Updated: May 4, 2022
“If you live gladly to make others glad in God, your life will be hard, your risks will be high, and your joy will be full." from the Introduction to Don't Waste Your Life (John Piper)
Jesus was in Bethany. He had just raised Lazarus from the dead and was dining with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. They were reclining a the table together. John 12:3 says that Mary then did something quite unexpected. She took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard and anointed Jesus' feet. And wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.
Not surprisingly, Judas Iscariot scolded her for not selling it (v.4). "Others said to themselves indignantly, 'why this waste?' and they scolded her" (Mark 14:4-5). "And even "when the disciples saw it they were indignant saying, 'Why this waste?'" (Matthew 26:8). Basically, no one recognized the true worth of Mary's lavish anointing of Jesus. Chances are, we wouldn't have either.
Waste: giving more than is necessary, lavishing. Giving something too much for something too little.
We struggle with waste. At least we as cross-cultural workers do. I've had too many conversations in recent months with co-workers who feel so displaced, down-trodden, grappling to make sense of it all. When we literally give our lives as a offering to Jesus. To serve the least-reached. And come away feeling empty-handed. Maybe we could be doing something more important with our lives? Especially when we find that what we are doing now is so bone-achingly difficult. Or confusing. Or seemingly fruitless. And we have a hard time understanding the nature of our position.
Why does God have me here, now? Sometimes we feel like we are ploughing barren soil. Sometimes we feel we really are "wasting" our lives. And that's the point. That's what Mary did. She wasted her life. So it seemed. But, not to Jesus. He loved her for what she did.
But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. For you always have the poor with you, and whenever you want, you can do good for them. But you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:6-9 ESV)
Indeed, the testimony of this incident accompanies the gospel wherever it goes. Why? Because Jesus intends that the preaching of the gospel should issue something along the very lines of the action of Mary here. Namely, that people should come to them and waste themselves on Him. This is the result that he is seeking. That is what the gospel is for - to bring us to a true estimate of His worth!
In 1994, my pastor recommended I read Watchman Nee's The Normal Christian Life (1940) in preparation for our cross-cultural ministry. Anything but "normal", the book is a collection of sermons Nee delivered in the wake of tremendous suffering while in exile from China during the Second World War. I recently re-read it and now realize this was in many ways his personal expression of the very crisis of "waste" we so often face. Waste is actually the title of the last chapter where Nee preached through John 12:1-8.
Oh, to be wasted! It is a blessed thing to be wasted for the Lord. So many who have been prominent in the Christian world know nothing of this. Many of us have been used to the full - have been used, I would say, too much - but we do not know what it means to be wasted on God. We like to be always 'on the go': the Lord would sometimes prefer to have us in prison. We think in terms of apostolic journeys: God dares to put his greatest ambassadors in chains. (p. 163)
Whenever you meet someone who has really suffered - someone who has gone through experiences with the Lord that have brought limitation, and who, instead of trying to break free in order to be "used", has been willing to be imprisoned by Him and has thus learned to find satisfaction in the Lord and in nowhere else -- then immediately your spiritual senses detect a sweet savor of Christ. Something has been crushed, something has been broken in that life, and so you smell the odor. The odor that filled the house that day in Bethany still fills the church today; Mary's fragrance never passes. It needed but one stroke to break the flask for the Lord, but that breaking and the fragrance of that anointing abides. (p. 161)
Do we ever find ourselves in a place of doubt, wonder, sadness, grief, crisis of faith? Is God really calling us into a life of self-sacrifice that may mean very little fruit? Compared to what we could be doing? Or perhaps compared to what others are doing?
Let's be very mindful that our sacrifice, our surrender, is precious in God's sight. That's how he viewed Mary's offering. And his opinion is the only one that counts. So what is this that we are doing? We are learning to communicate the gospel to our precious lost neighbors. By doing it. It's joyful. It's beautiful.
But sometimes it feels very hard. And lonely. A long journey of slow response. To go where they live. Their homes, their cultures, their communities, their lives, their souls. Just to get to those meaningful conversations can be excruciatingly tough. We give up a lot. That's the sacrifice. And that is truly precious in Jesus' eyes.
Mary anointed Jesus. She shows us the amazing connection between worship and service. And we see the latter flowing from the former. From worship flowed service. From abiding, gospel proclamation. From prayer, ministry. From suffering, rejoicing. From brokenness, fragrance. Our neighbors sense the spiritual aroma of the gospel in our lives. They hear it from our lips. We are more attuned to gospel encounters from the fullness of our hearts, in the overflow of what God is saying to us.
Does our faith create a hunger in those around us? That's a mystery. God creates the hunger. But in some way the presence of God in our lives stokes it. It seems to ignite, fuel, or fan the flame for those wonderful gospel-rich opportunities we have with our lost neighbors. Paul says it best.
But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere. (2 Cor 2:14)
And remember Paul wrote this in the wake of tremendous suffering (2 Cor 1:8-10). Paul suffered greatly for the Lord. But, his suffering ignited his joy. His waste was his worship. He loved Jesus lavishly. Like Mary did. I love the way Watchman Nee ends his sermon on Waste:
I believe that in that day we shall all love Him as we have never done now, but yet that it will be most blessed for those who have poured out their all upon the Lord today. When we see Him face to face I trust that we shall all break and pour out everything for Him. But today - what are we doing today?