(Ash Wednesday) Audacious Devotion
February 14, 2018 Pastor: Matt Wilcox
Topic: Devotion to God Scripture: Matthew 26:6–26:13
Audacious isn’t exactly a word we use very often. Maybe we see it in a novel, or hear it mentioned every now and then. For me, I only need to think back to my days as a youth worker if I want an example of audacious. Teenagers have this rare gift that is often misunderstood. They say what they think. Now, I get it, it can be annoying. I immersed myself in the stories of dozens of teenagers when I was a Youth Director so I found myself on the awkward end of those interactions. I remember one Sunday night - we were doing a message on the story of Nicodemus and Jesus. It was one of those messages where I was thinking in the back of my head that I was knocking this thing out of the park and that my kids were really clicking with the message and all that. I’m wrapping up the message and getting ready to send my students off into their small group breakouts when one kid puts his hand up. It was abrupt and awkward but everyone saw him there with his hand in the air so I asked him what was up. He said, “Do you know how sweaty your shirt is? It’s like really gross.”Ya see, before the message that night we’d spent about 45 minutes playing Ultimate Frisbee outside and I love Ultimate Frisbee so I played pretty hard. And, yeah, I got sweaty. But I had spent the last few minutes thinking I was leading these kids to a spiritual awakening and what I got was that. A comment about my sweaty shirt. Teenagers say what’s on their minds. In this case, it was rude, shameless, disrespectful, awkward…and kind of funny.
We’re all thrown off when someone does something unexpected, and that upsets our version of normal, especially when we perceive that action as shameful or audacious. We might even say something in response. Tonight, we’re looking at just such an instance. It’s a brief moment in the story of Jesus’ life, but one where He Himself offers us an important lesson. We’re in Matthew 26:6-13.
We come into our text to what feels like a fairly tense moment. In terms of timeline, this event actually occurs only a few days before the Last Supper and Christ’s betrayal. So even if the disciples are unaware of just how heavy the air is, Jesus knows. Jesus and his followers are in Bethany visiting the home of Simon. While there, we read that a woman came up to Jesus and poured a jar of very expensive perfume on his head. Have you ever been walking through a department store at the mall when a salesperson sprayed you with perfume without you asking? Well, this is the closest biblical equivalent - similar to that.
In the mall, we might get angry at the audaciousness of someone spraying us with uninvited aromatics. In our Scripture, it is those around Jesus who get upset, not him. The disciples see what this woman does and they are indignant over this audacious act. And, actually, upon first impression, it seems like they might have a point. They say it is a waste of this expensive perfume to be used in such a way. That it could have sold and the money could have been given to the poor. And this isn’t just some bottle of Calvin Klein cologne. This alabaster jar of perfume would have cost upwards of a year’s wages for some folks. The disciples were not silly in becoming upset when they saw it being poured out.
Jesus responds with what could possibly be the least-Jesus-y response we find in the Gospels. Normally, we associate Jesus as the one who loves the poor and helps the needy and serves others. So really it shouldn’t surprise us how the disciples responded. Many of us would probably assume that Jesus would jump up and scold this woman and say the same thing. But he doesn’t. Jesus, instead, says that she has done a beautiful thing. And he continues with some striking and what-feels-like uncommon responses. He says that they will always have the poor among them but that they will not always have him. He says that this woman prepared his body for burial and then bestows onto her action one of the most significant and meaningful of exaltations. He says that where the gospel is preached in the world that her actions will be spoken of.We are beginning the season of Lent. This is a time for us as the people of God to take a collection of days and inwardly reflect on our faith in and our devotion toward Christ. Often times we will enlist the discipline of giving something up as a way for us to create a daily reminder of the sacrifice Christ made for us. Likewise, we might add something. But giving something up or doing a new practice is never the point of Lent. It’s merely an exercise we practice in observance of Lent. Lent is about our devotion to God. It is about the state of our heart and the vibrancy of our faith. And this woman sets the bar for us in her audacious devotion.
We aren’t told what this woman has heard about Jesus or what she has witnessed in His ministry but there is something so compelling about the person of Christ to her that she chooses to do what she did. To take an incredibly valuable resource and expend it in what appears to be an overwhelmingly audacious display.
To be fair, there isn’t really a “bad guy” in this story. You can’t get mad at the disciples for wanting to give money to the poor. Their heart is in the right place, so to speak. When they see the actions of this woman, they see waste. But Jesus sees devotion. Audacious devotion. We usually define the word audacious in a negative manner. But it does have a positive definition as well. As a willingness to take surprisingly bold risks. To be bold, daring, courageous, and valiant. We already know from Christ’s reaction that this woman’s act of devotion was not something negative. And I would go as far to say that it was a surprisingly bold risk.
You see, this woman recognized the great while the disciples were fixated on the good. Jim Collins said that the enemy of great is good. And we see that here. Advocating for the poor and for charity is not a bad thing. It is a good thing, a very good thing. But in this instance, it is not the great thing. The act of great here is the reckless display of devotion. It is the identifying of just how truly valuable and precious Jesus is and being willing to do anything, to sacrifice anything, to celebrate Him. It is this prioritization of the great over the good that Jesus describes as a moment to be remembered through the ages. And I would say it is also the posture we are called to begin fostering in the Lenten season and beyond.
I would venture to guess that many of us are giving a lot of time to the good and thus not as much to the great. And before I go any further, I want to be clear here. We are talking about good things here. Good. Not “I’m saying the word good but I really mean bad.” Good things. Things God cares about. Even things God calls us to do and to care about. It can really be many things. Career and vocation, hobbies, how we are perceived, friendships, family, even the church itself.
We can work so hard in our careers and have all the right reasons why. To provide for our families, to settle debts, to build a future. Pursuing all of those things is a good thing. But when the good replaces the great, we end up seeing situations where our hours at the office have completely replaced the moments we used to spend reading God’s Word. Our time away on business replaces the time we spend with our family of faith. We spend more time on conference calls than we do talking with God in prayer.
And we can do this with any good thing in our lives. And remember, my point here isn’t to make you or I feel guilty for good things. I’m not talking about binge drinking, seedy poker tables, or criminal acts. No, I’m talking about the good things in our life that make it to the top of our list of things to be thankful for. I’m talking about the equivalent of the disciples’ desire to give charity to the poor. Sometimes those things, those precious things, can keep us from truly audacious devotion.
So here’s my challenge tonight as we embark into the season of Lent: What is the state of your devotion to God? What does it look like? What does it cost you? And, perhaps more importantly, what good things in your life are preventing you from a more reckless, passionate faith in Jesus? Because here’s the thing: It isn’t about getting rid of those things. Jesus never told the disciples to not care for the poor period. Instead, he said that they would always have the poor but they would not always have him. God willing, you will still have the good things in your life. Your family, your friends, your work, your hobbies. But what if you took a little time this Lent and put into practice allotting more time for specific devotion to God?
I actually think it could have a big impact. Imagine what kind of questions or conversation you could spark with your kids if they found you in your bedroom one night and asked you why you’re up there by yourself and you told that you were taking some time to read Scripture or do a daily devotional. It’s not about discarding the good, it’s about elevating the great. When we do that, it will likely come across as audacious to some. It should.
When I was in high school, I told the places I worked that I couldn’t come in on Sundays because of church and youth group. Every single one of them grumbled about it but I held firm. It seemed audacious to them that a high school kid would try and dictate their schedule. But even at that age, I knew how costly it would be to sacrifice the great for the good. And that’s what I challenge you to think about. Where in your life can you begin having and practicing an audacious faith? This Lent, as we look toward the cross and the truly remarkable and ridiculous work of our Savior, I pray that we would be inspired to move beyond our devotion to God being good and that it might truly start to become an audacious devotion.