(a sermon for April 7. 2019, the 5th Sunday in Lent, based on John 12:1-8)
The smell of a field of wildflowers in summer, or of a pine forest in early springtime…
…that distinct whiff of a breeze coming off the ocean at low tide;
…the aroma of baking bread, an apple pie fresh out of the oven, and, oh yes, the turkey dinner on Thanksgiving Day (!);
…the distinct fragrance of wood smoke coming from cedar kindling burning in the fireplace;
…even the faintest scent of the perfume that your grandmother used to wear, or of the “Sir Walter Raleigh” pipe tobacco that was your father’s favorite back in the day;
…sometimes that’s all it takes! Years and years may pass; you might live a thousand miles away, and maybe it even involves people and memories that you haven’t thought about in… forever! But then, you’re out somewhere and catch one whiff that one familiar smell… and you’re back: back at Grammie and Grampie’s house when you were just a little kid; back at the hunting camp “shooting the bull” with your father; back out on the beach watching your own children running around, dodging the seagulls and building sand castles. You know what I’m talking about here; for each one of us, there are bound to be some specific fragrances that we forever associate with special times, places and people!
And it’s no mere sentimentality; there’s actually scientific precedent for this. People who study such things tell us that while the memory of words and logic and data go to the so-called “thinking” part of the brain, the memories involved with our five senses – most especially the sense of smell – go to the emotional part of the brain which is known as the amygdala. That’s why the smell of certain foods will always remind us of home; and that’s why even the hint of that one long forgotten but oh-so familiar fragrance brings back a lingering, very precious memory of that loved one and of what he or she meant to us. What happens in such a moment, you see, is that the fragrance enters the nostrils, but then it fills the heart.
Actually, you know, in reading our text for this morning, I wonder if, years later, there was a moment when Mary – perhaps she was out in the marketplace gathering food for the day and there was this lingering scent from someone on the street who passed by her, or maybe there was just the fleeting aroma of something, someone off in the distance – I wonder if suddenly Mary stopped, breathed in deeply, and then said to herself, “Jesus…” I wonder if there was a time when Lazarus – himself having experienced what it was to have been brought from death to life – if he again smelled that perfume and remembered where that glory had come from and who had brought it forth. Or, for that matter, what about Martha, busily serving her guests at the house in Bethany, or the other disciples who were no doubt nearby when Mary broke the alabaster jar and began to anoint Jesus’ feet; was there a time when they once again smelled the sweet smell of perfume that filled the room that day and thus immediately were transported back to the scene, perhaps lost in the memory and sighing a bit as they remembered; perhaps even whispering aloud, “Oh yes… that was the beginning, wasn’t it?”
Like I said before, sometimes the fragrance is all it takes to truly remember.
The thing about this passage from John’s gospel is that it’s deceptively simple. Coming as it does after the raising of Lazarus and just before the “Triumphal Entry” of Palm Sunday, this account of a dinner at Lazarus’ house almost seems like a bit of exposition; a transition, if you will, into the events of the last week of Jesus’ life. I mean, on the face of it, it’s a dinner party, isn’t it; and with everything that implies: good food and conversation shared amongst friends; hospitality to the “max” courtesy of the ever-diligent Martha, and a warm, relaxed atmosphere that lingers well into the night. But then this thing happens that nobody’s expecting: Mary takes this container of perfume made of pure nard – which, by the way, is this very aromatic amber-colored oil derived from plants grown in the Himalayas, of all places; and which was so expensive that scholars estimate that it not only represented a year’s worth of wages in Jesus’ day, but in today’s currency might have had a value of as much as $10,000 (!) – and then proceeds to pour out the lot of it (likely a pint or so) so that she might anoint Jesus’ feet, wiping the excess oil and its perfume with her long, flowing hair!
It is a gesture as extravagant – and as sensual – as it sounds; John, in fact, makes a distinct point of saying that in this moment Lazarus’ “house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” And it’s an amazing moment; though, in all fairness, it’s also a bit confusing. First of all, why wouldn’t Mary simply wash Jesus’ feet, as was customary in terms of offering hospitality to one’s guests? And if she were going to be anointing Jesus, why anoint his feet rather than his head (it’s worth noting, by the way, that in Matthew and Mark’s version of this story, it is Jesus’ head that’s anointed with this precious perfume, which makes Mary’s actions here all the more striking)? And quite honestly, wasn’t what Mary did there rather impulsive and more than just a little exorbitant? John does make it very clear here about Judas’ questionable motives in making his comment about how the money wasted by such an act could have benefited the poor; yet in all honesty, we can scarcely blame him for casting doubt on Mary’s good sense! Admittedly, the whole thing does come off as a bit over the top, if not totally unnecessary… as the question becomes, why? What was Mary doing?
Well, part of our answer comes from Jesus himself: “’Leave her alone,’” Jesus says in response to Judas’ angry dismissal of what Mary has done. “’She bought it…’” (that is, this very costly perfume) “’…so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’” She bought it for his burial! That’s very interesting; because not only would this explain the anointing of Jesus’ feet as opposed to his head (since in Jesus’ time, the anointing of a body for burial always began with the hands and feet, those places where the signs of death are often first detected), but it also suggests that Mary knew what was coming. The Rev. Dr. Janet Hunt, in a pair of commentaries she’s written on this passage, writes that “Mary may have been the only disciple in the room who truly comprehended what was to come in the next days. And while one would be hard pressed to say that Mary was comfortable with this certainty that Jesus would die,” nonetheless, she anoints his feet as was – or would soon be – the custom. “Perhaps there also was nothing else for Mary to do by then,” Hunt goes on to say. “Perhaps this was all that was left – for her to kneel before Jesus, anoint his feet, and then to wipe them with her hair. Perhaps there was nothing more for her to do but to do as she did: holding herself still in the deep acknowledgement of the gift of the one who was right before her.”
And so it was; this gesture of true faith, of exorbitant, extravagant, grace-filled act of utter thankfulness and of truly sacrificial love, offered up in fullness in anticipation of an infinitely greater sacrifice to come… and not only was the room was filled with its beautiful fragrance but also and most especially by an all-encompassing awareness of what it represented. In one sense, it was a memory yet to be! It’s no wonder that in Matthew’s account of this story, Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, wherever this good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.” (26:13) And so it was.
So, friends, how about you? Do you remember?
I think it’s safe to say that our particular tradition of faith does not usually include the fragrance of candles or burning incense as part of our shared experience of worship; in fact, I must confess that quite often what I smell the most up here on a Sunday morning is coffee brewing out in the Fellowship Hall! No, our “act and attitude” of worship and devotion tends toward the sense of sight and sound, along with the occasional tender touch of care and compassion; and, might I add, on a Sunday such as this, the taste of a piece of broken bread and a sip of wine from a shared cup. So maybe this room isn’t overflowing with the scent of $10,000 perfume; but that doesn’t mean it isn’t filled with the fragrance of love. It’s there in our remembrance of what Mary did in that act of singular devotion; it’s there in the memory of how Jesus turned his heart toward Jerusalem and willingly submitted himself to death – even death on a cross (!) – so that we might have life abundant and eternal because “God so loved the world.” (John 3:16) It’s there as we offer up our own precious gifts of faith and love for the sake of that world and of the people whom our Lord loves beyond measure and in a way unending. And it’s there in in our worship and praise of the one who gave his all to us; in the words of Dennis Ignatius, Malaysian ambassador and Pentecostal Christian, “When we lift our hands in praise and worship, we break spiritual jars of perfume over Jesus. The fragrance of our praise fills the whole earth and touches the heart of God.”
I like to think that as we worship together, as we sing songs of faith and love, as we pray for another and for a hurting world, what we do breaks spiritual jars of perfume in this place! And I hope and pray that the same will happen now as we come to our moment of “holy” communion; it’s time for our table meal with the Lord, that we somehow experience his presence in bread and wine, perchance to truly remember the sacrifice that he has made – and continues to make – on our behalf. As we so often do in this congregation, in a moment we will sing, we’ll pray, we’ll pass the plate from person to person as we take and eat and drink, and we’ll be thankful for what we’ve been given… but the best part of it all? As we do, the air around us will be filled with the sweet fragrance of his love and power; a fragrance that we pray will linger in our hearts and lives today and tomorrow and on every day that comes; a fragrance that will continue to remind us that we are ever and always loved.
So breathe it in, beloved; breathe it all in…
And may our thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN.
c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry