Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Reading John 12.1-11
Jesus is at dinner among friends. One of them, Mary, anoints him with pricey ointment, which is what you do for honoured guests and for kings. Jesus is both, but why does she anoint his feet, rather than his head? And why wipe it off again as she does, with her own hair? Then, when Judas complains about the waste, Jesus says, ‘Leave her alone, she brought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.’ Keep it? Hasn’t she just used it? Or is this that day? Is Jesus effectively already a dead man? Anyhow, it all reads awkwardly. Why?
A technical answer is that John, when he writes his passage, is working from material in both Mark’s gospel and Luke’s. Mark has a story about Jesus at Bethany, where an unnamed women anoints his head, the disciples complain about the cost, and Jesus says she has done this beautiful thing to prepare him for burial (Mark 14.3-9). Luke has a story about a ‘sinner’ whose tears drip on to Jesus’ feet (the moment that inspired Phineas Fletcher’s haunting hymn that we just sang); she wipes them away with her hair before anointing his feet with ointment (Luke 7.36-50). It may be that John is trying to blend the two and the result is - awkward.
Yes, but if I had to use one word to describe people’s reaction to Jesus throughout John’s gospel, then it would be ‘awkward’: Jesus tells a man he needs to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, and the man thinks he needs to go back the womb; Jesus offers a woman living water, and she thinks he’s talking about a cool well somewhere; Jesus heals a blind man, and his critics – who have perfect eyesight – just can’t see what this means; and now a woman puts ointment on his feet and then wipes it off again, as if she’s got it wrong, as if she doesn’t know what to do, or how to be, when she is with Jesus.
Three months ago we celebrated the birth of Jesus with words from John’s opening lines, ‘And the word was made flesh’, but Jesus is a word no-one can spell. No-one knows what to make of him, not even his friends. He is, John says, the light shining in the darkness and the darkness has never mastered it; that is, the darkness has never overcome the light, but it has never understood it either.
From now on, as this week unfolds, the misunderstanding will become unbearable, and the awkwardness will rupture into conflict and violence. The crowd who on Palm Sunday hailed Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem will call for his death, God’s holy one will be set against God’s holy people – God will seem to be set against God.
If we are to say that God is really at work in these events, this is a strange God, whose plan does not unfold in a straight line and who, embodied in Jesus, goes deep into our awkward world with its compromise and dilemma. Despite the tendency some of us still have to treat our creator and redeemer as a prim relative who must not be embarrassed, God knows our world from the inside, a world where (for instance) so many political questions - whether for a Roman governor with a difficult province or a Chancellor with a difficult budget - are about who to hurt and how badly.
Ours is a God who can cope, cope with your complex history, my messy circumstances, with our sin and our muddle, our crooked hearts and our well-meant ideas that go wrong. And as we walk with Jesus through this holy week, the word of God will say to us,
Bring it all to me, bring me what has made you who you are, and what stops you becoming what you might be; bring it to the cross. I’m used to this kind of thing. See what I can do with it.
We shall have that opportunity on the starkness of Good Friday. We also have it tonight, in this warmer more intimate moment, remembering a night Jesus spent among friends. There, someone touched him tenderly and anointed him. Here - if we want it - he will touch us tenderly and anoint us. He will take us to those places of awkwardness and rupture that few human lives are without and he will say to us, ‘Don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.’
God set against God - See Rowan Williams, 'The Wound of Knowledge', DLT 1979, 2014, Chapter 1, ‘The Passion of My God’.
Don't be afraid... - A quotation from Francis Spufford's 'Unapologetic', Faber 2012, p 148. Watch his introduction to the book here.