Sunday, 28 December 2008

One Thing - Your Choice!

In Luke 10.38-42 we have the story of Jesus in the home of Martha and Mary. It is a fascinating story. There are three actors, but only two speak. It is Jesus who will have the last word! Mary will remain silent throughout. The home belongs to a family well acquainted with Jesus. From John’s gospel we know that they are good friends, John 11.1-5; 12.1-3. This was a family He enjoyed visiting and He was clearly welcome. Yet Luke’s focus is not on this longstanding relationship. He positions this account with his oft repeated phrase ‘certain’. “...He entered a certain village and a certain woman named Martha welcomed Him into her house”.

Consider how often Luke does this; Luke 7.41 – ‘there was a certain creditor’; 8.2 – ‘and certain women who had been healed..’,8.22 – ‘Now it happened on a certain day...’,8.27 – ‘there met Him a certain man’ 10.25 – ‘And behold a certain lawyer stood up..,10.31 – ‘Now by chance a certain Priest came...’; 11.1 – ‘as He was praying in a certain place...’,11.27 – ‘And it happened as He spoke these things that a certain woman from the crowd...’; 12.16 – ‘...the ground of a certain rich man yielded plentifully..’. Over and over Luke uses this word; 13.6; 14.2; 15.11; 16.1, 19; 17.12; 18.2, 18, 35; 19.12; 20.9; 21.2; 22.56; 23.26; 24.22. It is a clever literary device. He is trying to communicate the ordinariness of these everyday encounters. He does so to enable us as readers to put ourselves in the story. It could be about you and me. And as we read we realise – this is me!

So it is with this beautiful encounter. Two sisters make two choices. One makes a choice to serve, the other to sit. One choice is not intrinsically better than the other. Serving is good. What Martha is doing comes from a desire to bless Jesus. But the account shows us that the joy of serving Him has left her. It won’t be long before she explodes and has a word with Jesus. Mary on the other hand puts everything aside to sit at the feet of Jesus and hear His words. Luke is purposeful with his use of phrases. To sit at the feet of a master was an acknowledged term that meant a person was accepted as a disciple of the one at whose feet they learned. Luke uses this phrase again in his book of Acts when Paul speak of himself as educated, ‘at the feet of Gamaiel’, Acts 22.3. (He is throughout his gospel showing the new status that women will have under the New Covenant. It is Elizabeth and Mary at the beginning of his gospel who demonstrate unwavering faith, while Zacharias endures nine months of silence for his unbelief and Joseph needs an angelic visitation to be encouraged to take Mary as his wife. Women support Jesus ministry financially, Luke 8.1-3 and it is a woman who first encounters the resurrection and declares it to the disciples, Luke 24.10!)

Finally Martha cannot hold it in any longer. She is ready to blow. She comes to Jesus with two accusations and a clear way of solving the problem – as she sees it. The first accusation is against Him; ‘Lord don’t You care....’ Let me paraphrase. “Jesus, if you really loved me, if you really cared, if you were really concerned, you would not let this unfair situation continue. After all, I’m doing this for You”. Does that ring any bells? Often we end up serving the Lord but it isn’t from a place a rest or peace. We are striving. Sometimes this is rooted is the need for recognition. We need to be noticed. Sometimes it is out of guilt; ‘I must do something’. Sometimes we are just driven to achieve and perform. This often goes back to childhood where we somehow received the programming that says we are accepted when we succeed and do well. Our sense of value becomes rooted in our performance rather than who we are. Take away the performance and our sense of value is removed. Whatever the reason, Martha felt resentful – primarily towards Mary, but ultimately against Jesus. After all He is letting it happen and if He really cared He wouldn’t do that.

And so the second accusation is released, this time against Mary . ‘My sister has left me to serve alone’. It’s her fault. I would not be feeling the way I am if she would just get up of her lazy bum and get in here and help me. Forgive my liberal paraphrase but it is not far from the truth. Martha is making a classic mistake. She thinks her happiness is in Mary’s hands. She’s wrong. It is never the events in life that impact us. It is always how we choose to interpret those events. Our perception, our interpretation of reality, is what truly impacts our inner world. Finally Martha ends up telling Jesus what to do. This is in stark contrast to His own mother at the wedding of Cana where she speaks to the servants and says, ‘whatever He says to you, do it’ John 2.5. Here Martha presumes to tell Jesus what is needed. And in her presumption we see ourselves. How many times do we try to manipulate God by asking (praying) Him to make others do what we want? True love frees others to choose to serve, not out of compulsion or obligation but out of love and joy.

Peter writes to other leaders reminding them that real service must come from the heart willingly, 1Pet 5.2. Using prayer to try and manipulate God or others is a dangerous game. Notice that Jesus won’t play this game. Rather than join in this accusation against Mary He defends her. She has chosen the good part and it won’t be taken from her. I see three things about Martha I can relate to. The first is that when we lose sight of why we are serving it can become an end in itself. Martha was distracted with much serving. The word distracted in the Greek is perispao meaning ‘to drag all around’. Life for Martha had literally become a drag, a burden. She had lost all the joy of serving. Serving is good. It is what we are meant to do, but only from a place of relationship with Jesus. When we neglect that, the service begins to become an end in itself and then we lose our joy. Psalm 100.2 says, ‘Serve the Lord with gladness; come before His presence with singing’. This is one of the ways we can recognise when our service is coming from a good place. When we are in the right zone there is a song in our hearts. Joy is on the inside and it spills out in praise. This was missing from Martha. Instead of a song there was something sour. And it bothered her.

Secondly Martha, in a very subtle way, blamed Jesus. If He really cared He would do something. Instead He just carried on teaching and ignored Martha’s need. Sometimes we think God is overlooking our needs. But the truth is that our greatest need is for relationship – with Him. When we get caught up with the good we often do it at the expense of the great. There is a time to serve and there is a time to sit. A wise person knows how to discern the difference. Life has its rhythms and we do well to recognise when to stop and listen. Mary discerned the moment and was commended for it. It would not be taken from her. As long as we blame God for how we feel there is little hope for us. To her credit, Martha let it all hang out. She said exactly what she thought – of Jesus and of Mary. This was not a woman to leave you guessing how she felt about issues. And this was her salvation, for it gave Jesus an opportunity to speak right into her situation. She didn’t bury her hurt and disappointment but brought it into the light. In that place Jesus could give her another way of seeing things.

The third thing about Martha is that her condition made her feel alone. ‘She has left me to serve alone’. Here she is in a room with others. Jesus is present, but Martha feels alone. This is the sad reality of what happens to us when we don’t take time for God. Our sense of loneliness increases – and God is often the one we blame. Contrast this to the continual sense of the Father’s presence that Jesus spoke of, “Indeed the hour is coming, yes, has now come, that you will be scattered, each to his own, and will leave Me alone. And yet I am not alone, because the Father is with Me”, John 16.32. Serving that comes from the right motive always leaves us with a sense of communion – a sense of togetherness. This is what Jesus promised us, “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him”, John 14.23. We may be alone but we don’t have to be lonely!

The final part of this exchange that grips me is the way Jesus communicates to Martha with such love, patience, genuine concern and grace. He repeats her name twice, Martha, Martha, Luke 10.41. This is significant. Throughout the Bible there have only been seven occasions when God has spoken to someone using their first Name twice. On each occasion the event is filled with significance. The first time was with Abraham in Gen 22.11. This was the scene where Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son Isaac and the angel of the Lord intervened. What a moment. What an unforgettable encounter. Abraham discovered God as his ‘Provider’ – and it changed everything. Then we have Jacob who has heard the news that Joseph is alive and has called his family to come down to Egypt. Jacob’s heart must have been filled with turmoil. He wants to be with Joseph but he doesn’t want to leave the land of promise. Then God shows up and reassures him that He will go with him to Egypt. It is part of His plan, Gen 46.22.

In Ex 3.4 we have Moses who encounters the Lord at the burning bush. In this moment God reveals Himself as the great ‘I am’ and commissions Moses to be the deliverer of His people. Then in 1Sam 3.10 God speaks for the first time to a young boy who will become a great prophet, Samuel. This will be the first of many revelations given to Samuel that will bear such accuracy it will be written of him that not one of his words will fall to the ground, 1Sam 3.19. We then move to the New Testament where Jesus speaks to Peter in Luke 22.31, ‘Simon, Simon, indeed satan has asked for you that he may sift you as wheat. But I have prayed for you that your faith should not fail; and when you are returned to Me strengthen your brethren’. What encouragement Peter would have gotten when remembering this prophetic word from Jesus. Notice Jesus said ‘when you return’, not ‘if you return’. This would be a word to hold in to in his darkest hour. In Acts 9 we have the record of Paul’s conversion. As a well trained rabbinical Jew, Paul would be familiar with the passages where God had spoken to the saints using their names twice. And now here he is, knocked off his donkey by a blinding light and hearing the words, ‘Saul, Saul why are you persecuting Me’, Acts 9.4. It would change him forever.

Each of these encounters carried great significance for those who heard God speak. And now Jesus addresses Martha with this same repetition, Martha, Martha. This way of speaking to Martha shows how important she is as a person to Jesus. He values her. He appreciates her. Not for what she does, but for who she is. This is a lesson she has yet to fully grasp. A gentle rebuke is given and an astonishing statement is made; ‘One thing is needed’, Luke 10.42. One thing! Not three, not ten, one! This highlights the beauty and simplicity of the Christian faith. It is essentially about one thing – Jesus. Everything derives from Him, including our service. It’s not that Martha did anything bad. But in pursuing the good she lost sight of Jesus, even when He was present. I remember once watching TV when one of my daughters was trying to speak to me. I was nodding and trying to look interested in what she was saying but in truth I was distracted. Finally she climbed on my lap grabbed my face between her two hands, turned my head, looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Daddy I want your undivided attention”! She made her point. And Jesus made His.

Life is full of opportunities; opportunities to serve and opportunities to sit, to learn, to be refreshed and to encounter Jesus. But each opportunity comes with a price tag. Paul says this in Eph 5.16. The expression, ‘redeeming the time’ can be translated, ‘buying up the opportunity’. Sometimes the price we have to pay is letting go of the false expectations we have of others – thinking our happiness is in their hands. We have to let go of our unbelief that God doesn’t care about our wellbeing – if He really did then why are we in this mess? We have to see that our service must come from a place of knowing we are loved, we are precious. From a place of knowing God is jealous for time with us more than He is for what we can do for Him. I pray that as we enter 2009 we will have a fresh appreciation of what empowers our service for Him and take time to chose the good part – the part that in His words, ‘will not be taken away’ from us.