Mark 14: 3-9 When you watch the changing of the guard at the tomb of the unknown soldier in Arlington Cemetery, you are expected to be quiet. No chatting with your sister or talking on your phone. If you are walking up the hill and round the corner while the changing of the guard is taking place, you immediately stop talking because everyone else is silent. Quiet is maintained out of respect for the persons entombed there, one soldier from each of the following wars: WWI, WWII and Korean. Unnamed men who gave their lives in service of our nation. Each member of the elite guard which protects this tomb 24/7 sees this as a very high honor. Everything is so precise… the immaculate blue Army uniforms and white gloved hands, the 21 steps down the walkway, pausing for 21 seconds before turning, saluting the tomb and those buried there…turning the rifle in a particular pattern, formally handing the guard duty off to the next member of the tomb guard. As an observer, you can’t help but be aware of the high emotional content in that place. You get the feeling that it is serious, somber, respectful, and grateful all at the same time. A guard walks back and forth in front of the tomb day and night, winter and summer, rain and snow. He or she refuses to be distracted, remains focused and intent on keeping up the responsibility to honor the selfless acts of devotion to our nation.
Today we hear of an unnamed woman who was focused, intent, committed to publicly expressing her devotion, her gratitude, and her love for Jesus as he sat at the dinner table. She doesn’t seem to care that she is barging in on a dinner conversation. She doesn’t seem to care what the men in the room think about her or about her act of devotion. She is an unknown woman, yet her selfless act of devotion to Jesus has been told and retold for centuries as a model for devotion and as a challenge to those of us who claim to be disciples, who define ourselves as kingdom bound.
Wouldn’t you guess that when she came in and broke open the alabaster jar of nard, a very, very expensive perfume from the Himalayan mountains of India or Nepal, that the rest of the dinner table conversation stopped? All eyes would have been on this woman, wondering what in the world she was doing. She was clearly not a disciple. She seems to not have been invited to dinner. No screw on lids available in that day, the alabaster jars kept the perfume protected. The jars had thin necks, and once the neck was broken, the smell of perfume would fill the air, and the perfume would normally be used all at once. It would have been saved for a very special occasion, and it was also one of the oils used to prepare a dead body for the grave. I wonder if this bottle of nard was a gift she inherited from her grandmother, a valuable bottle of perfume which had sat on her shelf or under her bed for years. Now it becomes something she was able to give in order to show her utmost devotion, her highest respect, her deep love.
The story of this act of devotion makes it into all four gospels– making it a part of an elite group of accounts that all four evangelists agreed was essential to share in telling the Jesus story. In the four accounts, either Jesus’ feet or head are anointed by a woman in the presence of a group of men at dinner. In one account, the woman is identified as Mary, and the home is the home of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus. In another account, the woman is identified as a sinful woman, a woman of ill repute in the village. In all accounts, the men complain and denounce her public act of devotion, either because they see it as extremely wasteful or they see her as unworthy to be anointing Jesus’ feet or head. In all accounts, Jesus uses this as a teachable moment, interceding for the woman, letting those who scorned her know that her loving act is to be remembered throughout time. In Mark’s version, Jesus says: “She has done something good for me. She has done what she could.”
It is now two days before the Passover, the Jewish feast of remembrance of the time in their history when God freed them from slavery in Egypt by passing over their homes when the angel of death was sent through Egypt. On a night filled with death to Egyptian families, the Passover is a freedom-bringing act of God for the Hebrews. On a cross on a hill, Jesus’ death is a freedom-bringing act of God for those of us who are trapped in our selfishness, our apathy, our stressed-out lives. Jesus’ death brings freedom for new life. The community around them would have been focused on getting ready for Passover, marking God’s salvation provided for the ancestors. The woman’s act of devotion is now getting ready for Jesus’ death, as if she is preparing him for burial.
This is a time for remembering and reflecting on the power of Jesus’ work. It is not a time to be out handing out food to the homeless on the street corner. You can always do that. Jesus is never going to say it is not important to care for the poor. But he says to the scornful men at the table: now is the time to focus on what is happening to him, now is the time to give him honor, devotion, and love. Christians live with an ongoing tension between seeing to the needs of the poor and giving Jesus the honor and glory and praise he deserves. You have heard from this pulpit again and again about our call as Christians to serve. And your leaders have designated our focus for this year as “go out to serve”. We know that being about the business of serving others is one way that we get a glimpse of the kingdom of God. But on this day, this day of remembering a palm waving crowd welcoming Jesus to his place of death, we are now walking into the holiest of weeks. On this day let’s take a lesson from an unnamed woman who simply came to show Jesus love, respect and honor.
Maybe you have not made time to explore the Lent Online devotions these past 6 weeks. Maybe you have been snowed under by work, driving kids around, housework, church meetings or family needs. Why not make an extra effort during this holy week? How might you show love, respect, and honor to Jesus for who he is, for what he has given to you, for his supreme sacrifice on your behalf? I am not suggesting setting up a guard patrol, silently walking 21 steps back and forth in front of a cross, although you might find that helpful. If you do, I suggest a much more Biblical number: 12. I encourage you to find ways that work for you in the days ahead. Find a time that you can be focused and intentional. It will require stepping away from your electronics for a time. Here are a few possibilities:
You can: write a love letter to Jesus– sharing with him why you are grateful, why your are humbled, why you are awed by his love for you, letting him know in print that you love him. You might keep it in your Bible and look back at it during the year.
You can: read slowly and carefully Mark 14 and 15, working your way through the events of this last week of his life on earth. Be aware of how you feel about what you are reading. What might have been going through your mind if you were there?
You can: join a small group of your church family members for dinner and worship in one of four homes being offered as a gift to you this Thursday evening. Be sure to view your time together as a time apart from your regular schedule, a time to focus on Jesus’ love for you.
You can: get up early on Good Friday and join the peace walk down Edmondson Ave. with a group who will be carrying a wooden cross, remembering the walk Jesus took that Friday morning. Or simply welcome the walkers here to HRPC with prayer and song. It will be a visual reminder of the suffering Jesus experienced on that day as well as an act of solidarity with residents of our city who wake up every morning hoping for freedom from poverty, addiction, violence, shame, or hopelessness. People looking for a Passover, a new chance.
You can: light a candle every night this week and take 10 minutes to pray, letting Jesus know how you feel about yourself, about his gift to you, about his love for you, about your relationship with him.
You can: find another way to show your devotion to our Lord and Savior in a way that you do not do during the other 51 weeks of the year. Be creative. Work alone. Don’t worry about what other people think, or even comments other people might make. This is not a time to be praying for yourself or even for other people or situations. You can do that any other time during the year. There will always be needs for prayer. This week, focus on the one who lived to die for us. In the quiet of your time of devotion, perhaps you will hear the words: “You have done a good thing for me. You have done what you could.” A blessed holy week to you.