Sermon, Mothers’ Union Eucharist, 15 Nov 2021

posted by: Joan Vine | on: Monday, 20 December 2021, 10:09

Was she a sinner? We will never know...

Was she a sinner? We will never know...

Sermon, Mothers’ Union Eucharist, 15 Nov 2021 - Isaiah 61: 1-4 - John 12: 1-8

The story of Jesus being anointed by a woman at Bethany is a particularly beautiful one, and rare in the Biblical tradition in that it appears in some form in all four Gospels. In Matthew and Mark, the woman’s identity is unknown. Luke, uniquely, describes her as “sinful” and because of the extravagant generosity of her act, Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven. Significantly, the woman doesn’t love because she has been forgiven, but rather she’s forgiven because of her great love. A subtle difference it’s worth reflecting on. In John’s version, which we heard today, the anointing woman is identified as Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Once again, in their home in Bethany, while Martha serves, Mary sits with Jesus, but not now to listen like a student to their rabbi, but to anoint his feet and wipe them with her hair.

To understand the full impact of what she does, you need to know that in the culture of the day, women always wore their hair up. To let it down in public, is likely to have been deeply shocking, equivalent to some form of nakedness. All those in the room, including her sister and brother, were probably equally embarrassed by Mary’s behaviour – and maybe too by Judas’ outburst.

John tells us this huge amount of expensive perfumed oil was worth three hundred denarii – almost a year’s wages for a labourer of the time. Judas is perhaps not appalled so much at the act itself, as at the lavish waste. But Jesus praises Mary’s extravagance and her personal commitment of love for his particular and urgent need, saying that right now this is more important than the ever-present needs of the poor. That’s a rather tricky idea to get our heads around especially given Jesus had such a focus on the poor in his ministry and teaching. But there’s more going on here which is deeply symbolic. If we jump forward to Good Friday, we’ll remember that his body is not anointed after his crucifixion because of the rush to bury him – it’s what the women are going to do on Easter morning when they find the tomb empty. This act of anointing may well be what Jesus is referring to when he praises Mary’s actions.

Imagine for a moment that you had been at that dinner in Bethany. Where are you in this picture? Which character would you have been? Would you have tutted over the wanton behaviour of the woman as she committed such an intimate and personal act? Would you have shaken your head in anger with Judas Iscariot at the waste of so much money which could have been given to those in desperate need? Or are you the one kneeling in adoration at the feet of Jesus and pouring out your love for him in such an extravagant and reckless way?

Jesus commends Mary as an exemplary disciple for her action and her love, even if she did not understand the full symbolism of what she was doing. In Matthew and Mark’s version of the story, the nameless woman is held up as a model for others to emulate, and Jesus promises that “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her”.

I want to suggest that for us today the challenge in this story might be to do with how we bring ourselves to God in worship. Do you, like Mary, pour out your heart and soul in fulsome praise, giving all that you are, to the one who has given us such good things, far more than we desire and deserve? Or is that too much? Is that more than we can cope with, as upstanding members of the Church of England, somewhat reserved, and wary of such overwhelming emotion?

If we are more cautious and guarded, perhaps we’re in danger of missing something. When we truly worship, and all our focus is wholly on God, we are taken well beyond that sense of preoccupation we tend to have with ourselves. We are transformed by the transcending experience of giving love to, and receiving love from, the source of all things. The deep purpose of worship is simply to be in touch with the living God, to glimpse the beauty of God and stop to gaze in wonder, to sense the love of God and open ourselves to it like a flower in the sunshine. Worship is a deep human instinct within us - it is something we have been created to do and it helps us recognise our size and place in the scheme of things. True worship should enable us to glimpse, albeit imperfectly and fleetingly, the life of heaven; to join for a moment with the worship of the angels and the praises of the saints. In a way we do not create worship, we simply join ourselves for a while to the perpetual worship around the throne of God.

There isn’t one right way of doing this, no particular way that God loves more than others. By grace, God counts our feeble praise as righteous, holy worship if it is offered by those who simply cry out “Abba! Father!”, trusting that the Spirit will help us in our weakness and imperfection. What is important is that we always give ourselves fully into the presence of God, so that our praises rise like the aroma of the perfume poured over Jesus’ head and feet at Bethany all those years ago.

With this story in mind, we might commit ourselves once more to live, like Mary, in the way that Francis Ridley Havergal describes in her most famous hymn:

Take my love; my Lord, I pour, at thy feet its treasure store; take myself, and I will be, ever, only, all for thee. Amen.

 Posted: 20 Dec 2021 | There are 0 comments

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