What is Worship?
Last week I asked the question, “what is worship?” Today, I want to return to that question and examine it further, allowing this powerful scene of Mary’s worship of Christ, found in John 12:3, to be our guide.
Look again at the text:
“Mary then took a pound of very costly perfume of pure nard, and anointed the feet of Jesus and wiped His feet with her hair; and the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.”
We’ve examined Mary’s extravagant sacrifice: the breaking of this entire vial of costly perfume over Jesus. In a moment a year’s wages are spent honoring Christ. But look at how her worship continues. It doesn’t stop with the anointing of her Lord’s feet. It accelerates. It enlarges. She takes down her hair and uses it as the cloth to clean his feet! Her worship moves from sacrifice to humiliation.
A Shocking Dinner Scene
Imagine walking into your friend’s house, you’re late for dinner, and you open the door to see his sister on her knees washing the pastor’s bare feet with her hair; do you think you’d be a little shocked? Maybe you’d say, “What is going on?!” or “Stop this!” You might ask your friend why he was allowing his sister to humiliate herself or possibly you’d go to the woman herself and encourage her to stand up for herself and get some self-esteem. Maybe you’d just stand there with your mouth hanging open (probably what I’d do). Most of us wouldn’t walk in on such a scene and view it as normal, dignified dinning behavior.
The same holds true for Mary’s actions. Mary’s act of ‘foot washing’ was as shocking the day it happened as it would be 2,000 years later at your friend’s dinner party. In the religious culture of her world, it would have been improper for an unmarried woman (like Mary) to let down her hair in the presence of the opposite sex. Also, such an act as this would have been seen as very undignified: a woman’s hair was her crown, her glory (1 Cor. 11:15). However, does convention or dignity stop Mary? Will it slow down her worship? Hardly. Not only does she let her hair down, but she uses her ‘glory’ to wipe the Master’s feet!
So, how are we to take this? This whole aspect of the scene seems very odd; at least it does at first. But as you begin to think through what is fueling Mary’s action and what her action has in common with many other Biblical scenes of intense worship, you find a powerful testimony of true worship as well as a pattern set forth for us to follow.
The Fuel of Humiliation
The word “humiliate” means “to reduce to a lower position in one’s own eyes or in the eyes of others.” This is clearly what Mary has done. She has taken up the lowly position of ‘foot washer’ and for further condescension she has abandon the wash rag for the use of her own hair. She is about as low as you can get. So what is driving this act? One word: perspective.
Remember these words of the great prophet, John the Baptist: “It is He who comes after me, the thong of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:27). John had the right perspective. As great a position as he held in redemptive history (the forerunner of Messiah) he realized he was of such inferior rank that he wasn’t even worthy to perform the most menial task for his Lord. He makes such a humiliating declaration about himself because he had the right perspective. God had given John an understanding of who he was and Who Christ is.
And notice what happens throughout the scriptures when people are given this information, this same perspective.
Isaiah sees the preincarnate Christ “sitting on a throne, lofty and exalted, with the train of His robe filling the temple” (Isaiah 6:1; cf. John 12:41). How does the prophet respond? “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips, And I live among a people of unclean lips; For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isaiah 6:5).
Peter has a moment of Christoligical revelation while upon the waters of Galilee and notice his response: “he fell down at Jesus’ feet, saying, ‘Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!'” (Luke 5:8) Peter realized he wasn’t even worthy to be share the same fishing vessel as Jesus.
And what of the great Apostle John, last living member of the disciples? What is his response to the Revelation of Jesus Christ? John writes, “When I saw Him, I fell at His feet like a dead man” (Revelation 1:17).
The Bible is full of people ‘humilating’ themselves once they get some perspective.
Now think through what Mary had just experienced. A short time earlier she had been an eye witness to Jesus resurrecting her dead brother (John 11); God had given her a front row seat to this overwhelming display of Christ’s glory. If we want to be real honest, we probably should be asking why she was the only one on her knees in humiliated worship before the Lord.
Do you see now what fuels Mary’s intense and humilating act of service to our Lord? I would argue that it is driven by a right understanding of who she is and Whose feet she is washing. Her actions reveal the overwhelmed state of her heart as she realizes she is in the presence of One whose worth infinitely exceeds her own.
Our Worshipful Humiliation?
But how can such actions become a model for us? Is there a path here for us to follow? I believe there is.
The first step on the path begins with a growing understanding of Jesus Christ. Mary was growing in her knowledge of Christ; Isaiah, Peter, and John were as well. The humiliation of true worship will spring from a right understanding of who I am and Who He is, therefore I must spend deliberate time beholding His beauty and learning of His glory. Spend time savoring the Gospels. Meditate on the work of Redemptive History, realizing it all centers on Him, not us. Set a plan to begin making a list of all of Paul’s “in Christ” statements. Find a good book on Christology and read it slowly. These are just a few things to get you started.
Next, we must engage in the battle against our pride. We are proud people. What is the root of your sin? What is the root of my sin? Dig down deep and there we’ll find it, staring us right in the face: our ugly, foolish, stubborn pride. And our fleshly pride only likes to worship one: us. It fights against our humiliation; it hates John the Baptist’s declaration: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). If we were to assume Mary’s position, on the floor washing His feet with our hair, our pride would scream “NO!” and our flesh would fight against such an action with every wicked inclination. If we want God to triumph over our pride and really live our worship, we must find real, practical ways to humble ourselves in the face of Christ.
Let me give two quick examples of what I believe it means to engage in this battle.
Several years ago, while in college, I went to a worship service during which the song leader asked us to kneel as we sang the next song. I come from a rather conservative upbringing and am still not yet entirely comfortable in engaging my entire person in worship (My mind and affections are usually engage, but my body often portrays something different from worship; pray for me as God is really working on me in this area). When asked to kneel as we sang, my first thought was, “But, I’ll look ridiculous!” (Thinking back on it now, what more natural position could you come up with to sing a song of worship?!) At that moment, through that little exercise, God revealed the pride of my heart. As I went to my knees and sang that song, I put all of the thoughts of what other people might think out of my mind and just praised God. That day I engaged my pride in a battle by reminding myself of the overwhelming worth of the One to whom I was singing.
Allow me to give you a second example, and this is a front on which I believe we can fight this battle every day. I’ll be honest with you- each time I open my mouth to share the gospel with someone, I battle with my pride. My pride says, “They’ll think you’re a fool! What if they ask a question you can’t answer- won’t you look stupid! You’ll come across like some kind of used car salesman, trying to manipulate them into buying your religion!” My pride screams, “Don’t do it!” but the worth of my Savior compels me to speak about His glorious gospel. In each moment of evangelism, I have a choice: the sinful pride of silence versus the humble worship of witness. To chose to speak is to follow in the footsteps of Mary and embrace worship. It is to engage in the battle with my pride and to proclaim that I have truly understood the greatness of my Savior. It is more than obedience for obedience sake; it is the humilation of true worship.
These are simply some examples of how we can begin to walk this path of humble worship, ways in which we can apply this powerful scene from God’s Word to our lives. I’m praying that God would make me a worshiper whose sacrifice is extravagant and whose pride is humbled under the feet of Christ’s infinite worth. I’m praying the same for you.