Faith and faithlessness - Sermon on John 12:1-9

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Mary of Bethany and Judas Iscariot are sharply contrasted in this account. One is the emblem of faith. One is the epitome of faithlessness, which eventually becomes betrayal. But we can be either at times.  

Please listen to the sermon rather than read it.  The delivered sermon is often considerably different than the sermon notes which are included for convenience below.  

Sermon delivered at Lutheran Church of the Cross in Berkeley. 

March 13, 2016 - Fifth Sunday in Lent

"Faith and faithlessness".  Text is from John 12:1-9


Jesus is once again visiting his good friends, and brought along with him the twelve for this visit, so we have quite a few characters we can relate to in this passage.  Lazarus, who, after having risen from the dead, is seated at the table among the men as would be his expected place. And we have no doubt there are people outside the home trying to get a good peek in to see this amazing man who had been dead for four days and was doing fine and healthy now. 

We can put ourselves in the position of his sister Martha, who, true to form is being the perfect hostess, serving the men, and in particular Jesus. In fact, the very word used to describe Martha's activity that translates from Greek to English as "serve" is the root word for what we know as deacon. A lay individual who serves Christ and serves the church all at the same time.

And we can put ourselves, and many of us naturally would like to put ourselves in the position of Mary, Lazarus' other sister, who I distinguish in my head as Mary Number 3, but she is also commonely referred to as Mary of Bethany and just as often confused with Mary Magdalene.  With her own life savings she has purchased this costly ointment, this nard, and have used it on this day to anoint the feet of Jesus Christ. 

The word that we know as Messiah is the Hebrew word for "The Anointed One." And here is what Mary is doing, rubbing nard on the feet of the Messiah, anointing the Anointed One. And she subsequently follows it up with an act so unusual, she wipes his feet with her hair. This is such a sensual act, this rubbing her hair on his feet, this is the kind of thing that a woman would do with her lover. It is something that makes us uncomfortable reading about it. It brings us out from the fact that they are seated for a meal and most certainly would have elicited an unusual reaction from those that were sitting there watching it. 

Flacon with nards perfume

And there is the fourth person we may wish to relate to, a man who is likely so shocked at the behavior, just one more nail in the coffin of a one-time devotion to Jesus, because he's been watching Jesus eat with tax collectors and been there right along with him quietly grumbling or perhaps even speaking aloud about the situation. And this is one more act where Jesus is endorsing a behavior that Judas, on the surface, finds objectionable. Allowing someone to waste expensive resources on Jesus when there is so much suffering in the world that could be relieved by the simple act of moving these resources to a better place.

On the surface Judas' question is a reasonable one. Why not spend this important money on the poor, or helpless. We can go a long way toward feeding people with this. While it is impossible to translate such a figure into modern numbers, 300 denarii was a year's wages for a typical day laborer, and one could perhaps make it something like $12,000 in modern currency. Certainly not enough to live on, but quite a hefty sum indeed. What could we do with that kind of money? It would certainly go a long way toward sustaining our weekly spaghetti dinner. 

But John provides us with an aside in this passage. That Judas was not saying this so much out of a great concern for the poor, but because Judas was a thief at heart and wanted this kind of money to go into the common purse so he could take his cut out of it. So when Judas is criticizing Mary for misusing these valuable resources, he is, in fact, trying to cover up for his own desperate misuse of them. 

But we find out in John 6:64 what betrayal is compared to: "'But among you there are some who do not believe.' For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him." To not believe in Jesus is already the way toward betrayal. To not have faith in what Jesus was telling Judas, having walked alongside of Jesus, and having witnessed his deeds and his acts, Judas still refused to believe in who Jesus was. And that disbelief became betrayal. 

This is the immense faithfulness of Mary versus the innate lack of faith of Judas. Mary understands who Jesus is, and what is about to become of him. She anoints not his head with expensive oil as one would do to a king, but his feet, as one does with a beloved but dead body. Jesus is going to be leaving them. Judas has no idea who Jesus is and doesn't even want to know. His mind is on material gain. His heart is closed to the gospel of Jesus. He will soon be leaving them (in chapter 13) and won't return until they meet in the garden of Gethsmene.  We wonder why Judas has been there the whole time.

Jesus already knows the heart of Judas. Jesus already knows the heart of Mary. Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone, let her be. What she is doing she is doing in honor of an important event, his pending death, and it is for her to decide whether or not to do it.  Jesus will not be there forever, and there is a time to mourn and a time to do the important work. 

Jesus says the poor will always be with us. How well we know that. Some people have used this as an excuse to say, "Well you heard Jesus, there is nothing to be done about the poor, they will always be with us."  But this is a gross misinterpretation of Jesus' words. Because the poor will always be with us, we must always account for the poor being there. Jesus, would not always be with them walking among them, in the flesh, as an upright man, as we will see. But the poor will always be there and must always have time made for them, no matter what. 

Have you ever found yourself in Judas place, looking in from the outside, not understanding what everyone else sees, not understanding how they themselves find the meaning and wanting to cover up your own inadequacies by criticizing others? Obviously Judas has a justification for the things he does, and they don't line up with everyone else in this insane world where they've found a Messiah who is choosing to go down a road that will lead to certain destruction. Cannot something go in a different, better direction? Is it Judas's fault that he has no faith? That he was, as John tells us, under the spell of Satan and really, honestly had no personal choice in the matter?  How fair is that to have to play that kind of part in the first place? 

I can't help thinking about how some people want to use the church for their own political ends. I do not like to speak of politics from the pulpit, so you are free to fill in your own heads who I may be speaking of. Perhaps it's all of them. But I see people spouting things out of their mouth that seem honorable, that seem like they're in line with some morally upright position or another, and yet we know that they have hands in their pockets of people who have no conviction. I hear politicians offering endorsements from prominent Christians, and yet I find their very own behavior abhorrent to the faith that I hear Jesus preaching. And yet, I fear being the judge of those others, because lo and behold, while I strive for sainthood, I am a mere sinner myself. 

And so we condemn Judas for his actions, and I believe that is what the Gospel writer intends. But the betrayal is not so much the money changing hands, because Jesus was headed for an inevitable end, but the lack of faith that, despite following this man, his Messiah around, and seeing the signs and wonders that assured them that this was indeed the Son of Man, that Judas could not look past his own base desires and have faith that Jesus was going to restore him and all of mankind. Judas could not see Mary of Bethany's faith in the Lord in her very behavior and actions, that despite the great sacrifice to come, she was nevertheless eternally grateful for Jesus, for his love for them, for his restoration of her beloved brother and the wondrous sacrifice to come. 

God's grace is an amazing thing.  Faith is a miracle that God has given us, no matter who we are. And it is a gift that his sacrifice has produced in us, unconditionally and beyond words. That our God so loved us, the children of God, and the world that Jesus would die for us that the world can be reconciled to God through that powerful act. All the world, no matter whether or when we suffer from a lack of faith, that God loves us regardless, that Jesus has redeemed us no matter what and that we find the Holy Spirit within us guiding us and impelling us to be God's righteous creations, to live and be the good news in and to the world; the whole world, in the reign of Jesus, its glorious king. 

Amen

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This page contains a single entry by Cary Bass-Deschenes published on March 13, 2016 2:40 PM.

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