March 21, 2010

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:2-8

The St. Andrew’s choir, under Gill’s direction, is practicing one of my favourite anthems to share during the Good Friday service in a couple of weeks. I’ve been carrying both the melody and the words of the song around in my head recently. It goes like this:

Here I am to worship.
Here I am to bow down.
Here I am to say that you’re my God.
You’re altogether lovely,altogether worthy,

altogether wonderful to me.

Although Mary of Bethany didn’t sing a song to Jesus, and she didn’t express her feelings in words, I imagine that she would have been able to relate to that expression of praise. While Martha showed her devotion to Jesus by serving him a beautiful meal, and Lazarus expressed his commitment by sitting at the table and listening to Jesus, Mary decided to demonstrate her love with an extravagant act of giving, with the intimate act of anointing.

“She took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

I guess I can understand Judas’ objection to what Mary did. Whether or not he had ulterior motives, he had a good point to make – that the perfume could have been sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor. A denarius was approximately the daily wage for an average worker in Jesus’ time. So we’re talking about a year’s salary here, being poured out over Jesus’ tired and dusty feet. We might want to think of it as 30-40 thousand dollars today. How could we justify spending that much money on worship? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that money helping the poor?

Well, let’s consider how much money we spend on worship here in our church community. First, there’s the money used to keep up this worship space – to keep it clean and in good condition. There’s the money we spend on music, on instruments, on a sound system. Every week we print a bulletin. We use resources of all kinds, not to mention to the staff time in preparing for worship each week.

Imagine if we were to take all that money… (I’m not really sure how to figure out the total… but it’s certainly in the tens of thousands of dollars each year.) What if we were to take all that money and give it to the poor instead? How much good could that money do in our community or in other parts of the world where people are suffering?

And that’s without even considering your time. “Time is money” right? You could all be working this morning, earning more money to help the poor. Or you could be using this time to volunteer and help people in need. Instead, you’re wasting your time sitting here, listening to me, worshipping God.

I suppose that many people would say ‘yes, we should stop wasting all these resources on worshipping God so that we could do more in the world.’ We should get more practical – get out there doing good, rather than listening and praying, thinking and reflecting, laughing and singing and being together in this place with God every Sunday.

When Jesus defended Mary’s act of anointing his feet with the expensive perfume, I don’t think he was suggesting that helping the poor is not important. But somehow, her extravagant act of worship was important too. At a moment in his ministry when Jesus was anticipating being rejected and betrayed and put to death, Mary was pouring out her love and her commitment and her care for him. As a human person, Jesus must have appreciated her gift and her demonstration of love.

It was true… there would always be the poor to care for, and the followers of Jesus would make that a priority. But in that moment, Jesus was the one who most needed her care, and she wanted to give it, no matter what the cost. Mary couldn’t possibly have understood the full significance of what she was doing until later. But the Gospel writer puts it together for us. He has Jesus say, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

It was a normal practice to use perfumes, spices, and oils to protect and preserve the bodies of loved ones after they died. We hear about the practice again when some of the women go to Jesus’ tomb to do the same thing for him after he has died. But of course, they find him gone – the tomb is empty.

As Mary spent her savings and offered all that she could to enact her love for the Lord, Jesus would soon be doing the same for all of us. Some who had witnessed his ministry might have wondered why he submitted to punishment and execution at the hands of those who did not understand. After all, he had been doing good work before that – healing people, and feeding people, and teaching everyone how to live well.

If he had stayed away from Jerusalem, he would have been able to do more. If he had tried not to upset the authorities, maybe he could have continued for a few more years – what a difference that might have made! But there would always be people needing Jesus’ help. There would always be the poor, and the hungry, and the people who felt lost and alone, sad and confused about life in this world.

So Jesus didn’t choose to give out his love and power and grace in bits and pieces to help a few hundred, or thousand, or even a million people in first century Palestine. Instead, Jesus made an extravagant gift to the whole world, and gave his whole life, his whole self, all that he had and all that he was, so that each and every one of us would experience God’s love and grace. As John’s Gospel explains it, Jesus allowed himself to be killed on a cross so that he could draw all people to himself – so that we would know him and experience God’s extravagant love for us.

All through the history of God’s relationship with the people of Israel, God has faithfully loved and cared for God’s children, and called them to live in relationship with God. Today’s reading from Isaiah 43 reminds us of God’s continual work of drawing the people into loving relationship. Over and over, the people have turned away from God to worship idols and be their own gods, and they’ve ended up in exile in Babylon.

But while the people have turned away, God keeps on trying to reach them. The prophet explains that God is “about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God is planning to make a way in the wilderness, a way for the people to return to their homeland, and a way for them to renew their relationship with God.

The immediate subject of the prophet’s words is the edict of Cyrus… the king of Assyria is allowing the Israelites to return home and rebuild the temple… to return to their faith, to their worship practices, and to their relationship with God. But Christians have also heard in the prophet’s words the promise of God’s commitment to help us all find our way back from wherever we have wandered. And we have experienced that way of forgiveness and grace and renewed relationship in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

The Apostle Paul knew what it felt like to have his life transformed by God’s grace in Jesus Christ. From a jail cell in Rome, where Paul had been locked up because of his preaching about Jesus, he explains to the new Christians at Philippi that since he became a Christian, his priorities have been turned upside down. What he thought was most valuable turns out to be worth very little compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus.

There was a time when Paul too would likely have objected to Mary’s extravagant act of worship. He was the kind of person who followed the Jewish laws strictly and accurately. He was not the kind of person who felt suddenly inspired to give lavish gifts to honour God. No, he followed the rules. He did what was required. And he was very good at it.

His opening words make his competence and success very clear: “If anyone has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.”

In other words, Paul was very, very good at being a religious person. He had the right background and the right determination to follow all the rules perfectly. But he goes on… “Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

Though Paul’s rule-following as a Pharisee likely led him to do some very good things – some giving to the poor, some caring for those in need, some loving his neighbours – his zeal for the letter of the law also led to his persecuting the Christian Church in its earliest days. But now, after having met Jesus himself on the road to Damascus, Paul’s priorities have radically changed. He has experienced God’s love in Jesus Christ, and now the most valuable thing in the world for him is to know and to live in relationship with this Jesus.

It’s not just that Jesus has been incorporated into his system of rules for living. Jesus is not just another cause worthy of a little money or a little time. He says that he has come to regard everything else as rubbish – he has suffered the loss of everything else that he used to think was important in order to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

I think about the money that we invest in our worship of God, and I don’t think it’s too much. Could we worship without this building, without this music, without supporting a minister to lead in our acts of worship? Perhaps we could. But rather than asking whether we are giving too much, maybe we should be asking ourselves whether we are giving enough. Are we giving enough time to worship? Are we giving both our minds and our hearts to worship? Are we willing to give up other priorities in order to come and worship the God who made us?

Many of us are here each Sunday morning because we (like Mary and like Paul) have come to know Christ and God’s amazing love for us. Like the psalmist, we have come to worship the God who has done great things for us. Our mouths are filled with laughter, and our tongues with shouts of joy. The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoice!

But even when we are not filled with joy… even when we feel far away from God, when we cannot say that we know God or that we are experiencing God’s love… We are still called to this place to worship. Perhaps even more so, we are called to worship. Because here, in this place, in this gathering of God’s people… As we praise, as we pray, as we cry out with our troubles, as we look to God for help… God will meet us here, and we will experience the surpassing value of knowing Christ.

May our worship today and each day express our extravagant love for the God who made us and who loves us. And may God’s Spirit move among us, until each one of us has come to know the surpassing value of knowing Christ the Lord.

Here we are to worship.
Here we are to bow down.
Here we are to say that you’re our God.
You’re altogether lovely,
altogether worthy,
altogether wonderful to us.