Several years ago a couple met with me to plan their wedding in our sanctuary. After the rehearsal I checked with them to see if they had any questions before their big day. The groom voiced a few normal concerns and I told him what I often tell couples: With all the details that go into planning a wedding, it is likely that something won’t go off in exactly the way you planned. That unexpected detail becomes part of your wedding story. Rather than worry I invite you to do what you can for your wedding day. Choose joy.
With those words of advice, the couple headed off for a rehearsal dinner and an effort at sleep on the eve of their wedding.
On Saturday I awakened to the aftermath of a storm. The groom called me about 9AM to ask if we had power in downtown Rockford. I assured him that the downtown area is always prioritized if there is an outage. I hastily drove to the church to check things out and was surprised to discover that we didn’t have power. Our church sat silent, ready for their ceremony. Since it wasn’t going to be until the afternoon, I was sure the electricity would be restored by then. I called him and said as much.
The wedding party arrived early, as scheduled. The women stayed in the cool of the dining room while the men hung out in the youth room, taking off their jackets as the temperature rose in our building. The air conditioner was still and the church air grew heavy. As the hour of the wedding approached, I was stunned that we were still without power. I assured the couple we would go ahead with the service and it would be beautiful regardless. They smiled politely but I’m not sure they were buying it. I’m not sure I was either!
Our sound board operator was in place in case the electricity resumed. I was mic’d, in case that would make a difference. But the church remained powerless as the guests were seated and started fanning themselves with programs. The time came for the wedding party to enter. The congregation grew quiet as the parents were seated. When the bride and her father came into view, the people stood respectfully, smiling at the pair as they slowly made their way down the center aisle. The bride’s gaze was fixed on her fiancé who was equally focused on her. The sanctuary was quiet. Their friends and family were reverent. As the wedding ceremony began, I acknowledged that, even though we didn’t have electricity, we knew that there was power in this holy space. We could feel it as this couple stepped forward to join their two lives as one. They pledged their lifelong devotion to one another without microphones or music. It was a beautiful ceremony that ended with applause and jubilant bell ringing as the newlyweds triumphantly recessed out of the church. Ten minutes after the ceremony ended, the lights came on!
The bride stopped by the church about two weeks later to pick up an item that had been left. We spent some time talking about their honeymoon and found our way back to the unusual circumstances of their wedding day. I apologized for the consequences of an unpredictable “act of God.” She looked at me and said, “I wouldn’t have chosen it any other way! To have such complete silence as I entered with my dad was powerful! I was so moved by the way the quiet honored the occasion. It was perfect!”
The unexpected detail that could have emotionally derailed them as a couple turned out to be the defining memory of their day. Walking toward her beloved in the holy silence of the sanctuary, she knew God was near.
Have you ever met God when you were wrestling with unexpected change? Was there a holy moment that led you to lift your heart in worship to God? Did an inconvenience or forgotten detail or goof become the best memory of the evening? When has God crashed your party and left you with a blessing?
This story from the twelfth chapter of John’s gospel is about devotion. Mary, the dear friend of Jesus, is the perfect person to model this. When we meet her in the Gospels, she is sitting at Jesus’ feet. She forgets to do her hosting duties when He’s around, much to the chagrin of her sister. In this instance she embarrasses herself by anointing Jesus’ travel-weary feet with an expensive lotion usually reserved for burial. As if that weren’t scandalous enough, she wipes the remnant of the oil off his feet with her lovely hair. A woman’s hair in first century Israel was regarded as a very private part of her body. To say that this would have been an awkward moment at the dinner party is a gross understatement. But she seems not to have even known there were others around. The ointment was valued at a year’s salary and would have been a precious commodity for family burials. Mary presents it as an offering of love to Jesus who had brought her brother, Lazarus, back to life. Wiping his dusty feet with her crown of glory is an act of worship. She doesn’t give a thought to what others might think.
The word “devotion” means love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. Mary gets caught up in a moment of devotion to the One she loves. It doesn’t matter who else is in the room. I wonder if you remember a time when you were so caught up in a worthy cause that you lost yourself? When have you been most devoted to the work of the Gospel?
There’s a contrast in this story between Mary’s worship and Judas’ protest. Mary offers her best in an act of sacrificial devotion while Judas pretends to be concerned for the poor. Is Jesus simply a calculated boost to Judas’ clout? As the treasurer of the group, he clearly values money over human needs. Jesus comes to Mary’s defense with a blunt command: Leave her alone! Mary is the only follower who seems to recognize that this moment with Jesus is precious. She unwittingly anoints His body for burial. The fragrance of the ointment would have lingered on both her and Jesus as He headed to the cross that very week. His disciples, however, scattered in fear.
Chapter 12 is a turning point in John’s gospel. Jesus has performed miracles that elevated Him to celebrity status. But in the appalled silence of an interrupted dinner party, we witness the greatest sign of Jesus’ ministry: love. Mary loves Jesus and devotes herself to serving Him, whatever the cost. The fact that we are still reading about this act of devotion tells me that her display of reverence turns heads as much as any of Jesus’ healings. Mary had experienced how Jesus brought life out of death so she offers herself unreservedly to Him.
This past Sunday I invited church members to commit to our church family by using their gifts. COVID has certainly challenged our leaders to explore new ways of doing ministry. As we reclaim elements of our congregational life, we need everyone to step into fitting areas of service. We invited folks to show their devotion to Christ by joining in our worship and volunteering in a capacity that brings them joy. What Mary models for us in this story is devotion to Jesus. She sets her sights on Him and nothing else matters. She is all in! Her service to Him brings a holy pause to a dinner party that we’re still talking about today. Following her example, all of us who are members of congregations need to embrace the invitation into remarkable service, using the gifts God has given us. While many worthy activities cry out for our attention, I know of nothing more important as living out our Christian faith to positively impact a hurting world. Are you in?