JN 12:1-11 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.” The large crowd of the Jews then learned that He was there; and they came, not for Jesus’ sake only, but that they might also see Lazarus, whom He raised from the dead. But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus.
Theme: The Pressure of the Last Days
I have been presenting a series for the past few weeks dealing with the relationship between the culture of the last days and the righteous soul. I never really intended that this message be apart of that series. However, as I put it together this week, it became apparent that it very much relates to the theme of that series. With that in mind, the question I want to ask is this: ‘What will the pressure of the culture of the last days do to us?’ And right here in the beginning of this message let me answer that question. The pressure of the last days is going to do one thing with respect to everyone in this room: It is going to expose what is in our hearts; the good, the bad, the ugly; the black and the white and the multiple shades of grey in between.
Do I like that? Absolutely not. Do I need that? Absolutely yes. Because without that exposure my heart can never be transformed at that particular point of need.
In John chapter 12 we have one of the most incredible scenes in the gospel records. Let me set that up for you just a bit. It was customary in that culture that when you invited a guest for a meal anyone in the community could come and sit in on the event. There would be a dining table- and only invited guests could come to the table. But arranged around the walls of the dining room were benches. Uninvited guests would come and sit on those benches. They could listen to all the conversations around the table. The stipulation was that they could not enter into any conversation or activity.
Bear in mind that on this particular day there were two major reasons why those benches would have been filled with curiosity seekers. First there was Jesus. Secondly there was Lazarus who had been raised from the dead, having spent four days in the grave. That was the setting. And perhaps it should be noted that John does not write that this supper was held in the house of Mary and Martha. If you read Matthew and Mark’s record of this event you discover that all of this unfolded in the house of a man identified only as Simon the leper; suggesting a healed leper, and likely healed by Christ.
It is a family scene. Mary, Martha and Lazarus are siblings. They have invited Jesus home for a family gathering. On the surface it is what we might call a warm fuzzy. It’s cozy; it’s homey; the conversation flows and the fellowship is good. But as is often the case with family gatherings, just beneath the surface there is a whole depth of heart issues at work. Each of the people mentioned in the story represent a particular heart issue.
First of all we need to mark the time note contained in the text: ‘six days before the Passover’. This means we are down to the last week of the pre-resurrection life of Jesus Christ.
One of the most interesting exercises you can engage in is to read the gospel records with this one issue in mind: Watch how the escalation of hostilities develop over the three years of Christ’s ministry. What begins as mild disagreement escalates to total open hostility and complete polarization. Having come to this last week the lines are drawn, the positions are entrenched, the directions are set- and all of this is about the heart.
How deep were these issues? Watch this. But the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death also; because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and were believing in Jesus. When the evidence refutes the position of my heart I have a choice to make: I can repent and turn away from that wrong position, or I can destroy the evidence of truth. They chose the latter. That choice was made a long time before this final week, but it was the pressure of these last seven days that fully exposed the position of the heart.
All of us in this house today understand this principle of the pressure of the last days and the exposure of the heart. Whether weddings, funerals, pregnancies, education programs, retirement and a thousand other life events- there is an increasing intensity and pressure as we move towards conclusion and closure. And this may come as a real shocker: This principle is true even of church building programs.
In the story we meet Mary, Martha, Lazarus, Judas, the disciples, the Jews, the chief priests and Jesus. By the end of the story everybody’s heart is exposed.
Martha was still serving. And, of course, one cannot help but recall another occasion when Martha was encumbered with much serving and highly critical of her sister Mary, who sat at the feet of Jesus listening to His words. On that occasion Jesus had told Martha that Mary had chosen the better part.
I need to be careful not to read anything too critical into the fact that Martha is still serving. The fact that Jesus did not touch that issue with her here would suggest that something had changed between that first reference and this. The issue on that first occasion was not the fact of her serving; it was the heart attitude towards her gift of service. I think her gift had become her defining identity. But more than that she had slipped into the place of judging those around her through that identity. This was a heart issue- and Jesus confronted it and exposed it.
And now seven days from the cross I believe Martha’s heart is again exposed and my view is that her heart has been changed; it’s in a different place, and her service is flowing out of a whole new attitude.
Next we meet Lazarus. And what we read of him is this: ‘reclining at the table with Him‘. It is a picture rich with meaning. I wish we had more time. The table speaks of covenant, of family, of relationship, of welcome, of acceptance, of fellowship; the table speaks of communion and community.
The posture of ‘reclining’ speaks of rest- a position of assurance.
The pressure of the last days revealed this much about the heart of Lazarus: His only interest was in being where Jesus was. Everything else was a distraction at best. The centrally defining reality of this man’s heart was fellowship with Jesus.
That of course, should not surprise us- given the fact that after four days in the grave, Jesus raised him to life again. And to the extent that we understand that we were as spiritually dead as Lazarus was physically dead- and that this same Christ raised us to spiritual life that is eternal in nature- our hearts will more and more be defined by the single focus of fellowship with Christ.
The scriptures warn that in the last days the love of many will grow cold. Bring that back toJohn 12 and understand that for every “Lazarus” raised from the dead his love will grow cold in the measure that he forgets where he was, and how absolutely hopeless he was when Jesus came to the tomb that enclosed him.
Make no mistake: The pressure of the last days will progressively reveal this.
We come now to Mary. What did the pressure of the last days reveal about her heart? I call it lavish worship; the total abandonment of the heart in devotion for Christ. She took the most costly and precious item she had and poured it out upon the Christ. Here we see a heart in which nothing is withheld.
But her worship went far beyond the mere cost of the ointment. The most costly expression of her worship was not the ointment but what she did with her hair. We know that in the culture of that day for a woman to uncover her head and especially to let down her hair was a sign of prostitution.
Please understand what is happening here. Her heart was so singly devoted to the worship of Christ that she would not allow that worship to be bound by convention and culture and social norms.
Mary’s heart of worship put her in a place of profound humiliation and risk in relation to the conventions of the culture in which she lived. Mark this down: Our worship will always reveal where our heart is in relation to the culture. To the extent that my worship is dictated and shaped by the culture- to that extent my heart is not yet a “Mary heart”.
If the question is: How will we know where our heart is? The answer is: The pressure of the last days will reveal it.
And notice the result of that lavish act of worship pouring out of a heart lost in its devotion to Christ: ‘and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.’
I read this thirty five years ago and I believe it now more than then: I am convinced that Mary became aware of something in that room- something all the others missed. Suddenly she became aware that Christ was indeed going to be put to death. Christ confirmed this when He said: “Let her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of My burial.” Jesus saw something in this act of worship that became an anointing or preparation for Him in relation to His upcoming death.
This makes these words all the more important: ‘the fragrance of the perfume.’ In other words He would carry the perfume of the ointment all the way to the cross, and would be constantly encouraged and strengthened by the true fragrance of Mary’s heart of worship.
Next we come to Judas. There are two issues here. The first is his words. When read the other gospel writers you discover that Judas was not alone in his view. The rest of the disciples agreed with him. But that is where the agreement ended. There was a matter beyond his words- a much more important matter: His heart. It is possible to agree with a person’s words without knowing the heart motivation behind the words.
When John sat in that dining room and heard the words of Judas he did not know the heart of Judas. But many years after the event, when he was an old man writing about it he understood the heart that gave rise to the words. This is what he wrote: 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. One translation says; He was a thief at heart….’
Notice also these words: ‘….who was intending to betray Him….’ In other words Judas had been entertaining the whole issue of betrayal in his heart a long time before this event in Bethany. But it was the pressure of the last days that finally exposed what was in his heart.
In fact Matthew tells us this: MT 26:14 Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, “What are you willing to give me to betray Him to you?” And they weighed out thirty pieces of silver to him. Judas went out from that fellowship meal and acted upon what was in his heart.
Contrast the heart of Mary and the heart of Judas- and understand that it was the lavish act of worship flowing from the heart of Mary that finally exposed what was in the heart of Judas. And we need to diligently search our hearts regarding our reactions to expressions of worship that are outside of our definitions.
Bringing it home:
One year ago this past fall the Holy Spirit spoke a strong prophetic word into the life of this community. It happened just at the time we decided to build this building we are gathered in today. The essence of that word was this: We were to build a physical building. While we were doing that, God would be building a new heart in us His people. By the time the building was finally done there would be a people with a renewed and transformed heart to enter it.
At the time I suppose we all romanticized that word. We were excited with the whole idea of a renewed heart. A little more than one year later we now know something about spiritual open heart surgery; there’s nothing romantic about it and there’s nothing exciting about the procedure. It hurts. It hurts. And it hurts some more.
Regarding this project we are closer to completion than we were a year ago. However, we are not totally there yet. There are still some things to be done with the building- plus there is the whole issue of landscaping to be done. What I can tell you is that we are in the last days of this building program. And what I can tell you about the last days of most things is that there is an increase of pressure. And what I can tell you about that is pressure is that it’s designed to expose what is in our hearts. And what I can tell you about that exposure is that it creates the opportunity for repentance and transformation.
The final issue is not what the pressure of the last days exposes; the far greater issue is how we respond to that exposure.