John 21:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at the table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 "Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?" 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, "Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 The poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me." ESV)
Extravagance! That's the word for today. Who-cares-what-the-cost-is extravagance.
A Hollywood starlet spends $10,000 on a dress she'll probably wear only once. "Too extravagant!" we sniff.
A playboy jetsetter buys a hundred thousand dollar sports car. "What a waste!" we're quick to snort.
Rich newlyweds don't just go to a nice secluded South Pacific isle for their honeymoon. They buy it. "What decadence!" we scoff.
Extravangance. It makes us solid, stolid Lutherans uncomfortable. Lavish displays pretty much turn us off. And we assume that Jesus is just as put off as we are. The last thing he'd want is for us to do anything extravagant!
But wait. If that's what you think, think again.
In today's Gospel lesson, we hear how Mary, the sister of Lazarus, anointed Jesus' feet with a costly perfume called nard. In today's dollars it was worth something like $50,000. Costly indeed! So Mary poured $50,000 worth of perfume on Jesus' feet. And Jesus did not object! Hmm ... maybe we've got it wrong about Jesus being dead set against extravagance. Let's take a look at the story.
We'll start with the nard, since you probably don't know what it is.
It came all the way from the Himalayan mountains - that nard. It was made from a plant called spikenard, a plant that grows at the top of the world, that vast mountainous region that separates China from the Indian subcontinent. There the delicate blossoms of this plant were crushed, made into a sweet smelling ointment - nard. The nard was bottled in alabaster jars - expensive in and of themselves - and then shipped - by camel caravan most likely - across the vast stretches of what today we call Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria - and finally to the outskirts of Jerusalem - a journey of some 3000 miles. This was rare, expensive stuff - this nard. And Mary had a jar of it. How on earth she got her hands on this precious object, who knows? Given its value, no doubt she'd stashed it away somewhere where it'd be safe from thieves. Perhaps she had no idea what she was going to do with it - until Jesus came to dinner. That's when Mary took that nard, poured it over Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. And the house was filled with its fragrance.
Maybe it was the memory of her brother's stench that made Mary think of that costly perfume. Just a few days before Mary poured the nard over Jesus' feet, her brother Lazarus was dead. But then Jesus came. Jesus had been a long time friend of Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha. So when Jesus came, Mary figured he'd come to mourn Lazarus' death. But Jesus had something else in mind. When Jesus asked them to roll away the stone from the door of the cave where Lazarus was buried, Mary's sister, Martha, objected. "But Lord," she said, "by this time there will be a stench." Jesus insisted any way. So they rolled away the stone. And - yes - there was a stench, which is probably what made Mary think of that bottle of sweet smelling nard. It takes a lot of nard to extinguish the odor of death. But for Jesus it only took a few words. "Lazarus, come out!" he said. And the dead man came out. Lazarus was alive again! The stench of death turned into the sweet smell of life!
When Jesus' enemies caught wind of this, that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, they were up in arms. "If we let him go on like this," they said, "everyone will believe in him. And the Romans will come and destroy us."
They were worried, you see, because some of Jesus' followers wanted to incite a rebellion against Rome - which is not at all what Jesus had in mind. But that is exactly what a lot of Jesus' supporters were hoping for. And if Jesus' supporters revolted - well - the Romans would most certainly come and destroy the Jewish nation.
So Caiaphas, who was the high priest, came up with a breathtakingly simple solution. Kill Jesus. That would nip the insurrection in the bud. Or, as he put it: "Better for one man to die, than for the whole nation to perish." And so it was that, when Jesus raised his friend, Mary's brother, from the dead, Jesus' fate was sealed. He was going to die.
But Mary knew nothing about any of this. All Mary knew was that she now knew what she had to do with that bottle of nard. Could she do any less to thank Jesus for what he had done? As soon as she had the chance, right in the presence of her once-dead, now-living brother Lazarus at table with all the rest, she broke open the bottle, poured the nard over Jesus' feet ... and the whole house was filled with its fragrance.
You know - it's interesting what you find out when you study the Bible in any kind of depth. The mention of the fragrance of Mary's nard sent me on a study of smells in the Bible. The results of this study were something of a surprise. Overwhelmingly - the sense of smell is connected in the Bible with two things: sacrifice and passionate love.
Over and over again in the Bible, the sweet smelling fragrance of sacrifice is mentioned - as when the ancient people of God roasted their lambs and goats on the altar of God. The fragrance of the roasting meat was said to be pleasing to God so he would grant them his favor.
The other place in the Bible where the sense of smell is big is in the book called the Song of Solomon or the Song of Songs. This book is a love poem. And it's filled with smells. It seems, you see, that the Bible knew a lot about the erotic impact of fragrances long before the perfume industry came along. At any rate, at one point, the Song of Songs talks about how the king (who is the bridegroom in this poetry) is reclining at table (just like Jesus in our Gospel story). And the bride comes to him and, as it says, the fragrance of her nard filled the whole house (just like the fragrance of Mary's nard, which she poured over Jesus' feet).
Do you see what's going on here? Mary, thankful that Jesus raised her brother Lazarus from the dead, is expressing her passionate love for him with her smells. But Jesus says, "No - dear Mary - this sweet smell is about my passionate love for you. You are preparing me for my burial." Because that was the other thing nard was used for - to embalm dead bodies. The sweet smell of Mary's nard was about sacrifice. Jesus was going to die because he raised Mary's brother from the dead. And his death would be a sweet smelling sacrifice to God so that we might be cleansed, perfected and live again.
But of course Mary did not understand anything Jesus was telling her - at least not then. All she knew was that she did what she did with her jar of nard - and that Jesus blessed her for it.
Extravagance Is Called For
It was Judas, the betrayer, who objected. "What extravagance!" he said. "What waste!" - when he saw Mary pouring that nard on Jesus' feet.
Well - he was right. It was an incredible extravagance. As I told you, that nard was worth something like $50,000. Why! - think of all the hungry people you could feed! And you're wasting it by pouring it on Jesus' feet!?
But Jesus' reply indicates that, despite Judas' fine sentiments, there are times when extravagance is called for. Like maybe, when we have been saved from eternal death and damnation by the death and resurrection of Christ our Lord. If that isn't an occasion for extravagance, what is?
This congregation, as I have come to know and love it, is known for its frugal ways. Extravagance is not our style. But sometimes I wonder.
Blessed Mary of Bethany - her story - teaches us that there are times when extravagance is appropriate. And Judas' dishonest objections to Mary's extravagance ought to make us question our own objections. Are we frugal only because we want to keep our nard jars for ourselves - instead of "wasting" them by pouring them over Jesus' feet?
And do we really think that would be a waste - so to honor our Lord who has died for us?
Sometimes extravagance is called for. And I want to challenge you to be extravagant especially this coming Holy Week - not so much with your money - but with your time, your worship and your prayer.
Clear your schedule. Make the choice to participate fully in the services of Holy Week and Easter: Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday - and of course Easter morning. Children, do your homework right after school so you can come. Grown-ups, don't settle in for a quiet night at home after a long day at work - or whatever else you were doing all day. Not during Holy Week - no! Come to Immanuel. Come to the Lord who gave his all for you. A little extravagance is very much in order this time of year. Look what the Lord has done for you! Come.
Holy Week, after all, is only holy if you make it different, holy unto the Lord. If you do, the sweet smell of your worship will fill the whole world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.