This is an edited version of a sermon on John 12v1-8 preached in the Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge:
IMAGINE the Church found itself in demand, popular with the establishment. Imagine a situation in which lawlessness gets out of control in the nation (perhaps we don’t have to imagine it?) and the establishment in government, in big business and in the media begin to think that the Church might have a role to play in restoring moral standards. Bishops and even vicars are suddenly given new platforms to act as agents of the State in promoting law and order.
Of course, the Church should support law and order and moral standards in society. But surely something central in Christianity would be lost if the Church become a mere moral mouthpiece for the government? That central thing is actually to be found in symbolic form in most churches. It is the Cross of Christ that would be lost.
Our Passiontide reading from John’s Gospel is a powerful reminder of the centrality of the saving message of the Cross.
In setting up the story, the Apostle John flags up the impending death of Jesus: ‘Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived in Bethany [a village a couple of miles to the east of Jerusalem], where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.’ (John 12v1 – NIV)
John deliberately mentions the Jewish Passover Festival in which the lambs were sacrificed in memory of God’s rescue of his people from the judgement he meted out on Egypt in the time of Moses. John is flagging up the fact that Jesus is about to be sacrificed as the Passover Lamb, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John also flags up what Jesus’ sacrifice does – the death of Jesus brings life, hence the reference to Lazarus, whom, we are reminded, Jesus had raised from the dead, as described in John chapter 11.
John is teaching that the Passover death of Jesus is going to bring life. The Cross brings God’s people out of the kingdom of death, the Egypt of sin, death and judgement, and it brings us into God’s kingdom of life. John flags up the Cross of Christ and what the Cross does before introducing us to the action of Lazarus’s sister, Mary, and the objection of Judas Iscariot:
‘Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it out 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.’ (v3-4)
Mary’s action in anointing Jesus in preparation for his burial is a Cross-oriented action. Whether she realised that or not is not the point – it’s Jesus who makes the link between her extravagant action and his impending death.
In reply to Judas’s objection – ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages’ (v5) – Jesus declared: ‘Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you but you will not always have me.’ (v7-8)
Indeed, Jesus’ disciples won’t always have him physically present with them because he is going to depart from them to return to his heavenly glory. Jesus’s mission was to bring glory to his Father God by accomplishing the work his Father gave him to do, dying on the Cross for the sins of the world and then rising again from death.
Judas’s agenda is very different. On the surface, his objection to Mary’s action sounds very commendable. ‘Why wasn’t the enormous sum wasted on this perfume given to the poor?’ Sounds good – concern for the poor. Who could argue with that? But the problem with Judas’s objection is that it leaves out the Cross and therefore does not deal with human moral corruption. It’s Christianity without the Cross and it does not deal with human sin. It certainly didn’t deal with Judas’s sin, for he was a thief: ‘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.’ (v6)
The point John is making here is that Judas’s this-worldly social action agenda will not get people out of the kingdom of death. What will get us out of the kingdom of death is believing in the crucified Lord Jesus Christ and it is when we believe in him that we receive life in his name.
It’s important to stress that Jesus’ remark in v8 – ‘the poor are always among you’ – is not dismissing concern for the poor. Jesus is quoting from an Old Testament text, Deuteronomy 15v11, which points out the opportunity that God’s people always have to help the poor. There is always an opportunity in this fallen world to help the poor. But Jesus is pointing out here that whilst the opportunity to help the poor is always there, his death on the Cross is a one-off event that cannot be repeated. It is a pivotal event, a turning point in the history of mankind.
The Cross deals with mankind’s greatest problem, the sin that alienates us from the loving God who made us, and that is why the Cross has to be central in our Christianity.