A House Filled with Holy Fragrance
Mt 26:6-13; Mk 14:3-9; Lk 7:36-50; Jn 12:1-8
A RICH AROMA G. Campbell Morgan was visiting in the home of a friend. In one of the rooms he always detected the fragrance of roses. One day he said to his friend, "I wish you would tell me how it is that I never come into this room without smelling roses." His friend smiled and said, "Ten years ago I was in the Holy Land where I bought a small vial of attar of roses. It was wrapped in cotton wool, and as I was standing here unpacking it, suddenly I broke the bottle. I took the whole thing, cotton wool and all, and put it into this vase." That fragrance had permeated the clay of the vase, and it was impossible to enter the room without consciousness of it. If Christ is in us, the fragrance of the Rose of Sharon will pervade and permeate our whole life. "Like a sweet smell that spreads everywhere, God uses us to make Christ known to all men." (2 Cor. 2:15) Good News for Modern Man.
Witness, by Life Dr. Charles Weigle, who is probably best known for his song "No One Ever Cared for Me Like Jesus," was once preaching at a Bible conference in Pasadena, California. He spent one afternoon visiting some of the famous rose gardens in that city. When he returned to the Bible conference later that day, a number of people inquired as to how he had enjoyed the lovely gardens. Mystified by their knowledge of his leisure time, he inquired as to how they knew where he had been. The response was, "You have brought the fragrance of the flowers with you." So, too, can our lives bring "the fragrance of the knowledge of him [Christ] everywhere" (2 Cor. 2:14, NIV).
Mary poured her perfume on Jesus feet as an act of adoration and total devotion in preparation for his death. We too are invited to pour out our lives as a holy and fragrant offering to Christ.
In likening the church to a human body, the apostle Paul once wrote, "If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the smelling be?" (1 Cor 12:17) Where is our sense of smell when it comes to the aroma of God’s love? Believe it or not, "smell" is important. Do you remember the story of Noah? After the ark withstood the flood and landed on dry ground, Noah built an altar and made a burnt offering to God. The Bible then says that "when the LORD smelled the pleasing odor, he said, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of humankind ... never again will I destroy every living creature...’" (Gen 8:21) The odor of offerings burnt on the altar were an important part of the instruction God gave to Moses. Apparently, as it says in the Psalms, all the false gods in this world "have mouths, but they do not speak; eyes but they do not see, ears but they do not hear, noses but they do not smell, hands but they do not handle, feet but they do not walk... Those who make them are like them; So is everyone who trusts in them." (Psalm 115:5-8) Our God is different. Our God speaks, sees, listens, feels, moves, ... even smells. Whatever we, as God's people do here on earth, whether it’s rotten or pleasant, it reaches the "nose" of God.
While all four gospels tell a version of this story, there are significant differences. Matthew and Mark are very similar: there is an anonymous "woman" anointing Jesus' head with oil as he sits at the table in the house of Simon the leper. John's account takes place in Bethany, like Matthew and Luke, but in the home of Lazarus, Martha, and "this woman, .Mary". These three gospels agree on the reaction of the onlookers (with variation). Their disapproaval of this act revolves around the cost of the oil and the wastefulness of such extravagance. Only in John is Judas Iscariot identified as the one questioning the expenditure, and his motives in turn are questioned. In all three, Jesus links the oil with his upcoming death - a preparation, noting that the poor (as potential recipients of money) will always be in their midst, while he (himself) will not be. Matthew and Mark agree fully on the final statement about how this woman will be remembered by future generations.
In all four stories, there is a "Simon." In Matthew and Mark, this episode takes place at the house of "Simon the leper". In John, "Simon" is mentioned as the father of Judas Iscariot. The events in Luke take place in the home of a Pharisee named "Simon." It is doubtful these three Simons are the same person, but the common name serves as a bridge between these texts.
Luke's story is an altogether different version, though it shares some common elements. The woman is still anonymous, though she is identified as "a sinner" "in the city," someone not to be "touched." In fact, that is the issue in Luke - she is "unclean" (a sinner), and thus ritually pollutes Jesus by physical contact with him. Jesus' response (through parable and direct statement) to those who question this woman's act, involves God's forgiveness. Hospitality rather than anointing for impending death is what drives Luke's telling. In both John and Luke, it is the feet of Jesus which are anointed, not his head (as in Matthew and Mark).
In John's gospel, this episode is intimately tied with what precedes it. Chapter 11 tells the story of the raising of Lazarus and, in fact, begins with an allusion to chapter 12: "Now a certain man was sick, Lazarus of Bethany, the town of Mary and her sister Martha. It was that Mary who anointed the Lord with fragrant oil and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick." (John 11:1-2) Its a preview of coming attractions.
The sisters send word to Jesus of their brother's illness (11:3), but Jesus chooses to take his own time traveling there (11:5-16). More is going on in this scene than the illness of a dear friend. In John's gospel, Jesus is always far ahead of those who follow. His words are very often misunderstood, which is very evident in this chapter, where he heads to Bethany with a larger purpose than healing a loved one. As he nears, Martha meets him outside of town (11:17-27), and shares the news of Lazarus' death. Does she understand when he says, "I am the resurrection and the life..."? She responds with a creed of lofty titles (Messiah, Son of God, Coming One), but has the impact of him being the "resurrection" and "life" itself flown over her head also?
Mary then comes to Jesus at Martha's encouragement, falling at his feet when she does. "If you had been here, Lord, my brother would not have died," she says through her tears. She, a friend, also cannot see the bigger picture. The two of them are surrounded by mourners, and when he asks about Lazarus' body, these others speak Jesus' own line - "Come and see!" However, theirs is an invitation to observe death, not life. This is too much, and Jesus weeps in frustration (11:28-37). From there he goes to the tomb and, by his very word, raises Lazarus from the dead (11:38-44) - a foretaste of what lies around the next bend in Jerusalem. The die is cast, his opponents now decide the time has come for this "one man to die that the whole nation not be destroyed" (11:45-57). Passover is near. And so we arrive at this text.
Overall, it is the fragrance of the oil, and also of Mary's deed, which is the pleasing aroma that is common to all four gospels. Mary's selfless act of devotion and adoration of him who is the resurrection and the life invites us to remember what she did.
She put into her hands what she couldn’t speak from her lips. And, her action took on new meaning after she did it. Though probably not conscious of the fact, Mary was preparing Jesus’ body for death. They didn’t leave that up to the funeral director back in those days. The family took the deceased and lovingly washed the body one last time, using fragrant oil, then wrapped it in a shroud. There wasn’t time on the Friday when Jesus died for them to properly prepare his body. Sabbath was coming at sunset, and you don’t even do that kind of work on the day of rest.
It was on the third day of death, when the women came with their water and aromatic oil to finish the job, that something new was discovered. Like at Bethany, the stone had been rolled away, and the tomb was empty. Mary had, indeed, earlier been the one who last anointed Jesus - preparing him for death. The fragrance of that oil could still be smelled. Only now, it was like the aroma of an offering to God. For that is what Jesus had done upon the cross. He gave his life as an offering, a sacrifice for us (cf. Ephesians 5:2).
Do you smell it? The aroma of his love literally fills this room, even today! The fragrance of it is filling the world...
As we walk through the Garden of Christ's suffering during this Season of Passion, it is my hope and prayer that we will pick up some of the holy frangrance of God's love for us. And as we go back into our daily activities may we also carry with us the sweet fragrance of Christ's love.
As Mary poured out her perfume on Jesus feet as an act of adoration and total devotion in preparation for his death, let us also pour out our lives as a holy and fragrant offering to Christ.
When Jesus gave himself up for us, dying upon the cross, this expression of love was "a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5:2b) The aroma of it still lingers in this world. In fact, we could say that the "scent" of his love is what has attracted us here today. As we leave this house today that is filled with the holy fragrance of God's love for sinful mankind, may God's pleasing aroma cling to our lives. Others will know us by this love. As followers of Jesus Christ we are in the business of providing "aromatherapy" - that is, sharing the "pleasant odor" of his love in a world that all too often stinks.
Invitation to Christ
As we bring this service to a close we are encouraged by Mary's anointing of Jesus to also commit ourselves to a greater devotion to Jesus. Some of you have been Christians for a long time, and perhaps the aroma is beginning to wear off. Maybe you have spent too much time lately in places that have driven the sweet smell of salvation away. Maybe you are burdend by shame and guilt or disappointment and despair.
Or perhaps you are not yet a committed Christian. Maybe you have been attracted to this church because of the pleasant aroma you smelled on one Christ's disciples. Maybe you have made a decision to leave the company of the world that smell of death, and you want to splash on the rich aroma of salvation and new life in Christ.
In a minute we will hear a duet, and if God's Spirit is speaking to your heart I invite you to come to the front if you feel so led for a word of prayer. Or you may also quietly commit your life to Christ right where you are. If you'd like to speak to David Reed or myself, feel free to stay behind. Christ poured out his immortal love for us on the cross of Calvary. To him be the Glory!