I remember a student once telling me he didn’t really like the summer. So as someone who does like it, and wishes it would happen more than once every five years, I said to him, ‘Why not?’ And he said, ‘Because it’s always a bad time for me as a Christian.’ He said, ‘It’s like my Christian life is a washing line, and during term there are lots of props to keep it up. But come the summer, it’s one long sag.’
And if you are a student, that can be the story of your summer. You move away from the ‘props’ here – the Bible-teaching, Christian friends, Focus, Globe Christian Fellowship, CU and so on – and often to places where there’s little or no Christian support. And you feel you’re just hanging on until next term. But for others, there won’t be a next term: you’re graduating and moving away and for you, there’s the danger of an even longer spiritual sag. I often meet up with old JPC students at things like weddings – and, sadly, you find some haven’t found their way into a new church and are sagging badly, spiritually.
But the rest of us are not immune just because we’re staying here. You can sag spiritually at the best of times – and summer isn’t always the best of times for Christians. It’s a change of routine for most of us – we go on holidays, our small groups take a break, the ministries we lead often do, as well – and that can all cause spiritual sag.
So the question this evening – whether we’re here or away over the summer - is: how can we avoid spiritual sag? And the part of the Bible we’re going to look at tells us the one thing we need above all to do that. So would you turn in the Bible to Luke 10.38:
38As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. 39She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said. 40But 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 the work by myself? Tell her to help me!"
41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (vv38-42)
That tells us three things about avoiding spiritual sag.
Firstly, THE ONE THING WE NEED
Jesus and his disciples arrive at the home of these two sisters. Martha knows they need feeding and putting up so she starts racing around, defrosting things in the microwave and digging out ‘z-beds’. Whereas Mary, v39, ‘sat at the Lord's feet listening to what he said.’ And when Martha complains, v41, Jesus says:
41"Martha, Martha… "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed (vv41-42)
And Mary has chosen that ‘one thing’ - which is, v39, to sit at the Lord Jesus’ feet, listening to what he has to say. Which for us means listening to what the Bible has to say – both on our own and with others.
Now I guess many of us are thinking, ‘I know I ought to be doing that - ought to be reading my Bible; ought to find a church to go to over the summer; ought to take the plunge and join a Home Group,’ and so on. But the trouble is: ‘ought’s’ don’t necessarily make us do anything do they? And I think that’s why, in v42, the Lord Jesus doesn’t say, ‘This is the one thing you ought to do’, but, ‘This is the one thing you need’. Because he’s not saying this to add one more burden to our lives – one more ‘ought’ down on our ‘to do list’. He’s saying this for our good. It’s like when you’re madly busy and your husband or wife or housemate cooks you something and orders you to come and sit down and eat, and you protest that you haven’t got time, and they say very simply, ‘You need to eat.’ They’re not trying to add one more burden to your life. They’re saying, ‘You need this - and this will help you to do all those other things.’
And the same is true spiritually: Jesus once said, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ (Matthew 4.4, quoting Deuteronomy 8.3) Ie, we need spiritual food as well as physical.
So this part of God’s Word asks us first of all: do we really believe that? Or do our lives show that we really believe we can give the Bible a miss with no negative consequences? You may have had a shower or bath this morning, but when you think about it, in these days of deodourants, you could have given that a miss without any negative consequences for your neighbours in the pew. But Jesus is saying: we can’t afford to think like that about the Bible.
So why is it so essential to be listening to the Bible regularly? Well, because being a Christian means living by faith in someone we can’t see right now – the Lord Jesus. And it means living by faith in the two most important events in history – which we also can’t see right now. One is Jesus’ death and resurrection, which is how we can live day by day assured that we’re forgiven. And we can’t see that, because it’s in the past. The other is his coming again as Judge to wrap up history, which is how we can live motivated to keep going through good and bad times until we see him face to face. And we can’t see that because it’s in the future. So if we’re going to live by faith in the Lord whom we can’t see right now, and his death, resurrection and coming again – which we also can’t see right now - we need God’s Word to remind us daily that they’re real. Eg, these verses in Luke 10 come in a section that’s all about Jesus’ coming again. And repeatedly he tells people to live with that eternal perspective. So, turn over to Luke 12.16. A couple of people are arguing over some money they’ve inherited:
16 [Jesus] told them this parable: "The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. 17He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'
18"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 19And I'll say to myself, "You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry." ' [Ie, no eternal perspective at all - living as if what he can see is all he needs to take into consideration.]
20"But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?'
21"This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God." (Luke 12.16-21)
And if we’re not listening to God’s Word, we’ll lose all true perspective. Eg, we’ll lose perspective, like this rich fool, on our dreams and ambitions and money and possessions – so that things like exam results and university places and jobs and salaries and status and houses become far too important to us. We’ll lose perspective when things are hard and we begin to doubt whether God cares or is really in control or is even there at all. Because without the Bible, we won’t be reminded that the cross shows he does love us and that the resurrection shows he is in control. We’ll lose perspective in guilt, because without the Bible, we won’t be reminded that there is forgiveness for every sin. We’ll lose perspective in worry, because without the Bible, we won’t be reminded that the Lord does have a good plan for us. And so on.
Without the Bible we lose perspective – and, along with that, any sense of priorities. Turn back to chapter 9.59. Where it says:
59[Jesus] said to another man, "Follow me."
But the man replied, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." [Ie, ‘I’ve got a family priority.’ But since Jesus, in his earthly ministry, is literally passing through, he knows the man has to decide ultimate priorities that moment - and either come with him, or not. So, v60:]
60Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God." (Luke 9.59-60)
And if we’re not listening to God’s Word, we’ll lose all true sense of priorities, and find our time and energy and money mopped up by all sorts of things – before we’ve even thought how the Lord would want us to use them. As someone put it, ‘Either God’s Word will keep us from bad priorities, or bad priorities will keep us from God’s Word.’
So that’s the first thing. The one thing we need. So if we believe that, why don’t we get more of the Bible into our lives? That brings us to the second thing:
Second, THE MANY THINGS WE DO
‘Either God’s word will keep us from bad priorities, or bad priorities will keep us from God’s Word.’ And Martha was a case in point. Look again at v40. While Mary sat at the Lord’s feet listening, v40:
40Martha 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 the work by myself? Tell her to help me!" (v40)
And notice that Martha was distracted for the best of reasons. It wasn’t that she was frittering away her hours watching Countdown or doing yet more unnecessary DIY. She was serving Jesus. And that is a word in season for those of us who are busiest in JPC. Because the exact parallel to Martha would be any of us who is so busy serving the Lord – so busy looking after our group or ministry, or visiting and caring for people, or working on staff… that we find we’re hardly listening to his Word ourselves. I’m tempted that way every time I’m under pressure with preparation – tempted to cut my own Bible reading and prayer in order to prepare something like this. And so ministry for Jesus can become the enemy of relationship with Jesus. And if we find that happening, we need to reconsider our commitments. And the summer is a great time to do that, as each ministry area in church has its annual reshuffle and turnover of leaders.
So that would be the exact parallel to Martha – being too busy in ministry. But the wider parallel is simply being too busy. Now the Lord knows that many of us are unavoidably busy. We’re parents of young children. We’re in pressurised workplaces with long hours or shifts. We’re in the middle of exams. Whatever it is for you. And the Lord understands that, and he’s not saying that the ideal is that we all become monks and nuns and spend ten hours a day in Bible study. But having said that, we do each have some time to call our own. And from that we have to say ‘No’ to some of the many things we could do, to make time for the one thing we need.
Now if you’re a student heading away for the summer, then for at least some if it you’ll probably have the opposite problem to unavoidable busyness. And you’d have thought that would make it easier to read the Bible and Christian books. But it can be harder. Because it’s much easier to get the Bible into your routine if you’ve already got a routine to get it into. Eg, it’s much easier to get up that bit earlier to read the Bible and pray if you’ve already got a 9am lecture getting you up, anyway. So it can be hardest when the pressure’s off, over the holiday. You get up at 11am, have a leisurely breakfast and think to yourself, ‘I need to read my Bible.’ But there’s the paper lying on the kitchen table. And eight world cup match reports later, it’s lunchtime. After lunch you think, ‘I need to read my Bible’ and then your little sister asks you to play a game with her, so naturally you oblige. Mid-afternoon, you think again, ‘I need to read my Bible,’ but you come in to find Wimbledon on the TV. That takes you through to supper, after which you say, ‘I really need to read my Bible,’ but what with one thing and another you find yourself finally falling into bed too tired for anything - but thinking, ‘I’ll read my Bible tomorrow – after all, I’ve got all day.’
It can be hardest when the pressure’s off. And that’s why if you’re a student, the student team have been trying to get you to sign up for Foundations which starts tomorrow - to help you learn to feed yourself from the Bible over the summer and beyond. It’s not too late to come. Please do. For you CYFA guys and girls, that’s why Ken and the others have been trying to get you to sign up for the CYFA houseparty. It’s not that they get paid commission on every place. It’s simply that they know it would be great for you to have that ‘prop’ of Bible input – as well as just a great time - to keep you from sagging. And at the other end of the scale, it can be hard for those of us who’ve retired. Perhaps we thought it would give us more time for reading the Bible and Christian books. And of course it has given us the time. But that brings us to the last point:
Third, THE CHOICE WE EACH FACE
That is, the choice about how we use our time. Look down again to v41:
41"Martha, Martha," the Lord answered, "you are worried and upset about many things, 42but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her." (vv41-42)
And whether we’re staying here or heading away over the summer, this part of God’s Word is urging us to make the same choice Mary made.
So for a start, can I say something to you if you wouldn’t yet call yourself a Christian, but you’re moving away from Newcastle soon. It may be that as we’ve looked at this part of the Bible, you’ve seen yourself reflected in this character Mary. You’ve got to know Christians in your time at Newcastle and through them you’ve spent time listening to what Jesus has to say. And the Bible would say that’s the no.1 reason why God allowed you to come to Newcastle. Yes, it was so you could work or study or learn English, but above all it was God giving you the opportunity to hear his Word and respond to his Son. And if you’re moving away but still undecided about Jesus, it’s a crucial time for you. Because God has been very kind in giving you the opportunity to hear his Word. And you now face the choice of whether or not you’ll keep listening to it. Because it would fairly easy to go home, to plunge back into the rest of your course or into job-hunting or a job - and to end up like Martha, with your window of opportunity gone. So if that’s you, can I urge you wherever you’re heading away, to find more Christians and keep listening to God’s Word until you’ve made your mind up about Jesus. We’ve got many links as a church in this country and world-wide, so please do ask and we’ll do what we can to help you find Christians where you’re going. Do ask anyone you know at church, or ask a staff member, or ask for a Good Church Guide form at the Welcome Desk.
Next, a word to Christians - whether we’re staying here or heading away over the summer. Can I urge us to choose to listen to God’s word individually. Which comes down to the old, old thing of reading the Bible on our own. You may be doing that, or may have given up, or may never even have heard the idea. So let me say that if we’re going to read the Bible on our own, we need to plan - when and how.
On the when front, many people try to find a daily time. Eg, I read the Bible on my own in the morning - not because I’m a great morning person, but partly because it’s the least disturbed time of day – unless my mother rings before 8am while it’s still cheap rate; and partly because I then take what I’ve read with me into the day. So we need to plan when would be a regular, undisturbed time. And choosing to listen to God’s Word inevitably means choosing not to do something else. In Mary’s case, in Luke 10, that was a tough one. She had to choose not to help her sister And we’ll have to choose not to do something. Eg, I have to choose not to go to bed late or I get up late and blow my time for reading the Bible. You may have to choose to axe something else – a TV program; a session on the play station; whatever.
So, plan when and then plan how. There’s a great resource at the back of church which we call the Bible Notes desk but it has in fact spread like some amazing climbing plant way beyond a desk. It’s full of notes to help you read the Bible on your own and like the bookstall (also at the back) the Bible notes area always has someone there to advise on what might be good for you. Some people find notes a help. Some don’t. I chop and change. The important thing is to find some way of reading the Bible that works for you. So if you’ve never tried doing that, or you’ve given up, do ask for some suggestions – ask a Christian friend, or ask at the Bible notes area. But don’t aim to start or re-start with anything unrealistic that you’ll give up in discouragement. Eg, just aim for 10 minutes, to start or re-start with.
And can I say, don’t be put off if you feel your own Bible reading isn’t some great spiritual experience. It’s a bit like the meals you’ve eaten over the past month. A lot of them were nothing special, and some of them you can’t even remember. But they kept you going and, if you’re still CYFA age, growing. And it’s the same with personal Bible reading and prayer.
But as I said earlier, Luke 10 isn’t just Mary having an individual time with Jesus. She’s listening with the other disciples. So finally, can I urge us to choose to listen to God’s Word with others, as well.
So if you’re away over the summer, or for good, please do use the Good Church Guide. And if you’re moving away for good, the most crucial thing you’ll do is to choose a church and get stuck into it. And can I urge you to think about church first in that process. Some friends were recently offered a job move that would have been very good financially. So they went to look at where they’d have had to move, and they found no good church – no church they were convinced would be good for their own spiritual health and their children’s. So they said ‘No’ to the move, in the face of uncertainty as to what else they would do. Which was a very wise and godly decision. We need to think, ‘Church first’ - and then jobs and houses and schools for the children and so on, because nothing is more important than spiritual health. And we need to be very discerning about churches – about whether or not they really are teaching and treating the Bible as God’s Word; whether or not the gospel about Jesus that the apostles taught is what you’re hearing.
And finally, if you’re one of the many staying here over the summer and beyond, will you prioritise meeting with others here to listen to God’s Word? Eg, maybe you currently come once on a Sunday and you could come twice to take more Bible in. How about at least trying that? Maybe you need to watch going away for weekends and the Sundays that are slipping by with no church at all. Maybe you need to take the plunge and join a Home Group or other small group. And over the summer break from those small groups, do make use of the central summer series meetings that we’ll be advertising soon.
So that’s the message of this little bit of Luke’s Gospel:
• The one thing we need, to avoid spiritual sag: to listen to God’s Word.
• The many things we do that can get in the way of that.
• And the choice we each face to get the Bible into our lives – both on our own and with others.
And can I say: the times when we least feel like it – least feel like reading the Bible ourselves, least feel like meeting around the Bible with others – those are the times we most need it.