Sunday’s sermon: God Moves Us … to Empty Ourselves

poured out

Texts used – John 12:1-8; Philippians 3:4b-14

  • Question: How many of you have heard of Marie Kondo?
    • Kondo (aka – Konmari): Japanese organizational consultant
    • Written 4 best-selling books
    • Show on Netflix: “Tidying Up with Marie Kondo” (started Jan. 1, 2019)
    • KonMari Method = all about decluttering → go through your house room by room, spend time touching/holding every item in that room (first clothes, then books, then papers, then miscellaneous items, and sentimental items last), keep only those things that speak to your heart – those things that “spark joy”
    • Popularity in the U.S. has exploded in the last 3 months → her name has even become an action: “I Marie Kondo-ed my shoe collection,” or “I Marie Kondo-ed my bookshelf”
    • From her website: “People around the world have been drawn to this philosophy not only due to its effectiveness, but also because it places great importance on being mindful, introspective and forward-looking.”[1]
  • Now, Marie Kondo falls into a wider trend that has been growing momentum in this country for a number of years – that of minimalism: “the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.”[2] It’s an emptying out of sorts. This whole idea of minimalism is about emptying out – emptying out your home and your schedule and your life of all those things that clutter it up and keep you from living and being your best self.
  • Lenten sermon series: God on the Move
    • So far – all been ways God moves
      • Week 1: God moved into the desert and, by extension, intentionally into the human experience
      • Week 2: God moved past all the obstacles in Christ’s ministry with compassion and mercy, not power and force
      • Week 3: God moves toward us again and again in grace, not slowly and hesitantly but with purpose and passion
    • This week = different → talking about one of the ways that God moves us to action: the action of emptying ourselves of all those things that distract us to make room for God
  • See this dramatically played out in Gospel story this morning
    • Basic story: Jesus and his disciples stop in Bethany on their way to Jerusalem (stop out of desire to see their friends, not out of necessity: only about 1.5 miles from one to the other = basically like stopping in Bloomington on your way to Minneapolis) → once again, Martha is serving the meal → after they sit down to eat, Mary comes in and anoints Jesus’ feet with almost a pound of “very expensive perfume”[3] → Judas berates Mary for not selling such a treasure and giving the money to the poor → Jesus confronts Judas with stark reality: “Leave her alone. This perfume was used in preparation for my burial, and this is how she has used it.”[4]
    • A couple of cultural scandals we need to understand about this encounter between Mary, Jesus, and Judas → pertain to the oil itself
      • Scandal #1: the oil itself → First, understand what this stuff is [WALK AROUND WITH SPIKENARD SO PEOPLE CAN SMELL IT]
        • “Pure nard” = spikenard: oil made from the roots of a plant that only grows in the Himalayas of China, Tibet, and Nepal → something that wasn’t readily available, something the Israelites would have had to trade for
        • Oil = very pungent and very distinctive scent → And spikenard, or pure nard, was an oil that was used by the Israelites primarily for both anointing the dead and dying and the anointing of kings.
          • Jessica LaGrone: Mary’s anointing carried with it the scent of brokenness and death but also ironically the scent of power, a king coming into his kingship.[5] → Think about it for a minute. Scent memories are incredibly powerful things, more powerful than memories tied to any of our other senses.
            • Physiological reason for this: Incoming smells are first processed by the olfactory bulb, which starts inside the nose and runs along the bottom of the brain. The olfactory bulb has direct connections to two brain areas that are strongly implicated in emotion and memory: the amygdala and hippocampus. Interestingly, visual, auditory (sound), and tactile (touch) information do not pass through these brain areas. This may be why [scent], more than any other sense, is so successful at triggering emotions and memories.[6] → So in the midst of this dinner, all those present would have been overwhelmed with this powerful scent – one that would have brought back memories of death and grieving. (Not exactly a polite or desirable dinner party theme.)
      • Scandal #2: the gravity of the expense of the oil
        • Text (Judas): “This perfume was worth a year’s wages! Why wasn’t it sold and the money given to the poor?” → A year’s wages … a year’s wages. And we have to remember that Mary is a woman – a woman in a society in which women were not allowed to work. Ever. Period. Widows had to be taken in by relatives or beg on the street. We don’t know whether or not Mary was married, but if she wasn’t, then she was likely living in her brother Lazarus’ home. He was providing for her, so it was a year’s worth of his wages that she had just dumped all over Jesus’ feet.
          • Generally the kind of offering that we assume Jesus would scoff at or even condemn → cannot argue that it feels extravagant … frivolous … wasteful
          • Mark Achtemeier: Mary’s discipleship is of a wholly impractical and [lavish] sort. Judas’s critique rings true: surely Mary could have found a more practical and measured stewardship of a year’s wages than this over-the-top extravagance poured out upon Jesus; yet Mary is the one Jesus commends. It is difficult to justify Mary’s action on practical grounds. In her defense, however, it is clear that Mary’s love for Jesus echoes, in a small but significant way, the lavish impracticality of Jesus’ own love for the world.[7] → And that’s where the rubber meets the road, friends. Mary finds herself once again in the presence of her honored and beloved Teacher, and she wants to show him just how much that means to her. There are all sorts of theological and exegetical debates about whether Mary chose the pure nard because she knew that Jesus was going to Jerusalem to die. But frankly, I don’t think it matters. Mary poured herself out at the feet of Jesus in this passage. She throws caution, propriety, fiscal responsibility, and even her own dignity to the wind. She empties herself of everything except the love and devotion that she displays for Jesus in this beautiful and shocking moment.
    • Also in our Gospel story this morning = Jesus’ call that we do the same → But it’s a call that’s hiding just a bit in the language and the translation.
      • Okay … time for a mini Greek lesson (and I mean mini because Greek is not my thing!) → In Greek, the order of the words in a sentence doesn’t matter. They can basically be put in any order the writer chooses. What matters is the form and tense of the words. The different permutations and endings are what tell you which words go where. (sort of like those sliding picture puzzles … which I’m terrible at … which is why Greek is not my thing!)
        • Much debated verse in today’s passage (very end – Jesus to Judas): “You will always have the poor among you, but you won’t always have me.”[8] → Throughout the centuries, scholars have tried to posit what this verse means in terms of how we should or shouldn’t care for those who are in need. And we can see why they’ve spent so much time and spilled so much ink debating it because it’s a tricky verse, right? I mean, it sort of sounds like, for the moment, Jesus is minimizing the importance of the poor … which is the exact opposite of what he’s done throughout the rest of his entire ministry.
        • Scholar sheds some very interesting light on this[9]and it all comes down to, you guessed it … the Greek. → 2 forms that look and sound exactly the same
          • Indicative form → indicates/suggests something: “you always have the poor with you”
          • Imperative form → commands you to do something: “Have/keep the poor with you”
          • The Greek word used in this passage is written in that ambiguous form. So Jesus could indeed be saying, “You will always have the poor among you.” Or he could be giving the disciples a powerful reminder and an edict as they move forward in their ministry: “Keep the poor among you. Remember them. Do not forget them after I’m gone. Pour yourselves out for them as I have poured myself out for you. Because they matter.”
  • Hear this echoed in our NT reading from Phil this morning, too
    • Right off the bat, Paul acknowledges that, if there is anyone that has reason to boast, it’s him. → remember that before his powerful conversion experience on the road to Damascus, Paul (aka – Saul) was an up-and-comer among the Pharisees
      • Had a pretty strong Pharisaical pedigree – all the right schooling, all the right connections → And yet, after encountering the risen Christ on the road to Damascus and being struck blind for three whole days, Paul turned his back on that life of influence and prestige and became the most prolific of “those crazy Jesus followers.”
      • Text: I am from the people of Israel and the tribe of Benjamin. I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews. With respect to observing the Law, I’m a Pharisee. … These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.[10] → Paul truly emptied himself in order to make room for God and Christ to move and work in and through him by the power of the Holy Spirit.
        • Started this morning with Marie Kondo example of decluttering à Paul “Marie Kondo-ed” his soul to make room for the Savior of all
          • Takes bravery → Decluttering a room means you’re going to see all the imperfections – the dust in the corners, the cobwebs, the scuffed floors and scratched paint on the walls. Once that room’s been decluttered, you can’t hide those imperfections, and it takes bravery to be that vulnerable and that bare with our souls.
          • Takes intention → Decluttering doesn’t happen by mistake. It doesn’t happen accidentally. (Don’t we wish it did!!) When you take on a task of decluttering, you have to intentionally handle things … consider things … release things. The act of decluttering requires engagement just like our faith requires engagement.
          • Takes love and desire like Mary’s → Let’s face it. We don’t declutter spaces that we don’t care about, right? If we’re going to put the time and effort  into decluttering, it’s going to be for a space that we love and care about. And if we’re going to put the time and effort into decluttering our souls – into emptying ourselves out so God can move in and through us – we need to have that same love and care and desire for ourselves. We need to see ourselves and treat ourselves as beloved and precious and treasure … because that is how God sees us.
          • But friends, we cannot deny that as we draw closer to the cross with Christ, we are indeed called to empty ourselves for the sake of Love Incarnate. Can we do it? Amen.


[2] Josh Becker. “What is Minimalism?” from Becoming Minimalist. Accessed Apr. 7, 2019.

[3] Jn 12:3.

[4] Jn 12:7.

[5] Jessica LaGrone. “Lenten Series: God on the Move – Lent 5: God Moves Us … to Empty Ourselves” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 200.

[6] Jordan Gaines Lewis, Ph.D. “Smells Ring Bells: How Smell Triggers Memories and Emotions” from Psychology Today online. Posted Jan. 12, 2015, accessed Apr. 7, 2019.

[7] P. Mark Achtemeier. “John 11:55-12:11 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: John, vol. 2. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015), 76, 78.

[8] Jn 12:8.

[9] Lindsey Trozzo. “April 07, 2019 – Commentary on John 12:1-8” from Working Preacher. Accessed Apr. 7, 2019.

[10] Phil 3:5b, 7-8a.

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