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John 12,1-8

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TITLE:    Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and Judas              SCRIPTURE:    John 12:1-8
 
SERMON:    

The Gospel of John reports seven signs, or miracles of Jesus, of which the raising of Lazarus is the last.  After giving the accounts of those signs, John tells the events leading to and culminating in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  This story about the dinner is the transition or the bridge between those two major parts of John's Gospel. 

The text for today foreshadows the death of Jesus, particularly in the words of Jesus, "She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial," and his words, "You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me." 

Because this text foreshadows the death of Jesus, it is appropriate for this, the fifth Sunday of Lent. Next Sunday, we will focus on the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the crucifixion. During that week, we will observe Maundy Thursday and Good Friday.

When Jesus left the world, he left behind his Church.  It is common to speak of Pentecost as the birthday of the Church, but we can see the Church being formed in this text, at the dinner in Bethany at the home of Lazarus. 

While it is clear that a larger number of people attended that dinner, John names four particular individuals who were present with Jesus -- Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and Judas -- and we can learn something from each of the four.  We see in them the followers of Jesus who became the core of the early Church -- and we see each of them represented in the Church today.  Perhaps we can see something of all four -- Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and Judas -- in ourselves.

The first person named in the text is Lazarus.  John says three things about Lazarus.  First, Lazarus is the one Jesus raised from the dead.  Second, Lazarus was one of those at the table with Jesus.  Third, the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death.

Lazarus, in this little drama, has no lines.  We do not hear his voice.  He has no stage directions.  He neither enters nor exits.  He makes no dramatic gestures or moves.  He just reclines there at table with Jesus, among other people, most of whom are unnamed in this text.  But Lazarus is named.  He has an identity as the one whom Jesus raised from the dead.

We see Lazarus in the church today in every baptized Christian who has died with Christ and who has been raised with him to newness of life.  We see Lazarus in every faithful follower who is present in the church, who is named as Christ's own, and who sits at table with him.

This kind of presence is critical to the ministry of the Church.  The first ministry of the Church is the ministry of presence.  The first call of the Church is the call to be -- to be the new creation in Christ Jesus, as Paul puts it.  Sometimes ministers get discouraged by people who do nothing more than to attend church every week.  So many Christians sit on the sidelines -- never get involved. 

Of course, Christians should get involved.  There is more to the Christian life than just coming to church.  But people who only attend church are nevertheless doing the first thing -- the most basic thing -- a very important thing -- being present with Jesus and in the world.

Then there is that little sentence about the chief priests wanting to put Lazarus to death.  They wanted to do to him what they were plotting to do to Jesus.  In our society, people do not usually threaten Christians with death for attending church, but in some parts of the world Christians are subject to terrible persecution.  Anyone who is baptized and comes to worship must be prepared for the world to treat him or her exactly as it treats Jesus.  For now, America tolerates Christ and Christians, but Christ does not guarantee that it will always be so.

The second person that John names in this text is Martha.  He makes only this brief statement about Martha -- he says, "Martha served."  What a statement!  "Martha served."  Like Lazarus, she is named.  Like Lazarus she has no lines -- but she does have action.  She is in motion.  She makes things happen, and we must not overlook her.  How honored we would be if someone would say of us, as John says of Martha, "She served," or, "He served."

Martha is represented in the Church going about its normal business and about the business of mission (which, of course is its normal business).  We see her in the coffee hour, the potlucks, the annual dinners, the food brought to shut-ins, the hospitality at memorial services and in many other places throughout the life of the Church. 

We see her, also, in non-food-related service such as getting out the church newsletter, setting up for worship, helping in the nursery, and maintaining the garden.  We see her in traditionally male roles, such as repairing the church plumbing or building a ramp for the physically handicapped. 

Martha is the twenty percent of the church who does eighty percent of the work.  She is essential to the life of the Church, and she is blessed, or should be blessed, in her service. 

Some people believe that Martha's work is not the "real business" of the Church.  They believe that her work is on the borders, in the margins of the life of a congregation.  Martha's work helps, but is not the central thing.  But not much would happen without Martha.  We need to remember that.

The third person whom John names is Mary.  My bible has headings above various passages.  The heading above Mary's story says, "Mary Anoints Jesus."  Mary is not only named, but she has the most dramatic action -- is the star of this scene.  In fact, Matthew and Mark include a version of this story in which Jesus says, "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."

Mary is the Church at worship.  In this text, she shows a pure devotion to Jesus.  She demonstrates her love for Jesus by sacrificing something precious -- expensive ointment.  In anticipation of Jesus' suffering, she brings him comfort.  Her action expresses her adoration and praise.

Psalm 134 says,

"Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord, who stand by night in the house of the Lord!  Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the Lord.  May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion."

This reflects the understanding that the Lord is worthy of our praise and worship at all times, continually, night and day.

When we think of Mary's adoration and praise, we must consider two things: 

-- First, how much of what we do during this hour is not worship at all, but something else?  How much has nothing to do with giving thanks and praise to God?

-- And secondly we ought to ask whether an hour a week is sufficient worship.  Of course, many people have times of personal worship and devotion, which is wonderful.  But doesn't the Church, as a body, have a calling to worship God more than one hour a week? 

The more liturgical churches understand that the right worship of God is the prime mission of the church.  It is the work of the church.  Perhaps there is something for us to learn from them -- and from Mary.

The fourth person mentioned in this text is Judas.  Judas is the only one whose voice we hear in this scene.  Judas criticizes Mary for wasting the expensive ointment, and says that it should have been sold and the money used to help the poor. 


Today’s value on that oil… even at minimum wage… would be $12,000.00. It may be more like $15,000.00.

Judas would not be wrong to want to feed the poor.  But Judas represents all of us in the Church who have mixed motives.  In the end, in his final act of betrayal, he stands alone.  But before that time, he mishandles the common purse and seeks his own ends, a kind of selfishness that we sometimes find in the Church even today.

When sociologists study the reasons why people attend church, they discover all kinds of motives:  We come to church to make social contacts, to make business contacts, to enjoy the music, to be with our family, or to fulfill what we see as an obligation.  Many of these motives reflect a desire to get something out of being in church.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to get something out of the church, but that is not our central purpose in being here.  Our central purpose is to give -- not to get.  We come to give our worship to God.

Giving As Worship

The point I want to make is that Giving… tithes and offerings… is one way to worship God.

Each week we pass the plate to take up an offering. Most people see that as something we do to pay the bills… a necessary evil. IT IS NOT!

We take up an offering in the worship service because giving is one of the ways we worship God.

By withholding our tithes…God says why do you steal from me.

A man on his deathbed called his preacher, his doctor and his lawyer to visit him. “I have $30,000 left in the bank and I want to take it all with me when I die. So, I’m giving each of you an envelope with $10,000 cash in it. At my funeral, I want each of you to come and put your envelope in my coffin.” The man died, and each of the three did what he asked. Later in the week they met up with each other to talk about the experience. The preacher said, “I’m sure that if he’d thought about it more brother Smith would have wanted to help out with the new church organ. So I took $2,000 out of the envelope and put $8,000 in the coffin.” The doctor confessed, “Well, he complimented me on the care I provided him when he was ill and I knew he’d want to help fund my new clinic so I took $5,000 out and deposited $5,000 in the coffin.” The lawyer said, “I did better than both of you. I took the $8,000 you left preacher, and I took the $5,000 you left doctor. I also kept my $10,000. But to be fair I left behind in the coffin a check for the $30,000.”

My friends the most important thing that can come out of the time we’ve spent together this day is our ability to grasp what the Bible has to say about stewardship and for us to begin to put a few simple, but important, principles to work in the way we look upon and use our resources.

 From this story we glean three things that anchor us in what the Bible says about stewardship-the way we think about and use God’s resources:

1. Everything we have comes from God and belongs to Him.

Mary, I believe, could make such a lavish gift, because she understood this overarching principle of life. Contrast the response of Judas whose actions betrayed his attitude of, “It may have all come from God but it’s mine now!”

I think people believe what they have is truly their own. They earned it, they invested it, they bought it, it’s theirs!” It’s a problem of ownership!

Let me ask you all this morning: What do you have that God didn’t give you?

· Let’s look at your life. You didn’t create yourself. God did that. Your very life was given you by God.

· Your mind is a gift from God. Your ability to think and plan and act in ways that make you “employable” all comes from God;
· The talents, skills, gifts you have that enable you to earn a living—all of them from God! Everything you purchase and “own” comes as the result of all God has given you!
Everything we have comes from God and belongs to Him. Everything! So, if we accept this as true we see that our giving to God is really an offering back of what already belongs to Him.

2. The second overarching stewardship principle is this: God-honoring giving flows out of a heart of gratitude. Remember, Mary’s brother Lazarus had died. He had been in the tomb four days. There was no hope of his return. Jesus came and restored his life and gave him back to Mary and Martha. How do you put a price on such a gift? Mary’s giving must have flowed out of a heart bursting with gratitude. How can you offer the one who gave you life, the one who brought hope in a hopeless situation anything less than everything you are and have? Christian giving flows not out of a heart of obligation but of gratitude.

Judas couldn’t grasp this because, if he gave at all, it was a cold and calculated kind of giving that asks not how much can I give but how much will I have left for myself? Judas suffered what many people, including Christians, are afflicted with in our culture-aflluenza. The need to get more and more stuff for ourselves while lessening our desire and ability to give.

3. The gifts I give to God ought to cost me something. My giving to God should stretch me. It should cause me to rethink my spending. It should affect even the priorities in my life.

Did Mary’s gift cost her something? Well, aside from being worth well over $12,000, and losing the security of that kind of money for future needs, it may have cost her personal honor.


Jesus said, “wherever your treasure is…there your heart and thoughts will also be.” Want to know what has captured your heart and mind? Take a look at what you treasure! A gift worth giving to God must ultimately cost us something!

I said earlier that Mary is the star of this story.  Of course the central figure is not really Mary, but Jesus.  He is the one who, through his death and resurrection, saves all those who will be saved. 


John mentions four persons in our text today -- Lazarus, the friend -- Martha, the worker -- Mary, the worshiper -- and Judas, the thief.  We can find each of the four alive and well in the church today.  In fact, each of us is, in some ways, a mixture of the four.  Jesus said, "Blessed are the pure in heart," but we are not pure in heart.  We are complex people with lots of different things going on inside us.

Perhaps these four people -- Lazarus, Martha, Mary, and Judas -- gathered at the table with Jesus -- sharing a meal to honor him -- are not unlike the Church as it always is.  Perhaps that meal will remind us of the meal we share in Jesus' name -- that is, the Lord's Supper.  Gathered there, imperfect as we are, we are assured of his grace -- for in that meal we have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. 

Yes, we are here, raised to new life in Christ in our baptism.  And we are here sustained by his grace through the Communion meal.  Thanks be to God!

I Surrender All (BH #275; UMH #354)

O How I Love Jesus (BH #217; CH #99; TNCH #52; UMH #170)
also known as There is a Name I Love to Hear


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