Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent – April 3, 2022
Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
This is the Sunday in Lent when I kind of wish we had scratch and sniff worship bulletins. There would be so much to smell! In the reading from Isaiah, where Isaiah describes the new thing God is doing, we could smell the distinctive and wonderful scent of petrichor, that amazing scent you smell after it finally rains on dry ground. We could smell the exotic scents of the zoo – the musk of jackals and ostriches and other wild animals giving their honor to God. We could smell the rich aroma of the wine given to God’s chosen people, so that they might declare his praise. From the psalm we could catch the distinctive and wonderful scents of farm fields and harvest, the scents of freshly turned soil and recently cut hay.
Maybe technology will make scratch and sniff worship bulletins possible in my lifetime. Maybe we’ll even have the ability someday to pipe scents into the sanctuary to augment our readings. But on second thought, maybe that isn’t such a good idea. Because by the time we get to our second reading, there’s some stuff there that doesn’t smell so good!
In our reading from Philippians, Paul cites all his so-called spiritual credentials, all the reasons he has to be “confident in the flesh.” Paul lists off all the reasons he has to be comfortable in his status before God as determined by outward appearance and outward behavior.
Paul notes that he was circumcised on the eighth day, just like good Jewish baby boys were, just like it says they are supposed to be in the book of Leviticus. Of course, he was a member of the people of Israel, God’s chosen people. He was a member of the prestigious and respected tribe of Benjamin. He was a Hebrew born of Hebrews, born into the right family, the right culture. He was a Pharisee, who were more scrupulous than anyone else in keeping God’s law, dotting every last “I” and crossing every last “T”.
And yet, Paul concludes, he now, in light of Christ, considers all of those spiritual credentials to be “rubbish.” Now, this is an example of Bible translators being polite. “Trash” or “garbage” would at least get us a little bit closer to the word Paul actually uses here, and no one wants to smell garbage. But the actual word Paul uses is something even smellier and more offensive. The Greek word is an offensive slang word for excrement, for doo-doo! I struggle every time I preach on this text with just how far to push this with an accurate English word. Can I say “crap” and keep my job? “Crap” isn’t as bad as the word I want to say.
Anyway, whether it is rubbish or garbage or excrement or doo-doo, it certainly isn’t something you want to scratch and sniff! It isn’t a scent you want piped into the sanctuary, that’s for sure!
Paul uses this word to be intentionally provocative. He evokes this foul smell to make an important point. What he is saying is that in comparison to knowing Christ Jesus, all his spiritual credentials stink. They are garbage. They are doo-doo. Paul has come to know a better righteousness, the righteousness based on faith in Jesus. He doesn’t need all those credentials anymore. He can throw them in the trash or flush them down the toilet because now he has Jesus.
Our gospel reading is quite fragrant as well. One night when Jesus was having dinner with Martha and Mary and Lazarus, Mary got up and got a bottle of costly perfume and dumped the whole thing out on Jesus’ feet, using her hair to massage it into his soles. The fragrance of this costly perfume filled the room. It is an odd gesture, to be sure, but it is a beautiful one – filled with so much meaning and adoration and love.
Mary took her expensive perfume and used it to anoint Jesus, marking him as someone special, someone precious to her. She anointed his feet, humbling herself as she knelt before him. She wiped his feet with her hair. Most women had long hair in those days. They kept it tied up and covered most of the time, only letting it down in the presence of those closest to them. Mary not only let her hair down in front of Jesus – she went on to use her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet. It is a picture of intense spiritual intimacy and love.
When Judas objects, saying that they could have sold that perfume and used the money to help the poor, Jesus tells him to back off and leave her alone. First of all, Judas was virtue signaling. John tells us as much. Judas didn’t really intend to actually help the poor. Moreover, Jesus saw great meaning and value in what she was doing. He told Judas that she was preparing him for his burial. When someone died in those days, their bodies were prepared with fragrant ointments and spices. This is what Mary was doing, Jesus said.
The strong, powerful fragrance of this perfume matches the strong, powerful meaning behind what was happening. Mary was anointing Jesus as the Messiah. She was worshipping the Savior who would soon die for her. She was pouring out everything that was most valuable to her for his sake. She was humbling herself before her soon-to-be crucified Lord. She was letting down her hair, entrusting herself to him completely. She was humbly serving him by washing his feet.
The contrasting smells of Paul’s poopy garbage and Mary’s costly perfume provide for us a contrast between two ways of life. They provide a contrast between a righteousness that we seek for ourselves and the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus. They provide a contrast between a life that is all about status and which tribe we belong to and virtue signaling, and a life that is marked by spiritual intimacy with Jesus, a life where we pour ourselves out for the One who poured himself out for us.
The former is foul. As Martin Luther liked to say, rooting your salvation in your works always leads to one of two places. Either you become prideful over your supposed status and achievements, or your fall into despair because you never quite get there. Both stink!
We have our own status symbols that we strive for. We have our own tribes that we belong to that we think make us better than other people. We have our own ways of virtue signaling, of projecting our so-called righteousness. And it all stinks. It has us chasing our tails. It has us at each other’s throats.
Paul knew a better way. He called it the righteousness from God based on faith. He described it as the “surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
This better way is found in the fragrance that fills our gospel reading. True Christianity can be seen in Mary’s odd but beautiful gesture. True saving faith is about kneeling before the One who died for us. It is about entrusting ourselves to him completely. It is about humbly serving him with all that we are and all that we have.
If you find yourself walking in either pride or despair, you might want to check your shoes. You may have stepped in something – that smelly something Paul that warns about.
Instead, kneel before the One who gave his life for you. Jesus has done everything necessary to make us right with God. He has “righted us” by giving us his righteousness as a gift of grace, received in faith. He died for us and rose again to give us a new life.
So pour your treasures out at his feet. Worship him. Adore him. Love him. Serve him.
And may the fragrance of our love for Christ fill this room, today and always.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church