It is my custom, at this point in pregnancy, to do as little as possible during services on Sunday Morning. I teach Sunday School, shmooze during Coffee Hour, do various jobs in the office, run up and down the stairs lots of times (Those Who Don't Think With Their Heads, Run With Their Feet), and a myriad of other odd jobs. So by the time the last service comes round, I position myself grandly in the rocking chair next to the choir and sit, not usually even getting up for the Peace. I miss preaching and being on the altar and the physical acts of worship, but this time I have really enjoyed sitting and letting it all happen, without having to be in the mix. AND, lucky for me, Matt has hit a groove in his preaching (there's a lot to be said for preaching many Sundays in a row, rather than switching on and off), and I've been able to listen and be fed, which can be hard, when the preacher is your husband. Anyway, this morning, as a result of this very fine sermon, I was able to stop and take inventory of my own work and service in the church, my motivations and intentions, my emotional stake in the whole enterprise, and my own willingness to sit at the feet of Jesus. I hope you all will take a moment to do the same.
Mary and Martha
There are a lot of workers at Good Shepherd. People here are always busy doing something for the church and it’s a wonderful thing to see. I was so impressed at our last work day at the number of people who gave their time and effort. But there are times when service, even in the church, displeases Christ. Our Gospel lesson this morning provides an example of one of these times and a principle that can be applied to everything that we do both in church and in the world. So let’s open our bibles to Luke 10:38-42.
At first Martha does everything right. She’s unwilling to let Jesus pass through her village, Bethany, without “opening her home to him.” She welcomed him. Martha and Mary may already know Jesus. They figure prominently in the gospels as supporters of his ministry. But whether they know him or not, Martha was certainly being hospitable. So far, so good.
But then, in verse 39 we’re introduced to Martha’s sister Mary. Mary we’re told, “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” To first century readers of this gospel, Mary’s repose at Jesus feet would have been considered extremely inappropriate.
Jesus having accepted Martha’s hospitality enters her home and begins teaching his disciples. The proper thing at this point would be for the hosts, Martha and Mary, to prepare a meal. This is especially true of Mary since she seems to be the younger sister. Martha, not Mary, “opened her home” which indicates that Martha held authority. So if anyone should be sitting at this point, and really no one ought to be sitting, it should be the elder sister Martha. Instead it is Mary. She’s not serving her guest, her Guest is serving her and she’s letting him. Shockingly inappropriate. By verse 39, 1st century readers would be expecting Jesus to commend Martha and to rebuke Mary.
And my guess is that if some of us had been there we would’ve had the same inclination. Jesus Christ is in the house. If you labor to prepare your home for regular guests, imagine the level of preparation if Jesus were coming or if he were sitting in your living room waiting for dinner. And here’s Mary sitting.
All the while, “Martha,” Luke tells us, “was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” The Greek word translated here as “preparations” is, in fact, the word for service. So this text literally reads, “Martha was a distracted by all the service.” And she wasn’t just fussing. Sometimes people just fuss around. There’s nothing really that needs to be done but they need to be doing something so they just find things to busy themselves. That’s not what is happening here. Preparations “had” to be made and Martha was making them. She was working her fingers to the bone.
And as she does this and as Mary sits, Martha’s attitude begins to change. We don’t want to read anything into this text that’s not there but if I step into Martha’s shoes for a moment I can imagine two things that may have been going on in her mind because they would have been going on in mine. First, I can imagine her thinking: “Here I am again, doing all the work. If something were to happen to me, this house would fall apart." “If it weren’t for me doing this and if it weren’t for me that then nothing would get done.”
And, no doubt, while it would certainly sound like a complaint if we heard it out loud, there’s also a little vanity, a little pride here as well. Search your heart honestly. In those moments when you’ve said or thought similar things: thinking of yourself as the key person, the hard worker, the one who gets things done, the doer, there’s been a little self-satisfaction there, a little pride. So I imagine there’s some pride here in Martha and that comes out later.
Second, I bet that as Martha worked she assumed that Jesus would notice and appreciate and recognize her service. And the longer she served and the longer Mary sat and the longer Jesus seemed not to care the more frustrated Martha became.
I always know when Anne is getting frustrated with my laziness. I’ll be downstairs on the computer and gradually the noise of pots and pans or whatever it is she’s doing grows perceptively louder until it is obvious that noise is being made purposefully. After 5 years of marriage I’ve learned that this is a signal and it means that I better get up off my duff and go help if I know what’s good for me.
But Jesus not only ignores Martha's work, but he’s just fine with Mary sitting there doing nothing.
Finally, after who knows how long, Martha loses it. She can’t contain herself anymore and out comes this complaint: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself. Tell her to help me!”
Now, I hope you’ve noticed what’s happened here. It’s subtle but important. Martha has, in her mind, gone from servant, from serving Jesus, to master. Her words are accusatory and commanding. They’re the words of someone who feels entitled.
Martha has used her service as a means to establish her authority and control. People do that in the church all the time. I do this much work, I give this much money, so things better go my way. In Martha’s case, she’s let it go to the point that in her mind, her authority extends even over God’s only Son. “Tell her to help me.” That’s not a request or petition. That's a command.
What Martha has refused to do from the moment Jesus entered her home, is to sit at his feet and listen to his Word. Jesus is not an ordinary guest. The indignation building up in Martha’s heart would be excusable if Jesus were an ordinary guest. But he’s not.
Mary got this. She may have had her faults, but she knew that despite custom, despite tradition, despite what her older sister wanted her to do, this man, this Jesus was different and his words, his teachings far more important than getting the dishes done or the floor swept or the roast in the oven. And she was right.
When I first came to this church some very nice ladies came to me and said, "well we’re a church full of Martha’s not Mary’s so don’t expect to see many people at bible study." And then, later, I was told by a very fine gentleman, "Whatever you do, don’t preach over 10 minutes. There are so many other things to do on a Sunday morning that sit in church." And the idea behind both of these friendly warnings was that some people are workers and get things done in God’s kingdom and others go in for all the religious stuff. We’re the workers. We're the Marthas. Somehow, at some point, work and service in the church had come to serve as a rationale for neglecting the Word of God.
That’s not the lesson of this text. Jesus does not say, "I suppose I should stop teaching so that we can go into the kitchen and help Marth work." Martha is rebuked.
“Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.”
Service of any sort both in the church and in the world is always secondary in priority to the Word. Our work as believers cannot replace but rather must flow out of our study of Scripture.
Don't get me wrong. Jesus not saying that it's good to sit around on the couch 24/7 reading the bible. He is saying that the Word rather than the work is what is “needed”. Jesus does not need your work and service. He can do anything through anybody. No one is necessary or indispensable in the church. God can use me to preach his word or he can use an ass. I’m unnecessary. He wants to use me and he wants to use you, but he doesn’t need to use me and he doesn't need to use you. And, in fact, in order for us to be useful to the Master we must first know him and know what he says and know what kind of work he wants otherwise we’re running off in 25 different directions like Martha “distracted” by many things while neglecting what is necessary.
Walk into a dying church, and you can find them all around, and you’ll likely see that the few people there are good people, industrious people. You'll find that the grounds and facilities are clean and well cared for, the garden watered, but that the church is dying all the same. Why? More often than not the people have worked their fingers to the bone but ignored or neglected the careful study of God’s Word and obedience to it.
Make no mistake, when the next bake sale or bazaar comes around that church will be abuzz with energy and earnestness. But when the Word of God is preached, the people go to sleep. If the pastor dares start a bible study he finds himself alone staring at empty chairs. The bibles in the parishioners’ homes are thick with dust.
Being Martha is a lot easier. If you haven’t opened your bible in years; if you’ve never sat at Jesus’ feet and become familiar with his Word, then when it’s taught or read, you feel stupid and a little out of control and no one likes to feel that way so you avoid it and rationalize your avoidance with service. "Oh no, I have no idea what the bible says about this or that. I don’t really go in for that stuff, but I do serve on the ladies auxiliary." "I do take care of the grounds." "I do maintenance." "I vacuum once a month." "I serve as an usher" And meanwhile, the church dies. And all of the industrious work of the church is reduced to the work of an undertaker, making the carcass look good on the outside while inside it’s full of dead bones.
Service, especially in the church, is good and the Lord certainly calls us to it, but only one thing is needed and that is the word of God. Work without a prior commitment and devotion to God’s Word is a recipe for death. The word of God is the Word of life. Bible study is not one ministry among many, it is the necessary ministry that informs and under girds and gives life to worship and fellowship and service. Unless you know the Lord and know what he’s like and what will please him, how can your service be useful? Service means nothing and accomplishes nothing unless it is set under and born out of devotion to and dedication to the Word of God.
So ask yourself this morning. What role does scripture play in my life? Is it your benchmark, your guidebook, your measure, part of your daily walk with Jesus, is it the means of God’s nourishment and encouragement and comfort and conviction in your life as it should be or is it your paperweight? Is it nicely displayed on your mantle but never read? Do you get excited by the thought of Harvest Dinner and bored by the thought of bible study? That is the recipe for spiritual death. There’s no replacement, no exchanging, no excuse for neglecting the word of God. As believers and as a church we must sit at the Lords feet and listen to his word because that is the only way that our work will be pleasing in his sight.