The Lord's Day Morning
July 29, 2012
“Greater than Our Sin, Greater than Our Deeds; So Great is Jesus”
The Reverend Mr. Joshua M. Rieger
If you would, this morning, open with me in your Bibles to John chapter 12. If you’re reading along in your pew Bibles, you’ll find that on page 898. This morning, in John chapter 12, we're going to be looking at really two particular individuals, three I guess because Christ is at the center of the story, but we're going to be looking at the response of two individuals to Christ. But before we read in John chapter 12 let's go to the Lord in prayer and ask Him to help us.
Our heavenly Father, we come before You, a holy, righteous, and just God, knowing that we are a people whose hearts are desperately wicked and deceitful above all else. In fact, we cannot know them. It is only You that searches the heart and knows the mind. But we also know, Lord, that no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man but man spoke when he was carried along by the Spirit. And so we come to Your Word knowing Lord that it is something that we can trust even when we cannot trust our own hearts, that we come seeking guidance from You who created us and You who has redeemed us. We pray, Lord, that You would guide our hearts and minds into all knowledge as we listen to Your Word this morning. In Jesus' name, amen.
In chapter 12 of John this morning, we're going to be reading beginning with verse 1 and reading through the eighth verse. Starting with John chapter 12 and verse 1:
“Six day s before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for Him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with Him at the table. Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples (he who was about to betray Him), said, ‘Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?’ He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have Me.’”
The grass withers and the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.
As we come to this passage, we come to kind of a terminal point in some ways, to a portion of the book of John. Many people split up the book of John and call the first twelve chapter “The Book of Signs” and the last chapters, from 13 to 21, “The Book of Glory.” This is kind of a pivotal moment in which the ministry of Christ is ending and the last week of His life is beginning. And so as we come to chapter 12, we're coming to a point where, in the previous chapter, He raised Lazarus from the dead. His dear friend died and He raised Him from the dead. We see immediately following that that there is a plot to kill Jesus and this plot was not like some of the other plots that we've seen in the gospels. We see other places that the people have taken up stones to stone Him and He has walked right through them and walked through them in safety. You see things like this in other places but this is a plot that is deadly serious, so serious in fact that we see that Jesus actually withdraws from living among the people and walking among them the way He's been doing and He withdraws to the edge of the wilderness to a town called Ephraim. And so this plot is a plot that He's taking very seriously. It's something where there's clear evidence that He is in real danger of physical harm.
And then you come to the anointing of today's story which is immediately followed by what we learn is a plot to kill Lazarus because not only is Jesus’ raising of Lazarus something that is causing people to come from Judaism to follow Jesus, but also actually people are seeking to come to Lazarus to learn more about Jesus and so Lazarus is a flashpoint, the leader of the Jews see. And then you see the triumphal entry, or what you might actually call the ultimate rejection of Christ. And so you see this picture as we come to this passage that is a very pivotal moment. It's a moment where a lot of things are happening. Jesus is getting ready; you know it's only six days before the Passover. Jesus is getting ready to come into Jerusalem and the triumphal entry. By the end of this chapter He's getting ready to come in to be praised, initially, but then slaughtered. And these friends throw a banquet for Him. And He comes to Bethany six days before the Passover. And even His coming to Bethany is an answer to a question that many had had.
If you look at verse 53 of the previous chapter it says that there was a — “after that day when He raised Lazarus from the dead they made plans to put Him to death. Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness.” And then it goes on to say, “Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purity themselves. They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? That He will not come to the feast at all?’ Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where He was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest Him.” So there's so much awareness of the danger that Jesus is in physically that people are asking if He’ll even come to Passover. It was a clear practice to come to Jerusalem for Passover but they’re asking that question.
And so as we begin verse 12 and we see the six days before the Passover He came to Bethany which was just a couple of miles from Jerusalem and they begin a trek in and they had a meal for Him, we realize very quickly that He is answering their questions already. And so He comes to this feast, this dinner party, and I'm imagining a little bit a dinner party that I might go to and I imagine that there's probably some mingling at the beginning and they talk and they spent some time talking to one another but when dinner came it probably shifted a little bit. First of all, they don't just sit at the table like we do; they would have reclined and their heads would have been near the table and their feet would have been further away from the table. But generally when you’re at a dinner party and you come together and you’re eating together, you tend to focus more on the people right next to you than maybe you were before you came to the table. You’re focusing more on the ones either right across from you or next to you. And they’re seated here looking at the ones nearest them. And as this is happening, Mary comes in and takes this bottle that says in the other gospel accounts of it, an alabaster bottle, and she breaks the neck and she pours this perfume all over Mary — all over Jesus, excuse me. And you know I've got to think that it's a little ironic at least in the English language that this beautiful smelling fragrant perfume is called nard, because at least in the English language that's just not that beautiful of a word. But nard is this plant that grows in India. And they take the root and somehow they get this beautiful smelling perfume and it's extremely expensive perfume.
And as I read this story I'm reminded of any number of stories of memories that I have that are associated with smells. You know my wife's family has some family land in South Carolina and I think of it and I think of that late summer, you know, kind of the dry grass and the pine tree and the dust and I can almost smell it when I think of it.
Or you know, last year I had the privilege of going to General Assembly at Virginia Beach. And in case you didn't know I served in the Navy for seven years and I spent five and a half of my years there in Norfolk and so as I approached Virginia Beach, first I came into Virginia, and I was raised in the commonwealth of Virginia and love dearly Virginia, and so even crossing the border was an emotional experience and as I approached Virginia Beach and Norfolk I hit traffic. And I remember that too! And I thought, “Well, I'm not sure I want to have the air on. It's a beautiful day.” And so I rolled down the window and as soon as I rolled down the window I smelled, you know, the ocean. And I'm sitting there crossing the bridge, I could see the ships right there on the pier and I could smell the ocean, and it's just all kinds of memories come flooding back immediately. I had to call my wife and tell her about it right away. It's just one of those types of memories.
I also remember when I was a junior in high school, my brother was a freshman, we had about three weeks left and the girl who had a locker next to his, I don't know what she was doing, but she broke a bottle of perfume in her locker. And for the last three weeks of school that was all we smelled in that area of the hall! And I’ll never forget that smell; it was overpowering. My brother really didn't enjoy going to his locker for the last three weeks of school!
This would have been a very strong smell. It would have been a small that evoked memories and in fact, this was a perfume that was so expensive and it was often used on bodies as they were preparing them for burial. And so even though it was very strong and beautiful smelling, the chances are some of the memories it would have evoked would have been burial memories or death memories, things that would not necessarily have been positive memories. And so Mary took this bottle — it tells us, the ESV translation it has “pound,” but actually the word, it's about eleven and a half ounces in a Roman measurement and so it would have been about three-quarters of a pound. This is not, kind of, fluid ounces; this would have been three-quarters of a pound of liquid, and she poured it over Him. And our passage here tells us that she poured it on His feet. But actually as we look at some of the other passages that tell this same story we realize some of them tell us that she poured it on His head, and actually Jesus, in one of the passages where it says she poured it on His head, responds to some of the Pharisees who were frustrated with it and some of the other disciples who were frustrated with this by saying that she poured it on His body. And so chances are it would have been enough liquid to cover more than His head. Chances are, she anointed more than just His feet, and that actually this passage is calling attention specifically to what she does as she anointed His feet and then takes her hair and wipes up excess perfume.
Now yesterday I went to the children's museum with my son and some friends and there were a lot of kids and afterwards we went to Chick-fil-A for lunch and one of the other younger children spilled some chocolate milk and his older sister helped him clean it up and she didn't use her hair! And I doubt that it was even an idea that she had to use her hair, and so I think that there's more going on here than just cleaning up some excess perfume. In fact, it's not just that I think I know, there's definitely more going on here than just this. It would have been an immodest act for her to take her hair down in public in that way in this day and age and so she's doing something exceptional as she washes this or removes this excess perfume from His feet. And Christ is seeing this and Luke is telling us that actually as this happens, you know, the Pharisees in one of the gospels it tells us the Pharisees who were there reacted to the impropriety of it because she was a sinner and He was letting her touch Him so intimately. And He says, “You didn't even anoint Me on the head with oil and she's anointed Me on the feet with perfume and wiping it up with her own hair.” And so there's clearly something here that is more than just wiping it up. There's an anointing and an honoring and a worshipful thing that is happening here. This is a worshipful element that is present in her action. There's a humility as she does something immodest and she abases herself and she takes her hair and wipes His feet while He's eating. And so she's doing something here that's exceptional. And there's a value to the gift that this is showing us. And not only is there a value to, well there's really honestly a value to the honor that she's showing Him as she does this thing. There's a value to the respect and to the humility that she demonstrates as she honors Him by abasing herself.
But there's also a value to the gift she uses. This nard this tells us is actually worth about three hundred denarii. This is something that would be about three hundred days pay for a laborer. Probably you see that in the note in your Bible. A denarius is about a day's pay for a laborer and so it's about three-quarters of a year's worth of pay for a laborer. And so you’re probably talking tens of thousands if not a hundred thousand dollars worth of perfume that she's just poured on Jesus and mopped up with her hair. And this is something that she has kept specifically for His burial. You know when you read verse 7 there and you see the end there it says that, “Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone so that she may keep it for the day of My burial’” now there's some question as to that translation that “she may keep it for the day of My burial.” Some of the translations will actually say, “She has kept it for the day of My burial.” What you know based on that verse is that she has clearly has this for some time and it's been aimed at His burial and it's been focused on His burial. Some people believe that it's, “She may keep it for the day of My burial,” or that she is recognizing that He is the resurrection and the life actually saying, “I recognize that Your burial is not as important,” or any number of other things. But there's clearly a picture that this is something that is kept for burial and she has kept it for His. She's spent an immense amount of money on this perfume. Now remember just probably a couple of weeks before her brother died and they buried him and he was raised again but he was buried fully before he was raised again. She could very easily have used this perfume at her brother's burial but for whatever reason she kept it, she kept it for Christ, and she is holding onto this. So there's an extreme value, both in terms of the way that she is humbled as she served Him and in the gift that she gives as she uses this.
But the immediate response is indignation. Actually, two of the other gospels tell us that some of the disciples were indignant that she used such an expensive gift to anoint His feet or anoint His head, but actually this passage tells us not just is it some but one of them is actually Judas Iscariot. And John can't let the fact that it's Judas Iscariot pass without remembering that this is the one who betrayed Jesus. Even fifty or sixty years later, as John writes this, he has not forgotten the sting of the betrayal. This was a betrayal for the ages. You know if I call somebody a “Judas” they know exactly what I'm talking about. If you were to say, “Et tu brute,” you know exactly what that means; you know it's another betrayal for the ages. As Americans we know that the name of Benedict Arnold is something that we're very familiar with. Betrayal and certain betrayals especially last a long time and this is one that John has not forgotten. It's, like I said, fifty or sixty years later, and he's holding on to it.
Not too long ago I was reading a book, it's a biography of Alexander Hamilton, and it opened by talking about his wife, who fifty years later, hadn't brought herself to forgive Aaron Burr who killed Alexander Hamilton in the duel. It's that kind of thing you hold on to; you don't let go of; it's there years and years later. And as he brings this up, he shows that Judas was in this for a very different reason for the rest of the disciples. Now we know that Judas wasn't the only one who was indignant about this because actually the other passages tell us that “some” of the disciples were indignant about this, that's more than one. So there were some other disciples who thought, “Hey we could have used this for the poor but instead we used it under these circumstances,” but Judas is the one who's in this for another reason. The other disciples aren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. We know very clearly that the other disciples had all kinds of sin that is actually pointed out by the Scriptures but we do know that Judas was, at heart, a thief, as John says here.
He and Mary are looking at the exact same events, and I'm not talking about the events of breaking the bottle of perfume, I'm talking about the events of the impending danger that Jesus is facing. The end is near - the danger that we read about at the end of John 11 where we see that eminently Jesus is facing death and we see that everybody knows this. She would have known this because she lived in Bethany just a couple of miles from Jerusalem, and it tells us everyone in Jerusalem was talking about this. Judas would have been aware of this; he was one of His disciples and Jesus had had to withdraw for safety to another place. Judas and Mary are both aware of the danger that Jesus is in the last couple of verses in chapter 11 and so as they come to this feast and Jesus is answering people's questions as He's moving towards Jerusalem, Mary and Judas are both well aware of what's happening and they respond in radically different ways to the current events. And so we see that Judas’ lack of belief and Mary's belief both result in actions but in very different actions.
So I want to look first of all at Judas’ reaction to the light and I’ll explain that just a little bit more in a moment. As I was saying, Judas saw the writing on the wall. You know, Judas knew the end was coming. Judas knew that Jesus was in danger and he's thinking through these things and it tells us here that he's in charge of the moneybag and he's not just in charge of the moneybags but he's actually taking from the moneybag. Now I don't imagine that if you really wanted to skim off the top and line your pockets this would have been the best group of people to follow. You know, you read the gospels and it certainly doesn't sound like Jesus was walking around with all kinds of money. When they needed to pay taxes He had to work a miracle and take a coin out of a fish's mouth. At one point, Jesus was saying, “Even the Son of Man doesn't have a place to lay His head.” Obviously this isn't like they’re staying in five-star hotels and they've got all kinds of money. But still, he was skimming money off the top. And so while it might not be like being the chief accountant for a fortune five hundred company it's still something where he had access to money and he was acting with little integrity in his care for that money.
And while we're going to be looking today primarily at the fact that Judas had a major idol and that idol took the place of his worship of Jesus and we're going to be looking at that the rest of this morning, I don't want to gloss past the fact that Judas’ lack of belief played itself out in a lack of integrity. The fact that Christ was not most important to him played itself out in a lack of integrity. And he stole money and he spent money that wasn't his and he didn't spend money on what was most important. The rest of the disciples probably thought he was giving to the poor and he was instead lining his pockets. And while the point of this passage is primarily pointing to Judas’ idol and to Mary's proper worship, I don't think we can skip the fact that there is a clear call to integrity as we follow Christ. For those who are truly followers of Christ will have lives that exhibit integrity and Judas did not have that type of life. He had a lack of scruples which apparently, at least in the short term, had some sort of benefit for him. We see in the gospels, not just here, that he is clearly a man whose god is money because think of the other major story that we think of when we think of Judas and it's just going to happen a few days in. It's that he was willing to sell his friend of at least three years for just thirty pieces of silver.
And what we see there is a picture of what John says in John 3 as He's speaking to Nicodemus. In John 3 as Jesus is speaking to Nicodemus, He says, “This is the judgment: this light has come into the world and people love the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” You see a picture here of somebody who clearly has works that are not carried on in God, who clearly does evil deeds, who clearly does not believe in Christ, whose hope is not Christ, and he doesn't want to be anywhere near the light. He knows the light, he's seen the light, he's lived with the light for three years, he knows exactly what its character is, he knows what it stands for, he knows what it means in terms of lifestyle, and his response is that he hates it. And he hates even more that because of the character of the light, his gravy train is coming to an end. He hates that he can read the writing on the wall because of what the light it. He hates the fact that money is so important to him and he won't have it anymore because of what Jesus is doing. It's incredible blasphemy the way he is looking at Christ. He's heard the talking of the crowds that we hear of at the end of John 11 and his response is not one of concern for Jesus; it's one of concern for himself.
And so here he comes to this situation knowing that Jesus’ days are numbered and you know, the crowds are curious as to how Jesus will respond and Judas is anxious for every little bit of ill-gotten gain that he can get. And he sees this perfume that is worth tens of thousands if not a hundred thousand dollars and he sees it being poured out on the ground and he realizes his payday could have come but she's just dumped it all over Jesus’ feet. He could have finally gotten something that was worth it for all the horrible things he's done, and she's dumped it on Jesus’ feet. And what we see is that every action and every word and every attitude that Judas exhibits demonstrates his rejection of the Savior of the world. The money sacks of following Jesus may not give you a lot to steal from but it was enough for him to follow. And so this is what he values. He is no less focused on Jesus’ impending doom than Mary is but his response is entirely different than Mary's when it comes to this impending doom.
Mary's reaction, though, is the next thing that I want us to look at because we see very clearly Judas’ response to this; Mary's response is different. Mary, in the same way, sees these things that are coming. She knows the writings on the wall. She knows that her dear friend who she loves very much, who she's cared for, for so long, is in danger, and Mary's worship goes forth in action. Mary's actions and words and attitudes, just like Judas’, are very influenced by her response to Jesus, it's just that she's got a totally different response to Jesus than Judas does. Judas has showed that his god is money but Mary shows us, not just in this passage, Mary shows us regularly exactly what she worships and she has showed us by - you know, think of the other story where we think of Mary and Martha which happens in Luke, which happens before Lazarus died. And they put on a meal and Martha's busy getting ready and doing so because she loves Jesus indeed but she's busy getting ready. And just as she does, you’ll notice in John 12 here as they’re preparing for the dinner, Martha gets ready and Mary is just sitting at the feet of Jesus and listening to everything that He has to say. And she's had you know, who knows how long, days or weeks now since Lazarus has been raised to think about what Jesus has been doing and what Jesus had said. You know, Jesus told Martha after He raised Lazarus from the dead, “I am the resurrection and the life.” When He asked her, “Do you believe in the resurrection?” She said, “Of course we believe in the resurrection of the dead.” And He said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” And no doubt Mary had heard this and she's considered, “What does this mean?” Maybe she's even come to some sort of understanding that this impending danger doesn't really matter that much. Maybe she's grasped it; I don't know whether she has or not but she has had time to think about this.
And remember, you know we think about what we worship. You know, no doubt Judas spent a lot of time thinking about money and having things and the ability to take care of himself and all kinds of things, but we think about what we worship. And so Mary would have been thinking a lot about Jesus. She would have been thinking a lot about what He said and mulling it over in her head. We think about what we value. You know, we think about the things that we hold dear. You know, how many hours had she been considering the inestimable worth and value of Jesus? How many hours had she spent considering that this value of this perfume was nothing compared to the value of Jesus? The picture of Paul in Philippians 7, excuse me, Philippians 3:7-11, looking at all of those things that he valued, that he considered of worth before he knew Jesus and saying, “I consider them all rubbish for the sake of knowing Jesus.” She is considering things and she's realizing that Jesus is the thing that is of more value and worth to her than anything else. And this isn't some sort of silly crush or puppy love; she worships Him. Her worship affects every action and so at the end of the book, John tells us the purpose and the reason for which he wrote this book. And in John 20:31 he says, “These things have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” And Mary shows us exactly what it looks like to believe that Jesus is the Christ and to believe that you have life in His name. She shows us a perfect picture of that.
And this is the reason that John is writing everything in this book. And so as he transitions from this picture of Lazarus and his doom is impending and he transitions into this final week of His life and he considering this and Mary's considering it, John is not accidently telling us his story. He's showing us what it means to believe that Jesus is the Christ and that's that when we worship, our worship affects our actions. And that's not just true of Mary; it's true of Judas. Judas was worshiping also; he just wasn't worshiping the same thing that Mary was worshiping. And so we see that Jesus’ death affects responses and it affects our responses no less than it affects Judas’ response and Mary's response.
We need to ask ourselves what our response is in worship. So ask ourselves where our thoughts go when we have time alone. I remember growing up I had a whole host of chores. One of the chores that I actually liked the most in the summer is that we would go out and get wood — I don't know if this is true everywhere in Virginia — when they’re building new roads and things like that they’ll cut down the trees and they’ll leave them there for whoever wants to pick them up to get it. And so we’d go pick these up and we’d have these huge, huge logs and you’d basically have to split them in order to get firewood. And so we’d split the wood for firewood. And I liked it so Matt, my brother, didn't have to do the splitting of the logs; I got to do the splitting of the wood. So I'd be splitting the wood and the reason that I liked it was because it was just mindless. You sat out there and you did it for a couple of hours and your mind could go wherever you want, you could think about whatever you wanted.
There are all kinds of tasks we have like that that are mindless, whether it's mowing the lawn or showering or whatever it is that takes our minds places and we do whatever we're doing because it's so practiced and we just think about whatever we want to think about. And I know that thinking about what we think about in those types of moments is a real good indicator of what we're worshiping. So we can ask ourselves, “When my mind is going wherever it can go, do I dream of wealth or do I dream of power or maybe some sort of security or maybe some sort of fame? Is my sole thought my family or my children without ever thinking about God and how He affects these things? Is this what fills my head and my heart above all things?” Or, maybe I'm praying, maybe I'm meditating on the Scriptures, maybe I'm rehearsing verses that I've memorized. You know we're about to sing, “Come Thou Fount” right after the sermon and “Come Thou Fount” is a perfect picture of the idea that we should be tuning our hearts to sing God's grace. We actually sing, “God, tune our hearts to sing Your grace.” That, what we're doing when our minds have a little freedom, do we consider the streams of mercy never ceasing? Do they lead to endless praise?
Another great question we have is, “Where do we spend our money?” Not just, “Where do we spend time with our thoughts?” but “Where do we put our money?” and “How do we give our money when we do give it?” So when you write a check for a tithe or maybe a faith promise pledge that you've made and you write this check out, how does your heart respond when you do that? Do you give it cheerfully or do you give it not really wanting to see that money leave your checking account? Or do you give it all? Maybe you put your money somewhere else. Maybe there's something else that you value far more. Maybe it's fashion or cars or a house somewhere or any number of other things. Do we pray and meditate on the Scripture? Do we live in a way that our free time and our money are devoted to the things that we love and is that God? Because our time and our money are devoted to the things that we love.
This is a passage that calls us to love Christ more than anything else. We see a woman who devotes her time to that. We see a woman who devotes all of her earthly finances, if you will, or all of her earthly security to Christ, and we see a man who does exactly the opposite as he chases some sort of security or money. We see two different pictures of worship and we have to evaluate ourselves in light of that. What do we worship? And this is not a question we ask ourselves for twenty minutes or thirty minutes during a sermon on Sunday morning because we don't get a sufficient answer in that amount of time. This is a question we ask ourselves daily. This is a question we spend time in prayer thinking about. This is a question we ask ourselves every time we balance our checkbooks. This is a question we ask ourselves when we're going to bed at night when we have some time, some of that time alone to think about whatever it is we're thinking about. This should be a continual process, asking ourselves, “What do I worship? What do I value? What have I committed myself to?”
Let's close in prayer.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for Your Son, for communicating Yourself to us in Your Son. Thank You for teaching us about Yourself and the hope that we have of salvation. Lord, we pray that we would take this call seriously. Lord, none of us worship You as we should, always in every way, and so every single one of us have areas in our lives, whether great or small, where we have idols that we are following, and so Lord we pray that You would show us these idols, that we would be people who are looking for them, who don't go away and forget this, that we would be a people who actually respond to this call from Your Word, that we would be a people who would seek to worship You above all else, that we would have a desire to love You more than anything else and that You would fill our hearts with praise and worship of You. In Jesus' name, amen.
If you would sing with me in response hymn number 457, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”
Now hear the blessing that God has placed on all of those who believe that Jesus is the Christ and that by believing in Him they might have life. Peace be to the brethren and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be to all of you who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. Amen.
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