Monday, April 4, 2022

All The Love We Have To Give

April 3, 2022 – The Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C

© 2022 Evan D. Garner

Audio of this sermon is available here. Video of the entire service can be seen here with the sermon starting around 20:20.

We all know it’s coming. It happens every year. It’s unavoidable. There’s nothing we can do to change it, though perhaps some years we manage to push it off a little bit. All we can do is prepare the best we can and hope to get through it. Somehow, we always do.

I could be talking about taxes, but I’m not. I’m talking about Holy Week. I’m talking about the passion and death of Jesus, which we will encounter again one week from today. (How can it already be a week before Palm Sunday?) We have spent five weeks in Lent getting ready for the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the fate that we know awaits Jesus there. The lectionary has done a great job of leading us from the temptation in the wilderness into deep conflict with the religious authorities before bringing us today to the last scene in Jesus’ life before he makes his way into the holy city. 

One thing the lectionary omits, however, is just how obvious it was to everyone around him that Jesus was going to die. At the beginning of the previous chapter of John’s gospel account, Jesus learned that his friend Lazarus was sick even to the point of death. When he informed his disciples that they would be going to Judea—closer to the heart of the conflict that had been growing between him and the religious authorities—they responded with words of warning: “Rabbi, [they] were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?” When Jesus confirmed his plan to go despite the danger, Thomas remarked, “Then let us also go that we may die with him.” 

When he got to Bethany, as John reminds us at the beginning of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus raised his friend from the dead, giving him back to his sisters, Mary and Martha. But what the lectionary doesn’t include is what the authorities thought about that miracle. At the end of chapter 11, in a passage we never hear in church on a Sunday morning, John tells us that, when many people learned of this miracle and believed in Jesus, the authorities became even more concerned. “What are we to do?” they asked each other. “This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” In their minds, the situation had grown dire. Too many people had begun to think of Jesus as the one who would lead a rebellion against the Romans, seeking to restore the kingdom to God’s people. Such a rebellion was all but certain to fail, and the brutal Empire would surely respond by eliminating anyone in a position of authority.

“From that day on,” John tells us, “they planned to put him to death.” Jesus knew he was in trouble. He knew better than to hang out in Bethany, where they would find him, so he and his disciples snuck off to a town called Ephraim, on the edge of the wilderness, where he could hide…until today—until the Passover drew near and Jesus recognized that his time had come. At the start of today’s gospel lesson, Jesus decided to head back to Bethany, back to his friends’ house, back into the lion’s den, where the authorities were certain to find him and arrest him and kill him. 

In a very real way, therefore, the reality of Holy Week was as clear to Jesus and his friends as it is to us. There was no doubt in their minds what would happen next. The only question to ask is how we are supposed to get ready for the death we know is coming—the death that there is nothing we can do to stop. And, in today’s story, we see two very different responses to that reality—one of Judas and one of Mary.

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas asked. Isn’t that a good question? Shouldn’t we ask that question of ourselves every time we gather in this beautiful space and hold up our sterling silver Communion vessels in remembrance of Jesus? John tries to let us off the hook by telling us that Judas was a thief and only asked that question because he wanted the funds to be put into the common purse, where he could skim off the top, but that doesn’t change the value of the question. Whether asked in deception or without an ulterior motive, shouldn’t we also ask why that perfume worth three hundred denarii—an entire year’s wages for a laborer—belonged instead on Jesus’ feet? 

Although he may have been a thief, Judas’ question sounds like the sort of logical, rational, intellectual response of a disciple who knew that his master would soon be dead. He recognized in economic terms the pointless waste of the costly perfume on the feet of a leader whose movement was careening toward its end. Perhaps such a lavish display would make sense at a coronation, if Jesus were to be crowned the Davidic king, but Judas knew that there would be no happy ending. Although his master had a strong following among the common people, without the support of the religious and political elites, his movement was doomed to fail.

Mary, on the other hand, was already acquainted with the sting of death. When Jesus finally arrived in Bethany after her brother Lazarus had already succumbed to his illness, she came to him and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” And yet, in a way that defied all expectations, Jesus called the dead man out of the tomb and gave him back to his sisters. Like the disciples, Mary knew that Jesus’ conflict with the authorities would end in death, but she responded with a devotion that transcended logic and understanding. She poured that precious perfume upon his feet and wiped them with her hair, lovingly and intimately preparing his body for the death and burial that awaited. For Mary, the only possible response to the expected death of Jesus was to give him all the love she had to give.

Every year, we encounter again the passion and death of Jesus. We know the story, and we know well how it will end. But each time we come again to this moment we must decide how we will prepare for what awaits. For many of us, the logical calculus represented by Judas’ question comes naturally. We want to understand why it had to happen this way and what sort of value is conveyed in the brutal death of the one whom God has sent. But the fullness of Jesus’ self-offering for the sake of the world cannot fit into our rational comprehension. Our intellectualism alone will never make enough room to receive the death that gives life to the world.

In order to find our place within this saving drama, we must, like Mary, respond with unwavering devotion. We must pour upon our savior’s feet the perfume of our unceasing prayers and wipe them with our constant attention. Our part in all of this is to walk beside Jesus and pray with him and sit with him and weep with him every step of the way. By the time we come to church next Sunday, it will be time for us to embark on this journey of devotion. So clear your calendar and get yourself ready. We know that, soon, Jesus will be handed over to the authorities and killed. And there’s only one thing for us to do. We must give him all the love we have to give.


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