair is a prophetic act by which she cares for a body from which life will be drained. Her filling of the house with the aroma of expensive perfume is a prophetic act by which she announces to the whole household that this Jesus will be brutally killed. She does more than she realizes – she points to, and by her act embodies, the deepening darkness. She points to Good Friday.

You stand watching at the window – taking it all in. The smell of the perfume, anointing him for burial reaches your own nostrils. Molecules enter your nasal passageway, and pass through membranes – the amazing human olfactory system translates these molecules to your brain. The smell is strong, somewhere between mint and ginseng.

And as you bask in the smell, perhaps you yourself begin to wonder whether that expensive perfume hasn’t been wasted – perhaps you begin to wonder whether Mary’s action doesn’t set a rather bad precedent in terms of the stewardship of resources. Indeed, Judas is right – the money spent on the perfume could have been spent to feed a family. But in reply to these doubts, perhaps this is the rather counter-intuitive conclusion toward which we should reach – that Mary’s extravagant action toward Jesus is an invitation to extravagant generosity on our part – toward others, toward the poor who are among us.

In this evening, as darkness descends, Mary’s singled-minded pursuit is the honour and glory of Jesus – she makes this remarkable, physical display of affection because she knows that this remarkable person won’t be with them much longer. Jesus himself confirms that she has done well. He says in reply to her action, also in reply to Judas: “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” This moment is unique in human history – the beloved Son of the Father is among them. Mary is not mistaken in her intention and desire to honour him extravagantly.

But the days will shortly upon them when this remarkable one will no longer be in their midst. And when he has departed from them, such extravagant displays of love can no longer be directed toward the physically present Jesus. And when he has departed there is an invitation to mirror the extravagance of Jesus in service to one another. Above all, perhaps, this extravagance must be mirrored in our reaching out to those who find themselves destitute – in poverty.

Judas new nothing of Mary’s extravagant love toward Jesus. And Judas new nothing of Jesus extravagant love for those who lived on the margins of society – Judas merely paid lip service to them, in a most hypocritical way.

We are invited into an extravagant love for Jesus that can find expression only in a disproportionate and excessive and extravagant display of love and affection for one another within human community.

I take you back to that pitch black night in Mexico many years ago. Steady hands guide me down a path toward a house now barely visible, warm light glowing through windows from a lamp inside. I am given a place to sleep. A family – sisters and brothers in Christian faith – point to a place where I will lay my head. They provide a meal that evening beyond what they can even afford. Warm tortillas and a wonderful hard-boiled egg. Mary’s extravagance finds an echo in my life. But here I am on the receiving end of an extravagant hospitality and an excessive love from those who know what it means to love, to honour, and to serve Jesus. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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