Quite to my surprise and delight I discovered that I have never preached a sermon on the anointing of Jesus. And just when I thought there wasn’t many new things left to do!
All three readings this morning present the opportunity for new things, more specifically taking old things, old life and making them new again. In order to do this, there is a call to forget what is behind and lean towards the future.
Isaiah reminds us of God who makes ways where there wasn’t one. The reference to ‘making a way in the sea’ is from Exodus when God parted the Red Sea to free the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. This was a pivotal event in their history; they are never to forget what God did for them.
However, God is now saying it is time for a new way, this time in the wilderness and not the sea. ‘I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’ God will take what looks dry and dead and make it alive again – don’t you get it?! Pay attention – perceive it! This section of Isaiah (ch 40-55) is dominated by the theme of salvation through suffering, known as the Servant Songs. Christians have long identified the suffering servant of Isaiah with Jesus as there are many NT references connected to this portion of Isaiah. It is the suffering servant, Jesus, who is to come, he is the new thing. Easter reminds us once again of death and new life we find in Jesus.
In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he tells again of his encounter with Jesus. This has caused him to look back at his life and Paul has come to the conclusion that everything that he was and had done: his confidence in the flesh, his pedigree, his zeal in keeping Jewish law was rubbish in comparison to knowing and having faith in Jesus. This is quite an extraordinary statement.
Beth Moore writes of Paul’s (then known as Saul) life was like before meeting Jesus: ‘We cannot begin to comprehend what Saul’s life was like when he sought to live by the letter of the law. Daily rituals determined the first words out of his mouth, the way he took off his nightclothes and put on his day clothes, how he sprinkled his hands before breakfast. He carefully avoided eating or drinking quickly and never ate while standing. He avoided certain sleeping positions and chose others. Tossing and turning through the night is misery to us, but to Saul it could have been sin. These are but a few examples of the how Saul and his contemporaries attempted to live by the law blamelessly. This is what happens when we take love for God out of obedience to God. The result is law. Without love for God and His Word, we’re just trying to be good.’
It is exhausting! Being a Christian is not primarily about ‘being good’ – anyone can do that whether they believe in God or not. It is about love for God, for Jesus and the Word. Love and obedience go together.
Paul wants nothing more than to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and sharing in his sufferings. This is new for Paul, and to embrace this, he finds that he needs to put to death his former life so that he can reach for the ‘prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus’.
Both Isaiah and Paul tell readers that they must forget what is behind. Isaiah says ‘do not remember the former things.’ Paul: ‘forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.’ New things are coming! Jesus is coming! Learn from the past but don’t be bound by it. The past can teach and illustrate but it must not bind. God always has greater things in store; he is revealed in the past, but he is always more than the past revealed.
This too is what we see in the story of Mary of Bethany. This is not the first time that Mary has been at the feet of Jesus. All four gospels have similar accounts of this one event. There has been great confusion over which Mary this is. Is it Mary Magdalene? Who is Mary of Bethany? Are they the same person or two different women?
I think it is likely that two events took place – this event in John, Matthew and Mark and a second event with an unnamed woman in Luke. Matthew, Mark & John have similar accounts of where this took place and who was there; Luke’s is quite different.
Anyway – back to Mary of Bethany. This event takes place in Bethany at the home of Simon the Leper and Martha (sister of Mary and Lazarus) is serving. Bethany literally means ‘the house of the poor’, it was a place sort of like a hospice where the sick, the needy and the poor could be cared for. It then makes sense that Lazarus lived there. He lives with his sisters and probably none of them were married. Where were their parents? How did they get money? Where did the alabaster jar come from? I love this story because it presents so many questions!
Like in her last encounter with Jesus and his feet (Luke 10), Mary is not where she is supposed to be according to the cultural norms and expectations of society. Women would have eaten separately away from the men. Maybe sister Martha was yet again lamenting Mary’s lack of help in serving.
If her sitting at Jesus’ feet last time was disturbing, what she does here is scandalous. Both in the extravagance and the method. The nard would have been imported from northern India. How did a family living ‘in the house of the poor’ afford that? Judas quite rightly pointed out the value – 300 denarii was about a year’s salary for a day labourer. In the UK currently an annual salary on minimum wage is just over £17k. Would you spend that on a jar perfume to wipe on someone’s feet?
The other piece of this story that is disturbing is Mary using her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. Jewish women did not let down their hair in public. This would have been seen as a very improper, if not erotic act. If you think about, we don’t touch each other’s hair when we meet or greet. There is no indication of why Mary did this.
One commentary reflected that: ‘The most obvious possibility was her sheer gratitude for what Jesus had done for her brother and the revelation it brought to her of Jesus’ identity, power, authority and grace. John’s focus on her anointing Jesus’ feet points to Mary’s great humility. As she has come to realize a bit more of the one who has been a friend to her and her brother and sister, her faith deepens and she recognizes her unworthiness. The humility of her act prepares us to be all the more scandalized when Jesus himself washes his disciples’ feet in the next chapter.’
Jesus sees his anointing by Mary as a reference to his coming death. There was more than enough nard to anoint an entire body and then some in that jar. This is part of the extravagance of Mary’s action although Mark and Matthew both reference Mary to having anointed Jesus’ head.
Either way, it can be taken as a display of sheer gratitude for what Jesus had done for her and her family. It is unlikely that Mary would ever forget when her brother Lazarus died and was raised to life again. Though Mary won’t be bound by it. Looking ahead (even if she didn’t know it at the time) to Jesus’ impending death and in the moment her overwhelming desire to be close to Jesus.
How close are we this morning to Jesus in our lives? Can we see his feet? Are we perceiving new things? Are there some things from the past we need to forget so that we can move forward, and stop being bound by them?
Paul reminds us again of the surpassing value of knowing Jesus and all else is rubbish! In Mary of Bethany we see someone who defies the rules and defies taboos out of her commitment to and gratitude for what Jesus has done.
As we continue on this journey of Lent, let’s give some thought to where we are in relation to Jesus. ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings by becoming like him in his death,’ says Paul. It is time to strain forward for what lies ahead.