Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
Different Feasts, Different Occasions
People are incredibly sociable. We love to socialize, to communicate and enjoy things together—even things that might not involve any actual social interaction. Sometimes simply being together is overwhelmingly precious. I can remember many hours fishing on the boat with my dad when we really didn’t say a whole lot. Sometimes we’d get rowdy and have a good time—although it wasn’t unheard of to spend a good hour with very little talk. We were enjoying the lake breeze, the rippling boat, the rhythmic casting of lures, and the sunshine—and we were enjoying it together.
We’re sociable, folks. God gave us a deep desire and yearning to interact with one another, to enjoy one another, to communicate with one another, to express sadness and grief or joy and thanksgiving to one another. There are all kinds of ways we meaningfully socialize. Although, there is one staple, unifying place for social interaction across history and societies. There is one crucial meeting place which serves all sorts of social gatherings, spanning all history and cultures. Folks, God gave us food. He gave us food, meals, dinner tables. In fact, he literally instituted one of his two New Covenant sacraments to be a sacrament over a meal, and we call it communion.
When there’s a funeral, we throw a banquet to honor the person who passed away, and to remember him together. When there’s a wedding, we throw a banquet to celebrate and toast to the new couple. When it gets nice outside in the summer, we’ll have community picnics because, well, they’re just good for the social morale. You name the social function, or the social need, and you’ll probably be able to identify a particular kind of meal that goes with it. And yes, the best meals always have a good toast to commemorate the occasion. At our home, our children have taken it to themselves to make a toast at just about every meal. “To the lamb who was slain!” Every meal, folks. “Whether you eat or drink… do it to the glory of God.” Meals are sacred, culture-building, sociable events (some more so than others).
So in our passage this morning, we find Mary and Martha and Lazarus throwing a dinner for Jesus. He was the guest of honor. Verse 2, “they gave a dinner for him there [in Bethany]”. The language, there, isn’t referring to your ordinary, everyday meal. It’s reminiscent of throwing a banquet—to ascribing a unique value or meaning to the meal. We see similar language in Mark 6:21 when Herod threw a banquet on his birthday, or in Luke 14:12 when Jesus tells the parable of the great banquet. Mary and Martha weren’t just feeding Jesus as he was passing by, to catch up with him. They were throwing a small banquet in his honor—and, if we consider what is happening here in John’s gospel, this should be a point of great encouragement and instruction for us this morning. This is a story about feasting in the presence of our enemies. It’s a story when we should feast, why we should feast, and how we should feast. This is culture-building stuff, folks, and it’s immensely practical and instructive to us this morning, for our encouragement. I have always thought a person’s feasting to be an indicator of a person’s life, in some ways. If you have reason to feast, you have reason to be thankful in the other areas of your life too. So, think if feasting as a broader metaphor for life, if you will, as we’re called to always give thanks and be joyful in Jesus. So let’s dig in and consider in this story when, why, and how this feast was thrown—and, how that might instruct us to feast and be thankful.
WHEN to Feast: “In the Presence of My Enemies”
So let’s draw our attention to the first part in our passage, there at the end of chapter 11. It gives reminds us that this feast isn’t happening in a vacuum of space and time—there really was something going on in Jerusalem and in Jesus’s ministry at this point in time. Chapter 11, verse 55—
John 11:55 Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. 56 They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” 57 Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.
Then, read the next verse, there in chapter 12—
Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead
So, this gives us the “when” for this feast which Mary and Martha threw. The Passover was at hand—six days away. We are entering the last week of Jesus’s life, here, and we find that Jesus has become the central talk in all of Jerusalem.
Remember, Jesus had just raised Lazarus from the dead in public daylight, and then he was basically cited with a public warrant for his arrest. John seems to really be emphasizing that sequence of events for us—and he does it more than the other gospel writers (if you reference this story in Matthew, Mark, and Luke).
Folks, try to put yourself into Jerusalem at this time. A dead man had just been risen from the grave (maybe a few weeks prior). It was so public and factually supported that nobody was denying the resurrection. Think about it. There were four days of people seeing and discussing and reporting of Lazarus’s death. People had wrapped Lazarus in cloth. The door was sealed shut, and all of the funeral ceremonies and arrangements were well underway, if not over. People saw Mary and Martha grieving their brother’s death. Nobody was denying his death. For four days, there was nothing fishy or suspicious about his death—and, I’ll just say here, that there are a number of detail in the gospels to suggest that this family from Bethany were a rather prominent, wealthy family. When a prominent, wealthy man dies, it’s more publicized.
Then, Jesus comes in and raises the dead man from the grave, and people start seeing Lazarus walking around again. Can you imagine that?! What do you think is going to happen in a community after this sort of thing happens? If you heard that the man who was listed in the town obituary 4 days ago is now walking around again, what do you think you might want? I imagine most of us would want to see him. We’d want to see the living, walking miracle who defies death. We’d want to see Jesus, we’d want to see Lazarus.
But then, again, add the next layer of drama into all this. The authorities put a warrant out for his arrest. They want to stop and kill a man who just publicly demonstrated absolute power over death. How do you think this story is going to turn out, in the end? And folks, the hostility and unbelief toward Jesus in these religious authorities was so vicious that they didn’t just want Jesus dead, but Lazarus too. That’s what we find in verse 9, there at the end of the passage we read. Look at verse 9—
When the large crowd of the Jews learned that Jesus was there, they came, not only on account of him but also to see Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. 10 So the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well, 11 because on account of him many of the Jews were going away and believing in Jesus.
Isn’t that crazy? Folks, it’s such a picture of unbelief. This is an incredibly honest picture of what it looks like to seek and live for the praise of man, and seek stability in this broken and cursed world. You are constantly on a rampage to “pick up the pieces” and “clean up the mess”. Things are always falling around you, and you can never keep up. So, what happens? You get anxious. You feel like you’re never in control, and you complain. You go desperate measures to keep things in order for a peace of mind or for that boss you are trying to please, or that reputation you’re trying to uphold. These Jewish authorities were trying to keep their own power over against Jesus’s, and they were trying to keep Rome happy. They were serving their power and reputation, and they were trying to serve Caesar who had given them unique privileges and freedoms to exercise Judaism in Roman territory.
Unbelief, folks, trades Jesus’s securities and power and life over for the world’s securities and life. Unbelief gets vicious in this pursuit, and it always disappoints. There are always loose ends to clean up, and you’ll always fail. The curse will always get you.
So, feast. Right? Throw a feast. Folks, this is the occasion for when Mary and Martha threw this feast for Jesus—and, they’re doing it to their own risk. They are harboring a fugitive and throwing a feast for him. In fact, remember verse 57 of our passage. “The chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know so that they might arrest him.” So, Jesus shows up at Mary’s and Martha’s and Lazarus’s house, and they throw him a feast. They won’t bend the knee to these Jewish authorities. They don’t serve that master. They have a new master, and they’re going to throw a private banquet for him. Meanwhile, everyone in town is asking “Where is he? What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?”
So—if we’re going by this story as an example for us—when do we feast? We feast when Jesus is in our midst, and when we’re surrounded by unbelief. We feast when we are surrounded by people who are seeking to kill Jesus, and to overthrow God’s purposes. Jesus even had an enemy at that table, didn’t he? The entirety of verses 4–6 were getting at just that, in referencing Judas Iscariot. Yet they still feasted.
God’s people have always been a people who feast in the presence of their enemies. That’s the only time they can feast before Jesus returns. God’s people have always been surrounded by God’s enemies. Remember how the famous Psalm 23 ends, with a feast?
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD
David, there, is saying that because of the LORD’s goodness and mercy, he will dwell in the LORD’s house securely, forever, feasting at the LORD’s table, even though he’d be surrounded by enemies.
So the obvious question, then, is why? Why would anyone ever throw a feast when they are surrounded by enemies? “Eat, drink, for tomorrow we die!” That’s not it.
We considered when we feast. We feast amdist the curse. We feast amidst much sin and unbelief. That’s when we feast, as God’s people always have. Now, again, why?
WHY We Feast
Look again at verses 1 through 3 with me, where we’ll consider why this family threw this feast for Jesus—and, when read read this, I want you to listen for two important words. Listen for the words “so”, and “therefore”. Those are important words, and they mean the same thing. They indicate the the logical result, or the logical next step in the story. An example would be, “I’m hungry, so I ate breakfast”. Or, you could say “I’m hungry, therefore I ate breakfast”. Breakfast is the logical result or next step, to hunger, as indicated by the words “so” or “therefore”. That’s how language works. So, listen for those two words “so” and “therefore”, here in verses 1 through 3—
John 12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus therefore came to Bethany, where Lazarus was, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 So they gave a dinner for him there. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table. 3 Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus
Did you catch it? Jesus came to Bethany where Lazarus was, “whom Jesus had raised from the dead. So they gave a dinner for him there”. I think this is saying that they threw him this dinner as a small, private banquet of gratitude to Jesus for his victory over death. If someone raised your dead brother from the grave, do you think you might consider throwing a big banquet for him in his honor?
But, there’s also verse 2, going into verse 3. Again, verse 2 ends with another reference to Lazarus. “Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those reclining with him at table.” Why say it like that, to single out Lazarus and visibly illustrate that “Lazarus” was “one of those” who was “reclining with him”? I think you’re supposed to be mystified and awed by that statement. “You mean the man who was dead is not just reclining at the table, eating food like everyone else?” Yes, folks. He’s alive. That’s what it means—but it’s nonetheless amazing. That’s the power and life of Jesus. He makes the ordinary extraordinary, filled with his glory and life and grace.
And yes, again, this is when we see the next logical inference (the “therefore”). “Lazarus was one of those reclining at the table”—an extraordinary statement, and—“Mary therefore took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus”.
Why the feast for Jesus? Why the oil, the radically expensive anointing ceremony? It’s because Lazarus was there, despite the fact that death had him, and he’s there at that table because of Jesus. “Lazarus was there, therefore they threw a feast for Jesus… therefore Mary anointed Jesus with oil.”
Folks, this was a feast of gratitude. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were giving thanks to Jesus for Lazarus’s life.
It was a feast of victory over death. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had personally experienced the sort of victory Jesus brings with him. He reverses the curse, folks—and he does it even before he completely eradicates the curse. That’s what I absolutely love about Jesus’s miracles in the gospels. They present great hope to us, as we’re still experiencing the pain of this cursed and sinful world. As we are surrounded by sin, by God’s enemies, by the curse, we can look to Jesus’s death-defying miracles and throw a feast of victory to him as our king.
This isn’t just a feast of gratitude. It’s not a feast to commemorate or remember Jesus. It’s a feast of victory because Jesus is the victor. He came as God in the flesh, with God’s power in the flesh, to overcome sin and the curse on our behalf. Whether or not Mary and Martha and Lazarus understood the full weight and significance of Jesus’s presence and miracles, I’m no doubt certain they linked Lazarus’s resurrection to God’s victory and to God’s glory. Remember what Jesus said to Martha before he raised Lazarus? “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). So, they very much understood that Jesus had brought God’s glory and victory to them, and this feast was a feast to the glory and victory of God in Jesus Christ.
But of course, Lazarus’s death and resurrection was only a foretaste of what Jesus had in store for the next several days. He wouldn’t just give Lazarus victory over death. He’d give all his people victory over death, through his own death and resurrection—and he’d offer his people eternal life.
So, why do we feast, even in the presence of our enemies? When we’re hammered by the curse and struggling through life and struggling with sin—why would we feast? Folks, it’s not like Mary and Martha and Lazarus were ignorant. They knew Jesus had the entire host of the Jewish authorities out to get him. In many ways, things were looking particularly bad for Jesus. That’s why people were asking, “is he going to come to the feast? it’d be pretty risky, but he just might!”.
But they had seen the glory of God, folks. They believed in Jesus, and therefore they saw the glory of God in Jesus, and they saw God’s glory working victory on their behalf. It’s time to feast in the presence of our enemies. What can man do to us, when we have the Lord of glory and life in our midst? Raise a toast.
Many months back in Sunday School, I referenced an article that said this—
From childhood on, I’ve always thought of birthday dinners or holiday meals or church potlucks as fun and fellowship—reasons to get together and enjoy some food and games. But now, I see a deeper meaning to these momentous occasions. Feasts are explosions of joy on the battlefield of good vs. evil…
When God’s people gather together and feast on the sumptuous foods prepared by loving hands—from the chili seasoned and stewed in our father’s crockpot to the casseroles baked to perfection in our grandmother’s oven—we are making a declaration.
No matter how awful the state of the world, how dire the darkness of our culture, we are the people of the Risen King. We believe evil will be defeated and good will triumph. Why? Because our Savior’s tomb is empty. How could we not gather and celebrate?
That’s why we feast, folks. That’s why we don’t just eat food. We eat food in the freedom and peace that Jesus offers, without anxious toil. It doesn’t matter how scanty the meal is at any given time. We are all rich in Jesus. We are all forgiven and secured and cared for by the king. So, eat the scanty meal to the glory of God if that’s all you can afford. Or, if you can afford something more lavish, do it to the glory of God. Do it because the Bible instructs us to eat and drink to his glory. Do it because God’s people have always been a feasting people, even amidst enemies. Do it because the Bible culminates in a meal of victory—the marriage supper of the lamb. God made us a feasting, eating people who commune over tables because he thought the table to be a most fitting place for such a purpose. Allow a culture of feasting to grip your families, folks. It’s good for us.
Food is the hub and center of culture, folks. Even unbelievers understand this. I think it fair to say one could characterize the culture and values and struggles and strengths in each home simply by getting a snapshot into the ordinary life of a meal together at a home. I don’t say that as a Biblical revelation. It’s a general observation to the power and centrality of this idea of eating together as a people, or as a family. There’s a reason why God gave his people a whole host of feasts to observe.
Excursis: “God is Our Refuge”
By the way, if you wanted to explore this broader idea of feasting amidst God’s enemies, you can simply consider what it means for God to be a refuge. “God is a refuge and our strength, a very present help in trouble…”, Psalm 46. The Bible loves to describe God as a refuge for his people. In a place of refuge—in a shelter—people are always seeking protection, and shelter, amidst trouble and strife and enemies. “I’m seeking refuge in here from those bad guys out there.” That’s what a refuge is, and folks, there’s always food. There’s always food in a refuge, and it’s always the crowning comfort of a refuge. Whether we’re talking about political refugees, social refugees, domestic refugees—it doesn’t matter. You give food to refugees who are taking refuge from the curse. The better the refuge, the better the food. God’s refuge spreads a feast onto the table.
I love the feeling of taking refuge. Have you ever been in a warm, dry tent on a particularly rainy day? It’s one of my favorite things. You’re all snuggled in, safe and warm from the chaos outside. You can almost laugh at the storm. “Nananana Boo Boo. You can’t get me in here.” Then, you take out your food—your fancy little granola bar and your cup of juice—and you really feel like you’re living high on the hog. It’s hard not to throw up a toast to good health and joy in the Lord at a moment like that, isn’t it? It’s all the more true when a wife puts a good spread on the family dinner table, and the father leads a brief devotion and prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord. That’s what the dinner table should be for the family—a refuge of faith and thanksgiving to God from the world.
You almost get that feeling when you read this story of Mary and Martha and Lazarus with Jesus, don’t you? They’re huddled in their home, the enemies are out there, and they’re thanking Jesus for giving them refuge from death.
So, this dinner that Mary and Martha and Lazarus threw for Jesus is a small picture of a very fitting response to Jesus’s victory and power over death. Lazarus is alive, therefore they threw the dinner for Jesus. Therefore Martha poured oil onto Jesus’s Jesus’s feet.
We talked about when we feast—in the presence of our enemies. We talked about why we feast—because of Jesus. Now, how do we feast?
How We Feast
How do we feast? You’re probably all wondering, “when is he going to talk about Mary’s strange gesture with oil and her hair?”. Folks, in this passage, Mary is demonstrating how we should feast to King Jesus. In a word, we ought to feast unto king Jesus with all we got. It should even be shocking to the people around us, at times. Our gratitude and commitment to the king should be shocking to people.
Look again at verses 3–8, to get the big picture into our minds again.
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. 4 But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, 5 “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” 6 He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it. 7 Jesus said, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial. 8 For the poor you always have with you, but you do not always have me.”
It’s quite an image, isn’t it? It’s an image of how to feast, and how not to feast. How to feast with everything we got, and how not to feast with a stingy heart, and a poor judgment.
This is one of those stories, folks, when the story speaks for itself. Think about the imagery in all this. During the meal, Mary takes a pound of pure nard and opens up the bottle. A pound, folks is not the same pound that we think of in weight measurements. This is a Roman unit of measurement, equal to about 11.5 ounces. So, think of your standard 12 ounce can of soda, and you have a good idea of how much oil we’re talking about. That’s a lot of fragrant oil, folks. Years ago, I bought some beard oil for myself when I first grew out my beard, and it came in a dainty, tiny little bottle—and the stuff was not cheap! Here, we’re talking bout a soda can full of fragrant oil—and of the most expensive kind. Judas, mister money man, makes sure to remind everyone in verse 5 that this could be worth three hundred denarii—that’s an entire years’ wages, folks. It’s all, in one sweeping moment, emptied out onto one man.
Now, John’s gospel only mentions that Mary poured it on his feet. If you read how Matthew and Mark tell this story, you’ll see that they mention how Mary poured it on Jesus’s head. So, you’ll find most saying on this passage that Mary basically bathed Jesus in this stuff. She poured it all over him, and gravity pulled it all down to his feet where she wiped it up and made sure even his feet were cleaned up and well anointed with it. And yes, she unbound her hair at Jesus’s feet. This was a deeply personal act of complete homage and devotion to her new Lord and Savior. Cleaning someone’s feet was a slave’s job in that culture.
And just so we don’t miss it, can you imagine the aroma? I love verse 3. “The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume”. It’s almost humorous. I almost wonder if it was so potent, that it was unpleasant. (I’m sure we’ve all been around someone who put on just a bit too much cologne or perfume.)
So folks, what’s it mean? What’s the point?
Well for one, I think this was a planned part of the dinner. Notice how verse 2 says “they gave him a dinner”—that is, again, “they threw him a dinner party”. This wasn’t just Martha, and Mary and Lazarus were ordinary hosts like everyone else. The three of them put their brains together and threw this together for Jesus. Then, also notice that when Mary pours this expensive oil onto Jesus—everyone fusses and complains about it except for Martha and Lazarus. John’s gospel, here, singles out Lazarus as the chief complainer. Although if you read the other gospels, again, Matthew and Mark give us a bigger picture. Matthew and Mark point out that all the disciples had their reservations about this gesture toward Jesus. So everyone in the room thinks this is too much, that it’s wasteful, except for Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. There’s no mention of them objecting.
Honestly, folks, if you know family drama, you’d have to expect Martha and Lazarus would be the first to speak out. Many believe this oil was a family heirloom, a family wealth. Could you imagine if your sibling took a prized and extremely expensive family heirloom and dumped it onto one man in front of you and your friends? (Even if it wasn’t a family heirloom, it wouldn’t be unheard of to hear some sibling disapproval at that point.)
Here’s the point, folks—and, this is narrowing into how we feast. This is narrowing into how we live. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus had seen the glory of God, and they were ready to give Jesus everything. They were giving him their all. This banquet wasn’t simply a banquet of thanksgiving, or of victory. It was a feast of homage to the king. This was a feast of humble servants expressing their radical loyalty to their King and Savior. If they could have spent every penny on a massive banquet that took up every street in Bethany, I imagine they would have (although, that would have prematurely exposed Jesus). So, they threw him this feast and gestured him with this precious, costly bottle of ointment. That’s the first and biggest point in all of this.
Then, I think it’s worth noting that Mary probably didn’t understand the significance of her actions. There’s nothing in the passage to indicate that Mary knew she was anointing Jesus for his death. Verse 7 could be read that way, but I think it’s referring to God’s purposes for Mary’s actions, not Mary’s purposes. Again, in verse 7, Jesus says in response to Judas’s comment, “Leave her alone, so that she may keep it for the day of my burial.” Most people I’ve read agree think this would be better translated “leave her alone, for she has kept it [i.e., this perfume] for the day of my burial”. I think that’s about right—and, I think Jesus is speaking in reference to God’s purposes for this occasion. She has kept the perfume until this moment, she thinks this is a wise way to use the perfume and little does she know that God ordained all of this. Little does she know that she is anointing and honoring the king of glory moments before he would die for the sins of his people.
So here’s the deal. Mary was giving Jesus everything she had, and she didn't understand the full significance of what she was doing. Many of us don't when we give it our all. Many of us don’t understand what God is doing in us and through us when we give it our all. But when we are giving it our all, in faith submission to Jesus, we can trust He's doing something. That much is definitely true, and I could ramble of verse after verse to support that statement.
Folks, feast in the presence of your enemies because Jesus is victories. Jesus is king. Jesus is savior, he’s freed you from your sin and death and the devil and so many other miseries. Raise a toast to him, even over the scantiest meal if that’s all you got, and give thanks to him with the joy and freedom he’s secured for you at the cross. Let’s pray.