Sermon for Holy Communion at 8 and 10 on the Fifth Sunday of Lent, 17th March 2013
Philippians 3:4-14, John 12:1-8 Solid Joys and Lasting Treasure

My Grandpa’s birthday was May 12th. It’s many years, unfortunately, since he died, but I still remember when his birthday was. The reason is, that Grandpa was a great one for writing letters; in fact he used to type them, on an old black typewriter, because he had arthritis in his hands and he found it difficult to do handwriting.

So we children used to get, quite often, rather formal-looking letters, all neatly typed out, about this and that. Grandpa used to live only four doors away down the same street, so we saw him a lot, but he still liked to write to us.

At the end of every letter he would sign off, ‘Lots of love from Grandpa’, and then he would put a PS; he would always put the same PS. He would say, ‘Only so-and-so many days till May 12th.’ And the idea was that he was hoping that you would give him a present – which of course we always did! So Grandpa used to really enjoy his birthday.

Now my birthday is actually going to be this Wednesday – March 20th, if you want to put it in your diary for future reference. If you ask me after the service, I’ll be able to let you have my suggested present list. I’m really looking forward to it.

But I’m pretty confident that, even if you gave me a magnificent four-channel radio control model helicopter to add to my collection, naturally at considerable cost to yourself, nobody would actually tackle you and say, ‘Why have you wasted all that money on dreadful old Hugh? You should have given him a Book Token and spent the rest on a donation to Oxfam.’

Jesus wasn’t so lucky. Mary from Bethany gave him an extremely special spa product with some very exotic ingredients, while He was relaxing, having preached the Sermon on the Mount and raised Lazarus from the dead. You can imagine Jesus ‘resting his eyes for ten minutes’ after all that, and being woken up gently by Mary, massaging his feet with some special secret potion from an exclusive spa.

But then the beautiful moment was spoiled by Judas Iscariot carping on about how expensive the spa treatment had been, and how it would have been much better for Mary to have spent her money on helping poor people. Indeed, the cost of the treatment that she had bought and used on Jesus was the same as a year’s salary for an average bod.

That’s quite staggering, really. If we say that the minimum wage today would work out at about £15,000 a year, whatever she was using, in present-day terms, was at least £15,000-worth. She just splashed it on. (You’ll remember the old advert starring the boxer, Henry Cooper, for an aftershave called Brut. Henry would take the little green bottle in one of his massive hands and liberally sprinkle himself with it. The slogan was, ‘Splash it on!’)

Splash it on. Just like Mary did. The only difference was that Brut didn’t cost very much, and you could afford to splash it on. Nevertheless I rather like the thought that Jesus wouldn’t listen to Judas’ criticism of Mary from Bethany. So much of the time Jesus is doing the right thing, being very good, helping people, curing their illnesses: and in Lazarus’ case, raising them up from the dead.

But one is a bit tempted to say that, although He was very good, very virtuous – he was a bit serious. And then we get this lovely story about Mary of Bethany and her special ointment which she poured on Jesus’ feet as a special present. Mary was Lazarus’ brother, and she was extremely grateful, because He had raised poor Lazarus from the dead. And Jesus enjoyed it.

It’s very easy for us to say that now, but it must have been absolutely stupendous, beyond imagining. Her poor brother had been dead – in a tomb – for four days, and Jesus came along and said, ‘He’s only asleep’, and woke him up. Mary, his sister, must have been completely overwhelmed, and so grateful to Jesus. So she went out and bought something which was really far too expensive, as a present, to thank Him. Judas came along and said, ‘That’s a criminal waste of money. If you had £15,000 to spare, you should have spent it on relieving poverty, not on a frivolous gift for Jesus, however nice He is.’

But Jesus said, in effect, ‘Back off, Judas. It’s all right.’ And He was clearly pleased with Mary’s gift. I think that makes Jesus all the more like us, all the more human. Mary’s present was a really super present. Jesus said that there was a place for an extravagant present, even if it meant that the money which you’d spent on an extravagant present didn’t go to a worthy cause.

Compare that with what St Paul says in his letter to the Philippians. ‘My richest gain I count but loss’, as we’re about to sing in Isaac Watts’ hymn, ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’. St Paul himself says, ‘For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish’ (3:8). Rubbish – actually the King James Version has a more Anglo-Saxon word for it. Nothing that we would call valuable means a thing to St Paul. So even Mary’s generous gift, all fifteen thousand pounds’ worth, really didn’t amount to much after all, if you compare it with the present, with the gift, that Jesus has given to us.

That’s the point. Especially now in Lent, when we are reflecting, weighing up our lives, the Bible challenges us to have a new value system. In another hymn, John Newton, who got rich as the captain of a slave ship before he saw the light, wrote,

‘Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion’s children know’.

It’s very tempting to ignore this. Who wouldn’t want to be in a lovely spa and just splash it on? Who wouldn’t hanker after a Ferrari, or a Rolls?

Jesus understood this. He wasn’t as fiercely uncompromising as St Paul. He did enjoy his spa treatment from Mary, and he said, there was nothing wrong in enjoying it. He was happy to thank Mary for her generosity.

But – eventually even a Rolls will get old, and the Ferrari won’t seem so cool for ever. Even if you bath in gold leaf, eventually it will wash off. What really will last is a present which will stand us in good stead for ever. That is salvation, the knowledge that we are not just living futile lives, at the mercy of random couplings of atoms, but that God, the ultimate Creator and sustainer of our world, cares for us. ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not be destroyed, but have eternal life’ [John 3:16 – my translation]. Nothing is more important, nothing is worth more, than this.