Malina and Rohrbaugh note that the story of the anointing in John 12:1-8 is bracketed by two reports of those hostile to Jesus and his mission. John 11:55-57 clearly begins a new section of the narrative, at least in rhetorical terms. The third Passover in the Johannine account is getting close. For a moment, we are transported to the Jerusalem temple and pilgrims who have gone before the Passover to prepare themselves for the festival.
The pilgrims are wondering if Jesus will make another appearance in light of the fact that Jesus is now a wanted man. The chief priests and the Pharisees have issued orders that anyone with knowledge of Jesus’ whereabouts should contact the authorities. With that information in hand, then, the authorities would take Jesus into custody. This is the next step, in the Johannine account, after the council in Jerusalem had officially decided to execute Jesus.
O’Day and Hylen include verse 54 in this bracketing and suggest that these verses “form the conclusion to the previous chapters and introduce the story of Jesus’ death” (Kindle Location 2552). They suggest that between John 7:14 and John 11:54, Jesus has spoken openly in the Temple. But that public presentation has now come to an end. The rest of Jesus’ teaching will be given privately to his disciples during the Farewell Discourse.
John 12:9-11 reports the plan on the part of the chief priests to execute Lazarus as well. It is the raising of Lazarus which precipitates the extreme measures decreed by the Jerusalem authorities. Lazarus has become, understandably both a minor celebrity and Exhibit A of Jesus’ power over death. Executing Lazarus along with Jesus would remove the evidence of Jesus’ power and the threat he presented to the established order.
The bracketing of our text by these two passages “suggests simultaneous action,” Malina and Rohrbaugh write, “while the Judeans were looking for Jesus and eventually found him, Jesus was at a meal” (page 204). Our text is a foreshadowing of all the themes we will find in the Johannine passion account in chapters 13-20.
“For John’s group members,” Malina and Rohrbaugh continue, “this meal scenario is pregnant with the interpersonal overtones of their relationship to Jesus and to God, perhaps replicated at their own meals” (page 205). It is also, according to O’Day and Hylen, a depiction of how disciples act in the midst of threats of death and destruction. Disciples continue to embrace Jesus and celebrate life as the children of God.
The meal is a feast of life, a resurrection banquet, bracketed by the ongoing realities of death. I find that to be an interesting and fruitful path for reflection on our text. What if we preachers would help our listeners to experience Christian worship as precisely that sort of meal – a resurrection banquet bracketed by the ongoing realities of death? We bring with us the trials and traumas of life at this moment. We go back into the changes and challenges of the day.
In between, however, we dine with the Lord of Life who will not permit the forces of sin, death, and evil to have the last word. I think it is easy to forget that our eucharistic worship is protest as much as it is proclamation. Our family feast is as much resistance as it is renewal. It is as much hope as it is home. The forces of death which surround us cannot determine or dampen our celebration.
We gather in spite of the ways in which the powers of death seek to bracket our lives. I don’t often think about regular worship in this way, but I’m glad to be reminded of it today. Gathering in faith, hope, and love around the table of the Lord is a great statement of “Nevertheless.” Yes, threats seek to envelope us. Nevertheless, we are safe in the arms of the Lord. Yes, death seeks to overwhelm us. Nevertheless, we are alive by the power of the Cross. Yes, even internal divisions confront us. Nevertheless, we gather around the one table of the Lord.
As we come to the end of our Lenten journeys in the midst of so much darkness and death, locally and globally, we can proclaim our “Nevertheless” in the face of the world’s despair. This is not pie in the sky in the sweet by and by. This is not Dr. Pangloss declaring that this is the best of all possible worlds. This is a declaration of faith in the face of the world’s despair as we gather to be the Lord’s family in a world always trying to tear us apart.
We Protestants, reflecting to some degree our Puritan heritage (even we who are Lutherans in America), struggle with the place of beauty, of extravagance, of abundance in our worship spaces and lives. The protest we hear from Judas, that we should forgo such “waste” and give the money to the poor, is a sentiment that is echoed in many a church council or board meeting. Surely, we can find better things to do with that precious money than to make our worship “prettier.”
I have often found myself, at least temperamentally, in the Judas camp on this one. I have struggled with the costs of paraments and vestments, of musical instruments and worship furnishings, of liturgical art and architectural glory. If it were just up to me (and thank God, it never has been), most of us would probably worship in old warehouses and listen to lectures on biblical analysis and systematic theology. Thus, the rationale for why I was never part of a worship planning team for any judicatory event or gathering!
I would recommend that you might review Marva Dawn’s marvelous book, A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World.” Taking God seriously,” Dawn writes, “being immersed in his splendor, unites us with a community that practices the alternative way of life of following Jesus, of participation in the kingdom of God” (Kindle Locations 123-124). Gathering for worship (even virtually) in lives bracketed by despair and death is evidence of that alternative way of life.
Dawn argues strenuously against applying a sort of cost-benefit analysis to our assessment of the value and importance of worship. “Worship is idolatry unless it is a total waste of time in earthly terms,” Dawn writes, “a total immersion in the eternity of God’s infinite splendor for the sole purpose of honoring God” (Kindle Locations 158-159).
Dawn was writing in response to the move toward “worship as evangelism” that was all the rage in the 1980’s and 1990’s in American Protestant churches. But her theological critique can be applied well beyond any particular fad in worship music and practice. Do we gather at the table of the Lord for God’s sake or for our own? Do we format our worship experiences to honor God or to produce concrete and specific results? Is our worship life commodified and consumerized (the answer is, for the most part, yes), or is it a “royal waste of time” showered in gratitude on the Lord who gives us life?
“Worship is a royal waste of time that spirals into passion for living as Christians and back into more passionate worship,” Dawn continues. “It is totally irrelevant, not efficient, not powerful, not spectacular, not productive, sometimes not even satisfying to us. It is also the only hope for changing the world” (Kindle Locations 245-246). Thus, Dawn argues, the worship of God – the grateful adoration of Jesus at the table – is an end in itself, never a means to an end. But just because it is an end in itself, does not mean that such worship has no outcomes or results.
Instead, worship for God’s sake rather than for ours can form us away from our inveterate self-absorption. If we can practice giving ourselves completely to God for God’s sake in worship, we might stand a better change of giving ourselves completely to our neighbors for our neighbors’ sake in love. “If we understand the genuine needs of our neighbors,” Dawn argues, “we will see that the best gift we could offer them is our faithfulness in royally wasting our time in worship. To be immersed in the prodigal splendor of God will lead us, in turn,” she continues, “to lavish extravagant care on the world” (Kindle Locations 251-253).
Such worship does not benefit from the presence of killjoys. We sit at the table with Jesus. On the couch next to him is Lazarus, the one who not long ago was bound up in funeral linens and moldering in a tomb. There he is, just as the authorities feared – a living, breathing billboard for the Resurrection! Here are his sisters – not long ago so angry with Jesus and grief-stricken over the loss of their brother. Now, Martha can prepare a festal meal. Mary can enact her heartfelt thanks.
It is no accident that Judas is lifted up as the foil to Mary’s extravagant act. A purely transactional, utilitarian view of life with Jesus might turn the best of us into thieves who earnestly desire to keep all the good stuff to ourselves. Such a perspective can lead us, in the end, to betray Jesus to the powers of death and despair.
“If our worship is continually focused on God as the Center of our existence,” Marva Dawn writes, “then those of us who are gathered learn the habits of God’s people – practices like generosity, nonviolence, hospitality, and the thoroughly royal time wasting of Sabbath keeping” (Kindle Locations 398-399). This may be a direction to go with the text as many of us enter into the most worship-intensive stretch of our annual liturgical calendars.
References and Resources
Blanke, Jonathan A. “” Salvation by Gathering” in the Gospel according to John: A New Look at John 12: 1-7.” Bulletin of the Japan Lutheran College and Theological Seminary: Theologia-Diakonia 42 (2009): 45-62.
Dawn, Marva J. A Royal Waste of Time: The Splendor of Worshiping God and Being Church for the World. Kindle Edition.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
O’Day, Gail R.; Hylen, Susan E. John (Westminster Bible Companion). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
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