Ash Wednesday

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Watch the livestream beginning at 4:00 p.m. on Ash Wednesday. After the livestream is finished, the video will be available to watch at any time.

First Lesson: 2 Samuel 24:10-25 (NIV)

Gospel: John 12:1-11 (NIV)


  • Hymn CW 393:1-3 “Savior When in Dust to You”
  • Choir Anthem “All We Like Sheep”
  • Hymn CW 650:1,2,4,5 “From Depths of Woe, Lord God, I Cry”
  • Hymn CW 823:1,2,5 “Jesus, Priceless Treasure”

People love to eat with other people. Think of birthday parties, church potlucks, donuts after worship, or Sunday brunches or dinners. One of the best parts about Lenten midweek services is the dinner celebration with each other after the service. (At least in non-blizzard weeks…)

Our Savior seemed to enjoy dinner celebrations too. His first steps in public ministry led him to a wedding in Cana, where he saved the reception by turning water into wine. He must have eaten with people a lot, because eventually our Savior’s enemies even attacked him for it, claiming “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

John begins our text by stating that it was now “six days before the Passover.” I understand this to be the Friday just before Palm Sunday. And we find Jesus about to eat with sinners once more. Tonight we consider how his final steps led to a dinner celebration. But this dinner was somewhat out of the ordinary, because it was a dinner that celebrated Jesus’ limitless power, and a dinner that signaled his coming sacrifice. Let’s take a look and see this destination in his final steps.

A dinner that celebrated Jesus’ limitless power.

The event we study this evening is recorded by three of the Gospels, John, Matthew, and Mark. As usual each one has different details and looking at them all together gives us the full picture. For example, Matthew and Mark both inform us that this dinner party was held in the home of “Simon the leper” (Matthew 26:6; Mark 14:3).

That’s interesting because lepers weren’t allowed to stay in their own homes or have visitors or have dinner parties. So if Simon is known as a leper and still has people in his house he most likely was a leper who had been healed. And maybe that’s why verse 2 says this meal was held “in Jesus’ honor.” We can’t say for sure, but it certainly makes sense.

Normally, a healed leper hosting a dinner party would be the most interesting person at the table. But not this day. John puts Lazarus in the spotlight here, reminding us that Bethany was the home of “Lazarus, who had died, the one Jesus raised from the dead.” John makes sure we know that Lazarus was one of the guests “reclining at the table with [Jesus].” The only downside to rotating pastors during Lent is that you get the series a little out of order. Next week Pastor Lor will be here and he’ll get to focus on Lazarus fully.

But here at this dinner we have Simon, the healed leper, and Lazarus, the resurrected formerly-dead guy. Now maybe we understand why “a dinner was given in Jesus’

honor.” This was a dinner that celebrated Jesus’ limitless power! The dinner planners included not only Simon and Lazarus, but also Lazarus’ sisters Martha, who filled the role as the consummate caterer; and Mary, who was, as always, close by and hanging on Jesus’ every word. This was a group that knew what Jesus could do, and did do, with his power.

Someday in heaven I’m going to ask Lazarus about his resurrection and about the dinner conversation that day in Bethany. But this much I can confidently say right now: Lazarus had become a celebrity, and because of him Jesus was gaining more and more converts. Verse 9 tells us that “a large crowd of Jews found out that Jesus was there and came, not only because of him, but also to see Lazarus, whom he raised from the dead.” So many people saw and believed that verses 10-11 say, “the chief priests made plans to kill Lazarus as well, for on account of him many of the Jews were going over to Jesus and believing in him.”

The guests at that dinner party at Bethany weren’t afraid of Jesus’ power. They were celebrating it. Do we? Or do we forget what our eyes of faith have seen from Jesus? We struggle with the loss of loved ones, and forget the joy of Lazarus and Mary and Martha, who saw this Jesus, OUR Jesus, when he raised the dead to life. We suffer with poor health or loneliness, and forget the compassion of Jesus who touched the untouchable and cured the most dreaded diseases. In a certain sense, he gave new life to both Lazarus AND Simon.

This dinner celebration at Bethany shouts to us that Jesus’ words of power and promise are true, and meaningful. He is “the resurrection and the life.” Whoever believes in him “will live, even if he dies.” And when our problems are more about this life than the next, then too we can look back at this dinner celebration and know that we have nothing to fear. Jesus’ limitless power is only match by his limitless love. He will work for us, he does work for us. And he will work all things out for our eternal good. That’s our Savior of limitless power’s promise.

A dinner that signaled Jesus’ coming sacrifice.

This wasn’t Jesus’ first meal in Bethany with Lazarus and Mary and Martha. We know from the gospels that Jesus loved to visit this family. And we also know, from another famous dinner celebration (Luke 10), that while Martha played host, Mary loved to sit at Jesus’ feet and soak in every word he said. Surely she listened well. And surely she saw clearly when Jesus raised her brother from the dead just days before.

It seems that Mary had put two and two together. She couldn’t have known it all, but she seemed to know that Jesus was taking his final steps. So she took what Judas called “a year’s wages” and buys this expensive perfume called “nard” in an expensive jar made of alabaster stone. How precious was this stuff? Nard comes from the pasturelands of the Himalayas, between Tibet and India, and was transported by camel through miles and miles of mountain passes. This would be special stuff today, to say nothing of back then.

So Mary took this jar and opened it by breaking off the top—it was an all or nothing deal. And then, as the other gospel writers explain, Mary took the perfume and poured it over Jesus’ head. John makes it clear that she also anointed Jesus’ feet. She let her hair down, something frowned upon for a woman to do in front of men in that culture, and she used her hair to dry Jesus’ feet.

Decades later, John still remembered the event vividly. He describes how “the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.” The scent of nard is apparently overpowering, which is why it was especially in in high demand in the funeral industry. It is more than likely that Mary and Martha had used a jar of this same stuff for the anointing of Lazarus’ body. Its strong smell would help counteract the stench that would otherwise pour from their brother’s tomb.

Judas’ reaction to Mary’s act of devotion was predictable. He objected, “ ‘Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?’” Of course, John also explains Judas’ concern. “He did not say this because he cared for the poor, but because he was a thief. As keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.” I wonder how many other gifts from Jesus’ generous followers had been skimmed off by Judas?

What’s even more troubling is the fact that in Matthew’s and Mark’s account of this same event, we are told the rest of the disciples also complained, “Why this waste?” (Matthew 26:8; Mark 14:4). Maybe if the disciples had all been listening to our Lord a little better, they would have understood what Mary seems to have put together.

Jesus told them, “Leave her alone. It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.” Mary’s gift was appropriate because Jesus knew what was coming, even if no one else in the room was ready to believe it. Jesus’ ministry was at its end. They were witnessing his final steps. The very crowds that were so eager to see Simon the leper healed, to see Lazarus raised from the dead—those very people would cement the chief priests’ plans to murder our Lord.

I can’t say if anyone around that dinner table fully understood at the time, but Mary’s anointing of Jesus made this a dinner that signaled Jesus’ coming sacrifice. It was almost as if Mary was getting a head start on the work that Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus would do in haste late on a Friday afternoon one week later when after darkness and death, “they took Jesus’ body and bound it with linen strips along with the spices, in accord with Jewish burial customs.”

That coming sacrifice is what Lent is all about. And every final step we take with Jesus in our series brings us closer to the cross of his death and our life. Mary has helped us get ready for it. Lazarus and Simon remind us our Savior was always ready for it. May our journey to the cross this year also bring us to heavenly celebration that waits for every believe. Where we will feast with Jesus forever. Amen.

Recent Worship Services