By Pastor Glenn Pease
A physics professor in California learned about the power of encouragement and it changed his and many other lives. He told of how he first began to teach back in 1960. He would begin each semester with a hard nosed word of warning. He told the class he expected 50% of them to fail. It was a tough course and many will just not study hard enough to make it. Sure enough, year after year, about 50% of his students failed. His wife got involved with a dynamic church, and soon he was going also. In time he opened his heart to Christ.
He had a new enthusiasm as a teacher after his commitment to Christ. He decided that to be Christlike called for a new approach. The next semester he started his class by saying, "I want everyone in this class to pass. It is my job to see that you do. It is difficult material, but if we work together, everyone of you can make it." The astonishing result was that for the first time in his teaching career his entire class passed without any change in his grading procedure. The difference was that he stopped his discouraging remarks, and gave them words of encouragement. "Encouragement is oxygen to the soul."
A young man in a small northern town had been in prison for five years. When he came back to the town the first person he encountered was the mayor coming out of the town library. He said in a friendly voice, "John, how are you?" just in as if he had been on a trip. That encouraging reception killed his fear and anxiety, and he became a loyal citizen and leader in the church in that community. History is filled with the stories of the power of encouragement. Everybody needs encouragement. There are no exceptions. Every person who has ever lived has needed encouragement, and that includes our Lord. When He walked this earth in the flesh He also needed what all flesh needs. He needed love, support, and the encouragement of others.
So great was that need, and so rare was the recognition of it, that when Jesus received it He honored the woman who gave it as no other woman or man has ever been honored. We are fulfilling prophecy by focusing on the daring devotion of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. Jesus said in verse 9 that wherever the Gospel is preached in the whole world the story of what she did for Him will be told in memory of her. We want to honor our Lord by honoring her whom He most highly honored of all His disciples. Let's look first at-
I. HER DEVOTION DISPLAYED.
The setting is the house of Simon the leper in Bethany. We know nothing about this Simon, but it is obvious that he is one who had been cured by the Great Physician. Had he still been a leper he would not be throwing a feast for Jesus. He would have been crying, "Unclean, unclean," to all who came anywhere near him. John tells us that Martha was serving at this supper, and Lazarus was at the table also. Here was a great celebration of thanksgiving. A man raised from the dead, and another made whole who had leprosy. There may have been others from Bethany who were also products of the healing miracles of Jesus. It was clearly a happy and delight-filled occasion.
Suddenly a woman came into the room and approached Jesus as He ate. She filled the room with fragrant aroma as she poured a costly ointment over His head. Mark and Matthew do not name her, for when they wrote she was still living, but John was written much later when modesty did not require silence. He tells us it was Mary the sister of Martha. He also tells us that she anointed His feet, and wiped them with her hair on the same occasion.
Here we see a setting where many good people were focusing on many good things, but only Mary was focusing on the best. Martha was bustling about in service as usual, and the 12 plus those who were products of marvelous miracles were doubtless having a great time, and deeply grateful for their good health and abundant provisions. But only one, Mary, focused on the needs of Jesus. She had been at His feet before absorbing His teaching and His spirit. She knew Him on a deeper level, and had a sense of what He was facing as the cross approached, as no one else did. Spurgeon said, "I think this holy woman knew more about our Lord than all His Apostles put together."
Mary loved Jesus for giving her back her brother Lazarus from the dead. She could praise Him for restoring Simon the leper, who tradition says was her uncle. But she went deeper than the rest, and did not love Him only for what He could do, but loved Him for who He was. She alone of all His followers saw Him not just as a miracles worker, and the Messiah. She saw Him as a person; a person who needed to be loved and encouraged. Jesus had the cross on His mind. He was conscious that He was heading for death. There was only one person among all His followers that gave Him any encouragement, and that was Mary, by this daring act of devotion. Why do I call it daring? Because of the second point we want to look at.
II. HER DEVOTION DESPISED.
You would think that timely tenderness and lavish love for the encouragement of Jesus in His toughest hours would be greeted with cheers instead of jeers, but the latter is what came forth from those at the banquet. Mark tells us in verse 4 that there was indignation among the guests. Matthew tells us that some of them who are angry were the disciples. The opinion of the majority seemed to be that this act of devotion by Mary was a hair-brained scheme of senseless waste.
No fire of devotion gets to burning very long before somebody tries to throw a wet blanket on it. Nothing is more discouraging than to have those whom you love best throw rocks of criticism at your devotion. The paradox is that Mary, the most praised woman in the New Testament, is also the most criticized. Every time she did something wonderful she was blasted by good people. You expect bad people to be against your devotion to Jesus, but what a shock when you are attacked by the best of people for your devotion. If you think you can be a zealous Christian and not be criticized by other Christians, forget it.
Martha, her older sister, loved Jesus dearly, and worked herself into exhaustion for Him anytime He was around, but she was critical of Mary, and thought of her as a lazy shirker of duty when she devoted her time to sit and listen at the feet of Jesus. Because she did listen closely, she grasped truth that helped her understand what Jesus had to do. Now when she displayed her devotion to encourage Him the disciples are down on her for being wasteful.
What a strange world it is! Truly God's ways are not our ways. Here are the greatest leaders of the day condemning a woman who is about to be exalted by Jesus as the number one encourager of all time. They are trying to dig a pit for her while Jesus is forming a pedestal. If you ever want a text to prove the majority can be wrong, this is it. Everybody was against Mary, and her devotion was labeled a waste. She only got one vote, and that was the vote of Jesus. This is a clear lesson that our goal is not to please men, not even the best of men, but our goal is to please Christ. In pleasing Him you may displease many others, but that may be the price you have to pay, as Mary did. Never assume that if everybody is critical of a person, that person must be at fault. Jesus makes it clear that it is the complainers who are at fault. They all voted against her, but Jesus vetoed their decision, and we see in our third point-
III. HER DEVOTION DEFENDED.
When Jesus heard their negative response and murmuring against her, He immediately told them to let her alone and stop troubling her. They were so convinced of her folly they could not quit bugging her. In contrast to this criticism, He went on to praise her for her devotion like He never praised anyone before. Jesus was very pleased with her lavish and luxurious demonstration of love, because she was the only one who did anything in preparing Him for death. No one could take away the sting of death for Jesus. He had to feel its full force as He bore the sins of the world. No one could relieve the pain He had to suffer, but He said of Mary in verse 8, "She has done what she could." She could not do much, but she did what she could, and Jesus was encouraged.
Jesus was encouraged because what Mary did was costly. It was a sacrifice worth 300 pence. This was about a years wages for the average man of that day. It would be sheer waste as the disciples felt, except for the fact that Jesus was about to poor out His life blood for the sins of the world. It was a once for all act never to be repeated. Never again in all of history could anybody ever show the Son of God in human flesh that He was loved and appreciated. If Mary had not done what she did when she did it, Jesus would have gone to the cross without a human demonstration of great love.
Many were grateful, and many did love Him but only Mary sensed the need He had for encouragement. She did what she could, and this pleased Jesus. George T. Coster wrote,
It was her best, and yet how poor.
That cruse of spikenard sweet and rare!
She entered in at Simon's door
With trembling, though familiar there.
What could she give to Him whose call
Had brought her brother back from death?
It was her best, yet poor and small
For Him, the Lord of pulse and breath!
He took the fragrant gift; a wreath
Of Praise He twined about her name.
It lit for Him the cave of death
Against my burial she came.
It meant so much to Jesus to have this act of love and devotion come before his death. It meant so much to Him that He guaranteed that it would never be forgotten. It is recorded in 3 of the 4 Gospels and Jesus by His Spirit will make sure this story is told wherever the Gospel is told. Many showed devotion to Jesus after his death. Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea came out of hiding to anoint the body of Jesus after he was dead. Millions down through history have sacrificed to give to Jesus, and to express their devotion. All of the Apostles laid down their lives for Jesus, but only Mary sacrificed and displayed her devotion while Jesus was alive and needing that encouragement. The result is that she is the most exalted and honorable of the New Testament.
What is the lesson for us? We cannot do what Mary did for Jesus. That was a unique once in an eternity experience that can never be repeated. However, it does make clear a principle of life that is often neglected, and that can be of benefit to all of us if we practice it. The principle is-display devotion now to the living rather than wait until after they die. All through history great men and women have been despised while they lived, and then honored after they were dead.
Seven Grecian cities vied for Homer dead,
Through which the living Homer begged for bread.
Mary, by her display of devotion to Jesus, and Jesus, by His honoring of her for it, make it clear that Christians are to be different. We are to recognize that all men need encouragement now, be they great or small. It is folly to wait until death to show your appreciation. Give people your love while they live. Christians have all eternity to show love to those in Christ. Mary and all the disciples had forever to show the resurrected Christ their love and devotion, but this act of devotion before His death is the one He most prized.
Let us not be foolish, but wise. Let us show love while we live in the flesh. In eternity the flowers we get before we die will be more precious memories than the flowers we get at our funeral. "Oh the waste of it!" said the disciples, and Jesus said by His action, "The real waste is love that is not expressed." The perfume kept locked safely in the flask is the terrible waste. Carlyle, the great author, worked constantly and neglected to express his devotion to his wife. After her funeral he wrote, "Oh, if I could but see her once more, were it but for five minutes, to let her know that I always loved her through it all. She never did know it-never!" He kept his alabaster box of love unbroken and discovered too late that it was a foolish waste.
Jesus wanted Mary's story spread world wide that Christians everywhere might learn that love expressed in life is never wasted. The only waste is to store it up until it is too late. What are you doing with your love? Is the perfume of your affection all tightly sealed and safe, or are you letting the living enjoy its fragrance now? Let us not only dare to be a Daniel, and dare to stand alone when that is called for, but let us dare to be a Mary and dare to stand out as extravagant lovers who are willing to pay plenty to be an encourager.
No Christian is living on the highest level unless other Christians are saying of them that they are encouragers. A Christian who discourages other Christians is being duped by the devil to be a traitor to the body. The facts of history reveal that Christians discouraging other Christians has done far more harm to the cause of Christ than all the persecutions of the unbelieving world. Spurgeon was probably the greatest Baptist preacher in history, but he was the object of great criticism by other pastors, and petty people in his perish. He was strong, but he finally began to slump under the attacks. He went through terrible times of depression, and one wonders if he could have made it without the encouragement of his wife.
She would put Scripture above his bed such as, "Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of me. Rejoice and be glad for your reward in heaven is great." Her constant encouragement and love enabled him to come through the pits.
Martin Luther had his pits as well, and who could blame him? He had plenty of people who hated him and his stand for the truth that shook up the whole church of his day. He was a rebel, and rebels do not escape criticism. When he married Katherine von Bora, he was criticized terribly, but she was the best thing that ever happened to him. She saved this man from more problems, sickness, and discouragements than we can ever know. But what we know is that Luther so needed and treasured her encouragement that he was afraid he was almost idolatrous of his wife, and he said, "I give more credit to Katherine than to Christ, who has done so much more for me."
Most of the great men of history, like these two, are saying what Jesus said about the special women in their lives: "What she has done should be told wherever my work is proclaimed, for without that encouragement I might not have done any mighty work." You can aim no higher in life than to aim to be an encourager. This is not a complex or rare gift. It is a gift open to anyone.
I read of some boys having fun on the banks of a river in Canada. Logs that floated down from the hills to the lumber mills would sometimes get stranded on rocks or in the backwater when the spring floods would subside. The boys were rolling the stranded logs down the rocky slopes and watching them plunge into the water and sail down stream in the foam of the current. They would laugh and shout with joy as the imprisoned log was released and plunged into action. Such is the joy of the encourager. People everywhere about us get stranded on the dry rocks of loneliness, or get imprisoned in the backwater of depression. Often all it takes to set them free to get back into the stream of things is an act of thoughtful love. We cannot match Mary, but we can come close, for Jesus said, "As you have done it unto the least of these my brethren you have done it unto me." Let's be liberal in love and daring in devotion.