The Heart of Worship
Remsen Bible Fellowship, 11/17/2019
When you hear the word “worship”, what comes to mind? I would imagine for many of us we would think of a church service; the singing portion of that service in particular. Maybe you think of an emotional state produced by a moving sermon or beautiful music. Or perhaps you think of worship simply as a personal experience between you and God.
One definition of worship which has helped me over the years comes from Harold Best: Worship is the continuous outpouring of all that I am and all that I have toward the God or gods of my choosing-or that have chosen me. One of the things which I find most helpful in this definition is that Best makes clear that worship is not simply an activity in which may may choose to participate or not. Worship is something that, as human beings, we are always doing. We weren’t created to worship, rather, we were created worshipping. We are always pouring ourselves out in service, in love, in admiration toward someone or something. We are constantly, consciously and unconsciously, ascribing worth, ascribing value. We are worshipping.
The Bible slices worship into two categories. Worship which is rightly ordered, worship directed toward the Triune God, YHWH, is called just that: worship. But when worship is directed toward other gods, toward ourselves, or toward any created thing, God calls this idolatry. The key thing to understand is that idolaters have not ceased to worship. They have adopted the wrong god or gods.
We were made in the image of the Creator God, and he fashioned us to be continually outpouring and continuously receiving the love which he outpours to us. Sin, serving other gods, doesn’t cut us off from worshipping, it directs us to gods who cannot satisfy. Jesus came to give us eternal life, a life of unceasing worship to the Only True God. And by paying the price for our sins and offering forgiveness to all who would trust in him, he makes it possible for us to be in a loving relationship with God the Father. He turns rebellious idolaters into joyful, worshipping, children.
In our text this morning we are going to re-introduce ourselves to a few of these children, and learn from them what the heart of worship looks like, and how it lives.
Read John 12:1-11
- The Idolatrous Hatred of What God Has Done (v9-11)
If you were here last week, you remember that at the end of chapter 11, Jesus has become a very unpopular fellow in the eyes of the chief priests. Unpopular isn’t quite the right verb, because they already hated him. But their hatred has intensified. Over what? Over his raising Lazarus from the grave. Their fear is that Jesus will become even more popular and the Romans will sweep in and they will lose the place of their power and the pride of their nation. So they plot to kill him.
Jesus’ response to this to head for the country. He pulls back to Ephraim (11:54), and remains there until the Passover draws near. Even this creates a stir in Jerusalem, though, as the people are wondering if he will show for the most symbol laden of Jewish feasts.
As we dive into this story, I want to look at the end first. How does this little section on Mary washing Jesus’ feet move the narrative along? We read in v9 that a large crowd gathers, not only to see Jesus, but also to see Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. And they didn’t simply come curious. They came, and in seeing, they believed! Unlike chapter 2 of John’s Gospel, where faith based on seeing miracles is seen as shallow or even spurious faith, here it seems to be genuine. There are a large number of folks who are flocking to see what Jesus has done, and in seeing his works they come to trust him.
However, this creates an opposite reaction in v10. It says so (or, therefore) the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well. The fact that people are seeing the work of Jesus and going away to him (v11) is seen as confirmation of their fears in 11:48. And they are so nervous and upset that they won’t settle for just killing Jesus. They want Lazarus dead, too.
This illustrates part of the point from last week’s sermon: when we find our identity in places outside of Christ, or we might say when we are worshipping other gods, it leads to our hearts hardening against the truth. And the more information we have, the harder we have to work to ignore it, the more calcified our hearts become.
This is the great threat of consciously rejecting Christ. The more often you reject him, the harder it becomes to embrace him. Not because he is any less willing to have you: whosoever will may come! But because it becomes harder to humble ourselves when we have a vested interest in rejecting him. Idolatrous hearts develop a hatred toward the work of God.
This stands in stark contrast to the family this story centers on.
- The Heart of Worship Rejoices in What God Has Done (v1-2)
As we look back at the focus of our sermon this morning, I think we can learn three positive lessons about worship. Most sermons on this text rightly focus on Mary. But before we get to her, I think we can learn from Lazarus and Martha as well.
Verse 1 tells us that six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany. Now, there are quite a few questions surrounding the dates in John’s gospel and trying to line them up with the dates in the synoptic gospels, and I’m still sorting through what I think about all of that. But likely this was a Saturday evening. The Sabbath would have technically ended at sundown, and so people would have been free to come both from Bethany and the short walk out from Jerusalem to attend this dinner.
And what was the nature of this dinner? Verse 2 tells us that they gave a dinner for him implying that this dinner is meant to honor Jesus. Mark 14:3 and Matthew 26:6 tells us that this dinner took place in the home of Simon the leper. Do you find anything strange about that name? A leper would not have been allowed in contact with other Jews, and certainly would not have been hosting any dinner parties. It seems this is a man who has been cleansed by Jesus of his leprosy, and so when Jesus comes back into town before the Passover, Simon is so glad that he hosts this event to honor him. And what more natural guests than Jesus dear friends, Lazarus and his sisters? Who could have more cause to rejoice at Jesus presence than they did?
And here we find a lesson for ourselves: the works of God are not something to privately thank him for and then move on with life. Psalm 111:1 says, Praise the LORD! I will give thanks to the LORD with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Quietly, alone in my bedroom? Well, yes, do that too. But it’s not what the Psalmist says here. He says in the company of the upright, in the congregation. Do you realize that is a fundamental piece of what corporate worship is about? Worshipping together and gathering to remind one another what God has done is a fundamental piece of how we walk with and worship God.
Colossians 3:15-17, And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
The apostle Paul is in that passage describing a church gathering, and what is the driving theme? They are gathering to give thanks to God. Be thankful. Sing with thankfulness in your hearts to God. Do everything in the name of Jesus giving thanks to God the Father through him.
What do you have to thank God for this morning? We’re approaching the holiday season, and Thanksgiving is in less than two weeks. How will you honor God for what he has done while you are gathered with family and friends this year? He has blessed us abundantly with so many things that sit right under our noses, health care, abundant food, warm homes, flushing toilets. We have much to thank God for.
Most importantly we ought to thank God the Father for what he has done for us in Christ Jesus. The heart of worship rejoices in what he has done. It does so privately, to be sure. But also does so corporately. In gathering with other believers, week in and week out, we are availing ourselves the opportunity to have our thankfulness rekindled and our worship set aflame by being grateful to God together. We should be continuously outpouring all that we are and all that we have -together- toward the Father.
- The Heart of Worship Gladly Serves Because of What God Has Done (v2)
While Lazarus is reclining at table, rejoicing in Jesus presence, and Mary has yet to enter the scene, where do we find Martha? Verse 2 tells us that Martha served. The tense of the verb suggests that she didn’t serve for a little while and then sit, but probably spent the whole evening engaged in making the guests feel at home (though it wasn’t her home!). Are we surprised? The sun rises, the tide comes in, and we find Martha working. But I want to ponder with you a difference that is not the focus of this text, but that seems to me to be present here.
Luke 10:38-42, Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
When we meet Martha in the Luke passage we form our opinion of her. She’s either the misunderstood heroine of the passage, or she’s the woman who has the right intentions but misplaced priorities. Jesus gently corrects her and helps her to see that one thing is necessary: to sit at his feet. To be near Jesus. To know and be known by the Good Shepherd.
But here we come to John 12 and this discussion is in the past. We’re right off the heels of Jesus explaining to Martha that he is the Messiah, the Resurrection and the Life, and then proving it by raising her brother. And yet here she is, back in the kitchen, as it were. Has she missed the whole point? Shouldn’t she set the bread pan down and grab her prayer journal? Not necessarily.
Note that in Luke 10:40 we’re told that Martha was distracted with much serving. That doesn’t seem to be the case now. In Luke she was so busy serving that she missed the fact that Jesus was sitting here speaking, and how could Mary be blamed for listening to the voice of the Good Shepherd? But now Martha labors out of love for this same Shepherd.
It can be easy for doers to think of ourselves as earning God’s love via our pile of good works. And if our works aren’t really all that good, at least they were productive. Justification via busyness, we might call it. But no matter how much you do, God won’t love you any more or less. He has already loved you so much that he sent his Son to be your righteousness, and if you trust in Jesus you are clothed in his good works, his righteousness. There’s nothing for you to earn.
You can rest. His yoke is easy, and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30). But does that mean that there isn’t work to be done? On the contrary! We aren’t saved by good works, but we were saved for good works (see Ephesians 2:8-10). The bread still needs baked, tables and chairs still need torn down, set up, torn down again and re set up every Sunday for church, families with new babies or deaths in the family still need meals, cars with dead batteries need jumped, neighbors need Christas cookies, the list of works to be done that could run on for miles.
Here’s the difference: when I’m pursuing works or busyness as my justification or my goal, I’m essentially making approval and recognition from others into my gods. It can even be “for the Lord” and be a distraction from the Lord himself. But if I’m pursuing good deeds (of every size and shape) as a response to the goodness of God poured out to us in Christ, it flips everything. It doesn’t have to seem important, it doesn’t have to be recognized by other people. Because it’s for the Lord and he sees everything.
Jame Montgomery Boice, in his commentary on this passage, says, “[Martha] is dealing in perspiration rather than perfume.” Is perspiring worship inferior? Absolutely not. God gifts different personalities, different gifts, different callings. Worship in action is often less about the action itself and more about the attitude you undertake that action with. Martha serves here in John 12 and the feeling we get is that this is distinctly positive. Her role hasn’t changed from Luke 10. But her heart has. She’s pouring out all that she is and all that she has toward Jesus. The heart of worship gladly serves because of what God has done.
- The Heart of Worship Loves in Response to What God Has Done (v3-4)
Now we come to the heart of this text. Verse 3, Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Imagine yourself in this setting. There is a large gathering of people, a gathering in honor of someone who has raised a man from the dead, healed the host of the party from a horrific skin disease, which saves him from social isolation, this is a joyous occasion. In your society the way you eat on special occasions like this is to be laying down with your head toward the low table, reclined on one arm. People are talking, laughing, telling stories, and many people like Martha are hurrying back and forth bringing out breads and various sauces and oils, refilling wine, the scene is hectic but happy.
And then Mary enters. Mary is known to everyone here, but they can’t anticipate what she is about to do. She takes a jar, a Roman pound or litra would be the equivalent of about 11.5 ounces by our measurement, so think a jar about the size of a can of pop, and she breaks it open and begins to pour it out. Our text in John mentions the anointing of his feet, Matthew 26 says his head; with this much perfume it would be no task to drench Jesus’ whole body with this perfume. She then undoes her hair (likely an improper action in a public setting such as this) and uses her hair to wash the feet of Jesus.
Imagine that smell. You know that smell when someone puts on a little too much perfume? Usually someone with questionable taste in perfume. Now take that sensation and magnify it by what, 100 fold? This is conspicuous in the most extreme sense. Not only is this action visible now, it will be remembered for days, perhaps weeks, to come.
This is an extravagant display of Mary’s love. The cost is jaw-dropping. Judas says (v5) that this perfume is valued at over 300 denarii. A single denarii was the day wage for a laborer; that means the value of this perfume sits at the equivalent of an entire year’s wages. Regardless of how wealthy or not wealthy you are, I don’t think there is a person alive who could see an entire year’s wages disappear, to literally pour it out, without it being an immense sacrifice. To display love in that costly fashion requires a deep inner motivation. It also would be costly socially and emotionally. Notice the scorn which she immediately receives (v5). Foot washing was a chore relegated to the lowest of servants to undertake with a rag and a basin. She has poured out a prize possession on Jesus feet, and wiped it away with her own hair. We are told that Judas was the one heaping scorn, Matthew and Mark imply that he is simply voicing the thoughts of the entire group. They see her worship, they see her love, and their response is what a waste.
Have you ever wondered if your devotion to Christ seems foolish to others? Does your giving to help the needy or giving to support the church leave less room in your budget than friends of a similar income? Do your life choices make people scratch their heads? Does following Jesus make you seem or feel strange? Take heart. You are not nearly as strange as Mary seemed that night-and her devotion to Christ is still spoken of 2,000 years later. Your life may not live on in human history that long, but it is just as visible to God. What are you pouring out to him? What is precious to you that you need to lay at his feet this morning?
Mary poured out everything she had. She left her whole self out there, exposed to the world. For Jesus. Jesus loved Martha, and her sister, and Lazarus. And Mary returned that love. 1 John 4:19 says, We love because he first loved us. You can’t muster up this sort of devotion via sheer will-power or via logical reasoning. It comes as a result of knowing yourself loved by God and loving him in return-because what else could you do? Do you remember that line from Revelation Song? What can I say/and what can I do/but offer this heart oh God/completely to you.
There are times when love for Christ compels us to do things which by any human standard would be foolish or inadvisable. In those moments we must realize that loving God is the one thing we do that we will keep doing for all of eternity. This life is so fleeting. Is he calling you to give an inordinate amount of money to some ministry cause? To uproot your life and career to pursue missions? To stick it out in a tough marriage when it would be easier to quit? To keep patiently loving your child even when they seem locked into rebellion? I don’t know what he’s calling you to this morning. But I do know that the heart of worship loves Jesus more than anyone or anything else, because he is more valuable than anyone or anything else. He deserves the continuous outpouring of all that I am and all that I have.
As extravagant as Mary’s love seems, it pales in comparison to the love Jesus shows to her, and to you and me. 1 John 4:10, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. When this happens Jesus is less than a week away from going to the cross. He went to that mountain, he was nailed to that tree, to drink the bitter cup of the wrath of God against the sins committed by you and by Mary and by me. He drank it all the way down and proclaimed, it is finished. He did that for you. How will you respond to him this morning?
- Conclusion (v5-8)
Finally, we should address the concern Judas raises, along with Jesus’ response to it. Judas asks why all this money wasn’t given to the poor. Which seems like a legitimate question, right?
We know Judas is disingenuous in asking it, v6 tells us that he was a thief, and that he used to help himself to the common purse. Judas cared nothing for the poor. But anytime we see a large expenditure, perhaps one we feel jealous of, the natural inclination as Christians can be toward pious put-downs. I would never spend my money that way, we tell ourselves. Not because there is anything wrong with what’s been done, but because we are grasping at something to make ourselves feel better or superior.
But Jesus doesn’t reply by saying stuff a sock in it, thief. Instead, he defends and explains. First, in verse 7 he says, leave her alone. The rest of this verse is a little confusing, it can be translated so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. Or she intended to keep it for the day of my burial. In either case it seems that she’s failing at her intention. So that she may keep it would imply she stopped pouring the oil at some point and saved the rest, but Matthew’s detail that she broke the flask makes this unlikely. But if she intended to keep it, why didn’t she? My guess is that had intended to save it, but in the moment was overcome with a desire to show Jesus her love while he was living. What she doesn’t know is that he is about to die very soon. This essence will linger in this place, and may well linger on his clothes, for the next week in preparation for his death. It’s akin to Caiaphas’ prophecy in the last chapter, where God was speaking even more through the person than the themselves could understand.
Then Jesus offers an explanation: for the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me. Is Jesus opposed to taking large sums of money and using it to help the poor? Obviously not. James 1:27 tells us that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their afflictions, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. The apostle Paul goes on a major fundraising campaign for the church in Jerusalem when they are facing hardship. In Psalm 112:5-9 we have a description of a righteous man, one whose heart shall never be moved because his hope is in the Lord. Key characteristics of his life? Generosity, lending freely, giving to the poor. His hope is in God so he doesn’t have to cling to his money. And that’s the key.
Jesus isn’t saying, there’s always poor people, so helping them doesn’t really matter. He’s driving at this: loving me is the only sure and lasting foundation for doing social good. There are plenty of pious and impious people doing social good in the world. Building wells, building houses, fighting for justice for the oppressed. But if back to our earlier points, if this is driven by thinking we are going to change the world, or we are going to make a name for ourselves by our goodness, or we are going to be recognized for our wokeness, all of these things will leave us flat. People won’t recognize us. The people we are “serving” won’t always be grateful for all the awesome stuff we’ve done for them.
But if we serve others because we see them as other human beings made in the image of God, loved by God so much that he sent his Son to die for them, we can serve understanding that in serving them we are serving him. In this understanding we have a solid footing to move out into the world in a posture of love, regardless of how it is received. The type of loving worship that pours itself out at Jesus’ feet doesn’t keep us from loving other people. It keeps us from using them. It enables a truly self-giving love directed at best interests of others, not our ourselves.
So we see in this passage glimpses, and more than glimpses, displays of what the heart of worship is. The heart of worship rejoices in what God has done, the heart of worship gladly serves because of what God has done, the heart of worship loves in response to what God has done, and the heart of worship can move out into the world in loving service not to earn God’s love, but to share it. This all stands in stark contrast to the calcified heart of idolatry, the heart that exchanges the truth of God for a lie and serves its own interests. What characterizes your heart this morning? If you know Jesus and feel like you haven’t been worshipping him rightly, first of all we should rejoice that our standing with God is accomplished on the basis of Jesus’ works, not mine. But we can grow in our love of him, and looking at this family as a model of what that looks like is a good place to start.
Perhaps you don’t know Jesus this morning. If this is you, cry out to him. He died for you. He made a way for you to be right with God through the blood of his cross. If you place your hope in him he will remove your calcified heart, your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh, a heart alive to the glory and realities of Salvation through Jesus. Place all your hope in him.