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When God goes to church

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: John 12:2-8

Pride and humility have been much in the news lately.

We’re all aware of Enron’s fall from 7th largest corporation in America to bankruptcy. You may remember Olga Korbut, the three-time gold medalist in the 1972 Olympics, recently arrested for shoplifting $19. Actress Winona Ryder’s arrest for shoplifting is still in legal process. And basketball giant Shaquille O’Neal has been sidelined for much of the NBA season by an arthritic toe.

But our hubris goes on. This week’s Fortune magazine tells us that for $200,000 you can buy your own biographical documentary. You’ll get two cameramen, three producers, and two-time Emmy winner Bill McGowan. He’ll write the script for your biography, conduct interviews over ten to 15 days, select sound bites, and edit the finished product.

But when you receive your documentary, don’t be too impressed. You’ll have spent one-fifth of what each cast member in the TV show Friends now makes. Per week.

Pride and humility have been issues long before Kenneth Lay took the fifth. On Tuesday of Holy Week, God went to church. On this day, in the Temple, Jesus confronted religious pride and commended spiritual humility. He taught us that God accepts and loves us, no matter who we are or what we’ve done. You’re worthy to know God personally and intimately—unless you think you are. Let’s explore that fact and its relevance for your life.

Refuse religious pride

It’s now Tuesday morning of Holy Week, and Jesus and his disciples return to the Temple he cleansed the day before. This is politically and even physically unsafe. His enemies have had the night to get ready for him. They fear that the crowds will crown him their king, a rival to Caesar, and that Rome will have their heads. They must stop him. Jesus is walking into a trap, and he knows it.

His enemies confront our Lord in four orchestrated groups. Here are their attacks, as briefly as I can describe them.

First comes the legal challenge of the Sanhedrin, the Supreme Court of ancient Israel. They question Jesus’ legal authority to drive out the moneychangers and do his ministry. He asks them by what authority John the Baptist did his ministry. They’re afraid of John’s continuing popularity and won’t answer. So Jesus doesn’t have to answer, and they are defeated.

Next comes a political challenge: should we pay taxes to Caesar or not? If Jesus says yes, the crowds will desert him; if he says no, Rome will arrest him. He holds up a coin and makes the famous declaration, “Render to Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and to God the things which are God’s.” Luke 20:26 says, “Astonished by his answer, they became silent.”

The third attack is theological. It comes from the Sadducees, who deny the resurrection. They ask Jesus about a wife with seven husbands—whose wife will she be in the afterlife? Jesus quotes Exodus 3:6 to prove the reality of the resurrection, and they are defeated.

Last comes a scholar with a biblical challenge: “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” His fellow Pharisees recognized 613 such laws; any Jesus omits he can be accused of rejecting. Our Lord responds with the two great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor. Even the scholar is impressed: “Well said, teacher” (Mark 12:32). With this result: “From then on no one dared ask him any more questions” (Mark 12:34).

Here’s the point Tuesday morning proves: religious pride rejects Jesus, and is rejected by him. If we want to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, we must refuse such spiritual, religious pride. We are worthy to give God our worship and lives, unless we think we are.

How do we refuse religious pride? We admit our need for God.

Religion tempts us to believe that we merit God’s love and help. After all, we believe in Jesus and go to church. We try to live good lives and obey the Bible. Of course God will hear our prayers and receive our worship.

But God’s word says that all of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and the just payment for our sin is death (Romans 6:23). Jesus promised us, “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).

We have no status before God except his Son’s death for our sins. The Bible is clear: “By grace are you saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). So we come to God in humility, in gratitude for his grace and love for us, loving him because he first loved us. And when we do that every day, we find his arms open to us all.

One of the most moving experiences of Holy Land travels for me is always visiting the Church of the Nativity. Built over the cave where Jesus was born, it is probably the oldest church building in Christendom. In the twelfth century, riders on horseback often broke into the church and pillaged its possessions. So the members made the door into the church so small that those who enter must do so on their knees. It is called the Door of Humiliation.

Anyone can come to the birthplace of Christ to worship him. Anyone. But only on our knees.

Give your best gifts

Now the scene shifts to two more dramatic events. One at the Temple, the other at a home in Bethany.

Our Lord, exhausted by his confrontation with the religious authorities, sits down in the Temple by the treasury where worshipers bring their offerings. Here he watches the rich giving their large gifts. What comes next is one of the most famous scenes in Scripture.

Mark 12:42 says, “a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny.” These were the “lepta,” the smallest coins then in circulation. Two pennies to us. But not to our Lord.

This is his comment: “I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on” (vs. 43-44). Because it is her best, given in humble worship, the God of the universe receives her pennies with delight.

That night Jesus and his disciples return to Bethany. Here they are guests at a dinner.

After the meal, our text tells us that “Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair” (v. 3). “Pint” here was a Roman pound, 12 ounces to us. The “nard” she used was a very fragrant oil imported from the mountains of northern India.

It was extremely expensive; in fact Judas complains, “It was worth a year’s wages” (v. 5). Imagine spending a year of your salary on a jar of perfume. Most likely this had been handed down to Mary as an heirloom from previous generations. It was undoubtedly the most costly and precious possession she owned.

Matthew and Mark tell us that Mary poured the perfume on Jesus’ head; John adds that she also anointed his feet.

Then she let down her hair, something a proper woman never did in public, and used her hair to dry his feet. This is the most extravagant expression of love for Jesus to be found in all the word of God. Like the widow, this is her best.

On Tuesday of Holy Week, our Lord received the smallest gift ever recorded in the gospels, and the most expensive. He welcomed each with delight, for they were their best, given in humble love.

Now he has come to our church, to see what we will give to him. He is worthy of our best gifts, our highest sacrifice, our most passionate worship, our most devoted service. He died for our sins, purchased our eternal life in heaven, and loves each of us without condition. He waits to see if we love him in the same way.

All he wants is your best, whatever it is. Widow’s mite or pure nard—both are welcome. So long as they are your best worship. So long as they come from a grateful heart.

Conclusion

So God went to church on Tuesday, and found every one of us there. Some of us are tempted to join the religious leaders. Sure of our biblical knowledge, secure in our spiritual attainments and status, we think we deserve to be in the Temple today. We think we have earned the right to have our prayers heard and our worship received.

But we haven’t. We can’t. Watch the religious leaders. Learn that we must come to God in humility and gratitude for his forgiving grace, or we cannot come to him at all.

Conversely, some of us are the widow with her mite. We don’t think we have much to give, or that we really deserve to know God or be used by him.

We know our sins and failures, so we know that God knows them. We wonder if he could ever really accept us again, if he likes us at all.

When bad things happen to us, we wonder if God is punishing us. When he seems distant, we wonder if he has turned his back on us. We think we’ll live on God’s Plan B for the rest of our lives, never achieving all we could have been, never fully significant in his will and purpose.

So watch the widow bring her mite to Jesus. Hear his words of delighted commendation. Bring your best to God, whatever it is. And know that he welcomes your gifts, your service, your worship and love, with joy.

And some are Mary with her ointment. God has blessed you wonderfully with spiritual gifts, abilities, finances, opportunities for service. We have all been given spiritual gifts for ministry, as today’s Bible study makes clear. Have you given your best to your Lord, or kept something in reserve? Is your life “broken and spilled out” for him?

We are all worthy of our Lord, except those who believe that we are.

The three greatest preachers of the last three generations are probably Charles Spurgeon, Dwight Moody, and Billy Graham. What do they have in common?

Here is what Spurgeon said of himself, recorded in the preface to his collected sermons: “Recollect who I am, and what I am—a child, having little education, little learning, ability, or …Without the Spirit of God I feel I am utterly unable to speak to you. I have not those gifts and talents which qualify me to speak; I need an afflatus from on high; otherwise, I stand like other men, and have naught to say. May that be given me, for without it I am dumb!” And God used him to preach to 10 million across his ministry.

D. L. Moody was the son of an alcoholic who died when Moody was four years old. He completed seven grades of school. He said of himself: “I know that other men can preach better than I can. All I can say is that when I preach, God uses me.” And he did—more than a million came to Christ through him.

Here is what Billy Graham says of himself: “I have often said that the first thing I am going to do when I get to Heaven is to ask, ‘Why me, Lord? Why did You choose a farm boy from North Carolina to preach to so many people, to have such a wonderful team of associates, and to have a part in what You were doing in the latter half of the twentieth century?’ I have thought about that question a great deal, but I know also that only God knows the answer.” And he has preached to more people than anyone in Christian history.

Why did God use them so? Because they gave their best in humility. Who will be next?