March 13, 2016

At Dinner with Jesus

Passage: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8
Service Type:

There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

I don’t want you to think for very long about this question I am going to ask you; open the notepad of your mind and get ready to write the first thing that comes to your mind. Ready? If you could choose any three people in the world—living or dead—to have dinner with who would they be? (Write) Who did you name? Who came to your mind? Of course, we reason, since we are in church and just read about a dinner thrown in honour of Jesus one of them needs to be Jesus. Perhaps. Question like this one often are aimed as a thought exercise that probe our hearts revealing something about what matters to us most.

We may not always recognise it but we are under spiritual assault every single day. We are assaulted by tempting messages that seek to draw our allegiance from the God who created and redeemed us toward some meager substitute. One of the reasons we draw aside Sunday by Sunday in worship is to be reminded that it is God who truly loves, loves us—and all of us—enough to send God’s only Son into the world to take on our lot and life, to suffer the same temptations and wants, to be rejected as we often feel rejected and to die as we will die, all so that we may know God is with us and for us forever. Moreover, God raised Jesus from the dead in order to demonstrate that God’s love is more powerful than all the hate in the world and that the life God offers is more powerful even than death.

This dinner party for Jesus is an occasion of thanksgiving by a grateful family who are good friends and great supporters of Jesus and Jesus’ ministry. The context of the dinner party, however, reveals something more about the nature of the commitment of family members Martha. Lazarus, and Mary to Jesus. The storm clouds, so to speak, gathering at Jerusalem are appearing on the horizon. It is the festival of the Passover in just six days. Pilate is on his way from his palace at Caesarea by the Mediterranean to Jerusalem to protect his job keeping any would be messiah’s in check. (If Messianic hopefuls were to act Jewish feasts were the occasion.) The chief priests and Pharisees are typically uneasy looking to protect the social order that secures their positions of prestige and power.

John tells us that many people from the country had come to Jerusalem to get ready for the Passover and that “they were looking for Jesus and were asking one another as they stood in the temple, ‘What do you think? Surely he will not come to the festival, will he?’ Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who knew where Jesus was should let them know, so that they might arrest him.” (John 11:56-57)

The town of Bethany is about three kilometers east of that temple on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. It is along that route from the Jordon valley past Jericho that pilgrims would take coming to Jerusalem for the feast. Not only is Jesus coming to the feast but his good friends are holding a dinner party in his honour. Martha, Lazarus, and Mary are aware of how toxic Jesus has become to the religious leadership. Yet they hold the dinner party. We learn from them that in the turmoil of competing powers for our allegiance Jesus is the one to invite to dinner.

I invite you to reflect on this dinner party in honour of Jesus through the eyes of the people of which the gospel writer takes note. Before we do that there is one more general observation I believe well worth noting. Jesus welcomes the opportunity to be present at this dinner. Yes, it is characteristic of his life that he accepted dinner invitations; according to the gospel of Luke (Luke 19:1-9), Jesus even invited himself to the home of Zacchaeus. You may wonder why such a thing is noteworthy. It is noteworthy because Jesus sanctifies such things by his presence.

Whatever our Lord touches he sanctifies. I have previously noted with you that we understand work to be a good thing because our Lord worked with his own hands as a mason/carpenter. If it is fitting for the Son of God as he takes on human flesh so too it is fitting for us. When Jesus accepts the hospitality of this home and comes to dinner we see such things to be the fitting venue for treasured moments of human life. Jesus blesses them by his presence; we too will find blessing in such gathering. When you have a dinner party it is especially fitting that we pray for our Lord to be present with us.

Following this year’s super bowl victory by the Denver Broncos their thirty-nine year old quarterback Payton Manning was asked if he was going to retire making this victory his last NFL game. He said he would think about that another day because his first priority was to go and hug his kids and spend time with family and friends. He also said he would drink sufficient Budweisers—I would not recommend this but you get the picture that a celebratory time with family and friends was in order. After all the high moments of achievement are over—whatever the profession or nature of the accolades—the presence of people in our lives is of far greater importance. Jesus’ presence at this and many other dinners teaches us something about how to order the treasures of life.

Let us turn our attention to the people at this dinner that the gospel writer invites to see.

1. First, we are told that Martha served. If you are going to have a dinner party with lots of guests—it is implied that Jesus’ twelve disciples are all present—somebody needs to take care of all the practical matters. Food needs to be prepared and brought to the table. In this family the go to person was Martha. And is seems that Martha relished in this oversight and work.

The Greek word here translated to “serve”—as in Martha served—has theological significance for the church. This word found here in its verbal form is the word we translate “deacon” when used as a noun. In Acts chapter 6 we have the appointment of the first deacons in the church whose first role was to wait on tables. Remember that this gospel is written after the church has been in existence for forty years. The hearers are aware of the role of deacon and the importance of serving for the life of the church. So when we read that “Martha served” it is a heard as a holy thing in the context of the church’s life.

Sometimes Martha’s propensity to serve got the better of her. You may recall the story in Luke’s gospel of an earlier visit to this home by Jesus and of how Martha “was distracted by her many tasks.” She complained to Jesus that Mary was not helping her because Mary was sitting listening to Jesus. Jesus said to Martha that her preparations were over-the-top indicating that her perfectionism was getting in the way. (Luke 10:38-42)

Apparently Martha heeded our Lord. When Lazarus died she was the one who ran out to meet Jesus first and have time to talk with him. It was to Martha that Jesus uttered those wonderful words that are read at most graveside services: “I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.” And then Jesus asked Martha, “Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.”

Martha teaches us that faith informs our serving. Notice that Jesus receives her serving here and thus sanctifies all our serving of him. There were other people in the room that Martha served so when we serve others for our Lord’s sake we know the joy Martha knew. I can almost imagine the exchange between Jesus and Martha as their eyes met; “now, Martha, don’t’ be going over the top” was in Jesus’ look; the glow in Martha’s eyes said, “I’ll do whatever I want, this party is for you.”

2. Secondly, John’s gospel tells us that “Lazarus was one of those at the table with him.” Lazarus is Martha and Mary’s brother. When the writer notes that Martha served and Lazarus was at the table he is not commenting on the social order of the home as if women belonged in the kitchen. The author is noting for us that Lazarus—the Lazarus who was dead and buried and brought back from the dead by Jesus—that Lazarus was at the table with Jesus.

He was at the table. He is eating and enjoying the meal. Whatever Jesus does he does superbly. Lazarus is in good health able to enjoy the dinner party for Jesus. He, Lazarus, is at the table. The truth that out Lord disclosed to Martha is on display for all to see. “Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die,” Jesus declared. When he said “never dies” be meant “never lost to God.” After all Lazarus had died. Jesus’ point was that in death the believer is not lost to God. And there was Lazarus—every ounce of Lazarus—speaking, conversing, eating. Living proof of Jesus’ assertion that he is the resurrection and the life.

Lazarus was one of the ones at the table with him. He was there with Jesus. In the Biblical understanding of table fellowship there is an implied sense of identification of the people at the table. Recall that religious authorities chastise Jesus because he ate and drank with sinners. So when the writer notes that Lazarus was there at the table “with him” there is an implied identification with Jesus. Are we glad to be seen at the table “with him.” Think about how awkward it gets in a public restaurant when it comes to the matter of a table grace.

John tells us that Lazarus had come to the attention of the chief priests and Pharisees and not in a good way. Many Jewish people in Jerusalem and its environs had seen what Jesus did in raising Lazarus and consequently believed in Jesus. This seems to be the tipping point for Caiaphas the high priest who gave leadership to the plan to put Jesus to death. To make matters worse when these people learned that Jesus was again at the home of Lazarus they came in droves to see Jesus “but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead.” Lazarus had become the poster boy, so to speak, for believing in Jesus. Many more became believers. So the chief priests are not content just to get rid of Jesus but “planned to put Lazarus to death as well.” (John 12:9-11)

Even so, Lazarus is happily “one of those at the table with him.” Most of us do not live under the threat of death because of identification with Jesus—some in our world do and need our prayers. But we are threatened by lesser things. Prestige, political correctness, not being an offence, avoidance of the “too religious” tag, plus a host of others make us hesitate to be seen at the table with him. In our Lenten journey Lazarus encourages me to be always willing to “be at the table with him.”

3. Thirdly, we hear that “Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”

Mary is one of the followers of Jesus who appears to have embraced his teaching that we would die at Jerusalem. Jesus had been teaching his disciples quiet openly that “the Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” The disciples, Mark tells us, did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask. You can understand being afraid to ask about the true extent of what is clearly very bad news.

But Mary appears to have listened and understood that he us going to die at Jerusalem not many days hence. When Judas complained about the expense of the gift being poured out—300 denarii was equivalent to the annual salary of a worker—it is evident that she is not counting the cost as are many others in the room. Jesus responded to criticism of Mary by saying, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.”

Now, it was custom to buy such expensive spices to anoint the body at the time of burial. Mary had bought these spices for that purpose and decides that she will not wait until he is dead to anoint him but will do it in advance. In hindsight we know that it will be superfluous after he is raised from the dead. How many times have we heard (or thought) the complaint that people did not make the effort to visit someone while they we alive but did so after they died.

Mary’s outpouring of love will not wait. It seems to me that given the lavish nature of the gift—that any thought of calculation is far from her mind— and that she takes no thought about what others may think about washing his feet and wiping them with her hair, she knows that her Lord’s death is for her sake. Mary reminds us on our journey to Jerusalem with Jesus that what he will accomplish there is all for us. Our response is to give ourselves to him.

There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.