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“LET YOUR HAIR DOWN!”
By Rev. Victor Kim
(04-07-19) Lent 5
What’s the most extravagant thing that you own? For some of us that may be our home, for others it may be a car or a boat, still for others, some form of jewellery, perhaps a diamond ring or a watch. Or it may be something which is difficult to place a monetary value on but is precious in some other way.
The word extravagant comes from the Latin meaning to wander outside. Or to put it another way, it means to be outside the normal boundaries. Extravagant is outside the norm, past the boundaries, breaking the rules. As we come upon our text this morning on this 5th Sunday in Lent, the Gospel writer John tells us of a visit Jesus had with some old friends. Mary and Martha were two sisters who Jesus knew well in a place called Bethany. They also had a brother named Lazarus, who not too much earlier in John’s gospel, Jesus had raised from the dead. So, it is not surprising that when Jesus arrived in Bethany on his way to Jerusalem, the family invited Jesus as the guest of honour for dinner. I mean a dinner was the least one could do for someone who had raised a member of the family from the dead.
But what was surprising, what caught everyone off guard, what broke all the rules was something that one of the sisters did as Jesus was dining at the table. Martha worked in the kitchen. Martha was the practical sister. If there ever was an event to be planned, Martha could be counted on to plan it. She would shop for the right ingredients; she would plan for the meal. She would make sure that everything was in its proper place. Mary, however, was different. She didn’t evidence the gifts of planning or practicality. But she had an uncanny knack for understanding how people were feeling. There was a great deal of empathy in Mary. And that evening, as the meal was being served, Mary didn’t help Martha as much as she might have, something distracted her. Something wasn’t quite right, Jesus didn’t seem quite right. He was there with them, having dinner in their midst, but it seemed that his mind was somewhere else, perhaps already engaged in thinking to the days that lay ahead in Jerusalem.
And so, out of instinct, out of empathy, out of a sense of the occasion, Mary did something extravagant, something which broke all the rules. She took out a pint of pure nard, an incredibly expensive perfume, which cost a year’s wages, and she poured it on Jesus’ feet and she wiped his feet with her hair, with her hair! The act broke all the rules. It was a breach of protocol that a woman would undo her hair in the presence of men and that she would wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair. She touched Jesus, an unmarried woman touching a man! And you thought Joe Biden had touching issues!
This kind of thing just wasn’t done. You can imagine the tension in the room as the smell of the perfume quickly fills the air. Everyone stops what they’re doing. The food stops being served; the disciples and Lazarus suddenly stop their chatter. All eyes are on Mary as she continues to wipe the nard from Jesus’ feet with her hair. The confusion and discomfort must have been overwhelming for those present. The uncomfortable silence is broken by Judas Iscariot, and he speaks for many in the room and perhaps for many of us here, when he says the obvious, “why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?” It’s worth a year’s wages! If it means so little to you that you could pour out the entire bottle to wash someone’s feet, why not rather sell the bottle and use the money to help people? Why waste it? Why this extravagance?
Most of those in that room with him probably agreed, but there was one notable exception. Jesus sided with Mary. Leave her alone, Jesus says, it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. And seeing right through the hypocrisy of Judas, he continues, if you really want to help the poor then you know that you will always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.
And Jesus understands this act of extravagance. Mary knew something that no one else in the room knew. She sensed something that escaped everyone else in that room that night. Isn’t it ironic that Jesus’ disciples, those who travelled with him all day and all night, those who had heard Jesus speak of his impending death, of his laying down his life for his sheep, those who were the closest to Jesus didn’t sense what would happen to him in Jerusalem, but Mary, the one who had sat at Jesus’ feet earlier and listened to him while Martha worked away in the kitchen, the one whose lack of practicality was often a sore point for others, it was Mary who sensed the occasion and she rose to meet the need. She knows that Jesus is not long for her world and she does just the right thing at just the right time.
And yes, her act was extravagant, it was beyond the boundaries, it broke the rules, but Jesus accepted it. Jesus accepted it because Mary’s extravagance was just a brief glimpse into the extravagance of the God who had sent him into the world. Mary’s extravagance is a reflection of the God we worship and God’s extravagant love for us. Jesus accepts Mary’s act, he understands it, he praises it, because it points to the truth about himself and the truth about God. Our God is a God of extravagant love.
Last week I spoke on the parable of the prodigal son, but more importantly the story spoke of the prodigal father, the one whose love and grace seemed wasteful, the one who when he saw his son a long ways off, hiked up his robe and ran out to embrace him and threw him a party with the fatted calf. Our God is a God of extravagant love.
Our God in Jesus Christ, God’s son, is the one who not only turns the water into wine at the wedding feast, but turns 600 litres of water into the finest wine ever tasted. Our God is a God of extravagant grace.
Our God in Jesus Christ, God’s son, is the one who not only feeds the 5000 from 5 loaves and 2 fish, but also has enough left over to fill twelve baskets. Our God doesn’t provide just enough; God is extravagant in God’s provision.
Our God in Jesus Christ, God’s son, is the one who goes into the village of the Samaritan woman and strikes up a conversation with the unclean and despised outsider. God doesn’t merely tolerate the marginalized and the outcasts, God cherishes them, God welcomes them, God values them. Our God is a God of extravagant mercy.
Our God in Jesus Christ God’s son, is the one who was born in a manger, who taught us about his ways, who suffered and was crucified for us, who willingly gave his life for us so that we might be restored to God and find forgiveness for our sins and healing from our brokenness. God’s is an extravagant love. God’s extravagant gift of Jesus Christ broke all the rules.
Those of us here this morning on this 5th Sunday in Lent, know that truth far better than Mary did that day in Bethany. We confess that Jesus willingly lay down his life for us so that we would know release from the power of sin and death. We also confess that he didn’t remain dead, but he was resurrected from the dead and lives forevermore, having conquered the powers of darkness and fear so that we would know his forgiveness, and having received that forgiveness, would live a life of repentance, finding God’s healing and reconciling grace in our lives.God’s extravagance in Jesus Christ broke all the rules.
How do we respond to such extravagance? There is no way that we could even begin to match what God has done for us in Jesus. We cannot lay down our lives for God’s sake; our lives don’t have the same redemptive power that Jesus’ life has. It’s a question that leaves us stumped and it’s tempting to doing nothing.
Our response cannot be the equal of God’s act, but it can be something. In response to God’s extravagance, would we dare to push the boundaries,would we dare wander from the tightly held beliefs about what we think we can do for God, about how much, or how little, we think we can accomplish, would we dare to wander beyond the boundaries that we have spent a lifetime building and reinforcing? God’s call for extravagance on our part doesn’t mean that we have to give up something that would cost us a year’s wages, it doesn’t mean parting with our homes or our cars or our jewellery or whatever else we might consider extravagant.
What it does mean is that we, like Mary, be willing to defy the conventional,that we be willing to let our hair down, We convince ourselves of our boundaries, of our limits and we don’t want to push any further. Sometimes, like Judas we limit ourselves to reasons why we can’t be extravagant, why we need to be responsible, when in reality our “so-called responsibility” hides a fear of risking more for God, a fear of breaking our self-imposed rules, a fear of responding to God’s extravagance in a way which will not leave us the same. And so, we rationalize our faith, we can’t see the love in Mary’s act because it seems so wasteful. We can’t see the point in helping certain people because, “what would it change for them?” It seems so wasteful.
Besides, there’s a lot of pressure to be moderate and balanced in our religious commitment. If a person devotes their time, money, and affection to the pursuit of any worldly interest, they call such a person wise. If a person dedicates himself to the pursuit of riches, fame, and power, they find no fault with him. If she is an athlete and commits herself to exercise, training, and practice, they say she is to be admired for her dedication. Yet, if that same person devotes himself or herself and all that they have to Jesus, to his worship, for the sake of his gospel and the service of his kingdom, the world has words for people such as these, fanatics, extremists.
Can you imagine if God felt the same way, if God rationalized the same way we rationalize our faith? The season of Lent is our reminder that God, our God, doesn’t love us in rationalized portions. God doesn’t weigh the risk/reward options of loving us; God doesn’t invest only in that which will provide acceptable returns. God breaks the rules, God pushes the boundaries and God draws them anew. My friends, our God is a God of extravagant love.
We can be like the disciples, stunned into inaction and fear by the challenge of following such a God in Jesus Christ, we can be hypocrites like Judas, saying one thing but meaning another, someone wrote that the only thing worse than not caring for the poor is to pretend to care. Or we can follow Mary; we can push past the carefully crafted boundaries that keep us from risking, from the possibility that God has more in mind for us.
Oswald Chambers, in his book, My Utmost for His Highest, writes,
“If what we call love doesn’t take us beyond ourselves, it is not really love.
If we have the idea that love is characterized as cautious, wise, sensible, shrewd,
and never taken to extremes, we have missed the true meaning. This may describe affection and it may bring us a warm feeling, but it is not a true and accurate description of love.”
Friends, God gave of the most precious thing in God’s extravagant love for us. God gave us God’s own son, Jesus Christ. In this Lenten season, as we move toward Jerusalem and the cross, but beyond that to the empty tomb and the resurrection, may we be willing to let our hair down, to push the boundaries of respectability and moderation that we have carefully built up, to challenge our long-held assumptions of what we could do in service to Jesus and his love.
If we need a place to begin, we could start with Jesus’ own words that we will always have the poor with us. Rather than an excuse not to do something about what seems to be an impossible problem, we could begin by pushing past our assumptions and stereotypes about the poor and why they’re poor and what can be done about their situation.
And we could remember that poor doesn’t always mean poor in economic resources. There are the poor in health, the poor in spirit, the poor in hope, as well as those who can’t pay the bills or have enough to eat. What might we be able to do in bringing the love and grace of Jesus to those whose poverty is rooted in things other than money? The possibilities are endless, limited only by our imagination.
May we learn to let our hair down and more and more learn to love our God with an extravagant love, as God has loved us.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
Written by Rev. Victor Kim
Preached on 07 April 2019
at Richmond Presbyterian Church.