Isaiah 43:16-21; John 12:1-8
Jesus described himself to others in a variety of ways. He told them, “I am the good shepherd” as he explained that he would spare nothing to care for them, even his own life. He described himself as the vine, and everyone who connected themselves to him was the branches. He used other images like living water, the way, the truth, and the life to help the people around him understand who he was. But, one of the most interesting images Jesus uses for himself is the image of a gate. In John 10, Jesus said, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
Gates are interesting because they can do two opposite things: keep things out, and let things in. When I first moved into my home here in western Nebraska, I noticed that some volunteer trees had grown and covered the gate on the fence. These trees were unruly, as volunteer trees often are. The branches had woven themselves in and out of the links on the chain link fence, and it made the gate impossible to use. This gate was intended to give access to the large trash bin behind our house, so it was a problem to have it covered and unusable.
One day, Jeff decided to tackle the problem. He took some clippers and began cutting down the branches that were restricting the gate from opening and closing. Right when he thought he had solved the issue, he clipped one final branch, and the gate fell off of the fence. Over time, the hinges on the gate had rusted, and the only thing that was holding the gate in place was those volunteer tree branches. Suddenly, the gate would no longer work for keeping things out, and it would allow anything and everything to come in.
In many ways, Jesus did the same thing in his life and ministry. He tore down the gates that restricted people from coming to God, and this did not always make the powers-that-be very happy with him, to say the least. He invited the poor, the unclean, the sinners to eat with him and to find their place in the kingdom of God. He blessed children, had theological conversations with women, touched lepers, and told his disciples to do the same. He modeled this open-gate policy not only in the people he healed and spoke with but also in the disciples he called to learn from him.
Levi was a tax collector, a profession that was despised by many because tax collectors were notoriously greedy and dishonest. Simon was a Zealot, and several of Jesus’ disciples were fishermen. Many of these men had been passed over when they were younger by the rabbis who thought it better for them to follow in their fathers’ professions than to go into religious study. Yet, Jesus called them and chose them. You would think that if anyone understood Jesus’ open-gate policy, it would’ve been the disciples. Unfortunately, that was often untrue of them. It doesn’t take long for any of us to forget our roots and to forget how much grace and mercy was given to us by God.
In our passage from John 12, Jesus has joined Mary, Martha, and Lazarus at their home in Bethany. Just one chapter earlier, Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, and the religious authorities were so upset by this that they began to plot to kill Jesus. In this scene that takes place just six days before the Passover, Mary takes a pound of expensive perfume, anoints Jesus’ feet with it, and wipes his feet with her hair. Judas isn’t having any of it. He hides his reaction behind a supposed concern for giving money to the poor and not being wasteful, but the text tells us he was really concerned about himself. If the perfume wasn’t sold and the money put in the common purse, Judas could not steal that money for himself.
Judas sees Mary’s gift to Jesus as wasteful, and he tries to close the gate on her and her worship. Judas tries to be the gatekeeper of what gifts were welcome in the kingdom of God. He couldn’t understand why Mary would give so extravagantly to Jesus, and he selfishly wished that money was his own.
Mary was in a vulnerable position. She knelt before Jesus. She took down her hair, which would’ve been considered scandalous. And she poured out expensive perfume on Jesus’ feet. She was taking a huge risk in her worship, and when Judas tried to close the gate on her, he could well have damaged her—her heart and her security at the very least. But Jesus defends her. He says to Judas, “Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”
Leave her alone.
Don’t shut the gate on her. She has given her authentic self to me, and she has seen the need for this extravagance before I go to the cross. Your focus is on the wrong thing.
The verb that is translated “leave her” means to let go, or to stop hindering. Jesus uses this same word when the disciples try to stop the little children from coming to Jesus for a blessing. Jesus said, “Leave them alone, and do not stop them.” These children are supposed to be here, do not stand in their way, don’t shut the gate on them.
The prophet Isaiah shared these words from the Lord, “Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” The kingdom of God does not look like what we’re used to. It’s not “second verse same as the first.” It is a brand new thing. It’s springing forth all over the world, in our communities, and in our churches, but sometimes we don’t recognize the movement of the Spirit for what it is.
And we close the gate on others, and damage their hearts and their sense of belonging in the body of Christ. Churches often have gates, and those gates don’t always look like Jesus.
Today, as we continue in our Lenten series “Good Enough,” we are reminded that God is doing a new thing. God is calling people we never would have expected. God is using each of us in ways we never could’ve imagined. And God is calling on us to be careful when we close the gate on someone else, because we could well be closing a gate God intended to be left open.
It’s easy to be a gatekeeper, but being a gate opener can become our default posture. Gate openers look for those who are longing to draw near to God. Gate openers realize it is about “we” instead of “me,” and gate openers celebrate the gifts of others.
First, gate openers look for those who are longing to draw near to God. I think about the man who was paralyzed in Mark 2. He longed to come to Jesus for healing, but was unable to get himself there on his own. To make things more complicated, the house where Jesus was staying was so full of people that there wasn’t even room outside the door of the house. The paralyzed man’s friends took matters into their own hands. They made a space in the roof and lowered their friend into the presence of Jesus. Who in our lives longs to draw near to God and needs someone to open the gate? Perhaps it is someone who loves God but has experienced pain that makes it hard for them to come back to church. Maybe it is someone who has traditionally not fit in, but longs for a place to belong. Gate openers looks for these people who are longing to be close to God, and they make the way a little bit easier. Who might God be calling you to open the gate for in your life?
Second, gate openers are about “we” instead of “me.” Judas could not see past the money Mary poured out on Jesus’ feet. He thought about all he could’ve done with that money because his focus was on himself. He closed the gate on Mary not because she had done something wrong but because his focus was in the wrong place. Gate openers realize that someone else’s worship may not be their own style, or someone else’s clothes might not be their own taste, but they also know that the kingdom is better when we’re all in it. It’s not about me and my preferences. It’s about all of us and what God is doing in our community. Where might God be calling us to see past ourselves and our own preferences to the bigger picture of what God is doing?
And finally, gate openers celebrate the gifts of others. When I was in middle school, I was in a Contemporary Christian miming group at my church. Yes, I wore a face of white mime make-up and all-black clothing. We choreographed dances and mimes to popular Christian songs, and occasionally we would offer these routines during worship, which we took very seriously. We prayed before we offered our mimes during church, and our director impressed upon us the importance of doing our mime routines from a worshipful heart. We were not to be performers doing this for our own glory and attention. We were offering our gifts to God. During those years of my growing up, I felt so encouraged and supported by my church. Later, after I had grown up, I found out that a few of the adults at church had not cared for our mime routines. They were against pre-recorded music in worship, and they secretly wished our mime director would stop leading the group.
But they never complained about it much to others. They didn’t ask the pastor to put a stop to it. They didn’t complain to the mime director (very much, anyway). The reason? They saw how important it was to the kids, and they knew the kids needed to be in the church. Even though our worship offering was not their style, they got out of the way—which is no small task when there’s something you don’t like—and let us bring our gifts to God.
It’s so easy to shut the gate on others and to cause them pain or cause them to turn away from Jesus. It’s so easy to do it when what others offer to God offends our sensibilities or is different from the way things were always done. But, when we open the gate and all people to bring their varied gifts to God, we see a much fuller, more beautiful picture of God’s kingdom here on earth.
Blessed are the gate openers, the ones whose eyes are fixed on the kingdom of God breaking into the world, and not on themselves and the way we’ve always done things.
Blessed are the ones who find the courage to get out of the way and rejoice over the gifts of others.
Blessed are those who invite the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the wounded and offer them the rest and love of God.
Blessed are those who train their eyes and ears to see and hear the good news from the most unlikely of places and the most surprising of people.
Blessed will we be when we heed the words of Jesus: “Leave her alone, because she has done this for me.” May God help us to open the gate and welcome those Jesus is calling. May we have eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts that understand.