The following is an unedited sermon manuscript; for an explanation of my sermon manuscripts, click here.
*Originally preached April 18th, 2021*
Sermon Audio: Jesus and Worship (Mark 14:1-25)
When you were a child, who did you look up to? It may have been a movie star, an older sibling or cousin, a friend, or musician. Whoever it was, whatever they did or said probably had an outsized influence on your life. Perhaps you started talking differently, wearing clothes you wouldn’t normally wear, or spending your time on new activities. While in middle school (the most painfully awkward of years) I remember wanting desperately to give off a certain kind of “vibe” in the way I dressed, the way I spoke, and the way I carried myself because I wanted so badly to be like the “cool kids.” I see this even now in my young boys, with my two-year-old parroting and mirroring whatever he sees his four-year-old brother do (which instills a terrifying sense of urgency with parenting our first-born. If we screw him up, he’s taking the other one with him!).
Why is this desire to model, image, and emulate others so second-nature to us? G.K. Beale, in his book We Become What We Worship, points to the fact that human beings are image-bearers. In Genesis (1:26-27) we are told that humans are made in the image of God, which describes certain capacities and inherent qualities we possess as humans, but also describes a fundamental shape to our psyche, our souls: we are meant to image. We are designed to reflect God, to worship Him, to adore Him, and then to be transformed into being more like Him through that worship (cf. 2 Cor 3:18). But after the Fall, human beings now no longer perfectly image God; in fact, we naturally come into the world worshipping all sorts of other things, as Romans tells us: “Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things,” Rom 1:22-23. Notice the inevitability of worship that is assumed in this passage. People do not simply stop worshipping God, they exchange their worship. Beale writes, “At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation,” (p. 16).
How do you know what you worship? Beale explains: “whatever your heart clings to or relies on for ultimate security,” (p. 17). And whatever that is controls you and shapes you. You become what you worship. You identify with what you idolize, or as Beale puts it, “You resemble what you revere, either to your ruin or restoration.” In Psalm 115, after the psalmist describes the idols who have hands, but cannot feel, eyes but cannot see, ears but cannot hear, feet but cannot walk, he concludes: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them,” Ps 115:8.
You see, we are not purely rational creatures—we can know something is wrong or even detrimental, and yet still do it. This is why that friend of yours keeps throwing herself back into that destructive relationship, even though she knows her boyfriend is cruel and manipulative. This is why the porn-addict or workaholic gives himself over to what he knows is destroying his soul and destroying his family but can’t seem to help himself from stopping. This is why the student who is consumed with anxiety about the unknown cannot stop fearing what could be, even though she knows that she shouldn’t worry about it.
We need more than rational answers, cool intellectual arguments. We need to go deeper. We need to identify what it is our hearts worship, what it is that we are clinging on to for our deepest security and trust. because we become what we worship. In our text today we will see several people make what seem to be irrational decisions, decisions that seem bizarre and costly, but through them we can discover what the people worship:
It was now two days before the Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread. And the chief priests and the scribes were seeking how to arrest him by stealth and kill him, 2 for they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar from the people.” 3 And while he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he was reclining at table, a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head. 4 There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? 5 For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her. 6 But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 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. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 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.” 10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. 11 And when they heard it, they were glad and promised to give him money. And he sought an opportunity to betray him.
12 And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the Passover lamb, his disciples said to him, “Where will you have us go and prepare for you to eat the Passover?” 13 And he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, 14 and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ 15 And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us.” 16 And the disciples set out and went to the city and found it just as he had told them, and they prepared the Passover.
17 And when it was evening, he came with the twelve. 18 And as they were reclining at table and eating, Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” 19 They began to be sorrowful and to say to him one after another, “Is it I?” 20 He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the dish with me. 21 For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.”
22 And as they were eating, he took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” 23 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, and they all drank of it. 24 And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. 25 Truly, I say to you, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.” – Mark 14:1-25
In our text today we see two groups of people who are willing to pay a high price for what they worship, who are willing to make shocking and seemingly irrational decisions: one group is bent on sacrificing others for their worship, and the other is bent on sacrificing themselves for their worship.
What They Want
If you are not very religious or are unfamiliar with the story of Christianity the first few verses of our text might surprise you (Mark 14:1-2). The chief priests and scribes—that is the religious authorities of the day—are actively working to kill Jesus?! Shouldn’t these people be on Jesus’ team? It was these people’s jobs, quite literally, to be prepared for the arrival of the Messiah. They were to study the Bible, search out the prophesies that foretold of the coming Rescuer who would deliver Israel, and to teach Israel to prepare themselves, and yet when He arrives this is the reception they prepare for Him?
Even more alarming, here we find that one of Jesus’ own disciples is plotting to betray Him (Mark 14:10-11). Judas Iscariot has been travelling all over the Judean country side with Jesus for about three years now. He shared meals with Jesus, worked with Jesus, and was even sent out on miniature mission trips on behalf of Jesus (Mark 6:7-13). He was one of the twelve, one of Jesus’ friends. And yet, Judas—a name we now only associate with betrayal—is seeking an opportunity to hand over his friend to be executed like a common criminal.
Friends, we can say without exaggeration, that there has never been a person who has walked this earth more loving than Jesus Christ. You don’t even need to be a Christian to recognize that. You will be hard-pressed today to find anyone from any religious or irreligious persuasion who does not, in some way, admire Jesus, even admit that much of Jesus’ teaching is attractive and commendable. And yet, despite Jesus’ love, His commitment to truth, His own goodness and humility, this is how He is treated: betrayal, hatred, and murder.
Why Do They Want It
Why do the religious authorities and Judas want to destroy Jesus? In Tim Keller’s wonderful book Counterfeit Gods, he identifies four basic idols that humans are most prone to worship: comfort, power, approval, and control. Judas and the religious authorities serve as helpful possible examples of these.
As we have read the gospel of Mark we have found Jesus being unusually sharp in His criticisms of the religious authorities, accusing them of hypocrisy, vanity, greed, spiritual blindness, parochialism, and an abandonment of God’s commands for the traditions of men. Jesus exudes an authority that challenges their position or threatens to bring down the ire of Rome upon them (cf. Mark 1:22). The religious authorities have a great deal of power and control; they are used to people deferring to them and not crossing them.
With Judas, his betrayal could have come from His desire for approval. Perhaps he assumed that being a disciple of the Messiah would be like getting on the fast track to the inner circle of the social elite, catching the eyes of al of the most important of people and earning access into the most exlusive of groups. But, the exact opposite has happened. Jesus has offended and contradicted and turned away from the elites of the day and instead has chosen to associate primarily with the lowly. Like if an individual today thought by serving on the board of some non-profit organization they would be attending luxurious galas and earn lots of social cache, only to find out that instead they would be serving the homeless in a soup kitchen. This is not what I signed up for; I thought I would be earning more acceptance from those I like, but Jesus seems only interested with spending time with social rejects, with women, cripples, and Gentiles.
There also, however, could have been an element of comfort compelling Judas to betray Jesus. Life with Jesus was difficult. When Jesus sent the disciples out on their mission trip in Mark 6, He forbid them from taking any extra supplies with them so as to teach them to rely on God to provide (6:8-9). Further, Jesus compared following Him to dying on a cross, a humiliating and excruciating form of death (8:34-35). That’s what following Jesus is like? This life of austerity, self-denial, and hardship was not a call to comfort. Further, the gospels indicate to us that Judas seemed to have a particular weakness: money.
In Mark’s gospel, when the woman at Bethany anoints Jesus with the costly perfume we are simply told that “some disciples” complain about the prodigal waste of it, pointing to how the poor could have been helped by the sale of such a valuable item. But in John’s gospel, John identifies that it is Judas alone who complains: “But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” He said this, not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief, and having charge of the moneybag he used to help himself to what was put into it,” John 12:4-6. You can make your life comfortable with a little more money, right? Of course, money can also serve the other three false gods—it can be a gateway to more approval, more control, and more power. In Matthew’s gospel we are told that Judas is paid 30 pieces of silver to hand Jesus over to the authorities, which would have been about four months of wages; certainly a tempting offer.
We may balk at what the religious authorities and Judas have done in the death of Jesus, but if we are honest, we probably see more of ourselves in them than we would like to admit. How many times has our heart functionally desired to have power, comfort, approval, or control more than Jesus? So, you love Jesus but also love the approval of others? You may find yourself changing like a chameleon depending on who you are around and utterly depressed when you feel like the “right” people don’t accept you. Do you love your comfort? You may find yourself making a thousand little compromises and excuses on things you know aren’t right but feel good. Do you love control? Then you will be consumed with anxiety and fear of the unknown and resent the trust that faith requires of you. Do you love power? Then you will become ever more protective and touchier at the thought of losing it and will be willing to compromise your convictions for greater and greater access to power. And we can do all of these things, all the while claiming to worship Jesus. But Jesus will brook no rivals. He will not be content to play second fiddle to our true love, to our false gods. And the religious authorities and Judas are cautionary tales for where our little pet idols want to take us—they want to so grip our hearts and poison our minds with their lies that the call to obedience Jesus offers seems so terrifying and offensive that we would be willing to wholly forsake Him.
Like our story two weeks ago with the widow’s offering, here in our story the hero is an unnamed woman. While Jesus is reclining at table, “a woman came with an alabaster flask of ointment of pure nard, very costly, and she broke the flask and poured it over his head,” Mark 14:3. Alabaster was a precious stone and “pure nard” was a perennial herb that came all the way from India—this is why Mark explains that it is “very costly.” In fact, we are told just a few verses later that the sum total of such an item was “300 hundred denarii” (14:5), which would have been about a years worth of wages for the average day-laborer. An item this valuable could have been this woman’s dowry for marriage. Nevertheless, she breaks the bottle—which wasn’t necessary, she could have simply poured the perfume out the same way it was poured in—but breaking the neck of the bottle demonstrates that she is wanting to offer the whole of the gift to Jesus, not holding anything back for herself. This is an extravagant gesture, so extravagant that it, as we have seen, draws the outrage of some disciples.
“There were some who said to themselves indignantly, “Why was the ointment wasted like that? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii and given to the poor.” And they scolded her,” Mark 14:4-5. But Jesus will have none of that. “But Jesus said, “Leave her alone. Why do you trouble her? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 7 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. 8 She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for burial. 9 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.
It is noteworthy the way time and time again Jesus stands up for and defends and honors women. We hear much today about the dangers of patriarchy and “toxic masculinity,” but Jesus lived in a day where women were quite literally treated as second-class citizens. Their testimony was not admissible in court. Aristotle, the reigning philosopher of the Greco-Roman world, taught that women were inferior to men, too controlled by emotions and therefore needed to be tamed much in the same way an animal needs to be tamed. But in the gospel of Mark, time and time again, Jesus’ most significant interactions come with women. Those who exemplify the most commendable models of faith, are women. And those who first witness His resurrection and are told to share the news, are women. Here, Jesus takes this isolated act of worship by this woman and promises that everyone in the whole world will hear of her faithfulness. Jesus honored women. Thus, any church or Christian or leader who dishonors or disrespects women, who treats them as second-class citizens will find themselves running contrary to our Lord.
While John singles out Judas as complaining, here in Mark it seems that Judas’ complaint is at least coupled with some other disciples as well. While Judas is singularly fueled by his own greed (300 hundred denarii wasted!), perhaps some other disciples join in by a kind of misplaced piety. Think of all the good we could have done for the poor with that kind of money! But Jesus waves these accusations away and defends the woman. What she has done is “beautiful” because she has unknowingly anointed Jesus’ body for His burial, which will take place shortly. Jesus’ claim here is shocking: You always have the poor, but you don’t always have me. As in, Jesus is saying that He is more important than care for the poor. How could that be? Particularly in light of Jesus’ own teaching on the need to care for the poor? Didn’t Jesus just teach us that love of neighbor is the second greatest command in all of the Bible (Mark 12:31)? Indeed, it is, but there is one command even greater than that, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength,” (Mark 12:30). Friends, Jesus is demonstrating that He is the God to whom our primary allegiance and love is first and foremost to be directed towards.
And that is exactly what this woman is doing. See, she has nothing to gain from this act. She gets no power, no control, no approval from others (she is scolded!), and certainly no comfort. In a sense, she has nothing to gain and her act even elicits criticisms. But she wordlessly and quietly performs this act of devotion singularly out of love for Jesus. It is His approval that matters alone to this woman. And you see, friends, that’s how you overcome the false gods, idols, the siren-songs of your heart that put you under their spell. You find the comfort, approval, control, and power of Jesus to matter more than your worldly comforts, approval, control, and power—to the degree that you can forsake them.
Her act of devotion comes with a price, but so does all worship. The price of Judas’ worship is the haunting pronouncement that Jesus makes, “woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born,” Mark 14:21. All worship makes demands of us, all worship requires sacrifice. David Foster Wallace, the late novelist and atheist, in his famous graduation address This is Water, makes these surprisingly perceptive comments:
“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship–be it JC or Allah, be it YHWH or the Wiccan Mother Goddess, or the Four Noble Truths, or some inviolable set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you… Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.”
All worship demands something of you, requires sacrifice. And Jesus will make demands of you as well; He will ask you to sacrifice things by repenting of sins, by forgiving others, by surrendering control of your life to Him. But what sets Jesus apart from all of the other gods, all the other options of worship is His willingness to sacrifice for you. At the close of our text we see the famed Last Supper, where Jesus grabs a hunk of bread and says, “Take; this is my body,” Mark 14:22 and the cup and says, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” Mark 14:24. What is Jesus showing us? As the bread is broken, shredded, and chewed, so will His body be; as the fruit of the vine is poured into the cup so will His blood be poured out. Why? Matthew makes it plain, “…for the forgiveness of sins,” Matt 26:28.
For the forgiveness of sins, sins like worshipping at the altar of the world’s approval, of your own comfort. Every object of worship requires sacrifices from you, but only One will sacrifice for you. It is in your failure and weakness, in your betrayal, in your paper-thin commitment, in your desperate craving for the approval of others, in the binds of your addictions that Jesus, in all His power and glory and might, swoops in—and pays the price for your sins, who welcomes you in. Now, if you will come to Jesus and follow Him, He will confront your sin. He will make exacting demands on your life and summon you to repent and submit to Him alone as your object of worship. But He will also forgive your sins and welcome you, broken though you are, into His family. And that is how you change. You let the beauty of the grace of God in the gospel melt your heart, the unmerited welcome of Jesus shift the tectonic plates of your heart till you see Him as truly better, sweeter, and more satisfying than anything else in life.
We are all more like Judas than we care to admit. But how do we become like the woman in the story? Fix your eyes on what Jesus has done for you in the sacrifice of Himself.