The Scent of Something New

  • John 12:1-8
  • Isaiah 43:16-21

“Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Two weeks ago in youth worship we used the lectionary texts for today to create Haiku poems and one youth distilled this text down to this:

Mary poured the nard
Judas wanted for the poor.
Jesus: Leave her be.

A cutting to the core of this text in which Mary recognizes the new thing that Jesus is bringing about and honours him for it and in which Judas is stuck in his the patterns of the old and his own deceptions.

This is a story that appears in some for in each of the Gospels – although in some is has a woman (not Mary) doing the anointing, in some it is his head being anointed rather than his feet. In any case the basic pattern is there. John has related a story of celebration and generosity. In some ways it is a story that, like the story of the wedding at Cana shows that Jesus is able to have a good time once in awhile and is not all righteous anger and calm wisdom. It contrasts with the tension filled drama of the previous story in which Lazarus, who was dead, is raised by Jesus thereby brewing up controversy and threat among Jesus’ opponents. John creates in the setting of a dinner party, an atmosphere of friendship and enjoyment that fills the text just as the scent of the perfume filled that room.

And then Judas ruins the mood. I get annoyed just thinking about that party pooper. Some people think that Judas gets a bad rap – is scapegoated by the Gospel writers and other Christians for Jesus death. Whether or not that is true, John, the Gospel writer and perhaps the one described in this Gospel as ‘the disciple that Jesus loved’ is clearly annoyed at Judas and at the intrusion. I can just picture the contentment on the faces of Jesus and the friends reclined around the table, and then transformation to annoyed disbelief on the part of the disciples at Judas’ question. The thought, ‘it wouldn’t be so bad if he was serious but we all know he would just pocket most of the change.’

Yet as is Jesus’ want, he responds to Judas’ comment not in annoyance, but in gentle reprimand, not questioning the motive behind it – after all, Jesus did teach that we should give up all we have and serve the poor – but using this question as a catalyst to teach. In his response, he alludes to the future that we all know is coming. There are very few times for just celebration and fellowship left before Jesus himself will suffer the same fate from which he just saved Lazarus. Living and appreciating this moment of celebration anticipates the nearness of the dramatic events of Passion Week and the dramatic transformation of Easter.

And Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy15, saying ‘you will always have the poor with you,’ knowing that his friends will know the end of the quotation. ‘Therefore, I command you: you shall open your hand wide to your brother, to the needy, to the poor in the land.’ He is not, in fact, dismissing the poor, but commending the same kind of extravagant generosity that he has himself just been shown by his friend Mary. We know little of her circumstances and what she has given up to favor Jesus with this gift.

I read a significant connection in this story to a later story of another meal. A meal where Jesus is the one gently handling the feet of his friends, and where Judas again plays the role of the disruptor of the feast and catalyst to the events of Good Friday and to the joy and celebration of the newness of Easter.

It is indeed a new a fresh thing that God is about to do through Jesus and the scent of Mary’s perfume has become the symbol of her generous and insightful spirit, which perceives where others do not. Luke’s gospel recognizes this spirit in her as well, when in a different story, Luke tells of her sitting at Jesus’ feet and hearing him teach, even as her sister busily prepares and serves.

I greatly admire people like Mary – people who are naturally extravagant in their generousity and quick in their celebration. For those of you familiar with the Meyers Briggs personality profile I am an INTJ. The only aspect of this which is important in this conversation is that I have what was described in some reading I was doing recently as a ‘work ethic’. That is as opposed to my husband, whose profile is very similar to mine in many ways except for one letter (don’t even remember which one – I think he’s a ‘p’ where I’m a ‘j’) but which makes him different from me in that he has a ‘play ethic.’ This doesn’t mean that I want to do work all the time, nor that he never wants to work or doesn’t get things done. It does mean that I have a very difficult time relaxing if there is something left undone, and that I have a constant list of next projects in my head at almost all times. So of course, this is nearly always where Joe and I conflict.

I will also say, that I think for me Joe can be the voice of Jesus to me in telling me to lighten up. I am encouraged to take on more of Mary and let go of preoccupation with the have-to’s of life. If I look at a character in this text that I most identify with it’s definitely not Mary and not even Judas, but probably Martha, who was not thinking of the poor, not taking in the scent of the perfume, but seeing the oily ring that the perfume jar was leaving on the table. Jesus’ words are for her too. And for the disciples who were enjoying the scent of the perfume and the delicious meal but not aware of the momentousness of what was happening.

Jesus might easily have quoted from the Isaiah text that we heard today: “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Isaiah writes this to a people who are still living a life in which they are reciting to each other the stories of creation and exodus as their core stories of redemption and salvation. In their time of exile under cruel kings and in the midst of a community unlike their own, these stories have been sustaining and important. They have told of God’s creative and saving actions for the chosen people in the past. The exiles are reassured that they are still God’s people.

Isaiah is not dismissing that way of thinking altogether, recalls the greatness of a God who can sweep open a great sea. “Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior.” What Isaiah is trying to do is to shake this people into the realization of what God is doing now in their midst. Politically, they are in a much better situation; they have a new king and are perhaps on the verge of their own exodus out of exile and back into their historical home. Brueggeman describes Isaiah as trying to move this people from ‘an ancient recital of miracles’ to the realization of the ‘massive miracle that transforms all life.’

Isaiah uses the imagery of springs in the wilderness to depict the newness that God is creating. Anyone who has lived in a dessert climate will understand this better. Anyone who has lived in Seattle their whole lives might have a more difficult time. I have clear memories of the time when I lived in Jordan, a country that is pretty much dry most of the time, of the dramatic change that the hills would undergo in spring. What had been dry grass and dust through the year, after the heavy rain of winter and early spring, becomes absolutely transformed into carpets of wildflowers. It seems unbelievable and extraordinary that it should be possible. Yet there it is.

And here is another Haiku – this time from Brian – based on the Isaiah text

The Lord made a way
The protection was promised
The people praised him

The people praised him. “When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,” sings the Psalm, “we were like those who were in a dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.'” It is an appropriate response to a beautiful new thing that God is doing.

Just as Isaiah holds in balance the memory of past miracles and the celebration of the new, this Lenten season we have tried to create in the worship and fellowship life of the congregation an atmosphere of both memory and celebration. Already next Sunday we will be celebrating Palm Sunday…Jesus entering the city as triumphant king. Our texts today give us a little taste, encourage us to get ready. Jesus says that Mary is anointing him for the day of his burial…but there is definitely a connotation not only of death, but of kingship in the act of anointing. Jesus is the servant king. We know that he proclaimed his coming as a servant to the poor but he also let himself be served.

Jesus is the new kind of King. I am very interested in the idea of allegiance and in whom I shall put my allegiance. I may have talked about this from the pulpit before. We proclaim our Christian allegiance is in Christ rather than in any power of this world. In Christ, who is offering a new way of living, a new way of operating in the world, a new world view , and in fact new life in himself – in the God of peace. This calls for a response on our part – a response that is in line with the ‘massive miracle’ that God has done in our midst. “Now it springs forth; do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the dessert.”

Breathing in the fresh scent of new life calls us beyond our old patterns of living – of obsession over the past, of the trivial day to day, of the details of the poor and the powerful who will always be with us and who we will always both help and challenge.

In Philippians, Paul remembers his own upright and blameless past as a Pharisee. Yet he, like Mary realizes the newness that Christ offers – catches the whiff of resurrection and reaches forward. “Not that I have obtained it, or have already reached the goal.” He says, “but I press on to make it my own, because Jesus Christ made me his own….forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead.”

When Brueggeman reflects on the text from Isaiah 43, he comments that Biblical faith is about always moving to the future, to God’s coming miracle. It is about living in a ‘fresh present tense.’ We are people of a Biblical faith, called into a Lenten journey to in the present tense, but with an expectation for the new, the fresh.

In Jesus, God is about to do a new thing. Even as we know it has already been, we come closer and closer to the celebration of his death and resurrection. We need to be open to perceive it and to respond with the extravangance of Mary with hospitality – not only for each other, but for the God who made it so.

Annelise’s haiku:

To be one with Christ
The loss of past assumptions…
It brings me closer.