“Seizing a Holy Moment”Dr. Ronald D. Vaughan John 12:1-8 Year C - Fifth Sunday in Lent
Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages. He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” (John 12:1-8 NIV)
My daughter and son-in-law have blessed our family with three grandsons. At the ages of seven-and-a-half, six, and four, our visits with them often turn into a competition for Papa and Nama’s attention and approval. When those three brothers are together, I hear them out-bidding one another to tell me some interesting thing they’ve done or to scapegoat a sibling for a recent scuffle. When I’m with all of them, I hardly get to see any of them. I cherish the times I can see one of the boys alone so I can bask in how wonderful he is without sibling comparisons and listen, without interruption, to the things he wants to tell me.
I feel much the same way about the story we share today. Each of the gospels includes a story about a woman who, as an expression of gratitude, anoints Jesus with costly perfume. These stories have enough in common to make scholars wonder how they might be connected, but are different enough to leave us pondering whether these four accounts describe the same event or different ones. I’m grateful for scholars who deepen our understanding by asking these tough questions, but I fear the message of the story is sometimes lost in making comparisons and debating differences. Therefore, for the purposes of preaching, I want to approach John’s account of the anointing of Jesus as I would spend time with one of my grandsons. I want us to listen to John’s story by itself so we may hear and be touched by the truths it expresses.
This, I believe, is a story about seeing and seizing life’s holy moments.
Mary Sensed the Holiness of the Moment She Shared with Jesus
This story takes place in a home where a dinner is being given in Jesus’ honor. Mary’s family loved Jesus deeply, as is evidenced by the gospel stories of times they shared. But, I think, something happened during this dinner that motivated Mary to express her love and gratitude in an unusual and memorable way. She sensed this was a holy moment.
I think one of the reasons Mary saw the holiness of his moment was that she saw her family together. As John begins this story, he doesn’t name many of the people who were invited to this dinner, but he goes through the house to find and name the members of Mary’s family: Martha working in the kitchen and Lazarus at table with Jesus. I think Mary looked around the house and realized what a priceless gift she’d been given by Jesus; a brother brought back from the dead and a family reunited under one roof.
I also believe Mary sensed that her time with Jesus might soon come to an end. Just before this story, we read that the religious leaders in Jerusalem considered Jesus an outlaw. They planned to arrest him if he showed up at the temple for Passover. Jesus came to Bethany not so much for this dinner as a stop on his way to Jerusalem. Mary knew Jesus was going to a place where he would face conflict and grave danger.
Whatever the reasons, Mary sensed that this moment gave her a special chance to thank Jesus and show her love for him.
I was driving home from church one afternoon, tired from a demanding week, when I suddenly remembered that a member of our church had been admitted to the local hospital. Honestly, I didn’t want to make a hospital visit. I wanted to get home as quickly as possible and remind myself that life is indeed bigger than work. But, I decided, the visit needed to be made. I turned right at the next traffic light to go to the hospital instead of driving straight through the intersection toward home.
When I got to Ralph’s hospital room, we chatted for a while about the typical topics that arise from a hospitalization. What problem was he having? What treatment was he receiving? Was he seeing improvement? How was the hospital food? Ralph interrupted our conversation with a surprising question. He asked, “Dee, what time is it?”
I answered, “Three o’clock, by my watch,” wondering why he suddenly wanted to know.
“My brother’s funeral just began. I couldn’t attend because I’m here.”
Ralph’s brother, a resident of another state, had passed away about the time Ralph was getting seriously ill. Now, at the very hour of his brother’s funeral, Ralph was lying on his back in a hospital bed.
I was gripped by the holy meaning of that moment. I told Ralph that, if he liked, we could spend the next minutes remembering his brother and thanking God for his life. He shared stories of times they’d shared. With big brotherly pride, he ran down a list of his brother’s accomplishments. After he had shared his memories and feelings for a while, Ralph remarked, “I suppose the service is over by now.” I prayed, giving thanks for Ralph’s brother’s life and hope. I hope the funeral service was as sweet as what Ralph and I shared in that hospital room. What began as a routine visit, somewhat begrudgingly made, became a holy moment!
Mary saw the holiness of the moment she shared with Jesus. How she responded offers us another gift of guidance.
In Humble Gratitude, Mary Gave Her Most Precious Gift
John describes the focal moment of this story when he tells us that…
(Verse 3a) …Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume…
Two things about Mary’s gift to Jesus stand out: the generosity of her gift and the humble way in which she gave it.
“A pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume” may have been Mary’s most expensive possession. This exotic imported fragrance may have been a treasure handed down to Mary from her parents. This pint of expensive perfume may have been held on to carefully so it could be sold in case of a financial emergency. However, Mary came to possess this perfume and however she understood its purpose, she brought the best she had and gave it to Jesus. Her unbounded generosity was a beautiful expression of the overwhelming gratitude she felt for what Jesus meant to her and had done for her family.
I have a friend who, early in his adult life, lived by a ruinous financial philosophy. He told me that he didn’t worry about his credit card debt as long as he could make the minimum payment. He was happy, for a time, paying the least amount that would keep his account in good standing. Gladly, the years have made my friend wiser.
But I see that same “minimum payment” attitude at work in the lives of many believers. I was conversing with a worship guest one Sunday, a man whose family, I hoped, might be prospective members of our church. As we talked, he made an observation about his search for a church home. He said, “I haven’t felt comfortable in some of the churches we’ve visited. It’s like they expect something from you.” Was he looking for a church or a faith that asked nothing of him?
Mary’s generosity can open our eyes to the shallow selfishness of our minimum payment religion. Her example invites us to take inventory of who Jesus is to us and what he’s done for us so that we, too, may give generously of our time, our means, our abilities and our devotion to him and his kingdom’s work.
Mary’s gift was so memorable not only because it was so costly, but also because of how she offered it. Mary gave this precious gift to Jesus in deep humility.
(Verse 3b) …she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.
A substance as precious as nard might be used to anoint the head of a king or some other honored guest. But Mary poured the nard on Jesus’ unshod feet, the part of his body considered to be the humblest in that day. Then, having poured so much perfume that it was running off his feet, Mary wiped up the overflow with her hair. She used what her culture considered the most honored part of a woman’s appearance to wipe the humblest part of Jesus’ body. The fact that Mary unbound her hair to use it as an anointing towel shows her abandon in expressing her love for Jesus. A respectable woman of that day would not let her unbound hair be seen in public. Mary wasn’t worried about the public perception of her gift or how she gave it. She gave with no thought of herself or those watching her, only the magnitude of her love for Christ.
A member of my congregation had led mission teams into the hills of Kentucky for forty years. Our church gave him an award to mark that milestone in his mission work. Bobby, the recipient, was totally surprised. When he told me, he hadn’t seen this celebration coming, I told him, “You can surprise a humble man, because he doesn’t realize how much he’s done.” When our hearts, like Mary’s, are captivated by Christ’s love for us and for the world, we’ll not parade our gifts expecting the praise of others. We’ll lose track of what we’re giving because we are so absorbed by the extravagance of Christ’s love for us.
The Fragrance of Mary’s Gift Filled the House
Mary’s loving gift was for Jesus, but it affected everyone in the house. John writes,
(Verse 3c) And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
I’ve accidentally broken a bottle of perfume and remember clearly how the fragrance filled our home. Mary’s outpouring of perfume was no accident, but everyone in the house could smell the sweet aroma of her gift. I wonder if, for several days, Mary carried the beautiful aroma of that perfume in her hair everywhere she went.
Aroma is used in the Bible as a picture of influence and testimony. A giving life, a life devoted to loving and living for Christ, has a beautiful fragrance that influences relationships, homes, workplaces and churches for the better.
This beautiful moment of grateful giving and its impact upon the others in the house is rudely interrupted by Judas and his protest against what he sees as a misuse of resources. His reaction reminds us that…
Gifts to Jesus Don’t Go Unchallenged
(Verse 5) “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”
Judas was right, of course. This perfume could’ve been sold and the money given to the poor. He reminds me of some friends of mine who wrote to a letter to the editor of a Baptist newspaper urging people not to pay for poinsettias for church Christmas decorations, but to give the money to missions. The truth is that the generous souls who buy the flowers also usually the ones who also fund the missionaries. Givers give. Takers take. John says Judas’ criticism came from the heart of a thief.
No generous gift, even to Jesus, goes unchallenged. A young man I know wanted to participate in a mission trip to Jamaica, but the trip conflicted with preseason conditioning for football. Wanting to find a way to do both, he brought his coach a plan to work out while on the trip to keep up his preparation for football while serving. The coach rejected his plan, telling him that he had to choose between football and the mission trip. The young man left the team and went to Jamaica. He gave a precious gift to Christ and people in need.
You and I shouldn’t expect unanimous support and approval when we make whole-hearted gifts to Christ. People who don’t know Jesus and even Christians who don’t yet know the joy of giving of themselves to Christ in a costly way, won’t understand and won’t support you. But Jesus will support you, as he does Mary.
Seizing Holy Moments Has More Meaning than We First Realize
Mary knew she’d shown her love for Christ by seizing the moment and giving her best. What she did not know was the depth of meaning her gift had for Jesus.
(Verse 7) “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.”
Some commentators wonder if Jesus is saying that Mary still has some perfume in the bottle and will use it later to anoint Jesus when he is buried. I don’t think so. I think Jesus sees his entire journey to Jerusalem as the time of his burial, the time when he will face suffering and abuse and die for the sins of the world. Mary has anointed him for that journey, touched his heart and made a mark upon salvation’s story she didn’t fully comprehend.
When we see and seize life’s holy moments, our gifts will have more meaning than we realize.
Renowned preacher and professor Fred Craddock and his wife, Nettie, were vacationing in the Great Smoky Mountains, eating dinner and enjoying the mountain view, when they noticed a rather distinguished looking man “working the room,” going from table to table speaking to guests. Craddock said he sat there wishing this man would just leave them alone, but, sure enough, he came to their table. After finding out their names and that Fred was a pastor and teacher, this fellow remarked, “I owe a great deal to a minister of the Christian Church” and he pulled out a seat and sat down. He said,
I grew up in these mountains. My mother was not married, and whole community knew it. In those days, that was a shame and I was ashamed. When I went into town with my mom, I could see people staring at me, making guesses as to who was my father. At school, the children said ugly things to me, and so I stayed to myself during recess, and I ate my lunch alone.
In my early teens, I began to attend a little church back in the mountains. It had a minister who had a chiseled face, a heavy beard and a deep voice. I went to hear him preach. I don’t know exactly why, but it did something for me. However, I was afraid that I was not welcome because of my background. So, I would go just in time for the sermon, and when it was over, I would move out because I was afraid someone would say, “What’s a boy like you doing in a church?”
One Sunday, some people queued up in the aisle before I could get out, and I was stopped. Before I could make my way through the group, I felt a hand on my shoulder, a heavy hand. I cut my eyes around and caught a glimpse of his beard and his chin, and I knew who it was—that minister. He turned his face around so he could see mine and seemed to be staring for a little while. I knew what he was doing. He was going to make a guess at who my father was. A moment later he said, “Well, boy, you’re a child of…” and he paused there. And I knew it was coming. I knew I would have my feelings hurt. I knew I would not go back again. He said, “Boy, you’re a child of God. I see a striking resemblance, boy.” Then he swatted building a different person. In fact, that was the really the beginning of my life.
Craddock was so moved by the story that he asked, “What’s your name?”
“Ben Hooper,” he replied. That little boy, touched and changed by a believer who saw and seized a holy moment, grew up to be the Governor of Tennessee.
Mary saw and seized a holy moment and her story is still changing lives.
About the writer: Dr. Ronald D. Vaughan is a native of Greenville, SC and is a graduate of Furman University (B.A.) and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.). In forty years of ministry, “Dee,” as he is known to most people, has served as a hospital and fire department chaplain, a university teacher and pastor of five congregations. Since 2011 he has served as senior pastor of St. Andrews Baptist Church in Columbia, SC.
Dee is married to Linda, a native of Gaffney and a graduate of Furman University. Linda works as an adult education teacher for Lexington County Schools. The Vaughan’s have three children and three grandchildren.
Dee has published four books, including Seeing in the Dark: Biblical Meditations for People Dealing with Depression by Smyth and Helwys. He enjoys playing the guitar and banjo, occasionally writing a song, portraying Biblical characters, and seeing the amazing ways God works in the lives of people.
Scripture and Music:
When I Survey the Wondrous Cross
Come, Ye Disconsolate
This Is a Day of New Beginnings
Sing Praise to God Who Reigns Above
O How I Love Jesus
When We All Get to Heaven
My Jesus, I Love Thee
If You Will Only Let God Guide You
Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts (Claude Bass)
Anima Christi (Robert Powell)
Kyrie eleison ( J.S. Bach from B minor Mass)
I Want Jesus to Walk with Me (Moses Hogan)
I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked
Jesus Walked This Lonesome Valley
I Want Jesus to Walk with Me
I Never Heard a Mumblin Word