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The Sweet Scent of Friendship

A sermon delivered by Robert Browning, Pastor Smoke Rise Baptist Church, Stone Mountain, Ga. on March 21, 2010.

John 12:1-8

Evidently there was no ban on perfume in Bethany the day that Mary anointed Jesus while he was a guest in her home. There is a ban on wearing perfe in Detroit, however, if you work for the city. Surely you did not miss that hot news item last week. I’ll spare you the details, but you may want to go online and read them. I am confident this will be a trivia question one day.

It is widely believed that this story was set in the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, a place familiar to Jesus. They were some of his dearest friends and apparently they opened their home to him anytime he visited Jerusalem.

What made this visit unique was something Mary did at this dinner given in Jesus’ honor. She poured expensive perfume, worth a year’s wages, on his feet and wiped them with her hair. Quickly, the room was filled with the sweet scent of friendship and the sour odor of criticism.

“Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages?” Judas asked this question, not because he had such a sensitive social conscience, according to John, but a selfish heart. John accused Judas of pilfering in the disciples’ treasury, and attributes his discomfort to greed. Obviously, John was laying the case for Judas’ betrayal of Jesus the following week. Every drama needs a good villain, and John identified his in this story.

What was Jesus’ reaction to Judas’ harsh criticism? “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me” John 12:7-8. Jesus recognized Mary and Judas’ motives and quickly came to Mary’s defense.

As I pondered this text last week, I kept returning to one question. Why did Mary do this? That’s hard to say, because she never speaks.I’ll tell you what I think. I believe Mary anointed Jesus’ feet at that dinner as an act of friendship and to deliver a prophetic word to everyone in attendance.  

Jesus had a special relationship with Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Their home was one place where he could be, according to Barbara Brown Taylor, “both man and Messiah.” As a preacher, I know how important this was to him.

On this particular night, Mary must have felt the need to let Jesus know how much she loved him and how deeply she cared for him. After all, she was aware that he risked his own life by returning to Bethany to raise her brother from the dead. How could she express her appreciation and affection, though? Evidently, her feelings of gratitude were larger than her vocabulary. Words were simply inadequate.

So, quietly, she slipped away from the group to get her most prized possession. Without saying a word, she returned and anointed his feet with that expensive perfume. No words needed to be exchanged between them; Jesus knew what was in her heart.

Sometimes the expression of love needs to be as extravagant as the love received. This was one of those times.

What do you need to do this week to let someone know what is in your heart? How can you let them know how much you appreciate and care for them? Let me encourage you to find a way and do it.

Mary was not just thinking of her need to express her feelings for him, however, but Jesus’ need for encouragement. Ever since he brought Lazarus back from the grave, the religious leaders had been looking for him. He represented a threat to everything they had worked so hard to achieve, especially their positions of power and lavish lifestyles. Jesus had to be killed, lest the crowds following him grow too large and influential.  

Mary recognized this and wanted to encourage him, letting him know she understood the danger he was facing. How could she do it, though? How could she give him the precious gift of encouragement that he had given her on many occasions? That perfume would do her talking for her.

Do you think Jesus received her message of encouragement and appreciated what she did? What did he do the next week when he assembled with the disciples in the Upper Room the night he was betrayed? He took a towel, a bowl of water and washed the feet of his disciples.

Where did he get this idea? You know.

 What could you do this week to encourage someone who is facing a stiff challenge? Why not follow Mary’s lead and do something that clearly demonstrates your love and support. Be the kind of friend to this person that Mary was to Jesus.

Was there another reason that Mary anointed Jesus that evening? I think so. I believe she wanted to send a prophetic message to everyone at that dinner.

The only time a man’s feet were anointed with perfume was in preparation for burial. It was customary to anoint someone’s head as a sign of respect and honor, but never their feet. So, why did Mary do this?

She saw dark clouds swirling around Jesus. Danger was in the air. Things were getting ready to change for all of them and they needed to be prepared, strong and courageous.

I believe Mary played the role of a prophet that night, in the same mold as Ezekiel, Isaiah and Jeremiah. Like them, her message was delivered doing something as unusual as anointing his feet. In her heart, Mary must have felt that Jesus was going to die and they were going to be tested. All of them needed to get ready and be prepared for the worst.

Did they heed her warning? It doesn’t appear so when you see how the disciples abandoned him the next week. It was not, however, due to Mary’s lack of effort.

What do you need to do this week to prepare someone for a time of testing? How can you help them understand what is coming and what they need to do to get ready? I hope you will do it. Too much is at stake for you not to try.

By the way, who is trying to reach you? Whose words of warning are you not taking seriously? Isn’t it interesting that Jesus promptly told Judas to leave Mary alone? It was time for Judas to listen to her crucial message, not criticize it!

Timing is such an important part of this story. “You will not always have me,” Jesus told Judas and the others in that room. Surely you sense the urgency in his voice and Mary’s actions.

What is it time for you to do this week? Is it time for you to be a friend and offer encouragement and support to someone going through a tough time? Is it time to be a prophet and help someone see what they are overlooking? Is it time for both? Like Mary, listen to your heart and follow where it leads you.