The Lord's Day MorningJuly 27, 2008
“Extravagant Love for Jesus #1”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
“Sing unto God, with high affections raise,” that's what the choir was singing! “With high affections raise,” and that's what we're going to be thinking about.
The next couple of weeks Ligon is away, and I thought we’d do a little series of two sermons, both of which deal with examples of extraordinary affection for Jesus Christ. As the choir was singing Judas Maccabeus, I was thinking of the words of Jonathan Edwards, that true Christianity consists primarily in the affections, and that's the test. That's going to be the whole point of the sermon this morning. How much do we love Jesus?
Turn with me to Mark 14, a very familiar story of a woman breaking open a jar of some kind of very expensive ointment or nard, or you might think of it as perfume. It was meant for anointing a body, and the entire incident is embarrassing. Let's read together, and before we do so, let's look to God in prayer. Let us pray.
Father, we thank You for the Bible. Thank You for this passage of Scripture that is now before us. Every word of it, every jot and tittle of it has been given by inspiration of God. You breathed it out and You caused it to come into being. We pray that we might read, and mark, and learn, and inwardly digest. Teach us the things that You would have us know, and give us hearts that fall in love with you all over again. We ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's holy and inerrant word:
“It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest Him by stealth and kill him, for they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.’
[Now Mark in his Gospel has placed this next part of the story out of sequence a little, for reasons that we needn't go into now. But John tells us that actually the next part took place four days earlier. It was just a week before Passover, and they’re in a house. They’re having dinner. Verse 3….]
“And while He was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as He was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over His head. There were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.’ And they scolded her. But Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have Me. She has done what she could; she has anointed My body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.’
So far, God's holy, inerrant word.
Mark gives us a setting. Jesus is on His way to Jerusalem. He's on His way to Jerusalem, of course, to die. He is going to be betrayed, He is going to be tried, and He is going to be crucified. There are plots. Evil men are conniving. There's darkness; there's malevolence; there's a brooding atmosphere all around. Inexorably these next few days are going to lead to the darkest days Jerusalem has ever seen, and in the midst of it there's this extraordinary, beautiful thing. There's a light that shines with an incandescence that takes your breath away.
He's in Bethany. Bethany is a couple of miles from Jerusalem, to the west of Jerusalem. You could walk there — I don't know…thirty or forty minutes, at a casual pace — of an evening, having spent the day in Jerusalem. Jesus often spent days in Bethany when He was in Jerusalem, in the house of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. They’re not in that house now; they’re in the house of a man called Simon the leper. Maybe Jesus has healed him. Maybe he's a relative of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus.
They’re at a thanksgiving dinner in honor of Jesus, and there are rules. (You Southerners know all about the rules of etiquette when you’re invited to dinner: how you dress, what you say, what you take…do you take a gift or don't you?) And then all of a sudden something embarrassing happens. I mean extraordinarily embarrassing! You don't know which way to look; you don't know what to say. You want the thing to go away. It's like being in a restaurant and the waiter drops the plate right in front of you and the whole dinner is on the floor…and you know, it's embarrassing. You feel sorry for the waiter, you wish it hadn't happened…it's something of that nature.
There's the sound of what is possibly breaking glass, and then the room is filled with an aroma — a very pleasant aroma, an expensive aroma. Chanel No. whatever…5? This is actually an aroma of ointment that was for one purpose only: for anointing a body. Well, we won't go into all of that now, but it was probably Mary's. It may have been given to her. It may have been a family heirloom. But the point of it is that it was very expensive. It was worth, in verse 5, 300 denarii. A denarius is what an average man would earn in one day, so 300 denarii is about a year's salary for an average person. That's a lot of money — a lot of money, just to pour on someone's head!
There are three things here: three people; three groups of people; three responses. It's like as if a camera is focusing on different responses to this incident. And there's a question. There's a subtext for you and me: it's “Which one of these groups are you in?” You know, if you’d been there, where would you have been? What would you have said? What would you have thought? It's meant to challenge you, and to challenge you not so much in the area and level of your reason and rationality, but in your heart, in your affections.
There's Mary, and Mary has done an extravagant thing. It's beyond description what she has done. They’re at dinner in Simon the leper's house. I don't know how many are there; let's say there are twenty people there. There may have been more. Jesus is there. Martha is there. Lazarus is there. Lazarus of course has just been raised from the dead — not an everyday occurrence. It's still fresh in Mary's mind and heart. Imagine — and we can imagine — the sense of wonder and euphoria and joy and awe that they were having dinner…. And you want to know what's on the menu! But Mark isn't interested in telling you what they had for dinner (you know — were there hors d’oeuvres? Was there a dessert?) because that's trivial in comparison to something far more significant that's taking place here.
As Mary sees and hears and sits beside Jesus — Jesus, whom she has already understood as to His significance…. She's a changed woman. She's a converted woman. She's come to appreciate who Jesus is, and as she thinks about the things that Jesus had said, and maybe was saying now at the dinner, and as she looks at Him and begins to be overtaken with this profound sense of emotion, she does it.
Now she must have contemplated it a little. I can't decide how much contemplation she’d given this. I was more definite in the first service, but during the break I began to rethink it. Now I'm not so sure. She took the flask with her for sure, so she was definitely going to do something. You know, you don't take this thing. This is something you keep in your safe at home. You know, if the fire burns the house down, this thing is safe. The fact that she had taken it with her to Simon the leper's house says to me she was going to do something with it. Maybe she was thinking, “I’ll give it to Him. He's talking about going to Jerusalem to be crucified, to be killed. I’ll give it to Him for His anointing of His body.” That would be such a wonderful thing to do, don't you think? And then, you know, in the heat of the moment as she looks at Him and she listens to Him, and her heart is just filled and she's bursting with affection and her cup is overflowing, she does it! She does this crazy thing! This completely over-the-top, irrational thing: she breaks it! She doesn't take the...whatever it was...(you know the cork or whatever it was in the top)…she doesn't do that and begin to pour, and then Martha says, “Mary, what in the world are you doing?” and grabs the bottle. No. She does something and there's no turning back. Once it's broken, that's it. It's going to happen. And she pours this twenty - thirty - forty thousand dollars' worth of perfume on His head.
You know, you come home from work, and your wife…you know there's something up, you know? The dinner's on the table, and there are candles lit, and you think, “Oh! There's something up.” And she says, “You know, honey…” [Well, my wife doesn't call me ‘honey’…that's an American thing! But you know….] She says, “I need to tell you something,” and you brace yourself. This is going to be big! And she says, “You know that car you bought me? I love that car. But you know, Bill Wymond called today and he needed something for the choir, and I just gave it to him!”
It's in that order. (Well, maybe not the choir thing, but it's in that order.) It's something that just takes your breath away. It's completely irrational. But she did it because she loved Jesus. That's the thing. She loved Him. Her heart went out to Him. She understood who He was. She was overcome by the fact that He was going to die for her.
You know, this is the only anointing that He got. You know, they packed all those spices around His body preparing Him for an anointing that would have taken place on Sunday morning after the Shabbat, but of course when they got there on Sunday morning the body wasn't there. So this is the only anointing that He ever got, and she was the one who did it — this extravagant thing.
And there's a question here. There's a real question here: Do you know anything about this? Do you know anything at all about what it is that moved her to do this?
You see, there were other responses. There were others, and they were indignant. They said, “She has broken cardinal rules of social etiquette. No, it's much worse than that. It's not just that she's embarrassed us at a family meal in a friend's house.” Mark says, “There were some who said to themselves indignantly…” [in verse 5] “…and they scolded her.” The word indignantly in Greek is a word that actually has onomatopaic qualities about it. It's actually a word which means to snort. [Now snort in the twenty-first century has several meanings. I mean the meaning of the sound that it makes.] They were just angry! They were fuming! And what they said was, “What a waste! What a terrible, terrible waste.”
I was telling the folks in the first service this morning — and it's not a story I tell often, but it seemed appropriate here. I remember a couple of days after graduating from university. I had just finished a university degree in mathematics. And I remember telling my father, who wasn't a believer…I remember telling him, “God is calling me into the ministry. I am going to be a minister.” I knew it, I was sure of it, I was certain of it. And his immediate response was, “What a waste!” [Now, I don't need therapy! I'm fine about it. I've long since come to terms with it.] But it was the response of these people: “What a waste.”
And you know, you can understand it, can't you? It was utterly irrational. If you sat down and thought about it, you’d want to say to Mary, “You know, Mary, next time you have one of these urges, call me. Let's talk first! Let's find some other way of saying ‘Jesus, I love You.’” And maybe that's right. Maybe in another setting what she did was completely irrational and over the top, but the point is she did it because that's where her heart was. And Jesus says — and I love this…I just love this. He said, “She did a beautiful thing.” She did a thing of beauty.
Actually, He does three things.
The first thing He does is to defend her. Don't you like that about Jesus, that He defends you? You know, against your friends, against your family? They’re saying that you’re crazy, that your affection is over the top. “Too much religion is a very bad thing,” my vicar told me the day after I was converted. Imagine that! He didn't know Jesus. He knew about Him, but he didn't know Him. And he said to me the day after I was converted and I told him that I'd been converted… he said, “No, you haven't. You know too much religion is a very bad thing.” How can you have too much religion? How can you have too much of Jesus? Jesus defends her. He stands up for her. They were bullying her, and He asks them the question: “Why are you bothering her?” And I suspect the reason He asks this question is to indicate to them that the reason they were behaving the way they were, and the reason they were responding the way they were responding is because of guilt in their hearts. Because all they could see was perfume, and all she could see was Jesus. And He says what she did was beautiful. It's a word that can also mean appropriate. “She did it for My burial.”
Do you see what He's saying? You know, Mary…it may well be over the top. It may well be extravagant. You know, on another day I would want to sit down and say, ‘You know, Mary, maybe this isn't the best way to do this.’ But you know, she got it! She got it! She understood who Jesus was. She understood that in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of sins; that in Jesus Christ there is resurrection, there is hope, there is life! There's everything!
She was guided, Calvin says, by the breath of the Spirit.
You know, I love to go through graveyards. I know it's kind of weird, but I love to go through graveyards and I love to read what's on tombstones, especially old, old tombstones. And there was a time when they wrote just extraordinary poetry, and sometimes very candid poetry, about lost loved ones. I'm not going to quote any. I was going to, but it would just distract from what I'm trying to say. Do you know what's on her tombstone? “She loved Jesus. She really, really loved Jesus.” Now how can that be bad?
You know there's a subtext here. It's asking you and it's asking me, “Where's your heart today? Where's your affection…your affection for Jesus?” Does it ever reach the point where your affection for Jesus just overflows? And maybe, occasionally, irrationally? I don't think this passage is saying it's okay to behave irrationally; I don't think that's what the passage is trying to say to us. But it is saying there are times in our experience of Christ when our love for Him is so great and so much it seems as though we want to give ourselves away to Him. Have you ever felt like that? You want Him to have everything there is of you, and it doesn't matter what the consequences are because it's your relationship to Christ that is the most important thing of all.
And Jesus saw it, and He said that's a really beautiful thing.
William Cowper, the great hymn writer who often struggled with his own affections, of course…a man who had serious issues with depression:
“Lord, it is my chief complaint
That my love is weak and faint;
Yet, I love Thee, and adore.
Oh, for grace to love Thee more!”
Let's pray together.
Our Father, this passage is so very familiar to us, and we want it to speak to our hearts this morning. We do want to love You, Lord Jesus, more than we do. Holy Spirit, kindle a flame within our hearts for You, that we might be out and out for You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Let's sing together the words of the hymn My Jesus, I Love Thee, No. 648.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
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