A Beautiful Thing
For the last month and a half we have taken a little detour for Advent/Christmas as well as New Year/Epiphany. But today, we are diving back into the gospel of Mark. When we left of with the gospel of Mark, we were in the middle of the last week of Jesus’ life. In the next couple weeks we read Mark until we get to the arrest of Jesus. From that point on, it is best, in my opinion, to move on from the narrative until we get to Holy Week.
Now, by the time we get to this point in the life of Jesus, we know he does not have much time left. The people around Jesus don’t realize that he only has a few more days to live, but Jesus certainly does. It is Passover week. Jesus is staying with friends in the small town of Bethany, which is really a suburb of Jerusalem. To get from Jerusalem you really walk up, over the mount of Olives, and then head down the opposite side of that hill.
While Jesus is dining with Simon the Leper (who is probably someone who was healed of leprosy), the powers that be in Jerusalem are planning Jesus’ demise. The rich and the powerful despise Jesus, but the rugged, rejected and redeemed love Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees decide to wait until after Passover week. Passover might cause too many problems at an important time of year. There timetable will soon be moved up. Jesus will be dead by the end of the week.
Bethany is a base of support for Jesus. It is where Mary, her sister Martha, and their brother Lazerus live. The name of the town means “house of the poor”. It is the place of the common people. Folks that could not afford to live in Jerusalem.
Jesus is reclining at the table eating. This means that he is the guest of honor of Simon the Leper. The folks seemed to be having a good meal, a good conversation, and then THE WOMAN walked in.
At first the guests (who were probably all men at this point) thought that this unnamed woman was probably entering the meal with that fine alabaster jar to serve them. Or perhaps to offer some sort of gift to Jesus. Nobody was prepared for what came next.
This woman walked over to Jesus. She broke her alabaster jar. Out came oil. This was sometimes done with guests of honor with some olive oil as a way to honor them. The perfume began to fill the room. This oil was certainly not olive oil. What was it? It was…hmmm…it was…nard. Nard? Wow that is expensive stuff. Imported from India where the flower grows that produces this beautiful smelling odor. In today’s dollars, the bottle of perfume would have went for between 30,000 and 50,000. And the woman poured it ALL out. It flowed down his head, his beard, onto his robe, and it wet his skin beneath his clothes. To show honor, respect, love and worship for Jesus, this woman poured out her valuable perfume. And it smelled WONDERFUL.
Well, this act of honor and worship met with some pretty harsh reactions with the men that were in the room. Some of them rolled their eyes. Others of them grumbled. Others of them began to scold the woman like she was a little child. “What are you doing?” they asked, “Don’t you realize how much that cost? Don’t you realize the good that could have been done with that perfume if you would have sold it and used the funds to help those in need? Why are you being so showy and wasteful?”
Jesus overheard this nagging and criticism. He would have none of it. He said that what this woman had done was beautiful. And after everyone one in that room had passed away. The story of her gift would be told. We would, Jesus said, remember her. And we do. Even today, we remember what she did.
You know, my friends, religion can be a good thing. But, if we are not careful, we can take on a shell of religiosity, and mistake it for authentic faith. We can think our religion is about looking good among my neighbors, about doing a few pro-community activities, about creating good standing in the community, and carrying on the tradition of our parents.
That is the kind of faith that some of the people in the room with Jesus had. One of them, Judas, was one of the twelve. He ended up leaving the room after this little episode and talking to the leaders in Jerusalem and agreeing to turn Jesus over to them to be arrested for 30 pieces of silver. Judas was comfortable with a kind of religion that appeared like faith, but when it really came down to it he wanted a religion that was about what he could do and what he could control.
The woman that we see here helps us to see and understand what true, authentic, passionate worship is all about. As we look at her example, and pay attention to it, we can learn how to live and to worship like her. Let’s take a brief look at some principles we can glean from her actions, and apply to our lives.
1. Authentic, committed worship is countercultural
Ultimately, if you are going to experience worship in a faithful and powerful way, you are going to have to put the crowd behind you. You are going to have to not think about what judgments other people might have when you worship, and just open your heart, your mind, you life, your actions to what God wants you to do.
I remember a friend of mine who was a church leader, and moved out to Montana because of her husband’s job. Her background was more charismatic that the tradition of the church that they were attending. The church had blended worship, so when the praise songs were playing, her kids decided to stand on their pews and raise their hands in prayer as they were singing. Some people got upset the children were raising their hands, and being so expressive in praise. The kids found out about it. It took them years before they would worship this way again. Poor kids. Let the crowd get in the way of their worship.
The movie Chariots of Fire describes the story of Eric Liddell, who refused to compete in the Olympics on Sunday because that was his day to worship. He ended up switching events with another one of the competitors. And winning.
Worship does not just happen on Sunday morning. It happens as we live our lives for an audience of one, namely the Lord Jesus Christ. It happens when we chose to change the language we use, even when everyone around us tends to be speaking more vulgar. It happens when we chose to spend our lunch break doing our devotions. It happens when we serve others in the name of Christ as we go through our day, maybe by helping someone who cannot help themselves get something done, and then forget we ever did such a thing.
Open yourself to passionate worship, and you will find yourself crying at inconvenient times, you will find yourself moved to come forward to pray in a worship service when you might look foolish, you might find yourself moved to care more for people you might not otherwise care for, and you might give your time to activities and efforts that other people roll their eyes at. All because you have chosen to live in devotion to God, and everyone else’s opinions are less important.
2. Authentic, committed worship is sacrificial
This woman we read about in this text poured out this expensive perfume on Jesus’ head. She could have sold it and given it away, like her critics said. She also could have sold the perfume and put it away somewhere for a rainy day. She did neither. She gave what she had that was of value in adoration of Jesus, who had more value to her than any object that she owned.
You see, often we miss this truth. Instead we think worship is about us, getting what we want, and having our needs met. How does this happen? We think that worship is about me getting to sing the songs that I want to sing. Or perhaps we think worship is about hearing a really good sermon. We approach worship like McDonalds. “What would I like to order? Yes. I would like an hour long worship service with 3 hymns, no praise songs, a 20 minute sermon. Hold the responsive readings, and add in a second piece of special music in addition to the choir please. Thank you!”
The truth is, Biblical worship is about offering ourselves to God. It is about setting aside what we want, and taking time to give ourselves completely to God and what he wants for us.
This is why we have an offering in our worship service! To teach us that worship is about giving ourselves to God, and sacrifice. And, trust me, if you chose to worship sacrificially, you will find challenges. That tithe money you give will seem like a huge amount, until you go out and get your hair done and pay about the same thing. The hour you are here will seem like a huge commitment, even though you will spend at least 2 hours watching something you are not even paying attention to on television or on the internet later in the day.
The opposite of sacrificial worship is worship that is completely centered around me, and getting what I want when I want it. You know, as we gather for worship, I hope you enjoy yourself. But more than that, I hope you get outside of yourself. I hope you take time to be grateful for the many blessings that the Lord has given you. I hope you take time to praise the one in whom you live and move and have your being. I pray you take time to slow down enough to listen to the music, the word, the sermon, and as you do I hope you come seeking to know and understand a little more about who God wants you to be, and what God wants you to do.
3. Authentic, committed worship is total
If we are to honestly and completely worship the Lord, we cannot have divided loyalties. We cannot truly be worshipping the Lord, and at the same time have a number of other competing loyalties that vie for our attention.
Worship is an “all-in” kind of thing.
You know, last week at our business meeting we had a little bit of a discussion about worship times. Most of our church wants to just have one morning service. A group of people want two. Some folks wish we would start worship at 9am. Others like worshipping at 10. Another small minority could use another hour to get ready in order to be here at 11. I understand all of the concerns. I have heard all of the pros and cons for each position. And, in this sense, I am at your service as your pastor. Whatever decision that is made, I am going to be here. It is my job to be here, after all.
I also understand that many of us have commitments at different times on Sunday that precede the whole change in worship times. And, some of the changes that have happened in the last 18 months have been difficult.
Having said that, there are times I have a hard time dealing with the decision to not come to worship because it does not fit that person’s preference. In the eternal scheme of things, we should care enough about our faith to get our rear ends out of bed if the service is earlier, or eat breakfast at another time if the service is a little bit later. It seems to me, if one is committed to worship and committed to this church, one is going to be here when worship is scheduled. Your social schedule, your meal schedule, your tv watching schedule, or your sports schedule is not going to get in the way of your worship if your worship really means something.
I also have a hard time dealing with the kind of faith that compartmentalizes our commitment to worshipping the Lord to Sunday for an hour. If we truly worship the Lord, that worship should bleed into every aspect of our lives. It should affect the way we talk to people, the attitude we approach life with, the way we structure our day, the way we go through our lives. In each of these situations, we should live lives obedient to Christ and his gospel. In all of life, the grace and the love of Christ should flow through us. How we love and how we work, how we spend and how we play should all be defined by who our Lord is.
We cannot worship God and money. We cannot worship God and our friendships. We cannot worship God and our ego. We cannot worship God and have room to worship anything else. Yet, in many ways, it is so easy to divide our loyalties between God and this world. Worship has the same root word as worth. When we chose to worship Christ, we chose to say he is worth everything to us, and is our top priority.
The Lord Jesus lived a perfect life. We went to a cross to save us from our sins and give us a new life, and make us a new creation that will spend eternity with him. And because of that, he deserves our total devotion and complete loyalty.
Because of that, he should be worth everything to us. And that should define how we worship on Sunday, but it should also make a different in how we live each and every moment as an act of praise to the one who loves us, saves us, redeems us, and continues to fill us with his love, hope and peace.