When Love Seems Wasteful
As we turn back to Mark 14, we’ll turn the corner from 13 to 14 in a moment, if you’ll turn there. I want to mention two quick opportunities.
One, there is a tremendous opportunity to love your brothers and sisters by serving in the nursery. So, if you’re looking for an opportunity to serve, all the services have openings; especially we need adults in the 5:00 p.m. service. And that’s only once a month is the rotation. So, one time a month, can you drive over here to love your brothers and sisters, young parents, but also all of us? Just take a moment to listen. That’s the sound of love. Your brothers and sisters are loving us right now down on the end of the hall. And so, if you want an opportunity to get in on that, just email Ruthie. And it’s a tremendous way to meet people and love people.
Second opportunity, as mentioned in the Need2Know a few minutes ago, re|engage Marriage Enrichment is beginning a new session October 10th. So I just want to call all of us . . . and we want to do it here in a moment . . . to pray for this next session of re|engage. Pray for the couples entering this transforming experience. And there are a couple (I think just a couple) spots left if you want to take time to address specific areas in your marriage, or if you just in general want to go to the next level and grow together. It will be a rich experience.
So, let’s pray now for our service, also for re|engage as they begin.
Father, we thank you for the many who serve in re|engage, lead re|engage. We thank you that their burden, our burden, all of our burden is Hebrews 13:4, “that marriage would be held in honor by all.” And that means all — married, singles — to place it at a level that you put it. Not to idolize marriage as if it can satisfy our souls, nor to trivialize as our culture is doing, but to honor as a picture of your covenantal love for your church. And we pray that every couple going through this next session would experience your good work by your Spirit through your Word.
We pray for us today that you would open our eyes, Lord, to value your worth. You know our affections tend to rise and fall with our estimations. If we esteem something, our affection will follow what we esteem. Or if we don’t, it will also follow. So today, if we woke up this morning, if we walked in today with a heart that is cold toward you, toward our neighbors, with worship that feels forced or fake, with love that is small (maybe even manipulative), open our eyes to who you are so that your Spirit will pour into us an extravagant love through Jesus. We pray in his name, amen.
So, one of the most enduring debates in all of history is between determinism vs. indeterminism, or free agency. We see shades of this 4000 years ago in the debate between Job and his friends as they’re trying to figure out who to blame for Job’s suffering. And if you fast forward to Aristotle, in the 4th century B.C., he dabbled with the notion of free will. Augustine and Pelagius took the debate to new levels in the 4th century A.D. Today, most Christians primarily think of this debate as between Calvinism vs Arminianism. But there are secular versions as well — everything from biological determinism to metaphysical libertarianism.
As humans, we wrestle with the question of determinism vs. indeterminism. And this debate can be tedious, if not divisive. It can separate friends and divide churches. But for me personally, I get excited about this discussion, primarily when I begin to move from kind of a one-dimensional “Was it this or this?” to a multidimensional, biblical version of what is called compatibilism. Now, there’s an unbiblical version of compatibilism. I’m talking about the biblical version of compatibilism. Let me give you a big definition, and then I’ll give you a tiny one. D.A. Carson summarizes it well. Compatibilism:
“1. God is absolutely sovereign, but his sovereignty never functions in such a way that human responsibility is curtailed, minimized, or mitigated.
2. Human beings are morally responsible creatures — they significantly choose, rebel, obey, believe, defy, make decisions, and so forth, and they are rightly held accountable for such actions; but this characteristic [of being morally responsible creatures] never functions so as to make God absolutely contingent.”
Did you get all that? Let me say it in a sentence. God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility are compatible. That’s compatibilism. Meaning, they’re not mutually exclusive. And that just sounds like theory, so let me bring it down with my favorite passage. A bunch of men and I were talking about this this past week here at our church, Isaiah 10. And you’ll see compatibilism in living color.
In Isaiah 10:5, God says, “Woe to Assyria, [and then defines Assyria as] the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury!” So, a modern translation would be, “The ballistic missile in their arsenal is my wrath.”
Verse 6, “Against a godless nation I send him, [godless nation is Israel] and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.”
So, you might think, whoa, that’s what I think of when I think of God’s sovereignty: God makes people do stuff they don’t want to do. That’s why I hate that word. Keep reading. Verse 7, God opens up the blinders into the heart of the leaders of Assyria.
“But he does not so intend, [Who’s he? The king of Assyria does not so intend.] and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few.”
So, stop for a second and think of what he just said. I’m using Assyria to accomplish my perfect purposes. And that’s when you go, yeah, that’s sovereignty all right. “But he does not think so.” What is the king of Assyria thinking? I want to go kill some Israelites. The king of Assyria is freely choosing to do what the king of Assyria wants to do. But God is using his freely chosen, sinful choices to accomplish his sinless perfect plan. That’s compatibilism. Do you understand that? I don’t understand it, but do you see it? And then when God has finished his perfect purpose, verse 12,
“When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. For he says [king says]: ‘By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasuries; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.’”
So, God is holding him accountable for his freely chosen, sinful choices that God used in his perfect plan to accomplish his sinless purposes. That’s compatibilism, and that’s breathtaking! Whenever you think of the sovereignty of God, if you think it’s just, “Well, God is up there, you know, like a puppeteer. He’s manipulating with a joystick, people, making them do stuff they don’t want to do. That’s what you Calvinists believe.”
God’s sovereignty is far more sophisticated than that. Don’t put him in your little one-dimensional box. God is sovereignly using Assyria’s freely chosen, sinful decisions to accomplish his sinless purposes. And why is it so important? Why are we talking about this? Who cares? You cannot understand the cross if you do not understand this. Let me just show you a couple quick examples: Pentecost. Peter is preaching. Acts 2:23,
“This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.”
Peter is saying, you freely chose to do a lawless deed, that God foreordained would be done. But you did it freely, and you are accountable for your freely-chosen decision. God is accomplishing his perfect plan. That’s a level of sovereignty that most of us have not begun to explore.
Another example in a prayer meeting. Most of us — it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Calvinist or an Arminian, you pray compatibilistically — in the prayer meeting in Acts 4, their prayer begins in Acts 4:24,
“Sovereign Lord… for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilot, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.”
So, everyone is scheming — they’re gathered together against — they’re scheming to accomplish what they think is their plan. And it is their freely chosen actions. And God is sovereignly working out his perfect plan. That’s the cross. The greatest evil ever enacted in history was done by agents who were freely choosing to do wrong, but fulfilling God’s perfect plan. By the way, this isn’t, compatibilism isn’t just throwing a little sovereignty in with man’s responsibility. Again, it’s much more sophisticated than that. God is sovereign, but he sovereignly brings about his sinless plan through freely chosen, sinful choices in this case.
So, as we turn to Mark 14 and 15 — again, you may say, what does this have to do with Mark? Well, we begin the Passion narrative. And everything in this section of Mark funnels, narrows, propels the isolation culminating in the execution of Jesus. It is a beautiful, horrible example of compatibilism. And as I mentioned last week, the beginning of Mark 14, from a literary perspective, can be understood through a sandwich. It’s another example of what we’ve called Markan sandwiches.
And you’ll see the top bun: leaders seek to kill, verses 1 and 2. These are the chief priests and the scribes during Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread are trying to figure a way, “How do we kill Jesus without stirring up these hundreds of thousands of people that are visiting the city for the feast?”
And then the bottom bun, verses 10 and 11: Judas seeks to betray. So, he, if you look at verse 11, you’ll see the word “sought” at the end. The leaders are glad that they found a way to accomplish their purpose. They’ll give Judas some money, and he “sought” an opportunity to betray him. That verb “sought” is the same verb as verse 1, the scribes were “seeking.” So, you have evil people seeking, seeking surrounding the meat of the sandwich: Jesus is anointed for burial, in verses 3-9. What looks like wasted love is actually the meat of the matter, the center, the heart of what God is doing.
So, think about what’s happening here. Number 1, the scribes think they are preserving their worship by killing Jesus. They’re actually incurring judgment, but they’re freely desiring this. The disciples think, in the middle of it, the disciples think they are providing for the needy by rebuking the woman, but they’re simply revealing their blindness. Judas thinks he is protecting his future. We don’t know, obviously, his full motives, but it seems like he’s thinking something like, “Well, if Jesus has a death wish, and he wants to die — he keeps talking about dying — then if he’s going to die, at least I want to make a buck off of it. Because after he’s dead and gone, I still have to live.” So, Judas begins to find a way to make money off of Jesus’ demise.
And at first glance, if you look at the sandwich, you just think, “Whoa, Jesus is just being squished by the evil machinations of man.” All the main actors here are scheming wrong. The situation feels out of control. How can any good come from this? But at the center of the sandwich is the heart of what’s actually going on, and it is a picture of extravagant love. That’s what’s really going on. And this is how this literary method is so effective for Mark to communicate the main message.
What is the main message? The main message is not that leaders are wanting bad things, Judas is wanting bad things, the disciples don’t get it. The main message is,
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
So, the heart of this horrible Passion narrative that we’re beginning and we’ll be in for a number of weeks, full of murderous schemes and secret trials and evaporating friendships and greedy betrayals, is a story of extravagant love. And don’t miss the fact that the men missed it. A woman got it. We know from John 12, the woman who came into the room was Mary. Her motives were clearly love and adoration, but we don’t know how much else she understood about what Jesus called an anointment for burial. Since we can’t cover all the details here — there are so many good details — I want us to focus in on that middle section, on the ingredients of extravagant love, because it’s breathtaking! And I don’t normally do this, but we’re going to have seven points here, seven ingredients.
Number 1: uncomfortable. Extravagant love can feel quite uncomfortable. Verse 3,
“And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came…”
Now, Bethany is two miles out of Jerusalem. This is Jesus’ final night before he stays in Jerusalem and dies a couple days later. He’s eating in Simon’s house, who most likely had been healed of his leprosy by Jesus. And in that culture, men and women who were not married didn’t just lounge around together. They sat at the table. It was a low table, and there were cushions, and they just lounged around for their meals. So, a woman coming in and moving toward Jesus in this personal way would have felt extremely awkward and even culturally offensive. So, don’t miss the context. Extravagant love can seem uncomfortable. Everyone probably froze and didn’t know what to say.
Number 2: extravagant love is valuable. She came, verse 3, second half,
“With an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head.”
Now, John’s account, John 12:3, lets us know it was Mary, but also that she not only anointed his head, but also his feet, and then washed his feet with her hair. Now, this is a different event than Luke describes in Luke 7, but the ointment or the nard was from India. She broke it, communicating the container, communicating she didn’t just go halfway. She didn’t just pour a little. She broke it and poured it all. It was an all-in act of worship. And it’s impossible to estimate exactly how much money was involved in this. But in today’s dollars, it probably is around $20-30,000 she just poured on Jesus — valuable!
Number 3: extravagant love is impractical, impractical. Verse 4,
“There were some who said to themselves indignantly, ‘Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than 300 denarii and given to the poor.’ And they scolded her.”
It’s a very strong word there, “scolded” her. Now, I could hear myself saying things like this, “Mary, Mary, Mary, love your heart. Love your heart. You mean well, but come on. That would make a great dowry or retirement. Or if you say, ‘I don’t want it,’ then you could feed hundreds of people. Look at all the poor people around us. Mary, put yourself together; think reasonably.” And it makes sense. But see, Mary set aside her calculator and expressed extravagant love. We need a name for this. What if we called this “flasking”? Verse 3, she broke the flask and poured it over his head — “flasking.” I don’t mean by that, I think they call it when you’re making dentures, there’s a part of the process that’s flasking. Or if you want to drink hard liquor discreetly, you might purchase a flask. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about an unusual moment of costly expression of love. And this is such a beautiful picture of this kind of expression. And it’s impractical. It’s not something we do on a regular basis. Mary didn’t go flasking on a regular basis. She had one, that was it. Just a one and done. So, this is not something…. I want to spend the rest of my life “flasking” people. No. But as Lloyd Ogilvie says,
“There is a time … when people should be careful, but there is also a time when they ought not to be cautious. There is something to be said for careful saving of our resources in order to make possible a great moment of unrestrained thanksgiving [It’s a great definition of flasking — a great moment of unrestrained thanksgiving] … The Christian is not a tight-fisted, clenched-teeth, grim-faced person. Rather, he is one who loves and laughs and gives himself to Christ lavishly. In Mary we are challenged by extravagant love … A certain excessiveness is an important ingredient of greatness.”
Number 4: beautiful, beautiful. When the disciples scolded her, verse 6,
“Jesus said, ‘Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me.’”
Now, this is super humbling to think about. To realize that there are many times when I am prone to look at an action and esteem it as wasteful, when Jesus might view it as beautiful. That is a humbling thing to realize that my love meter, my worship calculator, can be so miscalibrated or calibrated to the wrong values as to assess a particular action in a way that is completely opposite of Jesus. Jesus and I are looking at the same action, and he’s saying “beautiful” and I’m saying “wasteful.”
I think about this a lot in preaching, because preaching is one of those things that you pour yourself out. And then the next day, on Monday, many times I wake up, “That was a big waste. What in the world? God, I’m so sorry. It was so unclear, so pitiful, so confusing. What a waste.” And then there are times when I feel that way and get a note from someone how their life was changed by that waste. And then there are other times where I can feel, “Wow, that kind of came together.” And then … crickets. So, what I thought was, “Wow, God, that was beautiful.” Jesus is looking back going, “Are you serious? That was a big waste.”
And the point is, don’t think too highly of your ability to assess expressions of sacrificial love, acts of worship. You are not the standard. And the very thing you might think is beautiful, Jesus might view as wasteful and vice versa … the thing you think, what a waste.
Trials are this way, aren’t they? Some of you have gone through a season of really hard times and you’re lying in your bed and you just think, “God, what a waste. People need me. I need to be doing things. I have a long list. I could be accomplishing things. I’m doing nothing. What a waste!” And can you imagine Jesus might be saying, “You know, where you are right now is really beautiful to me. What I’m doing in your heart is so beautiful. You’re giving this time, this difficulty, this loss.” That’s why I think we have psalms like Psalm 88 that have no upward swing. God is just saying, “Just giving it to me is a beautiful thing.”
This is true of worship because there are times where someone may express their worship so beautifully. And it may be beautiful; it may be a waste. There are other times someone just coming in here and being here is a beautiful act of worship, even though they cannot sing, cannot raise their hand, cannot even speak. But their coming into a gathering with the people of God at a moment of deep darkness is a beautiful expression of trust.
What’s the point? Don’t think too highly of your ability to calculate what is beautiful and what is a waste. I’m not talking about being unbiblical, but I am talking about that haughtiness we have that the disciples illustrated and we see in ourselves: “What a waste!” Beautiful.
Number 5: unusual. Verse 7,
“For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me.”
Now, obviously, Jesus is not minimizing concern for the poor. He began his ministry in Nazareth standing in a synagogue announcing Isaiah 61:1,
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me [why?] to proclaim good news to the poor … liberty to the captives … sight to the blind …”
He came for the needy, and that never changed. And he is calling all of his followers to orient our lives with a sensitivity to the most vulnerable. And so, we cannot interpret this passage like some deadbeat dads or moody moms who in the day-to-day are really hard to be around, emotionally unpredictable, perpetually distracted, verbally insulting. But on special occasions, wow, that dad will empty his bank account to buy his kids’ love. Or that mom will just pour it out at a big moment. But that’s not what we’re talking about when we talk about extravagant love. We cannot minimize the day-to-day and the beauty of love in the mundane and the humility of walking with brokenness, acknowledging our weakness and the need of the Spirit and oozing the kindness of Christ. That must be there.
But what Mark 14 illustrates is that there are moments … We’re calling this unusual, because these are unusual times when we put our calculator aside and we express love in an extravagant way. Again, Mary didn’t do this all the time. She just had one, and she did it. So, it is unusual.
And then number 6: it’s personal.
“She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial.” (Verse 8)
Now, whether Mary fully understood all she was doing or not, I believe she did much more than she realized. Because just like God takes freely chosen, sinful actions and accomplishes his sinless purposes, so God takes our limited, weak, even at times, stumbling expressions of love and makes them into something we couldn’t even imagine. That’s what happens here. She has done what she could.
And don’t miss this, because I know with a message like this, there are some of us big dreamers who just imagined, “Lord, I can’t wait for the day when I can come to church and hardly walk because my pockets are so full of hundred dollar bills. And I’m just going to look for people who have needs, and I’m going to “flask” them. I’m just going to give huge amounts money away. I can’t wait for that day.” Wouldn’t that be fun?
But what are you doing with what you have today? That’s the thing. Jesus says, “She’s done what she could.” We all have … David with his sling, Isaiah, his lips that had to be anointed, the widow we saw a few weeks ago with her two little coins. And here’s Mary with her flask of ointment.
Paul encouraged the believers in Corinth to be careful of stopping at good intentions. 2 Corinthians 8:11,
“So now finish doing it as well, so that your readiness in desiring it [the “it” is giving a sacrificial gift] may be matched by your completing it out of what you have. For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have.”
You can’t give what you don’t have, but God has given you something. And when he calls you to flask it, flask it. Don’t hold back. “She has done what she could.” And that’s what I mean by personal. It’s going to look different for all of us. We can’t look at someone else and say, “Well, you know.” Or even Mary, “I wish I had some nard,” whatever that is. Not even sure what that is, but I wish I had some. No, each of us are going to express this love in a different way.
Number 7: memorable. Verse 9,
“And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.”
Have you noticed that extravagant love is memorable? I’ve been to a lot of funerals. And I’ve never heard someone eulogize another person for paying the electric bill. I kind of want that. “He was a faithful man. I can never remember a time when I went to the switch . . . and time after time after time, the lights came on. I don’t know how he did it. Week after week, month after month, year after year, he paid the electric bill.” I personally think that’s pretty amazing, but I’ve never heard anyone eulogized for that, because I think we take that for granted. There are certain things we take for granted. But what you will hear people talk about is, “the time where I hit rock bottom, and he got on a plane and flew across the country and sat with me, loved me, prayed for me, helped me get back on my feet. I will never forget what he did.” That moment of extravagant love.
And Mary’s moment is remembered in the short term in a very tangible way. Because think about it. You can’t anoint someone with that amount of perfume, poured on the head, running down into your undergarments. And they weren’t staying at a Hyatt. So, Jesus wasn’t about to change his clothes and hit the showers. For the days that followed, as they went into Jerusalem, two more days, as he went to the upper room, as he went out to the garden, as he stood before the Sanhedrin, as he stands before Pilot, people must have kept saying, “What is that smell? Is there an essential oils salesperson around here?” Maybe that’s a good argument for some of you, you could use: “Jesus was into essential oils. You should buy some.” But think about that. In the short term, he truly was anointed for burial before he died. He had the aroma of death to life before he even went to the cross.
But in the long term, we know extravagant love is memorable because we’re talking about Mary 2000 years later on the other side of the planet. We’re talking about her, just like Jesus said, because Jesus has taken Mary’s freely expressed love and turned it into a picture of the gospel, of something very surrounded by what is horrible — people are scheming, betraying, “how do we kill him?” — surrounded by what is horrible, there is something at the center that is beautiful.
And I believe, yes, I do think there’s a call for all of us to live out this life of “flasking” as God gives us opportunity. But you can’t do that if you first haven’t had your eyes opened to the fact that you have been flasked. That’s what Jesus is doing here. He is the one who was broken and poured out. He is on his way to the cross. Mary’s expression of extravagant love was not about Mary, ultimately. It was pointing to the fact that Jesus is doing this for us. If you say, “I’ve never been flasked. I don’t even know what it’s like for someone to love me extravagantly. I grew up with manipulation all around me.” Well, you have been loved with extravagant love by Jesus. He has been broken and poured out.
And if right now your heart is cold toward that, then please, as we prayed at the beginning, beg him to open your eyes. Because something so beautiful should not be viewed as a waste. It is truly beautiful. And if my love for God or neighbor has grown cold, it is because I am blind to the broken and poured-out love of Christ. And by the way, if you feel that way right now, you’re not alone. Everybody was missing it. The leaders were trying to protect their turf; the disciples were seeking to be reasonable, but totally clueless; Judas was trying to make a buck; Mary got it.
And you might wonder, why wasn’t Mary’s name mentioned here? And I really believe that’s part of the message from Mark: an unnamed outsider got it when all those on the inside missed it. That’s why Paul said the gospel is foolishness and a stumbling block, because most of humanity is going to look at it as a waste. Jesus calls it beautiful.
Anne Ortlund heard her husband preach from this passage. He’s a pastor. And then afterwards she wrote this. And she takes just a little different take, but she takes it one step further in application. She writes this:
“Christians file into church on a Sunday morning. One by one by one they march in — like separate alabaster vases. Contained. Self-sufficient. Encased. Individually complete. Contents undisclosed. No perfume emitting at all.
Their vases aren’t bad looking. In fact, some of them are the Beautiful People, and they become Vase Conscious: conscious of their own vase and of one another’s. They are aware of clothes, of personalities, of position in this world — of exteriors. So before and after church (maybe during), they’re apt to talk Vase talk.
‘Mary broke her vase.’
‘Broke it?! How shocking. How controversial. Was everybody doing it? Was it a vase-breaking party?’
‘No, she just did it all by herself.’
‘What happened then?’
‘The obvious: all the contents were forever released. She could never hug her precious nard to herself again.’
Many bodies who file into church, no doubt, do so because they have Jesus inside of them. Jesus! Precious, exciting, life-giving. But most of them keep Him shut up, contained, enclosed all their lives. And the air is full of NOTHING. They come to church and sit, these long rows of cold, beautiful, alabaster vases! Then the cold, beautiful, alabaster vases get up and march out again, silently — or maybe talking their cold, alabaster talk — to repeat the ritual week after week, year after year.
Unless they just get too bored and quit.
The need for Christians everywhere (nobody is exempt), is to be broken. The vase has to be smashed! Christians have to let the life out! It will fill the room with sweetness. And the congregation will all be broken shards, mingling together for the first time.
Of course, it’s awkward and scary to be broken! Of course, it’s easier to keep up that cold, alabaster front.
It was costly for Mary, too.”
Let’s pray. Spirit of God, we hear you. We’re listening. And we know our tendency, like the leaders to protect our turf, like the disciples to try to do something reasonable, like Judas maybe to make a buck — all of that is in all of us. But you have put this beautiful picture before us this morning, a simple act of extravagant love that everybody around thought was a waste. Open our eyes, Lord, please, that we might see the beauty of what you are doing in the middle of what we call a waste.
Most of all, help us to see the gospel. You have loved the world so much. You sent your Son to be broken and poured out. And what the world calls a waste, you call beautiful. Thank you that you look on us in our brokenness, and what the world calls a waste, you call beautiful because of your transforming love.
So, Father open our eyes to the beauty of who you are so that our estimations rise and our affections follow. And then stir in us a willingness to be poured out, even right now to pour out our worship. But then, Lord, you will prepare us and show us when it’s time, when you call us to those unusual moments of extravagant worship. Don’t let anyone take this as some kind of legalistic list to check off. This is all about extravagant love. So, Spirit, that is the fruit that you bear within us. We’re trusting you for this, in Jesus’ name, we pray. Amen.