Our extravagant Father elicits extravagant praise.
Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Last week our Gospel reading told us of a father who lavished love on his sons even when we would say they did not deserve it, perhaps especially the younger rough. I encouraged you all to count, count the young rough, the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees and Scribes, and the older faithful brother, all children of God. This week we are invited to respond to God’s love. The invitation is suggested by stories of other responses to God’s love. It is up to us to respond as we will.
The prophet Isaiah encourages the Hebrew people to praise God. In one breath he reminds them of the past and then says but you can forget about the past. As Christians, like the Jews we regard remembering the past works of God as an important part of our faith. But Isaiah says you can forget about the past because God is going to do something so new the exodus will pail into insignificance. Just as God brings water to the desert so he will bring his people out of exile to return to Zion.
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Isaiah 43:16-19
This new thing will be as wonderful as the waters flowing into the desert bringing life to the arid dry land. No doubt the people of western Queensland have had a new insight into this prophesy in the past week or so. What a joy it must be to see paddocks green after years of drought and animals of every description praising God?
The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
The psalmist is writing of this new thing after the event.
When the Lord turned again the fortunes of Zion:
then were we like those restored to life.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter:
and our tongue with singing.
As I read these words I have in my mind pictures of people at the end of the second world war singing and dancing in the streets. They were like people restored to life.
The psalmist knew of some of the same tears of planting crops in drought years but receiving the rain as required to bring a harvest worth celebrating. If you get a chance watch the film “The boy who harnessed the wind”, on Netflix. It will help you appreciate the deep pain of drought and the joy that comes when water is available. This image of going out weeping reminds us of our Gospel story. Of course we have to go back one chapter in John’s Gospel to get the context of our story for today. Mary and Martha had indeed gone out weeping because their brother Lazarus was dead. The word they had sent to Jesus had not caused Jesus to come running. Instead Jesus arrived four days after Lazarus had been entombed. Their grief was very real. But as we know the story did not end there. Jesus called Lazarus out of the tomb. He came out.
Now it is not a surprise to see Jesus warmly welcomed at this home and for them to have a meal in his honour. Mary is not out in the kitchen helping Martha. We knew not to expect that. But to open a whole bottle of pure nard and anoint Jesus’ feet, that is a little strange. OK it is very strange. People normally provided water for a guest to wash their feet. They often provided some perfume to dab on as well. They may have even provided a slave to wash the feet. The guest certainly would not expect a member of the family to wash his feet.
Now before we go on you might be wondering about this story: wasn’t it a wicked woman who washed Jesus’ feet or was it his head she anointed any way? It is confusing. In each of the four Gospels this story has variations. Is it Simon the leper’s house, or Simon the Pharisee’s house? Or is it just that Simon is the father of Judas who gets upset. No it was the Pharisee who was distressed wasn’t it. A good detective would probably give up hope of trying to figure out what actually happened. It is sufficient to say that this woman expressed with great extravagance appreciation for Jesus and as John tells the story is prepared to be a slave for him.
Now, if the Hebrew people could forget the Exodus because something new was happening, Paul would say, we all can forget these stories because something new has happened. Jesus has been raised to life. Paul got himself into trouble with his fellow Jewish Christians. From their perspective he had a very cavalier attitude to the Torah. For Paul his own gains as a very devout Jew count for nothing beside his new faith in the risen Jesus Christ.
One of my favourite hymns picks up Pauls conviction that all he had achieved in the past counts for nothing. The second verse in When I survey the wondrous cross says:
- Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast
save in the death of Christ my God;
all the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to his blood.
Isaac Watts beautiful hymn picks up the outrageous extravagance of Mary with her bottle of costly perfume.
4. Were the whole realm of nature mine,
that were a present far too small:
love so amazing, so divine
demands my soul, my life, my all.
Like Paul and Mary we can celebrate with exuberance the wonder of the resurrection life we have in Jesus. Sometimes we encounter people with the diagnose of cancer who are happy to live or die, they are not afraid. There is a sense of excitement pondering the possibility of the resurrection life. I suspect it is a little disconcerting for their doctors to see people who kind of look forward to death but without in anyway diminishing life as it is. Faith in this “new thing” allows them to forget all the other great works God has done in their lives. It is not a forgetfulness that discounts the past but buoyed up by the past grace looks to the future with complete trust.
There is no need to limit God to past mercies. God is an ever-present help, to quote the old hymn. The gospel needs to be heard every day. The life-giving word of forgiveness cannot be proclaimed in the past tense. It was wonderful when it was announced yesterday, but yesterday’s gospel is today’s law. We need to hear the gospel afresh, every day.
I trust that today you will go out from here rejoicing, confident in the work of grace and salvation that our extravagant father is doing in us. Praise God like the wild animals in the desert when the rains come. Praise God like the people of Israel when they escaped from Egypt and when they returned to Zion. Praise God like Lazarus, Martha, and the extravagant Mary. Praise God with all your brothers and sisters who put their faith in the risen Christ.
Try to remind yourself of God’s wonderful grace each day so that as you go through the day people will see a joy in you makes them wonder, where does the joy come from. Yes, we will hear news of White supremacists committing terrorism as revenge for others’ terrorism. We will hear of droughts and bushfires, cyclones and floods. But let’s enfold ourselves in the peace of God that surpasses all understanding. Let’s allow the joy of expecting God’s extravagant to bubble up and become joyfully extravagant ourselves. People will see our joy and that peace within and will begin to ask questions. The Holy Spirit will give us words that will make the Gospel alive and fresh today.