Expo Preaching
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What Kind of Gift Pleases Jesus?

Sun, Feb 07, 2021
Teacher: Chris Appleby
Passage: John 12:1-19
Duration:20 mins 47 secs
Mary's costly devotion vs Judas’ Materialism and the Pharisees Envy. Whicjh would God be pleased with? What are our priorities in life.

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We were discussing in our staff meeting this week our priorities for ministry this year. It’s the sort of discussion that we need to have from time to time to make sure we’re on the right track. Will what we’re help to make disciples, grow them to maturity and mobilise them for mission? It was a useful discussion.

But this is also the sort of discussion we might need to have with ourselves as we think about what’s important for each of us in our individual lives. When was the last time you sat down and thought about what your priorities are in life? Have you ever done that or do you just live each day as it comes? Have you ever stopped to think about what really matters to you and whether that’s reflected in how you spend your time and your energy; in the way you live your life?

Let me suggest some of the things that people often make their priorities. These are all good things. There’s my wife and I. There’s our children and grandchildren. For some people it’s their parents. There’s work or study. For some there’s a career path. There’s our leisure time. There’s our home; our retirement fund; our holiday fund; etc. You may want to add some other priorities of your own in there. Of course I haven’t mentioned God or his Church have I? But that’s where today’s passage comes in. Today we see various groups of people with vastly different attitudes to Jesus and vastly different priorities. 

Remember that Jesus has just performed the greatest of his signs so far: the raising of Lazarus; and Martha has confessed: “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.” It’s now a little while later and Jesus is again in Bethany enjoying a dinner put on for him, possibly by the townspeople, assisted by Martha and Mary. Mark, in his gospel, tells us it’s held at the home of Simon the leper, assuming Mark’s account is of the same incident, which seems likely.

Mary’s Costly Devotion

Martha is doing her thing, serving the meal when Mary again comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet, not to listen to him, not to mourn the death of Lazarus, but to anoint him. If Jesus is the king, Mary wants to anoint him. And she does it with very expensive perfume. Nard is an extract of a plant grown at high altitudes in India, hence its great cost. In Mark’s account she pours it on his head; but here John mentions his feet. It may be that she pours it on both but John wants us to see that this is an act of self-humbling devotion on the part of Mary, kneeling before her king. He also wants to connect this anointing with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem described a few verses later.

But before we look at that we need to notice a couple of contrasts that come out very clearly.

Judas’ Materialism

First there’s the contrast between Mary and Judas. As I said at the beginning, priorities matter. What I didn’t say was that what we do with our money often reflects what our true priorities are. Remember Jesus saying: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also? Well it works the other way around as well. Where your heart is, that’s where you’ll invest your treasure.

It’s quite clear where Mary’s heart is, isn’t it?  She sees a $60,000 jar of pure nard as nothing compared to the privilege of anointing Jesus as King of Israel. By contrast, Judas is more worried about what might be done with the money that this jar would bring in the market place – particularly if he could get his hands on it. It’s interesting isn’t it, that though he claims to be a disciple, a friend of Jesus, Judas doesn’t have kingdom priorities. He’s seems to be in it for what he can get out of it.

We need to examine our motives, our behaviour, to see whether what we say our priorities are, really are when it comes to the crunch, when the rubber hits the road. Where do we invest our time, our money, our energy?

The Pharisees’ Blind Envy

The second contrast to note is between Mary and the Chief Priests. As we see in the previous chapter, instead of seeing the miracle of Lazarus being raised as a sign that Jesus was who he said he was, they see it as the final straw. They’ve already decided Jesus needs to die and now they decide they need to get rid of Lazarus as well – hide the evidence as it were; claim his being raised from the dead was fake news. For the past few chapters Jesus has been pointing out to them that the things he does could only be done if God was with him. The works he does point clearly to him being the Son of God just as he claims to be. But they’ve closed their minds to the possibility, hardened their hearts to not believe in him.

There are still people today who have that attitude aren’t there? You may have come across some of them. People who refuse to accept the possibility of anything beyond this material world; people who’ve closed their minds to God. It’s a sad way to be isn’t it?

The Crowd’s Acclaim

Happily though, they’re not the only people around. The ordinary people have heard about Lazarus and now Jesus is back and is coming to Jerusalem so they come out waving branches of palm trees to meet him. And they cry out a royal welcome: “Hosanna! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord— the King of Israel!”  

Just as Mary has professed Jesus as king by anointing him, now the people do it with palm branches and praise. Jesus affirms their cries by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, fulfilling Zechariah’s prophecy of their king coming in triumph to bring peace to Jerusalem.

Notice, by the way, that the disciples don’t actually understand the significance of the donkey until afterwards. I’m sure Jesus does, but they don’t until after he’s been glorified. That is, after his death and resurrection. Still, even if they don’t understand the full significance of this act, this entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey, the crowd hails him as the promised King of Israel, the one who comes in the name of the Lord. They’re ready to proclaim him king.

But it’s not quite as simple as all that is it?

Jesus’ Path to Glory

In the middle of the passage Jesus says something that must have both confused and worried the disciples. When Judas complains about the waste of this precious perfume Jesus says “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” He realises two things. First this is as much an anointing for burial as it is for kingship; but more importantly his kingship will only be won by him first giving himself up to death. Jesus comes as the servant king, the one foretold by Isaiah as being like a lamb before the shearer, silently accepting the stroke of  the blades as they take off its fleece.

In the next chapter we find the story of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. There Jesus turns the tables and himself gets down on his hands and knees to serve them. The disciples are dismayed that Jesus would lower himself to wash their feet. Such an undignified act just isn’t right for one as important as Jesus. But he tells them that this is how he expects them to behave towards one another. Just like Mary who ignores the loss of dignity involved in washing Jesus’ feet, even to the extent of wiping his feet afterwards with her hair. You see, her devotion to him is so great that she’d do anything for him. And when she’s finished notice the little bit of detail that John throws in, in v3: “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” It’s as though John’s saying this act itself has filled the house with its fragrance. In the words of Phil 4, it’s “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.”

Witnesses to Jesus’ Glory

But let’s go back to the crowd. Why does this huge crowd come out to meet him? Did they hear about him on the news? Obviously not. No, John tells us why: “17So the crowd that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify. 18It was also because they heard that he had performed this sign that the crowd went to meet him.” We mustn’t miss this. The crowd goes out to see Jesus because those who witnessed the raising of Lazarus have been talking about it, spreading the gospel in today’s language. Here’s a challenge for you: how much do you tell people about the things that Jesus does for you or around you? I don’t expect that you’ve seen people raised from the dead. That doesn’t happen much, but you have seen people’s lives changed. You have seen God’s people at work bringing healthy community life into being. You have seen prayers answered.

I’m sure if you think about it you’ll have lots of stories you could share with people. By themselves they may seem simple and not that significant but when you start to put them together you realise that God is doing something good in your life all the time. So why not talk about it?

In the case of the crowd following Jesus the result is fairly significant. John reports the Pharisees saying to one another, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” That’s doubly significant in John’s gospel because he uses that term “the world” to refer to people everywhere, without racial distinction, who are lost and in rebellion against God and who need to be saved. Do you remember John 3:16? “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." So when the Pharisees comment that the whole world has gone after him, John is indicating that Jesus’ task on earth is coming to its conclusion. His mission is almost complete. In fact the next few verses reinforce that idea, as a group of Greek believers ask to see Jesus, and Jesus says, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” (John 12:23 NRSV)  The coming of these Greeks signals the final stage of his mission which is to bring salvation to all the world.

So here we see a range of responses to Jesus based on different priorities. Adoring love and devotion, willing to give up everything for him because he’s the most important person they know; greed and self-interest, because what matters is what can be gained by being part of his team; jealousy and hatred, leading to plans of murder because what matters is power and authority in the church; and honour and praise for Jesus because he comes as God’s promised Messiah, the King of Israel.

Our Priorities

Where do your priorities lie when it comes to Jesus, to God, to God’s church? Are the things of Jesus high on your list, or down somewhere in the middle, or perhaps even lower. I mean your actual priorities not just those you claim to have. I remember someone saying “If you want to know where someone’s priorities lie, don’t listen to their words, look at where they put their time.

Well, Jesus should be at the top of our priority list shouldn’t he? When you read the account of his life, as John presents it, you can’t just ignore him. Jesus doesn’t leave us room for sitting on the fence, or ignoring him until our other priorities are attended to. His claims are quite confronting. (John 10:7-9 NRSV) “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:30 NRSV) “The Father and I are one.” (John 11:25-26 NRSV) “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” (John 14:6 NRSV) “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

We can respond to Jesus’ claims by believing in him, putting him first, and receiving the eternal life he offers, or we can respond like the chief priests and Pharisees, by being offended at his exclusive claim to be the source of eternal life. Or we might respond like Judas and look for what we can get out of being one of Jesus’ followers in terms of material benefits.

But it doesn’t take much wisdom to see that Mary’s approach is the preferred one, does it? Sure she gave up a lot to show her love for Jesus. It can be costly to be a disciple. But what Jesus offers far outweighs any cost of following him. To come before God the Father without fear, with our sins removed, wiped clean, to live forever in his presence, far outweighs anything we might choose to give up out of our love for him.