Psalm 126 | John 12:1-8
As many of you know, Brie and I were both English majors which means, among other things, that we love stories. We love to read them in books, to watch them in plays and movies, and even, occasionally, to write them ourselves.
Whenever you study something at length, you move beyond a general appreciation and get down into the nuances and intricacies of the subject, you begin to explore how things work. A biologist might begin with a general love for animals, but soon they will learn about specific animals, what makes them so unique – where they live, what they eat, how their bodies operate, how they mate and raise their young, what other plants and animals they rely on, what other plants and animals rely on them.
A business major might start out with a dream of running their own business. But in taking business classes they will learn the ins and outs of how to make that business successful – how to develop a business plan, how to create a cost/benefit analysis, how to determine market desirability, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t know anything about.
Well, the same is true of English majors. We start with a love of stories, but overtime we begin to learn what makes a story a good story, especially if we’re trying to write some ourselves. Some of the things that make for a well-written story are good dialogue, setting, description, and plot. Another important element of good story writing, one that I’d like to focus on today, is character development. It’s important that the reader or viewer becomes invested in the characters in the book, that they understand where the character’s coming from, that they feel they have some kind of stake in the outcome. In Lord of the Rings, you want to see Frodo, Sam, Aragorn, Gandalf, and the rest succeed, because you care about them. As you read the books you come to care about Middle Earth, and you want to see goodness overcome evil.
For my senior thesis, I wrote a book of short stories. One of the challenges of writing short stories is that you don’t have very much time to develop your characters. You have to grab your readers attention quickly. They have to care without getting as much backstory as they would in a novel.
Well, when it comes to reading Scripture on a Sunday morning, we get even less background about characters and events than we would if we were to read a short story. Even short stories are generally at least 10 pages, and, if you’re David Foster Wallace, they can be as many as 50-60 pages. But on an average Sunday morning we’re given less than one page, often less than half a page. Our very short, 8-verse story from John 12 this morning is a perfect example. We are plopped down in the middle of a dinner with somewhere between 5-16 people: Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas, Jesus, and, presumably, the other 11 disciples.
Today I would like to focus on Mary, and I would like to do a little character development, so that we can know her better, so we can be more invested in the story we’ve heard today, so that, perhaps, we can find a bit of ourselves in her, though, if we’re honest, we’ll find a bit of ourselves in Judas as well.
Remembering who this Mary – Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus – is is no easy task. Least of all because there are (probably) two other prominent Mary’s in the Gospels – Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Some people think Mary Madgalene and Mary of Bethany are the same person, but I don’t think so. So those of us who aren’t very familiar with the Bible are confused because we don’t know who Mary is, period, and those of us who know the Bible a little better are also confused, because we’re trying to remember which Mary this one is.
It’s really a shame that Mary isn’t more well-known (no doubt this has something to do with her gender). We know Peter and John and Paul, but we are a bit hazy about Mary. And yet, she’s been called “the ideal disciple” – something we certainly can’t say about Peter.
Mary is a central character in two other stories in Scripture, though she was probably present for other events as well. Let’s turn to those for the sake of character development. Let’s get to know this ideal disciple a bit better.
The first story I would like to look at is Luke 10:38-42. If you’d like to follow along you can turn in your Bibles to page 55 in the NT half of your Bibles. Read Luke 10:38-42.
In this story, Mary is identified as one who sits at the feet of Jesus, which is the position of a disciple. This is a radical place for her to be, because, in Jesus’ day, Rabbis only allowed men to be their disciples. But Jesus wants Mary there. Jesus wants women there. Jesus affirms her equal worth as a disciple. We don’t know what Jesus says, but Mary is enraptured. She won’t let anything distract her from Jesus and his words of life. While Martha bustles about trying to serve Jesus, Mary receives from Jesus, which is where we all must start, and where we must return, again and again.
How often we are like Martha, bustling about, thinking this life of faith is primarily about doing, thinking we have to prove ourselves, rarely stopping to simply receive, rarely admitting our great need, rarely recognizing that we rely on grace. I know I’m guilty of this. But Mary reminds us that faith begins with sitting silently at the feet of our Savior. All our goodness flows out of the goodness of our Maker. All our good works flow out of the One who created us for good works. All our love flows out of the one who is Love itself.
1 John 4:19 says, “We love because he first loved us.” Romans 5:6, 8 says, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly…God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” The Gospel of John, from which our reading today comes, says in the first chapter, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” To be disciples is, first and foremost to receive. What is it we’re receiving? Love, grace, fullness. This is what Mary receives as she sits at the feet of Jesus, the Christ. This is what we receive as well if we will only stop our bustling and sit at the feet of that same Christ.
Mary and Martha appear again in John 11, right before our story today. In this well-known story, Jesus raises their brother, Lazarus, from the dead. Jesus learns that Lazarus is sick, but waits 2 days to leave for Bethany. In the meantime Lazarus dies. When Jesus arrives in Bethany, Martha rushes to meet him, but Mary stays home. Only after Martha has a conversation with Jesus and then calls Mary, telling her “The Teacher is here and is calling for you,” does Mary get up and go to Jesus. She kneels before him, and refers to him as Lord, but her first words have a tinge of accusation: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She then begins to weep, and when Jesus sees her weeping, he also begins to weep. In this interaction, Mary remains a disciple, but she doesn’t hide her feelings, her disappointment, her frustration. As we discussed a few Sundays ago, prayer is making our problems God’s problems, and in this story Mary pulls Jesus into her loss and her sorrow, she makes her problem Jesus’ problem. And Jesus takes it on. Her weeps becomes his weeping. And then, after they have a good cry together, Jesus calls Lazarus out of the tomb, and raises him from the dead. Mary sees all this, and so she serves as a witness to what Jesus has done. To be a disciple is to be a witness. It’s to attest to the things God has done in our lives, and in the lives of others.
These stories give us some backstory, they help us fill in the shape of Mary of Bethany. No doubt she is more than all this, but she is not less. She is a disciple – the ideal disciple – who sits at the feet of Jesus and learns from him. She is one who is honest and upfront when she feels Jesus has let her down, and yet she continues to call him Lord and to trust him. She’s one who pulls Jesus into her sorrow, invites him into her suffering, seeks consolation from the great Comforter himself. And she is a witness to what Jesus has done in her own life, and in the life of another (her brother Lazarus).
This is who Mary is when she approaches Jesus suddenly, out of nowhere, with an expensive jar of perfume. Her newly resurrected brother, Lazarus, is sitting there, alive, eating and drinking, breathing. Her sister Martha can’t help herself, she’s bustling about again, serving everyone. And there’s a rag-tag crew of men referred to as “the disciples,” though they have so often failed where she has succeeded, they are the ones who have so often misunderstood Jesus, failed to sit at his feet, who have argued about who is greatest instead of being servants as Mary serves Jesus today, men who will abandon their leader in his time of need. And yet history will give them the praise and adoration. They’ll be the ones who are remembered, the ones made into stained glass windows in big churches, the ones cathedrals will be named after. While they are all talking and laughing and eating, Mary approaches. She has sat at the foot of her Savior. She has heard him validate her as a disciple. She has wept with him outside the tomb of a loved one. She is one who has received. Grace upon grace. She has been extravagantly loved, and so she cannot help but extravagantly love in return.
Let’s think of the jar not as a jar, but as Mary herself, and let’s think of the perfume not as a pound of nard, but of the love she has received from Christ himself. She has been filled up to the brim with the love and grace of God, conveyed to her through Jesus Christ, and now she returns it to the one from whom it came. Out of Jesus’ great love for her, love is born in her.
And now, finally, the one who is always giving, who is always healing, always preaching, always being attacked by his opponents, tirelessly setting his wayward disciples straight – Jesus – in a rare moment of beauty, let’s himself receive. He lets his love come back to him. The room is filled with its fragrance. The laughter stops. The eating and drinking stop. Everyone turns to see Mary, weeping as she wept at the tomb of her brother, but this time not out of sorrow but out of joy, out of love. She wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair, and the perfume – the love she set aside for him – is now, again, on her, in her hair. She can’t escape it. She can’t reserve it only for him. She can’t love him without being filled with love herself, can’t bless him without being blessed. That’s how the love of God works. The fragrance fills the room. It’s on his feet. It’s in her hair. It’s permeating the air. Everyone smells it. Everyone is touched by it, filled with it.
I want to be like Mary. I want to sit at the feet of Jesus, I want to be filled with the love of Christ. I want people to smell it on me. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says that we are just that, a fragrant offering, filling the world with the aroma of Christ. You see, Mary doesn’t consider the cost. She doesn’t think about the worth of the perfume. Instead she’s led only by love, by gratitude, by worship.
But it’s hard to live in such a way, because to do so we must believe the unbelievable, accept the unacceptable, that God loves you as you are. That God isn’t angry or mad or disappointed in you, but that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” That before we loved God, God loved us. That in Jesus Christ, God has come into the world, and we have received from him grace upon grace.
When we don’t receive the Good News, when we don’t accept that we are accepted, then the “spring of water gushing up to eternal life,” becomes just a trickle. Jesus’ teachings begin to sound like obligations not opportunities. We cease to be moved by love for one another and for the world. We become like Judas, thinking of service as something to be calculated, thinking of our resources – time, money, energy – as limited goods to be parsed up and used sparingly. Meanwhile Jesus sits among us in the poor, the tired, the abused, and the marginalized. But we withhold our love because we believe our resources are limited. We love sparingly. We reserve our limited resources for another day, another time.
Just to clear up one thing – Jesus’ last line, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me,” has been used as an excuse to discount the needs of the poor, but it should do the opposite. First of all, Jesus is referencing Deuteronomy 15:11, which does say you’ll always have the poor with you, but then follows that up with “therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’” The point is not to ignore the poor, but to care for them. Secondly, we don’t have Jesus with us the way Mary did, and in Matthew 25 Jesus says he is among us as the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the naked, and the imprisoned. So, to lavishly, extravagantly care for Jesus today is to lavishly, extravagantly care for the poor. But our care won’t be lavish or extravagant if it’s motivated by fear or obligation instead of love. Obligation elicits the bare minimum. Love elicits excess.
I must admit that I have been guilty of being motivated not out of love, but out of obligation (fear?). For example, if I’m not filled with the love of God myself, if I’m not motivated by gratitude, then opportunities for ministry can become obligations that drain me instead of filling me up. When it comes to church ministries I can get bogged down in questions like, “Do we have enough volunteers? Can we afford the costs that might arise?” Maybe you can relate? Maybe volunteer opportunities become a drain on your down time. Maybe prayer become an obligation that gets in the way of Netflix. Maybe Sunday mornings becomes a responsibility and not worship.
But what if we approached our children, our neighbors, our God, with a spirit of generosity? What if we didn’t serve them because we should, but because the love of Christ has filled us compels us to do so, because we can’t not share that which we have received? What if prayer wasn’t an obligation but an opportunity to receive the love of God? What if we allowed ourselves to be defined by that love, filled with that love? And then, what if we poured out our love like Mary poured out that perfume? What if we returned it first to the God who is love, but then it spread, permeating the world, so that the resurrected Lazaruses who have grown silent, the service-minded Marthas bustling throughout the world without reprieve, the sinner/saint disciples, so often striving and so often failing, even the betraying Judases among us could smell it, a sweet smelling aroma that comes from knowing Christ?
What if it drew their eyes to Jesus, the one in whom God’s love was made manifest? The one who came with the message that “God so loved the world…?” What if they found themselves sitting at his feet (even Judas!)? What if they received grace upon grace?
What if we all became jars filled up and poured out, filled up and poured out, filled up and poured out…?
 H. Stephen Shoemaker, Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2, 141.
 Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, 29.