Sermon: He Loved Us First
Updated: Jul 12, 2022
I don’t know about you, but when I hear stories like this, filled with fragrances and ointments, I am not entranced by the heavenly smells and their sense of beauty. You see, I am allergic to fragrances and colognes, any strong smell, really. When I think of strong fragrances, my first thought is, “Headache in 3, 2, 1, right on time.” But this passage is about far more than beauty and fragrances and sweet smells.
She could never imagine what would happen this night. As she washes her face, she could never imagine that just up the road in Jerusalem, the men who had tried to teach her about life with God are meeting and planning murder. As she ties her belt, she could never imagine that a group of twelve men just around the corner are bursting with impatience at their slow to act rabbi. As she brushes her hair, she could never imagine that now the Evil One is making his own final preparations. She could never imagine what would happen this night. All she knows is that the love of God has shown up in her little town of Bethany and she knows where He is staying.
She picks up a small jar made of alabaster stone. Its small neck is sealed, protecting its precious contents. She carefully tucks it into her belt and heads out the door. She takes a left turn, and then a right, and another left. She knows exactly where the love of God is tonight. He is eating with Simon the Leper. Well, maybe she shouldn’t call him “the Leper” anymore since, after all, he isn’t one anymore! This is his first dinner with friends since he was touched by the love of God, by this man Jesus.
It isn’t long before she arrives at the house. Through the doorway, she can see several people leaning back by the table. Simon is there at the head and she thinks she can recognize a few of the disciples. Jesus is there, dipping a piece of bread in a small bowl of herbs. She doesn’t knock at the door or wait to be invited in. She makes her way straight towards Jesus and pulls out the jar. She doesn’t second-guess her decision. She doesn’t think about the year of hard work and saving it took her to get that jar, but she breaks it in her hand. The sweet smell of the outdoors, of moss and flowers, soon fills the room. A rich red oil, the color of blood, begins to drip from the cracks in the jar onto Jesus’s head, running down his hair and into his beard. As the ointment runs down over Him, He closes His eyes and takes a deep breath of the fragrance. When he finishes his exhale and opens His eyes, the jar is already empty. In just a few moments, the whole deed is done. In just a few moments, a whole year of hard work has poured out over Jesus’ head.
She stands there, only just now realizing that the whole room is staring at her. Several of the disciples quickly make their way over to her and begin to shout, “Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?! Do you know how much you’ve wasted? Do you know how much this stuff costs?! If we had sold it, do you have any idea how many poor people we could have fed for the next year?! What a waste!”
She could never imagine what would happen this night. As Annalena Tonelli walks from room to room, checking on her AIDS patients, she could never imagine who was sitting just around the corner. As she smiles at each man and woman made in the Image of God, she could never imagine the hatred waiting just outside for her. As she steps outside to go to the next room, she knows the villagers are angry that she has brought AIDS patients to her hospital, but she could never imagine the two point-blank gunshots to her head. On the night of October 5, 2003, Catholic missionary and humanitarian Annalena Tonelli was killed, an Italian woman in Somalia, caring for those who were dying anyway in a land that did not want her help. What a waste….
This feeling is certainly common among pastors. 80% of pastors believe that their ministry calling has negatively impacted their families. 57% do not believe they receive a livable wage. 80% of pastors feel unqualified and discouraged. 52% feel overworked by their congregations. 70% say they feel lower self-worth than when they started the ministry. 70% don’t feel they have any close friends. But you don’t have to be a pastor to wonder, “what a waste….” Anyone who has been involved in a church community has somewhere heard it whether it be from family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors, or even ourselves.
Every week, there’s ten percent of my income in the offering plate. I could have paid off my family’s debt by now. What a waste….Every week, bringing my brother to Celebrate Recovery, to celebrate what? Last night, his last decision was still to use. What a waste….Here I am, giving my time to make popcorn and cotton candy, just to give my neighborhood a chance to enjoy a beautiful afternoon by the pool. But right here, leftover popcorn bags and cotton candy sticks, just lying on the ground. One more thing I have to do that they could have done for themselves. What a waste….Every year, I have been showing up to help at basketball camp to give these kids a place to be other than the streets, a community to belong to other than gangs, a chance to play ball rather than try their first joint, a chance to hear about Jesus. But there are so many more kids out there, making the first decisions in a long series of decisions that will leave them broken, impoverished, and addicted. No matter what we do, there are far more kids out there than in here. What a waste….I pull myself out of bed early every Sunday morning, hop in the car and use my well-earned gas money to drive to church, but I still feel so worthless, like I don’t matter, like no one loves me. What a waste….
She just stares at the disciples. What could she say? She knows how much the ointment cost, but had she really thought about how it could best be used? She doesn't have to stare long. Jesus soon speaks up. “Why are you bothering her? Leave her alone. You will always get to show your love, my love, to the poor. I’m here right now and she has shown her love for me. She has done this good work for me. She understands what is happening and knows how much I love each one of you. She is getting me ready for burial and everywhere the Good News is shared, people will remember her.”
She could never imagine what would happen this night. Even as she walks out of Simon’s house, does she really understand what has happened? She has just anointed the head of the Messiah, the Anointed One. In a few minutes, one of the disciples is going to walk out and down the street to those men plotting murder and say, “I can give him to you on a silver platter. Everything is ready and if you just say the word, he’s all yours.” In a few days, that anointed head will wear the crown of the King of the cosmos, made up of thorns. Soon, the beautiful smell of ointment will be replaced with the smell of rotting flesh as He sacrifices everything out of love for His world.
Jesus knows exactly what is happening this night. The time is here. He is ready to be buried. But first, He must die the death of a criminal. He dies to make people like Simon the Leper clean. He dies for people like the disciples even when they do not understand His love. He dies for those men planning His murder to forgive them of their worst crimes. He dies for this woman because He loves her and He loves everyone in the room. She could never imagine what would happen this night, but she knows exactly who He is. She knows He is the Love of God here in person, here to die and deal the final blow to sin, death, and brokenness. She knows exactly who He is, but she could never imagine what would happen, the depths He will go to show His love for her and the world. He loved her first and her act of love is her reply.
But His love isn’t going to stay in the room. It is soon going out to dirty, half-breed Samaritan dogs, to bloody Roman soldiers, to prostitutes, to wealthy pagans and their slaves, and, yes, even to the poor. Because when Jesus loves people, it is enough love to go around. When Jesus’ love takes root in someone’s heart, it can’t help but pass itself on to the next person.
One third century teacher and church leader, named Origen, said, “This very work of the faithful of God, which is ointment, becomes something else for the good of humanity-for instance, almsgiving, visits to the sick, welcoming strangers, humility, gentleness, pardon, and so forth….He who does them to Christians anoints the Lord…with ointment.”
She could never imagine what would happen this night. As Annalena Tonelli stares out at the crowd of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, what else could she say? “I wanted to follow Jesus and opted to be for the poor. For Him, I chose radical poverty.” He loved her first and her act of love is her reply.
The love of Jesus is never wasted. When, in ministry, we wonder if it is worth it, if the love of Jesus is doing anything out there, He is showing His love to us. As we stare at the offering plate, Jesus says back, “I am so generous I poured out my very blood to make you clean. As you bring your family and friends to Celebrate Recovery, Jesus says, “I am saving you from your compulsive need to be everyone else’s savior. As you make popcorn and cotton candy and clean up the trash afterward, Jesus says, “I give you my body and blood to eat and drink for your own health and yes, I’m even cleaning up the trash that’s still left in your heart.” As you show up to help at basketball camp, Jesus says, “I am giving you this child to love for this week, just as I have given you to my Father to love as His own.” As you come to church every week, twice a week, Jesus says, “Know that you are not alone. I am with you always, even till the end of the age.” He loved us first and our act of love is our reply.
The actions of good people trying hard to do good things are not what drives the life of the Church. The love of God drives the life of the Church. And the love of God is not an abstract idea, a philosophical principle, a couple of do’s and don’ts, us getting the dogma and the morals just right. The love of God is a person. The love of God is the second person of the Trinity, God the Son, come down in human flesh, to live out the love of God in front of our ours, to die and put to death everything that is destroying us, and to rise and bring us new life in His love. He loved us first and our act of love is our reply. Our best efforts are only a response to our encounter with the profound love of Jesus.
So Bruce Outreach Center, as you go to love and serve your neighbors, know this: He loved you first and your act of love is your reply. In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.