Christ Centered Resources

An Extravagant Gift

Rev. Ed Searcy

John 12:1-6
University Hill United Church : Sun, April 1, 2001
What would you say is the average yearly income of a labourer? Thirty thousand dollars? Forty thousand? More? “Three hundred denarii would be nearly a year’s wage for a labourer.” That’s what it says in the footnotes of my Bible. That is the value of the pound of expensive perfume - pure nard - that Mary ‘wastes’ anointing Jesus’ feet. Judas is stunned. Even if he is a thief, he has a point. It is hard to imagine that Jesus could ever be in favour of such extravagance. Thirty or forty thousand dollars on one pound of perfume ... and then it is not even poured over his head but, instead, on his feet. When Mary washes Jesus’ feet with her hair it is not simply an act of devotion ... it is foolish extravagance. A year’s pay in perfume ... for a single foot-washing. This is not the kind of offering that we are accustomed to making Jesus. We are more likely to imagine that something a little more reasonable will be enough. Then along come the vows that we are invited to offer in this service of Covenant Renewal: “I am no longer my own, but yours Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will; let me be employed for you or laid aside for you, exalted for you or brought low for you; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to your pleasure and disposal. And now, O glorious and blessed Triune God, you are mine and I am yours. So be it. And the Covenant which I have made on earth let it be ratified in heaven.” It is not hard to imagine Mary saying words like these as she bends over Jesus’ calloused feet, washing them with her hair and that precious pound of pure nard. But it is hard to imagine people like us making such an extravagant promise here today. “I am no longer my own ,but yours.” It is hard to imagine this act of submission in a culture that so highly prizes the freedom of the individual. Let’s be honest. We thought that we were just coming to church ... just coming here to praise and thank God ... just coming for a little moral guidance ... just dabbling, hoping to receive some inspiration for the week ahead. We didn’t come here intending to giving everything up. So it is hard to imagine us saying “let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing”. Yet some of us will say precisely these words today. Some of us have said them before and will say them again. Others of us will join their voices to the chorus for the first time today ... even though you may not have come here intending to do so. All week I have been wondering why ... why do we make such an extravagant promise ... a promise which is surely impossible to keep. And it set me to exploring Mary’s extravagance. Taken out of context, the expenditure of a year’s pay in an act of devotion seems, to say the least, foolhardy. But, see this. The scene is set with this telling first verse:“Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” It is six days before the Passover and Jesus is arriving in Bethany on the outskirts of Jerusalem. It is now th4e last week of Jesus’ life. Tomorrow he will enter Jerusalem as the crowd shouts ‘Hosanna’. Mary knows that Jesus will not be back in her home again. This is to be his last supper with them. With them. With Mary and Martha ... and Lazarus. Lazarus who was dead and gone. At the table sits her beloved brother Lazarus whom Jesus raised from death. Mary stands between great gratitude and great grief. She seeks the words to say “thank-you” and “good- bye”. Instead of words she finds the pound of pure nard ... an extravagant gift for the man who has brought her an extravagant gift of new life. Now do you see why Judas sounds so petty ... so ungrateful ... so right and, yet, so terribly wrong. Mary gives her all to Jesus because he has given his all to her. This is how it comes to pass that we, too, dare risk making such extravagant promises this morning. We do not come to this place because God demands it of us. This is no ‘shotgun wedding’. But it is a wedding. It is a covenant. That means that there are two parties making promises to one another at this font and table. We stand on one side of the aisle facing our marriage partner, the God whose human face is seen in Jesus Christ. As at any wedding, we stand ready to risk pledging mutual faithfulness. But hear this. Our vows come after, not before, our marriage partner’s promises to us. In Christ, God is not waiting for our pledge of faithfulness but is making a vow of love and waiting ... hoping ... for our reply. Like Mary, our extravagant offering of love comes as a response to amazing gifts of love showered upon us. Do you see? The signs of the covenant faithfulness of God are all around us. The font is front and centre, sign of the new life given the lost and the least by God in Christ. Behind it the welcome table, with bread broken and wine poured, the wedding banquet of the new covenant. Over it all the cross ... place of God’s own self given as an extravagant offering of love for the world. As Paul reminds us, this is foolishness to sensible people and confounds religious people. Everyone - secular and religious - knows that nothing comes free in this world. Since the love of God is so highly prized it follows that it must be hard-earned. But that is not how marriage works. You can never earn the marriage vows of another. No amount of hard work can cause that special someone to say “I am no longer my own, but yours”. No. These vows are always the mysterious result of the gift and joy that each discovers in the other. More than that, they are a risky act of sheer courage. In an age when marriage vows are not required it seems more sensible to live common law knowing that promising more than today is foolhardy. It is foolhardy because we know from too much painful experience that promises can go awry. They can be broken. The relationship can come unglued. Perhaps it is better not to overstate the case at the beginning ... not to make extravagant promises that may not be kept. Yet couples keep coming to be married. They keep coming in spite of the risk that is entailed in leaping hand in hand off the cliff of the present into the unknown future. They understand that in a marital relationship of trust there can be no half-way ... just as it is impossible to be ‘a little bit pregnant’ so there is no ‘partially married’ status. It is ‘all or nothing’. One is either covenanted to a partner ... or not. So it is with us. When God, in the person of Jesus, says to us “I do” we can say in reply: “I do” or “I don’t” ... but not “maybe”. Given these options the sane, common sense response must surely be to play it safe and say: “I don’t”. After all, how can any of us ever live up to such promises? Which is precisely what I wonder whenever two people, who appear to be completely sane, stand here and promise one another: “till death do us part”. They know that these extravagant promises of love are the only possible response that they can make to the one who has already given so much ... and who now promises everything. So they risk making fools of themselves in front of a crowd ... a crowd that includes the God of heaven and earth. Which is precisely what we will be doing today when we stand to repeat our vows. In promising our all we admit that we are, in Paul’s memorable phrase, “fools for Christ”. For here - in the midst of this acquisitive society - we promise to let go of everything ... except our unending love for the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ. God’s beloved, April fools ... indeed!