Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sermon for April 10, 2011, Consecration Sunday

Lent: Extravagant Offerings

Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead. A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him. Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance. But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, “That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” Not that he cared for the poor—he was a thief, and since he was in charge of the disciples’ money, he often stole some for himself. Jesus replied, “Leave her alone. She did this in preparation for my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”When all the people heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus. John 12:1-11

Recent archaeological research has turned up an amazing find. It is a lost letter of the Bible, which has come into my possession. Written by a man who calls himself Eleazaros, it soon became apparent that this letter was dictated by the man we know as Lazarus. I painstakingly translated it from the original language, only changing some archaic phrases so as to make sense to the modern ear. With the most spectacular story to tell, Lazarus took time to write to a previously unknown group of Jesus followers in a suburban imperial province. Today, I present to you the Epistle of Lazarus to the Church in Fons Argenteus.

To the believers in Fons Argenteus. Grace and peace to you from a dead man. Yeah, you heard me right. I’m a dead man. At least I was. Certified, and mummified. Buried in the family tomb. I wish I could explain to you what it feels like to be dead. I just don’t have colorful enough words in my vocabulary to paint it for you. I can tell you this: There was nothing romantic or beautiful about it. Death is an offense to beauty. No matter how hard you try, a corpse is never attractive. No embalmer’s art can change that.[1] So, maybe you’re wondering how a dead man gets to write to you. Let me tell you what happened. This is going to blow your mind. There I lay - lifeless in a dark crypt for four days (Not that I had any concept of time passing). It was just dark...until I heard that voice – familiar, anguished, and inviting. It was like I heard a whisper in the back of my head saying, “Lazarus, come out,” and I just couldn’t help it. I got up and walked out of the crypt right to Jesus. And let me tell you, did that freak people out! I can just imagine what it must have looked like to others – this linen-wrapped mummy-man lumbering out of a dark tomb into the hot Mediterranean sun. I remember seeing my sisters, Mary and Martha, gape-mouthed and weeping for joy. Most of all, I remember Jesus’ tear-soaked, enraptured face.

Well, as you can imagine, we had a BIG party. When the power of God raises you from the dead and gives you a new lease on life, you don’t just shake hands, go out for a drink, and say, “Thanks man, I owe you one.” Especially when it all happened to someone like me. I mean, I’m not a well-known person in this town. I’m not a politician or a religious leader. Just a regular, hard-working sort of guy. But, Jesus, my friend, came to me and gave me my life back. No, you don’t let that go without having a big celebration.

All kinds of people were there. I’m kind of a people watcher myself. So I just took everything in: Jesus and the disciples, some friends and neighbors. Others were gathering outside, trying to get a peak at me and Jesus through the windows. And my sister Martha was bustling around as usual. Martha is a practical woman. She’s one of those women who shows love by keeping busy. Always cooking and cleaning. She gets extra frantic about details when we have parties, especially when Jesus is here. Everything has to be just right. Usually, she’s bossing me around. “Lazarus, go get some more water. Don’t forget to start up the barbeque. Make sure everyone has enough to eat,” and things like that. Everything has to be perfect. She wasn’t bossing me around at this party, though. I was the guest of honor. I sat at the head table with Jesus and his crew, just watching everything happen.

My other sister Mary is just the opposite of Martha. She’s not really a detail person. I’ve never known Mary to have emotional outbursts. She’s a level-headed woman. But you should have seen her at my party. She came out of the back room with a clay pot, about the size of a pint jar. She broke the cap off it, and the luxuriant fragrance of perfume filled the air. This was not cheap Syrian toilette water, either. It was her bottle of spikenard. The stuff cost $10,000, imported directly from India. It was the most precious thing Mary owned.

I was taking a drink from my cup when she broke the jar and poured the perfume over Jesus’ feet. I was so shocked I practically showered everyone with the water in my mouth as I choked on it (which, by the way, wouldn’t have made Martha happy. I can hear her now, “Lazarus, I swear you live in a barn. Use some manners. We have company.”) Anyways, Mary could have splashed a couple of drops of perfume in Jesus’ direction as a token of thanks. I have to say, though, my sister Mary doesn’t do things halfway. She went and poured the whole bottle over the Lord’s feet. Not his head, like I expected, but his feet. The odd thing was, she wouldn’t even look Jesus in the eyes. It’s almost as if she didn’t want to be recognized. She just poured out the perfume and then began to meekly rub it in with the hair on her head.

Now you have to understand, in my world, women don’t go around in mixed company with their hair loose. When a girl is married her hair is bound up, and it’s never seen flowing loose in public again. Only immoral women appear in public with unbound hair. So, here is my sister, acting like a cheap floozy with the guy who saved my life.

Now that some time has gone by, I realize that Mary didn’t really care what the rest of us thought. It reminds me of when two people fall in love–they are in a world of their own. Remember, I’m a people watcher. I see how people act when they are enamored with each other. They steal quick hand touches and eye glances. They rejoice that the world sees their love.[2] Or have you ever seen a child who is free and uninhibited? She just loves what she’s doing at the moment, no matter who is watching. On the other hand, there are always people who are so worried about what others think that they never let loose. Not Mary. You could tell that she loved Jesus so much that it was nothing to her what others thought. At that moment it was only her and her Lord.

Looking back on things, maybe Mary was the only follower who had clear focus that night. I remember how irritated Judas was. Judas was always a little critical of others. Hey, that reminds of a joke I heard:

A Hindu, a Rabbi, and a Critic were caught in a terrific thunderstorm while traveling separately through the countryside. They sought shelter at a nearby farmhouse. “That storm will be raging for hours.” The farmer told them. “You ought to spend the night. The problem is there is only room for two in the house. One of you must sleep in the stable.” “I’ll be the one said the Hindu, a little hardship is nothing to me.” And he went to the stable. A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the Hindu. “I’m sorry he said to the others, but there is a cow in the barn. Cows are sacred creatures and I cannot impose.” “Don’t worry said the Rabbi, make yourself comfortable. I will go sleep in the stable” A few minutes later there was another knock at the door. It was the Rabbi. “I hate to be a bother,” he said, “but there is a pig in the stable. In my religion pigs are unclean, I wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping near a pig.” “Oh, all right said the Critic, “I’ll go sleep in the stable.” A few minutes later there was a knock at the door. It was the pig and the cow.

The point is, nobody likes a critic. So we all rolled our eyes when Judas opened his mouth. “What a colossal waste!” he cried out. “Lady, you could have sold that perfume and given the profits to us so we can help the poor. Instead you just dumped it out.” There was nothing but silence in the room. Mary paused only for a moment before she went back to wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair.

Most people assumed Judas was a crook. We didn’t know why Jesus let him hold the money. I guess Jesus saw something in that guy that the rest of us didn’t. Well, Judas was seeing dollar signs. In a sense, I guess I was too. I thought to myself, “Laz, Judas has a point. There are better things to do with valuable perfume than pour it on someone’s road-weary feet. It’s really not rational. How are we going to live if Mary is going to do this with our treasures? It’s not responsible to our family. Why not sell it, and give a small percentage of the proceeds to charity? We could feed a few poor people. We could buy a few things we want around the house. We would have a nice little nest egg for the future.” Mary kept wiping the Master’s feet with her hair, almost hypnotically. As I watched her my thoughts were filled with a list of ten more things we could do with $10,000. Then Jesus spoke. “Leave her alone,” he said. Jesus bent down, and lifted Mary’s head up to meet her eyes. Jesus looked right at her with a discerning gaze and a knowing smile, but he was talking to the rest of us. “She was saving this perfume for this moment. She’s getting me ready for my death. There will always be poor people to give to. Let’s worry about them another time. You don’t always have me here.”

We had no idea what the man was talking about. We said things like, “Jesus, you’re not going to die soon. Knock it off. You’re going to bust up the party.” It turns out that as we were overprotecting Jesus, some people were plotting how to kill him. I heard they even put a hit out on me. I guess they were a little jealous over the competition. At any rate, Jesus knew he was going to die. Kind of ironic, huh? He raised me to new life, and the price for it was his own life.

Here I am, a man who has the chance to start everything new. Jesus gave me an opportunity to set a new life in motion. Nothing has to be the same. A new world of possibilities is unfolding before me. You know, there are some things we can do almost any time; and there are some things that we will never do unless we take hold of the moment when it comes. I have so often been captured with the desire to do something big-hearted and generous. I think I should use my time, talent and treasure to make a difference in the lives of others. And then I put it off until tomorrow. When tomorrow comes the impulse is gone; the passion, burned out; the opportunity, lost. If I’ve learned one thing from being a dead man, it’s life is uncertain. We are moved to give our money to causes that support justice, wholeness, and spiritual growth for all people, but we doubt our contributions will make a difference as we watch people struggle. We are moved to offer some words of thanks, or praise, or love, but we put it off. Who knows if that person will be around tomorrow to hear it? We want to give extravagantly to do God’s work but we get nervous and postpone our increase for another year. Sometimes we forget that our giving shows our love for God. The night of my party, Jesus gave us the opportunity to love him while he was still with us. Mary knew it.[3]

Mary’s generous act of devotion gave me a new perspective on this whole new life of mine. As much as I thought Mary’s actions were irresponsible, I was also confronted with the beauty of the faith it takes to make such a costly sacrifice.

I guess it’s really not about the money. It’s not the amount of the gift, but it’s what we give. Mary gave more to Jesus than a pint of remarkably expensive perfume. The most costly, the most extravagant thing she offered was her devotion to Jesus. Her love and awe of Jesus made the costly perfume seem cheap in comparison. When I realized how I was holding back, I felt cheap in comparison, too.

So, here I am. I owe my life to Jesus. And what do I have to offer him? What’s my most extravagant offering? My money? My time? My expensive gifts? Mary taught me that those don’t mean a thing if I can’t also express my gratitude through love. The offering Jesus wants is the gift of ME. Jesus raised me to life so that I could spend myself on him.

Well, I best be signing off. By the way, I still smell that perfume in the house. Every time I walk into the front room, my nostrils are satisfied with a sweet reminder of what Mary did to show her love for Jesus. It always reminds me to do things now, for the chance to do them might never come again, and the failure to do them–especially the failure to express love in action, brings the bitterest remorse of all [4].

I sign this with my own hand. God’s peace be with you. Eleazaros.

[1]Jospeh Bayly, The View from Heaven (New York: New family Library, 1972), 15.
[2]William Barclay, The Gospel of John, vol 2, (Edinburgh: St. Andrew, 1955), 129.
[3]Barclay, 131.
[4]Barclay, 131-132.

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