Anointed for Death
By Linda Rex
April 3, 2022, 5th Sunday in PREPARATION FOR EASTER or LENT—I love reading the book of Isaiah. This prophet has a way of writing which resonates with my current human experience while taking me into a deeper sense of God’s presence and power in the midst of all I am going through.
In the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, Isaiah 43:16–21, the prophet brings to his people’s remembrance the way in which God brought them through the horrifying experience of being pursued by Egypt’s army, and being caught up against the shores of the Red Sea, with nowhere left to go. God’s intervention on their behalf involved opening up a path for them through these waters to the other side, where they celebrated the defeat of their adversary, who had been crushed under the returning waters.
Isaiah called forth this memory for a reason. He was pointing them to the faithfulness of their God. He told them that in comparison to that great, amazing event in their history, what God was going to do next would be unforgettable. He was going to do a new thing—make a path in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
In this season of preparation for the events of Holy Week, we have been reflecting upon our need for God’s deliverance in every area of our life. Apart from God’s grace and love, we are left orphans in this broken world, and struggle to make our way forward against the mighty waters of evil, sin, and death. The opponent we are facing is intimidating—his weapons are spiritual, and he attacks us on every side. Within our human experience we struggle to fight against evil, sin, and death, but find ourselves easily losing our battle, apart from the presence and power of God at work in our circumstances.
In the gospel story this week, the apostle John describes a pleasant gathering at Jesus’ friends’ home in Bethany. Reclining at the meal, Jesus is approached by Mary, who breaks open an expensive bottle of nard, and begins anointing him with the perfume. John distinctly remembers how the fragrance filled the room, and how Mary lowered her dignity to the place where she untied her hair and began to use it to wipe Jesus’ feet.
Judas Iscariot, and the other disciples apparently, took offense at this extravagant gesture of affection for our Lord. He knew the perfume was valuable—a year’s worth of wages were needed to pay for it. Judas brought up the poor and needy as the reason for his complaint, when in reality—as the disciples were to discover later—he was pilfering from the money box. He wanted those funds for himself.
We find illustrated here two approaches to the presence of Jesus. Judas Iscariot, bent on his own avaricious agenda, is concerned about the bottom line, keeping the money available for his own personal use. And he’s not above using an appearance of righteousness and goodness in order to do it. He isn’t truly concerned about the poor, nor is he devoted to Jesus. His devotion is to himself, and his greed, lust, and avarice.
Mary, in contrast, is concerned for Jesus and his agenda. She, as it appears, is the only one who gets it—she seems to know Jesus is headed for death. So, she prepares in advance for his burial, by anointing him ahead of time. She isn’t selfish and greedy, but rather extravagant in her demonstration of devotion to Jesus. She isn’t arrogantly trying to impress everyone with how spiritual she is, but rather, she humbles herself, violating the customary conventions of her day to express her devotion to Christ.
What Mary seemed to get to some extent, and Judas didn’t, was that Jesus stood, as Israel had stood many years before, on the brink of disaster. Yes, he would march into Jerusalem, celebrated and adored—just as Israel left their slave chains behind in Egypt that fateful night, with a high hand. But within a few short days, he would be held hostage at the shores of his death, betrayed by this one who pretended to care about the poor and the needy, but who only cared about his own pocketbook.
Standing on the edge of the mighty waters of death, Jesus was prepared for his Father’s next step. He was going to do a new thing—something never done before. Already, God had entered into our human sphere to become one of us. God, in Christ, had lived a genuinely human life without sin. Now he was going to submit himself to the plots of evil human beings, and allow himself to be crucified and killed. He was doing the one thing needed to create a path in the wilderness of evil, sin and death.
Soon, he would hang on a cross, he would die, and lay in a tomb. But we know in advance that this was not the end of the story. We know that Israel made it safely to the other side of the Red Sea. And we know Jesus rose on the third day, ascending in his glorified humanity into the presence of the Father.
And we also know, as we celebrate at Pentecost, that Jesus sent the Spirit from the Father—making rivers in the desert of our human experience. What God promised through his prophet Isaiah, he accomplished. He did a new thing—God in human flesh, living our life, dying our death, and rising again to send the Spirit so we each can live in newness of life.
What a precious gift we have been given, in the gift of God’s one and only Son and the pouring out of his Spirit, bringing new life into this wilderness desert of our human existence! We do not need to remain on the shores of our dilemma, whatever it may be. We have the victory in Jesus Christ. What God promises, he does deliver.
And what he accomplished in Christ is being worked out in each of us and in this world by his Spirit, as we respond in faith. Here, in this place of impending disaster, we turn to Christ in faith—he is our divine deliverer, and he will bring us through. We trust in God’s love and grace, allowing him to finish in us individually what he has done for us all—make a path through the wilderness and rivers in the desert.
Blessed Father, thank you for your faithfulness and your generosity. Thank you, Jesus, for creating a path for us through the wilderness of evil, sin, and death—we trust you to finish what you have begun. Thank you, heavenly Spirit, for drawing us deeper into relationship with our God, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Jesus, therefore, six days before the Passover, came to Bethany where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they made Him a supper there, and Martha was serving; but Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table with Him. Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of His disciples, who was intending to betray Him, said, ‘Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?’ Now he said this, not because he was concerned about the poor, but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box, he used to pilfer what was put into it. Therefore Jesus said, ‘Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have Me.’ ” John 12:1–8 NASB
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