Menu Close
3rd April 2022

Are we wasting our time?

Passage: John 12;1-8


My parents were quite poor when I was a child and my mother once had not enough money to pay the fuel bill, so she asked my father for more. He reacted angrily and they had a blazing row. Dad then felt so guilty that he went and bought Mum a present to say sorry. Nice gesture, but, Mum thought, if he had just given her the money he spent on that present, she would have had enough to pay the bill and they need not have had a row in the first place. Logic does not always figure strongly in human relationships, does it?

So, what would you have done, if you had been sitting around that table in Bethany, watching Mary pour expensive perfumed oils over Jesus’ feet? This story appears in all four Gospels and the same objection is raised in three out of the four: why pour costly oil over someone’s feet when you could be spending the money on something far more useful?

Anointing was a mark of supreme respect in the culture of Jesus’ day. It was done on two occasions: the coronation of the monarch (we still do that) and the preparation of a dead body for burial: the final act of devotion to a person you loved. But this was denied to executed criminals. Their bodies were not anointed but flung into rubbish pits.

If you read immediately before and after this story, you hear how Jewish leaders wanted Jesus dead. They did not dare kill him themselves because of his popularity, so were fitting him up with a crime for which Rome would apply the death penalty. Mary, Martha and Lazarus were among Jesus’ closest friends. They would have had a fair idea of what was going on and probably foresaw, as Jesus himself foresaw, that he was heading for a criminal’s death. Which was why Mary wanted to demonstrate her love and respect by anointing Jesus now.
We say that we are living in a scientific age and we are. We have learned so much about cause and effect: this action will produce this result. We are getting to understand more and more about why the universe is as it is; what makes the human body work; what makes the human brain function or malfunction. This tends perhaps to make us rather pragmatic, asking of what practical use is this particular learning, this course of action, this ambition? We produce charts and records to demonstrate the usefulness of everything from the NHS to the corner pharmacy; from the huge concert venue to the village hall; from the Sunday morning football to the Sunday morning church. And that is not a bad thing. Time, strength and resources are precious, and we should use them responsibly.

But Mary’s anointing of Jesus put me in mind of those special memories people create when they know that either they or someone they love is dying. It is the bucket list. Precious time together on a special holiday, swimming with dolphins, driving a racing car, meeting a celebrity. One terminally ill teenager I knew went to a hospice where she could invite her friends for a sleepover, with exciting activities for them all to share.

You might ask, “what use is this in the face of death?” And one answer would be “none.” These activities are not going to cure a fatal illness. But the time comes when pragmatism is not enough for us and never more so when you or someone you love faces death. Suddenly, you are looking at a whole new set of priorities generated by love, by respect, by mortality, by joy and sorrow, tears and laughter, gratitude and urgency. Your choices are no longer governed by assessing their practical “use” but by the effect they might have on your whole sense of human identity as you enter a time of crisis.

Jesus Christ was as pragmatic as the next person. He produced food for hungry people; he cured physical and mental illness; he talked about “counting the cost” when you made a decision; he spoke out against political corruption and religious hypocrisy. He lived in the “real” world.
But he also knew that there was more to humanity than the purely physical; which was why he talked of giving living water that would quench the thirst in your soul; bread of life, that would give you strength for your inner journey; fruit of the true vine, which would keep you connected to him and all who believe in him.

I was reading the other day of how, when we live purely as physical beings, everything in the universe becomes an object, something external we can pick up and use as we wish. And this includes other people: they are here to achieve something in our lives which can be measured: create wealth, construct houses, keep the peace, get our children through their exams. If they fail to reach the measures we expect of them, we look for alternatives. This extends to religion, asking what “use” is it? Do you ever notice in this church that, when we ask for a comments on, say, Christmas or Easter services, the first response is nearly always in terms of how many people attended? We measure the ”worth” of our worship in terms of bottoms on seats. And when religious cynics question the worth of a faith they will look at the practical results: is that faith feeding the hungry? Is that God healing the seriously ill? Is that religion creating peace or is it stirring up trouble?

Again, these are reasonable questions. They are just not enough. What happens when we fall in love? When we let another right into our heart and soul, all kinds of things happen. That person is longer an object outside of ourselves. They are part of our very being. Even if they do nothing to increase our income or enlarge our home, they transform our lives. Because they make us into the people we become. Whereas, whilst people remain “0bjects,” external to ourselves, they are in danger of becoming targets for war, abuse, exploitation and discrimination. Psalm 133 actually says that when we live in love and unity it is just like precious, perfumed oil filling our lives with fragrance.
And how do you measure the usefulness of that? Ask Mary of Bethany. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&
Faith, as I see it, has to begin with pure love: God’s love for us and our love for God. We are told many times in the Bible that God does not measure out his love according to the standards of our actions. “You do this much and I’ll love you that much.” God loves us simply because we are ourselves. We find it hard to get our heads around this because we are so used to assessing ourselves by what we have or what we achieve or how we behave.
But if God is God- vaster than anything in the universe, in time in eternity, then God must know the whole of us. And if God is-as our St John said- love, then he must love the whole of us. So, whilst the good works of a religion are incredibly valuable and necessary; if that religion is not inspiring you to love and to be loved by God, it is letting you down. For if our human relationships transform our lives by involving the deepest parts of ourselves, how much more will the love of God save us from sin, protect us from spiritual destruction, strengthen us to cope with life, enable us to grow until every aspect of our lives convinces us and those who know us that we are indeed his children?

Whether Christian worship is High Church ritual or Pentecostal praise; whether it is conducted for three people or three thousand; whether they gather in a beautiful, listed building or a scruffy hut; if it is not inspiring people to leave knowing that they are loved by God and wanting to love God more, it is not true worship. And no matter how impressive the programme of teaching or community service, if love for God is not at its heart, it is not true church. There is a powerful Christian argument for being generous to the poor and St John was not criticising Judas for making this argument but because Judas did not love the poor and nor did he love Jesus. He only loved money and he would betray not only Jesus but his own soul for money. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

I was thinking- when Jesus, shortly after that supper in Bethany, was taken away and crucified, his disciples had nothing. They had left their homes and security to follow him and, any minute now the Roman soldiers might come after them. They had their love for Jesus but a pitiful thing that seemed, after they had abandoned him. And, as for Jesus’ love for them, don’t ask. How could he possibly still love them after they had let him down so badly? They had nothing left worth living for. All they could do was hide themselves away.

And yet, that pitiful little spark of love was fanned by the holy Spirit of God into a great flame. And that flame sparked off the sharing of the Christian Gospel into all the world. And the Christian Gospel- when rooted securely in God’s love and God’s amazing grace- brought hope and life; faith and love; justice and peace to millions upon millions. It was a force that changed the world.

Mary’s anointing of Jesus with precious perfumed oils shows, I believe, the need for faith to be rooted in love; for human men and women to recognise their spiritual as well as physical longings; for every Christian church to set its highest priority as enabling people to love God and to accept God’s love for them. Then, as David Cornick, former general Secretary of the URC, wrote in a prayer for this Sunday “Jesus takes all our love and makes it the energy of his kingdom.” Amen.