A dear friend of mine and also a mentor preacher, John McVay recently presented a message at Loma Linda University Church called "The Alabaster Disaster." It is a story written originally by another friend, Dr. Roger Bothwell. It makes memorable the moment where a woman went shopping for an extravagant gift for Jesus.
I am working on a poem that tells this story in meter and rhyme, but it has been in process for about 3 years...and isn't done yet.
Since the poem is still percolateing, I give to you the wonderful introduction to "The Alabaster Disaster." It was used today as the opening for a communion message. Enjoy. Pastor Kris Widmer
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She moves carefully, almost suspiciously, through the growing light of dawn chasing early morning shadows as they flee narrow streets. She has walked streets before...but not in this part of town. She had been a lady of the night...now she is a woman of the day. Formerly, she would have be in bed all night, but not wink of sleep. In her former life, she would be just ending her long night of work in these dawning hours...just about now... but she is no longer a hopeless whore. She has stepped out of the darkness...into the light.
Her steps seem, at once, determined and hesitant. We catch a glimpse of her face now and again through her long shawl and we see the face of an attractive, even a beautiful woman. Her face, though, is marked by more trauma than time, more yearning than years. The first rays of the morning sun strike the tops of the olive trees and cue the songbirds. They begin to sing and she becomes more serious in her search. She stops, reads a sign on one establishment. She moves down the street a bit and pauses at another.
Finally, she seems to find what she is looking for. She opens the door in a specific shop, she enters and she moves up to the counter. There on the counter is a large brightly polished brass bell with a thick leather handle. She reaches out for the handle and pauses and waits for a moment, thinking the shopkeeper might appear. He doesn’t, and so she does finally reach out and takes the big bell and rings it ever so gently.
And, out from the back of the shop bustles the shopkeeper, cheerful and rotund. In this part of the world, the first transaction of the day matters a great deal and he is hopeful that it will be as large as it is early. And so he bustles forth.
His ebullient joy gets a little sidetracked as he looks across the counter and sees a woman dressed in very plain peasant garb. But, he summons his courage and decides to make the best of it, steps up and says, “Ma’am, how are you this beautiful morning? It is delightful to have you in my shop, what can I do for you?”
“I’d like to buy some perfume.”
“Oh, well, Ma’am, if perfume is what you need, you have come to the right place.”
He reaches beneath the counter and he pulls out a small wooden box and places it on the counter for her and begins to describe its qualities.
“Ma’am, in this small wooden box there is the essence of crushed rose petals, harvested from the banks of the Jordan River. Mass produced for public consumption. It is a lovely scent. Please enjoy.”
She reaches forward, carefully takes the little box, removes the top, wafts the aroma toward her, enjoys it for a moment, sets it back down, puts the top back on the box and asks, “How much is it?”
“Oh, Ma’am, for you, today, because the sun is shining; because my mother-in-law has gone to Jericho, for you today, today, special price, five dollars.”
She holds his gaze and asks, “Do you have something a bit more expensive?”
Oh, he hadn’t expected this, looking at this woman, but he puts the small wooden box beneath the counter and this time he brings out a plain metal box. And he begins to describe it to the woman.
“Ma’am, this understated, but beautiful metal box contains an infusion of Springtime Daffodil and Iris imported all the way form Damascus, in Syria. It is a wondrous scent. Please enjoy.”
And she does so. She pulls the little box toward herself. She takes the top off, she wafts the aroma toward her and she luxuriates in it for a moment. She puts the top back on the box and moves it a little towards the shopkeeper and asks, “Sir, how much is it?”
“Ma’am, you understand that ours it the finest perfume shop in the land, and you understand that our merchandise is manufactured and imported at great expense. You did ask for something more expensive. Ma’am, for you, today, I will sell you this lovely box for 100 dollars.”
He reaches forward knowing what will happen next, knowing that he will take this metal box, put it back beneath the counter, and he will take out that small five dollar wooden box. It will look better to her now, and she will purchase that one. And so he reaches forward. He takes the box, that plain metal box and is putting it beneath the counter when she asks, “Sir, do you have something just a bit more expensive?”
Something begins to get worrisome at this point. He’s growing a little uneasy about this transaction, but he is being sucked into the vortex of this drama that is unfolding before his counter and so he reaches beneath his counter and pulls out a silver box, with a little clasp. Ever so carefully, he places it there and begins to describe it.
“Ma’am, you did ask for something more expensive and more expensive this is. This box comes to us from Arabia. It comes by camel caravan. Inside is an ancient formula, a mixture of balsam and cardamom. It is the gift, Ma’am, of a lord for his lady.”
She looks at the shopkeeper for permission. He nods. She reaches forward. She takes the beautifully tooled silver box with the little clasp. She opens the clasp and moves the top back, and wafts the wondrous ancient formula toward her, luxuriates in it for a moment, puts the top back, holds the shopkeepers gaze and asks, “Sir, how much is it?”
“Ma’am, for you today, 1000 dollars.”
She takes her fingers and stirs within the folds of her garment and the shopkeeper can hear coins clanking against one another. She removes her hand and holds his gaze and asks, “I have a bit more money than that, is it possible that you have something a bit more expensive?”
At this point, risk management issues come to mind, the keeper is concerned about security, and so he asks, “Ma’am are you sure you have money?”
“Yes, I have money.”
And so he bustles from behind the counter. He goes and opens the door, looks both ways down the street, and then he double locks the door, and he moves back around the counter. He notices that his palms are going clammy. “Ma’am, I have another treasure, it will take me a moment.”
So, he goes into the back of his shop and he brings out something in a wonderful piece of fine linen and sets it on the counter. He opens the linen, and there it is, a thing of true beauty, a beautiful gold vase. Pure symmetry and loveliness, gold. It has a wonderfully tooled stopper and this time he reaches forward and removes the stopper, wafts the aroma toward her and she enjoys it for a moment as he explains that it is imported from Rome, from the banks of the Tiber River. “It is the extract and the essence of saffron and cinnamon. It is the gift of a king for his queen.”
“How much is it?”
“For you today, Ma’am, Special Price as you open my shop for the day. 2,500 dollars.”
His blood pressure increases yet more dramatically when she asks, “Do you have something just a bit more expensive? I have to know, is this the best that your shop can offer?”
FIVE: “Well Ma’am, I do, but you must understand that this final treasure represents most of the wealth of our family. We have saved over years and years to possess this wondrous artifact. You are alone?”
“I am alone.”
“You do have money?”
“I have money.”
“It will take me a few moments,” and he disappears yet again.
When he reappears after some absence, he comes to the counter and he is carrying a beautiful piece of crushed velvet. He peels back the corners and there, standing like a starry galaxy against the black night sky, is a gorgeous alabaster jar of precious ointment.
With reverent tones he explains to the woman that this alabaster jar was imported from India. “In it is myrrh with a hint of marjoram It is the gift of an emperor for his empress. It is an extravagant gift. You cannot,” he says, “enjoy a sample of this scent. For you see, once it is used, the jar is broken. You cannot use part of this gift, you must use it all at once.”
“How much is this perfume?” she asks.
“Ma’am. There is nothing finer in the entire Mediterranean coastlands. I cannot let it let it leave my possession for anything less than 10,000 dollars.”
He is stunned, as she reaches into the folds of her garments. She collects the clinking coins hidden there. She proceeds to count them out on the counter and place them in stacks of ten. “I believe this should be enough. I’ll take it.”
The transaction is completed. He has made his first sale of the day. He has made the sale of his lifetime. She looks at him. He nods. She wraps up the treasure in the velvet and tucks it in the folds of her robe. She slips out into the streets of the city. No one, no one, would guess the treasure she holds.
She bides her time. She plans and schemes, her reconnaissance is accurate and true. She listens for reports on his itinerary and her moment finally comes - An appointment for her ointment.
Luke’s story is wonderful, and inspiring, a case study of one who gets it, one who understands the charms of Christ.
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