John 12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.
3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
The story of Mary anointing Jesus at Bethany is remarkable for many reasons.
Matthew and Mark tell us that Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
And so it has been. There are so many sermons in this story. I could preach on the significance of Jesus being anointed ready for burial. Or on Jesus’s words, “The poor will be with you always.” But today I want to focus on something even more important.
Are you as shocked as I am at what Mary did? It was scandalous! I’m not thinking so much of the waste of money – a whole jar of expensive ointment – a year’s wages – poured away in one lavish gesture! That was bad enough! But it’s not what Mary did with the perfume that was truly shocking. It was what she did with her hair! It was outrageous! Scandalous!
Because, of course, a woman in those days would always keep her hair tied up and usually covered up! Remember the arguments the apostle Paul had with the Corinthians about women keeping their heads covered up! A respectable woman would only let down her hair when she was alone with her husband. Jewish law at that time allowed a man to divorce his wife on the sole grounds that she had let down her hair in front of another man! Just like in conservative parts of the Islamic world today where women always wear a veil and only female hairdressers are allowed to cut women’s hair. A respectable woman would never let down her hair in public! Never in front of a man she wasn’t married or related to. And then to touch that man’s feet with her hair. That was a very intimate action. And in front of strangers! That would raise a few eyebrows even today here in England. But in those days, in the Middle East! It was a scandal! A disgrace!
In today’s liberal society it’s hard to find a comparison that would shock us quite so much. It would probably take a woman at a dinner party to strip naked in front of a houseful of special guests, to shock us as much as those guests in Bethany would have been shocked.
It was so outrageous! So “O.T.T.” So “Over The Top!”
Of course, it was a gesture of love. Mary loved Jesus. For years, Jesus had been warning his disciples that it was part of his mission to go up to Jerusalem and suffer and be killed.
But none of them had been listening, none of them understood it or believed it, except for Mary. She knew why Jesus was going to Jerusalem. Maybe she even put two and two together and realised that with Passover only a week away that Jesus had only a week left to live. So Mary wanted to take this opportunity, possibly the last opportunity she would ever have, to show Jesus just how great her love was. Not romantic love, not sexual love, but the true Christian devotion that all disciples should have for their Lord and Master. Mary loved Jesus so much! So she anointed Jesus with the most precious possession she owned, a whole bottle of expensive perfume. And Mary could have remembered to bring a towel to dry his feet. But instead she chose that most shocking and intimate gesture – she let down her hair and dried his feet with her hair.
Incredibly intimate! Shameful! Appalling! Indecent! Immoral! But that’s how deep Mary’s love for Jesus was. She probably hadn’t even thought about how other people would interpret her actions. She just wanted to show her Lord just how precious He was to her. So she went totally “Over The Top.”
Of course the critics come charging in!
4 One of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”
Good point! Even if Judas was only interested in stealing the money rather than giving it to the poor and needy, it was a waste. The other disciples started saying the same thing. What would Jesus have to say about that?
7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. And Matthew and Mark continue the story like this. “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me.
“A beautiful thing”. No criticism. No condemnation. But appreciation. Was Jesus perhaps even grateful?
She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12 When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial.
Jesus saw a spiritual significance in what Mary had done, maybe even beyond Mary’s intentions. This anointing looked ahead in prophetic symbolism to his death and his burial. There would be other opportunities to help the poor. But this was the one and only chance Mary would have to show her love for Jesus. We must all always beware of being so preoccupied with the demands of everyday service that we miss out on unique opportunities for special encounters with God.
13 I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Told in memory of her. The spiritual significance of Mary’s action was not the most important thing. What would be remembered everywhere and forever was Mary herself –– her love, her devotion! This story is told in memory of her.
Because this is the most important point in the story. Jesus welcomed Mary’s devotion, even though Mary went completely Over The Top. Even though she got totally carried away, and did something which everybody else found outrageous and shocking and scandalous for all kinds of reasons, Jesus’s reaction is very different. “She has done a beautiful thing for me.” Everybody else there was criticising what Mary had done. Instead Jesus says “leave her alone, why are you bothering this woman”?
What this story shows us very clearly above everything else is that it is ALRIGHT to go Over The Top in our devotion for Jesus. If we get carried away in our love for Jesus – that’s OK! There were lots of people there at that dinner party just a week before Jesus died. But Mary was the only one who actually did things right! Her devotion to Jesus was so great that she couldn’t hold it in – and so she made an exhibition of herself. And that was OK! That was ALRIGHT!
When did you last go “Over The Top” for Jesus? The big problem we have is that there is not much risk of us following in Mary’s footsteps. We’re English – always reserved, stiff upper lip and all that. We English are terrified of ever going “over the top” like Mary did. We’re afraid of extremes. We act as if it is always wrong to have too much of anything, as if it’s wrong to have too much enthusiasm, or too much zeal or too much joy or too much excitement or too much holiness. We insist on moderation in everything. So there’s little risk that any of us would love Jesus so much that we would get carried away like Mary did. To be so devoted to God that we get to the point of not caring what anybody else might think of us. We would never go “Over The Top!” Even for Jesus! And that’s a problem!
So what can we learn from Mary going O.T.T. for Jesus? There are at least FOUR things.
1. EXTRAVAGANT GENEROSITY
Mary used up a whole year’s wages worth of perfume in one wild extravagant gesture of generosity. So generous she even smashed the jar so that every last drop could be used to anoint Jesus. The Bible has lots and lots to teach us about the use of wealth and possessions. In this country we tend to stick with the bits which talk about careful stewardship of the resources God has entrusted to us. We tend to gloss over the bits which talk about extravagant generosity.
But remember that greedy tax collector Zaccheus. When he realised that the grace of God extended even to a miserable sinner like him, Zaccheus really went O.T.T in extravagant generosity, giving away half his possessions to the poor, and paying back everybody he had cheated four times over! When were you last outrageously extravagantly generous?
Listen to some more words of Jesus which rarely think about and even more rarely obey.
Luke 14:12 “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbours; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid. 13 But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, 14 and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”
You can’t take it with you! So why do we Christians so often cling on to what we’ve got? When instead we could give it away in extravagant generosity. Take the “Rich Young ruler” test. What would you do if Jesus said to YOU, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22.) What would YOU do?
Extravagant generosity and
2. JOYFUL CELEBRATION
We English aren’t very good at joyful celebration. The Jews still know how to have a really good time at a party! But we don’t. We don’t have the temperament. We are too inhibited!
Mary really did let her hair down! But usually we (well us respectable Christians anyway) are too concerned about what other people will think. We don’t like to let our feelings show!
Remember that Jailer at Philippi when he heard the gospel. Acts 16:33f
he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God- he and his whole family.
When were you last filled with joy in your Christian life. I spent some time in Uganda a few years ago and I took part in services which lasted two or three hours and then led on to shared meals together which lasted most of the afternoon. These people had none or very little of all the things we take for granted. But they had joy! They really knew how to celebrate God’s goodness to them. When did you last get completely carried away in “Over the Top” joyful celebration?
Extravagant generosity, joyful celebration and
3. INTIMATE WORSHIP
Here was striking intimacy. A woman would only normally let down her hair in the presence of her husband. Yet this is what Mary does to express her lavish devotion for her Lord. And this is something else that many of us have big problems in doing. We simply don’t know how to let go of our inhibitions and tell God how much we love Him!
The Song of Songs, the Song of Solomon is a very beautiful and in places erotic love poem. But it has always been interpreted by the Jews and by the church as representing God’s love for his chosen people and the response of love which his chosen people have for God.
Sometimes some people do go Over the Top in worship. They say things and do things in their worship and adoration of God which I find uncomfortable and embarrassing because they seem too intimate. But this story tells me not to judge others! Because Jesus did not criticise the intimacy of Mary’s love and adoration. Instead he says, “Leave her alone”, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”
We need to learn that it’s OK for Christians to go O.T.T. for Jesus. Remember what happened on the day of Pentecost. The first Christians were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them. 6 When (everybody else) heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”
This all sounds very Over The Top to me!! But it was God’s way of telling the world that that Holy Spirit had come! Lots of very O.T.T. things have been happening in churches around the world even in the years that I have been a minister. Spiritual gifts, prophecy and speaking in tongues, signs and wonders, the Toronto Blessing, holy tears and holy laughter, people falling down “resting in the Spirit”, the Pensacola Revival. When we hear about other Christians getting carried away in their worship, we need to make sure that we don’t rush in to condemn them.
We can so easily be like Judas – criticising and complaining, over cautious and reserved, never taking any risks. But I’m sure that God actually wants us all to be more like Mary, for some of the time at least. I’m sure God would love to see some more heartfelt enthusiasm and sincere O.T.T. passion in US sometimes! I’m sure that if we are loving God with ALL our heart and ALL our soul and ALL our strength and ALL our mind then we OUGHT TO find ourselves going Over The Top in intimate worship sometimes.
Extravagant generosity, joyful celebration, intimate worship, and to cap it all, everything was so
4. SHAMELESS and PUBLIC
When did you last show your love for God in such a shameless and public way? When did you last make an exhibition of yourself witnessing for Christ? I remember when I became a Christian as a teenager. I went totally Over The Top telling other people about Jesus. I wore a great big wooden cross at school and through university to tell the world I believed in Jesus. For very many Christians in England today, our faith has become a very private thing, something we don’t even tell our friends. Sometimes I think that Christians have started to believe what I call “the Great Lie”. There is this rumour, this myth going round so many churches, that it is somehow “not Christian” about evangelism and witnessing and telling others about our love for Christ. That’s “the Great Lie”
Perhaps it is because there are so many different religions in Britain nowadays. We can be conned into thinking that all roads lead to God. People don’t need Jesus to be their Saviour after all. That’s the Great Lie! They DO need Jesus. Jesus said, (John 14:6)
‘‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No man comes to the Father except through me!’’
Again, there is the idea that because our Christian faith seems to be just one ‘‘option’’ among many, we shouldn’t be forcing our opinions on others. Some people even say that it’s unloving to insist we’ve got it right and everybody else is wrong. That’s the Great Lie again. Our faith is not just a matter of opinion but of eternal truth, a matter of life and death.
Perhaps it would be unloving to spread the gospel, if it were not true. But God’s word the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ really is the only way of salvation for a lost world. So it is staying silent which shows a lack of love. If we love God and if we love our neighbours, the loving thing to do will always be to speak, to shout, to warn, to persuade, to pray so that our friends do not drift on to a lost eternity. The people who showed more love while the Titanic was sinking were the ones who handed out the lifebelts and pointed the way to the lifeboats, not the folk who kept everyone amused by playing more music and handing out more drinks.
Of course, telling other people about Jesus is not easy. Speaking about our faith can make us unpopular, maybe even bring us ridicule and persecution. The Great Lie lulls us into believing that God loves us too much to ask us to do something difficult. So, the Lie says, God can’t be demanding that we tell our friends and neighbours about Jesus, because we find that difficult. What rubbish! We have good news – how dare we keep it to ourselves?
Jesus never said it would be easy or comfortable to follow Him. He only said it would be worth all it cost! Mary was shameless in revealing her devotion to Jesus in such a public way. Why do so many Christians remain private and silent? Hear Jesus’s words
‘‘If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory and in the glory of the Father.’’ (Luke 9:26)
Let me finish by reminding you of the story from Luke’s gospel about another woman who went “Over The Top” in her love for Jesus. One evening at another dinner party, a “woman who had lived a sinful life” (a prostitute) washed Jesus’s feet with her tears and dried them with her hair before anointing them with perfume. Their host Simon the Pharisee criticised her, so Jesus told this parable we know so well.
“Two men owed money to a certain money-lender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he cancelled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?” Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt cancelled.”
“You have judged correctly,” Jesus said. Then he turned towards the woman and said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet. Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven- for she loved much. But he who has been forgiven little loves little.”
He who has been forgiven little loves little. How much do you love Jesus? Mary’s love for Jesus was so great that she got completely carried away! Her story is told in memory of her. But what about us?
God gave His only Son to make a way for us to be forgiven, to be born again to a new life and even to become His beloved children. God loves you and me SO much! But how much do we love Jesus? Where is our response of extravagant generosity? How about a bit of joyful celebration sometimes? Maybe even some truly intimate worship? And when did you last make an exhibition of yourself in public shouting out your love for God so shamelessly. I think we could all afford to go Over The Top for Jesus a bit more. Don’t you agree?