We begin a new Sermon Series today entitled “Encounters.” It speaks of some of the major players in the Easter story, their face-to-face encounters with Jesus, and the implications of their experience for our lives today. This series is not being offered because the subject should be interesting for you. Rather, it is shared to give you the opportunity to experience for yourself a personal encounter with Jesus. It is hoped that in the context of their stories, in the margins and shadows of their lives, you’ll recognize glimpses and echoes of your life.
We start with Mary. You remember her; she had a sister named Martha and a brother named Lazarus. I’m confident you’ve heard of them and remember their stories at least in part. Jesus, in a way, foretold the significance of Mary in the context of His life and His story in this way:
“I tell you the truth, wherever the Good News is preached throughout the world, this woman’s deed will be remembered and discussed” (Mark 14:9, NLT).
Those words remind me of the title of Bonnie Raitt’s 1991 hit single, “Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About.” Mary gave those gathered that evening something to talk about, something that is still being talked about even today, almost 2,000 years later. We remember Mary not because of the extravagance of her gift, but because of her sacrifice. It reflected the purity and devotion of her character, even in the midst of the challenges she faced. Such is the reason her gift was so honored by Jesus’ words and remains endearing to those who hear it even now. Let’s take a look at her sacrifice, those challenges and their implications for us today.
1. Mary’s gift was offered at a risky time.
“Six days before the Passover celebration began, Jesus arrived in Bethany, the home of Lazarus—the man he had raised from the dead” (John 12:1, NLT)
The Passover at that time was a major festival, akin to the American observance of the 4th of July, in its marking of an event in their history when they realized an identity as a nation. During that celebration, within the city walls of Jerusalem, a resident population of 50, 000 grew to a throng of more than 250,000, all celebrating with the fervor of Jewish patriots.
“When all the people heard of Jesus’ arrival, they flocked to see Him and also to see Lazarus, the man Jesus had raised from the dead. Then the leading priests decided to kill Lazarus, too, for it was because of him that many of the people had deserted them and believed in Jesus” (John 12:9-11, NLT).
Let’s indulge ourselves in a flashback to Chapter 11 of John’s Gospel. Jesus heard of Lazarus’ illness through messengers, went to see him after a delay of several days, and was met by Martha and Mary. They both lashed out that if he had come sooner, their brother would not have died four days before. Jesus goes the tomb where they had laid Lazarus, instructed the men to roll away the stone, and called Lazarus to come out, resurrecting Lazarus from the dead with those word.
Caiaphas, the High Priest, was the most powerful political figure within the city of Jerusalem. When he heard of what Jesus had done, he considered how Jesus’ actions were responsible for people abandoning the Jewish faith and following Him. Because of the religious and political ramifications, Caiaphas literally puts “a hit” out on Jesus, a price on his head. You can imagine something akin to “Wanted Posters” for Jesus on every corner, street sign, light pole, and Post Office in Jerusalem. It was three months later when Jesus arrives in Bethany, a virtual suburb of Jerusalem, for a meal at which He is the guest of honor. To put it mildly, it was a tense, risky time to be there!
So, of what relevance is this dynamic of Mary’s story to us today? If we choose to do something for Jesus that people will talk about, there’s not a convenient time. We can’t wait until a convenient time to offer to teach a Sunday School class or to sing a solo in worship or serve the church in an official capacity. There absolutely is not a convenient time to step out for Jesus!! All of us takes risks – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – when we step out for Jesus and do, like Mary, what we feel God is leading us to do. For us, any time we choose to respond to such a calling upon our lives, we do so, in what it means to us, as nothing less than a risky time!
2. Mary’s gift was offered in a difficult place.
“A dinner was prepared in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, and Lazarus was among those who ate with him” (John 12:2, NLT).
Imagine a low u-shaped table, a table low enough to the ground that the men, on the outside of the tables, lay on pillows on the floor. They would recline on their left elbow, grabbing their food with their right hand. In that position, their feet would be extended away from the table and they would be facing the person to their right. At the top of U would be the host and to his right, the honored guest. In the case of the meal Jesus attended, it was He sitting to the host’s right as the honored guest. Inside the U was the women’s space, not a place for reclining and enjoying the meal, but a place in which they were serving the men. Martha was busy serving on that side of the tables when, out of the corner of her eye, she catches a glimpse of Mary.
There she was, in the “man zone,” stepping over the feet of men, approaching Jesus with a pint jar. Not only was she intruding in an area that was unacceptable for a woman to be, she was seen by Martha and all the invited guests pouring ointment on the feet of Jesus as she was poised in-between the feet of Jesus and the host. Who was the host? John’s Gospel gives us no indication, but Mark made his identity known in his telling of Mary’s story:
“While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head” (Mark 14:3).
While what she did with the oil (very expensive perfume) differs in the two accounts, tradition and commentators understand it to be the same incident related in today’s Gospel lesson.
The relevance of this detail of Mary’s story to our lives today is that if we are to do something for Jesus, something that is extraordinary and worth others talking and gossiping about, it will take place not only at a risky time but also in a difficult place! I don’t know about you, but I would definitely consider kneeling between the feet of two men – between two pairs of feet that had never been covered or protected as they walked the dirt pathways of the day – to be unsavory at least. Considering that the feet of the host had once borne the open sores of leprosy would make it even less pleasant and more difficult! When do we ever find ourselves in a comfortable situation when we feel led to witness of our faith or confront others with the truth of Christ? It will always be at a risky time and in a difficult place.
Tanner was an average High School Junior Varsity football player in Amarillo Texas. He had the simple personal goal of seeing every team member in his church on Sunday morning. He was never reluctant to invite his teammates on a regular basis to come to church with him, but his efforts never yielded the results he envisioned. An unfortunate season-ending back injury didn’t stop Tanner from being at every team practice and every game. Whether at practice or a game, he was seen on the sidelines, serving the team and cheering them on. The fact that he was always there never went unnoticed by his teammates. He was there and it gained a newfound respect of him from those teammates.
Throughout the remainder of the season, his injuries never diminished his desire and tenacity in inviting his teammates to church. They began to respond. First there five who were there one Sunday morning. In the following weeks, their number grew to 10, then 15, 20, 30. The number of his teammates in church on any given Sunday grew to where half the team was present. This prompted his coach to ask if he could borrow the church van to pick them up and take them home. One day after practice, the coach pulled Tanner aside and congratulated him on getting half of the team in church. Tanner’s humble response was simply, “Coach, half was never my goal, I want the whole team to come to Christ!”
In the months that followed, a new chapter was added to Tanner’s story. He and his parents began taking endless flights from their home in Amarillo to Houston. It was there that extensive treatments for cancer were a regular part of their lives – not for his dad or his mom, but for Tanner. On those countless flights, Tanner would always insist that his parents never sit beside him. Without them at his side, it gave him the opportunity to sit beside one, sometimes several, strangers. He insisted that those flights gave him the greatest joy because they gave him the opportunity to tell strangers about Jesus!
His story and his example begs the question for us – what are you doing to tell others about Jesus? Likewise, Mary’s story and her example challenges us to ask of ourselves what we are doing at a risky time and in the difficult place in which we find ourselves in today’s world to tell others about Jesus?
3. Mary’s gift was a costly gift.
“Then Mary took a twelve-ounce jar of expensive perfume made from essence of nard, and she anointed Jesus’ feet with it, wiping his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance” (John 12:3, NLT).
Ladies, right now you are probably thinking to yourself, “Okay, at some level I can understand her use of an expensive perfume, but then to wipe it from His feet with her hair!!” What we know of that which she poured on the feet of Jesus was that it was made of pure nard. It was either in the form of an oil or ointment imported from the Himalayas in India. It was super expensive as described by Judas as “. . . worth a year’s wages” (John 12:5, NLT).
Think about it – Mary was in the same room as her brother who, just a few months before, was dead and now he’s alive – what’s that worth? Others, including some of the disciples said of her gift, “that’s too much!” Can’t you imagine Mary thinking to herself, “that’s not enough!”
What it is worth to you to be able to bring your kids and your grandkids to church where they can learn about Jesus in a friendly environment? What is it worth to sit in a variety of settings in the church on any given day of the week to fellowship with others as you talk freely about the blessings and challenges of life and the goodness of God? What is it worth to recognize that your church is making intentional efforts to reach the hurting and the lost with God’s love and envisioning new ways to do more in the future? Can you put a price tag on any of that? When you start counting your blessings, you should stop counting the cost! Think about that last sentence for a moment – when you start counting your blessings, you should stop counting the cost! Write that down! I’m of the opinion that that’s at least Twitter and Facebook worthy!
Did you realize that her action that evening was not the only time Mary was at His feet? Several mentions of her sitting at Jesus’ feet, listening to His teachings, are found in Scripture:
“As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me” (Luke 10:38-40).
Jesus answered Martha’s question with a firm but compassionate no:
“There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42, NLT).
Mary had a habit of sitting at the feet of Jesus and truly listening to His every word. Out of those experiences, she came to know and understand the reality of His impending death like no one else! She saw that meal as her last chance to properly honor Him and prepare Him for His funeral. If you are wanting to do something to honor Him, something that will advance the work of the Church, the work of His Kingdom, something worthy of others talking about, it will require a sacrifice, a giving of yourself that is nothing less than a costly gift!
Becky and Kevin were High School Seniors. Gunner and Tammy were also, but with special needs. Out of their love of God, Becky and Kevin chose to befriend them and act as their hall buddies. As such, they would ensure that their disabled friends always made it to their classes on time, always had someone to eat lunch with, always had someone who cared about them. As the date for the Senior Prom approached, Becky and Kevin made a decision that would forever alter their memories of that special evening. Becky took the money that she had been saving for her Prom dress and purchased one for Tammy instead. In so doing, she knew that Gunner and Tammy would enjoy the experience of Senior Prom while she and Kevin would not. The conscious decision was theirs for their special needs friends to attend the Prom at their expense.
On the night of the Prom, Gunner and Tammy joined Kevin and Becky for dinner at Becky’s house. Unlike so many others, Gunner and Tammy had no interest in going to the Prom in a limousine. Both loved the big green trolley used for public transportation. Kevin rented one for the evening and it appeared at Becky’s house at the appointed time. As they arrived at the school, Gunner and Tammy could be seen leaning out of the windows of that green trolley, grinning from ear to ear, waving frantically to the crowd. The trolley stopped at the red carpet where others had disembarked their limousines and walked the length of it to the cheers and applauds of parents and classmates gathered. As Gunner and Tammy walked the red carpet, everyone offered their loudest cheers and their greatest applauds of the evening for them.
What does Becky and Kevin’s story say about sharing Jesus? Every kid in their High School, every parent there that evening knew Becky and Kevin. They knew that the young couple had literally sacrificed their own Senior Prom. They knew they did it out of their love for Gunner and Tammy and their love of Jesus who sacrificed His life for them! When you start counting your blessings, stop calculating the cost!
4. Mary’s gift was offered before a critical audience.
“But Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would soon betray him, said, ‘That perfume was worth a year’s wages. It should have been sold and the money given to the poor.” (John 12:4-5, NLT).
In Mark’s Gospel, the other disciples chimed in, putting Mary down. Martha didn’t defend her for Mary was on the wrong side of the table. Simon the Leper was likely miffed because she was now the center of attention at the head table, not him! Nobody appreciated or liked what she was doing except Jesus and that was enough for her! In doing something worthy of others talking about us at the mention of His name, we should be doing it because we are focused on His approval and no one else’s! One of the reasons Mary bestowed her lavish gift upon Jesus was because He had given her brother back. Isn’t the reality that He offers us the assurance of eternal life through his death and resurrection sufficient reason for us to offer lavish gifts and the sacrifice of ourselves to Him, to His church, and to His kingdom?
Let’s take a step back and look at that conversation between Jesus and Martha at the occasion of the resurrection of Lazarus:
“Jesus told her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die. Do you believe this, Martha?” (John 11:25-26, NLT).
If you believe this, are willing to make a lavish sacrifice, a sacrifice of yourself, whatever that might looks like for you? If you do, are you willing to face the same four challenges that Mary did – a risky time, a difficult place, a costly gift, and a critical audience? If you feel in your heart the urge to do something for God that is worth others talking about at the mention of His name, it is likely an urge that is prompted by the Holy Spirit. Understand clearly that, regardless of how strong the urge, it will never be realized or fulfilled unless you are willing to take the risks!
Our Take Away from Mary’s story and its implications for our lives today comes in the form of a question: What is the one thing you are willing to do so that when others are bragging about Jesus and what He’s done in their lives, they’ll also speak of you and what you’ve done?