Martha and Mary

Let’s begin with a few questions:

  • If you are a swimmer in the 100 metre Olympic freestyle finals, what is the most important thing?
  • If you are a forward on a hockey team in the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Finals, what is the most important thing?
  • If you are the quarterback of the BC Lions and you are in the Grey Cup game, what is the most important thing?
  • If you are a human being, living the one and only life that you have to live, what is the most important thing?

There are many ways that this last question could be answered but I am going to suggest to you that there really is only one right answer, there is only one thing that is most important, and it will have an impact on every aspect of your life, if you’ve got that one thing.

English: Jesus at the house of Mary and Martha
English: Jesus at the house of Mary and Martha (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In our Gospel lesson for today we meet two sisters, Mary and Martha.  And to better understand what is going on in this passage, a little background information will be helpful.  Hospitality was, and still is, very important in Middle Eastern culture.  When you see a stranger passing through your area, it is very important that you offer that person rest and shelter.   And in that culture, if you want to honour your guest, you not only provide a meal for them, you also eat with them.  This shows that you a close, personal relationship with them.  On top of this cultural value of hospitality, it was common in that time for preachers to travel from place to place sharing God’s Word with people.  As they travelled they would be looking for people who would not only offer them hospitality (rest, food and shelter) but also listen to and incorporate into their lives the message from God that they were sharing.

Mary and Martha seem to be from a prominent, well-to-do family and one day, while she is in her village of Bethany, Martha meets Jesus, and realizing that he is one of these traveling preachers, Martha does the socially correct thing and invites Jesus and his entourage to her house.  Martha wants to honour Jesus so she begins all of the very, labour-intensive work of preparing a meal for Jesus and those who are travelling with him.

Question:  Is Martha doing a good thing by preparing a meal for Jesus? Yes, Martha is doing a good thing.  But there are indications that, on the inside of Martha, things are not as they should be.  First, Martha is distracted by all the preparations that had to be made.  The Greek word behind our English word “distracted” gives us the sense that Martha is “being dragged all around” by all the serving that she was doing.  Something is wrong in Martha’s heart.  That is made even more clear when Martha says to Jesus, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” [1]  In the Middle Eastern culture in which this story is set, this would be a major social faux pas.  A host would never ask an honored guest to intervene in a family dispute.  Martha is serving, but she is not serving with joy.  She is serving out of a sense of obligation.  And Martha comes to Jesus, but not with an anticipation of receiving good things from Jesus.  She comes to Jesus with an expectation that he will accede to her demand.  Martha is missing the most important thing, and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

And what is the Gospel of Jesus Christ?  St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:   “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve” (1 Cor. 15:3-5).  Martha has not been feeding on the Gospel like Mary has been at the feet of Jesus.  If she had, Martha would know that having expectations and demands of God about things which he has not promised is, at best, foolhardy, and, at worst, is the epitome of arrogance and insolence.  God’s Law, which prepares us for the Gospel, tells us that God does not owe us anything except his wrath and eternal condemnation for the sin which corrupts to the core every cell in our body. God is a holy, omnipotent God who is beyond our ability to fully comprehend.  Sin cannot exist in his presence.  On our own, we have about as much of a chance standing before God as does a sheet of tissue paper does on the surface of the sun.

And yet this same holy, omnipotent, incomprehensible God is also a loving and merciful God.  If you watched some of the video of the fire caused by the derailment at Lac Mégantic, you may have noticed that firemen were walking towards the raging inferno instead of running away from it.  That is what God has done.  Instead of running away from the pain and destruction caused by sin let loose on his once very good creation, God headed directly towards to that raging inferno in order to rescue his creation and all the people in it.  Jesus died for our sins and rose again to give us forgiveness, salvation and eternal life.  All of these things are a 100% free gift to us.   And everything is different for us now.

Before, everything we received—whether it was marks in school or the size of our paycheque from work—was based on our performance.  We spent our lives serving in obligation—continually trying to please others, always striving to measure up to other people’s expectations of us. Like Martha, we feel like we are “being dragged all around” by all the serving that we do.  Our service is a burden to us and, overwhelmed and bitter, we miss the opportunities God gives us to learn, grow, love and serve with him.

Now, with Jesus, you have a new identity:  you are a much-loved, forgiven child of God.  There is nothing that you could ever do that would make God love you anymore than he already does.  And there is nothing that you could ever do that would make God love you any less than he already does.  Jesus’ presence and approval are all that you need for everlasting joy.  And all these things are grace, that is, they are all a free gift from God.

The Gospel is the most important thing for any human being who is living their one and only human life.  J. D. Greear, in his book “Gospel:  Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary,” writes “The gospel is not just supposed to be our ticket into heaven; it is to be an entirely new basis for how we relate to God, ourselves, and others.  It is to be the source from which everything else flows.”[2]

The Gospel is life-giving, it is free and it is for us.  And when we feed on the Gospel daily, when we continually remind ourselves of the truth that we are forgiven, free, loved and accepted in Jesus Christ, then, over time, our tendency to serve others to please or placate them will lessen and our service will become a joy.  Our tendency to expect or demand things of God which he has not promised will decline because we know the extent of our rescue, we know the depths from which Jesus lifted us.  We already know that the good things that Jesus gives us are far better than the things we demand or expect of him.  So we trust in his goodness and we receive whatever he sends our way.  And because Jesus is so generous with us, we are moved to be generous with others.

Today is a special day for me.  Exactly one year ago today, my son Logan nearly drowned.  As most of you probably know, God gave a miraculous recovery to Logan and he has no damage of any kind.  Recently when I was talking about that experience with someone, I found myself saying, “God shook me to my core, and I found out God was there.” A year ago today is also the last time that I saw my Dad alive for he passed away on Christmas Eve last year from cancer.  And as we gather here today in worship, we think of Pastor Jef who is in Ohio grieving the death of his father.  Dear friends, where would we be without Jesus?  What comfort would we have when a loved one dies?  Where would we turn for strength when confronted by challenges that threaten to overwhelm us? Thankfully, we don’t have to answer those questions because Jesus has died for all of our sins and rose again from the dead and he promises us that he will always be with us.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, you may be worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.  Chose what is better, chose to feed on the Gospel of Jesus Christ daily.  It is yours as a free gift from Jesus and it will not be taken away from you.  Amen.

(This message was shared at Zion Lutheran Church, Surrey, BC on July 21, 2013.)

[1] The New International Version. (2011). (Lk 10:40). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[2] J. D. Greear, Gospel:  Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary (Nashville:  B & H Publishing Group, 2011), 9.

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