1 April 2001
The Anointing of Jesus
The gospel story that we have just heard read, of Jesus being anointed Mary at Bethany, is a very familiar one. So what's it all about?
2. The Basic story
There are slightly different versions of the story in each of the four gospels, which reflects the fact that those who made the gospels wrote down what was said and taught in their particular fellowships, and from their particular collections of "The sayings of Jesus", or whatever unofficial manuscripts were floating around their church.
Matthew's and Mark's stories are the most similar. They set the episode in Bethany, at the house of Simon the Leper. A woman wanders in off the street, pours the ointment over Jesus' head and, for all we know, wanders straight out again. The disciples and others gathered there go
"Oh, what a waste! If she didn't want it we could have sold it and given the money to the poor." Jesus tells them to be quiet, because the woman was anointing his body for burial and what she did would be remembered for ever. As, indeed, it has been.
John's gospel, the version we just heard read, however, stays in Bethany, but John says that Jesus was staying with his friends Mary, Martha and Lazarus, and that it was Mary who upended the ointment all over him.
Luke might possibly be talking about a different episode, because his version takes place in a Pharisee's house, and the woman is known to be a hooker, and she pours the stuff all over his feet, not his head, and Jesus said that only goes to show how much she knows God has forgiven her.
Anyway, that's the basic story, one way or another. But what's it about, and what has it got to say to us today?
3. What's it all about?
First, then, what is the story about? Well, I think it's about extravagance. Those alabaster jars were incredibly precious. If you were lucky enough to have one, it was your most precious thing and you guarded it with your life, practically. It could only be opened by breaking it, so it couldn't ever be used again. You didn't go pouring the contents all over the head of passing prophets, no matter how charismatic.
So when the disciples said, "What a waste!" they seriously meant it. The jar was broken, it was no use any more. The ointment was poured out, and that in itself was costly enough. Mary had given her most precious thing to Jesus, and from everyone else's point of view, it looked like a terrible waste. They couldn't even make use of the gift by selling it and giving the money to charity. It was all gone. What a waste.
You know, the more I read this story, the more it reminds me of God. You see, Mary was frantically extravagant and wasteful. But so often, God's like that.
Think of the story of the wedding at Cana, right at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. When they ran out of wine, towards the end of the festivities, Jesus provided some more. But he provided far more wine than anyone could drink. I worked it out once that the six stone jars he had filled
would hold about eight hundred bottles of wine. You'd need a white van to bring that lot back from Calais, and I should think the Customs would be taking an intelligent interest in you!
Or think of the story of the feeding of the five thousand. Actually, one of the gospels, Matthew, I think, says that the five thousand was only the men, and didn't count the women and children, which would have made it more like thirty-five thousand. Anyway, when Jesus provided lunch for them, and he certainly did count the women and children, even if nobody else bothered, it wasn't as though there was only just enough to go round; there were twelve huge basketfuls left over. Enough for each disciple to take one home to Mum.
Or what about our natural world? How many different species of flowers are there? Scientists know that they don't know. And animals, too, come to that. I read in the paper not long ago that they have just discovered about three totally new species of antelope in the jungles of somewhere like Vietnam; somewhere in south-east Asia, anyway. And nobody knew they were there except God.
Think of reproduction, too. All the waste that goes on. The millions of baby fish that are hatched, so that a few may survive to adulthood. Birds nest every year, but I read somewhere that only about two of all the offspring a bird hatches in the course of its life reach an age to reproduce. That's sad, of course, but not if you think of those birds that do reproduce as exceptions and the normal life-span of a bird is from hatching to fledging.
The millions of sperm male mammals produce so that one, just one, can fertilise an egg. All this fuss they're making about male infertility, these days, but most men are still producing about 60 million sperm each time - and they don't think that's quite enough!
On a larger scale, think of all the stars in the night sky, or those pictures of distant galaxies you sometimes see from the Hubble telescope when it comes on "The Sky at Night" or Horizon. I wonder how many of those stars have planets on them like ours, and how many of those planets have life on them, and how much of that life is intelligent and knows its Creator. We're not going to know this side of heaven, but God knows.
Why am I tempted to say "The truth is out there!"?.....
But, seriously, for all we know, beings that are five feet square, one inch thick, and ripple might be worshipping God right now this minute in some far-off galaxy. And we fuss about people whose just happen to come from a different tribe. Ah well.
And if we are the only life in the cosmos, intelligent or otherwise, what does that say about God? All those universes and stars and black holes and pulsars and quasars, just for God, and for us, to enjoy looking at?
Even on this earth things are pretty incredible. Have you ever flown over London in an aeroplane on a clear day? You can see absolutely everything - the last time, we were flying to Munich and the plane was kept half-way up in a great circle to the south of London, so when you looked out of the window you could see Croydon, so recognisable, and Canary Wharf, and the Dome, and so on. Superb! And then, of course, the plane was released to go up to cruising speed above the clouds, so we couldn't see any more. But all the same, all those houses in all those streets, and all those flats and offices in all those tower blocks. And God knows each and every one of those people so intimately, better than anyone else, better, in many cases, than they know themselves.
God is seriously incredible.
And looked at in that context, doesn't Mary's action make rather more sense? After all, God loved us so extravagantly that all that love, all that knowledge, all those galaxies were given up and God came to earth as a human baby. The Truth really was Out There, but he came down to Here.
As Jesus. Needing to learn everything from scratch. Needing to be fed, and have his nappies changed. Growing up as an ordinary human being in an ordinary family. In a provincial town in a colony of one of the greatest empires the world has ever seen. When God became a human being, it was a thorough job!
And this human being, who was also God, and who had the potential to be worshipped by beings who are five feet square, one inch thick, and ripple, is sitting having dinner with his friends. If Mary caught a glimpse, the tiniest, tiniest glimpse, of the wonder and the majesty of God, and had the slightest inkling of who Jesus is, then no wonder only her most precious possession would do.
She, of course, is far from being the only person who ever responded so extravagantly to God. Look at Mary the mother of Jesus. Her "Yes!" to God was really extravagant - she risked total ruin, including of her reputation. Supposing Joseph had repudiated her on the grounds that she was not chaste? He could have done so, and then where would Mary have ended up? On the streets, most likely! It didn't happen, but it could have. That's extravagant!
Look at Peter and John when they were first hauled before the Sanhedrin. Not only did they refuse to stop preaching the word, but they then went home and prayed for more boldness to do it more forcefully. That's extravagant!
Or what about St Paul? Think of how he focuses on all the hardships he has undergone in order to keep on doing what he does, in other words, preaching the Good News. That's extravagant!
Or what about all those men and women who have laid down their lives for the sake of the Gospel. Some of them went to the other side of the world; others stayed at home. We know some of their names; others are known only to God.
Or what about people like George Muller, who gave up the life of a rich playboy to look after orphans in Bristol? Or Eric Liddell, who abandoned being an athlete to go to China for God. Or even Florence Nightingale, who was balked in her first ambition to serve God through the church, because in those days the Anglican church did not allow women to do anything except sit on their behinds and listen. Anyway, we all know how Florence Nightingale eventually decided to serve God, and the result.
The people who have responded in that way down the years are legion. They heard God, and responded extravagantly.
4. What is it saying to us today?
So, the Gospel story seems to be about someone responding extravagantly to God's extravagance. What is it saying to us today?
Are we responding extravagantly to God? Some of us are, I am sure. But what of the rest of us, who give God a carefully-rationed proportion of our attention, our money and our time? Are we really giving our whole selves to God? Are we learning to love God enough to be willing to give him our most precious possession, as Mary was? Do we even want to love God that much?
It's quite scary, isn't it? There are so many issues about world poverty and so on that the very word "extravagance" seems to sit oddly on Christian lips. Yet we only have to look at so many of the stories of God and God's people to see that it isn't a word that is out of place when it comes to God. Perhaps it is our vision that is too small!
It is scary, asking God to enable us not only to see a tiny glimpse of just Who he is, but to respond as extravagantly as Mary did. We might have to give up something that is really precious to us, and that's always scary.
Yet only a few months go we prayed the Covenant prayer, committing ourselves anew to God for the coming year. If we meant it, as I am sure we did, then maybe we not only can, but must and should, pray such a prayer.
I wonder how you are responding to what I've been saying. I can think of several ways people might be responding. Some of you might feel you don't want God being extravagant in your lives for fear of where it might lead. Or perhaps you aren't that committed to God yet, anyway. Or perhaps you feel you aren't worthy enough - my friends, none of us is ever worthy enough. We didn't have to be worthy for Jesus to die for us, and we don't have to be to experience God's extravagance. All we have to do is ask.
So why don't we do just that?
Let us pray:
We come to you, asking for you to be extravagant in us.
We know this is a difficult and dangerous prayer,
since we do not know what you will do in answer to it.
But we believe that you will do what is right for us,
What we can stand,
What we need,
And so we ask, in the name of your son Jesus Christ,
that you will come to us in your extravagance. Amen.
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