THE AROMA OF LOVE
John 12: 1-8
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
April 7, 2019
Our Lenten journey this year is almost over. This is the fifth Sunday in Lent; next Sunday will be Palm Sunday, the beginning of Holy Week.
Today, along with much of the Christian world, we remember a priceless little story in the gospel of John that places Jesus in the village of Bethany outside of Jerusalem. It is in the home of his dear friends Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was a place where he could be a man instead of a Messiah, the kind of place where he could take off his sandals and prop his feet up. Who knows how they became such friends? All we know is that as much as Jesus loved everyone equally, some were more equal than others! And this family was composed of three people who were his special friends.
The little story about Mary anointing his feet was obviously remembered fondly by generations of early Christians and recorded here in John’s gospel for all time. Mary, lost in wonder, love, and praise (as we sang at the beginning of the service), is sitting at his feet anointing them with expensive perfume as an act of love and devotion. And it was his feet, of all things! We know that it was common to anoint a person’s head with oil. Remember Psalm 23: You anoint my head with oil, it says. But here Mary anoints his feet!
And to make it even more shocking, this single woman lets her hair down to use as a kind of drying towel for wiping his feet! This, as you can imagine, had all kinds of implications in that culture. When a girl became a young woman, she bound up her hair, and that is the way it stayed in all public appearances. Only in the privacy of the bedroom would she let her hair down. There must have been an audible gasp around the table, and the early church clearly remembered this scene with a sense of awe and wonder.
The other thing that stands out in this story is something that can be described but not experienced—namely, the aroma that filled the room with the fragrance of the perfume. We are not told what the aroma was like, but we are told that the aroma filled the house and that it was costly—a whole pound of perfume! This was truly an extravagant act.
Here is where I want to back away from this story long enough to look at the extraordinary care with which the gospel of John is written. John’s gospel begins with a story of divine extravagance for human enjoyment. At a wedding party Jesus turns water into wine, the best wine, the equivalent of about 600 bottles of the best wine! John begins with a story of extravagance—an extravagant gift from Jesus to a wedding party.
Now we come to another story of extravagance: Mary anoints Jesus with a whole pound of expensive perfume. This is the last event told about Jesus before his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem and the story of his passion. So John seems to bookend his account with stories of extravagance. In Cana, the divine excess was for a wedding celebration. In Bethany, Mary’s extravagance foretold his death. It seems that he is saying that from start to finish, life as a child of God is marked by extravagance.
Extravagance moves both ways. It is reciprocal, both given and received, both by God and God’s people. Sometimes God is the giver; at other times God’s people give extravagantly. Whether given or received, divine or human, these acts of reckless kindness are signs of what life is like when following the way of Christ.
The aroma of that extravagant gift filled the house. What a contrast to the stench of death that had filled that house earlier, when Lazarus had died, and Jesus came to them overwhelmed with grief. Remember how Jesus had gone to the grave and said, Take away the stone. But Martha, always practical, said, Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.
Now in this story the same house is filled with the fragrance of Mary’s perfume. It is a universal truth that many a home is filled with the stench of death. Suffering and grief spans the generations, and the emotions of sadness are as difficult now as they were then. There is an unmistakable stench of death in many a home today.
The gospel of John seems to be saying that the fragrance of love and devotion to Christ can overcome the stench of death. And there is a whole pound of it in this story. It is extravagant! It is the extravagance of her love and devotion that overcame the stench of death.
Before we draw the curtain on this little vignette, let us take seriously the irritable complaint of Judas. We are generally quick to condemn Judas, yet most of us would have to admit that Judas had a case. In fact, in Matthew’s account of the same story, Matthew tells us that all the disciples sided with Judas!
After all, the poverty of their day was grim. There was no Social Security, no safety net, and pitifully few social agencies to offer any help, and here was a woman wasting a whole pound of expensive perfume on a man’s feet! At least that was the way Judas and presumably the other disciples saw it! It seemed pointless, such a waste!
Before we judge them too harshly, remember that the church is constantly faced with the same argument. Many in the church are sensitive to the poverty and injustices that surround us, and there is a certain amount of impatience and even exasperation with what we are doing at this very moment! In its more extreme forms, we occasionally hear proposals that the church should sell all its real estate and use the money to help the poor.
Those voices of sensitive concern for the social ills that beset us must be heard! There is no doubt that the church needs to turn more outward to meet the crying needs on its own doorstop. But the critics must also hear that the beauty of worship is not irrelevant! They must know that this hour of worship every week is a powerhouse, generating a level of social sensitivity and generosity and awareness of needs that could not be generated any other way.
And as the curtain closes on this poignant dining room scene, let us remind ourselves that there are some things that we will never do unless we grasp the chance when it comes. We are often seized with a desire to do something that is generous and big-hearted. But we put it off, and we get busy and soon discover that the impulse is gone, and the thing is never done.
My hope for us, for this church and for every church…my hope for every institution that does good in the world, is this: may the aroma of love overcome the whiff of death and despair. May that aroma fill our lives and families and institutions and waft over the whole earth, so that acts of love and kindness and justice may happen…and happen now!