At the Feet of Jesus
Scripture: John 12:1-8
March 21, 2010
by Christine Nafziger
As I was reading and studying for this sermon, the phrase that came to me was “What is it with Mary and Jesus’ feet?!” I thought about using that for the title, but figured it probably wouldn’t be real appropriate. But then, maybe I should have titled it that, because Mary’s actions in this story are anything but appropriate! The reason that phrase came to me was from looking at the aspect of feet in this story and realizing there are two other places where Mary ends up at the feet of Jesus.
In Luke we read a story of Jesus and his disciples coming to a village where Mary’s sister Martha opens her home to them. While Jesus is there, Mary sits at his feet, listening to what he says.
Then in chapter 11 of John, the chapter before the story we’re looking at, we read about the death of Lazarus and Jesus raising him back to life. Here again we see Mary at the feet of Jesus as she falls at his feet and says, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She is weeping and Jesus is deeply moved and also weeps.
In the anointing story that we’ve heard a couple times already, Mary is again found at Jesus’ feet, body bent down, performing an act of gratitude to her Lord. Perhaps one thing that motivated her to do this was the fact that this man had given her brother Lazarus back to her. Perhaps her motivation came from a heart that truly understood who Jesus really was. And perhaps there was more. But whatever her motivation, she willingly put herself in a very awkward situation by what she did. No doubt she knew the inappropriateness of what she was doing…loosening her hair in public, wasting expensive (very expensive!) perfume that could have been used for a much better cause, and wiping the feet of a man with her hair!! Whatever her motivation, it was an act of worship, of vulnerability, an act of humble service.
Isn’t it interesting that Mary’s anointing of Jesus takes place just a few days before Jesus washes the feet of his disciples. So Mary is doing for Jesus what Jesus teaches his disciples to do for one another just a few days later. She models the picture of servanthood that Jesus calls his disciples to.
Jesus, the Great Teacher, kneels before his students—those who have been following him and learning from him—the one who is Lord over these 12 and all of us, ties a towel around his waist, gets down on his knees and performs an act that puts himself beneath his followers (doing what a slave would normally do). He reverses our assumptions and our way of thinking that puts some people above others, that treats some as more important than others.
Both Mary’s and Jesus’ action challenge us to rid ourselves of our attitudes of self-importance, to confess our self-focus. Too often our world revolves around us. We get caught up in our issues, our joys, our pain, and forget that there are others right beside us that are also struggling and celebrating. Are we rejoicing and weeping with them? We become so self-focused that we forget that there are people throughout the world who are caught up in addictions, abuse, human trafficking, violence. Our hearts cease to break for them, our eyes shed no tears for their pain. As we become self-absorbed, we lose sight of all we have to be thankful for. We lose sight of our calling as Christians to kneel before those who the world says are “beneath” us and serve them with the love of Christ.
There’s another aspect to this story that I want us to look at. A story similar to this one shows up in the gospels of Mark and Luke (Mark 14, Luke 7). In Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ head. Whether or not these are all the same story with the same woman would be interesting to look into, but I’m not addressing that this morning. What I want to look at is the message that John is giving us in his gospel. If John would have told us Mary anointed Jesus’ head, we could come to the conclusion that she was proclaiming Jesus king, since kings were anointed in this way. But John tells us that Mary anoints Jesus’ feet.
As in our day and culture, perfume in Mary’s day would have normally been used on a person’s face to make them smell good. So it’s quite odd that Mary would take perfume and pour it on Jesus’ feet. In that time, the only feet that were anointed were the feet of a corpse, in order to prepare the body for burial. What Mary was doing was being prophetic. Her action foreshadowed what was going to happen in just a few days. Perhaps she was able to comprehend and accept what the disciples couldn’t—the death of their master, their Messiah.
The scripture passage immediately before the anointing story (at the end of chapter 11) tells of the Sanhedrin’s discussion of what to do with Jesus, and their plan to put him to death. So we go from them plotting to kill Jesus right into Mary preparing him for his death. Each of these actions stem at least in part from Jesus’ raising Lazarus from the dead. The Sanhedrin are unsettled. More and more Jews are believing in Jesus because of the miracles he’s performing. The Sanhedrin are afraid that if they let Jesus go on like this, everyone’s gonna believe in him and the Romans will come and destroy their holy place and their nation. So their response is one of fear and refusal to believe. Mary’s response, on the other hand, is one of faith, a radical act of love for Jesus.
Sometime this week I had the thought of having Patrick come up here and sit on a chair and then I would proceed to pour perfume over his bare feet and wipe them with my hair. The hope would have been to make you all really uncomfortable. Of course, I decided not to do it because that would have made me really uncomfortable too!
Maybe it would be closer to the storyline if I were to come to your house and do that to some great evangelist or world-renowned leader in the Church that you had invited for supper! Maybe that would help give you an idea of how appalling it was, what Mary did. Think about it, wouldn’t that make you a little uncomfortable? Or a lot uncomfortable? You and others present would probably be like “what is she doing?!” There would be some looks passed back and forth, some judgments formed in your mind, maybe some feelings of being offended.
What Mary did was not kosher in her society, but it was her offering of extravagant, unbridled worship of her Lord. Mary was very aware of the outrageous nature of what she was going to do. She knew she was putting herself in a position to be reprimanded, doing something that would be met with disapproval and judgment. But that knowledge did not keep her from offering herself in complete abandon to Jesus. It took guts for Mary to do this.
I wonder how much it takes for us to give whatever it is that we’re giving to Jesus. How much does it cost us? This is a question Greg Boyd posed in VA a couple months ago. He said it’s not about what you give, but how much it costs you. Is it a sacrifice for you? Are you giving out of your surplus or are you giving all you have?
Mary’s actions make me think about our worship of God. How willing are we to be vulnerable and extravagant in our worship? Here, in our communal worship together?
I was just at OH Conference meetings in Archbold last weekend, and there was a group of people that led us in singing during one of the worship services. What stood out to me was their freedom in worship, specifically with their bodies. One young lady offered her gift of interpretive movement, another sign language, and others raising of hands. It was so refreshing for me because sometimes I long to worship God through raising my hands, clapping, kneeling, whatever it might be, but I refrain because I don’t want people to misjudge me or I don’t want to be the only one doing that.
There was something really powerful I experienced at this same conference weekend. Ervin Stutzman, who is the new Executive Director for Mennonite Church USA—he oversees our denomination—was the speaker. During his second sermon, as he talked about the disciples’ question of who this Jesus really was, I don’t even remember what he was saying, but what he did is strongly imprinted on my mind. In front of about 350 people or more, he modeled this extravagant worship as he knelt down in adoration of this man Jesus and raised his arms heavenward.
How willing are we to be vulnerable and extravagant in worship of our Lord and Savior? This vulnerability and extravagance shows itself in many forms, not just the outward expressions. But the focus is on Jesus, not on us. You know, there were many that went to Jesus during his ministry to have their needs met. Mary went to Jesus to give what was due him—the extravagant worship of a grateful heart. May we do the same. Amen.