While Jesus was in Bethany reclining at the table in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume. She broke the jar and poured the perfume on his head. Some of those present were saying indignantly to one another, ‘Why this waste of perfume? It could have been sold for more than a year’s wages and the money given to the poor.” And they rebuked her harshly. Jesus said what she did was a beautiful thing. The beauty of it lay in its very extravagance.
This isn’t just a $5 bottle of Musk or a $50 bottle of White Diamonds. You wouldn’t wrap this up for Valentines Day, and say, “Surprise honey, I got you a pint of Nard #5.” This stuff was expensive, imported from the Himalayan mountains of India, and was worth about a year’s income. Can you imagine blowing about 30 grand on a jar of cologne? There is no indication that she was wealthy. What she gave cost her, just like it would cost you if you gave a year’s wages. Mary breaks it open and empties it on Jesus’ head. Then she wipes his feet with her hair. This is her act of worship…extravagant giving, humbling service. She didn’t give the left over after satisfying her own wants and desires. She gave her best.
If our giving never costs us, then our giving never really means anything. On the other hand, we have Judas Iscariot, who viewed this act of extravagant giving as a complete waste. “When the disciples saw this, they were indignant, ‘Why this waste?’ they asked, ‘This perfume could have been sold at a higher price and the money given to the poor.’
Christmas is about gift giving. Ever since the wise men brought the three gifts of gold, incense and myrrh, giving is a part of Christmas. It’s not Christmas to which we object, but rather the “commercial racket” that Christmas has become. The problem with commercialized Christmas began with Dickens’ Mr. Pickwick carrying a cod to Dingley Dell as an offering for their Yuletide celebration. Then it was Scrooge ordering a turkey for his clerk. “But then the idea that not only all friends but even all acquaintances should give one another presents, or at least send one another cards,” a tradition “forced upon us by the shopkeepers.” And the worst of it is the giving of gifts by people one hardly knows. The “whole thing is a nightmare,” says Lewis. “Most of it is involuntary.
What is the point of getting a gift we did not want, a gift we did not need from someone whom we hardly know? Perhaps it is the whole point of this blessed day of days. Did you hear the Scripture? “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk 2:10-11). Our neighbor asked me once if my parents liked country ham? He said that he was giving them one for Christmas. My parents were mad at me for not telling them about the ham because they had nothing ready to give in return.
God kept trying, with every means at God’s disposal, to get through to us – the covenant to Abraham and Sarah, the promises to the patriarchs, the poetry of the prophets, the praise of the psalms. When none of this worked, God gave us the Son. Down through the centuries thousands had begged God for a sign, a word, a signal, but who had asked for the Son, the very Son of God “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Heb 1:3)? The angel said to us, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:12). A sign of what? “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (Jn 1:14). The word grace is the same word in the New Testament as gift.
When Adlai Stevenson worked for the Agricultural Administration, he received a Christmas gift from a walnut company: a large sack of individually packaged walnuts. He received this gift well before Christmas and realized he could never eat this many walnuts. He identified his opportunity and sent the individually wrapped walnuts to his friends as presents–only to find out later that inside each of the packages of walnuts was a card that read: “Merry Christmas to Adlai from the walnut industry.” Good gift; wrong recipient!
Love heals people it heals the one who gives it and it heals the one who receives it. In so many ways, down through all the ages, God tried to show us that he loved us and cared for us. God tried to speak to us in various ways, to reach us through various means. Now God has come to us as the Son, as the babe at Bethlehem. Here is a gift we did not know how to ask for, much less graciously receive. Yet here is the great gift, the magnificent act of grace, that God knew we needed. God in the flesh. Jesus, the Messiah, born among us.
Herein is our great joy.
I know of a man who spent an hour’s flight seated next to a man from Minneapolis, a salesman of some sort. He engaged my friend in conversation about this and that. My friend had intended to get some work done on the flight, but this stranger wanted to talk, so they talked. During the conversation he said, “You look like a man who needs to learn to relax.”
My friend thought it an impertinent comment from someone he had just met.
But he remembered that comment about two weeks later when in the mail he received a package. A gift. All the card said was, “From John.” He had not the faintest idea who John was. It was a couple of woodcarving knives, whittling knives, of all things. What was he supposed to do with these and who on earth were they from? Then he turned the card over. It read, “To a man who needs some-times to relax, from someone who found these helpful.”
Can you believe that? He never asked for woodcarving knives. This guy didn’t even know him. Now, what is he supposed to do? Is he expected now to send him some gift in return? A gift from a virtual stranger?
Now they have some kind of a relationship, I suppose. My friend now has to think of something to do for him. Here, with this uninvited gift, this guy has turned their chance conversation into a relationship. Now what? Now, three years later, when my friend wants to relax, he’ll take out that woodcarving set and start carving on a piece of wood. He is no artist and no expert, but it does cause him to relax. And to think, he didn’t even want this. Some gift. Some grace. And the angel said, “Don’t be afraid. This is good news, a sign that God really cares for you. You shall find a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…”