Sunday, March 13, 2016
Mary took a pound of costly perfume, made with pure nard, and poured it on Jesus’ feet, John tells us. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume,” he goes on to say. This got me wondering…what is nard? And what does nard smell like? What did it smell like in Lazarus’ house that night, after dinner, as Mary anointed Jesus’ feet – perhaps the smell of grilled lamb or goat still hanging in the air, mixed with that nard perfume? A quick search on Wikipedia tells me that nard, the full name being “spikenard,” also called “muskroot,” is an amber-colored essential oil derived from a flowering plant of the Valerian family that grows in the Himalayas of Nepal, China, and India. Nard is very thick in consistency and comes in about twelve different varieties, some of which smell like lavender. With that information, I imagine there were some pretty good smells in Lazarus’ house that night – perhaps of freshly baked bread, the smoke of a wood fire after dinner mixed in with the fragrance of lavender. John paints an intimate picture for us of Jesus and his disciples gathered together to share a meal and fellowship with one another along with Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. It’s an image of comfort, warmth, and love. You almost feel like you’re there. How awesome it would’ve been to be there with Jesus and to smell all of those good smells!
But then Judas interrupts this warm, comforting scene with an unsettling question, “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” Judas stinks, John basically tells us. Not literally, necessarily, but something about Judas doesn’t smell quite right, if you will. He’s a thief – he doesn’t really care about the poor, but as the group’s treasurer he steals from their collected offerings instead of giving them to the poor. We know just a few days later he’ll betray Jesus and hand him over to be put to death by the Roman authorities for thirty pieces of silver. In contrast to the fragrance of Mary’s loving devotion and anointing of Jesus, Judas stinks of greed and betrayal, self-interest instead of self-sacrifice for the sake of Jesus and his mission.
So, what do you smell like? This isn’t a question to make you feel self-conscious, although for the sake of your neighboring worshippers I hope you put on your deodorant this morning! What I mean is, in the way we live our daily lives, in the way we welcome and offer hospitality here at church, can people “smell” the fragrance of Christ, or do we come across as disingenuous, insincere, or even self-serving, like Judas?
The apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 2 wrote, “For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life.” I have always liked this idea that as Christians that fragrance of Christ rubs off of him and onto us as we grow deeper in relationship with him. The fragrance of death, the smell of Judas’s inauthentic and self-serving faith stank more like a pile of garbage, to be honest, as one of Jesus’ closest disciples hands him over for thirty pieces of silver. Mary anoints Jesus for his burial, so that the smell of death, the smell of Judas’ betrayal, would be overpowered by the flowery fragrance of nard. So think about it — when the disciples discovered the empty tomb that pound of perfume covered the stench of rotting flesh and death so that not only could they smell the fragrance of the RISEN Christ, that fragrance could stay with them, hanging on their clothes and in their hair. The sweet smell of Christ’s resurrection was more powerful than any lingering smell of decay.
Here’s an example of what I mean. When I was in college, I had the opportunity to travel to India for a month long class where we learned about Buddhism, Islam, and Hinduism. As you may know, Indian food is very spicy, and Indians use a lot of spices that we aren’t necessarily familiar with in the U.S., so it takes some getting used to. I happen to like Indian food, but I was not prepared to eat VERY spicy food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner day after day, after day. Let’s just say that there were days where not all of us made it onto the bus for our daily outings because of the digestive issues we Midwesterners were all dealing with! What’s interesting, though, is after a month of eating Indian food, I came back to the United States, to my dorm room, started unpacking all of my clothes, and my roommate came in and said, “Whoa! It smells like an Indian restaurant in here!” After living in India and eating Indian food for a month, I smelled like India! India came home with me! Those spices, that onion and garlic, were literally coming out of my pores.
Mary and the disciples, in hanging around Jesus, in listening and following to his teachings, hung around Jesus so often and so closely that the fragrance of Christ was in their pores, too. So much so that after Jesus’ death, resurrection and ascension, Christ’s aroma continued to be with them as they formed the early church and started bring the good news of Christ to other communities around the world. When they encountered others, even though Jesus was not physically present, they could smell the air of who Christ was. Christ’s fragrance was powerful enough for them to be the aroma of Christ to others so that the church grew.
It’s interesting, isn’t it, how powerful the sense of smell can be? One whiff of a certain perfume might remind us of an aunt, our mom, or a strict teacher. My parents’ house will always smell like home to me. And just recently, not one, but two people who grew up here at Bethel have commented to me about how the church smells “just like it always used to.” I hope that’s a good thing! I hope Bethel smells good, and I mean more than just literally that this place doesn’t smell offensive! Mary’s anointing of Jesus causes the room to be filled with a fragrance of Christ that ALL present will remember. They will smell the smell of that nard as Jesus enters Jerusalem. They will smell it as he prays with them in the Garden of Gethsemane, and again as he carries his cross to Golgotha. Perhaps even before they see the stone rolled away and the empty tomb, they will smell Christ’s presence again that Easter morning. They will smell and remember his teachings, remember how he healed those who were sick, remember how he loved them.
When people come to this place, do they smell a fragrance that reminds them of the aroma of Christ? Do they leave with the scent of welcome, of genuine hospitality, with memories of prayers of joy and concern shared and heard? Do they have a sense of security and safety, that here and with these people gathered here it’s OK to both laugh and cry, to wrestle with the questions of faith as well as listen to the powerful faith stories of others? When people walk through these doors, I hope they continue to say, “Ahh, this church still smells the same. It smells like Jesus. It smells like the aroma of Christ.” And I hope, too, that when you all go about your daily lives, that same fragrance of Christ goes with you and lingers when you leave a room. Like that Indian food, may the aroma of Christ that you see and experience here sink deep into your pores, so that people can’t help but notice you smell like a Christian! Amen.