Sermon, September 5, 2025 | Grace Reformed Church
We turn this morning again to the gospel of John. We started this journey through this book a year ago, or this is the last Sunday that completes a year in it, next Sunday would be the first Sunday of a second year in John. Here it is Labor Day weekend again, and though the fall already feels it is upon us with schools having started and all, this weekend really marks the unofficial end of the summer, I hope you’ve had a good one. Last year, before starting on John, I preached on Psalm 8. I had occasion to look at that sermon a few weeks ago, and in the introductory comments like these, I had noted something I had since forgotten. This Sunday, last year, it was about 90 degrees, and the next morning we got a foot of snow, do you remember?
Well, anyway here we are, coming to another very memorable story, an event that shines light on the stark difference between a true follower of Jesus and one who is only pretending, between Mary of Bethany and Judas Iscariot. It is a story that should give us pause, cause us to examine our motives in many circumstances, and instructs us in having a right view of what Jesus deserves, how we should look at him and to him. So let’s read that now, together, John chapter 11, starting in verse 55, and continuing to verse 11 of chapter 12. Listen, this is God’s Holy Word:
Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
9 When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
The Word of the Lord.
When I was in college, I participated in a number of music tours, both with a concert band and at least five with the concert choir. They were quite enjoyable affairs, especially the choir ones, since they involved so much less equipment to cart around. Anyway, I remember one particular stop on a choir tour, where we sang a concert at a very large church in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan. We were particularly excited to do this concert because we knew that this church had recently installed a new pipe organ, quite possibly the largest and most expensive organ in the entire denomination of that church. When we arrived in the afternoon, some hours before the concert, their organist greeted us and treated us to a little demonstration of the instrument. For all of you that remember the grandeur of our old organ in the old sanctuary, I’ll tell you this organ is more than twice that size, had bass pipes that shook the floor of the entire sanctuary, you could feel it in your chest from anywhere in the room.
A couple of hours later, some of us were talking, a bunch of 20-year-olds, and we started talking about how incredible that organ was, how beautiful it sounded, how exciting it was that we were going to have it accompany our choir that evening. And then I remember two of the choir members scoffing at it. They had a different opinion—what an enormous waste of money that organ was, (since it was a relatively new instrument, the idea of cost was rather fresh) they said how un-Christian it was to use that much money for this organ. They said, think of how many church buildings in Africa could have been built for the cost of that single instrument.
I remember being surprised by that sentiment, but I also couldn’t fight the logic, the pragmatism of it, and I remember my thoughts immediately going to this story, the story of Mary “wasting” something of such great value, being scolded by the disciples, and then affirmed by none other than Jesus Christ himself. Certainly this story justifies spending money on an enormous organ, maybe? Nearly all of the conversations I had on college choir tours I’ve long forgotten, but this one is still clear in my mind, because the logic of building churches in Africa versus installing a new organ, that still eats at me. But is the situation the same? Can we actually apply Jesus approving this extravagance in the story to how we go about things today? So I came into writing this sermon with some trepidation, some confusion. And I think the answer at the end of the day is, yes and no.
To get closer to that answer, first, I think it’s best that we get a good picture of what is going on. Last week in the previous passage we talked about the incredible hardening of the hearts of the Pharisees, a hardening that leads ultimately to them resolving to kill him. Kill Jesus for their own pragmatic ends. This decision is of course wrapped “in the flag,” kill Jesus in order to save the Jewish nation and the temple, but we know that their real motives were to preserve their own power. And, coincidentally, they were able to carry through on their plan, and what happened? In 40 years the temple was destroyed anyway.
So at the end of that passage we see Jesus removing himself from the vicinity of Jerusalem and taking refuge in Ephraim. We’re not sure how long the time was, but some weeks, likely, but not more than a couple of months.
But, then comes Passover. Passover was the feast in the year that was required attendance. It was the obligatory pilgrimage, the one that every faithful Jew would make, the most important of the feasts because it celebrated arguably the greatest moment in the history of Israel, the freedom from slavery under the Egyptians. And before Passover, some Jews would need to arrive early, as it says in our passage, they “went up…before the Passover to purify themselves.” If you had done something in the time since the last Passover that would make you ceremonially unclean (like touch a dead body), you would need to go early to get that taken care of.
So people are gathering in the week before Passover, the week before Holy Week, and there is a lot of talk about Jesus among these people, the ones from Jerusalem, and the ones there for the feast. It says they kept looking for him, saying to each other, “What do you think? That he will not come to the festival at all?” After raising Lazarus, a miracle that was not at all contested as to it happening, Jesus has been gone, so people are definitely looking for him now. And, as our text tells us, it is known to everyone that anyone who knows his whereabouts, they are to report it to the authorities so that they can arrest him.
You can imagine this scene, all the talk, all of the gossip, both excitement and resentment, and everyone looking for Jesus, wondering if and when he’s going to arrive at Passover.
Does Jesus come? Of course he does.
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there.
Jesus returns to Bethany, and the people in Bethany throw him a dinner in his honor. Timing-wise, it was most likely on Saturday night, the evening before the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. This likely occurred after sundown Saturday evening, so the Sabbath was ended and they had a dinner.
A quick side note, we’ve said before that almost none of the content in John also appears in the other gospels, being the last written, John assumes that the readers know the content of the other gospels. The stories that he relays are mostly new content. But that changes as we get to Holy Week. The first eleven chapters of the book contain the signs proving Jesus’s Messiahship. Chapter 12 and beyond has a little more in common with the synoptic gospels as it deals with the events of Good Friday and Easter. However, when we do get repeated content in John’s gospel, we often get more details and a truly unique perspective compared to the stories as relayed in the other gospels.
So it is here. This story of Mary anointing Jesus shows up in Matthew and Mark as well. There is another story of Jesus being anointed by a woman in Luke, but that is a different event. In Matthew and Mark, the woman is not identified, and we are told that this dinner was at the house of Simon the leper, and the other accounts refer to Mary anointing Jesus’s head, not his feet, but we’ll get to that.
The new and important details that we get from John, are that this dinner was with Lazarus, and Mary and Martha were there as well. It wasn’t just a dinner, this was Jesus dining with the one he raised from the dead. And the anointer wasn’t just some woman, it was Mary, Lazarus’ sister, who has already shown herself to be a woman of some importance, some social standing, and also one who wore her emotions on her sleeve.
So, it’s Saturday night, it’s already an exciting time because you’re in a suburb of Jerusalem a week before Passover, so the area is bustling with people. And Jesus comes back. He comes back to Bethany after an extended absence, and there is a dinner thrown in his honor, with Lazarus. An exciting scene to be sure, but also one tinged with dread. Everyone at this dinner is celebrating Jesus, but they know that he is in grave danger. There is an arrest warrant, they know the Pharisees seek to kill him. He’s here, that’s exciting, but though no one at the dinner expects it necessarily—the disciples, Lazarus, the sisters, and several other people from Bethany—they know that Jesus might not live through this coming week, it’s a real possibility.
And perhaps it was for this reason, this heightened emotional situation, that Mary comes into the room, while all the men were reclining at the table (the women would not have eaten with them), surprisingly comes into the room, breaks open a white alabaster bottle full of pure nard, and—if we put all the accounts together—pours it on Jesus’s head, down his body, and onto his feet, lavishing so much on him that she unbinds her hair and wipes the excess perfume from Jesus’s feet.
It’s hard to really understand what this meant, but we can get an idea of the shock this must have been to the people who witnessed it. First, Mary wasn’t naturally invited to the table, so even her coming is surprising. Then the perfume. This bottle of perfume was worth a years’ wages for a laborer, tens of thousands of dollars to us. It was so expensive because the plant from which it came only lives in plains high up in the Himalayas in India. So it would need to be extracted from the plant and carried by camel thousands of miles through difficult terrain in sealed bottles. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were clearly well-to-do, but this was so precious and rare it was likely something passed down through the family. She took a priceless heirloom, broke it open, and heaped every bit of it all over Jesus’s body. And it was potent—nard was used to prepare dead bodies for burial—so potent that it would have been overwhelming and inescapable, even repulsive in that quantity, which is why we have that note about the smell not just filling the room, but the entire house. And then, if it could get any crazier to the people witnessing this, Mary lets down her hair, which would be a huge social faux pas, and does something so self-debasing, wiping his feet with her hair? A proper woman of social standing, humbling herself that drastically? Sounds crazy.
We’re not told precisely why Mary decided to do this at this moment, but we talked about the emotions swirling around. Not surprisingly, the disciples are taken aback. Doesn’t that happen in your mind at least a little as well? If someone walked into a room and poured out a liquid you knew to be worth a years’ wages, your gut reaction would have been shock at the waste, right? So with the disciples. John assigns this indignance to Judas, but the other accounts make it clear that he was not alone in his opinion. It’s only natural to recoil at what seems to be such a waste. And Judas says so
“Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it.
Like I said, the other disciples were of similar mind, but John ascribes this specifically to Judas. No one had any inkling at this point that Judas would betray Jesus, they were reacting very humanly. But John knew the rest of the story and tells us about the motives behind this comment. Judas was the treasurer of the disciples, he carried the collective moneybag for them. And in retrospect, as John tells us, the disciples discovered that he had been cheating them even in that, skimming off the top. And if he was deep down a thief, his recoiling at “wasting” this expensive nard came from a heart of a thief, not a genuine concern for the poor.
So how does Jesus react? Does he say, “you have a good point, Mary why did you do this?” No, even though in our hearts it seems Judas and the disciples do have a point. Why would you do this? It’s so much money? No, in this we see God once again working his plan, and there is a deeper meaning behind what Mary did that she wasn’t even aware of, sort of like Caiaphas prophesying about something he didn’t even know in the previous passage. Mary might not have known it, but she was preparing Jesus for burial, she was participating in a sign she didn’t even know she was doing. She covered Jesus head to toe with a burial perfume before he had even died. And Jesus says, as we read in the other accounts, that she “has done a beautiful thing” for him.
It was God’s plan that in this action Mary would be symbolically preparing Jesus for burial. This nard of course would normally be applied to a body after it had already died, but here she foreshadows what is to come. I couldn’t help thinking that if that nard really was so potent, it would be very likely that Jesus would still smell a bit of it even six days later, and so it actually did play a role in his real burial.
So we see that there was a much deeper meaning to this gift. After defending Mary’s actions to Judas and the rest of the disciples, Jesus says two things. The first is what we just said, that this anointing was linked to his burial. The second thing that Jesus says is instructive as well. He says
8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
In this, Jesus is saying that not only was this a good thing to do because it is preparing me for burial, it is also a good thing because at least for now, I am here. Though that time was drawing to a close, right now Jesus is on earth, he is with them. And the disciples and Mary, and all gathered, should be valuing that time with him so highly that they would spare no expense to honor him.
For a contemporary parallel, I think of the money we would happily spend, without a thought, to hop on a plane last minute to visit someone who is about to die. When we receive that phone call, and hear a relative say, come quickly, your brother or mother or someone close to you is dying, time is short. When we get that call, we don’t dally. We don’t look at our bank account and say, hmm, the plane ticket is $800, I think I’d go if it was only $500, but that’s a bit steep. No, we go, because we know that there is something truly priceless about time with that person we love so much.
Now of course, as with almost any illustration we use, the magnitude of what we are reading in scripture is far beyond that. Being with Jesus in the flesh those final days was worth far more than anything they could imagine, and being weak humans they definitely couldn’t conceive of that at the time. God inspired Mary to perform this incredible act of extravagance and it was only a taste of what Jesus deserved, how worthy he was and is. If Jesus was not who he was and is, the Son of God, then him saying this was a good and beautiful thing to do would be extremely arrogant. For a normal human, it would be a ridiculously extravagant to do this, but for Jesus, it is only a taste of the extravagant love he deserves. He deserves it all, because it is all his to begin with. How much is Jesus worth? There is no price, we know that. Expressed so well by the apostle Paul:
I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ
And note also by saying that he isn’t setting up a false choice either. He still says “the poor you will always have.” He doesn’t say, honor me and forget the poor. He says to serve them as well, and that will be something that they are continually responsible to do, but caring for the poor does not absolve you from taking the opportunity to show extravagant love for him. You can and should do both.
So this sets up the dichotomy between two different views, two different ways of being as people. On the one hand we have pragmatism, and a pragmatism that is actually rooted in self-centeredness not charity, and that is the part played by Judas. Coincidentally, the heart of Judas shown here is exactly the same heart shown by the Pharisees that we saw last week. They took a pragmatic position, feigning charity, but really all self-centered. So, self-centered pragmatism on the one hand, and an extravagant display of love for Jesus on the other. These are the two sides, and we know which one Jesus approves of.
Back to my initial question, then. Should we install a grandiose organ at the expense of building churches in Africa? Does this story even apply to that decision? Well, like I said, yes and no. We’ll deal with the “no” first. This story does not give us a clear, direct instruction on that particular decision. When Jesus approved of in effect spending lavishly on him, the reason he gave was not a general one. He said it was appropriate because he will not always be there. His time was nearly finished on earth and this act of Mary was a great display of love and honor for Jesus. So the rightness of spending lavishly on Jesus himself does not directly apply to spending lavishly on our church buildings today. Looking at the excesses of the Roman Church, Calvin made sure to answer that point vehemently when the question came up, calling out all of their “pompous ceremonies.”
OK, so no, we can’t apply that principle generally to our decisions, then does that prove the negative? Should we never install an organ, let alone build a church building again? Take the pragmatic route all the time? Well, this is where I would say that I believe this teaches that is the wrong course as well, and that yes, though this act of Mary and Christ’s approval of it is not license to pomp and show, it is an instruction in how deeply we should value Christ and his church, and how extravagantly we should be willing to love Christ and his church.
In the end, it’s not a matter of action, it’s a matter of heart. Look at this entire gospel, the whole story, and most of the unfaithfulness that we see, most of the sinful reactions of the Pharisees to Jesus are cloaked in self-righteousness, in technical correctness. No, when we as people are making decisions about how to spend our resources, and I’m not just talking about money, it’s also time, energy, mental head space—we have lots of different kinds of gifts we’ve been entrusted—when we make decisions about how to spend our many resources, both individually and corporately, this story encourages us to make those decisions from a heart of extravagant love for Jesus, not from a heart of worldly pragmatism. I think on analysis we would all fall short of what we should be doing for the church of Christ, not only this congregation but the whole church. How much of ourselves are we giving? What’s our “family heirloom of precious perfume?”
How much is Jesus worth? Everything. How much does he deserve? Everything. So then to the nitty-gritty, how then shall we live? Well, I think the lesson here is don’t make pragmatic rules about such things, follow the guiding principle and what is right will make itself known. When it comes down to practical decisions, which ultimately need to be made, there’s no list of rules we can look to, but we absolutely can work to be sure that our hearts are in the right place, that our motives are rooted in a love of Christ. How? We can pray without ceasing. We should always make any decision with a great deal of prayer, prayer that we will always follow God’s will and will always exercise wisdom and good stewardship of the gifts that we’ve been given. That will guard us from making decisions that deep down arise from things that we want for ourselves, not necessarily because we are convinced that it is really for God.
Making decisions is difficult, churches are doing it all the time, and it isn’t easy. Should we build a new building? Should we add on? Should we support this or that with our time and our funds. Should we give away a building that we love because it would be better for the whole church that another have it? Making decisions is difficult, but seeking to honor Jesus is relatively simple. We are called to love him extravagantly. Maybe the cost is money. Maybe the cost is time. Maybe the cost is strength. Maybe the cost is respect. Maybe the cost is affirmation from the world. Maybe the cost is your life. But what more can we give than our whole selves, knowing what he’s promised us? Seek God’s will in all your decisions, and all will become clear. Love him extravagantly.
Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
and do not lean on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge him,
and he will make straight your paths.
Amen. Let’s pray.
Dear Heavenly Father,
We pray this morning that you show us what extravagant love for Christ and his church looks like. Thank you for guiding us along this path so far, and we pray that you continue to make it clear to us as a church what that looks like for us. Thank you for all of the rich blessings you’ve bestowed on us and the blessing that we’ve received from them, and the people we’ve been able to bless in turn. Help us to be your vessel, bringing the gospel to all of those around us. Lead us, guide us, and teach us what it means to love you. In the mighty name of Jesus Christ, amen.