St Michael’s and St Barnabas 18th February 2018
Readings – Psalm 31:1-8; Mark 14:1-11
No-one ever wanted to miss the Passover – it was the highlight of our year. Everyone would come from every part of Judea to Jerusalem, to offer sacrifices at the temple as we gave thanks to God who had rescued our ancestors from Egypt. It was a great time of coming together, of families uniting in praise and celebration, and you would do whatever you could to be there.
I had a special reason for being there that year. I better explain, my name is… well, I won’t say exactly. Even now if I say who I am, there are some who still remember me in the bad old days, when I had a bit of a reputation. I was the sort of woman mothers told their growing boys not to mess with. When the teachers of the law saw me walking down the street, they would cross over to the other side. Not that I was usually out that much during the day anyway.
But that was before I met Jesus. I never realised until I met Him how much hurt and shame and anger I carried around inside me. I had been hiding my true self for so long I never realised how much I needed forgiveness and release. I had expected Jesus simply to condemn me like every other religious leader I had met, but no, He showed me such care, such compassion that with a grateful heart I turned to the Lord and began to follow Him wherever He went. I became part of a community of real all sorts, united by just one thing – that Jesus had turned our lives right around and changed our hearts for good.
So I hope you can see why I was so excited to be going to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover with Jesus. I wanted to praise the Lord for my deliverance, and I was looking forward to worshipping with my newfound family of believers. But I was also nervous as well. I had heard rumours the religious leaders were plotting something against Jesus. Exactly what, nobody knew. We had always been aware they didn’t like what Jesus was doing. They used to come and watch His every move, muttering to themselves how wrong it was for Him to make friends of women like me, or actually dare to heal someone on a Sabbath, or go into the house of someone who worked with the Roman army. It was like they had a checklist of complaints that gradually grew longer and longer.
And now those complaints were growing into full-scale arguments. I had heard how the teachers of the law directly attacked Jesus’ teaching when He went into the temple. I wasn’t there of course, the teachers of the law would never had stood for a woman actually daring to be present, let alone a woman like me. But I did hear they couldn’t get the better of Him and went away furiously planning something. That’s why I was also more than a little worried as the Passover drew near. But they wouldn’t try anything on during the celebrations, would they?
But if something did happen, I decided I wanted to show my love for Jesus in some kind of special way before anything nasty took place. And I don’t mean love in the way the old me used to think about it. I wanted to let Him know how thankful I was that He had saved me from myself and called me to follow Him. So what to do? I thought and thought long and hard about this. The only thing of value I had left was a bottle of pure nard. That’s a really expensive perfume, by the way, but I won’t tell you exactly how I got hold of it. Anyway, I had had it for a few years now, saving it for some special occasion. And to me there seemed nothing more special than anointing Jesus with it and proclaiming Him as my king.
So when to do it? By now, it was two days before the start of the Passover celebrations when the sacrificial lambs were due to be slaughtered. Jesus had slipped out of Jerusalem to a village a couple of miles east, no doubt for some peace and quiet, although we were still quite a crowd following Him. He had a good friend there called Simon the Leper. Of course, Simon wasn’t a leper any longer. He was another person whom Jesus had healed. And in his own way he too wanted to show his thanks for Jesus. Instead of living on the edge of society, unclean, despised, he now had a home of his own. And to him it was only natural to offer that home to Jesus, to welcome Him in and invite Him to dinner.
Soon everyone that evening was chatting. The food was being served. As always when Jesus was there, there was such an atmosphere of love and compassion, especially as there were no religious leaders in the room. I ate slowly, aware of the perfume jar I was carrying, waiting for my opportunity. Eventually there was a lull in the conversation. I broke the top of the jar, stepped forward and before anyone could say anything, poured the perfume over Jesus’ head.
I hadn’t really thought about way the people would react to me. All around the room there was a chorus of disapproval. Why this waste of perfume? said one. It could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii said another. Yes, said a third, the money could have been given to the poor. At that moment it seemed to them I was behaving just like the bad old me, doing something reckless, not understanding the consequences.
But Jesus understood what I was doing. Leave her alone He said in that calm, clear voice that had stilled storms and spoken to crowds of 5000 or more. She has done a beautiful thing for me. He knew this was not the old me doing this. It was the new me, offering all that I had as an act of pure thanksgiving. And when He said those words, any shame inside of me just dissolved. I knew in a deeper way than I had ever known before that Jesus really had accepted me, that Jesus really had welcomed me into His kingdom.
However the point of the story isn’t really me or how I felt that evening. I thought I was simply offering the very best to Jesus in worship. But Jesus saw a deeper meaning in my action that left everyone shocked and confused. The poor you will always have with you, He continued, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. What was He saying? What did He mean You will not always have me? What was going to happen to Jesus? I could feel a shiver running through my heart at this point, and I heard the murmur going round the room. And then He said those words which I will never forget: She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.
Suddenly I realised Jesus knew all about the plots of those teachers of the law. They weren’t just rumours. They were real. And Jesus, my Jesus, was going to the Passover feast in Jerusalem knowing He was going to be killed, knowing He would end up in a cold, dark tomb. That was not what anyone of us had expected. Oh yes, we had heard Jesus talking about dying and three days later rising again, but none of us at that point understood what He meant. And how could we? If someone who had saved you told you that was going to happen to Him, would you immediately grasp what was He saying? Looking back, of course, what Jesus said was obvious. But none of us could have known back then. At least, I don’t think so.
But then, even as we trying to take in Jesus’s words, He turned back to me and said something truly extraordinary. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her. At that point all kinds of questions started firing off in my head. How could Jesus’ death in Jerusalem be good news? Why would news of His death be preached throughout the world? And why would my simple act of pouring out my best perfume be remembered for generations to come? It just didn’t make sense.
It was only later after the remarkable events of that first Easter that the pieces of the jigsaw began to fit together. Jesus wasn’t going to Jerusalem just to take part in the Passover sacrifices. He was going to Jerusalem to be the sacrifice. While everyone else was sacrificing their lambs to remember deliverance from Egypt, Jesus would be dying, alone, rejected and in pain to deliver us from all the wrong, all the shame, all the guilt, in our hearts. He would be buried in a cold, dark tomb, not because the teachers of the law had won, but because He was dying the death that we all deserved. And unknown to me, my one jar of perfume was preparing His body for that burial. Even now I am humbled and moved when I think how Jesus took something and made it even more special than I had ever realised. But as I say, this story isn’t about me. It’s about Jesus accepting the pain and sorrow awaiting Him in Jerusalem knowing that was the only way we could all be saved.
Of course back in Simon the Leper’s house no-one really understood any of this. We listened to Jesus in an odd sort of silence, aware He was saying something really important, without being able to work out what. And then as He began to start eating again, the conversation restarted. Someone passed round the food. The disciples began asking questions of Jesus. On the surface it seemed that everything had gone back to normal, although the mood of the evening certainly had changed.
But I noticed one important difference. Judas Iscariot was no longer there. I had spotted him earlier when Jesus was speaking. There was a look on his face I can still see even today, and it’s hard to describe. A curious mixture of hate and anger, and certainly something extremely ugly. As soon as he had his chance, he slipped out of the room. And it was then I knew something terrible was going to happen to Jesus. Judas was one of Jesus’ inner circle. He knew where Jesus was going to be in Jerusalem. He could tell the teachers of the law precisely where to find him. And I had no doubt that the moment he left, betrayal was on his mind.
You could say, if it wasn’t for Judas, Jesus wouldn’t have been killed. But that misses the point. You see, it’s a terrible thing when love of money grips the human heart. That was the problem with the teachers of the law. I had always known that, even back in the bad old days. They talked a lot about God and the need to help others. But the reality was, they were more concerned with their status and their privilege, and making sure everyone paid them the proper respect. That’s why they hated Jesus so much. He was talking about a new way of getting right with God, of leaving behind your old way of life and turning to Him. And that to them was too much of a threat to their comfortable way of life. That’s why they wanted Jesus killed. That’s why even as Jesus was heading to the Passover in Jerusalem, they wanted rid of Him.
But what they didn’t expect was that one of Jesus’ friends was at that moment coming to arrange His betrayal. And it’s shocking, even now, to realise how the love of money also gripped the heart of Judas. He had been with Jesus for three years now. He had seen all the good Jesus had done, the sick healed, the dead raised, people like me forgiven. Yet even after all this, the love of money still caused him to hand over His Lord to His deepest enemies. You can spend a long time arguing why. Some say he was a paid informant. Some say he was never really a disciple. All I know is that in all the years since then I have seen the evil one use the love of money to draw all sorts of people away from their Lord and to do all kinds of things that shame and dishonour His body, the church.
Me, I had never had that much money anyway. But the day I gave Jesus the one special thing I valued, I found so much blessing I would willingly give Him anything and everything that I have. You see, if Jesus did go to Jerusalem as a sacrifice for us, if He was willing to die the death that we deserved, and even to be buried in a cold, dark tomb, then surely He deserves the very best of what we have? Why is it instead we so often argue about how much we should give Him, when we owe Him everything?
Now you may not have a bottle of expensive nard, like me. You may not have a home you can offer, like the Simon the Leper. But let me leave you with one thought. If you know Jesus has saved you from your old way of life and has called you to follow Him, what is the one beautiful thing you can do for Him? Stop holding back on whatever you think is yours and surrender it to Him in worship. There really is no better thing you can do.