An Unexpected Best-Ever Message

Morning Message – John Cline

John 20:1-20

Have you ever been called a “Martha”? It is a putdown, a criticism implying that you have your priorities all wrong, that you are too focused on doing things that are not really all that important by busying yourself with a certain task, causing you to miss out on what is really significant. The saying comes from an event in the Bible concerning two sisters, Martha and Mary. Today, we will look at three events in the Bible involving those sisters as the combination of those events paved the way to Palm Sunday. Event #1 comes from Luke:

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

We can presume that Martha was the older of the sisters as she owned the house. Now, the role of women in that culture was to prepare food and serve it while the men visited. Martha’s younger sister Mary seems to have forgotten that expectation as she was so absorbed in listening to Jesus’ words that she wasn’t helping Martha with the preparations. In response to Martha’s complaining about Mary, Jesus didn’t nod at Mary and tell her to get to work but, instead, mildly rebuked Martha by telling her to recognize the really important thing going on there (his teaching) and to be more like Mary.

I can tell you that I am a Martha. Most pastors in Canada are Marthas. Those pastors that are Marys are criticized: “He spends too much time in his study or office, praying and reading the Bible, instead of getting out and being with the people.” I have never been called a “Mary” but as Jerry Clarks’ Lenten Devotional reminded us, we should all strive to be more like Mary in striving to recognize, hear, and heed the Master’s voice. When we do that, our decision-making will go as it should. To be an efficient Martha, therefore, we need to be a seeking and listening Mary in our prioritizing. Ok, on to Event #2 with those sisters Mary and Martha, this time reading from John’s Gospel:

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) (John 11:1,2)

What we just read in verse 2 concerned Event #3 in the lives of Mary and Martha. But, John mentioning it here was “parenthetical”. Did you notice verse 2 is in parentheses? John’s writing about was a foreshadowing for his readers of a future event, Event #3, in the interactions of the sisters Mary and Martha with Jesus. John’s mentioning of it indicates that he assumed his readers already had heard about it. Jesus said that what Mary did in pouring perfuming on him and wiping his feet with her hair would be spoken about throughout the world, so that truth seems to have occurred even by the time of John writing his Gospel. Everyone knew about it! But, for us to understand Event #3, we have to first take a short detour away from Event #2 to go and explore Event #3.

So, we just read John’s parenthetical statement in John 11:2 about Event #3. He will write about it in the next chapter. Matthew, Mark, and Luke also wrote about Event #3 but because they didn’t write as John did, in a chronological order, and because those first three Gospel book writers didn’t identify the woman by name, readers can easily get confused about this event In particular, readers can easily miss that Matthew, Mark, and Luke were writing about Mary, the sister of Martha for those other three Gospel writers never referred to Mary by name but only by her reputation – that she was a “sinful woman” who anointed Jesus in appreciation of the forgiveness and abundant life he restored to her.

When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:36-38)

So, the Pharisee who hosted the dinner was named Simon. He would not have been happy that an uninvited person had crashed his party. And, then when Simon saw that uninvited woman – Mary – doing what she was doing, he exploded in anger, believing that she had wasted expensive perfume, for no good reason. Jesus responded by not correcting the woman but by chiding Simon for being a poor and ungrateful host. Instead of doing what was culturally expected of him – providing water to his guest to clean off his feet with or a towel to wipe his feet dry – Simon did nothing of the sort, simply allowing Jesus to find his own way into his house. And, then, in response to Simon criticizing Mary for wasting all that money on expensive perfume she had poured out, Jesus, knowing that Simon should have been thankful to have him in his presence – more on that in just a moment! – asked Simon which person he thought would be more thankful to a moneylender who forgave their debts: the person who had a small debt forgiven or the one who had a large debt forgiven? Simon grudgingly admitted it would be the one who had the larger debt forgiven. Jesus implied that the list of Simon’s sins was not as long as that of Mary’s but then he said that what Mary did was fitting because Mary’s debt of forgiven sins was so large that she should be thanking Jesus in such a great way. Jesus then told Mary that her many sins were forgiven.

Next, we will hear in Matthew’s telling of this event, Event #3, (it was the third event chronologically in the interactions of Mary and Martha with Jesus) we learn that Simon the Pharisee was actually known as “Simon the Leper”. Luke, who usually wrote in a more polite, gentler manner than the other Gospel writers, didn’t mention that demeaning monicker but simply had told his readers that Simon was a Pharisee. So, if Simon the Pharisee was now hosting a dinner for Jesus it meant that he had been healed of the leprosy he once suffered from. It is presumed that Jesus was the one who had healed Simon of his leprosy and that this dinner was Simon’s way of honouring Jesus. However, the non-gracious hosting by Simon is what stood out to Jesus in contrast with the weeping thankfulness of Mary. If anyone should have been using a year’s wages to buy perfume with which to pour over Jesus’ head, it should have been Simon. Jesus knew that. Matthew writes:

While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on his head as he was reclining at the table. When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. “This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:6-9)

Matthew also reveals that it was not just Simon the Leper/Simon the Pharisee who was disturbed by what Mary had done but also Jesus’ disciples were, as well. The 12 were indignant at her “waste of money” – the perfume was worth about 300 denarii or one year’s wages, so it was very expensive perfume – but when Jesus’ disciples piled on in their criticism of the woman, Jesus was not dissuaded.

Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. Truly I tell you, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:10-13)

Matthew also adds, as does Mark in his telling of this event, that for Judas Iscariot, this supposed waste of money was the final, decisive straw that broke the proverbial donkey’s back. He had been having a growing discontentment with Jesus because it was becoming evident to him that Jesus was not interested in politically or militarily overthrowing the Roman oppressors over the land of Israel but in establishing God’s kingdom that would free people from the effects of sin and of slavery to sin and to Satan. As a result of seeing Jesus defend this “wasteful” spending of money, Judas Iscariot decided to go over to the side of evil and betray Jesus.

Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So, they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over. (Matthew 26:14-16)

By the way, everyone’s supposed concern for the poor was just a ruse. They didn’t really care. They are like the rich elites today who fly their private jets to Davos, Switzerland to meet for a conference on saving the environment and then tell the rest of us peasants to stop flying or taking vacations or driving cars for we are hurting the environment if we do so, whereas they and their private jets and lavish parties are allowed. Their “plank-in-the-eye-while-criticizing-the-speck-in-someone-else’s-eyes” hypocrisy is painful.

In any case, let’s now move on to Mark’s account of this event. Because Mark’s wording is the same as in Matthew’s account, we will simply read Mark’s opening verses of Event #3, the anointing of Jesus.

Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.” (Mark 14:1,2)

So, you see, the religious leaders were planning to arrest, try, and kill Jesus but their initial plan was to do it at some quieter time than Passover with its massive crowds. However, Judas Iscariot coming to them to strike a deal revved up the timing of their plot. Now, the start of Passover and the triumphal entrance of Jesus on Palm Sunday, the day in which the Jewish pilgrims all chose their Passover Lamb, was just around the corner. Jesus was asking people to choose. Would he be their Passover Lamb or would they continue on doing what they had always done? The religious leaders would not have liked that. Can you sense the foreboding building? Judas Iscariot is plotting. The religious leaders are plotting. The end of Jesus’ life is at hand. He will shortly be betrayed, arrested, and put to death.

Before we get to John’s accounting of Event #3 where Mary anointed Jesus, though, we first need to return to Event #2 in the sisters Mary and Martha’s interactions with Jesus in order to arrive at the proper chronological order of events, a thing John does in his Gospel book. So, back to John 11 and Event #2 where John writes:

Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) So, the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. So, when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.” (John 11:1-7)

You would think that if Jesus loved that family so much that he would have rushed to be with them. But he had a greater purpose in allowing Lazarus to remain dead for the time being, and it wasn’t about bringing temporary comfort to Martha and Mary but about God being glorified in raising Lazarus from the dead. Jesus’ disciples thought Lazarus was merely in a deep sleep – like in a coma – but Jesus knew better.

So, then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.” (John 11:14,15)

As you listen to what is about to be read, hear Martha’s display of deep faith. Obviously, she had grown spiritually from the Martha of Event #1.

On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” (John 11:17-27)

Such famous words by Jesus but, also, such deep faith in him by Martha! “I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask”, and “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.” A few weeks ago, Tim Davison spoke about Jesus’ statement: “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me, will never die.” Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” She, answered, “Yes, Lord”. In the midst of a similar loss and tragedy as what Martha was experience, think of yourself. How would you have answered? Next, we hear from Martha’s sister Mary who says exactly the same phrase to Jesus that her sister Martha had just said.

When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. Jesus wept. (John 11:32-35)

“Jesus wept” is the shortest verse in the Bible. In response to Jesus’ tears, we are told that some of the religious leaders observed, “See how he loved him!”, though, in fact, Jesus’ tears were not for Lazarus but for his grieving sisters. Their grief moved him, as well, I believe did the grief cause by human sin and Satan. Jesus grieved for the world and for that family he loved. However, we read that others of the religious leaders, though, criticized Jesus and stated, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” In response to that statement, Jesus did a miracle.

Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.” Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So, they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.” (Jn 11:38-44)

How would you have liked to be in the crowd as Lazarus staggered out of his tomb, alive yet still wrapped in his graveclothes? By the way, Lazarus’ tomb is one of the first century A.D. biblical spots verified by archaeology. You can go into it still today. Modern-day Palm Sunday processionals start from that spot and wind their down the Mount of Olives and back up Mount Zion into Jerusalem. Traditionally and historically, thus, the resurrection of Lazarus has always been linked to Jesus’ triumphal Palm Sunday processional. John writes, that, in response to the resurrection of Lazarus…

Therefore, many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him. But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. So, from that day on they plotted to take his life. (John 11:45-53)

Everything was coming together for a heart-pounding finale to Jesus’ life. But first, Event #3 had to occur, that event parenthetically foretold by John back in chapter 11:2 and written about out-of-chronological- order by Matthew, Mark, and Luke. It was the final event leading up to Palm Sunday, the binding event of all these disparate events.

Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it. (John 12:1-6)

So, it wasn’t Simon the former leper/current Pharisee or the 12 apostles of Jesus who were the most impacted by Mary’s anointing of Jesus, but Judah Iscariot. This was the event that put him over the edge. But remember that John was, like Judas Iscariot, one of the 12 apostles. He knew Judas Iscariot’s heart and actions and so, here in his Gospel, he forthrightly calls him out for his hypocrisy and lying ways. Meanwhile, as all this is swirling about all around him, Jesus is preparing himself for his triumphal entrance into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. He knew that it would be the key event before his cross.

Meanwhile a large crowd of 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, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him. (Jn 12:9-11)

Following this Event #3 came the triumphal Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem of Jesus the Messiah and the Son of David, the true King of Israel and of the world. His entry was in fulfillment of different Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of the Messiah. We think of Palm Sunday as being such a wonderfully joyous event, and no doubt it was, but the foreboding all around the end of Jesus’ life must have been palpable. Because we already read through the Palm Sunday processional events at the start of our worship today, we won’t read it hear again, but let’s try to re-establish in our minds that joy must have been experienced by those first people waving their palm branches while understanding the grief and betrayal and plotting all around Jesus that he was aware of but which no one else seemed to.

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him. Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. Many people, because they had heard that he had performed this sign, went out to meet him. So, the Pharisees said to one another, “See, this is getting us nowhere. Look how the whole world has gone after him!” (John 12:16-19)

So, how do we end this sermon and put together these convoluted events in such a way that they can be applied to our lives? The deep display of gratitude by Mary and the faith in Jesus shown by Martha and Mary, the raising of Lazarus back to life, the plotting of the religious leaders to have Jesus arrested and then killed, the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot, and, finally, the triumphal entry of Jesus on Palm Sunday? All of those events together were a perfect storm of different systems colliding and bringing death. How do these events all fit together in a way that can be applied to our lives? How about this: Life is complex so be intentional in how you live. When you are praying for God to do something and nothing seems to be happening, perhaps it is because God is moving other pieces first on the chessboard of life and preparing other people, first, before He will act on your request. Everything is interconnected. Trust God in that. Think through who you are listening to. Long to hear the Master’s voice. Don’t be misled by the voices of people speaking falsities at you. Be grateful to the Lord for his forgiveness and mercy as Mary was. Don’t be a Simon, proud of who you are but not filled with gratitude to the Lord. Honour him with your choices. Truly, be one who praises Jesus and waves your palm branches. Life is no joy-ride but filled with choices and meaning when God is allowed in. Follow Jesus. Wave your palm branches, and choose well. Let’s pray.

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