Fifth Sunday in Lent: Gifts in the Wilderness
Sermon Texts: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; John 12:1-8
Hear this additional reading from the Song of Songs, Chapter 2:
10My beloved speaks and says to me:
‘Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;
11for now the winter is past,
the rain is over and gone.
12The flowers appear on the earth;
the time of singing has come,
and the voice of the turtle-dove
is heard in our land.
13The fig tree puts forth its figs,
and the vines are in blossom;
they give forth fragrance.
Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away.
Close your eyes and “come away with me” for a moment … I want to appeal to one of your senses:
Where do you remember the smell of bread baking? Grandmother’s or your own mother’s kitchen? A favorite bakery? Remember the smell of tearing open a fresh-baked loaf, the fragrant rising up in your face.
How about the smell of fresh-brewed coffee wafting through the house in the early morning.
Do you know the smell of the rain on warm asphalt after a long dry spell?
Who do you remember that smoked a pipe, nasty to taste, but so wonderful to smell. Or was there a loved one who wore a memorable perfume … or cologne … a fragrance that was bracing or intoxicating.
Have you worshipped in a cathedral where the censor is swung and the rich, pungent smell of incense fills the air.
Have you knelt down and dug in the soft, warm earth and smelled the very smell of life? Or buried your nose in the first apple blossoms of spring? Or dragged your fingers through the rosemary or the lavender so those fragrances can be held close to your nose?
How about the smell of a Christmas home … the steamy rich smells coming from the kitchen … the fragrance of the Christmas tree … or remember walking into a Christmas tree lot as a child or an adult surrounded by hundreds of fragrant trees?
Have you walked along the seashore and stood facing into the wind just taking in the tanginess of the salt wind?
If you wish, you may open your eyes now. And if someone could go get me a slice of warm bread slathered in butter, and a mug of fresh Peet’s coffee—French roast--that would be wonderful.
Our sense of smell is a remarkable and wonderful thing. Our experience of life is made rich and deep and full by our ability to experience the wonders of creation with our noses.
Humans can smell, but I have to wonder what it would be like to have the olfactory capabilities of my dogs.
I often catch Sparky, our 7 year old male Jack Rusell, sitting in the open back sliding door … just sniffing the wind … his nostrils flaring and sampling whatever there is to be sampled.
Whenever I have been around another dog, when I get home my are immediately all over me, sniffing me up and down to trying to figure out what foul beast I’ve been two-timing with.
And yet as glorious as their smelling apparatus seems to be, it is equally strange. Every time Jan and I go for a walk above Borges Ranch, when we get up to where the cows graze and wander amongst the final results of that grazing, Sparky and Biscuit are out in the field … splashing on the stinky green perfume … “Yeah, baby … you know that you like it!” We have to drive with the windows down on the way home.
I am trying to remember when I last have heard a conscious reference to our olfactory senses within the context of worship. How is it that something that is so powerful a part of our everyday experience is so completely absent in our worship of God together?
Smells and odors and fragrances have incredibly deep religious roots … nearly all ancient religions, including the religion of Israel, burned incense or sacrifices in the hopes that the smell produced was pleasing to God … these “holocausts”, as they were called, symbolized the devotion of God’s subjects … God’s people … the phrase, “a pleasing odor”, occurs repeatedly throughout the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament. You may recall, however, that the prophet Amos lambastes the people and their faith for thinking that “pleasing odors” were what God really wanted … that they were any kind of substitute for the weightier matters of justice.
You know already that our worship in this season of Lent has gently pushed and pulled us into new ways of being present to God and God being present to us in our times of gathered worship. Our tongues have been tantalized this Lent with the flavors of Apples, honey, figs, bread and wine. And we began the season with the usual application of ashes to our hands and foreheads, but this year the ashes were infused with the oil of lavender … ashen crosses that were not only visible, but also fragrant reminders of our frailty and mortality. The lavender was also intended to remind us of the promise and possibilities that are present even in the midst of great difficulty.
Today we join Jesus who is sharing a meal in the home of his beloved friends, Lazarus and Martha and Mary. These are the disciples whom Jesus loved, and we can only imagine the extraordinary warmth of feeling that radiated around that room … the conversation … the lingering eye contact in between the words … hands clenched together and kisses exchanged. I would have to think that the love poetry of the Song of Songs aptly described the love between Jesus and his three friends from Bethany.
We who gulp our meals on the run have nearly no sense of the kind of meal that Jesus and his friends shared. These were long, lingering, drawn out affairs. A whole evening would be spent around the table … food coming and going, conversation ebbing and flowing, wine passed and poured and drunk.
I’m remembering my trip to Israel during the summer of my sabbatical … Jordan and I had flown to Tel Aviv where we picked up our trusty little Hyundai and headed into the hills of Galilee. We finally found the little village of Ibillin where one of Israel’s great peacemakers, Father Elias Chacour had founded a school that welcomed Arabs and Israelis, Muslims and Jews. It was dusk when we pulled into the compound of the school on the side of a dusty hill. A woman pointed to where we could find Abuna, as Father Chacour is known. We climbed the stairs to the second floor of an apartment building … walked through the door into a brightly lit, but empty room. At the back of the room was a door and through the door we could hear voices. We opened the door and stepped out into a garden, olive trees and grape vines trailing overhead … and there in the middle of the garden sitting around a long table laden with food and candle and wine was Abuna and his friends. They looked up and greeted us and welcomed us to their table. I was put at the head next to Abuna while Jordan was seated next to some young teachers from the school. Our glasses and our plates were filled … and as our stomachs were filled, so also our hearts became full. The meal and the conversation lasted as long as we did. Finally, we wiped the crumbs of baklava from our lips, took the last swig of wine and took leave of a most memorable evening.
It was just that kind of evening, long, lingering, intimate, that Jesus shared with Lazarus and Martha and Mary and their friends. And at some point in the evening, as the affection between these friends swelled, Mary slipped away for a moment and returned with a gift that she had purchased for just this occasion. It was an exotic and expensive perfume. And this particular perfume was well-known, in the context of the Song of Songs, as a symbol of the intimate nature of the Bride’s love. Mary took the nard and anointed Jesus’ feet with it and wiped them with her hair. And John tells us that the house was FILLED with the fragrance of the perfume.
This is one of those scriptural occasions when our modern sensibilities simply fail to convey the depth and meaning of the actions being described. In our silk stockings and hand-stitched loafers, we have nearly lost our awareness of just how filthy human feet could become when treading through the waste and sewage of dirty and muddy streets. When guests entered a home, the host would provide water for the guests to wash their feet in … or in a wealthy home, a servant would wash the guests’ feet. It was the first act of hospitality, and possibly the most intimate.
When a loved one washed your feet or anointed your feet, it took on the meaning of an act of loving service … it was a way of expressing one’s affection at an incredibly deep level. By anointing Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume, Mary expresses her love of Jesus in the most profound way possible. It is an act of loving, devoted service by the one—a woman follower—who might be considered Jesus’ foremost disciple.
But Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet has another connotation, as well. It’s interesting to note that the Greek word for “dinner” used to describe the meal in Bethany finds its only other usage in describing Jesus’ last meal with his disciples … the last supper. It is at that supper that Jesus speaks to his disciples of his impending departure … his death. At the dinner in Bethany, Mary is not only offering to Jesus an act of loving service, she is also anointing Jesus as a preparation for his burial that is to come.
I can’t help but think of scenes from the movie several of us watched together last night. Paradise Now was the fourth and final movie in our Lenten Cinema Series … it tells the story of two young Palestinian men from the West Bank, friends from childhood, who have agreed to serve on a suicide bombing mission. The night before they are to depart, they are verbally and spiritually prepared for their mission … for what is to come. They gather in a rough-hewn hall around a table in a scene that surely was intended to evoke DaVinci’s famous painting of Jesus’ last supper. 13 Palestinian fighters seated around a table for what will be at least one of the young men’s last supper. And in what appeared to be a sacred ritual, the young men’s bodies are lovingly bathed by the ones who are preparing them for their mission. And as awful and horrific as their actions will be … you get the very strong sense of the sacred feeling and sacred intent of the actions of all who are involved in this event … this deadly mission.
This meal shared by the Palestinian fighters is only a few miles from the place where, some two thousand years earlier, Jesus shared his meal with his friends in Bethany and, later, with his disciples in Jerusalem.
I have to believe that for John, the evoking of the Bethany dinner and the way that the fragrance of the nard FILLED the room is more than just a poetic mention … a literary device. In recent years, scientists have begun to trace the connection between smell and memory. It is said that it may be that smells can evoke our very earliest memories.
One of my aroma-related earliest memories includes living in Hawaii as a child … upon our return from a mainland visit, I rmember getting off the airplane and being festooned in leis … surrounded by the intoxicating aroma of cascades of plumeria blossoms.
While at Linfield College, I worked at Lon Dee Florists … I frequently drove a delivery van full of funeral arrangements … and I remember the overwhelming smell of the stocks in the arrangements … even to this day, when I smell stocks, it is the smell of funeral homes and hushed voices and death that I recall.
Is it John’s intention—the author of the gospel—that the evocation of this room filling fragrance of nard … of this exotic and expensive perfume is to recall us to the memory of this meal among beloved friends? And to recall us to this act of hospitality and loving service that is also a tear-tinged anointing of a loved one who will soon die? John’s gospel is highly artful, and I believe that John wishes for our “spiritual noses” to tingle and twitch and come to life with rich memories of Mary’s act … and to let the memories remind us of what it means to lovingly turn and tend to Jesus our Lord.
Perhaps we find ourselves finally back at the real purpose of Lent … which is to draw us once again into a closer, more loving relationship with God … and with Jesus our Lord. If it takes a pound of pure nard to do it, John tells us that it’s a price worth paying.
And yet perhaps Lent serves an even more fundamental task than drawing us into a closer, more loving relationship with God.
All this talk of smell and memory reminds me of something I remember Rod Romney saying. You may recall that Rod pastored the Lakeshore congregation and Seattle First Baptist before retiring a few years ago. I remember Rod saying that our task in life and faith is less to “be saved” our task is to remember that we have always been saved … at the deepest levels of our individual and shared memories, we may find deep archetypal memories of the God who has always loved us and loved all, the God who has wooed us from when we were in the womb and when we were being “fearfully and wonderfully made” …
It is not a thunderclap of searing salvation that we need as much as a memory as old as mountains and as soft as the sound of our mother’s voice singing us to sleep and as silent and sure as flowers in the meadows in the spring.
And perhaps as we sink and settle down into that deep loving, saving memory we will hear whispered into the imagination of our hearts the ancient love poetry of the God who love us:
[Song of Songs, Chapter 4]
I am for you, my beloved, like an orchard of pomegranates
with all choicest fruits,
henna with nard,
14nard and saffron, calamus and cinnamon,
with all trees of frankincense,
myrrh and aloes,
with all chief spices—
15a garden fountain, a well of living water,
and flowing streams from Lebanon.
Hear the voice of God who says: “I am your beloved and you are mine.”