Letting your hair down this Easter

The story of Mary anointing Jesus with expensive perfume right at the beginning of Easter week, doesn’t fit easily around all the other events of that week.

For a start church tradition, no doubt in an attempt to accommodate the story and make sure it is not forgotten, has shifted it to “holy Monday” despite the fact that it occurred before palm Sunday.

And even though the event itself proves to have a prophetic function in that it points to the death and burial of Christ, there is an awkwardness that surrounds it. Awkward because each of the gospels give us different pieces of information, with what appears to be a similar but probably completely different story in Luke 7.

However, what is really awkward lies in what actually happened. Mary of Bethany, according to John’s gospel (12.1-3), takes a pint of pure nard – an expensive perfume – pours it on Jesus’ feet and wipes His feet with her hair. The other accounts (Matthew 26.6-13 & Mark 14.1-10), reveal that she anointed His head as well.

Jesus said that what Mary did would ensure that she was remembered throughout the world wherever the gospel was preached (Mark 14.9). Mary’s spontaneous act of worship had secured a legacy of which she had never dreamt.

How can we leave the kind of legacy that Mary has left for us?

‘Leave her alone,’ said Jesus. ‘Why are you bothering her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, and you can help them any time you want. But you will not always have me. She did what she could. She poured perfume on my body beforehand to prepare for my burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.’ Mark 14.6-9

Firstly, Mary’s act was considered.

Although it was something done spontaneously, Mary had evidently been keeping the pint of nard for such a moment as this. John 12.7 says that she had “kept” or “saved” the perfume for the day of Jesus’ burial. The word has the idea of “watching over”. Mary had saved her perfume for a moment such as this.

How are you planning to “bless” Jesus?

Secondly, Mary did something creative.

Anointing your guest with a pint of expensive perfume was not the usual way of expressing your appreciation. It was different. It was unusual. Her creativity resulted in something that Jesus described as beautiful.

God has given us the ability to be creative. To be different. Use that difference for His glory.

Thirdly, Mary did something unconventional.

Foot washing was not unusual in houses in the ancient world. But it was something that was usually carried out by a menial servant. It wasn’t something you’d expect of your host or hostess. And you certainly didn’t expect your whole body to be anointed with expensive perfume – water from the nearest well would suffice.

When God leads us to do something that makes an impact for Him, it is usually unconventional. It breaks with the established order.

Fourthly, Mary did something that was costly.

Mary’s action was costly in a couple of ways. The perfume itself was expensive: it was worth a year’s wages. It is also possible that the perfume was some sort of family heirloom. One can imagine the questions that might have raised with her family.

It was costly in another way. She incurred the criticism of the disciples, Judas in particular for “wasting” this perfume, when the proceeds from it’s sale could have been used in another way.

It’s costly to follow Jesus. Sometimes the sacrifice is financial. Sometimes it consists of having our motives questioned.

Finally, Mary’s extravagant act of worship connected her to God’s redemptive plan for the world.

By doing what she did, Mary, perhaps unconsciously become caught up in God’s great act of redemption.

Abandoning ourselves to Jesus connects us to God’s purpose for the world. Pouring out our lives in His service helps to further His purpose in a way of which we are probably not fully aware.

It was just one moment in her life. I’m tempted to say one moment when she let her hair down for Jesus. One moment that would reverberate throughout the world throughout history.

Praying Through

Praying through is not a term that is used much now. However there was a time when it was quite common.

The idea behind it was that there were those times in life when you needed a special breakthrough. When you desperately needed to meet with God. Sometimes it was to do with adverse personal circumstances. Your life, business, family was in some kind of danger. You needed to get before God and pray through. Or perhaps the praying through was inspired by your quest for a deeper walk with God. Perhaps there was a sense of powerlessness, or you wanted to be filled with the Spirit, so you prayed through.

The great leaders of church history knew about this kind of prayer. More recent examples like David Wilkerson and Smith Wigglesworth knew all about praying until you had an answer. Wigglesworth, it is said, would, to use his words, storm the throne of grace until he had an answer from God.

And of course, you see it throughout the Bible. Moses (Exodus 32). King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19.14-19). The early church (Acts 12.1-18). Paul (2 Corinthians 12). And of course, the Lord Himself (Luke 6.12-16).

Perhaps the most famous example, however, is that of Jacob (Genesis 32.22-32)

Before meeting his estranged brother for the first time in twenty years, Jacob spent a night wrestling with God. The story is a little mysterious. He meets an unnamed man who begins to wrestle with him. It becomes evident that this is some sort of supernatural being and eventually it becomes clear that Jacob has been wrestling God.

Praying through was life changing for Jacob.

It made him confront his past and it brought about an awareness of who he really was: “I am Jacob” was as much a confession of guilt as it was a disclosure of his name. His name revealed his character. He was a deceiver, a usurper, and his character had created trouble both with Esau and Laban.

When we pray through, we meet our true selves. We see our own weakness. Our own inability. Our need for God.

Jacob found himself with his hip put out of joint as a result of the wrestle. The experience broke him and he carried that brokenness throughout his life.

But he also emerged a blessed man. He had a new name, Israel, expressing the thought that he had wrestled with God and men and had prevailed. From then on he was no longer to see himself as a deceiver but as an overcomer. And of course, it gave him confidence to meet with Esau.

The church of today is blessed with resources the like of which we have never known. But none of them is a substitute for praying through.

If you need answers or if you hunger for what sometimes seems that illusive deeper walk with God, praying through is a must. You’ll find out something about God – and about yourself. And – a word of warning – you might just get more than you bargained for!

God doesn’t always lead us by the most direct route

When you want to travel from Milton Keynes to Holyhead by the most direct route possible, you don’t plan to visit Snowdonia on the way. However, a friend of mine was using sat nav for the first time to guide him on that very journey and somehow he managed to end up visiting Snowdonia.

Sometimes God’s plans for us can feel a bit like a sat nav that is either on the blink or has been programmed to make sure that every journey is filled with interesting scenery.

Why is it that the road to fulfilled promises and answers to prayer often seems like a spiritual B road instead of a heavenly motorway?

The people of Israel had just that kind of experience when they left Egypt. They could have entered Canaan within a week or so, but God took them by another route. He took them through a desert and the Red Sea:

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter. For God said, ‘If they face war, they might change their minds and return to Egypt.’ 18 So God led the people around by the desert road towards the Red Sea. Exodus 13.17-18

Powerful obstacles lay on the main road into the Promised Land. Experienced Philistine warriors were well equipped to successfully oppose the fledgling nation that had just left Egyptian servitude. It’s not that God couldn’t have defeated the Philistines. God could have fought for the Israelites, just as He had displayed His incredible power against the Egyptians. But in this case, God wanted to fight through the Israelites and He knew that at this stage they weren’t up to the kind of test of strength that the Philistines represented. God knew that there was the possibility that a vicious campaign against the Philistines might have been enough to persuade them that they were better off in Egypt.

Sometimes God doesn’t take us the most direct route simply because we are not ready for the kind of spiritual conflict that lies along that road.

The problem for most of us is that when we take a long look down what appears to be the most direct road to the fulfilment of what God has promised us, that road looks clear. And so you just have to trust Him that He knows best!

Of course the other side of the story is that when you are facing wildernesses and Red Seas, you can feel like you have taken a wrong turn and got lost. That isn’t necessarily true either. That might just be the way that God has taken you, a way that will enable Him to display His power and His provision on your behalf.

God led Israel by an unexpected alternative route. He’s leading you too.

The Reluctant World Changer

In the development of Israel as a nation, two key figures are Rachel and Leah.

Rachel and Leah were sisters who shared one husband, Jacob. Apart from that common factor, their lives could not have been more different.

Leah was unnattractiveLeah was the elder daughter, Rachel the younger. Rachel, the bible says, was beautiful. Leah, the bible says , unflatteringly, had “weak eyes” or “delicate” eyes (Genesis 29.17).

Her circumstances were undesirable. Leah was forced into marriage by her father.

Leah was unloved. Jacob was forced into marriage with Leah, and clearly he did not want to be married to Leah. She had no say in the matter. Culture and parental authority overrode her own feelings and wishes.

And throughout the narrative of Genesis 30, it appears that she really did love Jacob, but her love was unrequited. Rachel was his obvious favourite.

Even a quick reading of Genesis 29 and 30 leaves you with a sharp impression of the pain Leah must have endured in a loveless marriage.

But Leah’s story doesn’t end there. Because Leah knew God’s favour: “When the Lord saw that Leah was unloved, He opened her womb” (Genesis 29.31).

The children that she bears to Jacob bring her some comfort and create the hope – forlorn hope – that Jacob will one day love her. What she doesn’t realise is that in her pain she is quietly changing the world. The children born to her will become the foundation of the nation of Israel. And among those children is one called Judah. From the line of Judah will come king David and eventually Jesus. In her pain, Leah was, unknown to her, changing the world. Leah, it’s fair to say was a reluctant world changer. But she was a world changer.

No-one would choose Leah’s life. No-one would choose her pain. The reality is, however, that some of us have lives that we would never choose for ourselves. And we can feel that what we have to live with – whether it be our appearance, family background, marriage, career etc. – is second rate and therefore counts for little. However, that is not the whole story. Not at all. If we are to learn anything from Leah, it is that God’s favour and God’s powerful work is not blocked by any of those features of our lives that we consider undesirable.

Many generations later, when Boaz wed Ruth, the women of Israel pronounced this blessing: “The Lord make the woman who is coming to your house like Rachel and Leah, the two who built the house of Israel” (Ruth 4.11)

Without God all our lives are second rate. But with His favour we all become world changers. Even if some of are reluctant world changers.