Worship in the Dark

Fourth in a series: “The Passion.”
Delivered March 21, 2004 by Rev. John Schmidt.

Theme: Are we still ready to offer ourselves to God and worship, even when we don’t have all the answers?

This continues the sermon series “The Passion,” leading us through Lent and preparing our hearts and minds for the Easter celebration of the Resurrection of our Lord. The scripture texts match those of this year’s Lenten study groups, and is based upon “Journey to the Cross” written by Debbie Schmidt.

This series also helps us explore some of the issues brought up by the recent movie, “The Passion of the Christ.”

Sermon Text:
Mark 14:1-11

I’d like you to join me for a few minutes, going back two thousand years to a particular week, a week before the crucifixion of Jesus. And as we go through this week together, I would like you to just keep in mind a basic question, the kind of question we often ask ourselves at a time like Lent. Where am I before God? With which of these people in the story do I identify? Who is like me here? Where am I before God?

It’s the week before Jesus was crucified and it is a confusing time. Ministry with Jesus was always somewhat hectic, but the pace seems to have picked up in this final week. Passover, a major Jewish festival is just a few days away and there are countless thousands of people on their way to Jerusalem. Within a short period of time Jerusalem will swell to five times its normal size. It’s normally maybe about 50,000 people, but now it will become a quarter of a million people all there for the festival of Passover. Even though it is dangerous for Jesus to be going to Jerusalem, he goes there anyway. The chief priests and the religious leaders have already made it public that they are looking for Jesus, and yet Jesus heads straight for Jerusalem. Even though they have done that, he goes right to the center of their power.

For days Jesus stays in the nearby town called Bethany. And every day he gets up and he goes into Jerusalem for the day and then pretty much he comes back for the evening to the town of Bethany because he has friends there. Mary, Martha, Lazarus, a family there that was fairly well to do, perhaps had a house big enough for him to stay and Lazarus was special because he was a person that Jesus raised from the dead. So he would go to Jerusalem during the day and come back at night and far from keeping his head down in the crowd, we find Jesus almost doing the opposite. He seems to be willing to let the rulers know that he is there. For example, just a few days before as he was going into the town of Jerusalem, so many of his followers that believed that he was the Messiah, the King of the Jews, so many of them had gathered that they were waving palm branches and throwing their cloaks on the ground as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey and they are crying out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord. Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David.” Now how can someone possibly ignore that? He comes right into the town. Who could miss him?

But more than that just a day or two later, Jesus goes to the temple and he walks into the temple and he goes to the tables. There were tables set all up inside the temple where they were selling animals for sacrifices, and he goes up to the tables where there are doves being sold and he knocks the tables over. The cages crack open. There are birds and feathers flying all over and more than that he goes up to other tables, places where they were exchanging dirty Roman money for the clean money of the temple. You had to exchange this money in order to be able to buy things in the temple. And so he goes up to those tables of the money changers and he knocks those over as well and there are people shouting and cursing at Jesus and you could hear the sound of the coins hitting the pavement. And all the while Jesus is saying, “Is it not written, Is it not written that my house should be called a house of prayer and yet you have made it a den or robbers.” It’s a confusing time, because on the one hand Jesus is doing all the things you would expect the Messiah, the King of Israel to do. He is cleansing the temple of idolatry, he is showing a pure way to follow God. And just like the Messiah, he does come into Israel in triumph with the hope of conquering God’s enemies.

And yet, on the other hand Jesus is nothing like the Messiah that they expect. He’s done nothing yet to conquer the Romans and none of the religious leaders seem to be on his side. He has made no friends with the religious establishment. And on top of it all, again and again Jesus is talking about his death; that he will be rejected, that he will die and that he will rise again. Now the disciples don’t know what to make of it. They feel like they have caught a tiger by the tail and that they are being dragged in to all kinds of danger they would rather not be in. They are offending all the wrong people and Jesus, the one they believe to be the coming king, is not doing what they expected. Instead of pulling everything together, everything now seems to be falling apart. And so then we come to this evening that’s talked about in Mark, Chapter 14. And so I would like to read to you verses 1 to 11.

“Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or the people may riot.” While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of the man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came in with an alabaster jar a 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 anytime you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, 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.”

Jesus goes to a meal at Simon the Leper’s house. Now Simon can’t actually be a leper now because a leper would not be able to have the kind of social contact that would allow people into his home. And so our best guess is that Simon is someone who used to be a leper but that Jesus healed, but he has kept the name Simon the Leper. And it’s a fairly big meal because it talks about them reclining at the table, and that was a custom for big festival type banquets and so here they are at a big banquet and there are all kinds of people there and Jesus and his twelve disciples are there. And then a woman comes in. We know from another gospel that this woman was probably Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. This is not just somebody off the street that’s coming in to greet Jesus. Here is somebody who has sat at the feet of Jesus and heard him teach. Here is somebody who has actually seen the miracles of God done through Jesus’ own hands, who has watched her brother be raised from the dead through the power of Jesus Christ. And she has seen him come and go to Jerusalem across the last week. She knows about this triumphant parade in to the town. She can’t help but know about what he did in the temple knocking over the tables. That is not the sort of news that wouldn’t be spread all over. She knows about these things and she knows that these are the sort of things that the Messiah would do, but she also knows because Jesus has said it so many times, that Jesus is saying that he is going to die. Again and again he brings that up.

And so she comes in with an alabaster jar of perfume. Now alabaster was a kind of marble. It is something that was carved out of stalactites and stalagmites. It has rings in it. It is very beautiful and it was very expensive. And inside of it is nard. Pure nard, which again is a very expensive perfume. It would have been worth a year’s wages for a common laborer. It was so valuable since it got better with age, it was often something that was given from mother to daughter as a family heirloom. And so she comes in with this and she breaks it open. Once this has been opened, it has to be used right then. You can’t save it. And usually when you open something like this, you gingerly put a few drops on the head of every guest if you were going to use it in hospitality. But instead, she walks in and she pours the whole thing on Jesus. Extravagant. Enough that if she had resold it it could have provided for ten families for a whole month and there it is. It’s dripping down Jesus’ hair, down his beard on to his clothes and on to his feet.

Some of the people there think that this is a colossal waste. These are good people that include the disciples. These are friends of Jesus. These are people who have been listening to Jesus and believe what he teaches and yet here they are and they are indignant. Hasn’t Jesus taught us about how important it is to care for the poor? Hasn’t he taught us about stewardship, about what it means to take what we own and use it well and here is this woman doing this. What a waste. They are embarrassed that an opportunity to do so much good has been wasted and they are not quiet about this disapproval. In the text it says, they are saying indignantly to one another, so around the table and behind the table people are murmuring to each other. What is this? What a waste? And then it says that they rebuke her directly and harshly. What a waste woman. What are you thinking to do something like this?

And then Jesus says, “Leave her alone. Leave her alone. Why are you bothering her?” Totally unexpected, Jesus takes her side. This catches them all off guard. What did they miss? Something profound has happened here and they just didn’t have enough pull together to understand what was going on. Jesus takes her side and he goes on to say, “leave her alone. Why are you bothering her? She’s done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you and you can help them anytime you want, but you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial and I tell you truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.”

Now its always dangerous to try to get inside somebody’s head and figure out the motives of why someone did what they did, when you get so little information in the text. But we have to ask the question, why did the woman do what she did? What makes you walk into a banquet, walk up to one person and takes a year’s wages, a family keepsake, an heirloom, enough perfume for the whole crowd and instead break it open and pour it over the head of just one person there? What makes you do that?

Well, maybe it was gratitude. Thank you Jesus. Thank you for what you are and what you have done. Thank you for what you’ve done specifically for my family. Thank you for what you have done for other people. Thank you for what you have taught us. Giving this, which is so precious to me, isn’t wasted because you have given lives back to people. You have healed broken bodies. This perfume isn’t wasted because you have taught us what it means to know God. So maybe it was gratitude.

Maybe it was faith that motivated her. She walks in and says in her heart, I believe that you are the Messiah, the anointed one, the King of Israel and here I will show you and everyone else symbolically as I anoint your head that you were already the one anointed by God through the Holy Spirit to be the King of Israel and the Savior of the world. This perfume isn’t wasted. Folks, here is our King.

Maybe it was sorrow. Jesus I believe you when you say you are going to die. I don’t know why and I hate the thought of it and I would do anything I could to stop it, but I believe you. This is not going to turn out like I expected. You are going to be rejected. You are going to let it happen and so you will die. And so Jesus, if you are going to die, I am at least going to make sure that your body is anointed for burial. I will somehow honor you and this is the best that I can do.

Only this woman seems to be aware that Jesus’ life is on the knife’s edge. The protest that the disciples and other people in the crowd made, that this was such a waste, would have probably made sense at another time, for another person, but this is not a normal person and this is not a normal day. The ugliest day in human history is about to begin. When all humanity is going to fully reject the love of its creator and the weight of all of this is going to fall on the shoulders of Jesus. And only the woman seems to see that. She doesn’t understand it. It doesn’t make sense. She doesn’t have all the answers that she wants, but for good reasons she believes that Jesus is God’s chosen One and so she believes what he says and she does what she can. She honors Jesus in the darkness of her confusion and thankfulness, faith and sorrow, despite her questions she offers him her open devotion.

Now where are you in this story? Imagine yourself there for a moment. Perhaps you are seated at the table. You are reclining with the others there. Maybe you are standing in a crowd right behind the table. And you see the woman come in. The room is dark and you can’t make out everything very clearly, but just in a moment you hear the crack of the bottle and you smell the perfume walk through the room. Are you like the people who are just in the crowd there, who might have been asking, who is this Jesus that somebody would do such a thing? Surprised by the action, clueless as to why it happened and maybe you want to know more.

Are you like Judas? Witness to all that happens here, but he is ready to chuck it all and he is ready to chuck Jesus with it if things don’t work out exactly the way he wants them to.

Are you like the other disciples of Jesus? These are people who heard all the things that the woman heard and more and yet somehow they are more restrained in their response to Jesus. Are you like them? Maybe its because you still haven’t made sense of it all. You are still expecting life to be as you planned and Jesus to be exactly like you expect him to be. You might even be ready to serve him, but somehow you are holding something back until you understand it all better or until he does things your way or maybe there are still some things yet that he said that you don’t really believe.

Or are you like the woman? You don’t have all the answers yet. In fact, you are carrying some big questions around, but one thing is clear, Jesus is your Savior and so even with all the confusion, with all your questions, even if God is not doing what you expect him to do you are still ready to offer yourself fully to God, without reservation, no restraints, even the costly areas of life and worship to him.

Jesus’ response to the woman in this passage was that she had done a beautiful thing. And when we worship God now, the sacrifices we make in worship now, even when we don’t have all the answers either are still beautiful in God’s eyes. Now the good news in this passage is that Jesus knows where we are in this story already. And Jesus is ready to meet us there wherever we are. And he desires wherever we are right now to make himself known to us in a deeper way and so now we are going farther in to our service of worship. And as we prepare our hearts for that, would you please pray with me silently?

Wherever we are Jesus we take what we have and we offer it to you and we give you God in Father our praise in Jesus’ name. Amen.