“Blessing of the Present”

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.
12:2 There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
12:3 Mary 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.
12:4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said,
12:5 “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?”
12:6 (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.)
12:7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.
12:8 You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”

“Blessing of the Present”

There is a place in southern England called the Isle of Portland, and the very tip of it is called Portland Bill. If you go out there, you’ll find a pub called the Pulpit InScreen Shot 2016-03-16 at 7.41.19 AM.pngn, and a lighthouse just beyond it, jutting out into the sea. The pub is pretty abysmal, so don’t waste much time there, but the setting is gorgeous. If you are brave enough to stand out by the lighthouse, you’re likely to get soaked by the violent waves that crash up onto its footing, even in calm weather.  I find it terrifying, but its an exhilarating experience. There’s no real barrier there. Someone could easily be swept out to sea. This is due in part to an area a few dozen yards out called The Race, where seven currents come together, making for an especially rough patch of water that has been responsible for numerous shipwrecks through the ages. It’s noteworthy enough in fair weather; this video (not made by me – found on youtube) shows what it’s like when storms roll through:

Today’s scripture passage is similar. There is a juxtaposition of so many truths in this passage that there is a powerful tangle of meanings just below the surface.

There are two other variations of this story. In Luke, it’s the dinner party story in an unnamed village at the home of Mary and Martha, where Martha is preoccupied with meal prep while Mary sits with Jesus and doesn’t help; in Matthew, the setting is still Bethany, but it’s the house of Simon the Leper, and an unnamed woman pours expensive ointment on Jesus’ head.

We’re in John today, and the setting is Bethany. Not everyone agrees that Mary of Bethany was the same Mary as Mary Magdalene, but most western Orthodox interpretations accept that. Judas doesn’t appear in the story in Matt and Luke, only in John. For some reason, John saddles him with stupid moralizing commentary, attaching a judgmental motivation.   Judas was the one with good business sense, a good head for PR and career longevity. He wanted the Jesus-movement to be a successful campaign. He was mindful of the bottom line.

Names are important; they usually mean something. Being sisters, it’s significant that Martha and Mslide_2.jpgary both share the MAR part of their names.
Martha’s name means in Hebrew “Who Becomes Bitter; Provoking.”
Mary: name means in Hebrew: “Bitter, as in a bitterly wanted child.”
Martha and Mary were both Jesus’ friends. Lazarus was his friend.
Lazarus’ name means “God is my help.” This family, this group of people is the closest friends that Jesus has on this earth.   They are not a rich family, but they’re well enough off to have a home, food to share, and money to buy expensive perfume, even it set them – or Mary – back a bit.

What would that have been like, do you think? There they are, gathered in one place after some really crazy and emotional events. Mary and Martha had just been through the death of their brother – his actual dying, the grief, the shock, the funeral, the entombment – and now here he is again. Even knowing Jesus DOES things like this, it’s still got to be kind of like, “Whoa.” The disciples are there, probably tired, probably not sure exactly what’s going on. Jesus is tired and tense, knowing what is to come, yet setting it all aside for one, just one evening, with his best friends in this world. Maybe the attention Lazarus must be getting helps deflect the attention from Jesus, allowing him to be more on the sidelines than in the spotlight for a change, even among friends.

Last week, we talked about the prodigal son – the father crying “This is my son who was lost but is now found, was dead but now lives again!” This week, the cry is “This is my brother, my friend, who was dead but now lives again” Jesus told the parable of the first; in today’s story, he is experiencing it first-hand – they are both situations calling for much rejoicing, a stunned, joyful extravagance…

Six days before Passover – the next day is Jesus’ entry in Jerusalem (our Palm Sunday) – we are up on it, folks.

Lazarus was dead, but apparently isn’t anymore. This is news. Big news. Alarming news in that the Pharisees see how many Jews are leaving in droves to follow Jesus. So they decide that Lazarus needs to die. Again. And best for Jesus to die, too.

This passage is a pivotal point in our Lenten journey. We’re on the downhill side now, which looks a lot like an uphill trek toward Calvary.

It’s the event of all of these juxtaposed things coming together that create that movement.

If you’ve ever been with someone as they died, you’ve felt it. You know it’s true. Life and death occupying the exact selfsame spot. It’s one of the thin places, where heaven and earth meet, this event, this occurrence, when the presence of God is undeniably PRESENT.

This passage in John juxtaposes celebration and great tension; great shock and great joy; good intentions on the part of Mary and anger and problems from Judas’ perspective; great love and great extravagance from Mary and probably discomfort and embarrassment her “socially inappropriate”actions must have caused; and the most living, human, most present presence of Jesus, right up against his imminent absence and death.oil-flask.jpg

Mary senses that in this passage. She chooses to honor and bless the Jesus she loves in the most profound way she can – simply by offering the extravagance of herself and the expensive nard.

Lazarus senses this presence from an entirely different perspective, having recently returned from a place no one ever has before. He feels it.

Jesus himself is gripping the sides of the wheel set in motion that nothing is going to stop. He sees where he is and where he’s going with remarkable clarity.

Even Judas, who, I think, was not guilty of anything at this point except perhaps being so preoccupied with what he thought the big picture was that he totally missed it altogether – he would have sensed it if he hadn’t been so preoccupied.

And by the way – you know what Judas’ name means? God be praised.

Like that expanse of water off the southern coast of England, all of the undercurrents come together in one place in this passage, and it is terrifying because the next day, Jesus heads into Jerusalem to die.

As we go forward from here today, back into our lives, our jobs, our plans and projects, may we be aware of the presence of Christ whenever and wherever we encounter him, in these present, gifted moments that make up our lives.