Isaiah 43.16-21, John 12.1-8
All Age worship at Seal is an interactive, informal experience. This month we started with a "smelly" quiz, passing round pots with various different smells in them - lemon, peppermint, rose, frankincense, lavender and a mystery sixth smell, which no one could identify - very pungent, not really all that pleasant, but unmissable. Eventually I revealed it to be nard, the ointment with which Mary anointed Jesus in today's Gospel reading. The script which follows is just a guideline to the talk during the service - actually it didn't quite come out like this, but it gives an idea of what we were thinking about.
This is a strange story. Mary of Bethany comes to Jesus at dinner and pours out some very precious ointment on his feet, wiping them with her hair. Judas is offended – he thinks it is a waste. Whether the narrator is right to say that he didn’t really care about the poor is something we can’t know, but you notice that none of the other disciples protests, so perhaps they are thinking the same. It is, frankly, all a bit embarrassing for the disciples – an extravagant and passionate gesture. But they can’t avoid it. Even if they shut their eyes so they couldn’t see it, they know it is happening.
Why? Because they can smell it. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
There are lots of things we can say about this story.
It is a sign of Mary’s love for Jesus. She and her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus are great friends of his. He often seems to have found a welcome at their house.
This story takes place in the week leading up to Jesus’ arrest – he knows he is facing danger. This very human gesture of love must be really precious to him at this stage.
But the story is about more than that.
Smells, as we said earlier, can carry powerful messages, and this perfume is no exception. It was scented with something we have smelt this morning – nard, or spikenard. It was a fantastically expensive perfume and it was used medicinally as a sedative, but also to anoint the dead when they were buried.
This household at Bethany know a thing or two about death – the reading told us why.
Lazarus, Mary and Martha’s brother had died, just a short time before this story took place – it is in John Chapter 11. My guess is that this nard was bought for him – that’s why they had it hanging around. But Lazarus didn’t stay dead, because Jesus, as this story tells us raised him from the dead. He’d been buried for several days. His sister, Martha was worried when Jesus wanted to go to the tomb. Even with the nard, she was afraid there would be a horrible smell, but Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb, and out he came.
To us this seems utterly unbelievable, but it’s important to know that it wouldn’t have done to the people who first heard this story. We live in a scientific age. We think of life and death in biological terms – nothing can defy the laws of biology. But ancient peoples didn’t think of it that way. To them life and death were in God’s hands. He could give life, and take it away, and give it back again if he chose to. They wouldn’t have seen rising from the dead as impossible at all – it was up to God. When Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb the surprise for them was that God had chosen to do this, something which meant to them that God was working through Jesus and that he was doing something new.
Do you recall the words of that first reading we heard right at the beginning of the service? God, it said, was a God who could do new things, a God who wanted to do new things. Then he was going to take the people who were in exile in Babylon back home – they never expected that. Mary has seen that Jesus is someone through whom God does new things too. He raised her brother from death, so who knows what is going to happen next. All bets are off with this surprising man around. She can see he is facing death, but who knows how things might turn out…everything is changing.
I don’t think it is any accident that John tells us that this incident happened six days before the Passover – six days before Jesus died according to John. Where else in the bible do we hear of something taking six days?
It is the story of Creation in Genesis 1
This story of Mary of Bethany hints at the new creation which is just around the corner. There will be death, but that’s not the end of the story...
If you want to know more, come along next week and during Holy Week, follow the story as it unfolds.
It is a reminder to us that we might think we know what to expect, that everything in the future must be the same as it has been in the past, but we may be wrong.
Maybe we have never got along with someone, and we think it will always be like that – if we think that, it certainly will.
Perhaps we think we haven’t achieved much, and it will be always be like that. If we think that way, it certainly will be so.
Perhaps we look around the world and feel that nothing can change in the conflicts we see around us. If we think that way then that is likely to be what will happen.
Instead God calls us to open our minds to a new creation. To let him do something new in us.