The season of scent
Passage: John 12:1-8
Date: March 25, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Having trouble playing the audio? download the mp3
This fifth Sunday in Lent, the end is getting closer, but we need to back up a bit. Today we dip into John's 12th chapter, but what happened in the 11th is crucial. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, siblings, enjoyed a close relationship with Jesus. Lazarus died, was wrapped with cloths and spices, and entombed. Four days later, Jesus arrived, wept at the loss, and then commanded Lazarus back to life. This unprecedented event brought Jesus even more fame and followers, which of course threatened the established religious and political authorities. The High Priest, Caiaphas, defensively announced that one must die so that the nation would live. That is, Jesus needed to die so that Rome would not punish the nation should he lead some revolt. Little did Caiaphas know what he said. A death warrant was issued, like Christians in Colombia are often marked when they try to help the poor. Vested interests feel threatened, names appear on a death list, and people go into hiding. Jesus and his disciples left the area. But, the withdrawal was only temporary. Listen: John 12:1-8.
Fresh out of seminary, I was candidating for an associate pastor position in Idaho. As I arrived, I noted what was for me a terrible smell. Remember, I had grown up in suburban California. My host told me it was the local stockyard, and that it smelled like money. Fragrances. Fragrances bypass the rational processes in us as they enter our systems. They instantly trigger responses. Garlic/rosemary/basil always signal comfort to me. I suspect that would not be true for someone native to India. There is a particular diesel exhaust smell-I see flashes of riding the bus with my Nana in Oakland, California, or of a visit to Paris at 17. I can't help it. Channel #5= my mother. Cigar smoke=my wonderful granddaddy. As a child, I remember riding in a car. Someone in a passing car was smoking a cigar-I never saw it. But just a wiff: "I smell Granddaddy." When a realtor friend hosts an open house, she always bakes chocolate chip cookies or heats pumpkin pie spices in the oven. She's learned those two odors trigger good home feelings.
Come with me into these verses. Imagine them through our olfactory sense. So recently, that household had been filled with the odors of embalming spices. Dutifully, they had anointed Lazarus for burial. Anointing often meant preparing one for a change of status. At death, it was a transition to another realm. But, Jesus had raised him, brought him back to his sisters. Perhaps whiffs of the anointing, of the death stench still lingered in the house, in his hair, on his body.
That day, a dinner was held in Jesus' honor. If you and I were doing it, we would pull out all the stops. Probably they did too: wonderful olives, dates, figs, goat cheese; perhaps wine. Maybe the acrid smell of charcoal met people's nostrils, and then tantalizing lamb. (I just salivated.)
But there was more. Homes were small, with plastered walls, a few tiny windows, flat roofs. By our standards, it would have been crowded. People walked there, perhaps through the blazing middle eastern sun. Without our modern fetish of daily showers and deodorants, unwashed bodies , wearing not-very-often laundered clothing mingled closely together. Olive oil burning lamps cast a warm and fragrant glow. And then there were the feet. Villages often had unpaved dusty narrow streets. In the mornings, chamber pots of human waste were emptied on to them. And, of course, animal waste was always there. Even walking with caution, sandals and feet could not escape. (How's your nose doing?)
I can imagine noise, too. Food coming out of the cooking area. People reaching into common serving dishes, talking, watching, listening-loudly. And underneath, present but avoided, the gut-wrenching smell of possible death. They knew Jesus was on the list. As he decided to resurface there, surely Jesus sensed it too, that awful smell.
Then suddenly, the gladly noisy room turned absolutely silent. All that remained was one powerful scent, overwhelming the others, an outrageously expensive beautiful smell. People stretched their necks, moved slightly to see. Within the soft golden lamplight, a deliciously devoted Mary had completed the humble, loving anointing of Jesus' feet. Now, now, undoing her hair as a woman only did in the intimate presence of her husband, they watched her wipe his feet with those same tresses. It was the fragrance of unbounded love, of deep gratitude, devotion. Imagine.
The next day those anointed feet would carry Jesus across the Kidron Valley to a donkey, which he would ride in to the capitol. Throngs would welcome his entrance. A few days later, those feet would help him humble himself, would help him take the form of a slave and kneel at his disciples' feet. He too would wipe feet, their filthy feet, an act of unbounded love, of deep devotion, a symbol of God's intention for them, among them.
The undulating perfume smell was too much for Judas Iscariot. What was it that triggered his reaction? John wants to portray his motive as greed, dishonesty, not philanthropy. Of course, 300 denarii had their own aroma-a whole year's wage for a common worker. Imagine someone quietly coming up here during the offering and pouring out $14-16,000 of perfume-all over the communion table and under the cross, as an expression of gratitude, as an act of worship. We would not know what to do. Some of us would start choking and need to leave because of the smell. And I suspect that that act of extravagant worship, of love would be viewed by many of us as nothing but a huge waste. There are so many good places that money could have been spent.
Judas did not get it. The Word, the divine from the beginning, the Word had become flesh and dwelt among them. Christ had come not simply to give a few denarii to the hungry and to blind beggars. He had come to give the very bread of life. He had come to bring sight to blind beggars. He had come to bring new life to a Pharisee named Nicodemus. He had come to give the water of life to a Samaritan woman. He had come to bring healing to a lame man. He had come to raise a dead Lazarus. Mary felt such extravagant holy love deserved extravagant gratitude. The Word had come to give himself to a desperately needy world, and through the giving, reveal the fullness of God. (Jirair Tashjian, The Christian Resource Institute, Fifth Sunday in Lent, p. 5)
Giving. That other fragrance was actually beginning to waft around the room, that odor of his impending death. The disciples had only caught a faint whiff and wanted to avoid it. Did Mary know her anointing prefigured the anointing of his whole broken crucified body, the anointing would come so soon? Was she aware that her fragrant action was nothing less than a costly act of worship? That his death would be holy?
Tom Long notes: "Mary's anointing made the house at Bethany into a sanctuary and transformed that meal into a Eucharist ‘showing forth the Lord's death until he comes.' The whole world is now filled with the fragrance of that perfume." (Christian Century, 3/14/01, p. 11)
The scent of God's extravagant love. That life-resurrecting fragrance enters our nostrils in bread and cup. Every time we smell this bread and this cup, something triggers in us, even before words. We remember. Like Nana's perfume, which always meant unconditional love was close by, so bread and cup welcome us into God's astounding, life-giving embrace. Inhale this holy happening deep into your soul, regardless of your life situation. Let it change your life. As you take and dip and eat, pause to savor the aroma, the gift. It does not smell like money. It smells like the outrageously expensive holy love that it is. Amen.