March 13, 2016 - John 12.1-8

“The Perfume of Belief”

John 12:1-8

March 13, 2016


Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 2There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. 3Mary 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. 4But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, 5“Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” 6(He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) 7Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. 8You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”


I learned a mnemonic device that helps me when I pray in worship.  Whenever I pray extemporaneously, that is without notes; I use a little memory device – an acronym.  The acronym is ACTS.  The “S” is for supplication, which is praying for others.  The “T” is for thanksgiving.  The “C’ is for confession, being honest with God and asking forgiveness.  At the “A” stands for adoration, and it comes first because it is the most important.  We need to worship God.  The first thing Jesus does in his Lord’s prayer is to offer God words of worship.


Neurologists tell us that the sense of smell is most closely linked with memory.  No sense that you have will evoke a more powerful memory than if you smell something that you have smelled before.  We are biological creatures, and everything we do involves a series of chemical reactions.  Smells are simply a chemical reaction that occurs up in our sinus cavity, right next to our brain.  Science tells us that we can remember smells with a profound acuity.  Let’s try some.  Close your eyes, and smell:

          Freshly baked homemade bread…your mother’s hug…

a fire in your fireplace…         a wet dog…

Dead Skunk…               Bacon and Coffee in the morning…

Vick’s Vapo-Rub…       your yard after a thunderstorm.

If you think back on the most powerful moments of your life, you can probably remember the smells and scents of those places.


Just days before his crucifixion, Jesus is anointed in an act of adoration by one of his disciples.  But not one that you’d expect.  Mary has Jesus in her home for a meal in his honor.  It was brave for Jesus to come to Jerusalem in the first place, seeing as how the authorities now wanted him.  Lazarus was sitting right there, reminding everyone of what Jesus was capable of, and that had the Pharisees in a tizzy.  They wanted him dead, and even plotted to kill Lazarus to get rid of the evidence.  Mary knows that she might not have Jesus around much longer.  If she were ever going to show him what she really thought of him, it would have to be then.  So, she got out the perfume.


There is another account of this taking place in Mark.  The woman in Mark’s act was one of extravagance.  She stands at Jesus’ head and takes her alabaster box, an entire pound of pure Nard, an ointment perfume, and breaks it open over Jesus’ head with all of it.  A pound of pure nard was worth one year’s wages.  And it’s not that she used it on his head, its that she used ALL of it on Jesus’, sparing none.  She is so overwhelmed by Jesus, that her only response is to give all that she has, to empty herself of everything most precious, and just lay it upon Jesus’.  Please note the last sentence in verse 3.  “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.  Using an entire pound of Nard would have indeed overwhelmed the entire house with the smell of the perfume.  But more than just the smell, it is the essence of her loving act of adoration that fills the house.


Judas has no sense of timing, however.  No sense of how beautiful and timely this gesture is.  Although he had betrayal stirring in his soul, many of us might have taken the same attitude.  Certainly there are more practical things we could have used that balm for.  That money could have gone a long way.  We forget, to our own demise, how much we need to worship God.


Steve Taylor has a song called, “Violent Blue.”  In it, he laments about the changes he sees in an old friend of his, his loss of passion.  Taylor sings “I can recall when the perfume of belief was all we needed, it was all we needed to set our sights.”  I love that phrase – “the perfume of belief.”  The scent that filled that house that day was the perfume of Mary’s belief.  That’s how belief works, like a perfume.  It is as if belief has a life of its own, and it can just brush up against us and everything will change.


Sometimes we need to take a good look at Mary and take in what she is doing at the feet of Jesus.  We need to worship God like she did.  We need to honor Jesus with all that we have.  We need to let the perfume of Mary’s belief wash over us, the perfume of our own belief in Jesus, to fill us and renew our hearts.  An act of adoration, of sacrifice, of an extravagant response to God can bring back those experiences that we thought we had lost, or forgotten, or perhaps had never really had.  The perfume of belief can bring us closer to Jesus again.


Sometimes an act of extravagance is the only proper response to God.  We try to go through our lives, keeping as much of our treasure within our little box, doling out one dollop here, one dollop there.  In her memoirs, author Hollis Gillespie confesses that her greatest fear is being destitute, the kind of poor where she is digging through garbage for food.[1]  So, even though she is a successful author, she stills keeps her day job as a flight attendant for Delta because she doesn’t trust a buck that she hasn’t busted her tail for.  Sometimes we are all like that, fearing that we won’t be able to make it if do anything grand or extravagant.  How little faith we have.  God has given us all we have, why should we think we would ever be in need?  When we are faced with the grand love of God, with his steadfast care for us, when we come face to face with the Lord that did not hold back his own son, how can we respond any other way than to take our little box of treasure and break it open and empty it upon Christ?  There is a time for extravagance!  How can we hold back anything when we realize what God has done for us?  How?  How?


The death of my paternal grandfather was an especially hard time for me.  He was the only grandparent that I knew, being the youngest child of two youngest children.  He died in the spring of 1987, when I was a sophomore at Furman.  That term, I got the worst grades I ever earned, and it was partly due to my Grandfather’s illness and death.  It took an emotional toll on me.  That fall, I had come home for a weekend, and my mother brought me a box.  I was in my room, and she told me, “Here are some of Granddaddy’s things we thought you might like to have.”  One of the things in that box was this pocket watch that I carry with me into the pulpit every Sunday.  I was moved by the fondness of the gesture, not expecting anything.  Also in the box was a stack of handkerchiefs.  I started to think about how my Dad is always bugging me about carrying a handkerchief, when I noticed something.  There was something familiar about them, and I couldn’t put my finger on it.  Then I held one up to my nose and drew it in.  They all smelled like my Grandfather.  The scent was strong.  And right then, everything that I remembered about my Grandfather, but could not put into words, came rushing back to me.  It was like he was standing right there, and I was hugging his neck, razor stubble and all.  He had been dead six months, but he could have been standing right there.  But it wasn’t the scent that overwhelmed me, it was the actions and love connected to it.


I went to one of these Christian Men’s Conferences once.  You know, the kind that is held in a big sporting facility, with loud music and about half a dozen preachers.  This one was at Kemper Arena in Kansas City.  I was there with nine men from my church, and there were about 5,000 men there all together.  The event is designed to be non-stop worship, which it was except for a few breaks for food.  During one of those breaks, the weirdest thing happened.  Kemper is a basketball arena, so it is oval shaped, and a shouting match broke out between the two halves of the arena.  One side would shout, “I love Jesus, yes I do!  I love Jesus, how about you?”  And then the other side of the arena would try to shout louder back, “I love Jesus, yes I do!  I love Jesus, how about you?”  This went on for about 10 minutes while everyone was trying get a cold drink.  To hear me tell it sounds…well, stupid.  What in the world would make 5,000 grown men, who have jobs, and are respectable, mostly, act so ridiculous?  All I can say is, you had to be there.  It sounds stupid, but it wasn’t.  It was the most reasonable thing in the world at the time.  Why?  Because the perfume of belief was in the air.  It filled our noses and lungs.  It was in our hair, it covered our skin. Everyone was giddy from the adoration of God.  It was the perfume of our belief.


Part of our worship is giving back to God.  Every Sunday we make an offering, in which we tithe or give offerings to God.  Sure this is a necessary financial process we have to have to pay our bills and all, but there is a reason that we do it in worship.  It is worship.  You can’t really have a worship service without having an opportunity to give of yourself to God.  To give your offering is an act of worship, an act of adoration of God, and we should do it extravagantly, and joyfully.  We are telling God I love you, I thank you, and I realize that you have done more for me than I can ever realize.


The woman with the alabaster box and Mary model the life of discipleship in one beautiful act.  Giving, without holding back, in acknowledgment that she is in the presence of her Lord and savior.  We cannot respond to God by simply giving God the leftover time, money or effort we have when we are done paying our bills, getting home from work, or finishing the “to do” list.  God deserves to be first.  Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Where there is no extravagance there is no love,”[2] and he was right.  When you love someone, you cannot dose that love out in measured spoonfuls, as if it might run out.  When you truly love someone, there is no holding back.  Love gives its all and its only regret is that it does not have any more to give. Discipleship is defined by acts of love and one’s response to Jesus.  There comes a time in each person’s life, when the only proper response to God is to take that box of everything that is precious, of everything that is life to you, and to break it open and empty it at the feet of Jesus. 


[1] Gillespie, Hollis; Bleachy Haired Honky B***h.

[2]The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations is licensed from Columbia University Press. Copyright © 1993, 1995 by Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

  April 2018  
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