Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Wonderful Fragrance and a Horrible Stench (John 12:1-8)

Most of us remember that tagline from the commercials that spoke of  “a Kodak moment.” It is a moment that deserves being captured on film for preservation. A couple of weeks ago, as my wife and I were walking her dog (I don’t own a dog, but she does), we missed a really great Kodak moment. The dog stopped suddenly on the side of the road to take care of important business, and while she was doing her business, she was sniffing a flower in front of her. I really wish I had captured the picture. It was a moment of great contrast. On one end of the dog was a fragrant aroma, and on the other end of the dog was a horrible stench. That image deserved to be captured and preserved. It was a Kodak moment, but I missed it.  

In our text today we find a similar Kodak moment that has been captured and preserved for us. As we read it, we can see it in our mind’s eye in rich color and texture, and the account leaps off the page in multi-sensory detail. We can smell the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship in Mary’s act of anointing the Lord Jesus with her costly perfume, and we can detect that gut-wrenching, pungent stench of Judas’s hard-hearted and hypocritical grumbling. Nowhere in Scripture is there a greater contrast of human responses to Jesus Christ than we have preserved here in this text.

Let’s set the stage of the scene. In Chapter 11, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, which prompted many to believe in Him, while many others were calcified in their hatred toward Him. With a death-warrant looming over His head, Jesus withdrew from Jerusalem. But as Chapter 12 opens, the re-engagement begins as His hour draws near. He has returned to the environs of Jerusalem for the final time. John tells us in verse 1 that it is six days before Passover. So, on a Friday evening as the Sabbath begins, Jesus has re-entered Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem proper, and reunited with Lazarus and his family. As the Passover breaks on Saturday evening, a meal is held in His honor – a celebration of thanksgiving for restoring the life of Lazarus. Tomorrow, He will enter Jerusalem for the last time on what we observe as Palm Sunday. It is in this context that we see this great contrast of the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship and the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling. It is to those thoughts that I would like to devote our attention.

I. The wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship (vv1-3).

The word “extravagant” has a range of meaning. It can refer to something that is so excessive as to be wasteful or to something that is beyond what is reasonable. When I say “extravagant worship,” I do not intend to use either of those meanings. But the word “extravagant” can also mean something that is exceedingly high in value, price, or cost. And when it comes to our worship of Christ, extravagance is not unreasonable. Because the Lord Jesus has been extravagant in the outpouring of His grace, it is entirely reasonable for us to be extravagant in the outpouring of our worship. Not a drop of His blood nor a measure of His grace was wasted in our redemption, and not a pound of our worship is wasted in rendering to Him the worship that He is due. Extravagance is called for, but rarely evidenced. Our worship, when compared to the extravagance of which the Lord Jesus is worthy, may be more often characterized as miserly and stingy. But every now and then, we see a glimpse of Jesus receiving the extravagant worship that He deserves. And we see it here in the act of Mary.

We see her extravagant worship demonstrated first of all in the meal itself. Now, you say, “What is so extravagant about providing a meal for someone?” Indeed, in that culture and others where hospitality is cherished as a virtue, failure to provide a meal for someone who had traveled so far would be highly taboo. But this was not just a meal for a visiting traveler. This meal was for Jesus Christ: a wanted man and a fugitive. The order had gone out in verse 57 that if anyone knew His whereabouts, they were to report Him to the authorities. Not only did this group not report Him, they in fact hosted and publicly celebrated Him. After all, this is the Jesus who has given them back their loved one from death. Here at the table sits one, Lazarus, who just a few days before was dead and in his tomb, but who now (because of the power and grace of Jesus) is alive and well again! You see, extravagant worship recognizes the extravagant power and grace of Jesus and does not consider the consequences as it is poured out from a faithful heart filled with love and gratitude for Him.

If you know Christ today, then you have this in common with Lazarus: you were as dead spiritually as Lazarus was physically when the Lord Jesus called you to life in Himself. He has raised you up! Should we not rejoice and celebrate with extravagant worship? Someone will tell you, “Hey, you know, you should tone it down with all the Jesus-talk. You don’t want to be a fanatic. You’re going to upset someone and cause trouble.” Well, it is not our goal to cause trouble or to upset anyone, but we’ve been brought to life from the dead! How can we not make much of Jesus in extravagant worship? If you aren’t overflowing with extravagant worship because Jesus has given you life when you were dead in sin, check your pulse and make sure you are really alive! Come what may, extravagant worship can’t be contained, no matter the risks or dangers. Extravagant worship doesn’t consider the consequences.

Then notice that extravagant worship doesn’t consider the cost. This is really the point that John wants us to see here – Mary’s sacrificial outpouring of this “very costly perfume.” It’s made of pure nard, he tells us. The spikenard plant from which this perfume was made grows up in the higher altitudes of the Himalayas in Nepal, Tibet and Northern India. It was imported from there in that day, and was therefore very expensive. Mary’s got a lot of it – if you can picture a soda can, that’s about how much perfume Mary’s got, according to the original meaning of the weight and measure here. That’s a lot of perfume, a this is a very costly supply. The other gospel writers tell us that it is kept in an alabaster vial, so even the container was very valuable. We read in verse 5 that it was worth 300 denarii. A denarius was the average worker’s daily wage, so 300 denarii would be about a year’s salary for the average person. The latest research I could put my hands on placed the national average income for Americans today around $40,000. Do any of you have perfume worth that much? And here, as Jesus reclines at the table with His friends, Mary does the unexpected and the extravagant. She pours that very costly perfume out all over Him. John says she anointed His feet. Matthew and Mark say that she anointed His head. There’s no contradiction there. We’re talking about a soda can full of perfume. She has poured it all over Him from head to toe. Mark says she broke the vial, indicating that she spent it all on Jesus, even the container it came in. And then, in great humility and devotion, she begins to loosen the tresses of her hair (something very scandalous in that day), and she wiped His feet with her hair. Picture this precious woman on the ground before the outstretched feet of Jesus, massaging the perfume into His calloused feet with her hair. I dare say no one ever gave Jesus the worship He deserves more than this dear soul did. Extravagant worship never considers the cost, because Jesus is worthy of all we can give Him.

What is your most valued possession, the thing you treasure most in your life? Is it your home, your financial portfolio, your career, your reputation, your children, your family? Maybe something else? Could you give it away for Jesus? You say, “What do you mean? Jesus would never ask me to give those things up for Him!” Well, in fact, Jesus asks you to give everything up for Him, and He is worthy of it. He doesn’t really want your stuff, He wants your heart. But He says that where your treasure is, there your heart is also (Lk 12:34). If He is not your treasure, He will begin to call you to loosen your grasp on whatever is. In many cases, the question is, “How can I give this to Jesus in such a way that He can be glorified in it and through it?” Can Jesus be glorified in your home, or in your career, or by your finances, or through your family? He isn’t asking you to place the blade on the neck of your firstborn, but He’s calling you to hold nothing back from Him. If the day should ever come that God would call your children or your grandchildren to serve Him in a far-away and dangerous land, are you willing to give them to Him? If He should call you to walk away from your career and walk by faith into His service, could you do it? If He were to call you to make a bold stand for Him that could jeopardize your repuration, or your livelihood and lifestyle, could you do it? The list could go on and on. These are costly expressions of worship, some may even say extravagant! But extravagant worship does not consider the cost, because the extravagant worshiper knows that Jesus is worthy. Mary gave an unthinkably costly gift to Jesus in an outpouring of worship. Are we willing to do the same?

Extravagant worship doesn’t consider the cost and it doesn’t consider the consequences. And when it is poured out on Jesus, a wonderful aroma fills the air. Verse 3 says that the whole house was “filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The fragrance of her act of worship permeated the whole place, and she arose and went about serving, her hair wafted the aroma and kept it lingering long after her act of worship was completed. I’ve known a few folks like this in my life – not many, but a few. When you are around them, you just feel like you’ve been near God Himself because their lives put off this heavenly aroma of extravagant worship. I like being around those people. I want to be one of them. In the Law, the various sacrifices and offerings that were burnt on the altar of God were said to put off a soothing aroma before the Lord (e.g., Exo 29:25, et al.). I want my life to be like that. Jesus wants all of our lives to be like this! In Romans 12, the Apostle Paul says, “Therefore, I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.” Pour it out as a soothing aroma, a wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship. Think not of the cost or the consequences. Jesus is worthy, in view of the excellencies of His great mercy and grace, and His power which has been revealed in us as He saves us and transforms us from that old way of death in which we formerly walked. Let us not be miserly in our worship of Him. Let us be extravagant and pour it all out for Him because He is worthy of extravagant worship! Let everyone around us smell it in our lives – the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship.

Oh, how I wish the passage ended there! But, sadly it doesn’t. It goes on, from this beautiful story of this wonderful fragrance to tell the sorry tale of …

II. The horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling (vv4-6)

One of our college students is presently over in West Africa, and this past week, she’s been texting me lots of pictures of the places she’s been visiting. I have been to some of those places myself. One of them was particularly memorable for me. She sent me a picture of a beautiful beach with a row of colorfully hand-painted fishing boats lined up along the shore. I remember that scene well. Soft white sand, palm trees lining the shore, and people frolicking about in the crystal-blue water. But the air on that beach is filled with a gut-wrenching stench, because there on the beach is a huge pile of garbage where everyone in the city dumps their trash, including human waste, rotting food, remnants of dead fish, and a host of other little nasties. Its kind of like what we have going on here in this scene in our text. There’s this beautiful scene of extravagant worship, but all of a sudden it is shot through by the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling over in a corner of the room. It must have been all that the dinner guests could do to hold down their meal as this noxious odor began to fill the room from the mouth of Judas Iscariot.

There is a lot that can be said about Judas Iscariot, none of it is good, and much of it is said here in this text. But before we delve into the sorry details of this scoundrel’s heart, let it be known well that Judas Iscariot was one of the Twelve. He’d spent every waking moment of the last three years in the company of Jesus Christ. He’d seen every miracle and heard every blessed word that fell from the lips of our Lord. He’d earned enough trust among his peers to be given the responsibility of being their treasurer. The dark secrets of his unbelieving heart were known only to him, and not to anyone else. When, at the Last Supper, Jesus said, “One of you is going to betray Me,” there wasn’t a soul in the room who said, “I bet He’s talking about Judas.” They all said, “Lord, is it me?” In their minds, they could envision themselves betraying the Lord before Judas would. Judas stands as a stark warning to the Church of Jesus Christ. In Acts 20, the Apostle Paul warned the Church at Ephesus, “I know that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves men will arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after them. Therefore be on the alert” (Acts 20:29-31). Where do these savage wolves come from? They come in among you, and arise up from among your own selves. They are in the church, and Judas was by no means the last of them. I don’t know about you, but I am tired of opening the newspaper and reading about another pastor who’s tarnished the name of Jesus because of his unbridled lusts and his love of money! I’m tired of reading blogs to see how another spiritual leader has made shipwreck of himself and his flock by falling into false teaching! And, as Chaucer said so well in The Canterbury Tales, “If gold rust, what shall poor iron do? For if the priest be foul, in whom we trust, what wonder if a layman yield to lust?”[1] Let us not be surprised, brothers and sisters, to find the same kind of Judas-heart hiding in the crowd of hundreds of church members in our day if there was one even among the circle of twelve disciples who walked with the Lord Jesus. But, like Judas, given the time and the opportunity, they will reveal themselves through their hypocritical grumbling. The horrible stench is impossible to mask.

Have you ever caught whiff of something that, at first, you can’t tell if it smells good or bad? I grew up on collard greens. The first smell of collard greens cooking brings me back to my childhood and I think of how pleasant it is. But the longer I smell it, the more noxious it becomes. It smells like someone is boiling dirty socks! And that is the way it is with the hypocritical grumbling that we see in Judas here. This kind of hypocrisy offers pretentious arguments. Judas says, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” That smells pretty good with the first whiff, doesn’t it? He kind of has a point. A lot of good could be done with the proceeds of that sale. But there is a subtle kind of lie underneath this statement. It whispers beneath the words that Jesus really isn’t worthy of extravagant worship. There’s some other cause, some other need, some other issue that should trump the priority of Christ and the worship that is freely poured out on Him. And friends, you will hear this kind of pretentious argumentation from time to time as well.

In just a few weeks, we’ll be voting on the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. This is a critical year. With the departure of the Chinese Church from our facility, we are looking at an immediate loss of 15% of our annual income. A budget of over a quarter-million dollars is simply not practical for us, and there are differing opinions of what needs to be cut and what needs to be raised. But the fact of the matter is that it cannot be business as usual. In our upcoming budget discussion, there will likely be some who speak passionately about the need to cut one item so that others can increase, and vice-versa. But friends, we must ask ourselves what the business of the church must always be about. We simply cannot sacrifice the advance of the Gospel, the discipleship of our members, and the worship of our Lord Jesus in exchange for pet projects and the luxuries of Christian comforts. We have to keep the main thing the main thing, and the main thing is the worship of Christ and the evangelization of the nations beginning in our own community and extending to the ends of the earth. We simply cannot meet every need or supply every wish. My prayer is that we can articulate a war-time budget that demonstrates that the priorities of this church mirror the priorities of Jesus Christ. Let us not employ pretentious arguments that subtly declare that Christ or the Gospel is not worthy of all that we can give.

This kind of hypocritical grumbling that we see in Judas here offers pretentious arguments, and it conceals a sinful and selfish heart. In the accounts of Matthew and Mark, we are told that several of the disciples were thinking exactly what Judas was saying. Some of these guys really did care about the poor! They had learned from Jesus about the need to touch the untouchable and to care for the “least of these.” That was true for some of them, but not for Judas. Behind his words there was a sinful and selfish heart. Verse 6 says that he was not concerned for the poor. As the treasurer of the disciples, he used to steal money from their treasury for himself! Here’s a year’s salary being poured out – more money than Judas had seen in a long time! If only that much money could be put in the offering box, he could pilfer a little for himself off the top and no one would ever notice or miss it. But make no mistake about it, the only person Judas saw benefiting from the sale of this perfume was himself.

This kind of self-centered sin rears its ugly head in the cause of Christ from time to time. Of course, there are those crooked imbezzlers who make headlines, and likely more that never get caught. But often there is a more subtle way this works. Some have pet projects and personal interests that they seek to fund and fuel at the expense of other areas of ministry. Some oppose a strategic and necessary change because they personally benefit under the status quo. Some selfishly fight to preserve their favorite personal interests while more pressing things suffer. How many Kingdom focused ministries suffer because resources are pilfered for the building of private and personal empires? Every time we discuss sending a team overseas on a mission trip, someone will say, “Why should we invest the funds to sending a team overseas when there are so many needs here?” The assumption is that it is “either/or.” In point of fact, we are sending people across oceans, and across streets on mission, and very few of those who voice this concern are involved even in the local work. In some cases, these objections are raised naively and with pure intentions, but be not deceived. Sometimes there is a sinfully selfish heart underlying the stratagems, not unlike that displayed in Judas Iscariot here. The stench of it is hideous when it permeates the church of Jesus Christ.

Finally, this kind of hypocritical grumbling confirms the true condition of the heart. John barely gets the name of Judas Iscariot off the end of his pen before he can hold back no more and include the tragic reality of his hardened heart. “Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him. It was already in his heart to do it. He had very likely been wrestling with it for some time. He had his hopes fixed on power, prestige and prosperity in the courts of King Jesus as He seized the throne of Judea and chased out the Roman oppressors. But then Jesus started talking about being crucified, about shedding His blood to save people from sin, about a Kingdom that was not of this world, and Judas quickly began to lose interest. Visions of dollar signs had danced in his head, but with this display that he considered to be an extravagant waste, the camel’s back was broken. The concrete the flowed through his heart set permanently, and the decision was made to turn Jesus over to be put to death. No surprise that he did it in exchange for money, for money was his god.

The Bible says that “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Tim 6:10). The Lord Jesus had said within Judas’ hearing, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon” (Mt 6:24). Mammon is an ancient word for riches or wealth. It is no sin to have money, but it is a sin for money to have you. If you treasure it too greatly and cling to it too tightly, it will overtake your heart and crowd out any room for Jesus. It is far better to treasure Christ above all, as Hebrews 13:5 says, “Make sure that your character is free from the love of money, being content with what you have; for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’” In other words, make sure, above all else, that you have Christ, and if He is all you have, be content with Him and nothing else. He will never leave you or forsake you. But if you love money, or (let’s face it!) anything else in the world other than Him, you will leave Him and forsake Him. Judas stands as a stark warning to us of this danger. The hypocrisy that prompts his grumbling here in the wake of an act of pure and extravagant worship fills the air with a toxic stench.

What is the aroma that your life emits? Is it the wonderful fragrance of extravagant worship that is poured out in love and faith and gratitude in view of the life giving mercy, saving grace, and transforming power of Jesus? Or is it the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling? Mary is known to us forever as the hot-hearted, extravagant worshiper of Christ. Her fragrance fills the air with every mention of her name. And Judas, well his name is never mentioned in the Gospels without the sorry epitaph that he is the one who betrayed the Lord in exchange for money. With every mention of his name, there is this pungent odor of hard-hearted and hypocritical betrayal. They say that scent is the strongest sense tied to our memories. So how will you be remembered? What aroma does your life emit? The sweet and fragrant aroma of extravagant worship, or the horrible stench of hypocritical grumbling?

[1] Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, 1:502-504. Online at http://www.canterburytales.org/canterbury.php3?display?2?1?496?0?15?1????1. Accessed May 22, 2014. 

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