Sermon: The Smell of the Bride

I invite you to turn with me in your Bibles to the Gospel of Mark. Mark 14:1-11. Mark is the second book of the New Testament – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – about 2/3 of the way through your Bible. Mark 14:1-11. For the weeks leading up to Easter, known as the season of Lent, we will be looking at the last three chapters of the Gospel of Mark, which details the days leading up and including the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Normally, I recite from the New Revised Standard Version, which is the version that we have at the back when you come in. I do that so that you can follow along in your Bible. However, I have already memorized this section previously in the New International Version, so in order not to get confused and trip over my tongue, I am will be reciting in the 2011 NIV. So if the words are a little different than what you have in front of you, that is the reason. It.s Mark 14:1-11. But before we heard God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Prayer

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the Law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There once was a precocious young man sitting in a grade 12 high school science class. He had no plans to do anything with the medical field, but simply needed a class to fill his schedule and it looked interesting. Most of the rest of the class was studying and angling for a future as doctors and nurses, but he just wanted to learn. One day, the teacher asked a question about the tendons and ligaments in the knee and, since the teacher ask the question and this young man knew the answer, he raised his hand and started explaining all these different parts. As he finished, the girl two seats away turned toward him and said, “What a waste of a life.” He didn’t need her to say more. He knew. She meant, ‘what a waste to spend your life the way you do. What a waste of talent to not become a doctor and help people. What a waste of a life to pour it out doing something so less than what it could be.”

What a waste of a life.

What the world calls waste, Jesus calls beautiful.

It is only a couple days before Passover and Jesus is just a few miles outside Jerusalem in the town of Bethany. In a few short days, Jesus will be betrayed, tried in a sham trial, and hung on a cross, where he would die. Already there is plotting. The chief priests and teachers of the law are hoping to find a way to get Jesus quietly because they are afraid of his popularity with the people. If they arrest him in front of the crowds, there might be riot. So they scheme.

All the while, Jesus reclines at a friend’s table, enjoying his hospitality. Sometime during the meal, a woman comes in. She takes a bottle of perfume she has with her, likely the most valuable item she owns. Worth tens of thousands of dollars, it might have been a family heirloom she inherited or the dowry she was given upon her marriage. We don’t know how she came upon this perfume that was worth so much. She takes it, breaks the jar, and pours it on the head of Jesus. Tens of thousands of dollars gone, poured out, as Jesus’ hair and skin take on the heady scent of spikenard perfume. The room fills with the scent that would linger on Jesus for days, all the way to the cross.

But not everyone is impressed. Verses 4 and 5 say, Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.

A waste, they call it. Some of those who see this woman pouring out the perfume on Jesus look at this act and called it wasteful. In their eyes it is wasteful because it is an inefficient use of resources. This jar of perfume was worth more than a year’s wages, literally more than 300 denarii, tens of thousands of dollars. Wasn’t there a better use for something so valuable? Wouldn’t it have been more efficient, more effective, a higher leverage move to sell it off and use the money more efficiently? Imagine how much good could have been done with that much money given to the poor! Imagine the impact! Imagine how much of a difference we could have made, Jesus! What a foolish woman, wasting all that precious perfume. What a foolish woman, taking something so valuable and wasting it so uselessly. “Jesus, we have limited resources, and this was not the most efficient and effective way of using them.” It could have been sold and the money given to the poor. What could be better than that?

The world calls her actions a waste. We should note briefly that everyone in this story is at least visible concerned about the poor. The other gospels tell us that Judas was among those who grumbled at the woman’s actions and that, though he claimed to care for the poor, he actually didn’t care, but like to dip his hand into the money bag. But the assumption here is that it is a good thing to care for the poor, even to give money to the poor, what is elsewhere called ‘giving alms.’ We can talk some other time about the different ways that God’s people were called to care for the poor, but we should simply recognize that it is good to give to the poor. In fact, it is such a central act of love in the Bible that it is assumed here and not argued. Again, we can talk about what the Bible says about when and how at another time, but just recognize that when those at Simon’s house call her act a waste, they call it a waste because they believe the best use of this money would have been to give it to the poor. Some times they will be right. When Jesus confronts the rich young ruler, this is exactly the word Jesus gives him – sell all you have and give it to the poor.

The world calls her actions a waste. She breaks the jar, pours out the perfume, tens of thousands of dollars on the head of Jesus, and it was just inefficient, just ineffective, just a poor use of resources. And they rebuked her harshly.

What the world calls waste, Jesus calls beautiful. Listen to Jesus’ response in verse 6: “Leave her alone,” said Jesus, “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.

Jesus looks at her action, her pouring out of the perfume, and calls it beautiful. In the eyes of Jesus, she is the one who gets it right and the grumblers are the ones deserving of rebuke. In Jesus’ eyes, breaking the jar and pouring it out is beautiful.

Why? What makes this act so beautiful? There are few actions in the gospels that visibly move Jesus to praise. There is the faith of the centurion who did not need Jesus to even come into his house, but trusted that Jesus’ word was enough to heal. There is the widow who put in all she had in an offering at the temple. And there is this: the woman pouring out the perfume on his head. What is it about this action that Jesus calls beautiful.

I think there are three reasons that what the world calls waste, Jesus calls beautiful. First, the woman recognized what was most important. It’s verse 7: The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. Jesus is not saying that we should not care for the poor, that poverty is always the fault of the poor, or that it is not worth it to give to the poor. These verses have been twisted by some to say this, but this is not at all what Jesus is saying. It is a matter of timing. Jesus is right in front of them, bodily, in the flesh. The Son of God, the incarnate second person of the Trinity, is at the dinner table with them. But not for long. When Jesus ascends to the Father, there will be time for other good things – caring for the poor among them – but with Jesus there, there is the one good thing.

The woman recognized that Jesus was most important. If she had only one jar to give, only precious thing to pour out, only one life to live, she was going to give it to Jesus. Jesus was worth living for, Jesus was worth giving her best for, Jesus was worth pouring out her life for. There were many good things, decent things, right things to use her jar of perfume for, but this woman saw Jesus and knew there was only one best thing: Jesus himself. So she broke the jar, poured it out, and Jesus calls it beautiful.

I want to tell you something important: You only have one life. God made you in his image and put you here in this place at this time. Your life is far more precious than any jar of perfume. It is the most precious thing you have. You only have one jar to give, so pour it out for Jesus. If you pour out your life in service and love and devotion to Jesus Christ, the world will call it wasteful. Others will look and say, “aren’t there better ways to spend your time, your money, your resources, your energy, your life? Isn’t there are more effective way, a way with higher impact, a more efficient use of your limited resources?” If you pour out the jar of your life, your love and devotion and time and energy, your heart and soul, mind and body, for Jesus, the world will call it wasteful. I speak from personal experience, for the precocious young man in the science class was me. But remember, what the world calls waste, Jesus calls beautiful. There are many good and decent things you could spend your life on, but the one good thing is to pour out your life for Jesus, for the sake of his name and his kingdom. The first reason Jesus calls the woman’s action beautiful is that she knew what was most important.

The second was that it was an act of extravagant love. Look at verse 3: While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. The woman took her very best. Pure nard symbolized the very best in the ancient world. It was the gold standard, the Tiffany diamond, the top shelf of its day. To give pure nard was to give the very best. The woman gave her very best and gave it all. She broke the jar and poured it out. I have a nice glass maple syrup jar up here this morning. If I want just a little syrup, I would open the top, pour out a little, then put the top back on. But what would happen if I broke the top off the jar. There would be no turning back, no storing it again in the fridge. I would have to use it all or lose it all.

When the woman breaks the jar, she commits herself to give all of it to Jesus. She commits to pouring it all out. She could have opened it, dabbed a little on Jesus’ head, and it would have been a beautiful and loving gesture. But instead she breaks it, she pours not just the minimum, but the whole jar. It is extravagant, costly love. She pours out the whole thing, everything she has. She holds none back for herself, nothing left over for a rainy day, nothing kept in reserve.

The world calls this wasteful. Surely Jesus doesn’t need all of it. I mean, a whole jar of perfume at once? Surely she should have just given a little, just given some, just given enough.That would have been the responsible, the sensible, the logical thing to do. But this woman is not working with the logic of economics, but the logic of love. In love, she pours out everything of value for Jesus, what is most precious in her life for Jesus, as if it was her life itself for Jesus.

You only have one life, only one jar, only one most precious thing you can pour out. Now, you can try and dab a little here a little there. You can try and ration out your life, your love, your devotion in precise doses to conserve it. You can hold back from completely committing your life to Jesus, from completing pouring it out in love and devotion for him. You can do all that, or you can break the jar and pour it. You can place your life in the hands of Jesus and hold nothing back. You can give him not just 10% of your life, or even 50 or 85%, but 100% the whole of it. You can hold nothing in reserve, nothing for a rainy day, nothing just in case. What the world calls wasteful, what it calls foolish and extravagant, Jesus calls beautiful.

  Jesus calls this woman’s act of breaking the jar and pouring out the perfume beautiful because she understood what was most important and because it was an act of extravagant, no holds barred love. But lastly, he called it beautiful because she prepared Jesus for his burial. It’s verse 8: She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare me for burial. Nard was a powerful, fragrant perfume. In the Song of Songs 1:12, Solomon compares nard to the love between the bride and the groom. In the Song, the bride says says, “While the king was on his couch, my nard gave forth its fragrance.” Nard is the smell of the bride’s love for the bridegroom. Nard is the smell of the bride. This lingering, heady perfume scent – poured out not he head of Jesus – would have lingered in his hair and his skin for days to come. Whenever Jesus would have taken a deep breath, he would have smelled the nard, smelled the smell of the bride.

The woman prepared Jesus for his burial by strengthening him for what was to come. By anointing his head with this perfume, she filled his nostrils with the scent of his bride. So as Jesus heads toward his burial, he is constantly reminded of who he is doing this for. When, in less than a day, Judas would betray Jesus, Jesus could have taken a deep breath, smelled the sweet perfume of the nard and remembered that he did this all for his bride, the church. When he was blindfolded and beaten, spat upon and mocked, He could have breathed in and smelled the nard, smelled the smell of the bride and remembered, I do this for the love of my bride. When he was falsely accused, when he stands silent before Pilate, when the people would shout to have Barabbas freed and have him crucified, Jesus could breath in and smell the perfume of his bride and remember, I endure this for the love of my bride. When he was whipped, stripped, and beaten, when the crown of thorns was pushed down on his brow, the smell of the nard lingered on his head and the blood began to flow down, and he could smell the perfume of his bride and think, I am doing this for love of my bride. As the nails pierced his hands and his feet, the smell would still have been upon him. I do this for love of my bride. As he died, nailed to the tree, the smell of his bride, the smell of the perfume, would still be on his head. As Joseph of Arimathea took him down and laid him in a borrowed tomb, the smell would still have been on Jesus’ body. I do this for my bride.

She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare me for burial. Jesus was ready for burial, his head anointed with the sweet, powerful perfume that calls to mind the scent of bride with the bridegroom. Jesus knew what was coming in the days ahead and everything else that we will see – his betrayal, trial, crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection – Jesus had already been prepared beforehand to endure. Prepared in soul and now in body. Everything Jesus endures in the next few days, he does for the love of his bride, the church.

What the world calls waste, Jesus calls beautiful. A few short days before he endured the cross, Jesus reclined at the table in the home of Simon the Leper and a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Those standing by called it wasteful, but Jesus called it beautiful. What was so precious poured out in love for him. What was her most valuable possession give to him who was most important. The perfume poured out to prepare him before burial.

What the world calls waste, Jesus calls beautiful. It wasn’t about efficiency, about leverage, or about maximum impact, but about love and devotion to Jesus. There is a beautiful paradox at heart of this: if we view life like the grumblers at the dinner, as if life is all about getting the the denarii spent in just the right way, we will find that are very few denarii, very few dolllars, very little perfume to be poured out. But if we view life as a precious ointment to be poured out in devotion to Jesus, we will find that there is always plenty to give.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

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