Uncontrollable Gifts

A sermon preached March 17, 2013 at Southminster Presbyterian Church by Marci Glass.

John 12:1-19
Isaiah 43:16-21

The prophet Isaiah tells us not to remember the former things, or to consider the things of old. Only new things for Isaiah! But before we look at the new things, we should notice that Isaiah doesn’t completely follow his own advice. Because the first part of our text involves a lot of remembering and considering. “Thus says the Lord who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior….”

This is the same God, in other words, who ushered the people of Israel through the parted waters of the Red Sea, delivering them from Egypt, saving them from slavery. Don’t forget it.

So, before we NOT remember or consider the things of old, let’s make sure we have done just that. Because it is the past instances of deliverance that will call us to believe and trust and remember that it will happen again. The God who stopped Pharaoh, the God who freed a people from slavery and delivered them to the Promised Land is still speaking to God’s people today. And still has plans to deliver and redeem God’s people.

But do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. Because deliverance will not be the same. Don’t go stand at the side of the Red Sea, waiting for the waters to part. Because they won’t.

Any further deliverance is going to be a very different kind of exodus.

In other words, “while I am the God who saved you once, that is no longer going to be the story you tell people. When you talk about your God, you will tell a new story.

So you can consider the old things only as they remind you to have hope for the new things.

Do you not perceive it?

This is a NEW THING.

God tells us, “I am the one who can put water in the desert. I am the one who will make the path for you. A path where no path has been before. Even the ostriches and jackals will honor the Lord.

Whatever this New Thing will be, you can’t even conceive of it on your own. And you don’t get to determine how the story will play out.

Some of us hear this announcement of a new thing and say, ‘great! where do I sign up?’ For some of us, the past is something we would gladly leave behind for a new opportunity.

But some of us are looking for more details. “okay, God. before I sign up for this journey, I need you to be specific. The jackals and ostriches are interesting and all, but I don’t quite know how that applies to me and I need some more information.”

We are people who want to see the future before we get there. And if the past has been good to us, if we are perfectly comfortable in the present, why would we want to leave it behind for something unknown and new?

Look at our family from John’s gospel for an illustration of this.

The last time we saw this family, (in chapter 11), Mary and Martha were in deep grief because their brother Lazarus was three days dead. dead. dead. And Mary and Martha make some great affirmations of faith to Jesus as they talk to him outside their brothers’ tomb. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. Yet, even now I know that God will give you what ever you ask of him.

And our text this morning opened with “Jesus came to the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” (In case you’d forgotten!)
John is reminding us that this family can talk to us about New Things. Lazarus was buried and three days in the tomb, but is now hosting a dinner party. Jackals and ostriches spending time together probably doesn’t seem like such a big deal when you’ve watched your brother walk out of the tomb. I’m just guessing here.

And Mary, perhaps in response to this new thing that Jesus has done for her brother Lazarus, takes a pound of Nard and pours it all over his feet.

Because this action is so foreign to us, I think we miss out on the extravagance. It isn’t often, I suspect, that someone washes your feet with their hair. With nard.

It was an extravagant gift from Mary to Jesus, an offering of love that was very personal. It was a sign, also, that during all of those times she sat at his feet and listened while he talked—she actually heard what he was saying about “coming that people might have new life and have it abundantly”—she understood when he said he was headed to the cross that he was heading to his death.

Because Nard was a very expensive and concentrated resin that was used to anoint dead bodies. She is giving Jesus the gift that she didn’t have to give her no longer dead brother, Lazarus.

Judas’ comment gets us off track, I think. “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denari and given to the poor?”, he asks.

And when he puts it like that, thief and traitor that he is, we see his point. A Roman soldier at that time earned a little over 200 denari a year, so this one pound jar of Nard was worth around, what, 20 or 30 thousand dollars?
In any case, it had great value.

But Judas sets up a false choice for us. It wasn’t that Mary won the lottery, had a lot of cash, and decided to go buy some really expensive perfume as she walked by the homeless people on the street. It would have taken a long time, I suspect, for her family to save up for that pound of Nard so that they could show love, honor, and respect to their loved ones as they died.

This gift she gives Jesus shows that she understands that a New Thing is breaking into the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. This man who brought her brother back from the dead is changing everything.

How many of you have received a gift that was so staggering and surprising that it caught you off guard? One of those gifts that you could never reciprocate?
Mary recognized that they were receiving that kind of gift in the life of Jesus Christ and she responds with the most extravagant gift she can dream up. And while having your feet washed with embalming ointment by someone’s hair may not be what you want for your next birthday, Jesus recognizes the gift.

Leave her alone,” he tells Judas. “She bought it so she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

In other words, Jesus is letting Judas and the others know that the systems that keep people poor, homeless, and hungry will always be here. He isn’t saying it like a promise, to beat down the dreams of people who want to rise above their situations and those who want to help them. He is NOT saying, “you’ll always have the poor with you so don’t worry about them.”

I think he is saying, with some degree of judgment, “because of the way you steal from the common purse and pursue your own interests above those of everyone else—you will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.

These words from Jesus should call us to renewed purpose to work for the improvement of the lives of others. But rather than putting down the extravagant gifts that people bring to Jesus, which distracts us from our own responsibility, perhaps we could instead live our lives with Mary’s faith and gratitude.

Gifts are tricky things. We all want to give people things they will like and enjoy. But some people are easier to shop for than others. What does one buy for Jesus anyway?
And some of us have the skill of always picking the perfect gift. While I want to give people gifts they will like, I also tend to enclose gift receipts. I would rather someone be able to return the wrong thing than be stuck with that 10th toaster.

But at its heart, the idea of gift giving isn’t only utilitarian. And when it goes well, gift giving is an act of release and letting go. Because once given, we can’t control what will happen to it. We don’t know how it will be received. We can’t give expecting public acclamation and brass plaques on the wall.

True gifts are given and then released.


Mary’s gift of nard is like that. Once used, it can’t be used again. Jesus couldn’t wring it from her hair and wipe it off his feet and put it back in the jar to sell it on ebay. It is a gift for him alone.


It was her offering to him and to him alone.


The gift of new life is like that too. It isn’t something we can control, commodify, or sell to someone else. It is an extravagant gift, embarrassing in its generosity. But it is not ours to return to Target with a gift receipt.
And this New Thing of which Isaiah spoke and which we recognize in the person of Jesus Christ can change lives. “I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly”, Jesus says in John’s gospel. Mary recognized that and responded with a ridiculous gift of love and extravagance.

Lazarus, who is silently sitting at the head of the table in this text, could have told us about New Life.

What is it like to walk out of a tomb, do you think?

Jewish culture has a lot of taboos about dead bodies. That’s why they were buried and out of sight quickly. You weren’t supposed to spend a lot of time with dead bodies. And Jewish tradition didn’t have rules about what to do with a formerly dead body who invites you to dinner. Is the house of a formerly dead person still kosher?

Lazarus probably could have told us that the decision to listen to Jesus and to walk out of his tomb gave him new life but probably also gave him a whole new set of issues. The raising of Lazarus was the final straw for the Jewish leaders about Jesus. They are actively plotting his death from this point on. And they weren’t big fans of Lazarus either. Because everywhere he went, the people said, “Hey—there’s the guy Jesus brought back from death!” Our text even tells us this, “When the great crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came not only because of Jesus, but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.

Living into New Life, walking out of the tombs in which we find ourselves is not without risk.
Because this world wants to keep us in our tombs.

Tombs of old habits, or self complacency.

Tombs of independence, or tombs of addiction.

The world is afraid of New Things and New Life, because it changes the order of things. It disabuses us of our illusions of control.

But Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live fully into this New Thing, into New Life.

Lazarus walks out of his tomb and into new life with courage and confidence.

Martha prepares a dinner party with and for Jesus, even though eating dinner with him is seditious.

Mary openly declares her abundant faith in Jesus’ words by anointing his feet with perfume.

The text ends at Palm Sunday, with the crowds who follow Jesus, shouting “Hosanna! Hosanna!” But as we enter Holy Week next week, the crowds will fall away.

This New Thing that will break forth in the world on Easter morning is not tame and easy to control or understand. It shatters our understanding about how the world is and could be. It isn’t always easy to follow. It isn’t always parades and hosannas. It is sometimes risky. But it is also beautiful and unexpected and holy.

I pray that we will be willing, like Lazarus, Martha and Mary, to stay with Jesus when the crowds vanish.

To invite him to our house for dinner when it is not the popular thing to do.

To wash his feet with nard, offering him a gift so extravagant that he sees our gratitude for this gift of New Life that we have been given.

Are there tombs you need to walk out of?

Are there dinner parties you need to host?

Are there gifts you need to give?

As we continue our Lenten journey, let us consider what New Things God might be doing in our midst.

8 thoughts on “Uncontrollable Gifts

  1. Well, I wouldn’t call them “taboos.” That’s not what they would be called when viewed from the inside of Jewish culture, anyway. Contact with a dead body changed one’s legal and spiritual status. (We’re reading about this right now, with the Torah readings cycling into Leviticus this week.) It’s not that you’re not supposed to touch a dead body (except in certain cases related to Kohanim, though the same principle applies), it’s that contact with corpses changes your relationship to the world around you. There’s a way in which the Gospels rewrite the laws primarily as primarily concerning prohibition that’s really disturbing, I have to say. Of course, the SCL is winging into the most disturbing of them write about now, anyway.

    re: Isaiah — I’d like to say something about this but I have to look up something first (scampers off …)


    • I didn’t want to take the time in the sermon to really unpack the practices. But I would suspect, and maybe I’m wrong, that one’s legal and spiritual status that would be changed when you attend to a dead body could have complicated Lazarus’ relationships with Law abiding Jews. Maybe?


  2. Ok, interesting. The Haftarah (prophetic reading) that connects to Miriam’s song at the Red Sea is the story of Deborah and Sisera from Judges, not this one.

    Your sermon text, was adjacent to the Haftarah from this week (beginning with 43:21, “Yet you did not call upon me O Jacob” and going through 44:23), which connects to the main Torah reading, which is about ritual uncleanliness in relationship to Temple sacrifice (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vayikra_%28parsha%29#Readings ). I guess what I’m saying, in other words, is that the readings cycle *also* uses the prophetic portion, which is *also* similar material from Isaiah to interrogate the ritual law and question what G-d really wants (it’s interesting to me that Isaiah 44 is heavily about idols, which is certainly a reference to the golden calf stuff that we just read in the Torah readings, but also seems to suggest, *anything* that humans make is an idol, and should not be trusted.)

    This is what’s bugging me about the sermon, I guess. I’m not saying that the first part of Isaiah 43 is not about events at the Red Sea (that seems obvious) or that the Gospel text is referencing problems around the question of ritual purity, but rather that the sermon draws a contrast between Jesus and Judaism that I’m not entirely comfortable with intellectually.


  3. I don’t believe Isaiah was thinking of Jesus as the “new thing” when he was writing. But I do believe Christians recognize Jesus as the “new thing” when we read Isaiah. I don’t mean to remove Isaiah from his original context or to take away the power of his prophecy on its own. (I don’t think I said that in the sermon? If so, I’m sorry.)

    Is that what you meant?

    When I read that passage from Isaiah, I was just struck by his insistence that we not remember the former things as he is in the midst of reminding us of the former things.


    • Sorry for reappearing after months away. I was cleaning out email and found the replies to these messages. Wanted to mention that this is a noticeable theme in Jewish memory culture, e.g., the Israelites are told not to forget what Amalek did to them on the way out of Egypt *and* to obliterate the memory of Amalek.


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