Sermon at St James, Colwall, for Lent 5 2016
Isaiah 43.16-21; Philippians 2.5-11; John 12.1-8
To hear the sermon as you read:
OK, so this could be a smelly sermon. In fact, just glancing at the readings as the Lent and Easter season progresses, it seems to me you could do an interesting series of reflections on the way the individuals who were present sensed the drama that was unfolding. From the Sunday before Lent when Peter, James and John saw the glory of God in the transfiguration of Jesus, to the Sunday after Easter when the doubting Thomas actually touched the risen Christ, the participants’ senses are often fully engaged.
There was so much to hear as well, not least the words - words of temptation, words of denial, words of condemnation, words of despair and then, amazingly words of hope and joy. And we know how words can echo round in our heads long after they’ve been spoken. And taste - it never fails to amaze me how much food related stuff there is around what is supposed to be a time of fasting. And I don’t just mean pancakes and hot cross buns, but if it hadn’t been for the mother’s day services last week we’d have had the story of the prodigal son and the feast that celebrated his return. We’ve still to hear of the Last Supper, and the much more poignantly the taste of bitter vinegar offered to Jesus on the cross.
But today it’s smell that’s centre stage. The intoxicating smell of nard. At least, I assume it’s intoxicating because I really haven’t a clue what it’s like. I did wonder if I might get hold of some so I turned to Amazon. And, for £2.99 you can have 10 ml of Spikenard of Mary Anointing Oil, but on closer inspection it turns out to be scented olive oil. So I searched again and found 100% Pure Concentrated Nard of Jerusalem 300ml at £51.05 + £3.99 p&p dispatched by Nazareth Market Store, so perhaps it’s got a bit cheaper through the ages; but you know what, I’m not really into smellies, so I didn’t bother.
Though, to be honest, once in a blue moon I will splash on some up market after-shave, but generally I prefer not to smell – in neither a good way nor a bad. As far as possible I aspire to be odour free. And I don’t think I’m alone in that. As a church we don’t do smells, do we. That may be partly a long term reaction against the smells and bells brand of churchmanship, but mostly I think it reflects the society we live in. I know we like the smells of coffee in the morning, freshly baked bread at the baker’s and the roast welcoming us home on Sunday, but even those smells we don’t want hanging around. Lingering smells make us uneasy. I don’t even like those tree shaped air fresheners they put in the car after they’ve cleaned it. If it’s clean, that’s fine for me, leave the pine smell in the forest thank you.
And big smells are mercifully rare. We get the odd whiff from muck-spreading but so seldom that it’s almost an event. We were passing the Becks brewery in Bremen a few weeks ago and there was a faint almost nostalgic hint of malt in the air. But for most of us, most of the time, it’s not a world of smells.
Which brings me to this extraordinary scene we’ve just had described in our gospel reading. Put yourself in that room – it is all a bit intense, isn’t it? Emotional people and pervasive fragrance. A heady mix. And let’s go further and try to put ourselves in the position of one of the main protagonists. Could you be Mary? I find that difficult - and not just because I don’t have the hair for it. I just couldn’t do it. I mean, you can talk about cultural differences and foot washing traditions and all that stuff till the cows come home, but this was still an astonishingly sensual, dare I say erotic, thing to do. In a room full of people. Could you do that?
But Jesus was comfortable with it. I’m not sure I would have been, I’ve never been a one for treatments. But I can imagine some of you might be sitting there thinking, “I wouldn’t mind.” And by the same token there may have been some in that room thinking “steady on a bit.”
So I have a bit of sympathy for Judas. Here I go, rewriting the Bible again! But I’m disturbed by John’s aside about Judas – “he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.” There’s something about that which just could be a cheap shot at the treasurer who works his socks off to balance the books, while everyone else is swanning about talking peace and love and generosity, but they’re still expecting to collect their expenses at the end of the month. I wonder whether Judas was actually quite uncomfortable with what was going on in front of him. Was it all a bit too physical and earthy for him? And you know how it is when you’re not happy with things, but you can’t withdraw gracefully and you want to say something, but what you say isn’t what you mean?
Or if you’ve never been there, can you imagine how it might happen? But at least if it happens to one of us, our words are not recorded for all posterity to condemn us. Did he really want to say, for goodness sake stop this! but felt that would be too uptight, so finished up talking about money and the poor and finding himself slated for something he didn’t quite mean. And while I’m being fanciful, is it fanciful to suggest that a significant part of his anger and confusion is down to the fact that the purse keeping seems to have passed from him to the woman? He finally knew he was an outsider in this group.
This is one powerful story. Most commentators speak of the smell of love and the smell of death in these actions of Mary and I’d invite you to read it again and draw your own conclusions. I’m not going to try to draw a moral or a challenge from all this, it’s just too deep and emotional. What I think I might do, as I listen to the passion narratives over the next week or two, is wonder “what did it smell like?” and see whether that helps me sniff out some new insights.