A sermon on Mark 14:1-26 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 17 March 2019
On 1st November 2011, Lucy Rogers was on her way home from work on the train, when a group of twenty fellow travelers started to sing Bill Withers song, “Lovely Day.” It wasn’t until her boyfriend Adam showed up and knelt down on the floor of the carriage with a ring in his hand, that she realised the whole thing had been set up. Adam had planned the elaborate proposal for months, enlisting members of his choir, organising rehearsals, even building a replica of the train carriage to make sure everything went as planned. It was an act of extravagant love. [You can see the video of the proposal here]
Our passage today contains two similar acts of extravagant love. We will look firstly at the anointing of Jesus at Bethany, and secondly at the Last Supper.
We find the first act of extravagant love in Mark chapter 14 verses 1 to 11. This passage is like a sandwich. The meat in the sandwich is verses 3 to 9 which is top and tailed by the two pieces of bread in verses 1 and 2, and then verses 10 and 11. The first piece of bread highlights a problem, and the second piece of bread presents its solution.
The problem in verses 1 and 2 is Jesus. Or more accurately, how to get rid of Jesus without inciting a riot. The chief priests and teachers of the law were looking for a sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. His behaviour in the temple could no longer be tolerated. He had walked around like he owned the temple and threatened to destroy it. A man like that could not be allowed to live. He might rally the people behind him and take over the country and bring down the wrath of the whole Roman Empire upon them all.
But they had to be careful that the cure wasn’t worse than the disease. It was Passover time. At such a popular festival time the population of Jerusalem swelled ten times over. The city was full of simple minded religious peasants. Trying to take on Jesus at such a time would be like trying to arrest David Warner during the Boxing Day cricket test. The city would riot. The Romans would put it down by force, and the very thing they were trying to prevent would happen. What’s worse, they’d be removed as leaders for being incompetent.
So they decided they had to get rid of Jesus, but not during the Feast.
The other slice of bread in the sandwich is verses 10 and 11. Here we see Judas solve their problem. Judas was one of the twelve disciples. He knew where Jesus went each night. He knew a private place where they could catch Jesus away from the crowd. And he knew something else. Something that only becomes clear in the meat of the sandwich. Something that tipped the balance for Judas and made him want to betray Jesus.
This betrayal of Judas, this despicable treachery, stands in stark contrast to the extravagant love we see in the meat in the sandwich. Each night on this trip to Jerusalem, Jesus retired to the village of Bethany. Bethany was only about 3 kilometres from the city. And from John’s Gospel we know that it was the home of Lazarus and Martha and Mary, making it the ideal spot for Jesus away from the crowds.
They were sitting down for dinner in the home of a man named Simon the leper, when a woman came into the room. Again, John’s Gospel identifies her as Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. She was carrying a small jar carved from alabaster, a translucent soft rock. It would have been thin, about 10 to 12 centimetres long, with a narrow neck. While Jesus was sitting down, Mary broke the neck of the jar, and poured its contents on his head. About a quarter of a litre. It was very expensive perfume, made of pure nard.
Nard is an amber coloured essential oil, distilled from the roots of a plant growing in the Himalayas. For Mary to have had so much might have meant it was a family heirloom. It might have been part of her mother’s dowry. It might have been purchased for family funerals. When someone saw what Mary had done, they said, “Why this waste? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And other guests joined in to rebuke her.
Now, I don’t know what your annual salary is, but I’m pretty sure that wages in Jesus’ day weren’t quite as good as ours. Let’s just say it was enough money for a poor man to feed his family for ten months. Maybe not on caviar and Brazilian coffee, but on simple food. So we aren’t talking about my $5 deodorant. We aren’t even talking about the $100 perfume that a man might buy his wife on her birthday. We are talking about something worth thousands of dollars. Something so precious that a middle class family might be afraid to ever use it. Like the cutlery set my mum got at her wedding that I don’t remember her ever using. And the perfume was even more precious. Because once the jar was broken, there was no putting the perfume back.
To the other guests at the table, it was a waste. A shame. A disgrace. Like selling your grandfather’s World War II medals to pay off your credit card. The person who spoke out loud certainly thought that if Mary thought so little of it, the least she could have done was to make good use of it. Like selling it to feed the poor. The person who spoke out loud was confident that that was the answer that Jesus wanted to hear. Again, John’s Gospel identifies that speaker as Judas.
What Mary did was lavish. It was costly. It wasn’t prudent or sensible or shrewd. She gave her gift with an unmeasured and boundless love with no thought to the expense or cost. It was extravagant. And Jesus thought it was beautiful and appropriate. He said,
“Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body before hand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
And Jesus is, once again, absolutely right. Because here we are, half a world away, and the gospel has come to us, and what she did has been told again.
Jesus praised her, because what she did, whether consciously or not, was the one act in harmony with who he was and what he was going to do. Could the perfume have been sold and the money given to the poor? Yes, or course, but the poor were no poorer for her priceless gift, and if anyone was offended at her waste, well, they were welcome to go straight home and sell their priceless belongings and give the money away.
But she did what no one else would do what no one else would have time to do. For less than three days later Jesus would die too close to the Sabbath for anyone to attend to his burial except the briefest essentials. All they would have time for was to wrap his body up and place him in one of the closest tomb. So that when at last the women came to the tomb on the Sunday morning with their spices and ointments, they were no longer needed.
Mary gave Jesus the only proper preparation for burial he would get.
Judas, however, was not impressed. He walked out and betrayed Jesus to the leaders. Mary gave a gift worth a year’s wages. But Judas sold Jesus for thirty silver coins. Because now he could tell the Jewish leaders what they wanted to hear. I mean, who would want to arrest a man who could stop a storm? Who would try to tie up and lead away a man who could cast out demons? But Judas could tell them that they’d be safe, that Jesus was determined to die, that he had already decided he was going to be buried. Judas knew that when they came for him, Jesus wouldn’t fight back.
And that’s why Judas betrayed him. Because a Messiah who had given up wasn’t worth following. Mary thought Jesus was worth thousands of dollars. Judas thought he was worth a couple of hundred.
We find our second act of extravagant love in verses 12 to 26. Two nights later, it was the Passover, the meal of roast lamb and flat bread and bitter herbs that celebrated Israel’s rescue from their slavery in Egypt. They remembered how God commanded that generation in Egypt to take a lamb for sacrifice for each family and to paint its blood on their doorposts, and the angel of death passed over them to strike the first born of Egypt. They remembered how they had to leave in a hurry without time to wait for the bread to rise before eating it, because they were free.
The Passover looked back to this nation forming event. Not their Australia Day. Their Israel Day. But the meal also looked forward. It looked forward to the day when the Lord would do it again. When he would look upon his people with mercy and set them free from their oppressors.
Jesus sat down to the Passover with his disciples. He took the bread and gave thanks to his Father and broke it and gave it to them, saying, “Take it, this is my body.” Then he took the cup of blessing, gave thanks and offered it to them and said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.”
It’s another acted parable. Like when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on the donkey. Like when he turned over the tables in the temple. Like when Mary poured the perfume on his head. Jesus took this meal and said to his disciples, “This is me. And this is what I came to do.”
And ever since it has been a meal that Jesus’ people have shared at the heart of their worship. It creates a lens through which we can look at Jesus and understand him and his cross. It is a meal that brings life and joy and creates fellowship with those who share it. But at the heart of the meal is the food, reminding us that life comes at the cost of death, that joy comes at the cost of sorrow and fellowship comes at the cost of loneliness. This, Jesus said, is my body. This, Jesus said, is my blood of the new covenant. His body nailed to the cross. His blood shed as the new lamb for sacrifice, so that, once again, the angel of death might pass over us and not claim us. So that we may instead be claimed by life.
It is an act of love that is lavish and costly. It is not prudent or sensible or shrewd. But Jesus gave his gift with an unmeasured and boundless love. He gave himself, all he was, all he had, once for all like perfume poured out that cannot be put back. This meal was and is an act of extravagant love, because it points to the cross of Jesus Christ in which by faith we find life and joy and fellowship. It is a meal that summons us to sit and eat, to claim this joy, to receive this life, to enjoy that fellowship with God and each other.
And like a marriage proposal it summons us to respond with a love just as extravagant. To the world it might seem a waste. But a life that is lived for Christ and for others in his name is never wasted. It is like the seed, which, when it is hoarded, stays alone until it consumed by birds or mould or insects, but which, when it is sown and dies, lives again and grows and produces even more seed. It is a love that will cross continents to save the lost. A love that tries not to win arguments but to win disciples for Jesus. A love that can turn the other cheek. A love that can pray for its enemies and seek their good. It leads to a life that is full of praise and joy like a room will fill with the fragrance of priceless perfume.
A life lived for Christ and for others in his name is as gift that is as beautiful and appropriate as when Mary poured out priceless perfume on Jesus’ head. Because Jesus’ gift for us, his life for ours, is a love so extravagant that it demands nothing less than our all.