Religious Extravagance

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Religious Extravagance

April 03, 2022*

By Pastor John Partridge

Isaiah 43:16-21                      John 12:1-8                Philippians 3:4b-14

What do you think of when I say the word… extravagant?

We buy things that we need, but how nice those things are often depends upon how much money we have available to spend on things that don’t matter.  We might need a watch, but we could buy a cheap one at the dollar store that will keep time, or we can buy a decent Timex that will last longer.  But when we have a little more disposable income, we might consider buying an Apple watch or a Garmin sport watch that not only keeps time but counts our steps, calories, tracks our heartrate, and a bunch of other things.  And there are some people who have enough money that they can wear a year’s salary, or even the value of a house, on their wrist with wildly expensive watches made of gold and platinum.  But do you know what those expensive watches say at three o’clock in the afternoon?  They say that it’s three o’clock.  The difference between a Timex and a Rolex isn’t that the time is different, or that expensive watches somehow give their wearers twenty-five hours in a day instead of the usual twenty-four, the difference is in their level of extravagance.

We could say that a house with four bedrooms is better than a house with one bedroom if you have a larger family.  But at some point, as homes grow larger and pass three thousand square feet, four thousand, five thousand square feet, and even larger, at some point we’ve crossed a line from utilitarian and into extravagance.

And so, if I were to ask you what comes to mind when I say the words “religious extravagance,” I wouldn’t blame you a bit if you began to think about the mansions that we’ve seen on television that belong to a variety televangelists and other religious leaders who have capitalized, in one way or another, on their position, power, or notoriety.  But is religious extravagance about 25,000 square foot mansions, Rolls Royce automobiles, and private jets? 

As we consider that question, let’s begin by remembering what God said through his prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 43:16-21.

16 This is what the Lord says—
    he who made a way through the sea,
    a path through the mighty waters,
17 who drew out the chariots and horses,
    the army and reinforcements together,
and they lay there, never to rise again,
    extinguished, snuffed out like a wick:
18 “Forget the former things;
    do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
    Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland.
20 The wild animals honor me,
    the jackals and the owls,
because I provide water in the wilderness
    and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21     the people I formed for myself
    that they may proclaim my praise.

As I read that passage, I divided it into four sections that each said something different.  The first, asks God’s people to remember what God is capable of doing and all the amazing, awesome, powerful, and even impossible things that God has done.  The second, simply says that while we should remember what God has done, we should not live in the past or get stuck there.  The third, says that as we keep the first two things in mind, the big news is that God is doing something new.  Now, God is doing the impossible.  He is making a road through the impassable wilderness and bringing free flowing water to the desert.  The fourth thing explains why God does everything that God does.  The reason that God does extravagant miracles, achieves the impossible, blesses his people, feeds them, and cares for them, is not just so that they will give thanks, but so that they will tell the world about his greatness.

But in John 12:1-8 we see an entirely different sort of extravagance as the time of Jesus’s crucifixion draws near.

12:1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead.  Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor.  Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him.  Then Mary took about a pintof pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair.  And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor?  It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied.  “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial.  You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

For perspective, let’s consider the value of what Mary did for Jesus.  It’s one thing to say that she anointed Jesus with perfume that cost a year’s wages, but it’s another thing entirely to put that into language that is personally meaningful to our wallets.  Thinking about a year’s wages in a vague sort of way sounds like it might be a lot, but we feel a punch in the gut when we put that into numbers that we understand.  And a number that most of us can understand is the median income.  The “median” is the annual income at which half of all wage earners made more, and half made less.  And in the United States, the median income in 2021 was $79,900.  So, when we say that Mary poured $80,000 on the ground, we feel that it a different way than saying that it was worth about a year’s wages.  John uses this as an opportunity to criticize Judas for being a thief, but it’s hard not to think, as Judas suggested, about how much food, clothing, rental assistance, bus passes, or other things that we could buy for the poor with $80,000.  Mary’s gift was not just costly, it was extravagant.  But Jesus understands and explains to everyone present that there was a limited time that anyone could give such a gift, and while God’s intent was that this gift should have been for Jesus’ burial, Mary chose to give her gift to Jesus while he was still alive rather than after he was dead.

And in Philippians 3:4b-14, the Apostle Paul frames the discussion about extravagance differently.  Rather than reminding everyone about the extravagant gifts that God has given to us, or about the extravagant gift that Mary gave to Jesus, Paul explains how his life changed because of his reaction and response to God’s extravagance.  Paul says:

If someone else thinks they have reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for righteousness based on the law, faultless.

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.  What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things.  I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith inChrist—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.  10 I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, 11 and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead.

12 Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.  13 Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it.  But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

Paul begins by reminding his readers that for all the worldly reasons that people can have confidence, trust, and even arrogance, Paul has all of them… in abundance.  Paul had money, possessions, accomplishments, power, authority and more.  He was born into the right kind of prestigious family, he mixed with the right kinds of prestigious people, he followed all of the church’s rules in a very public way in the sect of the Pharisees, and even among the Pharisees, he was outstanding in his passion, zeal, and herculean efforts as a defender of the faith and a warrior for the church as he persecuted those who followed Jesus, and he did all these things so well that no one could find fault with his theology or practice.  Paul was beyond a rising star in the leadership of the church and was on track to be among those in the very highest levels of the Jewish church and the leadership of Israel.

But Paul after he met Jesus, he threw it all away.

Because he chose to follow Jesus, Paul lost his position in Jewish leadership, was cast out of the Pharisees, excommunicated, banned from the Temple, and we suspect that he may have even been disowned by his family.  Paul says that he has now given up anything that he once considered to be valuable because the value of knowing Jesus was worth more than anything that he had before.  In fact, what Paul received when he put his faith in Jesus was so extravagantly valuable that in comparison, everything that he had before was worth no more than garbage to him.

The value of what Paul received from God through faith in Jesus Christ is so valuable, that even after he has given up everything that he had, Paul still looks forward to the future and presses onward so that he can become whatever God called him to be, and to do whatever God called him to do.  Paul freely admits that Gods work in him, and through him, is not yet finished, but he continues to do the work of Jesus Christ, and to press on so that he can earn the reward that God has prepared for him.

Isaiah said that our mission it to show the world how amazing, wonderful, and awesome God is, and not spend our time and money showing people how awesome we are.  The goal is to get the people around us to give thanks to God and give praise to him, not to give thanks and give praise to us.  Mary shows her gratitude to Jesus by giving him the most extravagant gift that she can imagine.  It is a gift that is her life savings and represents her pension and her rainy-day fund all wrapped up in one package.  Paul says that God’s gift to us, the gift of his own son, Jesus Christ, is such an extravagant gift, that nothing that we have, and nothing that we can do, can ever begin to show God how grateful we are.  Instead, Paul’s response was to give up all that he had and spend his entire life giving of himself to do the work of God’s kingdom.

My friends, religious extravagance isn’t about churches that seat tens of thousands, or 25,000 square foot mansions, Rolls Royce automobiles, and private jets.  Those sorts of things point people in exactly the opposite direction that God wants us pointing.  Religious extravagance is demonstrating to the world that what God has given to us in Jesus Christ is so valuable that we will give, or do, anything to show God our gratitude and to do the work of the kingdom of God so that, as God said through Isaiah, the world would proclaim God’s praise.

When the followers of Jesus Christ are extravagant, every part of that extravagance should point to God so that the world sees the wonders of our amazing God… and not us.


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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page.  Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio.  Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you.  Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601.  These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership.  You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org.  These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com .  All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.