A Beautiful Thing
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; April 7, 2019
5th Sunday in Lent
Psalm 126; John 12:1-8
It was only six days before the Passover. Although they didn’t know it at the time, soon their Lord would be hanging on a cross. Naturally, they had heard rumors. While Jesus’ prior activities—all his teaching and miracles—had gotten the attention of religious rulers, things came to a head when he raised their brother, Lazarus, from the dead. You see, many Jews who witnessed the miracle became believers, too. And when the chief priests and Pharisees heard, they called a council meeting to decide the fate of Jesus.
News of Lazarus being brought back to life spread throughout the land. People from far and wide came to see the living miracle with their own eyes. Always a bit shy, Lazarus was overwhelmed by it all: the sudden illness; his trek into the valley of death; strangers flocking to see him; and now there he sat beside Jesus.
Because Martha, Mary, Lazarus had a large home, they tried to live by the Jewish teaching of showing hospitality to strangers. They were taught that by doing so, they might be entertaining angels of God. Little did they know, when Jesus became their dearest friend and frequent houseguest, it was more than angels of God they were entertaining.
Oh, the good times they had—such joy and laughter. Jesus taught them so much—taught Martha so much. Before she met Jesus, Martha was set in her ways and could be harsh and judgmental when things didn’t go according to her plan. (She was, after all, the eldest sister.) No doubt you’ve heard the story, the story of Jesus going to her home to dine and Martha working away, playing the role of the perfect hostess. But when Martha saw Mary sitting there at Jesus’ feet as if she had nothing better to do, Martha was annoyed and judged her sister—judged her for not helping—judged her for sitting there oblivious to all the hustle and bustle. Jesus showed Martha the error of her ways, though. Jesus showed her a better way to live and move and be in the world.
Remember Jesus’ teaching? “Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own?”[i]
Like most people, sometimes Martha was better at seeing the speck in someone else’s eyes. But Jesus taught her that God provides a variety of gifts for the common good. Though Mary and Martha were sisters, they served the Lord in different ways. While Martha’s gifts were hospitality and service, Mary’s gifts were learning and discernment. Truth be told, Jesus broke all the rules of tradition by encouraging women to learn, to study, to pray, and to grow in faith and love. In the eyes of Jesus, there was always room for one more at the table. Jesus loved and valued everyone. Period.
In all that he said—in all that he did—Jesus embodied love, acceptance, and wisdom. No wonder Martha, Mary, Lazarus were always glad to see him at their front door. And since their little town of Bethany was only a couple of miles from Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were often in their home. But one evening stands out—the evening they had something incredible to celebrate!
Of course, Mary and Martha were distraught when Lazarus became ill. It all happened so fast. One minute he was fine—and the next—he wasn’t. Not knowing what to do, they sent for Jesus. Tell him, “The one whom you love is ill.” But Jesus did not come. Jesus did not come until after they laid the lifeless body of Lazarus in a tomb.
As soon as Martha heard Jesus was on the way, she ran to meet him. With tears in her eyes, she told him if he had been with them, Lazarus would not have died. “But even now,” she said, “I know that God will give you whatever you ask…I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Then Jesus, their friend, their Teacher, their Lord, went to the place where Lazarus was buried and did more than they could have ever imagined. He called Lazarus out of the tomb. Wrapped in burial cloths from head to toe, their brother walked out of his cold, cold grave.
They were astonished. They were overwhelmed. They were filled with joy. Certainly, a celebration was in order because they wanted to share the news with everyone. But Jesus was being watched closely by the religious authorities and they soon learned through the grapevine—Lazarus was in danger, too. So, they planned a small, intimate gathering to honor Jesus.
Martha was busy waiting on their guests, filling goblets with wine, and bringing in fresh bread. Suddenly, she noticed something in the air—a rich, sweet, fragrance. Turning, she walked back into the dining area. Lazarus was sitting beside Jesus and her sister was kneeling before the Lord, drenching his feet with perfumed oil, and wiping off the excess with her hair. It was one of the most beautiful, gracious things Martha’s eyes had ever beheld.
The alabaster jar Mary cracked open was quite valuable, but Mary knew this was the time for a lavish gesture of love. Even though Jesus had warned his disciples that he would soon die, they did not understand. But Mary with her spiritual sensitivity—she recognized the imminent suffering and death of our Lord. She understood and with her whole heart, she gave all that she had.
Everyone sat in awe of the gift being poured out before them—everyone except Judas. Into this holy scene, he spoke words of judgment. Judas was always worried about the bottom line—soon, they would understand why. But at the time, Martha thought how like Judas to miss the point again. Immediately Jesus came to Mary’s defense. He told Judas to leave her alone. Jesus knew what Mary was doing and why—and he, more than any of them—knew the deeper implications—she was anointing him for his burial. [ii]
Judas and Mary—what a contrast! Judas was a thief, a false disciple, a betrayer. Mary was generous to a fault, a true disciple, a friend of Jesus.
Without a doubt, Mary’s gift was generous—even extravagant. But the life and ministry of Jesus begged his followers to consider generosity as a way of life. Everywhere Jesus went, he provided an abundance. You will recall his first miracle at Cana where he turned 180 gallons of water into the finest wine. That was more than a wedding party could possibly consume. Later, with a little fish and bread Jesus fed over 5000 people beside the Sea of Galilee. And if that wasn’t enough, there were 12 baskets of leftovers. Once, when Simon Peter and his friends went fishing, Jesus told Simon to cast his net on the other side and 153 huge fish jumped into the net.[iii]
Generosity! Abundance! It was a lifestyle for Jesus. Why shouldn’t Mary reciprocate in kind when she had the resources to do so? In that moment, she modeled how being a disciple of Jesus Christ should cost something. And in that moment, Judas modeled the price people may pay for judging others unkindly. After all, ridiculing, demeaning, and judging others can become a habit—a habit that reveals more about the person pointing the finger than anything else. Such negative behavior can keep folks so busy focusing outward, they don’t spend time sitting at the feet of Jesus; they don’t grow in their own Christ Walk. In the end, the change people want to see in others may really be the change that is needed in their own hearts and minds and souls.
Dear church, are you spending time at the feet of Jesus? If not, please hear me. Jesus loved being in the home of Martha, Mary, and Lazarus and, surely, Martha was humbled to serve him. He was her friend and she never doubted his love. Yet when Jesus returned to his Abba Father, I can’t help but wonder if she wished she had spent less time doing stuff for Jesus and more time sitting at his feet like her sister. Perhaps, in time she recalled how Jesus made a habit of going away for a time of prayer and rest, then returning filled with a deeper peace and joy. Maybe the Spirit gave her a similar desire—to live a more balanced life just like Jesus did—so that she could have that peace and joy—in her doing AND in her being—all for the sake of Christ.
Is your Christ Walk filled with peace and joy? Are you seeking ways to balance doing and being? Are you taking care of your own spiritual, physical, and mental needs so you can care for others? Resurrection morning is drawing nigh. Are you ready?
[i] Matthew 7:1-3
[ii] Resources: Carlos Wilton, Lectionary Preaching Workbook, 138.
[iii] William G. Carter, Feasting on the Word, 144.
*Cover Art: Mary of Bethany anointing Jesus’ feet with nard and wiping them with her hair by DANIEL F. GERHARTZ