Mercy in Service

Scripture - John 12:1-8

Which athletic sport do you think is the most biblical? Some people say that baseball is the most biblical sport, because the Bible opens with the words: In the big inning. Others say that football is found in the early chapters of Genesis because it describes the first downfall into sin. But I say that tennis is the truly biblical sport. Not just because I played it in high school, but because the Bible says in Genesis 41: Joseph served in Pharaoh’s court. And tennis is a sport in which it is essential to serve, a true biblical virtue.

Obviously, I am trying for some humor here. Serving a ball in tennis is a vastly different thing from serving others in Christian love. But one thing is true: serving is important in both tennis & the Christian life. Service is crucial in tennis because it is the first hit of the ball that gets the game in motion. You will not win in tennis without serving well. Similarly, service is crucial in the Christian life because it is what God calls us to do. You will not prevail in Christian discipleship without serving well.

To serve means to work for the benefit of others. It means to assist them & provide for them. Service is the act of caring for someone else & doing what is best for them. A server in a restaurant delivers food & drink to customers. A public servant fulfills responsibilities for the good of the constituents. Those who serve in the military offer their lives to protect a nation from its enemies. To serve means to give of yourself & your abilities in order to improve the lives of others. The Bible describes it this way in Philippians 2: In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

In our reading from John 12, Jesus calls his disciples, & us, to serve. And he demonstrated what service looks like in a very concrete way. He was at a dinner in Bethany, at the home of Lazarus, Martha & Mary. While eating, Mary took a pound of costly perfume & poured it on J’s feet. She then wiped it off with her hair & the entire house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. Judas Iscariot protested that the perfume should have been sold & the money given to the poor. But Jesus replied: 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.

Jesus was aware that the day of his death was rapidly approaching & so he allowed Mary to serve him in this incredibly special, very intimate way. In Jesus’ day, it was almost impossible to keep one’s feet clean. Most floors were dirt & everyone travelled on foot. Your feet would always be beyond dirty.

And now Jesus allows Mary to anoint his feet with perfume & wipe them with her hair. It was an act of deep love – by both the giver & the recipient.

In the next chapter of John, we read of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He takes a towel & a basin & washes their feet & dries them with the towel. Foot washing was an act of service performed by the lowliest of servants. And then he instructed the disciples that they were to wash one another’s feet.

So, our Lord Jesus Christ calls us to serve. Washing others’ feet was just an illustration of the broader principle of serving others. Several other times in his teaching ministry Jesus had called his disciples to a life of service. Today he calls each of us to serve as well.

The problem is, we do not serve well naturally. Our sinful nature inclines us away from serving others. Because of our sinfulness, we would rather serve ourselves, & demand that others serve us. In fact, this is the very character of sin – to be selfish & self-serving. When a mother asks her son to set the table, his sinful nature inclines him to complain. When an office worker sees her colleague struggling with an assignment, she fails to assist because of the extra work it would require of her. When an elderly neighbor needs assistance getting to the doctor’s office, our sinful nature hinders us from getting involved.

All the while, however, we expect others to serve us. A husband expects his wife to do all of the housework in their home. A wife demands that her husband jump at her beck & call. A coworker takes the easy tasks & assigns the demanding & difficult ones to us. All of these cases reflect the reality that, by our own impulses & because of our sinful nature, we would much rather be served than to serve.

Yet this is precisely why Jesus came to earth. His mission was to rescue self-serving sinners & remake them into selfless servants. Jesus claimed about himself: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, & to give his life a ransom for many. The very night in which Jesus washed the feet of his disciples he was arrested according to God’s plan. The very next day Jesus’ feet were awash in blood as he was nailed to a cross, according to God’s purposes. It was Christ’s mission to be the Suffering Servant as foretold by the prophet Isaiah. He made the ultimate service by giving his life to ransom self-serving sinners like you & me from our sin.

As the apostle Paul puts it in Philippians 2: Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave & he humbled himself & became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. By his sacrificial death, Jesus has ransomed us from sin – he paid the penalty for our sin!

As you come to him repentant of your sin, your selfishness & self-serving behavior are forgiven. In his mercy you are pardoned of your neglect to serve others as God has commanded.

Now in view of God’s mercy you are renewed to serve. By Christ’s suffering service on the cross you are ransomed from your sin. By the sanctifying service of the Holy Spirit, you are remade into willing servants who live to bless others.

An American man was observing the ministry of Mother Teresa. In the twentieth century, Mother Teresa served the poorest of the poor in Calcutta, India, caring for the sick & desolate in the city streets. The man watched as the diminutive nun embraced a leper in the gutter & cleaned his leprous wounds. The man, in disgust, declared, “I would not do that for a million dollars.” Hearing his words, Mother Teresa looked up at the American & replied, “Neither would I. But I gladly do it for Christ.”

Mother Teresa served that leper, & others in desperate need, in view of the mercy of God. She served them for Christ, because Christ had served her by giving his life. It is for the same reason that we serve others. We serve them because of Christ, & we serve them for Christ. He is the one who came not to be served but to serve & to give his life as a ransom for us. He is the one who knelt down to wash the disciples’ feet & was lifted up on the cross to cleanse us from sin. He is the one who told us: I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

And so, knowing these things, we do them. In view of God’s mercy to us in Jesus, we serve in mercy the needs of those around us. In view of God’s mercy in Christ, we follow the example of Christ the Suffering Servant. Echoing Mother Teresa’s words, we do not do it for a million dollars, but we gladly do it for Christ.

Let us pray. To give of ourselves is breathtaking. To be generous is to be vulnerable, for we may fail or be judged by others. But let us not live in measured, hesitant giving. Let us give all that God has blessed us with, even as Jesus gave his life so that we may live. Amen.