A Lingering Fragrance


"When we lift our hands in praise and worship, we break spiritual jars of perfume over Jesus. The fragrance of our praise fills the whole earth and touches the heart of God." 
- Dennis Ignatius

The smell of chlorine wafts through the air. Suddenly, you recall childhood memories of summers spent in a swimming pool you haven't seen in years. Or perhaps it's a whiff of apple pie or the scent of the perfume your grandmother wore or maybe incense from an old church, and memories come flooding in.

Scientists say that while words go to the thinking part of the brain, smells-fragrances--go to the emotional part, the amygdala. That's why a whiff of Grandma's perfume brings Grandma herself back for a brief moment, and for some, why a bit of incense is the smell of the divine.

This passage from John's gospel is a "fragrant" text. Jesus' friend Mary--she is only named in John--takes a box of very expensive perfume and with it she bathes the feet of Jesus. Scholars say that the perfume was worth in today's currency as much as $10,000. It may strike us as strangely sensual when Mary wipes the perfume into his feet with her long, flowing hair. It's an amazing scene. Matthew in his gospel adds a memorable remark from Jesus:

"I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

Incredible! Jesus actually said that whenever the Gospel story is told--wherever it is told--the thing that Mary did will always be talked about. Two thousand years later, in a place half way around the world, on a program called Day1, what Mary did long ago is still being told. It is a lasting tribute to a woman's love for Jesus Christ.

I think Mary wanted to demonstrate that she loved him and that she understood, as he set his face toward Jerusalem and the cross, the pain he was about to bear. She wanted to identify with him in the way that he had identified with her so long ago in her own struggles. Someone once said, "Love expressed is not sufficient; it needs to be heard to have any meaning." In other words, it is not adequate for you to say you love your wife or your husband or your partner or your children; though that's a good start. You must get into the mind of the beloved and find out what is most meaningful to him or her in receiving love and then give love in that way. Love expressed is not sufficient; it has to be heard to have any meaning. Mary expressed her love in this profound, lovely way, and Jesus obviously heard it and said that wherever the Gospel is preached, what Mary has done will always--always--be remembered.

The context of this episode is engaging. The last chapter closes what scholars call the Book of Signs. The signs are seven miracles that demonstrate the deity of Christ. Obviously, there were more than seven miracles in the life of Jesus, but John elects only to report on the seven. It is the number of completeness. Chapter 12 forms a bridge, a transition into the last week of Jesus' life. So by the end of chapter 11, the religious leaders declare their commitment to stop this phenomenon. We must arrest Jesus, they say. We must get rid of him. As we open chapter 12, Jesus has a price on his head. The big discussion around the city is, "Where is he and is he coming to the Passover celebration?" No one thought he would come. They assumed this, because his showing up would mean the certainty of his arrest and execution. The people had not yet set themselves in opposition to Jesus. Many thought he was a decent fellow. So they weren't openly hostile to him. They were simply content to observe whatever might come about. It didn't matter to them whether Jesus was innocent or guilty. They simply didn't want to be involved. They were merely observers.

They say that when the chips were down in Jerusalem and the storm clouds were gathering around Jesus, that there was no one to speak up for him. The mob was fickle, one day shouting their "hosannas," but only five days later crying, "Crucify him!" Before we point the finger, however, let us bear in mind that in America today, there are thousands and thousands of people who call themselves Christians but will not speak up for him, put in a good word for him. Opportunities slip by because we are afraid. In America today, the gospel has often been twisted to support our own opinions, our own lifestyles, our own politics. To speak up for Jesus' message of love and justice is risky.

Back in the previous chapter, John 11, we read about a party being held in the house of Simon the leper. It was a celebration. I presume it was a celebration of the resuscitation of Lazarus from the dead. Everyone was happy so they decided to have a party. This was a party for a person who had come back from death to life. It was a thank-you dinner for Jesus. It was also an incredibly brave thing for Jesus' friends to do, because the Sanhedrin, the power structure, had declared that anyone knowing where Jesus was should contact the authorities and betray him. Failure to do so would make them accessories to a crime. Yet, while others were saying, "We better just watch and wait," Jesus' friends are having a party.

Look at verses 9 and 10. Lazarus is in danger of losing his life--again. "Meanwhile a large crowd of the Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well." Where is this going to end? Let's get rid of the criminal Jesus, and then the evidence, namely Lazarus. Yet here is Mary. I wonder if Mary knew that Jesus was about to die? I wonder if she sensed that events were poised for some horrendous, cataclysmic end. It was perhaps only days away. It seems that perhaps Mary was the only one who understood. I wonder if Mary broke her box of perfume to show Jesus that she got it. After all, if she had wanted to anoint Jesus like a king, she would have anointed his head. You only anoint the feet of a dead person. I think Mary understood. Mary "got it."

Where is Mary every time we come across her? She is at the feet of Jesus. She is always at the feet of Jesus. There is something very special about people who spend a lot of time at Jesus' feet. They have what one might call sixth sense. When we practice the discipline of spending time with God in prayer and scripture every day, we develop a maturity that leads to spiritual discernment. The only people who have that kind of spiritual insight and understanding are the people who sit at the feet of Jesus. Mary did that. That's why I believe Mary understood. She got it. I know that we live in an instant society. I understand that we have instant everything. However, there is no substitute for taking the time, day by day, to sit at the feet of Jesus.

Judas thinks all this is a waste of $10,000. That money could have been given to missions. That money could have been given to the poor. Instead, she has wasted it. In verse 7, Jesus says, "Leave her alone; it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial." Let me paraphrase. Jesus is telling Judas, "Stop annoying this woman. She alone, out of all of you, understands. She is the only one who really gets it." Ultimately, Judas sold Jesus for 30 pieces of silver. Whereas Mary broke her box of ointment worth so much more than Judas received in his betrayal. Judas kept the bag. Mary broke the box. She gave all that was precious to her. That's why Jesus said, whenever the Gospel is preached throughout the entire world, what Mary did will always be remembered.

I understand that your most valuable possession is probably something different. I suspect that that none of you have $10,000 bottles of perfume sitting in your bathrooms. But there is something that is very precious to you. What is it? You know what it is. It's different for everybody. Search your heart. What is the most precious thing in your life? Is it the desire to succeed? Is it your self-image? A bank account? Pension plan? Would you or could you give it for Jesus? Would you allow your children, for example, to leave the standard of life that you have created for them to go into Christian work in a distant, difficult, discouraging place? Would you give your substance to send others? Would you be willing to go yourself? Would you consider giving more than the designated one-tenth of your income to God? God doesn't need your most valuable possession, but you need to give it, or at least make it serve a greater purpose. How extravagant is your love? Is it extravagant at all, or do you simply go through the motions? You sing the hymns. You utter the prayers. You listen to the preacher. But then do you love others in the way that Jesus loved--as much as you love yourself? Do you make a place for the outcast, the rejected, the oppressed, the homeless, the victimized and marginalized souls whom Jesus loves? Remember, love expressed is not sufficient. It isn't good enough to say "I love you" by singing hymns and attending church. As good as those things are, love expressed is not sufficient. It has to be heard to have any meaning. "They'll know we are Christians by our love."

Some years ago, I saw a great example of sacrificial love. Beyonce and her family were being interviewed by Katie Couric on Dateline. You undoubtedly know Beyonce's music. She was the lead singer back then with Destiny's Child. At one point in the interview, Katie Couric turned to Beyonce's father, Matthew Knowles, and said, "You know, you're an African-American male. African-American men often have more difficulty making it in the world, but you did. You were earning a six-figure salary. You were very successful. Yet one day, you walked into your boss's office and said, 'I am going to leave my position. I am going to manage the singing careers of my daughters.' They must have thought you had lost your mind. Was that difficult to do?"

He answered, "Yes, it was difficult. But you see, I believe in these ladies." We love extravagantly because we believe. And if Matthew Knowles can turn his back on a six-figure salary because he believes in his daughters, shouldn't we who are followers of Jesus Christ want to do so much more because we believe in him? Mary's love was extravagant. She gave her most valuable possession. Wherever the Gospel is preached around the entire world, Mary will always be remembered.

I love those last words in verse 3: And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Of course, when she used the ointment, the fragrance flowed everywhere. When she wiped the ointment off his feet with her hair, then wherever Mary went, the fragrance was sure to go. The blessing given to Jesus ended up shared with other people. The fragrance of the ointment would forever be a reminder of her love. Wherever she walked, when people saw Mary, they caught a fragrance and they thought of Jesus. And wherever the Gospel is preached, Mary will be remembered--even today.

As I end this message, I have one more thought running through my mind. All this happened not long before Jesus' final days in Jerusalem. Such a strong perfume would have lasted a long time. Everywhere Jesus went--as he rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, as he cleansed the Temple, as he gathered with his disciples in an Upper Room, as he appeared before the High Priest and Pilate, I wonder if the fragrance of Mary's perfume still lingered faintly as a reminder of her great love. And then, perhaps--just perhaps--when Jesus uttered his words of forgiveness and completion on the cross, he might have sensed a faint, sweet fragrance that reminded him that he had been greatly loved.

"I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her." And that's why I've told you again, today.