Posts tagged ‘Mary’

December 24, 2012

Happy Christmas


Photo: Sculpture by Seamus Murphy in the Crawford Gallery, Cork: “Virgin of the twilight” (1941)

Yes I know that this isn’t really a Christmas picture, the Lord Jesus is a bit too grown up!  But it was the closest I could find to a “real meaning of Christmas” picture that I had taken in the past few months.  I love the tender expression on Mary’s face and the resolute expression on the Lord’s face, as if, even at this age he knows what lies ahead…

To all of you reading this, a very Happy Christmas and may you know even more of God’s plan and purpose for your life in the coming year.

(NOTE APRIL 2013 – for some reason this got deleted – so reinstating it now)

March 19, 2010

A Precious Perfume

Note: I don’t have any pictures of Spikenard, so this Lavender photo that I took at the Eden Project a few years ago (that I have Ortonized in Photoshop Elements) will have to do ;~)

Today’s Sermon: John 12:1-8

What is the most precious object that you own? How special is it to you? Would you be prepared to give it away in order to say ‘thank you’ to Jesus? That’s a tough one isn’t it! Not long after we were married, my wife and I were given a car by some friends of ours – it was a fairly old car though it was in good condition. It was an amazing act of undeserved favour – our friends had very little money and they wanted to give something that not only would be of great help to us but would be a way of saying ‘thank you’ to God for the many ways in which he had blessed them. To this day, that couple and their children are amongst the happiest people we know. It’s a principle that I see time and time again, that the happiest people are also the most generous people and of course the reverse is true also, the more we try and hold on to things for ourselves the less happy we will be.

In today’s reading from John’s Gospel, the Lord Jesus is welcomed as Guest of honour at the home of Lazarus, Mary and Martha. We know Mary and Martha from the time when Jesus went to their house before and Martha was rushing around preparing food and tidying whilst Mary sat at Jesus’ feet and listened to what he had to say. Of course we remember too the story of Lazarus, where Jesus raised him from the dead after he had been in the tomb for four days.

So they have this special dinner for Jesus and there are a number of other guests there also. True to form, it is the busy Martha that serves them and John tells us casually that Lazarus was one of those sat around the table with Jesus. It’s funny how relaxed it all is, here is a man who was dead and in his tomb and yet now he is alive again. He is not a ghost or some kind of apparition, he is able to sit down and walk around and breathe and talk and eat! Lazarus is a walking talking miracle!

Mary, Martha and Lazarus love Jesus. People express their love for Jesus in different ways. The way that Mary expresses her love is very special and beautiful. She expresses her love and gratitude to Jesus using a pound (that is nearly half a kilogram) of perfume made of pure nard. Now Nard (or Spikenard as it is sometimes called) is no ordinary perfume. It is a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of China, India and Nepal. The plant grows to about 1 metre in height and has pink, bell-shaped flowers. It has rhizomes (underground stems), which can be crushed and distilled into an intensely aromatic amber-colored essential oil, which is very thick in consistency (from Wikipedia). So imagine in those days getting a perfume from the Himalayas overland on camel-back thorough countless mountain passes some 3,500 miles to Israel! No wonder it was a very expensive and very precious perfume.

In those days the men would have eaten separately from the women and they would have been inclined on couches around a low table. Mary is probably standing as an attendant, she comes from behind Jesus and breaking open an alabaster jar pours this very precious oil over him and especially on his feet. She then unties her hair and wipes Jesus’ feet. There is such an abundance of oil that it has to be dried up!

This is a truly wonderful act of worship. Mary doesn’t care about what the other guests might think as she pours out her heart and her soul and her most expensive possession as an act of worship. It is wonderful when we can do that too, when we can worship Jesus with every ounce of our being and not let any inhibitions get in the way.

The moment of transcendence is broken by the voice of Judas who says:

“Why was the perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (v.5)

A legitimate question perhaps. This was after all very expensive perfume. I did a bit of maths. A Denarius was the amount a laborer was given for a days work. So the minimum wage today is €8.65 an hour so say at 37 hours a week and with six weeks unpaid holiday a year that is roughly €14,000 in today’s money. That was one very expensive jar of perfume and one very extravagant act of worship! To Judas this looks like unjustifiable extravagance. He gives the impression that he cares for the poor but John sadly tells us that he was, in fact a thief.

So Mary is now surrounded by disapproval, Mark tells us in his account that others joined in Judas’ indignance. Yet amid all those stern faces and mocking tones there is One face and One voice which approves of what Mary has done – and it is the only voice which matters, that of the Lord Himself. Jesus knows why Mary did this incredible thing, 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.” (v.8)

Mary knew what she was doing. She knew that there were many who wanted to kill Jesus, many who were jealous of Him. She knew that it was only a matter of time before He was killed by His enemies – had He not said so Himself numerous times? She had bought this jar to anoint Jesus’ body for burial. This might be her last chance to do so, her last opportunity; she might not be able to get this close to him again. Mary knows that she owes so much to Jesus; she owes him her salvation and the recovery of her brother Lazarus from the dead. Her whole life has been utterly transformed by Jesus, the pouring out of fragrant perfume was both a natural and from the heart act of devotion and worship. Having freely received, she freely gave.

Jesus makes it clear that His time is coming to an end. The poor will always be with them, He would not. Just now, at this moment, anointing Him for burial was the more important thing to do. The responsibility and privilege of caring for the poor would be for the church through the ages. Matthew and Mark in their accounts of this story add Jesus’ beautiful promise:

“I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matthew 26:13)

There is an unfortunate contrast between Judas and Mary. It is natural for the reader or listener of the story to ask themselves the question as to which character most represents them. Unless we can appreciate what Christ has done for us we can have no sense of the level of debt that we owe Him. Even if we were the able to give the whole world and all its riches it would not be sufficient to pay the debt we owe. When the penny drops, when we finally realize, then we will hold back nothing from the One who gave His everything, even His life for us upon the cross.

So as we consider our possessions and the most precious things that we own, suddenly they don’t seem so valuable any more. How can we not love Jesus? How can we not feel as Mary did when we know that our sins are forgiven, when we know that we have peace with God when we know that we shall be with Him in heaven for eternity?!

Let us pray that our faith will not be like that of Judas, a mere temporary impression, like the morning cloud and early dew which lasts only for a season. Let us pray that our faith will be like that of Mary: real, true, genuine and sincere, a faith free to express itself, not caring what others will say or think, a faith that is the result of accepting God’s love, God’s grace, and a faith that is the result of a living relationship with our Lord, Saviour, Master and Friend, Jesus Christ, Amen.

See also:

J.C. Ryle, “Expository Thoughts on the Gospels”, John Volume II, James Clarke & Co. 1969.
William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary, John, Banner of Truth Press, 1998

January 31, 2010

Waiting for Salvation

High Cross in Castlefreke Woods, Co. Cork
Olympus OM-1, G.Zuiko 50mm f1.4, Ilford HP5 plus (ISO 400)

Sermon for Today. Luke 2:22-40.

What’s the longest you’ve ever had to wait for something? Maybe we have waited a long time in a queue to buy something we really wanted, maybe we have waited a long time to receive a letter, perhaps with good news in it. Maybe we were sick and we had to wait a long time to get better. Maybe we had to wait a long time for someone to return who had gone away. Life is full of waiting and some of us are better at it than others. In today’s reading from Luke chapter 2 we come across the joy of a man and a woman who had waited their whole lives for something and now finally in their old age it had happened.

Joseph and Mary were bringing the baby Jesus to the temple in Jerusalem. In Jewish life there were three ceremonies that occurred after a child was born. If it was a boy the first of these was circumcision, which happened on the eighth day after birth. This act symbolised the Jews’ separation from Gentiles and their unique relationship with God, it was a time of joy when friends and family members celebrated the baby’s becoming part of God’s covenant nation, (not unlike our baptism of infants in the church today). The second ceremony was the “Redemption of the firstborn”. A firstborn son was presented to God one month after birth. The ceremony included buying back or redeeming the child from God through an offering. The point of this was for the parents to acknowledge that the child belonged to God, who alone has the power to give life. The third ceremony was the “Purification of the mother”. For forty days after the birth of a son and eighty days after the birth of a daughter, the mother was ceremonially unclean and could not enter the temple. At the end of this time, the parents were to bring a lamb for a burnt offering and a dove or a pigeon for a sin offering. The priest would sacrifice these animals and declare the mother to be clean. If a lamb was too expensive, the parents could bring a second dove or pigeon instead. This is what Mary and Joseph did.

So there are Mary and Joseph, with Jesus at the Temple, for Mary’s purification, when they come across an old man called Simeon. Simeon had been waiting for many years for this day. God had made a promise to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen Christ, the Messiah, the Saviour. Simeon was now old, but he had never lost hope. He had nurtured a vision for years, perhaps wondering at times if it was just a dream or wishful thinking. Then one day, he lifts up his eyes in the Temple, he sees a young couple with a baby, and no longer doubts, but knows in his heart that what God said would happen is indeed happening.

Luke tells us that Simeon is both righteous and devout. He is a good man, he lives his life is such a way as would be a good example to all and he is totally committed to God in his heart, mind, soul and strength.

We are told that Simeon was waiting for “the consolation of Israel” (v.25), a strange phrase, what does it mean? In the Message translation, this phrase reads that Simeon was a man who “lived in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel”. Things were really not that great for the people of Israel at this time. Thanks to the Romans, they had lost their political independence, (though King Herod was still allowed to reign over them in cruelty). Thanks to the scribes and the Pharisees, the Jewish religion had become more about outward show and religious ritual than an internal change of heart. Yet there were godly men and women like Simeon, Anna and many more who were eagerly waiting for God to come and rescue them. Simeon knew that time had come as soon as he saw Jesus.

Simeon takes the child Jesus in his arms and utters his timeless words, inspired by the Holy Spirit and known to many as the Nunc Dimittis (the first words of the Latin translation):

‘Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.’

Simeon’s heart is flooded with thanksgiving and praise. He thanks God for what this child means to him personally and for what it means for all people, both Jew and for Gentile. As far as Simeon is concerned, he is ready to die because that which he has longed for for many years has come to pass. The saviour is here and he has seen and held Salvation in his arms!

Simeon declares that Jesus is a “Light for revelation to the Gentiles”. Now to those who had no knowledge of God, who were living in darkness, the Light of Salvation has come. Jesus also brings “glory” to Israel because they above all nations were the ones chosen by God for the purpose of spreading the true religion among the nations of the world and selected to be the people among whom the Christ would be born.

What Simeon said about Jesus amazed Joseph and Mary. Of course the angel Gabriel and the Shepherds had previously said wonderful things about this child, but these earlier messages did not include anything so specific about the significance of this child for both Gentiles and Israel.

Simeon then prays a prayer of blessing over Mary and Joseph and says something to Mary that must not have been too easy for them to hear:

‘This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.’

When people encountered Jesus, there would be no sitting on the fence. He would be the great divider, as William Hendriksen puts it, “a person’s relation or attitude towards Jesus would be absolutely decisive of his eternal destiny.”(William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Luke, Banner of Truth Trust, 1978, p.170)

Where we will exist in eternity is 100% determined by our attitude towards Jesus, he is after all the way, the truth and the life, and no one can come to the Father except by Him (John 14).

I’m sure that Mary in particular would have come back to Simeon’s words many times over the course of her life. In the moment of her deepest agony, when Jesus hung on the cross these words would have provided a measure of comfort that in fact God was in control and it was indeed part of His great plan for the Salvation of all who would come to Him in repentance and faith. Of course, upon Jesus’ resurrection these words would have led to an even greater strengthening of Mary’s faith as her heart was filled with joy and worship.

Our reading concludes with a short piece about Anna, an elderly widow and prophet. She had practically lived at the temple for many years, fasting and praying night and day. Like Simeon she had waited and waited and waited for God to do something. She had not given up hope, she had prayed and fasted and then one day she saw the answer to her prayer and suddenly her heart was filled with praise. Imagine her joy as she watches the scene with Simeon holding Jesus aloft and uttering those famous words. Anna is filled with gratitude to God and she cannot help talking about it.

Simeon and Anna and many others had to wait a long time for Jesus to come. When He did come they recognised Him immediately and their lives were never the same again. The good news is that we don’t have to wait, Jesus is alive and through the presence of the Holy Spirit He is here with us now. Like Anna, like Simeon it is important that we recognise Him, that we worship Him and that we acknowledge Him as our Lord and our Saviour, our master and our God. One of the names by which Jesus is known in the Bible is Emmanuel, which means ‘God with us’. We do not have a far away remote god, we have a God who is intimately present at every moment, who understands and knows us, who ‘perceives our thoughts from afar’ and who ‘knit us together in our mothers womb’ (Psalm 139).

Do you know Jesus? Is He the most important Person in your life? Do you acknowledge Him as your Lord and your Saviour? Now is not the time for waiting, now is the time for receiving Him. Amen.