Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Stench of Death, the Fragrance of Life

Texts: 2 Corinthians 2:12 - 3:6; John 11:55 - 12:11

Have you ever heard of dramatic irony? It occurs in a novel or movie or TV drama when the reader or the audience knows more about what's happening to the characters than they do themselves. It's especially ironic when you see the characters reacting to a situation or another character exactly the opposite to the way they should. "Meanwhile, back at the ranch," says the narrator, or, "Little did she know, but . . . "

It's fun and exciting to be in the know like that. Though it can be frustrating watching your favorite characters get themselves into trouble they could've kept out of if only they'd had the information you do. But have you ever thought that you and I and all of us human beings are characters in a drama, too? And that our eternal destiny depends on what side of the dramatic irony we fall? God is the author of this story, and it's the drama of how He brings salvation to sinful humanity and achieves for Himself the glory that's His due.

That's what the whole Bible is about. What's more, in this salvation story, God the author has put Himself into it as the main character. As writer Dorothy L. Sayers put it, "The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man . . . (The) terrifying drama in which God is the victim and the hero . . (T)he terrifying assertion that the same God who made the world lived in the world and passed through the grave and gate of death."1 And the greatest challenge for us is, What do we make of the irony of the Cross? What do we think of Christ and Him crucified? Does His cross bring to us the stench of death, or does it cover us with the fragrance of life?

We may be attracted most to the stories of Jesus' ministry, how He fed the hungry and healed the sick and welcomed children and outcasts. But in all four gospels the direction of the divine drama is always towards the cross. That's where Jesus was headed ever since the angel Gabriel told His mother Mary that He would save His people from their sins. Dying for us was the Son of God's purpose in life ever since eternity, when Christ was declared by God to be the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.

In our reading today from the gospel according to St. John, the momentum towards Calvary is stepping up. This chapter in the divine drama begins with ordinary Jews coming up from the countryside to Jerusalem for the Passover, wondering if Jesus would appear for the Feast. What did they hope for from Him? A military savior, someone to overthrow the Romans, most likely. The cross was not in their plans! For them, Jesus being crucified like any other insurrectionist would have ruined everything. They don't understand that their true liberation could come only from the death of their Messiah.

The chief priests and Pharisees, on the other hand. They wanted Jesus crucified. They thought that would get Him out of their way forever. Little did they know that Jesus' death would lead to His rising to new and everlasting life.

And then John moves us to the village of Bethany, a short way out of Jerusalem. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus are giving a dinner in Jesus' honor, to thank Him for raising Lazarus from the dead. What do Martha in her serving and even Lazarus, reclining at the table, know about the cross? Did they have any idea that the Lord of life would have to die?

Probably not. Why shouldn't He remain and usher in the kingdom of God, just as He was?
But then Mary-- Mary, who always seemed to do the thing that was so unexpected and so right, rose and took a whole pint of pure nard, an extraordinarily precious and expensive perfume, and poured it on Jesus' feet and wiped them with her hair. It was an offering of devotion and service to Jesus. For raising her beloved brother from the dead. For teaching her and supporting her and respecting her. Just for being Jesus, her beloved Rabbi. Jesus deserved all this and more. But did Mary herself understand what her deed had to do with the atonement Jesus would win for her on the cross? We'll see.

But Judas, now. Judas ought to have understood. There should have been no dramatic ironies with him. He was an apostle, one of the Twelve. For the past few months Jesus had been teaching him and the others that the Son of Man must go to Jerusalem and be killed and then rise again on the third day. He'd heard Jesus say that to please God and have eternal life you must eat the broken flesh of the Son of Man and drink of His shed blood. And Judas, unlike so many others, hadn't abandon Jesus when He said that. Judas should have accepted that Jesus was heading for the cross and to some extent, understood why. Judas Iscariot should have been in tune with the divine plan that Jesus had revealed.

But instead, he fails to recognize or acknowledge or honor who Jesus truly is. He (and other onlookers) are shocked and astonished! "Why wasn't this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?" he exclaims. I'm pretty sure that this line wasn't original. It sounded like a slogan then and it sounds like a slogan, now. For isn't it ironic, how so many people even today who insist on that behavior aren't talking about their own money and possessions at all, but those of somebody else. And as John reveals, Judas wasn't really concerned about the poor at all. He wanted more coins in the money bag so he, as the group treasurer, could embezzle them.

So what was Jesus to Judas? A leader to be proud of and feel good about following? A chance at power and fame? A handy source of spare income? Maybe. At this point, the idea of Jesus going to the cross would be anathema to Judas. Why, that would ruin everything!

And then Jesus speaks. "‘Leave her alone,' Jesus replied," as it says in the New International Version. Literally, the Greek reads something like, "Jesus said, ‘Allow her.'" Whichever way you put it, His word is a rebuke to Judas and all the others who do not understand who Jesus is and why He came to earth. I wonder, is this when Judas turned against Jesus and decided that delivering Him over to death might be a good idea?

"Allow her," says Jesus, "in order that--" (and this is the literal translation)-- "for the day of my preparation for burial she may have kept it." Jesus is the only one who is not caught in the dramatic irony. He's the only person in this pericope who knows exactly what is going on and is Master of the situation. Jesus alone is fully aware that He is going to the Cross to show His infinite love for Mary of Bethany and all God's elect. And so Jesus took her act of human love and sanctified it to Himself. In 1st century Jewish culture the bodies of the newly-dead were anointed with precious oils and wrapped in spices. At Jesus' word, Mary's anointing of His feet is a prophecy in action of what she and the other women would soon do for His whole dead body, and the preciousness of the nard perfume pointed to the how precious His death would be for us who believe.

It's hard for us to grasp how ironic, how against all convention it would have been for the people of Jesus' day to consider that anyone's crucifixion would be a source of life. Crucifixion is probably the most painful and hideous form of public execution known to humankind, and the Romans had raised-- or should we say, lowered-- it to a science and an art. The stench of death from the bodies of criminals and rebels hung on crosses would pervade the air outside city walls all through the Roman empire, as a warning to all who would defy Caesar's law and power. How could a crucifixion-- one Man's crucifixion, cause the cross ever after to exhale the fragrance of life? Isn't this the supreme cosmic irony? Little did we know what God was doing when Jesus Christ hung there on Calvary, but now we can know and trust that He did it for you and me.
But what of Judas' objection, that Mary should have sold the perfume and given the money for distribution to the poor? Jesus continues, "You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me."

Never interpret this as Jesus saying we can neglect the impoverished among us, especially the needy who are in this very church. Nor can we take this to mean that it's God's will that poverty should exist and we should do nothing about its causes. Just the opposite. For Mary of Bethany, there was a time to aid the poor. But that time was not now. Now it was time for her to perfume the feet of Jesus against the hour of His death.

Perhaps it seems ironic to you that Jesus would put things this way. It might be thought that Jesus, the humble lover of the poor, would always put them first! Isn't it self-aggrandizing of him to say He was worth all that He takes priority here?

It would be, if He were only a man. And that is what many people in His day thought. It's what most people in our day believe as well. But once we know that He is God in human flesh, we gladly acknowledge that first honor belongs to Him. Mary with her poured-out perfume was worshipping Him in His incarnation. Jesus by His life, death, and resurrection makes everyone rich; everyone, that is, who comes to Him in faith. Jesus by His cross turns the stench of death into the fragrance of life.

But now, in this divine drama, it seems that the camera zooms out again and gives us a look at the "large crowd of Jews" who'd come to Bethany to get a look at Jesus and at Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. Just as with the Jews in Jerusalem at the beginning of our reading, they admire our Lord's supernatural power. They might even come to believe in Him as Saviour and God given the influence of the Holy Spirit. But as of now, their thoughts and desires are all of this world. They would be appalled by the idea of Jesus and a crucifixion.

And finally, we come again to the high priests. They want the stench of death for Jesus of Nazareth, for He and His teachings and miracles are a stench to them. There is a massive irony here, for they had been appointed to be the very custodians of the righteousness and grace of God. And here they were conspired to destroy God's ultimate messenger of grace, His only-begotten Son.

Where would you have stood in this portion of God's drama? Would you have understood that Jesus was born to die and that His cross brings everlasting life?

No, you wouldn't have, and neither would I. For it is only by the ministry of God the Holy Spirit that our minds can be opened to grasp and accept and kneel before the mystery of redemption that Jesus achieved on Calvary's hill. Until then, the death of Christ is an absurdity. A tragedy. A sad mistake. The Holy Spirit must give us the mind of Christ, so we can step outside our story and see the Cross from God's point of view.

When you see the Cross from God's point of view, you understand that it was for you that Jesus died. It was your sins, and my sins, that put Him on that tree. Yet in spite of all that-- no, because of all that, He allowed Himself to be arrested, tortured, and finally, crucified. And somehow, out of that terrible death, comes our glorious life! Somehow, by the wonderful plan of God, Jesus' suffering made Him the minister of a new covenant, sealed not with the blood of bulls and goats, but by the sinless blood of the very Son of God.

Isn't that ironic? That creatures like you and I will someday be translated into the very throne room of almighty God! But that's what Jesus did for us on His cross.

The essence of dramatic irony is that the characters don't realize what's happening to them, or they consistently misperceive and misinterpret what's going on. They do that because they're stuck in the story and can only think of their own human motivations.

But you, Christian friends, are not stuck in the old human tragedy of sin and death. You no longer regard the cross of Christ as something negative to be shunned or laughed at or abhorred. It's not that you or I have grown so wise that we can of ourselves make the right decision about Jesus and His atoning death; rather, Jesus Himself has made His decision for you. As St. Paul writes, He chose you to be like the perfume that Mary of Bethany lavished on Jesus' feet.

Everywhere we go, "We are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing." To those who persist in their sins, we are the stench of death, but to those whose hearts are open (by the power of the Holy Spirt), we are the fragrance of eternal life. This comes from the irony of the cross, that somehow, by God's sovereign plan, the worst thing in the world could produce the best thing in all eternity for us, even the salvation of our souls. In the end, we may never fully understand how it can be. And so, like Mary, let us simply pour our adoration at the feet of Jesus, and worship and adore.

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