A Question of Extravagance


Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8


12:1 “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6 (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.” 9 When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (John 12:1-11, NRSV)


Let us pray: God of the covenant, in the glory of the cross your Son embraced the power of death and broke its hold over your people. In this time of repentance, we pray that you would draw all people to yourself, that we who confess Jesus as Lord may put aside the deeds of death and accept the life of your kingdom. Amen.


Smells stay with you a lifetime.   Some say it is the most powerful of all the senses.  Most of us have experienced a smell that floods our minds with overwhelming us and transporting us directly to memories of a person, place, or event.  Our Olfactory receptors share the same closely networked area of the brain’s limbic system as emotion, and memory.  So, our sense of smell closely relates to how we experience life and process significant memories.  I am sure you have had that experience of smelling something and it takes you back to a time, a place, and a person.


What is it about smell? There are smells that please and those that repulse? Smells that delight and those that distance?  Smells that invite and those that repel? I have had foul odors from an unseen dumpster conjure sights and sounds I experienced on a mission trip to Guatemala.  I cannot tell most perfumes apart until I’m in a crowd and someone is wearing the same fragrance my wife wears and I look for her.


Smells stay with you a lifetime.


When I have to go to parent teacher conferences for my children and I walk down the halls in their schools, I am hit with that smell, whatever it is in schools, no matter what school it is, whatever that smell is that permeates a school that seems to always be there and it takes me back.  Back to those old feelings of nervousness and anxiety of being in school as a kid.


Smells are deeply tied to our memories.


I wish I could use scents to make my point but we don’t want to get into burning incense in worship.  For example, if you want to remember home, the smell of homemade bread or the scent of a freshly baked batch chocolate chips cookies will make your taste buds water and make your stomach growl with hunger!


Not all smells are happy and pleasant ones.  I remember when I was working as a hospital chaplain, in our training the nurses told us about “the smell”.   The veteran nurses could simply smell when death was approaching.  Obviously they weren’t always right, but more often than not they were.  The smell of impending death.


Smells permeate our passage for today.  We find Jesus in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Jerusalem, outside of Bethany.  Jesus loved them.  These were good friends.  Just before this passage Mary and Martha sent word to Jesus to tell him that his friend Lazarus was dead.  Jesus goes to the tomb to see for himself.  When he gets there he smells the stench of death.  This is not the smell of approaching death, this is the smell of real death.  Dead death.   Realizing that his friend is dead Jesus stands at the tomb and weeps.


The smell of death and the reality of death overtook him.


Then Jesus performs his most amazing miracle to date and raises his dear friend Lazarus from the dead.  Lazarus is alive.  Live and joy, and happiness and the smell of celebration take over the scene.  In response to Jesus raising her brother from the dead Mary and Martha throw him a celebratory dinner.  It is during this celebration that Mary anoints Jesus with costly perfume.  The smell of this expensive perfume, costing almost a year’s wages, permeating every nook and cranny of that room. It is a sharp contrast to the smell of death that we last experienced when she called Jesus to raise her brother Lazarus. Now as she anoints Jesus, he bother Lazarus is reclining on Jesus at the table.  The smell of death is met with this sweet and costly perfume to smell at the same time.


The smell of extravagant love.  Mary knew exactly what she was doing.  She was the only one in the room who really got it.  She honors Jesus, anointing him with extravagant perfume, she prepares him for the journey to Jerusalem.  This smell of expensive perfume, is a smell not to counteract death, or to erase death’s smell, or try to overpower its stench.   Instead it is a scent to smell at the same time – you can smell the scent of death. I wonder if this is the point. Smells don’t replace – they contrast, they tell the truth about our human existence. The simultaneous smells of life and death.  The smell of love in the face of certain betrayal.


The fact that this story takes place in the midst of Judas’ struggle, in the midst of the death of Lazarus and the plot to kill Jesus, is a reminder that following Jesus and loving Jesus does not take place in a vacuum but in the real world.  We are not called to be faithful in a vacuum but in the real world where people make choices that hurt others, where death and disease are a reality, where pain and suffering exist, a world where Jesus lived and died and then rose again, showing that none of these real world experiences will have the final word.


As you breathe in the smell of coming Spring, as you soak in the fragrances of the sweet fragrance of the daffodils trying to bloom and greening grass and trees and shrubs will be growing new buds and getting ready to flower.  I invite you to think of Mary as she commingled the smell of impending death with the smell of new life, fragrance of new life.


Jesus is going to start his fateful journey to Jerusalem after this meal with his friends.  It will not be a pretty.  It will be painful and sad and lonely at times.  It won’t deny real life.  But it also won’t be the end of his journey.  His journey doesn’t end on a cross or in a tomb but it will continue because life conquers death and joy defeats despair.  This is the fragrance of new life.  Take a deep breath and you might smell it.  Extravagant, sweet, beautiful new life.


Let us pray:

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