Sermon from April 3: The Fragrance of God

The Fragrance of God
Lent V; April 3, 2022
John 12:1-8

What would that fragrance have been, filling the house? I’ve never smelled nard; I read that the smell is musty and woody, which sounds like something I would like. Don’t you love the scent of a real pine or juniper or spruce tree at Christmas? My friend Peter told me that his grandmother said to him, “There are only two smells in the afterlife: incense and brimstone. You had better learn to like one of them.”

Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, anointed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume made of pure nard, and the fragrance filled the house. First, I ask you to imagine how you react. Imagine you are at that dinner party. You are either a disciple of Jesus or you are a friend of the family, or both. Jesus has just raised Lazarus from the dead; the two sisters are overjoyed to have their brother restored to them. They invite Jesus to dinner; also at the dinner are their closest friends, the disciples of Jesus, and you. Mary goes to her room, gets her most expensive perfume, and anoints Jesus’ feet with it. How do you react?

Are you filled with wonder? Certainly Mary is grateful, but isn’t the dinner party enough to show her gratitude? (It occurs to me that Martha probably did most of the work for the party.) Mary does this expensive, reckless gesture of love and thanksgiving. You smell the perfume and you are filled with wonder at her love and joy.

Or perhaps you, like Judas, are scornful of the extravagance. I think it was a little cheap of John to throw in the comment about Judas being a thief; isn’t it enough that Judas is a sourpuss? You probably know someone like that: every time someone tries to do something wonderful and extravagant this other person responds with scorn. Jesus’ response to Judas is right on the mark: Leave her alone. If someone wants to do something extravagant, let them do it.

I had better add that Jesus’ comment about the poor is not an excuse to avoid attending to the needs of the poor. It is simply the reminder that Mary has one chance only to do this for Jesus: do it now or do it never. But tomorrow there will be another opportunity to do your duty for the poor. Don’t be scornful of Mary; leave her alone. Inhale the wonderful fragrance, the fragrance of gratitude, the fragrance of sacrifice, the fragrance of God.

Mary’s gift is her own sacrifice, of course, and Jesus takes the opportunity to call attention to his sacrifice soon to come. It’s six days before the Passover; the next day after this dinner will be the day you and I call Palm Sunday. This Mary, like Mary Magdalene, may be one of the women who go to the tomb on Easter morning intending to care properly for Jesus’ body. This perfume of nard may be her contribution on that day. Even if not, Jesus draws our attention there. The perfume fills the house with the fragrance of her sacrifice and the fragrance of the sacrifice of Jesus.

The first thing I wanted you to think about was how you react when you smell the fragrance of Mary’s perfume. And the second thing I ask you to think about is the fragrance of our sacrifice. When our young people are confirmed in several minutes, I will anoint each of them with olive oil that has been infused with frankincense and myrrh. This is the fragrance of their commitment to Jesus Christ and his Church, the fragrance of the promises they are about to make.

Let’s get metaphorical: what is the fragrance of our life? What fragrance fills the house because of the way we live, the way we pray, the way we serve God? Sometimes it is the fragrance of whatever the Deacons are making for dinner at Rainbow House. This month that is breakfast casserole and Caesar salad: for those families of patients at Children’s Hospital, far from their homes, for one evening at least the fragrance of God will be not perfume of nard but eggs and sausage and sharp cheddar cheese.

I have told you before that the Deacons at the Presbyterian Church of Wyoming, Ohio once every month would make dinner for the people at a soup kitchen in downtown Cincinnati. They made the soup on Sunday morning to be warmed up later in the week, so one Sunday every month for us the fragrance of God was not perfume of nard but chicken soup.

I have been part of the team from our Church that helps build Habitat houses and so sometimes the fragrance of God is the smell of human sweat. Working people who would otherwise not be able to afford to buy a home can become homeowners because of Habitat for Humanity, the time they themselves put into construction and the many volunteers who work on the homes. So human sweat is, at times, the fragrance of God.

We can get even more metaphorical. Do you and I fill the house with the fragrance of joy and gratitude? Or are we sourpusses like Judas? What fragrance fills the house as a result of our love for Jesus, as a result of our gratitude to him?

I do like the smell of incense, so I should be okay if Peter’s grandmother was right and I have to choose between it and brimstone. I have never smelled perfume made of nard, but I think I would like it. I have, I know, smelled the fragrance of God. Sometimes it smells like chicken soup, sometimes like human sweat, and sometimes like breakfast casserole and Caesar salad. The fragrance of God fills the house wherever you find the people who love Jesus and are grateful to him and who offer themselves freely in his service.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska