SERMON: Monday of Holy Week, 2024

SERMON: Monday of Holy Week, 2024

A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Judith Brown on 25th March 2024

Our gospel readings this week from St. John give us the opportunity to see many different people meeting and in relationship with Jesus.  Today we meet Mary and her family, Martha and Lazarus, as they give a party celebrating the new life given to Lazarus by Jesus.  We also see Judas grumbling about Mary’s gift.  Then there is a crowd of locals who are curious to see what the revived Lazarus looks like.  Later this week we encounter many others, including Peter,  the so-called Beloved disciple, the chief priests and Pilate, as well as Judas now turned from critic to traitor.  As we approach the climax of Good Friday we realise that there is something of all these different people in us – intimate friends of Jesus, a disciple who denies his Lord, others who run away, another who betrays him, and Pilate caught in the worldly pressures of his public role.  None of us are innocent bystanders.

But to return to today’s story set in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem:  I have often wondered about this little family of siblings.  There is no reference to parents or spouses or children.  What were a brother and two sisters doing living together in a world where the norm was marriage?  Were they contemporaries of Jesus and how did they come to be his friends?  Clearly they were of great emotional value to him, because we hear that Jesus wept at the death of Lazarus and those watching said, “See how he loved him.”  (John 11: 36) But the writer of John has no answers to such questions.  He is not in the business of satisfying curiosity.  His describes the relationship of people with Jesus, to show how these encounters lead his readers and hearers to understand more deeply who Jesus was – and is.  Often these encounters are signs and pointers much like the remarkable acts of Jesus which this writer calls signs rather than miracles.  As he writes at the end of the gospel, he could have recorded so much more, but he has chosen what he has written “so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:31)

But now the Lord who has performed signs has, as it were, a sign done to him and for him.  Mary breaks the boundaries of prudence, and of polite public behaviour for a woman.  She takes expensive anointing oil and anoints Jesus’ feet.  Then she lets down her hair and actually dries them with it. It is an act of shocking generosity, extravagance and intimacy.  It is Jesus who springs to her defence when Judas grumbles about the expense, and interprets this sign.    It is a pointer to his coming death, and Mary has anticipated anointing his dead body according to Jewish custom. Her action marks the end of this gospel’s account of Jesus’ public ministry and is an indication of what is to come – that manifestation of divine glory through the self-offering of Christ on the cross. But there is added depth to this sign.  Jesus has already spoken of his body as the temple (John 2: 21), and in the temple the nard which is now perfuming the house was a core ingredient of the incense offered on the altar in the temple.  Further, the gospel writer seems to be echoing the Song of Songs, drawing on Jewish scripture to illuminate the identity of Jesus.  Here the echo is of a love song to the Beloved, “your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant, your name is perfume poured out”.  (Song of Songs 1: 2-3)

So at the start of Holy Week we are invited to think on Mary.  No words are spoken by her in this scene; but her action and offering are a proper prelude to the gospel account of what is to come.  They illuminate who Christ is, and how his life poured out in death becomes the source of abundant life for those who believe in him. But believing is not just intellectual assent as in the way we often use the word, belief, these days.  It is about trusting and relating with all our human capacity.  So Mary guides us as we remember and contemplate the final days of Jesus’ earthly life, as they demonstrate great human love responding to divine love – Mary’s love for her teacher and friend, which in turn is a response to his love for his friends shown in raising Lazarus after the sisters sent for him in their anxiety and grief.   We know from our ordinary human experience how love elicits love.   Children learn to love as they are loved, and of course the reverse is true.  If human love is so powerful, how much more so is the love of God? We are often so dense, so unreceptive, that we struggle really to believe that this is how God deals with us.  But as the writer of the first Letter of John says (1 John 4:19), we love because He first loved us.  So it is love like Mary’s which can and should be ours as we journey through Holy Week and watch the outworking, the outpouring of God’s love in Christ for his world.