Two women - Luke 10:38-42

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the evening service on 4th March 2007.

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How would you answer the following question? What is the chief end of man? What is the chief end of man? Or let me phrase in more everyday language. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? What is the point of our existence? Most of us don’t ask these questions every minute of the day. We don’t have time, life is too busy. But have you never taken a step off the treadmill of 21st century existence, even just once, even just for a moment, and contemplated why you are here? What is the chief end of man? Some of you will recognize this question from the Shorter Westminster Catechism, a document which was written, after the English Civil War, to teach people what it meant to be a Christian. It was written between 1642 and 1647 and it contains 107 spiritual questions with corresponding spiritual answers. The first question is the one I have already asked you tonight: What is the chief end of man?

Edmund Blackadder once answered this question by comparing life to a broken pencil. He said it was pointless! But listen to the answer of the Westminster Catechism: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. To glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

We must never forget that God is God. He is our Creator. He is Ruler. And so he deserves to be glorified. He deserves to be honoured by the creatures he has made. And yet, according to the Bible, God is not a cosmic kill-joy. He does not have a mission to spoil our fun. He is not against pleasure and joy. He is the life-giving and life-enhancing God. And so I do love how the Westminster Catechism summarises our purpose in life. It is not simply to glorify God but to glorify God and to enjoy him forever.

So how can we do this? That’s the next obvious question isn’t it? How can we as creatures know how to treat our Creator in the proper way? Well, let me read question 2 of the Catechism. It goes like this: What rule [i.e. standard] hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him? Do you know the answer? The Word of God, which is contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, is the only rule to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him.

The chief end of man is not to read the Bible and study it forever. Knowledge of the Bible is not an end in itself. We do not worship the Bible. However, in the plans of God, the Bible is the way he has provided for people to know him better, and so the means by which we learn how to glorify him and how to enjoy him.

There are no short-cuts to spiritual vitality. If we desire a healthy spiritual life then we need regular interaction with this book. We need to carve our time in our busy diaries to make engagement with the Bible a priority. We need to make daily choices to ensure the urgent does not squeeze out the important. Or to use the language of Luke 10, we need to follow the example of Mary and not the example of Martha. You’ll see from verse 38 that Jesus and his disciples were on their way to Jerusalem when they were invited into the home of a lady called Martha. We don’t know much about her. Luke does not tell us the name of her village; he does not comment on her appearance; we have no idea if she liked music and if she did what kind. We know virtually nothing about her, except that she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.

Now we’ll discover in verse 42 that Jesus commends Mary for making the right choice. He says unmistakably that Mary “has chosen what is better [that is, listening to Jesus], and it will not be taken away from her.” There is one simple point to this story. Every disciple of Jesus is urged to follow in the footsteps of Mary. She makes the wise choice. And so her behaviour should to be copied.

And yet before we reach verse 42 we are presented with the choice of Maratha. It is all very deliberate. The camera swings away from Mary and makes us concentrate on the frenetic activity of Martha. And as we do so God wants us to ask the question: Why is her lifestyle to be avoided like the plague? Listen to what we are told in verse 40. “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 all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” And listen to Jesus’ reply. Verse 41: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better.”

I’m sure most of you cope better than I do in the kitchen. I seem to be perfectly calm when all I have in front of me is a small saucepan of Heinz Tomato Soup. But when the catering gets more complicated my stress levels increase by the minute. I was reminded recently of the reason why you should never phone a man when he is doing the ironing – unless you want him to burn his ear it is better to phone him at a different time! Men are not known for their multi-tasking ability and I’m sure many of my kitchen disasters can be traced to this fundamental problem. However, even though I would love to justify simple one-course cooking on the basis of this Bible story I feel certain that God has something else to teach us from Martha’s mistakes.

Why is Martha presented as a negative example? Well, it’s not because she never bought a microwave at her local supermarket. The preparation of too much food was certainly an issue for this Jewish woman but it only became a problem because of what it stopped Martha from doing. Listen again to verse 40 and see if you can pick out the key word. “Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.” The word distracted is key. It means to be pulled away from something that is important.

We all know from personal experience that we cannot do everything we want to do. Life has so many potential activities that could occupy our time but you know as well as I do that there comes a point when one more item in the diary has a negative impact on everything else we are trying to do.
The point will be different for each one of us. We can all cope with different levels of activity, with different levels of busyness but there is a line for everyone. And if we cross it the results will not be good. Martha had crossed her line. No doubt she was thrilled to have Jesus and his 12 disciples in her sitting room but her plans to feed these hungry men turned out to be too complicated. No doubt she was keen to please but in the end the number of extra things she wanted to do stopped her from doing the thing that was most important. Her top priority should have been to listen to the words of Jesus and if anything pulled her away from such an activity it should have been stopped right away.

Now we know from the Parable of the Good Samaritan, which comes immediately before this incident in Luke’s Gospel, that service in the Kingdom of God is a good thing. We need to be active amongst the people of God. We are commanded to use our talents in the service of others. But, according to this story, we must be careful that our busyness does not prevent us from hearing the precious words of Jesus. Too much activity, even Christian activity, can damage our spiritual development. And this is why God deliberately arranged for the story of Mary and Martha to be placed at this point in Luke’s Gospel. He wants us to use the gifts he has given us. He wants us to serve in his Kingdom with great enthusiasm. But he also wants us to be careful. In our enthusiasm to serve, God says, “Don’t do a Martha. She is there as an example for you to avoid like the plague. Don’t be pulled away from hearing the word of God.” Now, of course, Martha did get one thing right. She wanted to serve the Lord Jesus Christ. But in her keenness to serve she was distracted from what should have been her number one priority.

It is possible for a good thing to become the enemy of the best thing. Watching TV is not bad in itself. Playing sport is good for us. Visiting family, having friends round for dinner, reading books, going shopping, walking the dog, browsing the Internet – the list could go on and on. We should thank God for his physical world. He has given us so many good activities to occupy our time. But here is the caution from the Bible – it is possible for a good thing to become the enemy of the best thing. It is possible for anything, and this even includes what we do for the Kingdom of God, to pull us away from the priority of listening to the word of God. And when this happens to us we must stop the activity in question.

Michael Baughen was a former Bishop of Chester and he was previously the vicar of a large Bible-teaching church in central London. A few years ago he reflected on his life so far and this is what he said about his experience of being a full-time church leader: “In the 33 years of Christian ministry that I’ve gone through, 90% of the pastoral problems I’ve encountered have as their root cause the fact that the person in question has stopped reading their Bible and praying each day.”

Why is a regular engagement with the Bible such a priority? Because when we put the Bible to one side there are negative consequences for us and for other people. And this is illustrated in the life of Martha. Look at what she does in verse 40. She came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

How many times do Christians wonder if God really cares? Perhaps you have even expressed your concern to another Christian. How can I believe in a good God when there is so much suffering in the world? Or maybe something painful has happened much closer to home, to someone you love or perhaps even to you. And you ask the question: Don’t you care about me God? Or it may be that God feels so distant. You remember a previous era when it seemed you had a hot-line to heaven but now the feelings are not the same. And so you ask the question: Don’t you care about me God?

Until we see God face to face we are to live by faith, not by sight. Now this does not mean we are to adopt the Ostrich Position as we live out our days. We are not to stick our head in the sand to avoid the evidence all around us.  To live by faith is not to believe things we know aren’t true but to believe that the promises of God are trustworthy and reliable. And where do we find the promises of God today? In this book. The Bible is a treasure chest packed full of God’s commitments to his people.

So when we ask the question “Don’t you care about me God?” and we suspect the answer is “No, I don’t care about you” then we must quickly open our Bibles and read the promises of God.

Romans 5:8, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this, Christ died for us.”

Romans 8:35-39, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness of danger or sword? … No, in all things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

“Don’t you care about me God?” “Of course I do, Lee. Read your Bible and believe what you see.”

The first consequence of not reading the Bible is a break down of our relationship with God.

The second consequence is a break down of our relationship with other people. And again this is illustrated by Martha. Look at what she says about her sister in verse 40. “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

It often happens when people stop reading the word of God. Their self-centeredness gets the better of them and they lash out at other people. Christians may be forgiven but we are still undergoing a process of transformation by the Holy Spirit. Let us be clear about this. Deep within the Christian heart is the potential for much ungodliness. Christians are not perfect people. It is very easy for us to relate to those around us in ways that hurt and offend them. And that’s why we need the Bible, isn’t it? We need the constant guidelines of God set before our eyes to remind us how we should live.

When John Wesley left home, his mother, Susannah, is said to have written these words in the front cover of his Bible: “Sin will keep you from this book, but this book will keep you from sin.”

Put the Bible to one side and what happens? Well, first of all, our relationship with God breaks down. Secondly, our relationship with other people breaks down. And, thirdly, we break down. Listen to what Jesus says to Martha in verse 41. “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things.” How true to life! Take away the word of God and Christians start to worry. Now, of course, some people are natural born worriers. I love what the writer Emma Bornbeck says about her own personality. She says, “I've always worried a lot and frankly, I'm good at it. I worry about introducing people and going blank when I get to my mother. I worry about a shortage of ball bearings; a snake coming up through the kitchen drain. I worry about the world ending at midnight and getting stuck with three hours on a twenty four hour cold capsule. I worry about getting into the Guinness Book of records under "Pregnancy: Oldest recorded birth." I worry what the dog thinks when he sees me coming out of the shower; that one of my children will marry an Eskimo who will set me adrift on an iceberg when I can no longer feed myself. I worry about salesladies following me into the fitting room. I worry about scientists discovering that lettuce has been fattening all along.”

Now perhaps you can relate to these words of Emma Bornbeck. Perhaps you too have a personality which is prone to anxiety. But let me say that your temperament will get even worse if you stop listening to the word of God. Life is full of uncertainty. We like to pretend we are in control of our destinies but the reality is very different. Our control is an illusion! And this is what makes us concerned.

And yet wonderfully the Bible teaches us that we have no need to fret. Flick over a page in our Bibles and this is what Jesus says in Luke 12. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear…Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds. And how much more valuable you are than birds!” What is the remedy for anxiety? Well, of course in some situations we need to visit our doctor for help but the ultimate remedy for a troubled heart is to believe what God says about himself in the Bible.

The Bible is not a lifeless book. It is a treasure chest of God’s promises. It is the nutritional food for our souls. It where God speaks to us profoundly. It where we learn how to glorify God and enjoy him forever. And, as we’ve already seen tonight, when we put it to one side our life suffers as a consequence. So let me end by offering you a few tips that will help us remain committed to the Bible.

First of all, let’s recognize the priority of Bible engagement. Jesus said that Mary had chosen what is better. She had recognized the importance of listening to the words of Jesus. And so must we. If we don’t appreciate why it’s important then it will easily slip off our radar. So let’s recognize the priority of hearing the Bible explained.

Secondly, let’s stop doing anything which is currently distracting us from listening to the word of God. May be some folk here who are not actively involved in God’s service. It’s all listening. That’s a problem. All food and no exercise is not good for us! But the issue being addressed here is one of over busyness. God says to us – drop the distraction! Mary made a choice to listen to Jesus but her positive choice to listen meant she had to say no to helping her sister in the kitchen. Is there anything in your life that is pulling you away from the Bible? It could be secular or it could even be your service for the Kingdom of God. In a culture which is running at full speed we need self-discipline to hear what God is saying. So let’s stop doing anything which is currently pulling us away from listening to the word of God.

Thirdly, let’s take advantage of the many Bible teaching opportunities available to us.

o Reading the Bible on your own
    o Why not carve out a segment of time in your daily schedule to hear God speak to you?
    o Too busy? Then you probably are. Too busy to hear the God of the universe speak to you personally? What is the world coming to! Or is it more the     case that some of us don’t believe this takes place every time we open the Bible?
    o Not dryly academic. Only for the intellectuals. God wants to engage our mind, warm our hearts and activate our wills.
    o All sorts of helps available to keep us going.
    o Why not try memorising verses of the Bible?
    o B.B. Warfield once said, “You must assimilate the Bible and make it your own, in that intimate sense which will fix its words fast in your hearts, if you     would have those words rise spontaneously to your lips in your times of need, or in times of the needs of others. Read, study, meditate...until the             Bible is in you. Then the Bible will well up in you and come out from you in every season of need.”
o Reading the Bible in a small group
    o Amazing privilege to have a number of small groups which meet around the city to study the Bible together, to pray and to support each other.             Encourage you to join one if you haven’t already.
    o You probably know all about home groups. But there is perhaps a group you don’t know about called Firm Foundations. A group you join for a short     period of time – 7 weeks. Basic ways of how to live and grow as a Christian. Start after Easter. If you are someone who hasn’t done that basic course     and want to move on in your Christian faith then come and chat to me at the end.
o Reading the Bible as a church
    o Sometimes we miss the obvious don’t we but when you examine the NT you will discover most of it is addressed to churches. So although the big         question we often ask is: What does this mean to me? A more frequent question which the Bible answers is: What is God saying to the church?             Letters like Philemon are the exception not the rule.
    o Although I want to encourage personal Bible reading, it is vital, we cannot substitute the personal for the corporate.
    o It is important that we make the church gathering a priority. Not drifting in and out when it suits us or when we feel like it.
    o But to come along each week, regardless of our feelings, expecting the living God to address us as his people.
    o So why not prepare before you come? Instead of watching the telly why not pray and read the passage to be preached upon? Why not warm y            yourself up before you even walk through the doors at the back?
    o When we do arrive let’s have the right expectations. Remember we have not come to a lecture but we have come to the gathering of God’s people     where we will sing to him, where we will encourage each other, when we will pray to him and when he will speak to us as his redeemed people. 

“Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Let’s pray that we make a similar choice.

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