4/7/2019 Fifth Sunday in Lent The text is from John 12:1-8.
Grace and peace to you from God, our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Friday, as I looked around my office, I began to realize just how much I have done to prepare for my departure. All but one of the Christmas cacti have gone to new homes. Most of the birdhouses and many of the churches have done the same thing. Books have been sorted, packed, distributed, and those that are to remain have been carefully placed on shelves by category. So, the office feels different. It feels spacious and yet, empty at the same time. It remains full of memories and yet those memories are overpowered by the sense of a departure that will take place in three short months.
Endings can be sad. Your son calls you unexpectedly from college and wants nothing more than to tell you about his studies and his new girlfriend, and you’re sad when the call comes to an end. You attend a concert and are swept away by the music and are very sorry when the finale comes. Even young children know the sadness that comes with the ending of each day. That’s why they fight so hard to stay up just a little bit longer. And, yet, we know that things come to an end. Many of the endings are nothing more than temporary as there will be another phone call, another concert, another day to play. But other endings are much more permanent and the impact of these can be life changing. When jobs end, be it through retirement or company down-sizing, life changes. When school years are over, when homes are packed and people relocate, life changes.
Many tears are shed as good-byes are said. But the tears from those departures that come wrapped in a blanket of new beginnings are little showers compared to the deluge which takes place when a loving relationship ends by divorce or death. These are endings that none of us look forward to experiencing for they are permanent. They are the saddest endings of all. There is no sweetness in the sorrow of these departures.
It is the shadow of death which colors the text of today’s gospel. Through the irony of circumstances, Jesus’ death is foreshadowed at a meal in Bethany at the home of Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead. As they sit at the table, they eat a meal of thanksgiving, for this is a time to rejoice and celebrate. It is a time to rejoice and celebrate…a time to break out the best perfume.
There is no indication that Mary senses what is going to happen to Jesus. She is not privy to the actions of the Sanhedrin, the high council, which meets in the wake of the miraculous raising of her brother in order to pass a death sentence on Jesus and put a bounty on his head. All we are told it that as Martha serves the food, the other sister, Mary, performs a simple act of kindness.
In the middle of this meal celebrating Lazarus’ return to his family and friends, Mary takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard. She takes the good stuff, the stuff held in reserve to anoint the bodies of loved ones before sealing them in the tomb. She takes this perfume, the best she has to offer, and anoints Jesus’ feet. She then wipes his feet with her hair. She anoints Jesus’ feet, not his head as for a coronation, but his feet, which only makes sense as an embalming. And, she does this so extravagantly that the whole house is filled with the fragrance of perfume.
Now, I don’t know about you, but if while I was attending a party someone stepped up and shared my obituary, I would be pretty upset. But, Jesus is not disturbed by Mary’s actions – indeed, he appreciates this woman who finds such a joyfully extravagant way to express her feelings of love and devotion. Of course, not everyone present shares Jesus’ appreciation for Mary’s act of kindness. Judas issues a complaint, not about what this type of anointment means, but about the waste of good perfume.
Jesus’ response to the complaint is clear. She is to be left alone…for, she has done this to prepare him for his burial. With this comment, you would think the party would have come to as abrupt an end as my cousin Ruthie’s wedding reception did when her mother dropped to the floor and died of a massive heart attack. But, even in the shadow of death, there is no indication that the laughter and joy of the evening comes to a crashing halt. In time there would be weeping and gnashing of teeth, but the ending that is to come will be temporary. Those tears of sorrow will change into tears of joy in the advent of a new thing that will take place on Easter morn.
With us, endings are often sorrowful. But with God, there are no sorrowful endings. With God, there is always a future. The future isn’t always clear to us when we are wrapped up in endings, but the future is visibly seen on that day as Mary anoints Jesus in the presence of her brother Lazarus. For, if God, through Jesus, could restore Lazarus to life, how much more will God do for his only begotten Son? And through his Son, how much more will God do for each of us who trusts in him? You see, God has a way of doing the unexpected. Things are not always what they seem. For in him there are no permanent endings.
Some of you are at the end of a loving relationship, but God still has a future for you. You have reached an age of retirement, but God still has you in his plans. You are in a situation where you think you cannot go on, but God can strengthen and guide you. You are at the end of your rope, but God holds you by the cord of love. Some loved ones of yours may have died and you have been left behind with nothing but emptiness to fill your days, and the sense that your life is over. Yet, beyond the grave, beyond the emptiness, beyond the sorrowful goodbye, there is God who brings eternal life and the promise of a joyful reunion with all those who love him.
It is this hope for a new beginning that changes the color of today’s text from the darkness of death to the brightness of life. The drama remains a mystery to us, that in the midst of revelry and celebration of the new life given her brother Lazarus, Mary performs an act appropriate for a funeral. In the meantime, the life Jesus restores to Lazarus will someday end. It will not be until the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that an end to permanent endings will take place. All that Mary can do now is prepare Jesus for the grave. Neither she, nor anyone else, can really be prepared for what is to happen on the third day. For the grave will not hold the one she anoints as it will not hold those who believe in him. In God there are no permanent endings. There is only a future.
So put away your tears, my friends, and join in the laughter. See in endings an new beginning and a new day in Christ our Lord. And may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.