Women of Wisdom: The Art of Worship

February 24, 2010 at 1:00 am (Articles, Attitudes, W.O.W., Worship) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Posted by Abigail

Once upon a time, a Samaritan woman asked Jesus the question that had divided the Jews and Samaritans for centuries.  “Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews say Jerusalem is the place where we ought to worship.”  Jesus’ answer was revolutionary to the religious systems of both the Samaritans and the Jews.  “An hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth; for such people the Father seeks to be His worshipers.”  (John 4:7-38)

The hour was coming when true worshipers would worship at Jesus’ feet.

The story of Mary of Bethany is so sparse that many have tried to piece together her background from the airy fantasies of vivid imaginations.  But the Lord has providentially given us all that we have in His word—and all that we need to understand Mary’s love for the Lord—who had loved her first.  In each of her three appearances in scripture we read of her worshiping the Lord—in spirit and truth.

Her worship wasn’t the empty religion of her day, but was completely focused, notably quiet, evidently un-aware of her audience, forgetful of cultural protocol, and entirely extravagant.  In fact, it often earned her the ridicule of all but One.

“Mary was listening to the Lord’s words, seated at His feet.”  (Luke 10:39)

When the Master first visited the home which Mary shared with her sister Martha, He began to teach.  Mary’s heart opened to the divine words and she sat, unaware of her sister’s bustling and angry scowls, soaking up the words of Jesus.  She recognized that His words were life and she was lost in His presence.  Worshiping.  When her sister approached the Master with her frustrated demand, Mary made no excuses.  She didn’t have to.  Jesus longed for listeners.  Even at His transfiguration God sent a voice from heaven and reminded His closest disciples to “listen to Him.”  “Mary has chosen the good part,” He told Martha.  “It will not be taken from her.”

Jesus has promised us His presence, He has given us His word.  Mary’s worship was in her delight of God’s presence and His word.  Spirit and truth.  This is the worship God seeks.  David recognized that God did not seek sacrifices, but contrite hearts.  The apostles proclaimed that Yahweh did not dwell in temples made with human hands—His temple is the body of those who believe.  When the Jewish temple was destroyed and an end was put to sacrifices, the Christians recognized that the final sacrifice had been offered at the cross and an end had been made to formula religion.  God seeks for worshipers who worship not in Jerusalem, or on “this mountain”, but in spirit and truth.  Focused on His word, longing for His presence.

And those who worship the Lord have chosen the good part—which can never be taken away.  No circumstance can separate us from Christ, in whom is demonstrated the love of God.

“When Mary came where Jesus was, she fell at His feet…weeping…”  (John 11:32)

Mary’s beloved brother Lazarus had died.  Jesus had not come as quickly as the sisters might have hoped, and the last enemy had taken its captive.  As the sisters mourned, they must have mourned that Jesus had not been present—to prevent their brother’s death.  What they did not know was that Jesus had delayed.  Even the pain they were experiencing would be redeemed for the glory of God.

As soon as Mary heard that Jesus was asking for her, she rose so abruptly that she caused a stir.  And as soon as she saw Jesus, she flung herself at His feet, unaware of those who looked on.  Only once in the narrative of her interaction with the Lord does she speak.  “Lord,” she said, expressing her grief, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Her worship extended to her grief, pressed through her pain, and inspired her to throw herself at the feet of Almighty God.  She had longed for His presence and now she grieved in it.  It hurts, her actions said.  It hurts, but I worship you.  Her worship moved Jesus.  He had known this was a difficult thing—sometimes the Lord must permit pain, grief and sorrow for His glory.  But it is never a delight to Him to see a child’s pain, and He ached with Mary.  He ached to see the pain and sorrow that sin and death cause and He longed to show her His power over sin and death—a foretaste of the great struggle which He had come to wage.

Sin and death bring pain, but we can be comforted with Mary and Martha by the resurrection on the last day.  And we can be comforted in knowing that Jesus is also grieved by sin and death.  To fall at His feet weeping, expressing our pain and confusion is worship—in spirit and truth.  It hurts, but He is still God.  He will redeem our pain for His glory.

“Mary therefore…anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair…”  (John 12:3)

A year’s wages worth of perfume were poured at the feet of Jesus in an act of extravagant worship.  I’ve heard many speculations on this perfume and how it came into Mary’s possession.  Some have constructed a colorful past for this quiet woman—after all, who would have expensive perfume, but a harlot?  And why would she be a grown woman, still living with her brother and sister?  Others have suggested that Mary’s parents had died, since she and her siblings now formed a family unit of their own.  A common practice of the time was to invest money in spices or perfumes which could be resold later.  This prized perfume, they contend, was Mary’s sole inheritance.  Others suggest Mary was a widow and this was the last vestige of her past marriage which she carried with her when she returned to her childhood home.  Still others suggest it was her dowry, something she had treasured for the day she would be joined to a husband.  As she poured it at the Lord’s feet, she was expressing her love and devotion to Him as Her bridegroom.

Frankly, scripture leaves us entirely in the dark as to Mary’s past and future.  All we know is the immense value of her offering and Jesus’ acceptance of her gift.  Is the Holy Spirit telling us that it’s not important?  Whether this offering embodied her past of sin or her future hopes, her treasured memories or simply her security and stability, it was likely the largest part of her possessions and she poured it over the feet of the Lord.  Some have suggested that Mary’s act of letting down her hair was considered immodest or suggestive.  But as Mary wiped the Lord’s feet, this lowly act of service could hardly have been considered indecent or impure.  Rather, completely oblivious to the opinions of others, she was humbling herself at the feet of her Savior and pouring out her entire being—possessions, self, heart.  She gave herself entirely in response to the gift He had promised her.

I have often wondered, based on the words of Jesus to those who criticized Mary for her extravagant worship, if she truly did understand what His disciples did not.  Certainly, Mary had chosen the good part—listening to Jesus—while some of His disciples had to be reminded to listen.  Had she grasped His insistence that He would suffer and die in Jerusalem?  Did she realize that this was her only opportunity to embalm Him?  To offer her last expressions of love to the One who loved her soul?

When she was criticized again Mary held her breath, like David who said, “I am like a dumb man.  I utter no defense, for the Lord is my defense.”

“Leave her alone,” the Lord rebuked her attacker.  Once again Mary had chosen the good part.  “She did it to anoint my body for burial.”  And it would not be taken from her.

The Lord seeks for true worshipers.  He delights and desires that we pour everything at His feet—our time, our mind, our heart, our sorrow, our confusion, our possessions, our past, our present, our future, our hopes, our dreams, our memories, ourselves.  He wants it all.  And when we give it all, we find we have chosen the good part: our joyful eternity doing exactly what we were created to do—worship God in spirit and truth.  And it will never be taken away.

Read Mary’s Story:  At Jesus’ Feet

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Women of Wisdom: At Jesus’ Feet

February 23, 2010 at 1:00 am (Articles, Attitudes, W.O.W., Worship) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Posted by Abigail

(Taken from Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-46; John 12:1-8)

Once upon a time a quiet, little Jewish girl grew up in the hill country of Bethany, near the Holy City, Jerusalem.  Every Sabbath, as she grew from childhood to womanhood, Mary heard the sacred writings of Moses and the Prophets and listened breathlessly to the promise of a Messiah.  She listened quietly as her sister, Martha, and her brother, Lazarus, debated the time of the Messiah’s coming and speculated on His reign.  The hearts of the Jewish people drooped under the yoke of Rome.  Had Yahweh forsaken them?  Once He had led His people out of slavery in Egypt, yet every Passover the shadow of the Roman governor stretched across the meal of lamb and herbs.  And once He had rescued His people from certain death in Babylon, yet every Purim, the celebration was clouded by the echo of the Latin language in their streets.  His temple stood newly renovated and spectacular on the Holy Hill, yet often on the way to Jerusalem, the outlines of cruel Roman crosses could be seen outside the city proclaiming death to any who disobeyed the iron fist of Rome.  Each time Mary passed a Roman soldier, the symbol of her people’s oppression, she prayed that Yahweh would send the deliverer.  She prayed.  She hoped.  She believed.

Then, one day, she fell in love.

She’d heard the stories.  “He’s a prophet!” many exclaimed as His miracles were recounted.  He’d healed the sick, given sight to the blind, strength to the lame.  He’d fed thousands from a few loaves.  He’d taught with authority that challenged the hypocritical chief priests.  “Could He be–?”  Mary heard hope in the voices that had long sounded dry and weary.  In spite of the militant speculations as to this Prophet’s designs, Mary’s thoughts lingered on the women.  Many of the chief priests and rabbis wouldn’t even speak to their own wives in public, yet this Teacher reached out to heal women who were sick and suffering and even enslaved to evil spirits.  And afterwards He accepted these women’s ministrations as they sought to repay Him for the gift of a second chance.  This man was unlike any of the Rabbis she had seen and unlike any of the Messiahs she had been taught to pray for.

And this Rabbi had just entered her home as a guest.  As soon as Mary’s eyes met His, she was overwhelmed.  Lacking the pomp and circumstance of an important person, He dressed simply with a homespun mantle draped over His shoulders, road-stained with dusty feet.  He was surrounded by eager, clamoring men, yet His eyes held determination and peace.  So many voices making so much racket, yet only One voice seemed to matter.  He had so much to teach, so much to express.  And there was so little time.  How could she ever learn it all?  He was so holy; Mary felt if she could sit in His presence long enough, she would be completely washed clean, inside and out, shining like a pure star in the heavens.

Suddenly a voice at her elbow startled her.  “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone?”  Mary had hardly realized that she had settled onto the floor at Jesus’ feet, her eyes on her folded hands, soaking in every word.  He told such simple stories with such profound meaning.  But of course Martha had been stressed, bustling here and there, her home full of men—important men, if they traveled with the Rabbi.  Jesus looked at Martha and Mary watched His face as her sister continued without giving the Master a chance to answer.  “Tell her to help me.”

Jesus’ answer was gentle, yet firm.  “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one.  Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.”

Though He spoke to her sister, Mary grasped His words about her and clung to them.  She had chosen the good part.  She had chosen Jesus.  He would not be taken away from her.

Even when Jesus left to continue His ministry across the region of Judea, Mary pondered His teachings and clung to His promise that the good part would not be taken from her.  She knew that Jesus was not like other men, nor even like other Rabbis.  She knew that He loved her—yet not in the way of a home and children.  She knew that He didn’t belong to her, and yet, in a small way, He did.  And she had given herself completely to Him.  As He traveled the region, she listened breathlessly to the accounts that trickled back of His miracles, His growing popularity and His increasing clashes with the Pharisees and Sadducees.  “He is the Messiah,” people declared.  Then came the shocking news:  Jesus had declared His oneness with God.  “Blasphemy!” cried the Jews and tried to stone Him, but He eluded their grasp and left that region.

Mary’s heart was troubled.  Didn’t they listen to Him?  Didn’t they understand His words?  Didn’t they realize that Jesus’ words were life?  What He spoke must be truth.

But her troubled thoughts were interrupted by a greater trouble.  Her brother, Lazarus, fell deathly ill.  “What shall we do?” the sisters whispered to each other as they gazed at their feeble and delirious brother.  Jesus had healed countless strangers, would He come and heal their beloved brother?  “God gives Him whatever He asks,” Martha asserted, in faith.  A faithful friend, another disciple of Jesus, was dispatched immediately to carry the word to Jesus:  “Lord, behold, he whom You love is sick.”  Careful not to demand His presence, the sisters wondered if it would be safe for Him to come.

Then came the waiting.  The praying.  The hoping.  The believing that Jesus would do what was right.  What passed through Mary’s mind as she watched her brother’s suffering, unable to offer more than love, wondering why the Lord delayed?  Was it because Judea had rejected Him?  Could it be unsafe for the Master to come to Bethany, since He had just escaped a stoning?  Did Mary struggle against feelings of abandonment?  Jesus had promised that the good part would never be taken from her, yet He delayed coming when she needed Him most.  And even as Jesus delayed, Lazarus weakened, faded and passed on.

Jesus had healed others.  Many others.  “If He had been here, our brother would not have died,” Martha whispered, clasping Mary in her arms their brother was laid in a tomb and a stone rolled to cover the doorway.  Mary nodded as her sister offered the comfort of those who hoped in Yahweh: “He will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”  Then they went home.

The next several days passed as a blur, friends and fellow mourners coming and going, whispering, offering consolations.  Mary thought only of Jesus.  Why hadn’t He come?  She didn’t understand.  She knew Jesus loved her.  She knew Jesus loved Lazarus.  “If only He had been here,” she mulled it over and over in her head.  “If only He had been here, my brother would not have died.”  Once He had defended her and said she had chosen the good part—the place at His feet.  She wanted to be there, now.  Life seemed so clear and simple when she sat at His feet.

“Mary,” her sister was at her elbow, shielding her face with her shawl to give them some privacy.  “Mary, the Teacher is here and is calling for you.”

All her thoughts, her questions, her tears fled as she heard the words.  Quickly she bounded to her feet and was out the door, following her sister’s directions to find Jesus.  Mary didn’t notice the Jews following her, supposing that she went to the tomb to weep.  Why would she go to the tomb to weep?  A cold stone could not hear her cry; a sepulcher was not the good part.

Then she saw Him.  He was standing just where Martha had left Him, His eyes fixed on her, seeing her before she came.  A choke filled her throat and the tears welled up, blinding her eyes as she stumbled and sank down at the Master’s feet.  “Lord,” she wept, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

She could sense the grief in Jesus’ tone as He turned from her and asked, “Where have you laid him?”  Several voices answered, “Lord, come and see.”

Then Jesus wept.

Whispers.  “Behold how He loved him.”

Other whispers.  “Could not this man who opened the eyes of the blind have kept this man from dying?”

Of course He could have.  If He had been there–

Mary’s tears flowed freely, unchecked, washing the pain, the agony, the questions, the confusion down into the abyss of things long passed.  Jesus was weeping with her.  He loved her.  He was aching for her.  She looked up into His face and saw there that same peace, that same determination.  He had more to teach her.  She stood and followed Him to the tomb.

The stone lay firmly against the mouth of the tomb, but Jesus raised His arm and said, “Remove the stone.”

“Lord,” Martha’s voice was quiet, concerned, anxious, “by this time there will be a stench for he has been dead four days.”

Jesus turned and looked her directly in the face, His voice gentle but firm.  “Did I not say to you, if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

Mary’s heart was hammering in her chest.  What was Jesus about to do?  The glory of God?  What had He told Martha?  Mary’s mind raced over all the miracles of Jesus, her heart filling with a trembling hope.  Hadn’t Martha said, “God gives Him whatever He asks for”?

As the stone was rolled away, Mary watched Jesus raise His eyes to heaven.  He took a deep breath and called out, “Father, I that You that You that You hear Me!  And I know that You hear Me always, but because of the people standing around I said it, that they may believe that You sent Me.”

Mary’s hands trembled as her mind echoed, “I do believe!”

Then Jesus’ voice rang out against the stones, “Lazarus, come forth!”

And there he was, bound hand and foot with the linen wrappings, but walking slowly from the entrance of the tomb.  Alive.

“Unbind him,” Jesus commanded.  “And let him go.”

The event caused quite a stir.  Friends and neighbors wanted to know what had happened, and the word spread quickly, and lingered long after Jesus had left for the wilderness, once more avoiding the Jews.  Mary replayed the days, moment by moment, searching them out, trying to understand, thanking Yahweh for her brother.  And she pondered the words Martha had related to her.  “He told me, ‘I am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in Me shall live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die.  Do you believe?”  Martha had expressed the cry of her own heart, “Yes, Lord, I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.”

This Christ was so different from what they had all expected.  The Jews had been hoping for a conquering king, but the Christ Mary knew was a servant, a Teacher who wept and a Great Physician.  He had conquered blindness, lameness, deafness—and now death.  And He had conquered her heart.

It was almost Passover when the Lord returned to Bethany.  Again Martha was serving, busy and bustling, but without complaint.  Lazarus sat with Jesus, gladly acting the part of host.  Mary had been carefully watching the Lord’s face—it still held the peace and determination, but also seemed marked by a quiet sadness in spite the noise and excitement.  Some of His words held a strange sense of expectation, though He said little. In the folds of her shawl, Mary held her prized possession—a pound of pure nard, a perfume worth a year’s wages—waiting for her opportunity.  Finally she approached and knelt again by those beloved feet.  She didn’t notice the silence that settled or the surprised eyes fixed on her as she began to pour the perfume over Jesus’ feet, rubbing away the road-dust with her hair.  This was not just the good part, this was the best part.  Being at Jesus’ feet, pouring herself at His feet, worshiping.

“Why was this perfume not sold and the money given to the poor?” the scornful voice broke through Mary’s consciousness.

Condemned, again, she knelt, waiting Christ’s reply.

“Leave her alone, in order that she may keep the custom of anointing for the day of My burial.  For the poor you have with you always, but you do not always have Me.”

As the fragrance of the nard wafted around her, Mary’s heart grew heavy.  She would not always have Jesus?  He would be buried?  Hadn’t He promised that the good part would not be taken from her?  He was the good part.  The best part.  The only part.

Around her, the conversation continued, Judas sullen after his rebuke.  Jesus eyes lingered on Mary’s face, a tender sadness in them.  Anointed for His burial.  Jesus would die.

But deep inside, a tiny flame of hope flickered.  Lazarus had died, too.

The next several days were laced with the greatest pathos the world has ever seen as the Lamb of God was led to slaughter.  God turned His back on His own Son, leaving the Son to weep alone, sweating blood in His agony.  Women clustered around the foot of the cross, watching this innocent man-God bear their sin and God the Father’s wrath.  Was Mary with them, at the foot of Christ’s cross?  Then it was finished.  But the end was the beginning.  On the first day of the week, the women hurried to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus, but they were too late.  Was Mary with them that early morning?  She had already anointed the Lord.  When Jesus had raised Lazarus, He had said, “Father, I know that You hear Me.”  When Christ hung on the cross, pleading for the sins of the world, He was heard.  He knew He was heard, but for the sake of those on earth, God proved it in the same way He had with Lazarus.  When the women came to the tomb, the stone had been rolled away and Jesus had come forth, alive.

Whether or not Mary was present at the death and resurrection of Jesus, she certainly must have heard and understood the power of this conquering King.  He had not only triumphed over death—but also over that which caused death, over sin.  And in His promise that those who believe in Him should live eternally, she heard her happily ever after.  The good part would not be taken from her.  At the resurrection at the last day, she would be raised, to live forever, sitting at the feet of Jesus, worshiping.

Lessons from Wisdom:  The Art of Worship

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