Children Desiring God Conference – Friday Night – April 27, 2007
A wonderful time of corporate singing, including a pastoral prayer offered up in both Spanish and English, preceded the introduction of the speaker.
Jon Bloom, Executive Director of Desiring God, gave a biographical introduction to C.J. Mahaney. Mahaney was a cute kid…just imagine a little kid with the same face and a lot of blond hair. He was a crafty one, too, apparently able to convince the kids in the neighborhood to pay him for doing his chores. Watch out, Tom Sawyer! Mahaney grew up nominally Catholic, but that was soon abandoned in exchange for drugs and partying. God saved him at the age of 18 through a friend of his who shared the gospel with him. To the best of C.J.’s knowledge, it was the first time he had ever heard the gospel.
Disclaimer: The tools I have available on my computer – all caps, italics, etc. – cannot do justice to the passion and diversity of expressiveness in Mahaney’s speech. So imagine this talk with all the variation of volume, humor, passion, tragedy, tears, and joy that only C.J. Mahaney can deliver.
When Mahaney came on to speak, he presented a $5,000 check as a thank-you gift from his ministry, Sovereign Grace Ministries, to Children Desiring God.
Message Title: Extravagant Devotion
C.J. opened by asking for a few moments to gather himself as he was visibly moved by the recounting of his former life. He exhorted us by recalling that if God could save him, there was hope for the loved ones in our lives who seem out of reach. C.J. noted that the Savior describes true greatness as those who serve others for the glory of God. “Your pastors,” he told us, “would want to say the same thing to you. Your pastors are so grateful to you for the way you serve, for your selfless investment in the next generation. And I hope to serve you tonight.”
We then were asked to open our Bible’s to Mark 14:1-11. C.J. read the text, and then mentioned an insightful illustration in an unexpected place: An issue of Sports Illustrated dated from the Clinton era. Steve Rushin, the author of the essay, noted that President Clinton had recently expressed “profound regret” for a U.S. Navy jet flying inappropriately low and crashing into a cable of an Italian ski lift. The incident resulted in the deaths of twenty civilians in the lift. Mr. Rushin proceeded to observe that Clinton had used the exact same words of sorrow in another recent pronouncement condemning a People mag puff piece on his daugter. If these two incidents, one trivial and one tragic, invoke the same statement of grief, Mr. Rushin asked, is either meaningful? We live in an age of “profound baloney,” quipped Rushin. We have trivialized profundity in our day, and exalted hype. Superlatives, even when appropriate, are “bees that sting once, and then die.”
C.J. believes that Mr. Rushin’s analysis, in effect, is accurate. And this presents a challenge to the preaching of Scripture in our day. “How can I preach to you about something truly profound in a day of ‘profound baloney’? How can I use superlatives appropriately when they have become like bees that sting once and then die?” If we’ve been conditioned to think of the Super Bowl each year as “profoundly historic,” it’s somehow less gripping when a preacher tells you a passage in Scripture is “historic.”
C.J. assured us that his text, Mark 14:1-11, reveals a truly historic moment — as it contains a profound pronouncement. Nobody else except this woman receives this promise from the Savior: “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” Why? Why her? Why now? Why here? Just her. Why her? C.J. wanted to help us discover “why her” so that we all might be affected by her.
The Mark 14 passage begins with a disturbing description of the chief priests: Only Jesus’ popularity and the threat of a riot have slowed them in their goal of killing him. That’s the backdrop to our passage. At the end of the evening, the chief priests will get some help from Judas.
The Alabaster Flask
And in between the intrigue of verses 1-2 and 10-11, there is a party taking place in Bethany. Jesus and his friends are gathered. They are in the home of “Simon the leper,” who — had he still been a leper — could not have been hosting the get-together. C.J. suggested he might have been previously healed by Jesus. John’s gospel, in a parallel passage, informs us that Lazarus was present, having recently been raised from the dead.
[C.J. joke: “Imagine being there with Lazarus. I’d find some way to recline next to him at some point in the evening. I’d have lots of questions for him. It’s not often you meet someone who has died. What was it like to die? Is it a bummer you have to do it again? What was heaven like? Who broke the news to you that you had to go back? How did they break the news to you? ‘Lazarus, your sisters won’t stop crying, now the Savior is crying, you’re going back, pal.’ And what was that like? Hearing the Savior say, ‘Lazarus, come forth.’ Going from Paradise to the graveclothes. What was THAT like? If I’m disoriented by frequent travel, how disoriented is Lazarus?]
John also tells us Martha is present; the quintessential servant, she is catering the party. And most important, the Savior is there. Presumably, He is the guest of honor. One would expect the atmosphere to be warm and friendly — there are no Pharisees or chief priests present. Only those with every reason to be grateful to Jesus are present (except perhaps Judas, who is still under the radar at this point).
Suddenly, a woman (John tells us it was Mary) stands by Jesus and proceeds to break an alabaster flask of very expensive perfume. She pours the entirety of its contents over his head. The fragrance fills the room. It was impossible to ignore this public, dramatic, passionate display of affection. The disciples do not appreciate this act, and they scold her. The scene is no longer festive. Suddenly there is a dramatic change in the mood and atmosphere. A Voice says leave her alone.
The Savior then makes the profound promise: “wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” WHY? Why does he make this promise to her at this moment? What she has done must be told wherever the gospel is preached, because Mary uniquely exemplifies the transforming effect of the gospel, which is EXTRAVAGANT DEVOTION TO THE SAVIOR. She demonstrates the effect of the gospel by her extravagant love for Jesus. She was to be an example of piety to the church universal throughout history. Her story is told so that we might evaluate if we have been appropriately and effectively transformed by the gospel. Not just applause, but application: We should evaluate ourselves in relation to her.
Two points to be drawn:
1. Extravagant devotion is an evidence of conversion.
Earlier in Mark’s gospel we encounter a teacher of law who is told “You are not far from the kingdom of God.” (Mark 12:34) It was surely both an encouragement and a warning to this man. You are near, but not in. Well, it is clear that Mary’s not simply “near”. She’s “in.” Big-time. This is what being “in” looks like.
Where there is a profession of faith without affection for and obedience to the Savior, its authenticity should be questioned. Be assured if you are truly saved. If you have genuine affection for the Savior, and genuine obedience to the Savior, then you can have fresh assurance.
C.J. expressed concern regarding the prevailing tendency among many in the church to grant false assurance to those who profess faith in the Savior, but whose lives bear no evidence to the miracle of regeneration (namely, affection for and obedience to Jesus Christ). C.J. lamented that in the U.S. evangelical church, it is quite common for someone to retain the lifestyle of those in the world, but with the (false) confidence that they possess eternal salvation.
Where does that confidence come from? In his novel A Painted House, John Grisham describes a Sunday school teacher eulogizing a mean character, Jerry Sisco, killed the night before: “She made Jerry sound like a Christian, and like an innocent victim. As baptists we’d been taught that they only way you get to heaven is by accepting Jesus. Accept Jesus, or you went to hell. That’s where Jerry Sisco was, and we all knew it.” C.J. exhorted us not to emulate the example of this Sunday school teacher who gave false assurance to someone whose life displayed no evidence of salvation: affection or obedience. We are not serving the children we have the privilege to lead if we impart false assurance to them. Let us not encourage assurance where there is the absence of affection for, or obedience to, the Savior.
Given the size of this conference, C.J. noted, he would be remiss to assume that everyone present is genuinely converted. “I think I can assume most everyone here is, but given the large number, it would be unwise to assume that all are converted, and perhaps even now God is drawing near those who have maybe even made a profession of faith, are serving in children’s ministry, but without evidence of affection or obedience. There are other things you are more passionate about than the Savior. If that is a description of you, I would warn you right now to receive this plea as an expression of God’s mercy. If you are not genuinely converted, recognize that God is demanding you to turn from your sins to the Savior for the forgiveness of your sins. Because extravagant devotion is an evidence of genuine conversion.” (My paraphrase of C.J.’s warning)
If I witness a person who is unaffected by truth, uninvolved in the local congregation, and uninterested in spiritual things, that individual is very unlike Mary, and therefore unconverted. Extravagant devotion to the Savior cannot be concealed. It must find expression. It is evidence of true conversion. This is the significance of Mary.
2. Extravagant devotion is the increasing experience of the converted.
C.J. asked us to consider if we recognized ourselves in the following illustration:
A woman took her children to the park to break the monotony of the summer days. Instead, she broke her heart. A young attractive woman skipped to a picnic table in a secluded spot. The mother wondered who she might be so eager to see. The mother grew preoccupied with her children and forgot to watch. But when she did look again, it made her heart hurt. The young woman was reading her Bible. She had so eagerly run from her car to meet the Lord. The mother knew she had lost this passion. Something had happened over the years of her walk with the Lord. She would not now be one to skip to meet the Lord. She wept in the park for her loss.
The question C.J. put to us is: Are we still skipping? Now all who are genuinely converted can, at times, recognize themselves in this illustration. In the Mark 14 episode, we are sometimes more like those criticizing Mary than we are like Mary.
What should have happened there in Mark 14? As Mary stood over the Savior pouring out the perfume, affectionately, passionately, appropriately, over His head….quietly, everyone present should have gotten up and formed a line behind her and should have said to her, “Mary, could you please save some for me to pour? For he has forgiven all of my sins. Mary, can I pour some? For he healed me of my leprosy. Mary, thank you for your example. Can I follow your example?” That’s what should have happened.
So who do you resemble more? The arrogant and critical disciples? Or humble Mary, expressing her love for the Savior through this extravagant display of affection. How can we become more like her? How can we cultivate extravagant devotion to Christ?
Application: We must review and reflect upon the gospel.
We must regularly read and meditate upon the gospel, particularly the events surrounding Christ’s death. The transforming effect of the gospel is extravagant devotion to the Savior. Therefore, if extravagant devotion is diminished, it normally means the gospel has been neglected. Charles Spurgeon said:
“Are you content to follow Jesus from a distance? O, let me affectionately warn you for it is a grievous thing when we can live contentedly without the present enjoyment of the Savior’s face. Let us work to feel what an evil thing this is – little love to our own dying Savior, little joy in our precious Jesus, little fellowship with the Beloved! Hold a true Lent in your in your souls, while you sorrow over your hardness of heart. Don’t stop at sorrow. Remember where you first received salvation. Go at once to the cross. There, and there only can you get your spirit aroused. No matter how hard, how insensible, how dead we may have become, let’s go again in all the rags and poverty, and defilement of our natural condition. Let’s clasp that cross, let’s look into those languid eyes, let’s bathe in that fountain filled with blood – this will bring us back to our first love; this will restore the simplicity of our faith, and the tenderness of our heart….The more we dwell where the cries of Calvary can be heard the more noble our lives become. Nothing puts life into men like a dying Savior.”
How often do we dwell where the cries of Calvary can be heard? Those cries were all necessary because of our sins, and those cries were sufficient for our salvation. The transforming effect of those cries is extravagant devotion to the One who uttered those cries.
C.J. than cautioned that if we don’t intentionally review and reflect upon the gospel each day, we will inevitably review our own sin — and, consequently, be more aware of our sin than of God’s grace. Reflection upon sin should be a means, never an end. Cry out for grace, and be amazed by grace.
C.J. encouraged us to custom-design a plan so that we can each day survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died. And express extravagant devotion each day through the experience of dwelling where the cries of Calvary can be heard.
If our affections have grown cold, C.J. suggested we consider restricting our spiritual diet to dwell where the cries of Calvary have been heard. Study a gospel, particularly the passion week. Study the Savior as He resolves to go to Jerusalem, as He is overwhelmed in the garden of Gethsemane, and contemplates the experience of God’s full and righteous wrath against sin.
C.J. movingly recounted Jesus’ words on the cross as we sat with eyes closed. He then encouraged us to have Christ-centered Sunday school curricula, so that the attention of our children is drawn to Christ and Him crucified with regularity. Finally, he prayed that all present would be encouraged in their ministry and sense the Savior’s pleasure, even as we take appropriate measures to maintain our first love for Christ.
Books which C.J. commended for “dwelling where the cries of Calvary can be heard:”
1. John Stott, The Cross of Christ
2. Jerry Bridges, The Gospel for Real Life (with Study Guide)
3. Jerry Bridges, The Discipline of Grace
4. John Piper, Fifty Reasons Why Jesus Came to Die
J.I. Packer quote displayed by C.J.:
“The preachers’ commission is to declare the whole counsel of God; but the cross is the center of that counsel, and the Puritans knew that the traveler through the Bible landscape misses his way as soon as he loses sight of the hill called Calvary.”