Well, here we are in 2003! Can you believe it? Actually, yes, because time has an inexorable way of confronting us with reality, no matter how hard we sometimes try to deny it. Think about it: “Y2K” is a distant memory (unless one is still eating up leftover survival cheese), there is now blue Pepsi®, Calvin & Hobbes are gone, Michael Jordan is about to retire, and my “hang time” is a negative number (for those of you “asking your husbands at home,” that is a basketball term, and what I said means that I now get lower when I try to jump).
Those cold, hard facts should serve as a wake-up call—as the world turns, the days of our lives are passing by, and though we may not be young, we should be restless. Why? Because life is not like a soap opera, which never seems to come to an end. Even if we avoid Nutrasweet® and hang in here until the Appearing of the Lord, there is coming a moment that is our last in this life. And hey, there is still a lot more that I want to do for The Man who died so that I can live forever. How about you? Well, then—tick, tock, tick tock—let’s go for it.
I love the account in Mark 14:3ff when, on what was the Sunday evening prior to his Wednesday crucifixion, Jesus was at dinner in Bethany, and a woman, who is never named, broke a jar of expensive cologne and poured it on his head. Some naysayers who were present became indignant about this “waste” and berated the woman, but Jesus silenced them by saying that what she had done was “a beautiful thing,” that she had prepared his body for his burial, and that wherever the Gospel would be preached, her story would be told.
Amidst the words he spoke to them was a short sentence loaded with meaning for you and me today: “She did what she could….” Those words make me pause and think about my life. It is true that sometimes I desire to do more than I am able to do, but I’m afraid that, at least as often, I am able to do more than I actually do, or even want to do. And what is really piercing is that this is almost always involving another human being, who receives less than he should whenever I give less than I can.
Obviously, a big key to maximizing my spiritual potential is to fully comprehend who I am in Christ, and the resources I have with which to reach for another. But—NOW HEAR THIS—in order to recognize my need for and the depth of what I have in Christ, I absolutely must also comprehend the reality of the “…sin that dwells within me.” Huh? Yeppir, because only to the degree that I come face to face with its totally gruesome depravity will I expend the necessary life-and-death effort to reach for and hold on to the Savior from sin.
Just before Christmas, my daughter, Christine, shared at a fellowship and read from a book titled Watch For The Light, which is a series of essays by different Christian writers concerning the topic on the Church calendar known as “Advent,” that is, the season leading up to and including the birth of Christ. The essay by Brennan Manning, from whose excellent book, Abba’s Child, I have quoted before, is titled, “Shipwrecked at the Stable.” Manning’s chief metaphor is that of a shipwrecked person swimming around until finally finding the manger and the baby Jesus as that which to cling to. He quotes from the Spanish author Jose Ortega:
The man with the clear head is the man who frees himself from fantasy and looks life in the face, realizes that everything is problematic, and feels himself lost. And this is the simple truth—that to live is to feel oneself lost. Whoever accepts this has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order to the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce. He who does not really feel himself lost is without remission; that is to say, he never finds himself, never comes up against his own reality [Italics his].
WOW! That’s a mouthful—and a mindful! What is “fantasy”? One dictionary definition I found was: “delusion.” As I looked at that word through my SAT prep lenses, it dawned on me (get it?) that it basically means “without light.” Thus, one who lives in fantasy is “in the dark” about the way things really are. Fantasy is prolonged by practiced denial (often reinforced by self-gathered enablers), so practiced that it denies itself! I want to eliminate all “fantasy” in my life and “come up against my own reality,” no matter how terrifying it is. How about you?
In what aspect of my life might I most need to replace fantasy with reality? You guessed it—relationships! How might I do so? By a relentless, all out, “take-no-prisoners” assault on the sin that is embedded within my being and which manifests itself in my thought patterns and how I show up in relation to others. Deliverance from “delusion” requires me to introduce as much light as I can into my heart, and to bring into the light any destructive secrets I find there. Okay, how do I know which secrets are in that category? How about those I am afraid for others to know about me? I think that’s a good criterion, but if you want to use it, let me warn you that something within you will fight to the death to keep those things hidden, as the following verses make clear:
(19) This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
(20) Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.
(21) But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.”
If you are familiar with addicts and addictive behavior, you may know what an “intervention” is. This is when one or more people who love the addict sort of gang up on him and try to hammer into his head the reality that he has been denying. Who better to model our relational behavior after than God Himself, huh? And I believe that He set the pattern for such radical action. Sure—by the birth of Jesus! Good old John 3:16 describes what is by far the greatest and most drastic “intervention” ever. As humanity plodded along in its circular rut, God jumped out in front of us and screamed: “WAKE UP, YOU’RE LOST, AND JESUS IS THE ONLY WAY TO SAFETY!!!” How did it work? Well, the coming of Christ into the world produced the polarization among mankind described in John 3:19–21. Some folks are running away from him, and some are running to him.
His birth into my heart, and yours, now produces moment-by-moment a similar polarization between light and darkness. I constantly see it in myself. There are way too many times when I run from the light and cover up, or posture myself to look good, feel good, be right, or be in control—and those are just the times I recognize! What about the stuff I don’t recognize? And worse, what about the stuff I don’t recognize that I don’t recognize?! I need people in my life who know the Lord, know me, and love me enough to tell me when I am not being like him. Who does that for you?
Dang! This stuff is complicated, and tedious to ferret out and deal with. Yeah, that’s the nature of sin, but there is a biblically prescribed mindset with which to approach this formidable foe. For basic Bible teaching that is very pertinent to our theme here, I recommend an audio teaching from September, 2002, titled “Battle of the Minds.” While teaching Romans 7:14–25, I tried to express the truth therein that you can delineate between what I call “the Real You” (that part of your conscience educated by the Word) and the horrific sin that dwells in you. When you accept the abounding sin for what it is and let it drive you to Christ’s superabounding grace, you will still have the sin nature, but it won’t have you! Even though I am saved, I am still “shipwrecked,” in that every day I need the Lord Jesus to save me from the sin nature that tries to drown me.
About the “shipwrecked,” Manning writes:
The shipwrecked at the stable are the poor in spirit who feel lost in the cosmos, adrift on an open sea, clinging with a life-and-death desperation to the one solitary plank. Finally they are washed ashore and make their way to the stable, stripped of the old spirit of possessiveness in regard to anything…At the stable, in a blinding moment of truth, they make the stunning discovery that Jesus is the plank of salvation…Their exposure to spiritual, emotional, and physical deprivation has weaned them from themselves and made them re-examine all they once thought important. The shipwrecked come to the stable…wanting not peace or a religious high, but Jesus Christ…When we accept the truth about ourselves—shipwrecked and saved—our lives are henceforth anchored in the Rock who is Christ, not in the shifting sands of our fickle feelings…The shipwrecked stand on firm ground. They live in truth and are rooted in reality…Kneeling at the crib, they find the vanity of the world ridiculous, bloated, preposterous…
Hey, that same “vanity” is alive and unwell within me, and therefore I need to live my life “kneeling at the crib,” as it were, enraptured by the Savior, clinging to him as my only hope in every situation—and I’m a long way from it. But such humility is the only way to stay “rooted in reality” and keep the world’s deceit in the proper perspective so that I “count it all dung” and choose Christ moment by moment. I dare not underestimate my internal enemy, whose deceit will ensnare me the moment I take my eyes off my Lord.
Manning waxes eloquent about how the advent of the Son of God was “not with the crushing impact of unbearable glory, but in the way of weakness, vulnerability, and need.” I winced when I read: “We all know how difficult it is to receive anything from someone who has all the answers, who is completely cool, utterly unafraid, needing nothing, and in control of every situation.” That is how I once thought a good minister of the Gospel should be, and my projection of that image too often isolated me from the very people I wanted to help. Now I realize that, at the bottom line, I am just as needy and vulnerable as every other human being (same sin nature, you know), and the way to help someone is to admit that to myself and to them, and model a humble reliance on the Lord Jesus Christ.
In conclusion, let’s think back to the unnamed woman who “anointed” Jesus with perfume. I have heard it taught that the alabaster jar holding the perfume was sealed such that the only way it could be opened was to break it. Only when it was broken could the precious contents benefit someone. I assert that the same thing holds true for each Christian. Only when we are “broken” by the realization of our sinfulness can we truly connect with the Lord’s provision and share it with others. Only when we live in the awareness of our own weakness and hold to his strength will we exude his sweet-smelling savor.
The woman poured the perfume on Jesus about 24 hours before he was taken from Gethsemane on Monday night and then brutally tortured until Wednesday morning, when he was led out to Golgotha. Perhaps she may have been afraid to so boldly proclaim her love for Jesus in front of many people she did not know, or in front of the Pharisees whose evil ways she did know, but she “stepped up” anyway and gave all she had. She did what she could.
Certainly she had no idea that she would become one of the most famous, though anonymous, women in history, nor that countless millions of travelers would read about her in motel rooms around the USA. Nor, I think, did she realize what her act of pure, unabashed love would do for Jesus. Think about how powerful and pervading was the fabulously fragrant aroma of that ointment, which soaked into his hair and scalp and ran down his neck and face. Think also about how powerful the sense of smell is in eliciting memories and emotions.
In light of Jesus’ statement that what she did prepared him for his burial, I think it is very possible that while he knelt alone in Gethsemane the next night, and as he finished his prayer and heard the mob approaching, and as he endured about 36 hours of torture that left him beaten to a pulp, and while he was led through a taunting crowd along the streets of Jerusalem, and as he struggled up to Golgotha, and as the soldiers nailed him to the tree, and during the six agonizing hours until he died—the sweet smell of that perfume continually wafted into his nostrils as a vivid reminder that he was loved by his Father and by those who saw him for who he was, and that his suffering would result in great glory for God and all who believed on him. And so, Jesus did what he could.
What about me—what can I do? What can you do? God clearly defines our capacity in His wonderful Word, and therein gives us a good reputation to live up to, as it were. Our Lord Jesus has walked before us as a shining example of what is available to us through faith, and he walks beside each of us along our personal path of growth to help us become more and more like him.
Although you and I may seem to be anonymous in terms of how many people in the world know about our acts of love toward the Lord, there is coming a day when all will know what it meant to him. Whatever we do unto one of the least of mankind, we do unto him. In this new year, let us each take his hand and trust him to lead us to the edge, onto the edge, and beyond the edge of our present faith into the promised land of greater intimacy with him. Let us strive to desire and embrace the brokenness he requires of us so that the sweet-smelling savor of his life within us is released to the world, one by one.