This was the last sermon I gave at my post in the Kidderminster and Stourport Circuit; it was given at an ecumenical service of Holy Communion that worshiped together every Wednesday.
The sermon is based on John 12:1-8.
Today the church celebrates the festival of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. Our Gospel reading for today contains all three of these characters as well as Jesus, but it also contains another character: Judas.
If you were going to make a film out of this morning’s story, I reckon that you could turn this into quite an uncomfortable scene.
Lazarus has just been raised from the dead in the previous chapter and, although the text doesn’t say it explicitly, we imagine that Jesus is having a celebratory meal with these friends who he loves. Mary then does something that would be as embarrassing as someone in our society hiking her skirt up to her thighs.
In my imaginary film I can just see Judas portrayed as a model of calm and sensibleness, looking at Mary with an attitude of pity and announcing: “The money you spent on all the drink you’ve just poured down yourself could have been given to poor”…
So when Jesus opens his mouth to speak, we expect that he’s going to take Judas’ part and tell Mary to calm down and stop making everyone uncomfortable. But instead Jesus tells Judas to leave her alone. And the narrator tells us that Mary’s heart is right with God and that Judas’ is not.
Although today is the feast of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, it’s the character of Judas who is the foil that helps us learn from the example of these three siblings.
Let’s think about the difference between the Judas and Lazarus to start with. Lazarus has experienced resurrection and Judas has not.
None of us has any idea of what it would feel like to be resurrected, but there are people in our culture who have had near death experiences. It seems to me that one universal outcome of such experiences is that people often have a sense of the true meaning and the true value of life.
I imagine that Lazarus might feel that he has nothing to lose and everything to gain. He’d lost his life but now he’s found it again and every moment, every day, every taste of food, every drink, every moment shared with a loved one is a sweet and joyful bonus.
Judas, I imagine, thinks that life is much more serious than this. Life is about freedom from political oppression and Judas will stop at nothing to get it.
But although Judas is serious and apparently lacking in a certain degree of empathy, we are also told that he is not straight. Judas’ serious outlook toward life did not prevent him from stealing from the common purse.
Lazarus, along with Jesus, is on the right side of resurrection.
The readers of this story are invited to be on the right side of resurrection as well: the poor will always be with you until the resurrection of the dead and the kingdom of God has come.
Turn your sights to the day when God’s children will live in true freedom. Be like Lazarus and live the resurrection life today.
Workers for the Kingdom
Then we have Martha.
Poor old Martha; I always think she gets a bit of a raw deal. Martha does all the work of the kingdom behind the scenes and, although she always gets mentioned, the picture I have of her is as some sort of generic worker-bee.
And it’s the Marthas – male and female – who are the backbone of the Church, and often the backbone of society’s army of carers. People who quietly do the work of God asking for no recognition or reward who often influence the lives of many for good.
Here again, though, is a contrast with Judas.
I imagine the Judas thought of himself as working for the coming of the Kingdom of God. But I suspect that he also wanted that kingdom to come in a blaze of earthly glory. And I somehow doubt that he would have been content to fade into the background.
Martha, unlike Judas, understands what the real work of the Kingdom is. We are called to be like Martha. When we work, we work for Jesus and for the Kingdom of God. We do not work for personal glory or gain.
Prophets for the Kingdom
And then we have Mary.
Mary the sister who sits at the feet of Jesus learning from him. But Mary who also embarrassingly proclaims her love for Jesus in today’s text.
Mary is something of a prophet. She is happy to ignore what is normally expected in society in order to learn from Jesus. And she is happy to embarrass herself in order to proclaim the profound truth about Jesus: Against all expectations of what the Messiah will be like, Jesus will have to die in order rise again.
The Messiah does not look like what the world expected. The Messiah will not bring about the Kingdom of God the way that the world expected.
That, of course, is the great contrast between Judas and Mary.
Judas insisted that Jesus must follow his expectations. And when Jesus’ Messiahship didn’t follow the pattern that Judas wanted, he was willing to betray Jesus. Mary learned from Jesus. Judas expected Jesus to learn from him.
Need I say: be like Mary, learning from Jesus. Do not make God in your own image.
Mary, Martha and Lazarus appear to have been amongst Jesus’ closest friends during his earthly life.
But we celebrate their lives not simply because of their intimacy with Jesus, but because they represent three important aspects of being a follower of Jesus. Resurrection life, active discipleship, and the willingness to pray and learn from Christ.
As we celebrate the Lord’s Supper together this morning, I pray that we all may be strengthened for the journey ahead. May we learn from Christ, may we seek to follow him actively and may we always keep our eyes on the resurrection. Amen