+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti + Amen.
Text: John 12:7
Theme: A Burial Price
Dear friends in Christ Jesus,
Six days before His death the house of Lazarus of Bethany was filled with the smell of Christ’s burial perfume. It was a preemptive strike. Let us not forget that Lazarus was ‘familiar’ with the fragrance of burial preparations. He had already spent time in the tomb. Christ raised him. As much as Jesus, the eternal Son of the Father both transcends time and contravenes it, so too does He constrict and suspend it. Six days before the event Mary anoints Jesus for His burial. The sacrifice is so imminent it is nearly inaugurated. Jesus was born to die. The womb was a passage way to the grave, the cradle a prerequisite for the cross. It had to happen this way because Jesus’ body was not available in the tomb to anoint. He had risen!
This anointing of Jesus by Mary was a testimony to the gospel, a work of the Spirit. Noah built an altar to the Lord. Yahweh smelled the pleasing aroma of the sacrifice and the flood’s curse was lifted. God sniffed the animal sacrifices of the Israelites and was delighted that they pointed the people to the coming Messiah. Finally the stench of Calvary ascended to His nose and the curse of sin was broken. For us sinners this news is a sweet fragrance.
But it was a smell Judas couldn’t tolerate. Here we have a small conundrum for proponents of a social gospel. Judas is their advocate. “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.”1 Think of the possibilities and the magnitude! A year’s wages! Imagine if you had that at your disposal; the charities you could help, the people you could assist! But separated from the proper motive and detached from Christ all charitable efforts- even those by Christians- degenerate into humanistic philanthropy. Unbelievers too can be very generous and charitable- excelling the efforts of Christians even. Muslims and Hindus may exhibit a higher standard of morality and humanity than many Christians. But the motive and purpose is very different.
The deceived motive is a dead end regardless of how impressive things look in this life. The other is the fruit of the gospel. Today Saint Paul gives powerful testimony to the supremacy of the gospel. Even though he would have had more right than most to put confidence in His Jewish heritage- and he was a Pharisee- it was all futile apart from Christ. The same temptations and tendencies still cling to us too. We are always prone to relying on some measure of our own piety, our obedience, our charity, or at least our good intentions. We are prone to wondering just how faithful we have to be to remain in God’s good graces. What are the benchmarks? What are the thresholds? How much possibility is there for pushing the envelope? Isn’t God supposed to be tolerant?
Whenever we start to embark on this line of reasoning we are fleeing the gospel promise and retreating to the law for our defence. We are not giving thanks for the trials and blessings, both of which enable us to witness to His name. Instead we are wondering what will be sufficient to keep Him satisfied. There is no way to retreat from this minefield except to fall prostrate at the foot of the cross. “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling.”2 This is the cry of the repentant heart.
Dear friends, the forgiveness of God is not an abstract allowance, the possession of which can be assumed. It is not some sort of inalienable right that simply kicks in when we seek to allocate it. Forgiveness is ephemeral to the impenitent but concrete for the contrite. And it is never unmediated. The mercy of God is facilitated through those means which He has ordained for the establishment and maintenance of our relationship with Him. The locus of grace is in a person- Jesus Christ- and is distributed to us through word and sacrament. Ambassadors speak on His behalf. The Office of the Ministry was established by Christ so that His truth and His absolution might be publicly communicated to sinners. As a called and ordained servant I do not speak on my own authority. I don’t speak simply on the collective authority of a commission or synod. I speak on Christ’s authority. Only on this authority can there be certainty.
Faith is only nourished through this forgiveness. Otherwise it becomes weak from malnutrition and brittle from egotism. Faith cannot be self-sustained. Tending our faith with our own resources only establishes the idolatry of our own agendas and perspectives. In an age in which we are taught that everyone’s opinion is as valid as anyone else’s' (as long as you are tolerant of theirs) we are in desperate need of an objective basis for truth and reality. Subjectivity is winning the day. It speaks powerfully to our narcissistic tendencies. If relativism is the presupposition all parties must agree on then the best that can be hoped for is some measure of consensus with practical aims for the here and now. In regards to life and death, heaven and hell, sin and grace, this simply will not do.
Even though it is now winning the day subjectivity can only be a passing perspective on reality. Otherwise hope and meaning are inevitably drowned in the tidal wave of personal preferences. Even the secular mind searches for stability based on stronger foundations. No wonder chaos and futility is overcoming the soul of Western society even as fear dominates the Islamic world.
For many in the immediate past and current generation Christianity has become tired and boring. The church itself must shoulder much of the blame. User-friendly Christianity is not the faith of the Bible. To many, Christianity has been presented as being a therapeutic and benign basis of morality with eternal benefits- just for having your name enrolled! Yet to characterize God as domesticated, Satan as emasculated and sin all but eradicated hardly represents the cross-bearing struggle of the baptismal life.
Faith is never stagnant. Our faith is to be innocent but not ignorant. Christ taught humility, not simple-mindedness. He taught modesty, not naivetés. He sent His disciples out to be as wise as serpents and innocent as doves.3 He didn’t promise comfort but conflict. People avoid boredom. But can knowing the One who said, “I hold the keys of death and Hades.”4 be boring? Is baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ5 uninspiring? Is participating in the body and blood of Christ and thus proclaiming “the Lord’s death until He comes.”6 ever trivial?
Christ lives and we live as His ambassadors. Paul’s plea is ours, to “be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but…the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith.” 7 How fabulous is the variety of descriptive imagery the Scriptures use to express the fullness of God’s love in Christ! Note how the apostle employs the terminology of John. “Thanks be to God, who always leads us in triumphal procession in Christ and through us spreads everywhere the fragrance of the knowledge of Him. For we are to God the aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To one the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.”8
Dear friends, Lent is drawing to a close and Holy Week is near. As we reflect on the meaning of these events let us honour the words of Christ who countenanced Mary’s act of devotion. What was the burial price? Was the perfume wasted? There is nothing we devote to Him that He cannot repay. Who dare assess the value of Christ’s sacrifice? We will have an eternity with Him to benefit from what He accomplished for sinners. Amen.
+ In nomine Jesu +
Fifth Sunday in Lent
17 March 2013
Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 John 12:5
2 LH #330, Rock of Ages
3 See Matthew 10:16
4 Revelation 1:18
5 See Romans 6:4
6 1 Corinthians 11:26
7 Philippians 3:9
8 2 Corinthians 2:14-16