************ Sermon on John 12:7 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on March 9, 2008
"Perfumed for Burial"
I Mary's Extravagant Action
A Two sisters in Iran were arrested in February of 2007. They received 99 lashes each. After the execution of the sentence, they were not released, but they were once again tried and sentenced to death by stoning. Their crime? They were in the company of men other than their husbands or brothers.
This kind of mentality was common in Bible times. Which means that what Mary does in our Bible reading is risky. She let down her hair before a man who was not her husband. She probably shook her hair loose so it hung on her shoulders. What do you think her friends and neighbors were thinking and saying as they watched her do this? As in Iran, they would think her a prostitute, a loose woman, someone immoral.
And, then, she got down on her knees and washed feet. Who washed feet back then? Slaves, servant girls. Can you hear what friends and neighbors and family were thinking and saying about that? They would think her a slave, that she had humiliated herself and degraded herself. And, they would watch horrified as she dried the feet with her hair, her crown and glory as a woman.
And, then, the smell hit them. It was perfume she used on the feet. Expensive perfume. It filled the house with its aroma; all the guests recognized the scent as an expensive import from northern India; everyone knows that a whole bottle of the stuff represented a year's wages for the average working man. What do you think everyone was saying now? They would think her wasteful:
"A whole year's wages gone, poured out. Why didn't she just take a match and burn the money? Think of all the good we could have done with it! Think of all the poor people we could have helped! Think of the new curtains we could have bought for the synagogue! How dare she be so careless about something so expensive!"
These accusations all have an element of truth to them. Mary can be accused of loose morals when she unties her hair in front of a man who is not her husband. In caring for Jesus' feet, Mary is doing the work of the most lowly slave. In pouring a whole bottle of perfume on Jesus' feet, Mary does seem wasteful. But Mary doesn't care. Mary doesn't care what her friends and neighbors are thinking and whispering about her. Mary doesn't care because she want to show Jesus how much she loves Him.
It is fair to say that Mary can hardly give to Jesus a more extravagant gift. She gives Him her reputation, her dignity, her perfume. She gives Jesus her love and devotion.
B As Scripture so often does, it presents a contrast to Mary. Remember what we looked at last week? We looked at the hatred of the Pharisees and chief priests for Jesus. Remember what Caiaphas said? He said, "it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (Jn 11:50). They decided that Jesus had to be killed before "everyone believe in him" (Jn 11:48) "so from that day on they plotted to take his life" (Jn 11:53).
When Mary sees Jesus she is filled with an overwhelming love. When the Pharisees see Jesus their teeth are set on edge.
There is another contrast as well: between Mary and Judas. On the one hand is Mary; she responds to Jesus with an extravagant act of love. On the other hand is Judas, one of Jesus' disciples; John tells us Judas is a thief and reminds us that it is Judas who will betray Jesus (vs 4).
Mary sees Jesus and she is filled with an overwhelming love. Judas sees Jesus and, being a lover of money, thinks of a way to make a buck.
II Preparation for Burial
A There is something unusual about Mary's actions. Perfume is usually poured over the head. Mary, however, pours it over the feet of the Lord. As already indicated, this is an act of utter humility because to attend to the feet is the task of the most lowly slave. And, in a further act of degradation, Mary wipes Christ's feet with her hair.
B What is going on here? As I was reading and studying this passage a number of questions came to mind. First, why is Mary anointing Jesus' feet? Second, why is Mary anointing? Third, how can Jesus say she should "save this perfume for the day of my burial" when, in fact, she has already poured it all out?
First, why is Mary anointing Jesus' feet? In that time and culture one does not anoint the feet of a living person; however, one does anoint the feet of a corpse as part of the ritual of preparing the whole body for burial. This is how Jesus sees and explains Mary's actions. "Leave her alone," says Jesus to Judas and all the others scandalized by her behavior. "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial" (Jn 12:7).
Don't forget the setting of our story. Chapter 11 ends with the Sanhedrin deciding to kill Jesus. They have decided "that it is better that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish" (11:50). Chapter 12 begins with the phrase, "Six days before the Passover ..." The Passover, as you all know, is when the lamb is killed in remembrance of God's great salvation act in Egypt. At that time, God's angel of death passed over every home where the blood of the Passover lamb was sprinkled on the doorpost. Within this setting, Mary's action is clearly a prophecy of Jesus' coming death.
Second, why is Mary anointing? Anointing was usually a mark of festivity: during a wedding, or the coronation of a new king, an engagement to be married, after victory in battle. But here is Mary and Jesus doing it in the context of death and burial. Jesus' impending death looms so large in their thoughts that an anointing which at other times would speak of times of celebration this time speaks of His death.
Third, how can Jesus say she should "save this perfume for the day of my burial" when, in fact, she has already poured it all out? You need to realize that John 12 marks the end of Jesus' public ministry. Jesus knows that the time is near for His suffering and death. It has been granted to Mary to see this and know this. As far as Jesus and Mary are concerned, the time of burial is almost upon them. Who knows for how long Mary has been keeping the perfume for a special occasion; but now she realizes that special occasion has now come.
C "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial" (Jn 12:7). To understand what Jesus means by this we have to know Jewish burial customs. Under Jewish burial customs the body is first washed; then it is anointed with aromatic spices and perfumes. That is why on Easter Sunday the women went to Jesus' tomb with spices and perfumes they had prepared; it was their intention to anoint Jesus' body and give it a fitting and proper burial (cf Lk 23:56; 24:1).
According to Jesus, Mary was preparing Him for burial. The strong fragrance of the perfume spoke to Jesus not of wasteful extravagance, but of the preparation of His body for burial. The anointing spoke, then, of Jesus' coming death and burial.
D "It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial" (Jn 12:7). But Jesus is alive; He isn't dead; a body is prepared for burial after and not before death; so why did Mary pour the perfume on Him now already? Seen in this light, Mary's actions do seem a little strange. Why is Jesus' body being prepared for burial before He has died? Jesus is hinting here that it is not possible to get His body properly prepared for burial after He has died.
Again, we need to have an understanding of Jewish burial practices. Among the Jews the only time a body is not prepared for burial is when it belongs to a criminal executed for his or her crimes. In such cases, part of the punishment includes a less than honorable burial. Mary's anointing of Jesus' body before He died is, then, a proclamation of the kind of death Jesus would suffer: namely, the death of a criminal. In the words of Isaiah 53, "He was assigned a grave with the wicked" (Is 53:9).
"It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial" (Jn 12:7). This is an acknowledgment by Jesus that He anticipates suffering a criminal's death. This is an acknowledgment by Jesus that He anticipates being crucified for our sins, for us, in our place. We often forget how amazing and wonderful this really is:
Topic: ChristTwo thousand years ago, Jesus went to the cross to bear the penalty that rightly belongs to us. He died in our place. And through Him, our names are written in the book with His name written beside ours.
Subtopic: Became Man's Substitute
Dwight L. Moody told of the young man who did not want to serve in Napoleon Bonaparte's army. When he was drafted, a friend volunteered to go in his place. The substitution was made, and some time later the surrogate was killed in battle.
However, the same young man was, through a clerical error, drafted again. "You can't take me" he told the startled officers. "I'm dead. I died on the battlefield."
They argued that they could see him standing right in front of them, but he insisted they look on the roll to find the record of his death. Sure enough, there on the roll was the man's name, with another name written beside it.
The case finally went to the emperor himself. After examining the evidence, Napoleon said, "Through a surrogate, this man has not only fought, but has died in his country's service. No man can die more than once, therefore the law has no claim on him."
III A Whole-Hearted Response
A Why does Mary act the way she does?
There is a key word in verse 1 that helps to explain Mary's actions. The word is "Lazarus." Lest we have forgotten, John identifies him as he "whom Jesus had raised from the dead" (Jn 12:1). Mary responds the way she does because Jesus has raised her brother from the grave. She's filled with gratitude and wants to thank the Lord. Her response is natural and heart-felt.
B That's not all that we can say about Mary and the raising of Lazarus. We need to ask why Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. John tells us the why of this miracle – and every other miracle – almost at the end of his gospel (I mentioned this verse last week):
(Jn 20:31) But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. Three things happen when Mary sees the signs.
First, Mary sees the signs, and she believes Who Jesus is. She believes that Jesus is "the resurrection and the life" (Jn 11:25). She believes that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of God, who was to come into the world" (Jn 11:27).
Second, Mary sees the signs and she understands what Jesus is going to do. She understands Jesus is at her home for the last time before He suffers and dies. She understands, by the Spirit, that He was going to die for her. She understands He is her Savior.
Third, Mary sees the signs and she realizes what Jesus means to her. She realizes that Jesus is all the world to her. She realizes Jesus is her Life, her Joy, her All. She realizes Jesus is her Strength. She realizes Jesus is her Friend. So she responds with a very extravagant gift.
C Judas thinks Mary is being extravagant and wasteful. But such words are irrelevant as far as devotion to Jesus is concerned. Mary knows that nothing is too costly, nothing is too extravagant, to express her love and devotion for the Lord. For the sake of the Lord she uncovers her hair. For the sake of the Lord she acts like a slave. For the sake of the Lord she pours a most expensive perfume on His feet. Extravagant?! Certainly not. Wasteful?! Absolutely not. For Mary knows that nothing is too good for her Lord. Mary gave to Jesus her best, with all of her heart and soul and mind.
Jesus is in her home for the last time; therefore, nothing could be less wasteful than pouring on Him an expensive jar of perfume. Jesus is going to the cross and the grave; therefore, no offering is too costly. Jesus has raised Lazarus from the grave; therefore, no expression of love and devotion is too big.
D Congregation, we are to learn from Mary. We are to learn from her the shape of true Christian devotion. Like Mary, you are to give Jesus your best, in spite of what others might say or think. Like Mary, you are to give Jesus your best, with all of your heart and soul and mind. Like Mary, you are to give Jesus your best out of gratitude. Like Mary, you are to give Jesus your best because He is the Christ, the Son of God, the source of life and being. Like Mary, you are to give Jesus your heart.
Consider Mary's faith. She believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the source of life and being. Do you believe this? Mary understands that Christ is going to suffer and die for her sins. Do you understand this? She realizes Jesus is her Life, her Joy, her All. Do you realize this? Mary believes and Mary understands and Mary realizes before the suffering on the cross and the burial in the grave. We, however, live after the cross and the grave. Therefore, we should want to give Jesus our best even more so than did Mary. Therefore, we should want to worship Jesus even more so than did Mary.
In this season of Lent you can't go wrong in following the example of Mary. Mary. She stands out as we look at Scripture. Think of the priests and the elders of the people: they plot how to kill Jesus. Think too of the disciples: the treasurer betrays Him for 30 pieces of silver, the chief spokesman denies knowing Him, and the other ten desert Him. But Mary, in an act of love and devotion and worship, in an act penetrating the meaning of the cross, anoints Him Who is her Lord and Savior.
Mary did a beautiful thing to the Lord. With heart and soul and mind and strength, she gave Him her best. With heart and soul and mind and strength she worshiped the Lord.
Now, congregation, what about you? Do you give to the Lord your best? Do you worship the Lord like Mary?
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