Sermon from 3/13/2016
It’s hard to allow the different gospel writers to speak in their own voices. We conflate the gospel witnesses to become one story. Add to that story centuries of tradition and it’s hard to let the individual gospel writers have a unique voice.
This morning’s story is one of those that is difficult to hear through John’s voice because there is similar story in Luke’s gospel – and there is a lot of tradition caught up with the story!
In Luke’s gospel, the woman is unnamed. She came to the house of one of the Pharisees when that Pharisee was hosting Jesus at dinner. Her actions were disparaged by Jesus’ host. Jesus responded by affirming the deep gratitude that the woman had expressed – a woman who knew the depth of God’s grace and forgiveness that had been bestowed upon her through Jesus.
In John’s story, the woman is named – Mary. This Mary is known to us as the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. These three were close friends of Jesus. It is a very different story from the one in Luke’s gospel. One of the aspects we too easily miss is that it is part of a larger story – the story of Jesus raising Lazarus. In John’s gospel, an initial event sets in motion an extended exploration of its meaning and its consequences. We have to begin to hear this story as a continuation of the story of Lazarus emerging from the tomb.
Right after Lazarus emerged from the tomb, John’s gospel tells us:
“Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and seen what Jesus did [calling forth Lazarus], believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done….Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘…You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’…So from that day on they planned to put him to death.”
Instead of seeing the raising of Lazarus as a sign of God’s redeeming presence, the leaders saw it as a threat – a threat to be eliminated. Just before this passage we’re told, “Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.”
This story of Mary anointing Jesus with the costly perfume follows. Although there are indications that there was a secular practice of anointing throughout the Middle East – to indicate gladness, biblically, the notion of anointing is of someone being consecrated, set aside or set apart for God’s service. This is especially true in the New Testament.
The Pharisees and the chief priests saw Jesus as a threat. Mary saw him as God’s anointed – a reality she made public by anointing his feet with this costly nard. Her actions demonstrated her ability to see something different from what the chief priests or Pharisees saw. Her actions even challenged the perceptions of others close to Jesus – his own disciples. Her anointing was an act that declared her belief that Jesus was “the resurrection and the life.” Her anointing pointed to God’s anointing of Jesus as the beloved Son, the one who throughout his life would be faithful to God’s ways and impart God’s very presence. She didn’t change who Jesus was. She didn’t set him apart. But, through her actions she publically declared her faith in who Jesus was, his life and his witness. It was, in some ways, a dangerous declaration. After all, there was a price on Jesus’ head!
Today, we celebrate the sacrament of baptism. I can’t tell you how many times throughout my ministry that I’ve had a parent say to me, “We need to get our child done!” We struggle with the notion that somehow in this sacrament we are “doing” something to make a child (or adult) acceptable to God. Baptism becomes the church’s “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval” that ensures acceptance in the heavenly realms.
But, we don’t force God. We don’t make children or adults acceptable to God through this sacrament. This is our affirmation of a Godly reality that is not always evident in the world. Today, we join together to proclaim that these children are God’s children, known, created, called, and loved. In a world that is driven to label – often in destructive ways – we proclaim the label that matters above all others: “You are God’s child!”
In this sacrament, we commit to letting that label, God’s child, be the primary label in this place. No matter what the world says, here, we see each other as those created in the image of God –known, called, and loved by God. We promise God to nurture that knowledge in the children who are baptized – and in each other. It is a counter-cultural thing to do in a society that quickly judges and often dismisses or condemns. It is not easy, for the world tells us to label and to judge on the basis of so many things. But here, we remember, and we strive to live by the one label that matters – God’s children. Our actions proclaim that knowledge.
Mary’s anointing of Jesus is an interlude in the story of the growing opposition to Jesus and the rising threats against his life. Her act is remembered as a testament to the reality of who Jesus was. When we gather, when we share these sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, we are proclaiming a reality that the world often refuses to see – that all are created in God’s image and that all are invited to feast at God’s table.
Christmas Eve Service
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