anointInstead of preaching a sermon, I dramatically told these stories based on the lectionary readings for the 5th Sunday in Lent, 2010. It’s still one of my favorite storytelling sermons.

Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126, Philippians 3:4b-14, John 12:1-8


  • Jewish prayer shawl or yamika
  • Bible (I used my Hebrew Bible)
  • If you’re a women a shawl, scarf or pashima that can used as a head covering. If you’re a man a clay jar or other container.

Returning from Exile

(Put on the prayer shawl or yamika.)

May by the prophets really are nuts. We all know the stories: Isaiah running around Jerusalem naked. Not that anyone remembers what his point was–he was running around Jerusalem naked. Hosea marrying a whore to prove Judah’s idolatry was harlotry, and Ezekiel. Now there was a loon. Ezekiel came with the first group of exiles shipped to Babylon. He laid bound up one side for months then rolled over and laid bound up on the other side for months. Something about how long we’d be in exile. Did you know that man didn’t even mourn when his wife died? Said God told him not to because God wouldn’t mourn for the destruction of Jerusalem or the Temple. We Jews are used to our prophets being a little…unbalanced.

I think being in exile so long has unhinged this new group of prophets. Running around saying that some uncircumcised, pagan, Gentile is God’s anointed. Anointed by God like King David. Oh I know Cyrus and his Persian army are making trouble for Babylon, but to call him God’s anointed, and say God is going to use him to send us back to Israel. Like that is ever going to happen. But these prophets keep yammering on about God doing new things—things that will amaze us and dazzle us. They keep talking about rivers springing up in the desert, and God turning the wilderness into an oasis. Talk that’s all it is. We’ve been here for 80 years. Jerusalem was razed to the ground and the Temple with it. We aren’t going anywhere.

I ate every single one of those words. Those loony prophets were right! God did it! God did something totally new! Who ever heard of an emperor letting captives go back to their native land? But Cyrus did! He sent us home! And he returned all of the things that were in the Temple plus what we would need to rebuild the city and the Temple! And it’s a good thing too. Because we’re going to need every penny. The Babylonians literally did flatten Jerusalem. We have a lot of work to do, both building and farming. We have to have enough food to eat. But we are here. God really is sovereign over every ruler on earth. God did not forsake us. God brought us back. And we will rebuild this city and this country. Not just for us. We will rebuild for our children and for all the generations that will come after them.


(Pick up the Bible.)

People think I’m a little over the top. They say I only see black and white or good and evil. They say I like to rant, and that I’m not all the eloquent. Well what do they expect? Jewish prophets have always been melodramatic. Our people have always known how to get your attention and make our point. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I’m a zealot. Whatever I do, I go all the way. When I was studying to be a Pharisee, I was always at the top of my class. So you know, I have the equivalent of five or six Ph. Ds in this: The Hebrew Scriptures. I studied with the best teachers, and I kept the Law. I did everything I could to climb the ecclesiastical ladder as fast as I could. When a cult started by this upstart carpenter, who had gotten himself crucified, started taking over the Temple and declaring the Law to be a thing of the past, I was more than happy to help put them away. I wanted to keep the Jewish faith pure. I hunted those people down and threw them into prison. I helped execute them.

Then this crucified carpenter, this Jesus, got hold of me, and I became as zealous for him as I had been for the Law. A lot has happened in the last 30 years, since I found myself blind by the side of the road to Damascus. Christianity has spread across the Empire, and I’m here in Rome. Not the way I wanted to be, awaiting a trial before Caesar. But I am here, and I still preach the Gospel. That one thing has never changed. To whoever listens I tell them about the all-encompassing love of Christ. When I tell the Philippines that I would give up everything to know Christ, they know I’m not exaggerating. I’ve already given up so much: my career, my reputation, my family. I have suffered. What I dealt out to Christians those many years ago, I have now experienced. I’ve been in prison, been beaten, and ran for my life. I haven’t been executed, yet.

I’ve done all of this for one reason: to know Christ. Knowing Christ is worth everything I gave up, everything I loss when I chose to follow him. Christ suffered before he was resurrected. As he said no student is above the teacher. I know all of my suffering has not been in vain. I have come to Christ through my sufferings, and one day my hope is that I will know his resurrection as well. And fully know him as he knows me.

I’m always in awe of how Jesus came back to Jerusalem knowing the suffering and death that awaited him. And Mary, dear Mary who like the prophets before her, performed an outrageous act to prepare him for that final journey to Jerusalem.

Mary of Bethany

(Take off prayer shawl/yamika and put on the head covering, or pick up the clay jar.)

Bethany is not that far from Jerusalem. I hear all of the talk, all of the gossip. I know the Jewish leaders want to kill Jesus. I’m sure they’re even more determined now that Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus. I can’t believe my brother is sitting there, talking and laughing with Jesus and all of our friends. We’re having a big feast to celebrate. People have been in and out of the house all day to see Lazarus alive. There’s whispers and talk all around about revolution; how Jesus will march into Rome and overthrow the pagan overloads. Even the 12 are talking of revolution. It makes me wonder if they’ve been listening to the same teachings I’ve heard at his feet. Do they just tune him out when he says he’s going to die? They don’t want to hear it. They want a king, and the power that comes from being in the king’s inner circle. They are not listening. Either to Jesus or the rumblings of Jerusalem’s ruling elite who will do whatever they have to to hold onto their power. This Messiah will not be going to Jerusalem to be crowned. He is going to Jerusalem to die.

I come out of my revery and realize that I need to go see if Martha needs any help. Then I see it—the jar of nard. Very expensive nard. We had bought it for Lazarus’ burial. It hadn’t been used. I knew what I needed to do. I peeked into the room and everyone was settling around the table. I waited. I waited until they were settled and started eating.

I took the perfume and walked to where Jesus was reclining. I wasn’t going to anoint his head—kings had their heads anointed. I wasn’t going to do anything to feed their illusions. I knelt at this feet. The last pair of feet I had anointed has been Lazarus’ for his burial. I felt the stares. I broke open the jar and poured the nard over Jesus’ feet—all of it. I heard the gasps as people smelled the expensive perfumed mixture. I gently rubbed it into his feet—those roughened feet that soon would be making their last journey. I reached for a towel to wipe off the excess when it hit me I hadn’t grabbed a towel. I always forget something. An idea flickered in my mind. I took out the pins that held my hair. As my hair tumbled around me, another round of gasps echoed around the room. A respectable woman wouldn’t do that! I didn’t care. With my hair, I wiped the oil from his feet. I looked up and Jesus’ eyes met mine. His eyes echoed my thoughts. We both knew. It was a holy moment.

Until an indignant voice broke the holy moment. “Why was this perfume not sold for 300 denarii and the money given to the poor?”

Judas. Of course, it was Judas. Like he had any concern for the poor. He just wanted to line his own pockets.

I took a breath to say as much when Jesus said, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me with you.”

The room was silent. No one wanted to admit what Jesus said was true. He wasn’t here to reorder one nation according to their standards. He was here to turn the world, as we knew it, on it’s head and bring the kingdom of God—the reign of God—to this very world. But for that to happen first he had to face his destiny in Jerusalem.