38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, "Lord, don't you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" 41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)
These Sunday mornings leading up to Christmas we are considering the biblical basis of the Network Course and how we can find our place in the Body of Christ. Today we want to examine the place of personality and personal preferences. (You may like to do the exercise in the notes or better still read the book and plan to attend the course next Spring) As a taster I want you to try something. Get comfortable. Now cross your arms. Glance down and notice the position of your hands and arms. O.K. Relax, unfold your arms. Now I'd like you to do it again. But this time, put the arm that was underneath on top and the arm that was on top underneath. In other words, reverse your arms. Got it? It wasn't as easy to do this time, was it? Did it feel awkward? Uncomfortable? You really had to think about it. The first time it was natural, it didn't require any thought, because that's your preferred way of doing it. We each cross our arms in a certain way, and no arm crossing technique is right or wrong, good or bad. They are just different. And arm crossing is typical of just about everything we think and do. That is my first point this morning.
1. Recognise in one another our unique God-given personalities
As Jesus and his disciples
were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her
home to him. She had a sister called Mary,
who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said."
Mary and Martha were sisters. Yet they had very different personalities. Mary's tranquil composure vividly contrasting with Martha's busy fussiness. Your God given personality reflects the way you prefer to relate to the world around you. You have been created with preferences - choices you make when you relate to others. Whether they are programmed into our genes or represent learned behaviour is irrelevant. You are more comfortable relating in some ways than in others, and that gives you energy. When you are forced to relate to people in ways that are not natural for you then you feel drained. We function much like a battery - we have to be charged up to be useful. A battery can only give until it is empty. Once its empty its useless until its recharged again.
The question is: what gives you energy and what drains you? Some things will charge you up other things will drain you. Are you aware of what energises you? Do you find people or tasks more fulfilling? Both are needed. God has created some of us with an orientation to people and others to accomplishing tasks. Martha was more task orientated than Mary. For Martha, it was getting the house ready and preparing a meal that energised her. For Mary it was sitting at the feet of Jesus contemplating his words that energised her. Although sisters they were very different but in the words of the Psalmist, "fearfully and wonderfully made". So my first observation is that we must recognise in one another our unique God-given personalities.
2. Respect in one another our different God-given preferences
"Lord, don't you care
that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
When ever I read this story I find myself sympathising with Martha. Perhaps because I identify with Martha in her frustration. It is typical of the activist, who likes to fill every available moment. Who would be miserable at having nothing to do, yet complains of a lack of help. Why can't people be more like me? Jesus was not criticising Martha for being the person she was but for her bad attitude to her sister. Martha did not respect the person God had made her sister. Martha was upset with Mary because she just wanted to sit and listen to Jesus when there was the food to prepare and the table to get ready. Martha was upset with Mary for not being like her, for not sharing her priorities. In this story Jesus affirms them both. There is both affection and a gentle rebuke in his reply to Martha. He was not going to side with her as she wanted even though he would like to eat later.
We may smile yet most of us still do this. We wonder why people can't be more like us, why people don't share our values, or feel the same way about the world as we do. We get frustrated when what appears obvious to us is not obvious to them. For example, in our house I like the shoes to be in the coat cupboard not spread around the house. Not only that I like them to be in neat rows in pairs, with the largest pairs of shoes at one end of the cupboard (mine) and the smallest at the other end (Michael's). Life would be so much less stressful if the shoes were kept in the cupboard in that way. Its so obvious. But in our family I am outvoted five to one and the only shoes in the cupboard are the ones they no longer wear... Because other people are not like us we have a dilemma.
The temptation is to look down on people and treat them as unspiritual or worse. The other trick we play is to find people sympathetic to our point of view to put pressure on people to see things our way. Just as Martha tried to get Jesus to side with her against her sister. Instead Jesus gave Mary permission to be herself, permission to be different since God had made her unique, special, different, in order, like us, that we compliment each other. So, first we must recognise in each other our unique God-given personalities. Second we must respect in one another our different God-given preferences.
3. Relate to one another serving with a God-given devotion
the Lord answered, "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
away from her." (10:41-42)
Mary of Bethany appears three times in the Gospels, and on each occasion, she is in the same place: at the feet of Jesus. She sat at His feet and listened to His Word (Luke 10:39), fell at His feet and shared her woe (John 11:32), and came to His feet and poured out her worship (John 12:3). It is interesting to note that in each of these instances, there is some kind of fragrance: in Luke 10, it is food; in John 11, it is death (John 11:39); and in John 12, it is perfume. Mary and Martha are often contrasted as though we must make a choice: be a worker like Martha or a worshiper like Mary. Certainly our personalities and gifts are different, but that does not mean that the Christian life is an either/or situation. Charles Wesley said it perfectly in one of his hymns:
Faithful to my Lord's commands,
I still would choose the better part;
Serve with careful Martha's hands,
And loving Mary's heart.
The Lord wants each of us to imitate Mary in our worship and Martha in our work. Blessed are the balanced! Consider Martha's situation. She received Jesus into her home but then neglected Him as she prepared an elaborate meal that He did not need! The personality of the guest is more important than any entertainment. What we do with Christ is far more important than what we do for Christ. Again, it is not an either/or situation; it is a matter of balance. Mary had presumably done her share of the work in the kitchen earlier and then had gone to "feed" on the Lord's teachings.
Martha felt neglected after Mary left the kitchen, and she began to complain and to suggest that neither the Lord nor Mary really cared! Few things are as damaging to the Christian life as trying to work for Christ without taking time to commune with Christ. Mary chose the better part, the part that could not be taken from her. She knew that she could not live "by bread alone" (Matt. 4:4). Whenever we criticize others and pity ourselves because we feel overworked, we had better take time to examine our lives. Perhaps in all of our busyness, we have been ignoring the Lord.
"Only one thing is needed" Martha's problem was not that she had too much work to do, but that she allowed her work to distract her and pull her apart. She was trying to serve two masters. If serving Christ makes us difficult to live with, then something is terribly wrong with our service. We can be so absorbed with work of the Lord that we neglect the Lord of the work. The difference between Mary and Martha that concerned Jesus had nothing to do with their personalities or preferences. The key had to do with their priorities: "Only one thing is needed." Jesus Christ first, then others, then ourselves. It is vitally important that we spend time "at the feet of Jesus" every single day, letting Him share His Word with us. The most important part of the Christian life is the part that only God sees. Only one thing is needed. Unless we meet Christ personally and privately each day, we will soon end up like Martha: busy but not blessed. In my pastoral ministry, when people come with serious problems, I first ask whether they are eating, sleeping and exercising properly. If not then I'm not surprised. I don't look for a spiritual solution to a physical problem. But if they are eating, sleeping and exercizing and still have the problem, then I ask about their devotional life. Invariably the response is an embarrassed look, a bowed head, a quiet confession, "I stopped reading my Bible and praying a long time ago." And they wonder why they have problems. The solution? "Only one thing is needed"
First we must recognise in one another our unique God-given personalities. Both Mary and Martha had excellent qualities.
Second we must respect in one another our different God-given preferences. Thank God for the Mary's and Martha's in our church family however unlike us they may be.
Third, relate to one another serving with a God-given devotion. Martha was focussed on her own goals.
So busy being gracious and polite and a good hostess she had no time to be with the Lord. We too may say that all we have, our time, money, talents belongs to the Lord, but does he have our undivided attention? "Only one thing is needed" I believe Martha learned her lesson, for two chapters later, in Luke 12:1-2 she prepares a feast for Jesus, the Twelve, and her brother and sisterthat's fifteen peopleand there is not a hint of a word of complaint! She had God's peace in her heart because she had learned to sit at the feet of Jesus. "Only one thing is needed" Serving with style. We are ambassadors, we are neighbours, and we are worshipers, these three; and the greatest of these is worshipers. Charles Wesley summed up this story beautifully in his verse,
"Oh that I could ever sit
with Mary at the Master's feet.
Be this my happy choice.
My only care, delight and bliss,
my joy, my heaven on earth, be this,
to hear the Bridegroom's voice."
I am indebted to Bruce Bugbee's, "What you do Best in the Body of Christ" and Warren Wersbie's commentary on Luke for material used in this sermon.