I have a tendency, if the television is on, to block out everything else that is going on. You might try and give me instructions when I am watching television but if you do, don't bank on me doing what you've asked. If you are anything like me you'll find it easy for your mind to wander even when you want to be concentrating. Even now you might be beginning to think about something coming up at work or at home this week. You might even be running through the shopping list for tomorrow. Or for some of our students they might be thinking about the room that needs packed up and the exam results which are pending.
Basically, we all have lots running round in our heads: dates to remember, meetings to prepare for, too much to think about for most of us. That said, the bottom line is, we give do our attention and time to what is important to us. For many of us the things which are important to us are not going to be bad - things like family, work, church and so on - but it might be that we have things in the wrong order. Now, let's look at Mary and Martha which we heard read to us earlier (Luke 10:38-42).
"Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.""
We have three points tonight:
- Setting the Scene.
- 'One thing is necessary', listen to Jesus.
- Are you focused on listening to Jesus or are you distracted?
1. Setting the Scene
The scene is not hard to imagine and will be very familiar to us. Look down at verse 38: Jesus' disciples are on their way to Jerusalem. They are on the big journey to Jerusalem which will culminate in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus and then ultimately the starting of the church. This journey dominates the second half of Luke's Gospel.
On this particular day, Jesus gets to a village and Martha opens her home to him. She is clearly warm and welcoming and she says, 'come and stay'. This seems like a good example, at this point, of hospitality. (It might be a good opportunity right now to say a huge thanks to those of you who open your homes to students throughout the year. Please keep inviting them and feeding them!) This seems good but the account goes on. Jesus is in the front room (v.38) with Mary, Martha's sister, who is sitting listening to what he is saying. She is captivated by Jesus' words and gives him her full attention. Meanwhile Martha is getting a meal ready and is rushing about getting the house ready for such a distinguished guest. Now, if you're like me you might actually empathise with Martha here! You might be inclined to think, 'well if Mary would just pull her weight then Martha wouldn't need to be so busy!'
Earlier this year I was hosting a visitor for a Sunday lunch. I'll not tell you who but suffice to say he was a South African Bishop. Now, I opted to invite a few others – 12 others – and decided to do a traditional roast dinner (with two types of potato… obviously). On the day I felt much like Anika Rice trying to complete some impossible task pulling off a Sunday roast for so many people in my tiny kitchen. The sweat was lashing off me and I barely said two words to him! And it can be extremely annoying if you have a lot to do and someone who, you think, should be helping isn't. Suddenly you wish that those cupboard doors didn't have the soft closing feature so you could, via a nice slam, indicate your frustration. That is what is going on here; temperatures are soaring and eventually Martha strides in. She is angry.
"Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." (v.40)
Martha wants Jesus to tell Mary to get back to work. She is furious with her sister, so angry she won't even give her a look to indicate she needs help, or a quiet whisper while Jesus is speaking. But Jesus tells Mary, verse 41:
"Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her."
I think there is understanding and tenderness in Jesus' answer. "Martha, Martha." He is saying, 'I know where you are at, I know what is on your mind, I know your intention is to do good. But, you're wrong! No, I won't tell her to go and help; she has chosen something good or better.' That leads onto our second point:
2. 'One thing is necessary', listen to Jesus.
This phrase has been debated and discussed, "one thing is necessary" (v.41). Some people have opted for a simple reading suggesting that Jesus may be saying that she should have kept the dinner simple – just the one dish! But I don't think that can be it. The one thing that is needed must be the better thing that Mary has chosen. I think it all about listening to Jesus. In verse 39, Mary is sitting listening to Jesus and then, verse 40, comes the contrast, but Martha was distracted by all the preparations. Martha is distracted by all her busyness. Now, the word 'distracted' here suggests that Martha wanted to listen – maybe she started out listening, standing at the back but kept slipping out and the distractions made her pull away from what Jesus was saying. That fits with verse 41, doesn't it? "You are worried and upset." That is, 'your mind is weighed down by so many things and there is so much going on in your head that you're distracted from the one thing you should focus on'.
Now, we do need to be careful here! Sometimes the stuff of life presses in on us and begins to crowd out everything else. Some of you might be in that position right now; thinking about something important like a family crisis or medical test you're facing; occupied with a difficulty at work or a job that is just awful and unbearable. Maybe it's the non-stop life of work, six drop-offs and pick-ups tomorrow between the end of school and 6pm, meals and so on. Some of us will be distracted with disappointment at circumstances we just wish could be different in life. And for some of you it might be the prospect of not knowing what life holds in September if you are graduating, or the exams this week if you're in CYFA. None of us can escape the realities of life and we need not feel guilty for those big things of life popping into our heads sometimes. No, that isn't what has happened here in Martha's case. This is a decision that Martha has made but she could have chosen otherwise. She is living life choosing to juggle everything at once, being worried and upset about many things rather than aiming for the focus that Mary has.
Mary has chosen that which Jesus says is better that all the other things she could be doing. That is amazing, isn't it, Jesus was a humble man and here he says that Mary has chosen best by listening to him. Sitting and listening to him is the best choice you could ever make in life! I'm not saying those distractions can disappear necessarily, but listening to Jesus is going to go a long way in keeping life and priorities in the right order! The contrast here is between someone listening to Jesus and someone distracted by everything else.
Now, of course, we know that the meal wasn't going to prepare itself and that Jesus does commend people for practical service and hospitality, so in some way questions remain from this passage. We don't know some of the practicalities of the day – how long it was until tea time, how many things needed to be prepared or even how many people poor Martha was cooking for. But the way Jesus responds here shows us that Martha must have been doing more than was needed and that was distracting her. So she is pulled away and worried about other things. So, that takes us just about to our third point. And this is our main point or challenge tonight:
3. Are you focused on listening to Jesus or are you distracted?
But just before we deal with that let us just pause for a moment. I want to pull off the road, as it were, and just point out something worth of note. Notice that Mary is sitting listening to Jesus. Mary is focused on the words Jesus is speaking as he teaches. That picture is completely remarkable. Women of the day would have been relegated to the kitchen or duties of the house and not allowed in on the male discussion. Their place was in the background serving and not in the thinking and discussion and decision making. Not so with Jesus. Jesus wanted women to learn, think, to take part. Jesus wanted women to be trained and grow in him so Jesus says he won't send her to the kitchen.
Unfortunately the church at large has, at times, given the impression that women should leave the theology to the men while they get on with some other task. And that is a travesty! Now, don't get me wrong, I believe in male headship in the church and home, and we heard something on that from 1 Timothy a few weeks ago. However, male headship should never be used to discourage women from growing in their relationship with Jesus and their ability to teach and tell others about Jesus. We want that culture, don't we? Everyone learning. And so it is a joy to hear the reports from yesterday's women's conference!
OK, back to the main point. Jesus commends Mary and gently rebukes Martha, so we need to ask ourselves 'what distracts us from listening to Jesus?' Unlike Mary we can't sit at Jesus' feet and listen to Jesus speaking, but we hear the words of Jesus in the text of the Bible where his words and the words of God and the actions of God come together to form His living word through which he speaks to us today. So, the great privilege and wonder is that we can sit at Jesus' feet today and listen to his word! But are we distracted or are we focused? What steals our attention when we are reading the Bible by ourselves or when we are in discussion with others or at home group or on a Sunday in church? What distracts you? I've tried to identify a few things that commonly hold us back from giving Jesus our right and full attention.
i. Life's circumstances
How you read the Bible alone and how well you listen on a Sunday is, of course, impacted by lots of things in life. For example, if you are a young mum with young children or a parent in a house with multiple teenagers with exams, social lives and everything else can play killer on your personal Bible reading, in the same way that illness or prolonged times of personal hardship can. Working shifts can make daily routine and regular contact with a small group almost impossible and maybe concentration on Sunday harder. So we mustn't beat ourselves up unnecessarily, but we must ask 'what pushes listening to Jesus out of my mind?' and aim to deal with it.
Students, many of you are heading home for summer and some of you will be returning to great churches and homes where you will be encouraged in your faith, but some of you will be returning home or heading off travelling to significantly less Christian support and that can impact drive and commitment to reading the Bible. Some of you will be taking on 9-5 paid work as opposed to your slightly less than 9-5 life here and that busyness and tiredness can hit hard! You need to brace yourself and work hard at staying disciplined and listening to Jesus. If you are one of those who struggles to find good Bible teaching when you're at home, don't forget about Clayton TV.
ii. A lack of focus or too much on
There are many competitors for our concentration. For example, the Euros - where watching the television on a Wednesday night might seem more appealing than getting changed and driving to home group, or when your phone offers more indulgent and enjoyable contents than the Bible. Many of you I know will be just be so busy – even with good church stuff – and that leaves too little time or energy to really invest in reading your Bible. When I read the Bible first thing I often fall into the trap of making a 'to do' list for the day in my head at the same time. We all need to think practically about how we can deal with this and avoid distractions:
- Review how many engagements (even church ones) you have on each week and how much they zap your energy. Can something give?
- Try to reflect on your use of technology. How often in your day do you stop indulging in TV, internet, phone and so on? You might even remove Facebook (and other things) from your phone!
- And a painful one. It might be that some of you have to set the alarm a little earlier and a quiet time in the Bible done before school.
Whatever it is, we have to realise that our priorities won't sort themselves out.
iii. Unrealistic expectations
I don't know about you but I have started numerous reading plans since I became a Christian at 11. I am happy to say that about eight years ago I completed a Bible read through; however, for that one read-through there must have been at least six failed attempts. Some lasted a week or a month, but rarely more than that. And it was in part because of unrealistic expectations (as well as bad priorities). I would sit down with my Bible and attempt four chapters in one go because that's what the plan said to do. We need something more like a 'Couch to 5k' approach.
So, this might be a moment to say that quality is more important that quantity (although I say that cautiously). When I talk to people about their personal Bible reading habits they will often feel bad because of quantity - or regularity - and some perhaps should or need to because the infrequency reveals bad priorities. I mean, if you call yourself a Christian here tonight and you are sitting thinking that it has been a month since you last read the Bible privately then you might need to ask yourself some questions about priorities. However, for many it is likely to be discouragement from unrealistic expectations. My point is that we shouldn't be looking for a tick list of how many times you have read the Bible or been to home group or Focus but rather we should be seeking after good quality listening. In some ways it would be better to read the Bible well three times in the week and really listening rather than glancing distractedly more often.
And students, this so important for your summer break! Don't fall into the trap of thinking you can bite off more than you can chew and don't just step into this alone. There are loads of really excellent resources out there to help guide and focus your time on the Bible. Why not head to the resources area tonight and have a look at what is on offer? Time forbids me from getting into that now.
iv. Wanting to keep control
So, let me ask you, what is your listening like? What distracts you from really listening to the words of Jesus? Can I push you towards a more fundamental question: how important do you think this listening is? Or, how important is it to listen to the words of Jesus and let him set the agenda in your life? Look at verse 39 again:
"…she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet [meaning, like a disciple] and listened to his teaching."
What is Martha's attitude by contrast? Her words in verse 40 are very revealing. She is annoyed that Jesus doesn't agree with her agenda, she thinks to herself, 'if he did, he wouldn't have left me to do all this by myself'. As I prepared for tonight, this stopped me in my tracks. This is questioning Jesus' care because what he is doing doesn't fit with my priorities and agenda. Martha doesn't stop for a moment to wonder if she has got it wrong or if she is setting her agenda differently to Jesus. Underneath the distraction of Martha (as opposed to the focus of Mary) is this attitude to Jesus – we can think that listening to him is the most important thing to do in life because he is Lord and teacher and we want to be guided by him. I want to sit at Jesus' feet. Or we press on with life in the hope that Jesus fits in with my agenda and what I want and think is important.
Mary sits listening. Martha tells Jesus what he ought to do. How easy is it for us to fall into that trap. Is Jesus, the Master and Lord, someone you listen to or someone you direct? Who sets the Agenda for my life? Most fundamentally, whether we listen to Jesus is whether we have him as our Lord or not. Jesus says Mary has chosen what is better. She has chosen the wise and safe choice. She is sitting listening to her saviour. And Jesus would want us to make that choice ourselves.