(Editor's note: This sermon was first preached in Sheridan, OR in 1988, and reworked to be presented in Ceres, CA on November 25, 2001. The interesting thing is that the opening illustration is about a young couple in Patterson, CA just 25 miles from Ceres. Nobody stepped forward to say they knew this couple, but different ones did remember the newspaper coverage of the story.)
Young people know more about real love that most of us old timers will give them credit for. What we know that they sometimes don't is that even strong affections can be fickle. And when the worst happens, most of the time we stand a good chance for recovery.
This pattern of young love began as Felipe Garza started dating Donna Ashlock. Felipe was 15; Donna was 14. They dated steadily until Donna cooled the romance and began dating other boys. Even though Donna had ended the relationship -- for six months Felipe could not let his feelings fade.
While at work one day Donna doubled over in pain. Doctors soon discovered that she was dying of degenerative heart disease and desperately needed a heart transplant. Felipe heard about Donna's condition and told his mother, "I'm going to die, and I'm going to give my heart to Donna." Now, young people have been known to say "irrational" things from time to time, especially when they're in love. At any rate Felipe appeared to his mom to be in perfect health.
Three weeks later, however, Felipe woke up and complained of pain on the left side of his head. He began losing his breath and couldn't walk. He was taken to a hospital where it was discovered that a blood vessel in his brain had burst, soon leaving him brain dead!
Felipe's sudden death mystified his doctors. While he remained on a respirator, his family decided to let surgeons remove his heart for Donna and his kidneys and eyes for others.
Life is filled with mystery and Donna received Felipe's heart! After the transplant, Donna's father told her about Felipe's sudden death. In the following moments of silence, Donna, unsure until just then said, "And I have his heart." Her father said, "Yes, that is what he and his parents wanted."
Several days later, a funeral procession seemed to roll on forever through the orchards and fields of Patterson. The procession was so long it might have been for a senator or a prince, but instead it was for the young man who gave away his heart.
In John 12 we read of a young lover with a similar spirit (12:1-9).
As a young lover did you ever experience the impulse of "climb the highest mountain or swim the wildest river" or do something totally out of character like write poetry or a song? I hope you have felt those urges -- they are the spice and romance of life. But more to the point are you occasionally struck by an impulse to lavishly express your love for Jesus? Or is your spiritual life more of a business arrangement? Are you one of those who believes that religion should be "reasonable"? You are aware of the drawbacks and benefits, and it only makes sense to avoid the negatives as far as possible.
In this passage you and I discover that true love, whether it is romantic or spiritual, is smothered in a coldly calculating world of weights and measures, accountants and record keepers. By following the example of Mary, we can discover the joy of wasteful love.
From the accountant's perspective, Mary qualifies for the title of "The Prodigal Daughter" -- prodigal meaning "squanderer" or "one who is extravagantly wasteful." Judas saw a years wages spilled on the ground. Mary was the type who wouldn't even balance her checkbook until after the holidays. It might hamper her giving!
For well over a year Jesus had been predicting His own death. On His previous journey to Bethany for the purpose of raising Lazarus from the grave, Jesus said, "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give His life as a ransom for many." Jesus had told them in detail that He would "be betrayed into the hands of the chief priests . . . they would mock him . . . flog Him and kill Him" (Mark 10:33).
For whatever reason (we may never know) the majority of disciples did not get it. However, John gives clues that Mary was one disciple who did get it! In verse seven Jesus hints that Mary has believed Jesus' prediction of His death and had been saving this ointment for His burial. As the last week of Jesus' life was about to begin, He was, again, preparing His followers for the days of crisis. Unfortunately His teaching was not sinking in any better than it had before. But Mary could see that the time had come. In her heart now, she began to search for an expression of her loyalty and love.
Remembering the ointment for His burial, she acted on her desire to glorify Jesus before He died. For those without her insight, and from a human view, she was extravagant, overly generous, reckless and perhaps a little foolish. Yet when she looked at the person who was going to lay down His life for everyone, she knew that calculating how much devotion to show was not possible.
It was an outlandish display. But it was all love -- without an ounce of self interest. The Pharisees knew how to worship so that men were impressed. They gave their alms, and said their prayers and did their fasting with extravagant public appeal. But Mary's act of worship lacked any interest in her public image. It was all, it was only for Jesus.
In Palestine no respectable woman appeared in public with her hair unbound -- it would be comparable to an Afghan lady being without her burka. Mary was not thinking about herself. She was not concerned with what they might think of her love for Jesus. Why she used her hair, I don't know, but I'm sure this powerful aroma would cling to Jesus for several days, and now to Mary as well. She would for some time bear a reminder of her Master's sacrifice.
Regardless of "why", the principle she models is that true love is heedless of the crowd. Michal despised David's elaborate display of love for God. Job's friends came to detest his stubborn love for God. And Judas hated Mary. But Mary never gave their opinion a thought. Her focus was on Jesus, not the crowd or a set of regulations. True love does not diminish because of opposing opinions.
A second principle she models is that true love is sacrificial. By nature it is extravagant, generous and occasionally reckless. You might just dive into that wild river! Yet how many enter into the Christian faith like they would another business deal? They calculate the negatives: It might require some time, extra energy and perhaps some money. On the positive side, most of the people are friendly and there just might be a heaven and what if there really is a hell?
These kinds of Christians are not necessarily easy to spot. Remember that Judas kept his cover very well. But in their heart, they complain about how much money it takes to keep missionaries on the field. They get upset at the cost of adequate facilities for worship and training. Some even ask, "Why does a worship service have to interrupt the beginning of the football game?" For that matter, "Why does Sunday come once a week? Why not once a month?" After a while it does -- for them. These folks don't get real excited about letting their neighbors know they are Christians.
These are Christians who have entered into a nicely calculated business arrangement. They identify with Christ, just enough to "make it" - they hope. But, of course, they never know with certainty, so they are not really happy with the arrangement.
I believe the Marys of the faith are easier to pick out. Have you ever noticed how lovers seem to look for ways of sacrificing? They seem to go out of their way to enhance their relationship. They hold hands in public regardless of what other people think. They never feel like they have enough time or money to spend on the other person. Football games don't interfere. Sacrifice is actually fun! Where true love is present, sacrifice is the norm.
O. Henry illustrates this in one of my favorite short stories ever. It is pretty simple, that's why it appeals to me. It is titled "The Gift of the Magi". A young couple, Della and Jim, were very poor but very much in love. Each had one unique possession. Della's was her dazzling long, thick hair. When she let it down it could almost serve as a robe. Jim had a priceless gold watch, which had been his father's and before that his grandfather's. It was the day before Christmas, and Della had exactly $1.87 to buy Jim a present.
Her only option for getting more money was to sell her hair to a wig maker. With the money she bought Jim a platinum fob for his watch. When Jim came home that night and saw Della's cut hair, he stopped and stared in shock. It wasn't that she was less attractive. Part of his surprise was how beautiful she was without her hair.
Della, however, was on the verge of panic, not being able to interpret his stunned look. In her effort to explain, she made Jim open his gift early. Jim now was even more speechless, and to explain his pent up weakness gave Della his gift to her.
It was a set of expensive tortoiseshell combs with jeweled edges for her long hair - a set of combs that Della had been admiring for several months. The irony was . . .. Jim had sold his watch to afford them.
He sold his watch to buy combs for her hair; she sold her hair to buy a fob for his watch. It appears that each of them had sacrificed in vain. But did they? In the process of losing some "things", did they not gain more of each other? Isn't that what matters most with lovers?
Mary's heart recognized Jesus' impending death as an extravagant, lavish display of God's love. She knew what all lovers know by instinct: Heaven is not a place for the stingy economy of a nicely calculated business arrangement.
Nothing is less wasteful or more wonderful than offering Jesus a sacrificial token of loyalty and devotion, however costly that offering may be. Young lovers of Jesus know this; their impulse is to waste their lives for Him. However, it was to a group of old timers that Jesus said, "I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love. Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first" (Revelation 2:4,5).
These up coming holy days can be a time to fall in love with Jesus all over again.l Life may not be able to sustain itself in the frenzy of fresh love (except perhaps in Heaven), but there is never room for cold calculations of assets and debits in any kind of real love. How warm is your love for Jesus?