Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:4b-14; John 12:1-8
I don’t think you get how scandalous this is. In that place at the time, loose hair was associated with loose women. Ladies wore their hair up, perhaps covered with a veil or a scarf. More than that, washing someone else’s feet is a job that is too demeaning even to make a slave do. Imagine walking into a room filled with billionaires, celebrities, and world leaders, and then stripping to your underwear and dancing like a chicken. That’s the level of humiliation that Mary is experiencing here—but she doesn’t care. For her, the room might as well be empty; the only person she is paying attention to is the one whose feet she is washing. Why is she debasing herself like this?
The answer, of course, is sitting next to Jesus. When her brother Lazarus was sick, Mary and Martha sent a message to Jesus to tell him he was dying. In chapter 10, Jesus had barely escaped Judea with his life; the people in the temple were ready to stone him before he escaped across the Jordan river. When he receives the sisters’ message in chapter 11, he risks his life to go to Bethany to see his friend Lazarus and raise him from the dead. That is the reason they “gave a dinner for him,” the reason why Mary humiliates herself in front of everyone: they are so overcome with gratitude to Jesus for what he has done, that even this extreme, extravagant act of devotion cannot begin to express their thanks—but it’s the only thing that can even come close.
And yet, today we also read the words of Isaiah: “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old.” He’s not talking about Jesus, of course, but about God’s promise to bring Israel back from exile in Babylon. The prophet intentionally recalls the exodus from Egypt—the parting of the sea and the defeat of Pharaoh’s army; the single most important event in Jewish history, the event that defined them as a people from that point forward—and tells them to forget it! To act like it never happened! Why? Because the new thing that God is doing—that is, the return from exile that God is setting in motion—is going to be so much greater.
Just when it seemed that things could not get any worse, God reminds the people that God has acted to save them before, and that God will act again; and when God does, it will completely eclipse everything God has done in the past; they won’t even be able to remember it. And indeed, the Psalmist writes of the return: “When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, then were we like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; then it was said among the nations, ‘The LORD has done great things for them,’ and we were glad indeed.”
But, in time, even the return from exile becomes old news. What happened 2500 years ago halfway across the globe is good news for us, sure, but hardly worth throwing a party over. And so, Isaiah’s words continue to echo in our ears: “Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. See, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
As we read Isaiah’s prophecy, we think not of the exile and return, but of the death and resurrection of Jesus. We have been taught since we were small that, with his death, Jesus forgives our sins and saves us from death. And were that all that his death and resurrection meant, that would be worth giving a dinner for. For freeing us from the weight of our sins here and now, for assuring us life in God’s presence forever, it would be well worth a $30,000 bottle of perfume and letting down our hair in front of anyone and everyone to wash his feet. For bringing the good news of God’s forgiveness and opening the way to eternal life, each and every one of us might be ready to do anything, to give anything, to show our undying gratitude to the one who saves us. In our gratitude, we might almost forget that, in order to do those things, God doesn’t require a death—any death.
As if the forgiveness and life God has always given were not enough, Jesus came to bring something much, much greater. “Do not remember the former things, nor consider the things of old. See, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”
We do not continue to gather every week to worship Jesus in gratitude for what he has done, but in gratitude for what God is about to do; we gather in hope and expectation of the great new thing that has already begun to sprout forth in him: not just in his resurrection, not just in his death, but in his entire life among us. We worship Jesus because he is the in-breaking, the first-fruits, the down payment of God eternal reign of justice and peace. He is the first glimpse of eternity in God’s world. He is, in John’s words, the Light of the World; or if you prefer Luke, the dawn from on high that breaks upon us, guiding our feet into the way of peace. He is the new thing, the new shoot springing forth out of the loamy earth. Do you not perceive it?
Jesus didn’t come to die so that we don’t have to; he came to call us out of our tombs, to live so that we might also live in him. He is himself what life is like in God’s presence. His life—including his death and resurrection—offer us an alternative to our sinful existence enslaved to the many idols that compete for our worship. He comes to be the first domino set up to point all the rest of us in God’s direction. He is the incarnate promise of God’s healing of creation: the Word of God made flesh.
During Lent, we focus on repentance; but repentance isn’t about feeling contrite or even necessarily ‘trying to do better.’ Repentance is fundamentally about living a life defined by gratitude for what God is already doing, rather than one defined by guilt or fear or desire. It’s about living our whole lives like Mary did in that moment: forgetting what the rest of the world says is important or proper or decent and instead thinking only about our love for Christ and the world that Christ loves.
John writes that the fragrance of Mary’s action “filled the whole house.” What he didn’t write is that, since people didn’t bathe regularly and since Mary had used an entire pound of perfume, it probably would have taken days or even weeks to wear off. That means that at Calvary, in the midst of the ripe odor of unwashed bodies, the pungent musk of sweat, and the flat, metallic smell of blood in the dirt, there was also the fragrance of pure nard—the smell of one woman’s immense gratitude.
Our own love and thanks may seem insignificant, but like Mary’s simple act, this gratitude fills this entire dark and ugly world, making it just a little more beautiful. But it’s not just about beauty; that perfume of thankfulness in the midst of the sin and death that seem so invincible foreshadows what is coming. “See,” God says, “I am about to do a new thing. Even now it springs forth. Can’t you smell it?”