God Notices – God Honors – God Blesses
This, undoubtedly, is my favorite story of Jesus being anointed by a woman. It is one of the rare biblical stories appearing in some form in every single gospel. Let us listen to what God has to say to us in
While Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head.
But some were there who said to one another in anger, “Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor.” And they scolded her.
But Jesus said, “Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”
Perhaps one of my all-time favorite movies is the 2000 film, “Pay It Forward.” This is the story about a junior high school student named, Trevor, who was challenged by his teacher to come up with an idea that would change the world — and to act on that idea. Trevor decided to do something special for three people. It had to be something hard. Something they couldn’t do for themselves. Rather than the person repaying the kindness to Trevor, this young boy asked the person to help three other people. Instead of getting a “payback,” Trevor elicited a “pay forward.” Trevor estimated good deeds would multiply geometrically and he was convinced these acts of kindness would, change the world.
It isn’t long before Trevor’s theory fell apart, and when he discovered that people are frail – that they don’t always keep their promises – Trevor became disheartened.
It is easy to become discouraged when we don’t see the tangible results of our efforts. We live in a results-oriented world. This is how we inhabitants of the 21st century seem to like things. We are a bottom line, results oriented society. We like concrete outcomes. This need for tangible results has even infiltrated the church. All you have to do is go to the PC (USA) web site and you will find charts and graphs of individual church membership, worship attendance, and church school enrolment – not to mention a complete analysis of giving. All these statistics are analyzed in terms of gains and losses so that we can see measurable results.
The disciples in today’s story would fit right in with our 21st century measurement-oriented sensibilities. It was almost time for the Passover and they were at dinner with Jesus. A woman came with an alabaster jar filled with ointment of nard. Because of the great cost, ointment of nard was used very sparingly and only on very special occasions. While the disciples stand aghast, the woman broke open the jar and poured the ointment on Jesus’ head.
The disciples quickly got together and, engaging all their fingers and toes, they calculated the worth of this very precious oil. When they figured out the oil was worth almost a full-year’s wages, they could not understand why anyone would be so careless with such a valuable asset.
I wonder, though, what the woman thought as she poured the oil on Jesus head. We have no reason to believe this woman knew the Jewish religious leaders were at that very moment plotting to arrest Jesus. We have no reason to believe the woman even suspected that Jesus is, in fact, the Son of God. We can only surmise by her action that the woman knew deep in her soul that this dinner was a special occasion, and Jesus was the special guest. The woman’s act of pouring the oil on Jesus is an intuitive act – and it was a simple example of loving compassion. Compassion. A deep awareness of another’s suffering, and a desire to relieve it.
Simple acts of loving compassion — they don’t seem to count for much. They don’t seem to be the stuff of world changing events. The effects of compassion often are not measurable. They don’t add much to a bottom line. How do you measure the worth of comforting a child whose little league team is in last place? What is the value to the world of a meal lovingly prepared and delivered to a family in crisis? What tangible results are there from insisting that a secretary leave work early so she can spend extra time with a visiting relative? Of what value is it to the world to pour fragrant ointment on the head of Jesus of Nazareth?
The disciples want to see tangible results! How dare this woman be so wasteful? The ointment could be sold for a year’s wages, donated to the temple and everybody would be happy. The poor would be fed; the disciples would get credit (and a hefty tax deduction) for giving a sizeable donation during the Passover. It would be a total-win event!
But acts of compassion are just not the sorts of things that are done for the sake of winning. They are the quiet opportunities we take to extend God’s love in the world as we seek to serve Christ in our daily endeavors. Sometimes our acts of compassion are misinterpreted – just as the disciples misinterpreted the act of this anonymous woman. Mostly though, acts of compassion go unmeasured, unvalued and unnoticed.
Unnoticed by everyone except God. You see, Jesus put great store in the woman, and what she did.
In fact, we see how quickly Jesus came to her defense. He noticed her care, he noticed her compassion, and Jesus experienced her love. In the new revised standard version of our bible, Jesus defends the woman’s action by saying “she has performed a good service for me.” But in Greek, the word “good” serves double duty. It means both “good” and “beautiful.” It means both “morally right” and “aesthetically pleasing.” It is a word that is often used when talking about acts of worship, and Jesus recognized this. He recognizes that what the woman does is an act of worship.
I have this vision of the woman floating across the dining room floor where she positions herself beside Jesus. She gently and ever so gracefully breaks open the jar and dribbles the oil on Jesus’ head. But it’s just as likely that she ran into the room, stubbing her toe on one of the reclining couches and that pieces of the jar splintered all around as she rushed to do this curious thing – anointing Jesus.
It really doesn’t matter how the act comes off – what matters is that God, who came to us in Jesus Christ, notices. And God has taken this woman’s simple act of compassion and multiplied its very intangible value across time and space.
In her book, Amazing Grace, Kathleen Norris tells the story of a 101 year old woman who, when she was a child, chose to memorize Mark 14:8. “She has done what she could: she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial.” When the woman was asked what about that verse had so captured her attention for over ninety years, she replied, “She did what she could.” For over ninety years, this woman clung to Jesus’ words because they gave her hope that her faith, and the service she rendered was not in vain. It was enough.
I wonder if the woman who anointed Jesus had any idea what the implications of Jesus’ words were when he said, “wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her?” Did she have any idea that nearly two thousand years later another woman would read her story and embrace a life of service to God because the story gave her faith that God would notice and honor her? I doubt it. Did the woman who anointed Jesus realize that countless followers of Christ would be encouraged by her simple act of compassion? Probably not.
We usually don’t know the results of our compassionate acts. But Jesus does. And our God has a way of taking our common, every day acts that even we don’t recognize as service to God, and God multiplies them geometrically in ways that we can’t even imagine. Our God will take even our mistakes and misjudgments and our wrongdoings and find a way to redeem them in ways that will show the world that the kingdom of God is here on earth and that it is possible to live as Kingdom people. We see God’s acts of redemption over and over and over again in our scriptures. With eyes of faith, we see God doing infinitely more than we can ever ask or imagine.
In the movie “Paying it Forward,” Trevor, the young student began to get a glimpse of God’s geometric progression at work. Although there is great sadness at the end of the movie, we learn that there are dozens of reports of “paying it forward” — people extending kindnesses to others — in cities across the United States. All this is because one young man accepted the challenge to come up with one idea to change the world, and he acted upon it.
He did what he could; it was enough, and God noticed. God Honored. And God Blessed.
This morning we will ordain Ruling Elders in the corner of the Church known as the Presbyterian Church, U.S.A. for this congregation. Our Constitution says: “As there were in Old Testament times elders for the government of the people, so the New Testament church provided persons with particular gifts to share in discernment of God’s Spirit and governance of God’s people. Ruling elders are so named not because they “lord it over” the congregation, but because they are chosen by the congregation to discern and measure its fidelity to the Word of God, and to strengthen and nurture its faith and life. Ruling elders, together with teaching elders, exercise leadership, government, spiritual discernment, and discipline and have responsibilities for the life of a congregation as well as the whole church, including ecumenical relationships. When elected by the congregation, they shall serve faithfully as members of the session.”
I promise you, your elders are not perfect. I promise you they will not always make decisions with which you are in full agreement. I also promise you your Elders will discern and measure this congregation’s fidelity to the Word of God, and they will seek to strengthen and nurture your faith and life in this community.
They have accepted your affirmation; they will serve faithfully as members of the Session – always seeking God’s will for you. And you know what? It will be enough. God will notice; God will honor and God will bless the life of this community through their efforts.
Please pray for your leaders.