The following is a conversational, written version of Dr. Ken Herfst’s chapel message on November 27, 2019. The talk was a reflection on John 12:1-11.
Come and see. This is Redeemer’s theme this year. Jesus’ invitation has been: come… and see… and be with… follow me!
So, we’ve been coming and seeing since September with the help of John’s Gospel. John marshals evidence that is compelling, comprehensive, and critical — riveting might be the better word — to convince us that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed One, and that there is eternal life in him (20:30-31). From the very first bold miracle in which Jesus dares to overturn the entire Jewish religious system by changing water reserved for purification into wine, a wine that tastes like the celebration of kingdom life, to the raising of Lazarus from the dead in Chapter 11, there can be no doubt: There is no one else like Jesus! It’s totally worth it to ‘come and see.’ There’s glory in Cana — the disciples saw it (2:11) — and there’s glory in Jerusalem as Jesus responds to the Greeks request to ‘see Jesus’ (12:23)!
The passage that we read this morning marks a major transition in the development of John’s argument. The ‘book of signs’ will move to the last week of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ public preaching and healing ministry is coming to a close and from Chapters 13 to 17 we are privileged to listen in on intimate conversations Jesus will have with his disciples in the upper room, before we move to the arrest, trial and crucifixion, resurrection and post-resurrection appearances.
Timing is everything for John. Chapter 12 begins with the observation that it was six days before the Passover, that critical moment in history when Yahweh liberated his people from Egyptian oppression. Nationalistic hopes, messianic longings surface even as the people begin a time of purification and repentance (11:55).
Questions about the whereabouts of Jesus set the stage for what is about to unfold. People are looking for him… come and see… and they stand in the temple, thinking this would obviously be the place to find him. But they are mistaken. Jesus is not to be seen at the centre of Jewish worship; not yet. Jesus is in Bethany, among friends, around a table sharing a meal given in his honour.
Not surprisingly, Martha is serving. Lazarus is at the table as well. People have come not only because Jesus is there; they want to get a good look at Lazarus too! The news has spread far and wide: dead for four days… then resurrected by Jesus! Wow! That’s never happened before!
Mary suddenly enters the room. In a previous exchange between Martha and Jesus about giving a hand to help serving instead of wasting time by sitting at Jesus feet, Jesus had emphatically stated that “One thing was necessary.” Service is good, but listening to the Messiah is better. And, he had categorically stated that Mary had made the better choice.
This time Mary makes her way past the other guests. Our eyes follow her as she walks deliberately to Jesus. ‘Come and see.’ She takes a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard and anoints Jesus’ feet, and then scandalously lets her hair down in public and wipes Jesus’ feet with her hair. Slowly, the entire house is filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Bethany, where only a short time ago, one had to plug their nose because of the putrid stench of death as Lazarus’ tomb was opened, is now the scene where the exquisite fragrance of costly perfume lingers in the air. Life triumphs over death! Wow.
If we’ve followed the development of John’s argument about the identity of Jesus up till this moment, it is clear that his uniqueness flows from that decisive moment when John the Baptist baptizes him in the Jordan River… The Heavens split open… the Spirit descends on him in the form of dove and remains on him. John the Baptist explains: “I didn’t know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ He adds: I have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” Clearly, Jesus is the Anointed One — he is the Messiah, the Son of God. So Jesus is anointed by no one less than the Holy Spirit, sent by the Father!! This is an unprecedented, decisive moment in the history of the world. The divine breaks through into human history in a dramatic display of anointing. Jesus is set apart as God’s Son, who, as John reminds us in the very next verse of John 1, is ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’
Well, now we are on our way to the Passover. The Lamb will be sacrificed. We’ve connected the theological dots… Jesus is Word – Logos – made flesh, he is both Lamb and Shepherd, he’s both the Greater than Moses and the Mana that comes down from heaven. He’s the One who has the words of eternal life. He is living water, he’s the light of the world, he’s the one who existed before Abraham, he’s the Great I AM, he is the Resurrection and the Life as graphically demonstrated in raising Lazarus from the dead… No doubt this is the Messiah… this is the Son of God, right? Jesus is our hero!! We’re onto something really good!
And then… bam!! In walks Mary and she daringly anoints … the Anointed One! Mary re-anoints … the Anointed One! She ‘messiahs’ the Messiah!
But, but… Jesus is already anointed by GOD, right!? And, wait a minute, take a closer look! — it’s not just that Jesus gets re-anointed! He is re-anointed by a woman! And to make it more confusing, in the other gospel accounts, it is emphasized that the woman who does this to Jesus is a ‘sinner!’ This outrageously daring act upsets all social and religious conventions!
How can Jesus let this happen?
All through biblical history only holy male prophets anoint men to the office of prophet, priest or king. Yes, there were a few female prophets, but we never read that a prophetess anointed someone for ministry! But here… a woman, a sinner… And she’s not just anointing another human being… that would be radical enough!! She’s anointing the very Son of God!! This is outrageous! What is going on?
JOHN WANTS US TO RECOGNIZE JESUS IN THE ACTION OF MARY! It’s all about JESUS!
The radical nature of what Mary does is accentuated in a couple of ways: for one, Judas figures prominently in the narrative; he is given a voice. To him, this is an extravagant, unnecessary waste. Although, he says it should have been given to the poor, John makes the editorial comment that Judas wasn’t really concerned about the poor at all; Judas was just thinking about Judas. He was thief! Not only that, Judas will betray Jesus. Just think! He came and saw Jesus in action for three years — a privilege denied to most people — and he still didn’t get it. He didn’t really ‘see’ or comprehend, understand, recognize or put his trust in Jesus! And Judas was one of the disciples.
Some religious leaders are there too. Throughout the Gospel of John we meet them again and again. They had all the theological training one needed to understand the identity of Jesus… but they missed the point. 11:57 – they want to arrest Jesus. In fact, they want to put both Jesus and Lazarus to death. Jesus for reasons we’ve heard for some time in John’s gospel; Lazarus needs to be eliminated — because he’s proof that Jesus is God’s Anointed One, he’s the Messiah! Something that they adamantly refuse to admit. Neither do they want others to recognize Jesus as the Messiah!
And so because it appears to be so easy to miss the whole point of the narrative of Jesus’ life, John subpoenas another expert witness…. Mary! This is classic Kingdom theology, this is the upside down Kingdom life!! First are last; last are first. Sinners are at the table while the righteous exclude themselves. Mary’s an unlikely witness! She’s not supposed to be there… this is a meal for man’s world. Women are allowed, so long as they are there to serve!
Just when we thought we had Jesus figured out, we are invited to see Jesus with new eyes; we need to see him through the eyes of the excluded, of those who don’t belong! The people we marginalize are the ones that get it!
By not only allowing Mary to anoint his feet, but by defending her, Jesus adjusts our thinking about the nature of the Kingdom of God… and the identity of the Lord’s anointed, and what He will become! COME AND SEE! Mary has come… and she has seen. She sat at Jesus’ feet; now she anoints those feet in an extravagant outpouring of priceless love.
Evidently, it isn’t enough to recognize him as Messiah. There needs to be an appropriate response!
Getting the answer right on the quiz is good… but there’s more to it! We have the benefit of hindsight. We aren’t as blind as the pharisees, right?! And yet… There’s always the risk that we stay with the sign and talk about the sign; but what’s the point of that?
There’s a sign on Garner Road that says: Redeemer University College. Can you imagine someone saying, “I go to Redeemer” and all they ever do is hang around the sign? Lean against it? Take a selfie with it? Snuggle up to it when its cold? Lie down in its shadow when it’s hot? It would be an exercise in missing the point, wouldn’t it? You have to come inside, take classes, write papers, exams, etc., immerse yourself in university life and then graduate!! That’s the point.
Well, John puts both hands on our shoulders, shakes us up, looks us straight in the eyes and says: “make sure you see!”
There’s the danger that we don’t really understand, we don’t get the point about Jesus. He’s not just an interesting teacher or social reformer. He’s not just a healer or a miracle worker. NO, no, we’re on our way to Jerusalem and it’s the Passover. He’s the Anointed One. People will receive him with palm branches, spreading their cloaks on the road in front of him, shouting “Hosanna, blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord — the King of Israel.”
Come and see? Yes, come and see!
Jesus gives us a clue when he interprets what Mary did: he links her extravagant love to his death. She was keeping the perfume for Jesus’ day of burial, but she chose to show her love while Jesus was still alive. Nevertheless, the mention of his burial is foreshadowing the ominous event that will take place during Passover. Jesus will die so that the people can go free. Like a kernel of wheat he will be buried, but even as he is buried, there will be an amazing harvest! Mary gets it: she brings perfume fit for a king’s burial! Anointed as king, priest and prophet… anointed to die BY GOD and SINNERS, to give his life for others. Truth be told: Jesus is not going to need the embalming perfume; he’s not going to stay in the tomb. No, life triumphs over death… again. And Lazarus is right there, sitting at the table to remind us.
Come and see!
The mystics get what Mary is doing. Having sat at Jesus’ feet in contemplation, Mary moves to love in action. In a tender moment of eros Mary shows us who Jesus really is!
St. Bonaventure, a 13th century Franciscan theologian got the point. Listen to what he writes:
But if you wish to know how these things come about,
ask grace, not instruction,
desire not understanding
the groaning of prayer, not diligent reading,
The spouse, not the teacher,
God, not man
darkness, not clarity,
not light but the fire
that inflames and carries us into God
by ecstatic anointings and burning affection.
This fire is GOD (p.115).
Mary’s action is about that kind of burning love. Love as a response to Jesus’ over-the-top, radical love that would make him give up his life for sinners! Jesus accepts the anointing because that’s the kind of king he is! That’s the kind of a heart he has. It isn’t about power, it’s about love!
Come and see! In John 1 that’s an invitation to discipleship. In John 12, that invitation still stands. Spiritual teachers remind us that
Allow me to say to you this morning, the heart of discipleship — following Jesus— is really all about love. So often in the busyness of papers and exams we can forget that. Come, with Mary and sit at Jesus’ feet: listen, listen, listen to the voice of the Beloved and know that you are loved. That is who you are. That is what defines you. All the signs (Scripture, Sacraments) point to it… but don’t stay outside leaning against the sign. Come on inside, sit at his table and be welcomed by the Father’s embrace.
Come with Mary and give back that Love to the One who loves you. Not… like Judas: what’s in it for me? When he doesn’t get what he wants, he coldly betrays Jesus with a kiss… that’s not what a kiss is for. Lavish love… on your knees before Jesus. Give him your very best, your all. Jesus is a king like none other!
Come and you’ll realize that it’s not what you give up, it’s what you receive that changes everything and You will be set free to love…
Holy Father, let your Holy Spirit set our hearts on fire with love for Jesus our Messiah, your Son, our Beloved. Amen.