READINGS: Psalm 126; John 12:1-8
We had this conversation again this week about money. Cash flow. Paying the bills to keep the church running, so to speak. It’s been tricky again. (As an aside please consider signing up for automatic payments or the envelope system. It really helps. Especially when you can’t make it or are on holiday.)
It’s funny how it comes up every now and then – the conversation about finances – just in that week when the reading set is about generosity. Extravagance. The poor. Or some related matter.
It can’t get any more challenging than this gospel reading.
I read about a pastor’s conference on stewardship – which is about how we look after God’s things, including money. Listen to the story:
One presenter spoke about offering a gift directly to God, and the clergy began to yawn. Then he pulled a $100 bill from his wallet, set it on fire in an ashtray, and prayed, “Lord, I offer this gift to you, and you alone.” The reaction was electric. Clergy began to fidget in their chairs, watching that greenback go up in smoke as if it were perfume. One whispered it was illegal to burn currency. Another was heard to murmur, “If he is giving money away, perhaps he has a few more.” There was nervous laughter around the room. “Do you not understand?” asked the speaker. “I am offering it to God, and that means it is going to cease to be useful for the rest of us.” It was an anxious moment. Bartlett, David L.; Barbara Brown Bartlett (2009-10-12). Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 2: Lent through Eastertide (Kindle Locations 5088-5094). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
That’s the point of this gift. It’s about giving to the one who is worthy. (“Thou art worthy” is the song we used to sing during the offering – it challenges us for our afterthought gifts – when we are scratching around in our purses or wallets.)
“If you offer something to God” suggests the speaker, “it ceases to be useful to you. That’s a challenging idea. Especially since we often have strings attached to our gifts.
The extravagance here in Mary’s gift is not unparalleled in the gospel. The water into wine at the wedding in Cana of Galilee (how much? 180 gallons. 900 litres.)
The 12 baskets left over at the feeding of the 5000?
Jesus after his resurrection telling Peter to cast his net on the other side of the board. 153 fish! And he already had some on his barbeque.
Mind you this is Jesus of whom John 1:3 says casually: Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.
Reminds me of the Psalms:
Psalm 24:1 The earth is the LORD’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it;
Psalm 50:10 For every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. (What I term the ‘hamburger and steak” Psalm.)
How are you with your generosity? Do you love Jesus sacrificially and give to Him extravagantly? With utter abandonment?
Good Friday is lurking here though. In contrast to this generous sensual gift of love (the pouring of the perfume, the taboo of Mary wiping his feet with her hair – the same wiping word we find in the next chapter when Jesus washes his disciples’ feet and wipes them with a towel) there is money-bags Judas.
He’s not just out of relationship with Jesus but reacts badly to someone who is extravagantly worshipping and loving Jesus by his criticism. Sounds like Christians I know. Why do we seem to react to people who are in our view too zealous? Mary knew this Jesus – and his feet. She used to sit at his feet – remember? And listen to his teaching! (Luke 10).
Judas pretends to be concerned with the waste – hence his comment that the value of the gift – a year’s wages – could have been spent on the poor. Of course Jesus’ comment about the poor always being with us is no excuse not to help them. He is quoting Deuteronomy 15 – which says that because they will always be there you have to have an open hand.
It’s about Jesus. “You won’t always have me with you” says Jesus. It reminds me of that lovely worship song: “It’s all about you Jesus!”
And death is in the room you see.
Good Friday is near.
The nard – perfume – is a foretaste of his burial. That’s what they used because they didn’t have our modern embalming tricks – sucking out the dead person’s blood and replacing it with preservatives. So they stank quickly after death.
Like Lazarus did after being in the tomb a couple of days. There’s the classic line from the King James Bible when Jesus instructs them to open the tomb.
Jesus said, Take ye away the stone. Martha, the sister of him that was dead, saith unto him, Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.
By this time he stinketh.
Lovely phrase. There are things in our lives that smell of death too. We stinketh me thinketh.
The perfume is for his burial – but won’t be needed after the 3rd day. It’s still not a waste – because of who he is.
Death is in the room because Lazarus is in the room.
Lazarus is notoriously silent in this passage. He’s the man of the house. Why am I surprised though? When you’ve been dead and you’re alive again – it is a bit disconcerting. I wonder whether he talked about those couple of days in the tomb?
What is interesting and possibly disconcerting for Jesus at his meal is where Lazarus is positioned in the room. Did you notice?
Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.
Reclining at the table – they didn’t sit on chairs – they almost leaned on each other and ate with one hand. I wonder how close death was to Jesus?
Lazarus was more than once described as “Lazarus whom Jesus had raised from the dead” (John 12:1; 12:9 12:17). An interesting way of introducing a person socially!
And then there is Judas. The thief – according to John.
Only on one other occasion (great sentence – five words beginning with o) – is a thief mentioned – in John’s gospel. It’s in chapter 10: 1 & 10 – the thief who climbs into the sheep pen another way, who comes only to kill and destroy – compared to the good shepherd who came that we may have life and have it to the full.
- Satan – the ultimate thief – did not thwart the purposes of God in the temptations of Jesus.
- Judas’ schemes did not stop the purpose of God.
- Neither will we – with our meanness or self obsession.
We have no option to be like Lazarus. We will need to be raised one day. Although of course he will also be raised in the final resurrection like us! We are just as dependant on Jesus for life in the meantime too. I’ve come close to death – any rescue buys me time to make the next choice.
We do have an option to choose between Mary or Judas.
- To give and love extravagantly. And end up with nothing, and yet everything.
- Or to be a controlling thief. To end up with 30 pieces of silver, and yet nothing.
Both were equally loved by the “lover of our souls” – to use Charles Wesley’s term.
You and me too are equally loved. Like the two sons of the extravagant Father last week who killed the best yummy fattened calf for the party.
The smell that is left is what counts. Listen again to verse 3:
John 12:3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Our lives and gifts should be a beautiful fragrance too.
As is the case in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 2: 14-16 – where he uses the illustration of a Roman victory procession, with the incense of the priests rising up. The aroma symbolized life given by the victors and death to the defeated ones.
Paul uses this image to describe Christians: But thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life. And who is equal to such a task? Thankfully, says John Wesley, we are by the power of the Holy Spirit.
May our lives leave a sweet aroma wherever we go.
2 Corinthians 8:1-7
There are at least three conversions in the Christian faith and experience.
Here they are.
1. Conversion of the heart.
The powerful reading from the Old Testament today is clear:
Deu 6:5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. Deu 6:6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts.
New hearts – changed and softened hearts, come up through the scriptures.For example here are some of these passages:
Jer_24:7 I will give them a heart to know me, that I am the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me with all their heart.
Jer_29:13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
Eze_11:19 I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh.
Rom_10:8 But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: Rom_10:9 That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.
Eph_1:18 I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints,
Eph_5:19 Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord,
Mar_12:30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’
Mar_12:33 To love him with all your heart, with all your understanding and with all your strength, and to love your neighbour as yourself is more important than all burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
Luk_6:45 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.
Acts_2:37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”
We need our hearts changed!
2. Conversion of the mind
A well known passage from Paul us this one:
Rom_12:2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.
I loved the reminder at Alpha this week – from St Anselm – “I believe in order to understand.” Reformed tradition has often focussed on the mind first.
The Creeds begin with “I believe…” Not “I am passionate about” or “I love”…
And the Creed has a list of intellectual propositions:
- Who God is (Father, Son Holy Spirit)
- What he did (incarnation, death, resurrection, Ascension)
- When he will come again
- What he will do (judge)
- Where we make sure that people understand these teachings (the church)
Those same passages about the heart also include the transformation of our minds, and our engaging of our thoughts and reasoning in our love and service of God.
Mat_22:37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’
He answered: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.'”
Rom_8:6 The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; Rom_8:7 the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.
The mind, not just the heart, is to be transformed by the Spirit.
Interestingly there is a third conversion to consider:
- The conversion of the purse, or wallet.
Greg Laurie writes this about our third reading 2 Corinthians 8:7 – about giving. here is the main verse: 2 Co 8:7 But just as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in complete earnestness and in your love for us—see that you also excel in this grace of giving.
The story is told of Sam Houston, hero of Texas history, who gave his life to the Lord in the later years of life and asked to be baptized. He was taken down to a little country stream, and the pastor said, “General Houston, you should take your glasses off because I am going to immerse you in water.” There also were some papers in General Houston’s pocket, so he took those out as well.
Then, just as he was getting ready to go into the water, the pastor noticed that General Houston still had his wallet in his pants. He said, “Well, General, you might want to take that wallet out of your pants. It is going to get wet.”
Houston responded, “If there is any part of me that needs baptizing, it is my wallet.” So Houston was baptized, wallet and all.
Maybe some of us need our wallet or cheque book or credit cards baptized. As Martin Luther said, “There are three conversions necessary: the conversion of the heart, mind, and the purse.”
The Bible speaks a lot about money. Greatest hot topic. You can’t avoid it.
- How’s your heart?
- What is your mind focussed on?
- And is God and his kingdom at the top of your list when you open your purse? Or log on your internet bank account, or get out your cheque book?
The Epistle reading (letters) about the church in Macedonia is one of many passages about giving.
Paul admonishes them to “excel in the this grace of giving” (verse 8)
What does grace mean? Gift! Excel in the gift of giving.
Jesus said, “Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over. . . . For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you” (Luke 6:38).
The Gospel of Luke continues in chapter 11 – reminding us that God is Father – with all the best connotations of that word and role for us as his children:
Luk 11:1 One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Luk 11:2 He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.
The best is yet to come from this generous giving God – after whom we model our lives. We take after him!
Luk 11:9 “So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. Luk 11:10 For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.
Luk 11:11 “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Luk 11:12 Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?
Luk 11:13 If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The best gift – the gift of the Holy Spirit – is given by this Father. The gift of his presence and power to make a difference in the world.
The first chapter of Acts is worth hearing again: Act 1:4 On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. Act 1:5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” Act 1:6 So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Act 1:7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. Act 1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Are you fully converted?
Heart, mind, wallet – a life for the Father, the Kingdom, and the Good news!