Preaching Resources

Preaching Mission for the 5th Sunday in Lent (April 3, 2022)

True Worship Brings True Service
By Bishop Chris Giesler

Assigned Texts:

  • Isaiah 43:16-21
  • Philippians 3:4b-14
  • John 12:1-8

You must pay attention when a particular narrative shows up in all four Gospel texts. Each of the Gospel writers had a wide variety of materials to choose from in their writing, and they were each writing to different audiences. While the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke share far more in common and follow a similar chronology, John’s Gospel follows its own path. There are very few things that show up in all four. Among the events found in all four Gospels are the feeding of the 5,000, clearing the Temple, Jesus’ arrest, death, and resurrection. Today, our text from John’s Gospel is also one of these rare stories. It is the account of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet. While some of the details are different, the act of devotion and this woman’s gift to Jesus is consistent.

A unique part of John’s account is that he is the only one to give this woman a name. And it turns out that this is not just some random person; it is Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus. This puts John’s account in a new and different light.

As told to us by John, the basic outline of the event follows this timeline. In John Chapter 11, we have the account of Jesus coming to Bethany and raising Lazarus from the grave after being there for four days. The depth of Jesus’ relationship with this family is underscored by John’s adding that Jesus wept with Mary and Martha when he first encountered them. Their grief broke his heart. John says that many came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah after witnessing these events, but we also hear that others now plotted to kill Jesus because he was gaining popularity with the crowds. As a result, Jesus removes himself from the region and waits in a town called Ephraim for a while.

Chapter 12 opens by telling us that six days before the Passover, Jesus returned to Bethany and was invited for a dinner by Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. As Martha serves the meal, Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with expensive, sweet-smelling oils. She massages his feet and then wipes them with her hair. All of this was a gesture of her gratitude and thanksgiving for what Jesus had done for her family. But as is often the case when money gets involved, controversy soon follows. Judas Iscariot, the one soon to betray Jesus, and the keeper of the money bag, complained that this oil could have been sold and the money given to the poor. John shows his disdain for Judas by telling us that Judas said this not because he cared about the poor, but because this is money that Judas could have stolen for himself. Plain and simple, he calls Judas a thief.

Jesus then responds with a comment that, on first hearing, sounds jarring and uncaring. He says, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  But doesn’t Judas have a point even if he was disingenuous? Feeding the hungry does seem to be a better way to spend money than on making Jesus’ feet smell nice.  Perhaps a critical Moravian might ask why a congregation might spend so much on pianos, organs, and other musical instruments when such things cost a lot of money to purchase and maintain. Could that money not be given to a struggling family to put food on their table? Why should we spend money on beeswax candles for our Christmas Eve services when they last only a few minutes? Could not that money be given for purchasing warm clothes and shelter for the homeless? Jesus is not telling us to disregard the poor; the overwhelming witness of the Gospels convinces us of that. Jesus is saying that this gift, at this moment, is needed, appreciated, and profound. It is the beginning of his body being prepared for its burial in less than two weeks. Only Jesus could have known this.

The Board of World Mission is deeply grateful for the more than $60,000 (USD) that has come into our office in the last two weeks to help resettle refugees from Ukraine into places like the Czech Republic, Germany, and Denmark. We recognize that this money comes to us from congregations who could use it for things needed on their church campuses, and it comes to us from individuals who could be using this money to purchase food and items to use themselves. But instead, folks have made this sacrifice for the good of others. We are truly thankful for such generosity.

While we are grateful for this show of support for those who are suffering, we also realize that congregations and individuals also put aside some of their money to provide a suitable looking, sounding, and feeling place to conduct worship to our Savior. Congregations spend money on a pastor’s time to plan the worship service and write a sermon. They pay musicians for their leadership in the service. They pay for heat, water, electricity, and other services within their church buildings. They pay for zoom subscriptions, computers, sound, and other equipment to stream their services to those who cannot attend in person.

The truth is the investment in the worship of God is what makes charity for others possible.

The homeless we will always have. There will always be refugees fleeing violence. There will always be hurricanes and earthquakes that destroy homes and livelihoods, and we will respond as we are able. But there is also a truth that our worship of God is an essential part of what enables us to respond when we are called upon to do so. This is precisely what Mary was doing. This was an extravagant gesture; you might even call it an expensive one. But it came from the heart. May we worship our Lord with just the same love and devotion.