Sermon preached for Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. This sermon is in the tradition of midrash, imagining what might have happened in the background of a biblical text.
Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.
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. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.)
Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
It was Martha who bought the nard when Lazarus was dying.
At least, that’s my best guess of what happened. Otherwise I can’t imagine why we have it, this ridiculously expensive jar of oil. Our parents were dead and anointed long ago. But it was only a few months back that our brother died.
It’s the kind of thing Martha would do. She doesn’t get emotional, my sister. She nursed Lazarus through his illness with the severity of an army general. Drink this! Don’t stand! Lay still! She rarely left his side though, when I—I couldn’t always stand to be there, in that awful dark room, and listen to my big brother gasp in pain, with that sickroom smell. I hated myself for leaving him, for abandoning him, but I just couldn’t do it. I’d go outside to pray instead, in the small garden beside our house.
It’s a good place to pray. Jesus and I prayed there, when he visited. He told me he liked gardens too. That it made him think of when our Father walked in the garden, and talked with Adam and Eve.
Jesus always talked about God like he knew Him. I loved that. Sometimes in my life I feel distant from God, because he is almighty and I am small, or because I am a woman and there are holy places I cannot go, or just because I have too many questions.
God likes your questions, Jesus said to me when I confessed this to him. I didn’t actually know the Teacher all that well, but somehow he was the kind of man you found yourself telling things to.
Lazarus was fine when Jesus was here. He didn’t get sick until later. It came fast, and we were all lost without him. Martha and I we… don’t always see eye to eye. We get on each other’s nerves. Lazarus makes us laugh. He makes this family work.
I didn’t know that Martha was scared like I was. She seemed so practical, so focused the whole time. But when it was over—all of it, after Lazarus died, and then Jesus came and brought him back to us—I found this jar of nard in the cellar with the other jars.
It’s just the sort of thing Martha would do. I never saw her cry, never saw her lose her cool, but I can just see how she would go out and buy this ridiculous jar of oil. So valuable, and so precious, and so wonderful, for her brother. For his body. Her love always comes hidden in actions, not words. It took me too long to see that, but I see it now.
I don’t know why she didn’t use it to anoint Lazarus. I remember that day, the day my brother was dead, and Jesus had not come. I remember wrapping his body, closing his eyes that used to be full of laughter. We anointed him with other, cheaper oils. Maybe her practical side won out. Maybe she forgot. She fell apart after he died, after it was over. She was sad, and furious, and lost.
Jesus came and raised Lazarus from the dead. I’ve said that sentence over and over now and still can’t quite believe it. Out of all the people I have loved who have died, out of all people anyone has loved, my brother came back. My brother was given back to us. All because this Jesus—my friend Jesus— said it should be so. And it was so.
Jesus brought us life. And now he is going to die.
He’s said it, plain as day. Ever since I’ve known him, he’s been hinting at it—that he was going to be killed. Nowadays he says it plain, but no one believes him. At least, I don’t think they do. Maybe we’re all pretending not to see it, not to see the sadness in his eyes, the finality. Maybe we all think if we don’t give in and believe he’s going to die, it won’t happen.
But I’ve been there, and tried that, and I still had to bury my brother. You can’t will death away.
I want to do something.
I’m not much of a doer. When she’s in a good mood, Martha says my head is too much in the clouds. When she’s stressed, I’m just called lazy. But I’ve learned from her, and now I want to do something. There’s no words that can tell Jesus how much I love him. How much I need him. How much he means to all of us. How do you say thank you to the man who raised your brother from the dead? How do you say thank you to the man who did the same for your faith?
There is so much more life in this house, in my heart, when Jesus comes around.
And there’s that nard in the basement. We could sell it. The money could do a lot of good for a lot of people. Martha is always making extra food for the hungry in our village. But she did that before she bought the jar, and she’s been doing it since. That hasn’t changed, and it never will. So I think—I think this belongs to Jesus. I’m going to take the oil, and I’m going to anoint his body, now, when he can still smell it, still feel how smooth it is on his skin.
When we anointed Lazarus, the room smelled wonderful, but he was dead. It felt like an injustice, a wrong, for him not to share in the beauty.
Jesus is having dinner with us tonight. Martha’s been furiously cooking since dawn, and Lazarus and I are better at helping these days. And every time she sends me down to get something from the cellar, I wonder: do I have the courage?
It would be embarrassing. A spectacle. But I don’t want to go to him in secret. I want his disciples to see me. Maybe it will help them believe too.
I’m scared that he’s going to die, and there won’t be anyone anoint him. I’m scared that he’s going to die, and no one will be there to dress his wounds or say the prayers. I’m scared none of us have the courage.
So I’m going to do it. I’m going to take that nard, and I’m going to pour the whole thing out, because what it is the point of holding anything back when someone you love is going to die?
I need him to see that he has changed us. I need him to see that we are willing to give our all. I need him to see that we listened—that I listened—when he talked about the kingdom of heaven being like giant mustard plants or tables full of dough or precious pearls. He told us that God gives so much to us, more than we could ask for, more than we can fathom. I want to be a living parable for him, show him the bounty of the kingdom of god. For once, I want him to feel God’s love through me.
I’ve so often felt God’s love through him.
I thought about anointing his head, like the kings of old, but it doesn’t feel right. He could have been a king—or at least, somebody powerful. He has this magnetic pull like you wouldn’t believe, and people would follow him, and we’re desperate for a king. We’ve followed lesser men.
But I don’t think he’d like it. The disciples have heard rumors that there might be a parade when they go to Jerusalem, that people think that highly of him. Jesus winked at me when they were buzzing about it, and later he said he was thinking of finding a donkey to come in on. A donkey! I know, deep down, Jesus doesn’t want to be king. He doesn’t want to sit above us. He wants to sit with us.
It’s why, of all the things he could be doing, he’s coming to dinner.
I’m going to anoint his feet. I’m a little worried it’s too intimate. I’m not his servant, and he’s never treated me like one. But he walks so much—he has walked from town to town to town these last few years, and every step leaves miracles in its wake. His feet must be so tired, after all that determined, stubborn walking.
The prophet Isaiah said that the feet of those who bring good news are beautiful. I don’t want to contradict a prophet, but I’ve seen Jesus feet. They aren’t beautiful. They’re bony and beaten with use. But they do bring good news, because they bring him. And he is our good news. When he shows up, we come alive.
But… when he dies, who will be there there to raise him up, to lead him out of the tomb, to unwrap his bindings? Who can save the only one who saved us?
So tonight I will anoint him for his burial, and I’m going to give him beauty, and prove to him that his time here was not a waste. I’m going to pour out that jar of nard like he is pouring himself out for us, all his love, all his strength, every last bead of sweat and drop of blood. I’m going to be ridiculous, and embarrassing, and intrusive, and I think—I hope—I pray—he will understand.
A year’s wages are in this jar. It still isn’t enough.
But it’s a place to start. Tonight, I’m going to put my love into action. Just like he and Martha taught me.
Tonight, I’m pouring it all out, for him.