Sermon 03-10-13: “Journey to Jerusalem, Part 2: God’s Word”

March 13, 2013

Fading Footprints in the Sand

In today’s scripture, Mary took a bold step in order to sit at Jesus’ feet alongside his male disciples. By doing so, she risked scorn and rejection. She wasn’t doing it, however, to be the first-century equivalent of Susan B. Anthony: She was doing it because spending time with the Lord, listening to his word, was her top priority. Do our lives as disciples today reflect this same priority? Or do we too often listen to that “Martha voice” in our heart that tells us that we’re too busy to spend time with the Lord?

Sermon Text: Luke 10:38-42

Please note: There is no sermon video this week. It will return next week!

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes and pictures.

I recently started watching Downton Abbey. If you haven’t seen it, the show portrays two very different groups of people. They live in very close proximity to one another and constantly interact with one another. But in many ways they couldn’t be further apart: one group is an incredibly wealthy British aristocratic family, the Crawleys, and the other group is their large staff of servants who attend to their needs and maintain the large estate on which they all live. One of the tensions early in the series is that the lord of the manor doesn’t have a son to inherit his estate. After a couple of heirs die aboard the Titanic, the family is shocked to learn that the next heir in line is a distant cousin who—shockingly—belongs to the middle class! And he actually has a job! He’s an attorney! He works for a living! I’m proud to say that it’s hard for us Americans to imagine how working for a living could be considered a bad thing, but from the perspective of these upper-class Brits, it is a necessary evil that other people have to do.

downton

The servants at Downton Abbey cannot cross an invisible boundary.

Another tension in the show is that many of the butlers, valets, chauffeurs, footmen, maids, cooks, and housekeepers are clearly as naturally bright, articulate, gifted, and capable as the people they serve, but they’ll never be able to do anything to prove it: they’ll never gain entry into the Crawley’s world; they are separated by an invisible but very real boundary line. 

I mention this because we 21st-century Americans can easily miss the invisible but very real boundary line that Mary crosses in today’s scripture. Mary, Luke tells us, “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his message.” We naturally assume that by sitting at his feet Mary is taking a subordinate role—that the Bible is reinforcing harmful gender stereotypes—but that’s exactly wrong. When Mary sits at Jesus’ feet, that means that she’s sitting at his feet alongside Jesus’ male disciples. This is what students of rabbis did back then. For example, when Paul describes his background in Acts 22, he says that he “sat at the feet of” his rabbi, Gamaliel.[1]

So, far from reinforcing gender stereotypes, Jesus is actually smashing them to pieces.

And what about Mary? Doesn’t she demonstrate a great deal of courage by daring to cross this invisible but very real boundary? By doing so, she risked the scorn of her sister and the male disciples, not to mention rejection by Jesus himself. She couldn’t have known for sure in advance that Jesus would let her get away with it. But she does it anyway.

Here’s my question: Why does Mary do it? Is she the first-century equivalent of Susan B. Anthony, making a statement about the equality of men and women? Hardly! That very modern idea wouldn’t have occurred to anyone back then. No, the reason that Mary takes this unprecedented, courageous, countercultural step is very simple: She wants to spend time with Jesus. She wants to hear to the word of the Lord. She’s so hungry to hear the Lord’s teaching that she’s not going to let these cultural boundaries stand in the way.

Many people from Alpharetta First went to the Holy Land last month, as I did a couple of years ago. One stop on the itinerary was visiting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. This refers to the ruins of the Temple that Herod built, which was destroyed by the Romans in the year 70. For centuries, the Temple Mount has been known among Muslims as the Dome of the Rock, one of the most sacred shrines in all of Islam. Because of Islamic law, Christian pilgrims who go to the Temple Mount are prohibited from bringing their Bibles up there. Seriously. Israeli soldiers enforce this law. Our tour guide warned us repeatedly that if we did bring our Bibles there, Israeli soldiers carrying uzzis would take them away from us, at gunpoint, and we wouldn’t get them back!

No Bibles are permitted here on the Temple Mount.

No Bibles are permitted here on the Temple Mount.

I’m afraid of soldiers carrying uzzis. Needless to say, I didn’t bring a Bible to the Temple Mount.

But as I think about it, that was the only time in my life that someone prevented me from possessing a Bible or reading a Bible! As far as I know, for every other moment of my life I’ve been completely free to do so! Does the time I spend in God’s word reflect this amazing freedom?

In today’s scripture, nothing can prevent Mary from hearing God’s word. In our country with all of our religious freedom, nothing does prevent us from hearing God’s word. Yet I’m afraid too many of us struggle to do so.

Now keep in mind, when I talk about hearing God’s word, I’m not just talking about reading or studying the Bible, although that’s the primary way that we hear the Lord speak to us today. Unlike Mary, we have a permanent transcript of Jesus’ lessons and sermons and parables, his words and actions. What a privilege!

But not only that: we also believe that reading the Bible is unlike reading any other book: It’s a supernatural event, because through reading the Bible, the Holy Spirit himself—the very Spirit of Christ within us—speaks to us. Jesus says as much on the night of the Last Supper. He tells his disciples, “I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth.”[2] God knows that what we need to learn from Jesus at age 7 will be different from what we need to learn at 47 or 87. Jesus promises to have an ongoing conversation with us throughout our lives—continuing to teach us, continuing to remind us of what he’s said, continuing to help us apply God’s word to new circumstances in our lives. He speaks his word to us when we read and study the Bible.

But not only that: we also hear the Lord speak his word to us when we pray. I preached last week about the importance of boldly going to God with our prayer requests and petitions. But prayer isn’t just talking: it’s also listening. It’s very unlikely we’ll hear God speak in an audible voice, although some Christians have experienced God’s voice that way. It’s far more likely we’ll experience God’s voice as an intuition: we sense that God is speaking to us through our own thoughts. Of course, discerning God’s voice from our own requires great care: So we first make sure that what we think God is telling us is consistent with what he tells us in his word, the Bible.  Then we pray some more about it. Then we may talk to a pastor or trusted Christian friends.

That’s what I did when God called me into pastoral ministry. It started as an intuition that maybe I should consider doing it. I prayed. I talked to my wife. Then I talked to some close Christian friends, then to my pastor, then to my church. All of this was an effort to make sure that this intuition was, in fact, the word of the Lord calling me to do something.

I’ve said this many times before, but it bears repeating: all of us Christians are called by God, not just us ordained ministers. This is also a lesson in today’s scripture. In the eyes of people living in the first century, Mary was an unimportant person—like those servants in Downton Abbey. Like Martha, she should just stick to her domestic duties and let the important people worry about hearing from the Lord. And in today’s scripture, Jesus says no! Mary, as much as any other disciples, needed to take time out of her busy schedule to spend time with the Lord.

If it’s true for Mary, it’s true for us. But why is it so hard for us to do so?

I think Mary’s sister, Martha, helps us understand why: because we have all this other important work that needs to get done! We don’t say this out loud, and we don’t like to admit it, but I know that most of us, when we read this story, secretly side with Martha. We at least sympathize with her, don’t we? Of course, spending time in prayer, spending time in God’s word, having a “quiet time” each day, reading a daily devotional, attending Bible studies, worshiping, doing other spiritual disciplines—these sorts of activities should be a priority for us, but we’ve got all these other things that need to get done first!

Years ago, I had my annual performance evaluation when I was an engineer, and I was graded on a series of criteria, like most of you are. One of the criteria was “personal appearance.” On a scale of 1 to 5, I got a “2”—which meant “needs improvement.” I needed to dress nicer, my boss told me. I was so angry—because that “2” ended up seriously affecting my annual bonus. So you know what I did for an entire year after that? Even though only the partners in the firm wore ties—even though none of my fellow design engineers wore ties—I wore a tie… every day for a year—at least when I was in the office. It was my little act of defiance. I was daring my boss to give me a “2” again for personal appearance!

The following year, by the way, they changed the evaluation form, and “personal appearance” wasn’t even a category anymore! So all that tie-wearing was in vain!

My point in bringing this up is that no matter what we do in life—whether we have jobs, whether we’re in school, whether we’re stay-at-home parents, whether we’re in sports, whether we’re in fine arts—our work is graded, judged, assessed, and evaluated by other people. What other people think of our work affects nearly everything—it often affects our livelihoods, our income, our future earning potential. It at least affects our self-esteem!

By contrast, there is no sliding scale or check box or category on any evaluation form that talks about how often we pray, or how much time we spend reading or studying the Bible, or how much time we spend with the Lord each day. See what I mean? Even the official United Methodist pastor evaluation form includes no such category! I know from bitter personal experience that we pastors can fake it—at least for a little while. Most of that kind of work—I’ll call it “Mary-work”—is invisible to nearly everyone. Except God, of course.

One commentator, reflecting on these verses, said: “Unfortunately, often when things get busy, the first thing to go is time with the Lord.”[3] Is that true in your experience? Probably so? But if that’s true, let me ask an important follow-up question: When are our lives here in Alpharetta, Georgia, not busy?

This same commentator reflected on his own church work. He said that recently a group of church leaders and pastors in his church had resolved to meet early in the morning once a week to pray for the church, to pray for one another, and to pray over all the prayer requests the church had received the previous week. He said that suddenly these church leaders and pastors spent more time praying together each week than they spent in committee meetings discussing church business. Suddenly, he said, all the church’s activities and ministries were “bathed in prayer” in a way they never were before. He wrote, “I suspect many of us could use a little more Mary and a little less Martha in our lives.”[4]

A little more Mary, a little less Martha. As I hear these words, I feel convicted as a pastor. I need to do that! But then, the last thing I need is another mandatory meeting in my schedule each week—I have enough of those already, thank you very much!

In saying that, however, I’m misreading what the author of this commentary is saying: he’s not saying we need “a little more Mary and exactly the same amount of Martha.” He’s saying more Mary and less Martha. That difference is crucial: After all, Jesus isn’t saying, “Martha, your sister Mary is doing the right thing at this moment, but don’t worry: she’ll make up all her other work later.” No… if we take Jesus’ words to heart, Jesus seems to be saying that discipleship is about setting aside some of the Martha-work and replacing it with Mary-work—and that somehow, by doing that, it will all work out: “One thing is necessary,” Jesus tells Martha. Is it possible, therefore, that some of our Martha-work isn’t necessary? But the Mary work certainly is!

I shared this thought with a busy mother and professional a few days ago, and she said that that “Martha voice” in her head was totally resisting this idea: all that Martha-work still has to get done, she said!

Maybe so.

But what would happen if we just tuned out that harsh and judgmental Martha voice for a little while, that voice which tells us things like: “You’re too busy to spend time with the Lord today! Look at your schedule! Look at your appointments! Look at the errands you have to run! Look at the places you have to take your kids! Plus, Have you stepped on the scale? You haven’t even gone to the gym today! Don’t you see you’re falling behind. Don’t you see you’re failing. What are others going to think of you?”

That Martha voice gets loud, doesn’t it? But let’s listen to what that Martha voice is really saying underneath those words: “Lord, don’t you care how busy I am? Can’t you see I need your help? I feel like I’m doing it all on my own; I feel like I’m drowning; I feel like I’m carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders. I can’t do it anymore. Help me, please!”

Now hear Jesus’ reply: “Brent, Brent, you are worried and distracted by many things… [Name other names.] Come to me. Tell me about it. I love you more than you can imagine, and I want to help you. Will you let me? If you spend time with me, I promise I’ll give you the resources you need to deal with everything else you’re facing in your busy life. But you’re going to have to trust me enough to take time away from all your busy-ness in order to let me help you. Will you do that?”

Will we do that?

Lord Jesus, please make it so. Amen.


[1] Acts 22:3 NRSV

[2] John 16:12-13a CEB

[3] Darrell L. Bock, The NIV Application Commentary: Luke (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 306.

[4] Ibid.

 

 

2 Responses to “Sermon 03-10-13: “Journey to Jerusalem, Part 2: God’s Word””

  1. Ann White Says:

    This was a very good sermon. I am going to do my best to give the Lord more of my time. I want to see if it will make me more aware of what I need to do for the Lord.

    Thank you Brent. Ann M. White


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