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Sermon: Mary Anoints Jesus' Feet

Date Preached: Sunday 21st March 2010

Bible Reference: John Chapter 12 verses 20-26

When a group of strangers came up to the disciples, they expressed a desire that has been felt by millions upon millions of people ever since.  Speaking to Philip they said: "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."

 – it’s a statement of intent that has motivated Christians for almost two millennia; one that’s inspired artists from Michelangelo to Salvador Dali; that’s been the driving force behind numerous works of scholarship and literature. And it touches us this morning as we reflect upon the importance of Jesus Christ for our lives – in our lives.

 "Sir, we wish to see Jesus."

There's something in us that won’t rest until we have a clearer picture of the one we worship as the very Son of God. All our biblical affirmations, theological statements, creeds and sermons, all our words, however effective, still leave us with that elementary desire to see him for ourselves.

There were no cameras at the time of Christ, no digital records  - and we have to rely upon the imagination of artists or reconstructions to provide images of what he must have looked like. If you’ve ever done an Internet search, there’s a profusion of images and art-work which provide us with plenty of material as we pursue this age-old search (have a look at our own website). 

But with such a tremendous variety of images we have to ask the question: is any one of these any more accurate than another? And it’s made all the more difficult because the New Testament contains no physical description of Jesus; the gospel narratives don't even tell us much directly about his personality – although we can infer this from what he said and did, and his reactions to people and situations.

But in our appearance-obsessed culture have you ever wondered why the gospel writers didn’t feel it necessary to say anything? Because that wasn’t the point.

During the first several hundred years of church history, people didn’t try to portray Jesus visually. The earliest Christian images were of things like a fish, a ship, a seashell - symbolic objects. The first efforts to picture Jesus directly seem to have been during the Byzantine period of the Middle Ages when Constantinople, now Istanbul, became the centre of eastern Christianity. 

But although the Bible contains no actual physical description of Jesus, the biblical portrait of the suffering servant in the Old Testament book of Isaiah, has always been confidently taken to refer to the Messiah whom, we’re told: "…grew up like a young plant and like a root out of dry ground; (one who)…had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with infirmity, and as one from whom others hide their faces, he was despised, and we held him of no account."

This is a prophecy is of someone who had nothing to commend him physically. ‘Clearly not one of the verses that Mel Gibson relied upon when he chose the beautiful, blue-eyed James Caviezel to portray Jesus in "The Passion of the Christ.". Or that cast Robert Powell in Zeferellis’ Jesus of Nazareth – powerful and amazing though those portrayals are. (And the depiction of the crucifixion in the Passion… is frighteningly authentic)

So many of the earliest artists did form their image of Jesus from this passage in Isaiah 53. One early church historian who lived in the year 200 said of him: "There was nothing outstanding about Christ's flesh.” And it was just this contrast with his personality that struck everyone. Far from emanating divine radiance in a physical sense, his body didn’t seem the kind of human beauty that we so idolize in our culture. The passion – the pain and humility he suffered left their mark on Jesus – marred and disfigured him. So we’ve moved a long way from this earliest tradition in which Jesus was said to possess little physical beauty, to contemporary images of Christ intended to appeal to the consumer’s eye.

So what do we learn from these Greeks who wanted to see Jesus so badly:

(that) those that would want to know Christ (the New Living Translation uses the word ‘meet’ – rather than simply see) must seek him.

They looked to Philip because he was presumed to be a close follower of Jesus. And that’s what we need to be as Christians – and certainly as ministers – people to whom others can come to get help to see Jesus because we’ve found him ourselves. It’s good for us to know those who know the Lord – so that they can guide us to him.

2.         (And then we learn) that the purpose in seeking Jesus is a desire for a personal relationship

Sir, we wish to see him - for ourselves’. They gave Philip a title of respect, as one worthy of honour, - why? - because he was in a relationship to Christ. They wanted this too, they wanted to see Jesus; not only see his face, so that they might be able to say, when they came home, that they’d seen the one that was making all the news (they’d probably done that already – seen him at a distance); NO they wanted to meet him – to talk with him personally, maybe to be taught by him.

 In all our church practice, in Anglican circles our attention to liturgy and the holy ordinances, saints’ days and the church calendar - the great desire of our hearts should be to meet with Jesus; to be in relationship with him;

  • to have our knowledge of him increased,

  • our dependence on him encouraged,

  • our likeness to him developed; to see him as our friend and Lord;

  • to enjoy as well as keep up communion with him, and thereby derive grace from him as his Spirit indwells us. If we don’t see Jesus – what is our churchgoing really about? 

  • (and then finally a third thing we learn) is that Jesus’ response to those who seek him is both certain – and surprising

Jesus accepts the honour paid him, and tells them about the honour which he himself will have in being followed and the honour which those will have who follow him, His response was intended for the direction and encouragement of these Greeks, and all others that desire to be acquainted with Jesus.

But he also says things that indicate the cost of all this – he uses a picture of his own death – and our need to let go of our lives for him – to be “reckless” in our love (as the Message says) – not carefully measuring our investment – because its only then that we’ll discover the reality of his transforming presence.

Jesus’ way (we’ve been learning through Lent) is the way of the cross – because it is the cross that expresses most fully the very heart of the Father’s love

It’s in the dying of the corn of wheat that the Father and the Son are glorified, that the church is replenished, that the mystical body of Christ is kept together, sustained, and finally completed – and in a place where there’ll be no more crying or pain. But to enable all this to happen Jesus suffered. And until we come to believe in the power and the reality of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for ourselves, until we experience the filling of the Spirit as a present and continuous reality, we haven’t yet come to ‘know’ Jesus at all – it’s like we’ve just seen him from afar. (I was there in New York’s Central Park for one of the Nuclear Disarmament concerts in June 1982 – Springsteen, Crosby Stills and Nash, James Taylor and Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt – at least I think that’s what I could see being about half a mile away from the stage). Sir we wish to see Jesus

What became of that group of foreign seekers after truth we’re not told, but they did seem to be aware that there must be more to true worship than all the religious ritual, the hubbub that they could see going on around them during the feast – and that seeing Jesus was what they needed to do.

And he was the one they went after – to get to know him personally – for themselves. My prayer is that our worship will allow some space for us to hear God speaking words of love and forgiveness; to see the Holy Spirit at work healing, shaping us for God’s purposes, bringing us into this new life under the reign and rule of Jesus the King.

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