Sunday, July 8, 2018

Is Extravagant Worship Simply Wasteful?

Many years ago I saw a documentary about volcanoes. There were plenty of shots of glowing lava moving moltenly and inexorably down the face of the mountain. But the image that has stayed with me was of a very wealthy businessman (I know he was very wealthy because that’s what the narrator said) hurling his super-expensive wrist watch into the lava. The watch thrower, the narrator further explained, did it as an act of worship to honor the god of the volcano.

(By the way, remember the “Deep Thoughts” of Jack Handey from early SNL: If you ever drop your keys into a river of molten lava, let 'em go, because man, they're gone. So don’t have second thoughts about your Rolex.)

 Anyhow, I’ve never forgotten that man and the extravagance of his devotion to an idol.

I guess that’s the word - extravagance. One online dictionary defines extravagance as an instance of excess or prodigality; specifically: an excessive outlay of money. Extravagance seems to be a flowery way of saying what you did was excessive, too much, way more than necessary.

But I’ve also been thinking about an act of worship in the Gospels that we sometimes describe as extravagant. Remember how Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, “took a pound of expensive ointment made from pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped his feet with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume” (John 12:3).

That’s a lot of nard. Nard is extracted from the underground stems of a flowering plant that grows in the Himalayas. The essential oil from those stems was used as a perfume or an ointment. It was extremely costly. Judas, traitor and thief, knew about the price of such things, and groused that the ointment could have been sold for 300 denarii - about a year’s wages (see John 12:5).

So was Mary’s extravagant act of devotion a little, well, wasteful?

But you can’t really judge extravagance by the relative cost of the gift. Who’s to say that an outlay of a million dollars is extravagant? If the million dollars purchases medicine for hundreds of children, that’s hardly wasteful/extravagant. But if the million dollars is given to produce a pornographic film, we should conclude the gift was not only wasteful but evil. The extravagance of a gift can only be defined by the object or purpose for which it is given.

Throwing a Rolex into the lava is wasteful and foolish, not because of the value of the watch, but because there is no real volcano god. Tossing the watch into the lava was an idolatrous act - like that of the Israelites when they melted their gold and forged a golden calf (see Exodus 32).

So back to Mary and the ointment. Jesus is worthy of all praise. One day all of heaven will thunder in worship: "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!" (Revelation 5:12) Spurgeon says of Mary’s gift, “It was very costly, but it had not cost a penny too much now that it could be used upon him. There was a pound of it, but there was none too much for him. It was very sweet, but none too sweet for him.”

The only person who thought Mary’s gesture was wasteful was Judas. And the one who approved of it was Christ Himself (see John 12:7, 8).

Jesus deserves and demands extravagant worship. He said we ought to pour out our entire lives to follow Him. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:23-25).

Paul counseled us to give ourselves to the Lord as a “living sacrifice.” He said such extravagance is holy and acceptable to God (see Romans 12:1-2).

Devoting everything to worship and serve Jesus will never come close to the extravagant sacrifice He made for us, where He spilled out His blood - not because we were worthy but because He is.