Sermon: Approaching the Cross
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 43.16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3.4b-14; John 12.1-8
As we make our way through Lent, the cross is drawing nearer. Today’s scriptures convey this sense of movement. Isaiah reports the Lord’s admonition, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (43.18-19; NRSV). Something new is coming!
The psalm reflects gratitude for the past (“The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad indeed”) and a sense of hope and expectation for the future (“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy. Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves”) (Psalm 126.4, 6-7; NRSV). Joy is coming!
In Philippians 3, Paul addresses his past and the future as follows: “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead . . . I press on to make it my own . . . forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Jesus Christ” (Vss. 10-14).
The story of Lazarus, Mary, and Martha only appears in the Gospel of John. It, too, contains elements of past and future. Luke 10.38-42 tells us that Martha had welcomed Jesus into her home. While Martha assumed the obligations of a hostess, her sister, Mary, sat at Jesus’ feet listening to his teaching. When Martha complained, Jesus informed her there was need of only one thing, that Mary had chosen the better part. In comparison to Jesus’ teaching, the cares of this world were immaterial. As of yet, there is no mention of Lazarus; we only encounter him in the gospel of John.
Today’s gospel reading begins as follows: “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead” (John 12.1; NRSV). As you might imagine, raising Lazarus in Bethany had created quite a stir! John 11 tells us so many Jews had come to believe in Jesus due to the resuscitation of Lazarus that the chief priests and Pharisees called a meeting of the council. They feared so many would come to believe in Jesus that the Romans would come and destroy the temple and Israel.
Caiaphas, the high priest, reminded them it was better for one man to die than for the whole nation to be destroyed. Thereafter they planned to kill Jesus. John then tells us, “Jesus therefore no longer walked about openly among the Jews, but went from there to a town called Ephraim in the region near the wilderness” (John 11.54; NRSV). Ephraim is located about ten miles north of Bethany; and Bethany two miles east of Jerusalem. Jesus remained in Ephraim until the approach of Passover – the approach of the cross.
As though writing for the social register, John tells us, “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with Jesus” (John 12.2; NRSV). This was a special occasion. In chapter 11, John tells us Mary and Martha had sent a message to Jesus informing him of Lazarus’ illness: “Lord, he whom you love is ill” (Vs.3; NRSV). Jesus must have been very close to Mary Martha, and Lazarus even before raising Lazarus from the dead.
In that Mary had sat at Jesus’ feet, and Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead, Mary and Martha must have had a profound love for Jesus. They must have known the danger Jesus was in, for as John tells us, “The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him” (John 11.57; NRSV).
While Martha was serving, “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” (John 12.3; NRSV). Judas asks why the perfume was not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor. A denarius was equivalent to a day’s wages – hence, the perfume was worth approximately a full year’s wage. This anointing was a gift of extravagance. What was Mary doing?
I suspect Mary profoundly loved Jesus, that she knew he was making his way to Jerusalem where he would be arrested and in all likelihood executed. By custom, it was improper for a woman to touch a male, let alone to let down her hair in the presence of a male other than her husband (an act with sensuous overtones). Yet Mary anointed Jesus feet and wiped them with her hair. In response to Judas’ complaint, Jesus told him, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial” (John 12.7; NRSV). Yet she poured it on Jesus’ feet in advance of his burial and in doing so, she displayed the depth of her love for him.
It is also worth noting that the next few verses following our reading tell us when the great crowd of Jews learned of Jesus’ presence at the home of Lazarus, they came to see both Jesus and Lazarus. Consequently, the chief priests also planned to kill Lazarus for he was the cause of so many of the Jews following Jesus.
What questions come to mind from our consideration of these scriptures? What lessons can we derive?
Are we willing to approach the cross with and for Jesus? Are we willing to take up our cross and follow him? What are we willing to give, and what risks are we willing to take, to demonstrate our love for Jesus? As we have seen, Mary gave a costly gift and, in doing so, broke cultural norms to demonstrate her love. She shared her profound love for Jesus while he was still alive.
Might there be a lesson here for us? How often do we wait until someone is dead to “gift” them with expressions of love and appreciation? Much of our love is “need” love as opposed to “gift” love. “Need” love is grounded in our own desires; we love someone hoping he or she will fulfill our needs for affirmation and affection; we often desire the other “complete” us. Need love is imperfect; it rarely, if ever, meets expectations. In contrast, gift love expects nothing in return.
Jesus loved us, and loves us still, with “gift” love. In doing so, he emptied himself and took on human form that he might live and die as one of us; he did so that our sins might be forgiven, and that the door to eternal life, to resurrected life, might be opened through him. Mary’s love was “gift” love; while the gift of nard was expensive, the greater gift was her demonstration of intense love for Jesus. True gift love demands that approach the cross. Jesus is our example – let us follow him! May we approach that place where we can say with Paul, “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” (Philippians 4.7-8a; NRSV).