This sermon is offered by the CRCNA as part of our Reading Sermons series.
Scripture: Mark 14:1-9
Author: Rev. Shawn Sikkema of Centennial, Colorado
Text: ‘“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.” Mark 14:6
Once upon a time there was a young girl. She grew up in a loving Christian family who lived in Europe. Like most young girls she thought about the future and about what she would like her life to be. She was serious about her relationship with Jesus, and as a result of that, she thought about committing her life to the service of God. She was Catholic and she knew that one way she could do that was by becoming a sister in one of the Catholic orders, perhaps even becoming a nun. So in one variation of her future plans, she imagined herself in that role.
At the same time, she also had another dream. This was a dream that many young girls have. She dreamt of getting married and becoming a mother. No doubt she imagined a strong, strapping husband and beautiful, bouncing children. In her mind she experienced the joy of raising her own family.
Into her teen years she wrestled and prayed and thought about this, going back and forth, trying to discern God’s will for her life. Finally she decided. She would enter an order of the Roman Catholic Church and become a sister in that order. She would let go of her idea of serving God as a wife and mother, and instead embrace the idea of serving God as a single, celibate woman. So she did that. She joined an order and eventually ended up in India, teaching at a school.
Years later, she became incredibly well known throughout the world. In the midst of all that attention, someone once asked her why she chose the path she did. What had pushed her one direction rather than another at that time of her life? Why had she become a nun, rather than a wife and mother? She gave this surprisingly un-spiritual answer: “I became a nun because I was so ugly I thought that no man would ever want me for his wife.” Can you imagine that? Here was a girl, then a young woman who decides to become a nun at least in part because she saw herself as ugly.
Some of you may have already guessed that this young woman is the person we came to know as Mother Theresa. She spent many years working as a teacher in India, but one day on a train ride through that country her heart was broken by the pain and poverty she saw. In particular she saw people dying in the gutters of Calcutta, unloved and unwanted. She began a ministry of caring for these dying people, sharing the love and presence of Jesus with them. Others came to work with her and their ministry spread from Calcutta all around the world.
Through her work untold thousands were impacted with the Gospel and the presence of Jesus. The stories of her life are many, but they all have the same theme. This small woman so loved Jesus and the most destitute of the world that her whole life was dedicated to loving them. She loved the dying and in them she saw the face of Jesus. And to think that in some degree all that happened because she saw herself as ugly. Out of what she perceived as ugly, she built a life of beautiful service to Jesus and the world.
Years later Malcolm Muggeridge, a well-known British journalist, wrote an account of her life and her ministry. He called it SOMETHING BEAUTIFUL FOR GOD. The girl who was too ugly to get married had done something beautiful with her life for God. No doubt when Muggeridge chose that title, he had in mind the passage we read today. Although she is not named in the passage in Mark, we find from the parallel passage in John 12:1-7 that this woman’s name is Mary. She and her entire family were very close friends of Jesus. At the very center of this story is a comment Jesus makes when Mary anoints him with perfume. He describes it as a beautiful thing.
Before we walk through the story and listen to its lessons, stop and ask yourself this question. Am I doing something beautiful in my life for Jesus? Are the actions of my life beautiful to him? Would anyone ever look at how I live my life, how I respond to Jesus and what I do and make that comment about me? More importantly, would Jesus make that comment about me?
Let’s walk through the story. Jesus is in Bethany, a town just outside of Jerusalem. He is in the last few days of his life and is at a banquet held in his honor. He and the others at the meal are reclining on couches around a table. While the meal is going on, Mary bursts into the room. She goes to Jesus and begins to anoint him with perfume.
We are told a few things about the perfume and the scene. The perfume is described as pure nard. Nard was expensive. In fact, from the comments of the crowd we learn that it cost the equivalent to a year’s wages. Part of the reason for the expense was that it came from India, likely from the highlands of the Himalayan Mountains. So just shipping it to Israel was expensive.
Let me give you a sense of just how expensive this might have been. Let’s just take a rough guess at a current year’s wages and say that in our terms the perfume was worth about $50,000. Imagine that: $50,000 worth of perfume. We are told nothing of where Mary might have gotten the money to buy it. How was it that someone of seemingly modest means would have such an extravagance? We don’t know the answer to that. But have it she does. No doubt it was the most valuable thing she owned. It may even be that it was worth more than everything else she had.
Notice what she does. She takes it and pours it on Jesus. $50,000 of perfume! Think of that in contemporary terms. What if you had $50,000 of perfume that you could sell and get the cash for? It was yours. It belonged to you. It might be easy to think of a long list of other things you could do with that $50,000. You might sit here today and think: I could pay off my mortgage. I could get that car I’ve always wanted. How about a trip around the world? College for the kids? Money for retirement? Or, if you were feeling spiritual, you might even think about giving that money to World Vision or some other organization that served the poor and needy.
Certainly Mary could have come up with her own list of things. But what Mary does is to take $50,000 of perfume and lovingly use it to anoint Jesus. Then, as we find out in John, she does something unthinkable for a good Jewish woman. She unbinds her hair and uses it to wipe the perfume on his feet. This was something only a wanton woman would do in their culture. It is an extravagant, outrageous gesture on her part.
When she does this, she receives resistance from the crowd. They attack her and criticize her behavior. But in the middle of all that Jesus pronounces a blessing on Mary. He says this: “Leave her alone. She has done something beautiful to me.” Isn’t it interesting here that Jesus chooses the word beautiful? Mary’s extravagant use of $50,000 of perfume is blessed by him as beautiful. In fact it is part of his preparation for burial.
To really understand this story, here is the question you should ask yourself. Why does she do this? Why this gesture? What could possibly motivate someone to act like this? There was no way to get the perfume or the money back. It was poured out and gone. If she really wanted to do something for Jesus, couldn’t she have come up with something a little less dramatic? A little cheaper?
To find the answer as to why she did this, we need to remember some of Mary’s history with Jesus. Mary had a sister named Martha and a brother named Lazarus. The whole family was very close to Jesus. It appears that when Jesus came through the small village of Bethany that he would have dinner with them. So Mary had the sense of closeness that comes from sitting around a table, talking, laughing and learning. Because of that she had special reason to love Jesus and want to do something for him.
But it goes well beyond that. In John 11 we find the incredible story of Jesus raising Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus fell sick, but when Jesus gets word he doesn’t come right away. Instead, he waits a few days, until Lazarus has been dead for four days. Then he returns and in an act designed to display his power even over death, he raises Lazarus from the dead.
Imagine that you are Mary. You have lost your beloved brother. He has been in the grave for four days. In your mind he is long gone. Then Jesus shows up and in an act of great power brings Lazarus back. How overwhelmed Mary must have been. Her love and gratitude for Jesus would have swelled far beyond anything she had ever experienced in her life. So when Mary bursts into the middle of this dinner party, no doubt part of what she has in mind is this miracle and how Jesus had restored a dead brother to her.
But there is more. In the end of Luke 10 we get the famous story of Mary and Martha when Jesus is at their house. Martha is bustling around the kitchen, getting dinner ready. During that time Mary is sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening to him and soaking in all the truth he has for her. She basks in his presence. Martha complains to Jesus and he says this: “Martha, Martha, you are worried about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.” Here too Jesus pronounces a blessing on Mary and her willingness to soak in his presence and teaching. In that scene, Mary feels the love of Jesus, his wisdom and care. Her heart is filled with who he is and what he has done for her.
Now go back to the scene of the anointing. When Mary spills out $50,000 of perfume on Jesus, it is because of everything Jesus has meant to her. She has been loved by him, taught by him, and received a miracle from his hand. Perhaps she also grasps that something big is going to happen, that the end is near and that if she is ever going to say thanks, now is the time. Her heart is so filled with love and awe and worship, she has to do something. She has to express that love.
So she comes and pours out the perfume, all $50,000 of it. She unbinds her hair and wipes his feet. All because of this: She was so filled from being loved by him that she had to respond to that great love. She had to do something, and it had to be biggest, wildest and most extreme thing she could find. By doing this she gave proof that in Jesus she had experienced a love greater than anything else that had ever happened in her life.
That fullness in her heart that gives birth to this act is what Jesus sees. And when there is murmuring and grumbling about this, Jesus stops it. He understands that this is Mary’s way of showing her love. Jesus provides the only evaluation that matters: “She has done something beautiful to me.”
So here is the lesson and challenge for us. Mary can be a model for us of how we live in response to Jesus. Obviously, there are parts of this story that are unique to that situation. Jesus talks about Mary having anointed him for his death and burial. So Mary’s action doesn’t mean that we need to buy $50,000 of perfume and pour it out on the communion table. Nor should Jesus’ words about having the poor always with us make us think that we shouldn’t care for the poor. This is a unique setting and a unique part of Jesus’ life.
However, there are still significant lessons that flow out of this story. Like Mary, we want to conduct ourselves in such a way that Jesus and others alike could say of us, “They have done something beautiful for Jesus.”
Let’s unpack that a bit. What are the specific things we can learn from this encounter? Let me give you a series of lessons that I believe flow out of this story.
LESSON ONE: Doing something beautiful for Jesus begins with an understanding of all Jesus has done for us.
The feeling you get in the story of Mary is how much her action seems to flow out of a full heart. She knows how much Jesus has done for her. In fact, she is so overwhelmed by it that she has to respond. It is almost like she is so filled with the love Jesus has for her that she has to find the most extreme action she can to show how much he means to her.
Are you aware of how much Jesus has done for you? Your desire to do something for Jesus will be in proportion to your experience of what he has done for you. Jesus acts first, and we only act in response to him. So the challenge for us is to be aware of his gifts to us. Think about it. Are you aware of what it means to say that Jesus forgives you for your sin? Are you aware of the promise of heaven? Can you think of a specific prayer he answered for you? Can you remember a way he miraculously stepped into your life or the life of someone you loved?
There is nothing that will deepen your love and response to Jesus more than the simple act of identifying his blessings for you. What you need to do is to spend some time reflecting on these things. Remember them. Meditate on how he has touched your life. Think of what your life would be like without the touch of Jesus. Make it a part of your daily discipline to remember the long list of good things he does in your life. As you do this, your heart will be filled to overflowing. And a full heart will spontaneously act to show love in return. That is beautiful to Jesus.
LESSON TWO: Doing something beautiful for Jesus is ultimately an act of worship.
We can offer many things to Jesus, but perhaps the most beautiful thing we have to offer is our worship. Whatever we do on the outside, it will be right only if it is a reflection of our internal worship of Jesus. The Bible is filled with many warnings about only going through the external motions of religion without a worshipful heart. Clearly, what God loves is a heart of worship. What Jesus loves is a heart that loves him in worship. When Mary responds here you can see that what she does on the outside is simply a reflection of her heart. No-one would accuse her of just going through the motions. What she did externally started in her heart as she worshipped Jesus as the king of kings.
Think of it this way: What Jesus loves and blesses above all else is when you worship him. The most beautiful sight in the world to our Lord is when your heart adores him. So as you think about what you have to offer to him, think about worship. Certainly that includes the act of coming to church for worship. It also includes the worship we do as families or in our own times alone with Jesus. But the best part of worship is when our heart simply overflows in love to Jesus. Make something beautiful by being a worshipper.
LESSON THREE: Doing something beautiful is costly to us.
Part of what makes this story so powerful is how expensive the perfume was. Again, remember that the cost in current terms would have been around $50,000. For most all of us, that is a lot of money. When Mary pours this out on Jesus, it is no small thing. The personal cost to her in what she has to give up is enormous.
There is a temptation we face in walking with Jesus. Often, we want to have a relationship with Jesus that doesn’t cost us much. It is so easy to embrace the benefits of following Jesus but not to want to pay the cost for following him.
There is a powerful story in the Old Testament about David that teaches the same lesson. In 2 Samuel 24 we find a story of David counting his troops and then being disciplined by God for what he has done. At the end of that, David wants to offer God a sacrifice, and wants to do it on land that belongs to him. He goes to a man named Araunah and offers to by his threshing floor for the sacrifice. Araunah offers to give it to him. But David responds with these words: “No, I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the Lord my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.” (vs. 24) David understood that for his relationship with God to be truly meaningful, he had to be willing to pay a price.
We receive the benefits of Jesus as grace. We don’t work for them or earn them. They are a gift. Yet at the same time our response to Jesus needs to cost us something. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him. He calls us to sacrifice in the areas of time and money and convenience. A relationship with Jesus that costs us little or nothing ends up being a shallow relationship. So ask yourself this hard question: Does your relationship with Jesus cost you? What have you given up for him?
Part of the beauty Jesus sees in Mary’s act is how much it cost her. I believe that he also sees beauty in us when our following of him is costly to us. And when we practice costly obedience, we learn something that Mary knew at the moment she poured out this perfume. Even when our obedience is costly, it is nothing compared to what Jesus has done for us.
LESSON FOUR: Doing something beautiful for Jesus often seems crazy to others.
What also makes this a dramatic story is the response of the other people to what Mary does. Listen to the description in Mark 14:4-5a: “Some of those present there were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.’ And they rebuked her harshly.”
From John’s account we learn that Judas Iscariot was one of the voices that talked about the money being used for the poor. For him it was clear that he wanted to be able to skim some money off the top for himself. Maybe others at the meal had purer motives. But the bottom line is this: They all thought Mary was nuts. What a crazy thing to do!
This story illustrates that when we respond out of our hearts to the love of Jesus, the way we respond may seem crazy to people around us. But here Jesus blesses the craziness of Mary’s action.
There is a great story that comes to mind about St. Frances of Assisi. He was born to a fairly well-to-do merchant who had dreams of his son taking over the family business. Frances was wild as a young man, a natural leader who didn’t seem to have much interest in anything other than having a good time. But God began to change his heart and he became a devoted follower of Jesus. His interests went from having fun to preaching the gospel and caring for the poor.
Frances’ father did not like this development in his son. It became apparent that Frances was more interested in the business of his heavenly Father than in that of his earthly Father. So he hauled Frances before the town authorities to disown his son and remove him from any inheritance. No doubt his hope is that under that threat, Frances would come to his senses and take up the family business. Instead, Frances agrees with his father’s actions. To symbolize it, he takes off all his clothes, as they were bought with his father’s money. He walks away, naked, choosing the love of Jesus over the demands of his father.
No doubt those who were there thought Frances was crazy. But like Mary, he is so overwhelmed with the love of Jesus that he doesn’t really care what others think.
So what does that mean for us? It means that we should allow our love for Jesus to spill over into our life in ways that are natural and spontaneous. Do not worry so much about what others think of you. Do not care whether they see you as a bit crazy. Sing! Dance! Laugh! Cry! Give away outrageous amounts of money! Do outrageous acts of love! Do it all for the love of Jesus and his smile, not for people and what they think. What seems crazy to the world might just seem beautiful to Jesus.
LESSON FIVE: Doing something beautiful for Jesus is our greatest legacy.
Isn’t it remarkable that in the passage Jesus makes a prophetic statement? He says this: “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.” Our listening to the story today proves the truth of what Jesus said. Since this story was included in the Scriptures, it has been told to countless millions. The legacy she leaves for all mankind is this act of outrageous love.
Perhaps there is a lesson for us here as well. Isn’t it true that the greatest thing you can leave behind in this world is testimony to your love for the Jesus? We can do that in so many different ways. For Mother Teresa, her way of expressing her love for Jesus was found in prayer and in caring for the dying. For you it may be the love you share with your family or with those in need. It may be a specific ministry or act of love. It may be something you offer directly to Jesus or it may be something you do for God’s creation. But the point is this: Wouldn’t it be great if at the end of your life people were to talk about what you had done because of your love for Jesus?
Maybe you can think of that as an exercise for yourself. Imagine your funeral. Imagine that at your funeral 3-4 people who knew you well were to stand up and talk about your life. Suppose that each of them, in five minutes or so, tried to communicate the essence of who you are. What would they say? How would they describe your life and what was valuable to you? Most important, would part of their testimony about your life be to talk about your love for Jesus? Would they tell stories of what you did because of that love? What a great motivation for each one of us. Let us love Jesus deeply in such a beautiful way that when we die and long after we are gone they will tell stories about that love.
There is a bottom line in all this. Jesus’ commentary on your life will be the greatest commentary of all. Over Mary Jesus said these words: “Leave her alone. She has done something beautiful to me.” What are the words Jesus would say over you? Would he say of you that you have done something beautiful for him? Reflect on your own heart and life and behavior. As you contemplate the great love Jesus has for you, make something beautiful of your life for him.
Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for all the ways you touch our lives. Thank you for forgiveness. Thank you for daily help. Thank you for the hope of heaven. Help us, like Mary, to respond to your love. Help us to live our lives in such a way that we make do something beautiful to you and for you. Amen.