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An Extravagant Faith

McAfee School of Theology is on spring break this week, so this sermon is from last fall’s chapel. This sermon was delivered by Brett Younger, associate professor of preaching at McAfee school of Theology in Atlanta, Ga., on Sept. 2, 2008.

John 12:1-11

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus’ feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of the disciples (the one who was about to betray Jesus), said, Why was this perfume not sold for a year’s wages and the money given to those who are poor? (Judas said this not because he cared about those who are poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have those who are poor with you, but you do not always have me.

When the great crowd of the Jews learned that he was there, they came not only because of Jesus but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well, since it was on account of him that many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus. (John 12:1-11 NRSV)

The earliest appointment I could get at the seminary housing office was Monday at 9:00. I was coming from seven hours away, so I left for my meeting at 1:30 in the morning. I’m fairly certain that if I had explained my situation to the good people at student housing, then they would have given me an appointment at 4:00 in the afternoon, but I was too excited to wait another minute.

I was as wound up as any seminary student has ever been wound. I was pumped to learn Hebrew and Greek, backwards and forwards. I planned to read Augustine’s Confessions in the original Latin. (I didn’t mention this to anyone, because I wasn’t sure Augustine wrote in Latin.) I was going to get to study preaching, the queen of the theological disciplines. What could be better! I intended to pray for thirty minutes early every morning. I was planning to meet a beautiful, intelligent seminarian. We would get married and name our children Martin Luther and Karl Barth, Martina and Karla if we had girls. I was unreasonably excited for a long time, but then, after a while, I calmed down.

Exhilaration gave way to routine. I became a normal student. Greek never quite clicked for me ”luw, lueis, luie, luomev, luete, luousi ”is most of the Greek I remember ”and I had to look up third person plural. Augustine’s Confessions is long and dull. I learned that Karl Barth’s last name is pronounced Barth. I bought a copy of Cliff Notes on the New Testament. I tried to figure out which required reading was really more recommended. When I woke up late I prayed in the car on the way to school. I did marry a beautiful, intelligent seminarian, but we named our children Graham and Caleb ”for which they are grateful. I got so used to seminary that I had no desire to leave and stayed seven years. I hear that’s not the record.

When I was called to be the pastor of my first church, I was beside myself with excitement. I couldn’t believe they were going to pay me to study the Bible and then to stand up on Sunday and say, I’ve been listening carefully and this is what I think God wants us to hear. It was my job to see the hurting people in the world and ask how God might be calling the church to respond. I was going to stir things up and lead my people to take faith more seriously. The Central Baptist Church in Paoli, Indiana, was going to become a beacon for Christ, a shining star for social justice, a guiding light in the evangelical world. All that and I would get a private room at youth camp.

I was unreasonably excited for a long time, but then, after a while, I became more realistic. Exhilaration gave way to routine. Sundays seemed to roll around about every four days. Carl Chaplin fell asleep during every sermon. Deacons’ meetings aren’t all that I had dreamed. When we got stirred up, it usually didn’t have anything to do with social justice. I got too old for late nights at youth camp, but I loved being a pastor, so much so that I pastored four churches, twenty-two years. But some days excitement gave way to reasonableness.

I was delighted at the prospect of coming to McAfee. On my second day I went to Swilley Library and checked out The Joy of Teaching. I started preparing manuscripts for every class. (A three hour class requires a really long manuscript.) I’m re-reading all of the books I assigned. Maybe I’ll remember the Greek I’ve forgotten by osmosis, just by having an office next to Tom Slater’s. I love the idea of teaching and learning about Christ’s church, studying and sharing the ideas of Christian scholars, and being part of a grace-filled community. I’m eager to meet all my new best friends.

But I’m also afraid that the excitement will be overcome by routine. I haven’t read any of The Joy of Teaching, but I’ve learned there’s no sequel titled The Joy of Grading. I’m thinking that for the three hour class, I could divide the students into small groups to discuss whatever I just said. I could skim the books I’ve read before. I’m afraid that some days when I try to share my love for the church I’ll remember that the phrase dysfunctional church can seem redundant. It’s possible that I won’t be as thrilled to be invited to my second faculty meeting as I was to the first.

It’s understandable that we fall into patterns of thinking and acting that are reasonable and expected, but if we don’t hold on to at least a little of the enthusiasm the Spirit sends, then we’re not following Jesus. God calls us to maintain some level of unreasonable head over heels, fall down at his feet devotion to Christ. God leads us beyond cautious, routine, carefully measured faith to extravagant if sometimes frightening possibilities.

The reasonable thing is for Jesus to hide in Ephraim. Visiting a town only a few miles from Jerusalem is dangerous. The disciples want to return to the relative safety of Galilee, but Jesus insists on this irrational trip to Bethany.

While they’re there, Martha throws a dinner party in Jesus’ honor. Unlike most dinner parties, every guest is glad to be there. They’re at the same table with Lazarus ”once dead, now looking more alive than ever. They’re at the same table with Jesus ”who, in spite of the stories they’ve heard, looks like a real person.

Then, in the middle of this already extraordinary setting, Mary takes out a bottle of expensive, perfumed oil ”used only a few drops at a time and only on the most important occasions. Mary quietly moves behind Jesus, anoints his feet, and wipes the excess with her hair.

Her gift seems foolish to those who don’t love Jesus as much as she does. They are offended by this act that produces nothing. Judas is the voice of reason, Why didn’t she sell this perfume and give the money to the poor?
It’s a good question. If the perfume is worth a year’s wages, and minimum wage is $6.55 an hour, then the puddle at Jesus’ feet costs over $13,000. Is it any wonder Judas is shocked?

What would be the reaction if your church’s next financial report included a $13,000 expenditure for perfumed oil? What if the only explanation the responsible staff member could give was that she wanted to show her love for Christ? She’ll be looking for a new line on her resume, because we’re more practical than this. We’re clear-thinking people who weigh alternatives and do what’s logical.

If Mary had asked us beforehand, we might have said, I’m not sure this is appropriate. Giving Jesus a gift is a good idea, but think of something simpler. A silk tie is always nice.

We’re sensible people. We believe in moderation. We look at the pros and cons, ask what others think, and act prudently.

But the problem with Judas’ practical approach is that it kept him from being a true disciple. Judas’ betrayal didn’t begin on the night of the Last Supper, but with a calculating way of life that couldn’t understand Jesus’ impractical way. Could it be that the greatest betrayal of Christ is to live a careful, sensible faith when God calls us to extravagance?

God hopes for out of the ordinary, but only a small number see it God’s way. The Spirit leads these few to do things that aren’t sensible. The people who go too far are eventually called saints. John tells us that the fragrance of the ointment filled the house. The sweet smell of sacrifice, of lavish faith, fills the world.

The heroes and heroines in scripture are at their best when they live out their faith excessively, irrationally, abundantly: Noah building an ark without a cloud in the sky; Abraham packing up everything he owned and heading for God only knew where; Ruth going with her mother-in-law when common sense said to stay home; David picking up five smooth stones when all the smart money was on Goliath; Hosea searching for his wife with a love that made no sense; Joseph marrying a young mother whose child wasn’t his; the disciples dropping what they were doing to follow Joseph’s stepson; Zacchaeus giving half to the poor, when a third seems quite sufficient; Stephen dying when he could have rotated off the deacon board; Peter and John announcing to those who imprisoned them, We cannot but speak of what we’ve seen and heard. They weren’t trying to meet others’ expectations. They did as they believed God directed, no matter how it looked. Paul said it for all of them, We are fools for Christ’s sake.

There have been other fools: Saint Francis, giving up his material goods, taking his place with the poor; Martin Luther facing prison and announcing, My conscience is captive to the Word of God. God help me. Here I stand ; Lottie Moon, preaching the gospel in China, praying for someone to respond; Dietrich Bonhoeffer returning to Germany to suffer with his people; Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus, when it would have been easier to move to the back; Oscar Romero standing for what the church could be even when it cost him his life; Desmond Tutu, challenging the powers, when he knows what the cost could be. God’s fools aren’t practical. They don’t live reasonable lives, but abundant ones.

They live the same abundant life to which the Spirit calls us. Mary’s love was uncalculating. She wholeheartedly spent her life savings on one grand gesture. She didn’t carefully weigh the alternatives. She did the unthinkable. A respectable Jewish woman would never untie her hair in public, but Mary was too caught up in her love for Jesus to be concerned with her own scandalous behavior. When God’s grace overwhelms us we don’t carefully weigh the alternatives.

God has extravagant possibilities for you and me. Every once in a while we feel the Spirit pulling us to do something new, something rare, something good. There’s a relentless spontaneity about it. Every once in a while we should act on impulse with just the faintest impression that we heard God say, Go.

No day is without the possibility of a unique opportunity. If we keep asking, What peculiar thing might God want from me? we’ll find ways to adore God.

Try telling God that you want to live an out of the ordinary day. Pray more than an ordinary prayer. Pray that God will empty you of everything that isn’t love. Speak an extravagant word of grace to someone. Look for words so lavish that their face and yours will turn red. Embarrass one of your professors.
Love Greek and Hebrew excessively. Read Augustine hopefully. Read your preaching textbook passionately. Read a book that’s only recommended. Read the Bible.

Do something for your church that you’ve never done. Pick something that frightens you. Stir things up. Be the one who mentions Jesus during deacons’ meetings.

Speak to someone to whom you’ve gotten used to not speaking. Sell something and give the money to feed hungry children. Give more than a reasonable amount.

Be open to all kinds of extravagant possibilities. God may invite you to go beyond what’s reasonable. God will lead us to become better thinkers, better ministers, better Christians, to love this school, love the church, love Christ.

How long has it been since you did something impractical because you believe in God? When was the last time you did anything foolish for love? Mary thought about her gift for the rest of her life. She could have used that money in a thousand different ways, but God gave Mary a love that was worth everything. God offers us the same love.