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A Holy Week Reflection: Captivated by The Cross (John 12:1-8)

A small card arrives in the post, flowers appear on our doorstep, or words are whispered in our ear. What are they? We might always find ourselves expressing thanks or at the end when thankfulness is expressed to us. I wonder how you would choose to say thank you to someone.

It depends on what someone might have done for us, right? Our thankfulness directly correlates to the action that we are giving thanks for! For example, if someone bought us a nice Tea towel, we might say thank you with a hug or handshake – it would feel an appropriate way to express our gratitude. So thankfulness is directly related to the action we have received and how it has made us feel.

To put it another way: If you were driving home from work one evening on a dark winter night with the rain pouring and poor visibility, where you are fighting with the windscreen wipers to see the road in front of you. Imagine that you suddenly felt a thrust of energy and your car moving in a direction apart from the one you were steering before everything went blank. It’s a while before you wake up and regain consciousness to figure out what happened! You are distressed about the situation and all that has happened, yet as you learn about how the events unfolded in those moments where your mind was blank, you learn that it was no one’s fault; your car had simply lost control on a bad patch of ice, and ended up on its roof down the road – but that is what insurance is for – yet, someone tells you that you were injured! You had stopped breathing whenever you had been pulled from the wreckage that was your car; those who had got you out thought it was too late, then out of nowhere, an off-duty doctor appeared and started working on the preformed an oracle and brought you back from the valley of the shadow of death into the realm of the living.

Imagine how you would feel in that moment when you realise that you ever breathe because of the actions of one a stranger who had noticed the commotion happening on another road, had stopped and made their way over to the situation and out of the goodness of their own heart had acted to save your life and work on your injuries. How, then, might you want to express how thankful you were? The truth is that no words or actions could suffice or even come close to expressing the gratitude you might feel towards the stranger to whom you owed life!

Tonight we think about the devotion of Mary towards Jesus, and it is with that lens and depth of gratitude that we see her actions in this passage of John. She has come to realise that she owes Jesus everything, and there is nothing that she can do to express it.

Mary’s washing the feet of Jesus with perfume, tears, and her hair is an overflow of devotion and an expression of gratitude. Marys washing the feet of Jesus as devotion and thankfulness models the only proper response to the person of Jesus and the Grace of God that was made available through the Cross. To put it more succinctly: Mary models true Christian worship, a heart that has believed in the Gospel and been transformed by it. The question is, does our faith even reflect a percentage of what Mary models?

Passage John 12:1-8 (CSB)

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, the one Jesus had raised from the dead. [2] So they gave a dinner for him there; Martha was serving them, and Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with him. [3] Then Mary took a pound of perfume, pure and expensive nard, anointed Jesus’s feet, and wiped his feet with her hair. So the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. [4] Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him), said, [5] “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” [6] He didn’t say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief. He was in charge of the money bag and would steal part of what was put in it. [7] Jesus answered, “Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. [8] For you aYouave the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

A Reason to be Thankful (12:1)

How would you respond if someone brought you back from death to life? It would not matter because such would be the debt we owe them that no action, word, or deed would come close to allowing us to express our gratitude. We arrive with Jesus and the disciples visiting good friends in Bethany six days before the Passover and the Easter narratives. Jesus seems to be enjoying the opportunity to rest and spend time with those he loves before everything that is ahead. Then, almost casually, John informs us that where Jesus is: is where Lazarus is - the one whom Jesus had raised from the dead! Why the detail? Because it is the foundation of everything we will read and think through!

Mary is not just thankful because of who Jesus is to her as a friend; she is thankful because she has experienced his tangible power over life and death in the rising of her Brother and has been overcome by it. Through raising Lazarus from the dead, Mary has begun to see clearly who Jesus is: The Lord over life and death. Mary said, but a few days before:

“Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who comes into the world.” - John 11:27 CSB

And in this passage, we see how much she believes it and her reason to worship and be thankful. It’s not just that her Brother has been brought back from death to life after three days in the tomb (a prophetic insight into what Jesus would do), nor is it the economic security that her brother's return will bring her and her sister. No Mary’s worship, her example for us is in the realisation that Jesus is the one from who live is found in death.

Mary’s example, the state of her heart and thankfulness in response to Jesus is a challenge for each of us who claims the name of Christ from the start. Mary’s devotion is an overflow of thankfulness because of the profoundly simple truth that Jesus is the Lord of life and death and the realisation (through the raising of Lazarus) that life is found in him. If we take nothing else out of this passage and this message, we must consider this: Are we truly thankful for our life in Christ, and does our living display our reason for living? This is what worship must look like in the life of the disciple, within our Church, and as we seek to bring about the Kingdom of God. When our hearts are overcome with gratitude to God, we will see lives changed. We know from the start the reason to be thankful. Next, we see two responses: Worship and Distain. 

Responses of Thankfulness (12:2-4)

It’s hard to express thankfulness when a debt is a matter of life and death, yet we might each find our way to do it. The image of Martha presented in Church is sometimes a bit austere or dull. She is more worried about the things that need to be done about the house than about enjoying the presence of Jesus. Yet, when I read these verses in the aftermath of the raising of Lazarus, I see how practical she is; she loves to serve others and honour them by deeds often unseen than words or extravagance. Her worship and thankfulness to Jesus for the life that he has given her Brother seem to be expressed in the meal. The wording and imagery imply something beyond dining in front of the television. They point us towards a banquet/celebration given in honour of Jesus and presumably for what he has done for them. Martha is thankful and expresses it in the only way she knows now.

Then there, among those reclining, enters Mary, who is also thankful to Jesus, and now it is her turn to express thankfulness for all that she has received, and she does it in a way that expresses how God has made her. One way is no better than the other, but are the right expressions of thankful hearts. Hearts that belong to God must challenge us to consider to what our heart belongs and what our living says about what we live for.

Mary enters the room, and immediately the room is changed; you can sense the interruption to whatever conversation had been going on. Why? Because true worship changes people and places. When the Gospel of Christ has utterly transformed someone’s heart, it is noticeable in every aspect of their life. Think of the Church community; think of those people in Your life who have impacted your faith; it was not by words preached to you - it was by how they lived and loved you: By how their lives expressed what they lived for.

In the simplicity of deeds overflowed the thankfulness of their hearts, and it is that we see as Mary enters the room and falls on her hands and knees, taking on the posture of a servant (one of humility and devotion). First, she was expressing her thankfulness to Jesus and now the posture of her life as a servant of the Lord of life and death. The use of a priceless perfume (worth more than a year's wage) was a simple understatement of the debt she felt she owed Jesus, and the use of her hair to clean his feet a scandalous indication of how close she felt to him, as the hair in Jewish culture was seldom united because it was considered deeply sensual and intimate. So extravagant was Mary’s act of humility and worship that we are told the perfume filled the room. You can imagine the imprint it left on the disciple John as he recalled that scent all those years later and what it meant for him. He remembered Mary’s worship in response to what Jesus had done for her Brother.

When Worship Confronts Darkness (12:5-6)

We have seen the example of Martha and Mary in their worship and thankfulness towards Jesus for Jesus. Their worship is beautiful, true, and appropriate for Jesus and what he has done for them. Their worship models the right response to the wonder of the Gospel and life found in Christ, and their worship models for us in this week of all week what our lives should look like on this other side of the Cross. Yet, theirs is not the only reaction to the wonder of Jesus. So, as he sits at the table with the one who he would soon betray and watches two sisters express their thankfulness to him for what he has done, Judas can’t help but comment:

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” - John 12:5 CSB

When Christians worship God in spirit and truth for their whole lives, the enemy will react and notice how logical and sensible Judas says it is. At the moment, you actually find yourself thinking: “Gosh, he is right!” Why wasn’t the perfume sold, and the money from the sale used to help those who have less? Not only does he seem right, but the things he says are also almost Kingdom-minded and sensible as they bring to my mind images of the Early Church in acts coming together and sharing every possession for the good of all who are there. You can imagine the disciples sitting around the table - including John - and thinking to themselves: Judas has a point! 

It is a fascinating reaction because here is Jesus among friends, and it is not a Pharisee who is speaking up in Judgement; it is one of his own chosen disciples, and what he speaks is not a voice of condemnation to Mary for what she has done, but almost one of wisdom. It’s fascinating because often is this even the case today where the greatest condemnation or Judgement to those who we might consider “on fire for Jesus” is not from the world outside the Church but from people within! How often have we heard someone’s act of service, expressions of worship critiqued or quietly condemned by one with the appearance of a follower of Jesus and though there is something about what they are saying and lost sight of the true beauty: A heart transformed for Jesus. Because we have been dulled by the logic of the world presented with the Venire of faith and perhaps even in the language of the Kingdom.

No sooner has Judas spoken and his words settled in our mind does John write to rebuke what he says, as he presents his heart: “He did not say these things because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief.” Judas' heart belonged not to Christ but to the god of money, and his words revealed it. Indeed it would be for the coin that he would sell out Jesus. It is a contrast of two hearts and what they beat for: Mary’s that belonged to Jesus and expressed it; Judas’ that belonged to the god Mammon and expressed it. Let us see the lesson here: Judas's words seemed so right and true, even aligned to the ethos and teaching of Jesus, but the heart of Judas was rotten to the core and only ever aligned with himself. In the Kingdom and Church of Christ, let us consider who we are listening to, perhaps let us even consider the motivations for the critiques that we might speak and let us remember that what remembers is not how things are done but the heart behind it. Mary’s expressions of worship, devotion and servanthood might have appeared extravagant, especially when compared to her sisters, but they simply displayed her heart and devotion to Jesus. And, he who sees the heat saw hers and Judas as he spoke it approval and rebuke.

Conclusion: The Beauty of True Worship and Thankfulness in Light of the Cross (12:7-8)

“The Cross is not a means to an end; it is the end itself. It is the ultimate revelation of God’s love for us and the ultimate call to respond to that love with our whole selves.” - Flemming Rutledge 

“Leave her alone,” words Jesus speaks in defence of Mary's act of worship and rebuke of Judas’ observation. “Leave her alone” words spoken that should challenge us to consider to what our hearts belong and how our lives express it. Mary’s example is a challenge to us today because she shows the worship of a person who has seen Jesus and been transformed by him - and wants to express it! Our worship of Jesus in response to what Jesus has done for us on the Cross is not confined to a Sunday or a song; it is a whole life endeavour. It should be as Augustine said:

“A Christian should be an Alleluia from head to foot. Don’t let your life give evidence against your tongue. Sing with your voices… sing also with your conduct. He who sings, prays twice. Oh God, to know you is life. To serve you is freedom. To praise you is the soul’s joy and delight. You have made us for Yourself, oh God; and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.”

Mary calls us not only to consider what our hearts belong to, but what our lives and living express about our faith and our God. Does our presence, like that expensive perfume, leave a mark where God has called us to be? Does our worship as disciples and a church family overflow, or have we still not grasped the beauty of who Christ is and what he has done for us?

The rebuke of Jesus also should cause us to pause and ponder: Do we truly know Jesus and live for him? Think about it for a moment, here was a man who had spent years in the presence of Jesus Christ: he had witnessed his greatest public moments when the blind where given sight, the deaf could hear, he had seen demons bow to the authority of the Son. Even more, he had been there for the intimate moments as Jesus had journeyed with the disciples and taught them about God, the Kingdom, and the coming work of the Cross. He has seen it all and heard it all from the mouth of Jesus: yet, his eyes remained blind, his ears deaf, and his heart dead as he worshipped another god. Judas was within the inner circle of the Saviour of the World but could never allow his heart to be transformed by the Saviour of the World and the life he offered. Let us consider the example of Judas and ponder the question of our own hearts with the challenge that just because we live in or exist in the Christian world of Church, bible studies, and Christian things, even though we might speak the language of the Kingdom and people might look at us and see one who knows God, let us pause and ponder? Do our hearts belong to God, and have our lives been transformed by the Gospel of Christ?

How do we come to know the beauty of Life in Christ? Well, our passage today gives us a hint: Mary’s act of devotion is not only an act of thankful worship but one with a prophetic edge. For a body would customarily have only been anointed in death, thus combined with the rising of her Brother Lazarus, John is pointing forward to what is to come and what will be the result of it - the Cross! How might we know the true beauty of life in Christ through the Cross on which, by dying, Christ would defeat death and make possible life for all who will turn to him?

Let us consider the example of Mary this day and ponder what it is we live for and worship as we walk this road to the Cross.

The Cross demands a response from us. It is not enough to simply acknowledge it as a historical fact; we must allow it to transform us and our understanding of the world.” — Flemming Rutledge


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