John 12:1-8 (EHV)
1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, the hometown of Lazarus, who had died, the one Jesus raised from the dead. 2 They gave a dinner for him there. Martha was serving, and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with him.
3 Then Mary took about twelve ounces of very expensive perfume (pure nard) and anointed Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was going to betray him, said, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He did not say this because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief. He held the money box and used to steal what was put into it.
7 Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She intended to keep this for the day of my burial. 8 Indeed, the poor you always have with you, but you are not always going to have me.”
Dear heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so we may celebrate your victory of life over death for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.
Death is in the room!
We can say death is in the room because the one who was once dead is there reclining at the table, eating and drinking with them.
We can say death is in the room because we’re taught the wages of sin is death, and one of them is acting sinfully through lies, deception, and thieving. According to God, these sins deserve the death penalty.
We can say death is in the room because among them sits the one who was about to die for the wages of our sins. He was there as an honoured guest and friend, but unknown to them, he was being prepared for his own impending death and burial because he was going to pay the penalty for all our sins.
So, as this small group party together, death is in the room as they celebrate the defeat of death for one of them, as the reason for death is exposed within one of them, and as the preparation for death is done to one of them.
As they party on in the presence of death in this room, there are well-known characters present:
Lazarus, the one who was dead and buried for four days, is now sitting and eating as if he’s very much alive. And alive he was! You wouldn’t blame him for taking advantage of this second life as he enjoyed being served this little feast by his two sisters!
Martha, well, you’ll always find her in the kitchen at parties! She was busily serving all those reclining at the dinner table. She’s always so busy because this is her way of showing love for others, after all, some say the way to people’s hearts can often be through their stomachs!
Mary was also there and, well, some may wonder if she had some kind of attraction to Jesus’ feet!
I mean, think about it: Once before Jesus had visited them. Martha was in the kitchen (as usual), but where was Mary? At Jesus’ feet, in a position of humble learning. Later, when Jesus came to raise Lazarus from the dead, Mary fell at…Jesus’ feet, in a humble plea for mercy. And tonight, well, where else would we expect her to be except at…Jesus’ feet!
Scripture tells us in Isaiah 52:7: ‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of a herald, who proclaims peace and preaches good news, and who proclaims salvation’, but on this particular night, it’s what she does to Jesus’ feet, which sounds exceedingly intimate, provocative, and extravagant!
She anoints Jesus’ feet in an act of love for her Lord with an aromatic oil made from the crushed rhizomes of the spikenard plant, which is native to Northern India.
This oil was often used as a herbal medicine and, since it was described as ‘pure’, this would mean this oil was of exceptional quality. Also, because of the quality and quantity she used, the estimated cost of this oil would have been worth almost a year’s wages!
Now, for all you husbands present here (and no matter how much you earn in a year), would you be willing to buy your wife some perfume worth one year’s wages? Then, if you would ever be so generous to buy her such an expensive gift, imagine how would you feel if you saw her rubbing it into someone’s grubby feet?
Perhaps you’d be thinking a bit like Judas and reckon you could find many better things to do with the money spent on such a gift! Think how many tools you could buy, or how much fishing gear you could get, or how many sporting events you could attend, or what holidays you could take worth a year’s wages, or (after you’ve got a few things for yourself) how much you could give away to attend to the needs of poor people, such as through Australian Lutheran World Service!
Of course, many of you wives wouldn’t fare much better, because imagine if your husband was using your irreplaceable tablecloth you had inherited from your favourite Aunt…to wash his dirty car! What a wasteful use of something so precious!
Now, some may say death has a smell – whether it’s the smell of a slowly decaying body, the smell of preservative lotions and oils, or the smell of no longer having any breath, but at this particular meal, death has a different smell. On this night, death has a sweet aroma!
As Mary extravagantly anoints Jesus’ feet with this precious oil, an aroma fills the room. This would have caught everyone’s attention, and even more so as they turned to watch Mary let her hair down (which was usually only done in private settings) to wipe the sweet-smelling oil from Jesus’ feet.
If any paparazzi were there, this would become front-page news in the Galilee Times and the Jerusalem Herald! Imagine: A single woman massaging the feet of a popular and eligible bachelor, and even caressing his feet with her hair! What a scandal!
For Judas, another character in this room, the greater scandal is he could no longer get his hands on such an expensive item. In his eyes it was being ‘wasted’ on dirty feet, when it could have gone to better use to help the poor (and perhaps with some left over for him to help himself)!
Of course, the last mentioned character at this meal, is Jesus himself.
He was the guest of honour who had brought Lazarus back to life, which his sisters were very thankful for.
Martha and Mary were expressing their love and thanks to Jesus through their service – either by serving faithfully in the kitchen to provide a tasty meal, or by gently washing his tired and sore feet. Both serving actions would have filled the nostrils of those present – either the smell of good food, or the smell of aromatic oils. These smells would have hidden the presence of death in the room.
But while death is in the room, so is Life himself.
Jesus, the one who is preparing to die, is also the resurrection and the life. He had told Martha this after Lazarus had died, and he proved himself to be the resurrection and the life as he called their brother back to life.
Jesus tells Judas to back off from picking on Mary. The sisters are serving Jesus while they could. Mary hasn’t wasted this oil at all, in fact, what’s left over will be kept for the day of his burial, which is coming soon, because after all, the one who will die for them is in the room.
Sure, he knows there’s a need to help the poor, but he also knows there’ll be no end to their need. He also knows all people, whether rich or poor, need him to defeat sin, death, and the devil. That’s the task he’s more concerned about because this is the reason why he came.
So Jesus acknowledges there’ll always another opportunity to help and serve the poor (which we shouldn’t ignore), but the physical presence of Jesus won’t be with them much longer.
Jesus, the one who will defeat death and promise all those who believe in him life eternal, is about to die. The thought of this bitter-sweet. Sure, he’ll face the bitterness of suffering and death, but this is to bring us the sweetness of his forgiveness, peace, hope, and life eternal.
So yes, death is in the room, but so is Life himself, and he’ll prove to be victorious over death for us.
As we gather today, you can also say there’s death present in this room.
This is because many of us are like Lazarus. Through our baptism we’ve already died with Christ, and through faith we’ve also been raised to new life in him. We’ve already entered, and risen, from the watery grave and have already been given the promise of eternal life. We regularly gather to feast in Jesus’ presence and receive his body and blood to strengthen us in faith as we live our lives in honour of him who died and rose again for us.
Many of us are also like Mary and Martha, who have been blessed by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, and wish to love him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength.
We trust him as our resurrection and our life in a world of death, and we seek to serve him and his people out of love and thankfulness for our Lord’s undeserving grace. We serve him and his people in our own small way. We also look forward to gently holding his body in our hands, and tasting the sweetness of his blood which reassures us of his love and forgiveness, and strengthens our faith in his promise of life eternal.
But many of us are also like Judas. We might like to project an image of care and compassion, but we may do this out of love for ourselves, our reputation, or our own sense of pride. We’ll look for ways to serve ourselves and receive some advantage out of our service to others. We may also lie or cheat or deceive others, and so will sin against God and his people. Our sins are the reason for Jesus’ death. His death is the reason for our belief in our forgiveness from God.
Of course, we may be more than just one of these characters as we gather with the many silent witnesses of the past, present, and future, who gather around the Lamb of God to celebrate the victory of life over death and sin.
Yes, death is in the room, but so is life!
Jesus prepares himself, and those around him, for his death. He won’t be around in a bodily form as he once was for the disciples, but he’s now present for us in a new way.
He’s present in this world of death to bring us life and peace and forgiveness and hope. He’s present in his holy Word, in the holy waters of baptism, and in his holy communion.
Over the coming weeks we’ll hear of his death, but we’ll also hear how he defeated death, and sin, and the devil, as he rose from the dead to live and rule eternally.
Each of us will need to prepare for our own death one day, but we do so trusting Jesus has taken away the sting of death. Death has been defeated. Life now triumphs. The most precious innocent blood has been extravagantly poured out for all of us so that we may be washed clean and pure through our faith in Jesus. We’ve been made innocent and holy through faith in preparation for our own death and for our life with God in his eternal kingdom.
So, yes, death is present in the room, but so is the resurrection and the life, and the sweet aroma of his love and forgiveness for us fills us with joy and peace and hope.
For this reason, the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.