Tuesday 19 December 2017

A very smelly Christmas (Mark 14:1-11)

To some it is the king of fruits. To others it is the world’s smelliest fruit. I am describing, of course, the durian. Smelling like gym socks yet tasting like custard, the durian is a fruit you completely love or absolutely loathe. Mmm, durian.

Imagine durian for Christmas. Instead of a tree, a durian. Instead of roast turkey, a durian. Instead of a present, a durian. Your family will disown you. Your neighbours will call the police on you.

Extreme reactions. That is the theme of today’s passage from Mark Chapter 14 - extreme reactions or responses to Jesus Christ. One of hatred and murder. But the other of love and worship. And the question is: Pushed to the extreme, what is your response to Jesus? What is your extreme reaction to Christ?

Now the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus and kill him. “But not during the Feast,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
Mark 14:1-2

The passage begins (and ends) with murder - with the religious leaders scratching their heads thinking of a way to kill Jesus. And it’s tempting to say, “It’s just those extremists.” Or, “Let’s skip this bit,” but we lose something if we do. Mark wants us to compare the religious leaders with this anonymous lady. To compare their reaction with hers.

It’s not as simple as saying one is bad and the other is good. Look at verse 1 and notice how secretive they are. “They were looking for some sly way to arrest Jesus.” Verse 2, “Not during the Feast,” they said. Why? Because the people would riot. Because there were too many witnesses. This was a business meeting. They wanted to kill Jesus - to commit murder, yes - but to do it in such a way that they still looked respectable, that they still maintained control.

But then comes this woman who does something so public, so embarrassing yet so full of love.

While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.
Mark 14:3

She has no words, no name, she probably has no invitation. But Mark tells us that the jar was made of alabaster. The perfume was made of pure nard. That was the centre of attention. This rare, expensive jar of perfume which was broken, which was poured out on Jesus’ head. In John’s gospel, he writes, “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3). Everyone could smell the extravagance of this act of worship.

Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages (three hundred denarii) and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
Mark 14:4

A very Asian thing to do when we see a friend with a new phone or a new toy is ask, “Eh, how much?” As Asians, we measure everything in dollar signs. That’s how much something is worth - my clothes, my car. That’s how much I am worth - my salary, my Christmas present that my loved one gave to me. It’s interesting how they knew how much that jar of perfume cost. Three hundred denarii. What a waste - not of perfume - but a waste of money. Three hundred denarii poured down the drain.

Three hundred denarii in today’s money is twenty thousand pounds. “We could have given twenty thousand pounds to the poor.” That’s what they were saying. “We could hire a new pastor.” “We can renovate the church centre.” We can do so many things with twenty thousand pounds. But what you do not do with twenty thousand pounds is buy one gigantic bottle of Chanel Number 5 and pour it out on your pastor’s head. What a waste!

So they scolded her, “Silly girl.” But what does Jesus say? “She has done a beautiful thing to me.”

“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me.”
Mark 14:6-7

It’s strange. When Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you… but you will not always have me,” it almost sounds wrong. Is Jesus saying he is more important than the poor?

Well, remembering their objections in verse 5, “This money could have been given to the poor,” Jesus is quoting an Old Testament passage back at them - back at the bullies - about the importance of helping the poor. Hopefully, when I read it, you will see the connection. This is Deuteronomy 15, verse 11.

There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be open-handed towards your brothers and towards the poor and needy in your land.
Deuteronomy 15:11

Jesus says there will always be poor among us - there will always be this problem of poverty in this world - but then quotes a verse that says this is why we should be generous. To be open-handed with the poor. Now, that same chapter in Deuteronomy also has this to say about the poor.

However, there should be no poor among you, for in the land the LORD your God is giving you to possess as an inheritance, he will richly bless you.
Deuteronomy 15:4

It sounds like a contradiction: There should be no poor (verse 4) and yet the poor you will always have with you (verse 11). How can that be? The reason for the poor is not lack of money, not lack of blessing, not lack of food - no, after all, God says he will richly bless the land he has given them as his people. Yet even in this special land he has given to his people overflowing with his blessing, God has to give the command to be open-handed. Why? Because we forget. We need to be reminded not to hold onto God’s blessing with closed fists. Be open-handed, God says. Be generous.

Do you see what Jesus is saying? Some of us think, “If only I had twenty thousand pounds, wow, I will donate all that money to the poor.” You know you won’t. You will be thinking, “I need twenty thousand more.” But what has this woman done? She poured out everything she had, emptied everything she owned in one single act of abandonment, one single act of worship. Notice, Jesus says, in verse 8, “She did what she could.” Meaning if she had two bottle of perfume, she would break both bottles on Jesus’ head. Well, not quite. What it means is, in her eyes, this was nothing. She didn’t think she was rich. She didn’t wait until she was rich. We give out of our excess, our spare change, but this woman she poured out everything she had in worship and in love for Jesus Christ.

You don’t need to wait. Till you are older. Till you have more talents, more money, more respect. Coming to Jesus means you don’t have much but you give him everything. That’s worship. He is worth everything.

She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.
Mark 14:8-9

A couple of days ago at a friend’s birthday bible study (that’s right, he had bible study on his birthday), I was reminded this was not the first time Jesus was given perfume. If you remember the magi, the wise men from Matthew Chapter 2, who followed the star and came to Christ when he was a child, you will recall how they gave him gold, incense and myrrh as gifts - gold symbolising kingship, incense which was used for worship - but then there is also myrrh. What’s the point of giving myrrh to a kid? (It’s not chocolate). Myrrh is used at funerals, as a kind of perfume to preserve dead bodies. Jesus says, “She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial.” Aside from the fact that Jesus is God and Jesus is King is the fact the Jesus has come to die on the cross for our sins. He has come to save us from God’s judgement by dying in our place for our forgiveness.

And he says wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what this woman has done will also be told in memory of her. The cross hasn’t happened yet, it’s two days to the Passover, two days to the crucifixion, but Jesus is saying, “This is a picture of what I am going to do for you on the cross.” Think of the shame she endured - “Foolish girl”. Think of the price she paid pouring out everything she had. Think of her love measured in terms of her sacrifice.

Jesus says, “She has done a beautiful thing to me.” What she did was make Jesus’ death look good. That’s the gospel. It’s pointing others to Jesus on the cross and showing them what a beautiful Saviour we have in Jesus Christ.

At that same bible study, someone said, “Loving someone always looks foolish.” Why would God give up his Son to die for you, a sinner? Why would Jesus Christ become a man, become a baby, die on the cross, for you, a sinner? Because of love. Others will say, “What a waste!” If you know this love of God, you will say, “What a Saviour!”

Then Judas Iscariot, one of the Twelve, went to the chief priests to betray Jesus to them. They were delighted to hear this and promised to give him money. So he watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
Mark 14:10-11

And so the story ends with the plans to kill Jesus moving swiftly ahead. Back in verse 2, they were stuck, they put their plans on hold, but here comes Judas handing Jesus to them as a gift.

I am reminded of a story a pastor once told about a bible study in prison (gives new meaning to cell group) when the prisoners were asked, “Who killed Jesus?” One prisoner said, “The Pharisees!” Another prisoner said, “I killed Jesus,” in remorse over his sinfulness. But the bible study leader wisely said, “God killed Jesus.” It was God who gave Jesus into the hands of the chief priests. It was God who made this happen.

And you have to ask: Why did it have to be this way - through betrayal, through deception? The reason is: Jesus is the ultimate poor man. When Jesus says, “The poor you will always have with you but you will not always have me,” Jesus is calling himself the ultimate poor man. You see, the poor are the oppressed, the victimised. Jesus could not save us as a rich man. The bible says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, for you sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9)

Recently, scientists in Singapore discovered the gene which gives the durian its pungent smell and the significance of that discovery opens up the possibility of creating an odourless or milder-tasting durian of the future. But one Singapore wrote back and said this, “A durian without smell is like a human who has lost his soul.” It’s the smell that’s the essence of the soul of the durian. It is the cross that is the essence of Christ, that is the essence of Christmas.

For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.
2 Corinthians 2:15-16