by Rev. Robert Griffith
What comes into your mind when I say the word: beautiful? Just think about it for a moment now. When I say the word beautiful - what picture or idea do you see or think about? Some will think of a sunset; some a mountain-top lookout; others will think of a special place they have visited in their travels. When thinking of beauty, sports fans might think of their sporting heroes at their prime and that last minute move from a sports star which won the game or that gold medal performance at an Olympic Games. Beauty for an architect might be a perfectly formed and functional building. Beauty for a poet might be a perfectly balanced couplet. Some people will use the word beautiful to describe a loved one or a very special friend. You may use the word in many other contexts.
We use the word beautiful all the time but you might be surprised to learn that Jesus only used it twice. Once in Matthew 23 in a more abstract comparative sense but then only once in a direct sense. There was one event in the life of Jesus that He judged to be of such supreme elegance, such aesthetic charm that He called it beautiful. This one event in His life was an act of love done to Him by an anonymous woman. Let’s re-visit this story in Mark 14:1-9:
“Now the Passover and the Festival of Unleavened Bread were only two days away, and the chief priests and the teachers of the law were scheming to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him. “But not during the festival,” they said, “or the people may riot.”
While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, “Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly.
“Leave her alone,” said Jesus. “Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.”
Why did Jesus call this beautiful? What are the components of beauty in this scenario and are they repeatable by us? We began this series emphasising in several of the first messages, God's lavish, unconditional and eternal love for us and how we can experience that love. As we near the end of this series we are talking about how we love God and others. There are many components to this act of love which Jesus called beautiful. But I want us to look at four of them today.
- Beautiful love is risky. This story has risk written all over it for this woman. To begin with, she crashed a party. That's risky. Secondly, she crashes a party and it's a SHE that crashes the party. Given the status of women in this culture and time, this would have been risky in the extreme. Then she does something guaranteed to be misunderstood and rejected by many. She breaks the perfume and pours it out, thereby bringing condemnation from those watching.
They thought she was crazy and the risk is intensified because she doesn't know at this point whether Jesus is going to receive her affection or side with her critics. A further risk is obviously the cost involved. The text tells us that this perfume had the value of a year's wages. Can you imagine a $60,000 bottle of perfume being broken today and poured over someone's head?
Now if we want to participate in acts of love that can truly be called beautiful, the first thing we have to count on is that it will cost us some comfort. We will need to move out of our comfort zone; out of our area of control in order to perform those acts of love to Jesus and to His brothers and sisters in the Church. We will be called upon to take risks and risking is very difficult for many of us. I don't think it's because we are conservative by nature. You may think that's the way you were made but I believe you can tell a lot about our basic nature by observing children under the age of 5. Are they conservative in their expressions of love? No. They are lavish in love; they pour out affection and it's interesting that many of those who are restricted at that stage by Downe syndrome or some other intellectual impairment seem to hang on to that lavish, risky kind of love. They go on being open and free with their affection. They can maintain that child-like attitude to love while the rest of us ‘mature’ and get over it. We learn that there are certain people that you don't trust with your affection. We learn through bitter experience that we had better be careful about extending affection unilaterally - it's risky. We can get hurt and even be punished in the process.
So many of us (and I want the Holy Spirit to minister to us as I say this), many of us - deep down inside, associate love with pain. Well today I believe the Lord wants to sever that connection in many of you. There are many who will not take the risk again because they've been burnt before. I trust that the Lord will bring healing today which will allow us all to step out again.
Now what's the payoff for this woman? She loses $60,000 worth of perfume; she gets rebuked by the good people of the town; they criticise her for this vulnerable, risky act of love. So what does she get out of it? Jesus defends her and declares to all those present and now to millions and millions of people down through history that she has done a beautiful thing for Him - she has done what she could. "I tell you the truth, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her." This pointless, senseless, risky, expensive act of love is now the means by which this woman and her act of love is made immortal. NO ACT OF LOVE DONE FOR JESUS EVER DIES.
There are many things that Jesus did that aren't recorded. There are lots of things that the Apostles did that aren't recorded. This woman does one thing and it is repeated wherever this gospel is preached. What did she get for her risk? More than she ever dreamed of. She and her actions were made immortal. I put hundreds and hundreds of hours into writing, preaching and recording. If I keep that up for 20 more years I guess there will be a lot of documents and a lot of videos and stuff floating around. That will remain in circulation after I'm gone but it won't take long for that all to vanish so that I am not even a memory to most. All that work, all that time, all that energy . . . . one day will be forgotten. But everything that I did privately or publicly that was an act of love to Jesus is going to be remembered forever by Jesus . . . that’s pretty strong motivation to take a risk.
In the world of finance the rule is usually low risk equals low potential payoff whereas high risk equals high potential payoff. If you want a guaranteed, government backed investment, the return will usually be comparatively low. However, there are growth funds in international markets which are returning so much more to investors - but there is a high risk attached. They could lose it all. High risk - high potential payoff; low risk - low potential payoff. Maybe many of us have become too conservative in our love of Jesus and in our love of His people. The equation reads like this: If you want a real life you have to take some chances and step out of your comfort zone.
But imagine for a moment that you had an endless supply of money. Imagine that you had a limitless credit line. Wouldn't you have a lot of fun investing in all kinds of things? Wouldn't it be fun to take really big risks on investments knowing that if you lose it all there is more where that came from? Well that's exactly what you get if you're connected with God!
People hold their emotions and hold their love because they are afraid of investing it and seeing it wasted. But when you finally realise the truth of the gospel which I have been preaching till I drop for many decades now; when you realise that God's grace and love is an endless river flowing into your heart, flowing into your experience and that no matter how much you give there is always more where that came from; when you finally let that reality grip your heart and experience then you will have a wonderful time investing your love for the rest of your life!
That's the only reason I am still here. I have given my whole life to the Church Jesus promised to build and to the mission of Christ. I have emptied my soul before people; I have taken incredible risks in doing that; many have received what I've given with gladness, joy and appreciation. Some have rejected it, criticised it, abused it and thrown it back in my face. But that's OK. I take the same risks with everyone - I have to. Some will pay off, some will not, but I keep going only because there is an endless river of love and grace and power flowing into me from God!
I long for the day, I would give anything to see the day when the Church of Jesus Christ fully understands the grace and love of God and moves out of it's comfort zone , stops ‘playing Church’ and gets on with the job of loving the world into the kingdom of God! Everybody has this same potential – it’s simply a matter of understanding it and acting on it and watching the revolution in your life. The world is full of people who pull their heads in the moment they get hurt and never take risks again. Let me assure you, I know how it feels to be hurt that way; I know how it feels to have your good intentions and loving acts splattered all over your face; I know how hard it is to wash that stuff off - get a refill of God's unconditional love and move out again to face the next possible rejection. But I also know what kind of life I would be living if I let that rejection stop me from taking any more risks.
The second principle that we see in this story in Mark 14, which makes this act of love beautiful is that . . .
- Beautiful love seizes the moment. Women know this more than men and ladies I ask you to help us out here OK? You think that we men do the things we do because we don't like you, or we're mean spirited but in reality we are just dense - we're just thick. Sorry guys but we just don't know sometimes just how vital timing is.
Timing is critical - for beautiful love. Jesus said: the poor you have with you always . . . . the pressure for timing is not there. You had the poor with you yesterday - you'll have them tomorrow - they'll always be there . . . . but I won't. I am soon to be crucified. So take this opportunity now, take this risk . . . go for it right now or you'll miss the boat. It will be too late. Beautiful love ceases the moment.
Jesus is on His way to be crucified. This woman cannot wait. She cannot go home and pray about it. She cannot go home and diversify her investments to cover the loss of this perfume. She can't go home and pour half of it into another container to save some money. She has to risk everything right here and now and launch tonight.
“Leave her alone,” Jesus said. “She's done something beautiful for me. You'll always have the poor . . . but she has responded in love to the here and now.”
How many times have you thought of showing affection to someone and the moment came and went and it was too late. How many times have you thought of a gift you'd like to send somebody but then you let the moment pass and for one reason or another the timing was off. How many of you have thought of picking up the phone to call someone, only to discover that tomorrow was too late to do it? It's true, when it comes to beautiful love the timing is always critical. Sometimes missing an opportunity to love is not just a risk for the other people it's a risk for us as well. You've got to pay attention - when the moment to love comes, when the moment to risk comes, seize the moment! Beautiful love offers us windows of opportunity to cease the moment. Let's pray that God gives us the discernment to see the moment and seize the moment.
Thirdly, love that Jesus calls beautiful, in addition to being risky, in addition to being time sensitive:
- Beautiful love is lavish. When Jesus was in Bethany a women came in and poured out a jar of very expensive perfume on Him. She lavished it on him and people said: what waste . . . this could have been sold for a years wages and given to the poor. Now the Scripture says here that love is lavish and when I make the point of saying that love is lavish I am not limiting that lavishness to the expense of money. I include the expense of emotion and time and energy. That is to say: love does whatever it has to do. Love goes to whatever lengths it has to go to get the job done. This woman could not take a little drop of perfume and anoint Jesus in a symbolic way - she had to use it all.
In a risky way, seizing the moment, she gave what was needed to get the job done. By some kind of revelation she knew that Jesus was about to die. Jesus implies that. We don't know how she knew it - maybe she was the only person who believed Him when he said he must go up to Jerusalem to die. We don't have the details but we do know that she saw something that needed to be done and she poured herself and her treasure out to the fullest extent to get the job done - even though all of her counsellors said: this is a waste.
I want to tell you today that God really likes this lavish, apparently wasteful love. He really likes it. It brings joy to His heart. It's not that we go out looking for lost causes to pour ourselves into, it's that when He presents something to us to pour our lives into we do it and we don't count the cost. We may get no payoff at all - but by doing what God wants we have participated in life.
We cannot calculate a return on our love for other people. But there is a big return. Do you know what you get if you waste your love on one of God's creatures? You get Jesus saying to you when you finally meet Him face to face: thank you doing this beautiful thing for me - for as much as you did it to the least of these my children - you did it to Me. Well done, good and faithful servant, well done. Do you want to hear Jesus say that to you?
So love is risky, it seizes the moment, it's lavish - it goes to whatever extent it needs to in order to get the job done . . . . and mystery of mysteries:
- Beautiful love come best through brokenness. “While he was in Bethany, reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, made of pure nard. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head.”
This perfume was very costly and very potent. It was used, not just for women to smell good. It was used to anoint honoured guests when they came to your home. It was kept in a large jar with this tiny little hole in the top. And you would get the perfume out by dipping a slender little straw or dip-stick into the hole and pull it out and then dab it on your honoured guest. So it was taken out one drop at a time. But this women had a job to do. If she had turned it upside down, it wouldn't have come out. So what did she do? She broke the vase.
Let me say the obvious thing here. The only way to get at this treasure is to break something and the only way to get the most beautiful and potent and costly love out of you and me is through our brokenness. It is not ultimately in our strength that we do our best work. If you've been around long enough - you already know this. If you haven't then let me tell you that your best love, your best pastoral care does not some through your skill in ministry. It does not come by having the right word to say at the right time - it comes through brokenness.
Our most costly treasures reach people through the cracks in our own hearts. That's the nature of love. I do not understand it but it is profoundly true. I can give you thousands of examples of this love but I guess the most profound is the one which stands at the centre of our faith: the supreme breaking; the supreme act of love; the supreme gift and that is the death of Jesus Christ over 2000 years ago on the cross of Calvary. His death for us was a beautiful thing and it was risky. There was no guarantee that we would respond to His sacrifice. His act of love was incredibly risky. It goes without saying that it was lavish. All of heaven was bankrupt - all the glories of heaven were emptied on the cross of Christ but the payoff is the salvation of the world, for God so loved the world that He gave His only Son. And all of this lavish, world-changing love came through what? Brokenness. It came through the breaking of a man on a criminal's cross.
How then shall you live in light of God’s revelation today? Let me suggest how:
Firstly, decide today that you will develop a lifestyle of risk; don’t be conservative with your love. Because if you don't express it, you don't live and you deny the rest of us the life that you could give. So take some risks with love. Risk feeling foolish; risk taking chances; risk being rebuked - knowing there's lot's more where that came from. Any that you give is poured back into you. Give and it will be given to you.
Secondly, pray for the discernment to spot the moment and then for the courage to seize the moment. This should be a daily prayer, for God provides those moments all the time. We just need to see them.
Thirdly, plan on it being lavish and costly as you pour out your love. That’s a given! It’s guaranteed. Plan ahead of time to be moved out of your comfort zone – sometimes a long way out.
Finally, don't expect to do it in the power of your own personal strength but expect for your best work to come in and through your own weakness and brokenness.
Come, Holy Spirit of God. Teach us. Transform us. Empower us to love as God loves. In Jesus’ name, amen.