Please make yourself comfortable. Now please cross your arms. Not hard was it? Glance down and notice the position of your hands and arms. O.K. Relax, unfold your arms. Now I’d like you to do it again. But this time, put the arm that was underneath on top and the arm that was on top underneath. In other words, reverse your arms. Got it? I can see some of you are having difficulty. It wasn’t as easy to do this time, was it? Did it feel awkward? Uncomfortable? You really had to think about it. The first time it was natural, it didn’t require any thought, because that’s your preferred way of doing it. We each cross our arms in a certain way, and no arm crossing technique is right or wrong, good or bad. They are just different. And arm crossing is typical of just about everything we think and do. That is my first point.
1. Recognise our Unique God-given Personalities
“As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said.” (10:38-39)
Martha is feeling a little tense. You would too.
Not one or two but thirteen hungry men have just shown up, unexpectedly. True Martha is grateful that the Master feels at home with them. It is an honour and privilege to host Jesus and his friends. But Martha is irritated as well. It is not that she does not have enough food. But her sister is not helping her serve. Mary and Martha were sisters but had very different personalities. Mary’s tranquil composure contrasts vividly with Martha’s task orientated attention to detail. Mary is totally absorbed as she listens to the Master. She eagerly drinks in his every word. The question in her mind is “What can I learn from him today?” Martha is no less happy to have Jesus in their home. But she does not enjoy it. Her thoughts are on the cooking, water to wash with, whether the toilet is clean. She is eager to serve, anxious to please and irritated with her sister, all at the same time.
Who do you identify with? Mary or Martha? Your God given personality reflects the way you prefer to relate to the world around you. You have been created with preferences – choices you make when you relate to others. Whether they are programmed in our genes or represent learned behaviour is irrelevant. You are more comfortable relating in some ways than in others, and that gives you energy. When you need to relate to people in ways that are not natural for you then you feel drained. We function much like a battery – we have to be charged up to be useful. A battery can only give until it is empty. Then it needs recharging again. The question is: what gives you energy and what drains you? Some things will charge you up other things will drain you. Are you aware of the differences? Do you know what energises you? Do you find people or tasks more fulfilling? Both are needed. God has created some of us orientated to people and others to accomplishing tasks. For Martha, it was getting the house ready and preparing a meal that energised her. For Mary it was sitting at the feet of Jesus contemplating his words that energised her. Although sisters they were very different but in the words of the Psalmist, “fearfully and wonderfully made”. So first, recognise and appreciate in one another our unique God-given personalities.
2. Respect Our Different God-given Preferences
“Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (Luke 10:40)
Martha didn’t seem to care that she was accusing her sister in the presence of her guests. She was also questioning Jesus. She was implicating him in the accusation. And that is not all. She was ordering Jesus to make Mary come and help her… When I read this story I find myself sympathising with Martha. I identify with her frustration. Why can’t people be more like me? Jesus was not criticising Martha for being the person she was but for her bad attitude to her sister. Martha did not respect the person God had made her sister. Martha was upset with Mary because there was the food to prepare and the table to get ready. Martha was upset with Mary for not being like her, for not sharing her priorities. In this story Jesus affirms them both. There is both affection and a gentle rebuke. He was not going to side with her even though he would like to eat later.
Can you identify with Mary or Martha? We wonder why people can’t be more like us. Why don’t more people don’t share our values. Why don’t they feel the same way as we do? We get frustrated when what appears obvious to us is not obvious to them. For example, in our house I like the shoes in the coat cupboard. Not spread around the house. Not only that I like them to be in neat rows in pairs, with the largest pairs of shoes at one end of the cupboard and the smallest at the other end. Life would be so much less stressful if the shoes were kept in the cupboard in that way. It is so obvious. But in our family I am outvoted and the only shoes in the cupboard are the ones they no longer wear… Because other people are not like us we have a dilemma.
The temptation is to look down on people and treat them as unspiritual or worse. The other trick we play is to find people sympathetic to our point of view who will side with us and help put pressure on people to see things our way. Just as Martha tried to get Jesus to side with her against Mary. Instead, Jesus gave Mary permission to be herself. Permission to be what God had made her – unique, special, different to her sister. So, first we must recognise our unique God-given personalities. Second we must respect our different God-given preferences.
3. Remember to Serve with God-given Devotion
“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” (10:41-42)
In these words, Jesus implies a whole lot more. Gien Karssen suggests Jesus is saying,
“Martha, how can you become lost in things of minor importance while I am in your home? Martha, don’t you understand that I came in the first place to serve? I did not come to be served. Don’t you see that I am much more interested in you than I am in food? I do appreciate your hospitality, but my first concern is for you Martha, not your cooking. Martha, you are so efficient and wise – but I would prefer a simple meal and have more time with you and Mary. Mary does not need correction, please be careful about judging others. Leave that to me.”
Mary of Bethany appears three times in the Gospels. On each occasion, she is in the same place: At the feet of Jesus. She sat at His feet and listened to His Word (Luke 10:39). She fell at His feet and shared her grief (John 11:32). And she came to His feet and poured out her worship (John 12:3). In each of these instances, there is some kind of fragrance: in Luke 10, it is food; in John 11, it is death (John 11:39); and in John 12, it is perfume. Mary and Martha are often contrasted as though we must make a choice: – be a worker like Martha or a worshiper like Mary. Certainly our personalities and gifts are different.
But that does not mean that it has to be an either/or choice. It’s all about priority and timing. And on this occasion, Mary was doing the right thing. Charles Wesley said it perfectly:
“Faithful to my Lord’s commands, I still would choose the better part; Serve with careful Martha’s hands, And loving Mary’s heart.”
The Lord wants each of us to imitate Mary in our worship and Martha in our work if not in her attitude. Blessed are the balanced! Consider Martha’s situation. She received Jesus into her home but then neglected Him as she prepared an elaborate meal that He did not need! The guest is more important than the food.
What we do with Christ is far more important than what we do for Christ. Again, it is not an either/or situation; it is a matter of balance. Few things are as damaging as trying to work for Christ without taking time to commune with Christ. On this occasion, Mary chose the better part, the part that could not be taken from her. Whenever we criticize others or pity ourselves because we feel overworked, we need a “time out” just as Jesus gave Martha here. “Only one thing is needed.”
Martha’s problem was not that she had too much work to do, but that she allowed her work to distract her from her priorities. She was trying to serve two masters.
If serving Christ makes us difficult to live with, then something is wrong. The difference between Mary and Martha had nothing to do with their personalities or preferences but their priorities: “Only one thing is needed.” We must not neglect time “at the feet of Jesus”. Only one thing is needed. Unless we meet Christ personally and privately each day, we will soon become busy but not blessed. In pastoral care, when people come with serious problems, I first ask whether they are eating, sleeping and exercising properly.
If not I don’t look for a spiritual solution to a physical need. But if they are eating, sleeping and exercising and still have the problem, then I ask about their devotional life. Invariably the response is an embarrassed look, a bowed head, a quiet confession, “I stopped reading my Bible and praying a long time ago.” And they wonder why they have problems.
The solution? “Only one thing is needed.” One thing. What is Jesus saying to you today?
“Only one thing is needed.” And what is Stephen saying to you today? “Only one thing is needed” – well actually, three, unless you are a visitor, in which case, close your ears… This is for church family members only. First, make sure you have got the point of Jesus here. Second, before you leave today, please, please, please complete and return your pledge form from last Sunday. This will help the Church Council budget responsibly for the year ahead. Third, as this is the last in our series, “Finding your place in the Body of Christ” make sure you know yours. We have explored what Scripture says about passion, about preferences, about gifts and about serving in love. Now we come to the application.
Whether you are more like Mary or Martha, there is a place of service for you too here at Christ Church. We believe in “every member” ministry and encourage every member to follow the model of Jesus and serve one another in love. We serve Jesus and his family so that together we can invite others to join his family.
If you are not sure what your place is, please talk to Paul, Lesley, one of the staff team or me and we will help you find your place, based on your personality, preferences, talents and time. What have we learnt this morning? First we must recognise in one another our unique God-given personalities. Both Mary and Martha had excellent qualities. Second we must respect in one another our different God-given preferences. Thank God for the Mary’s and Martha’s in our church family, however unlike us they may be. Third, remember to serve with God-given devotion. All we have, all our time, our money, our talents belongs to the Lord. But does he have our undivided attention? “Only one thing is needed.” I believe Martha learnt from this conversation as I hope we will. Two chapters later, in Luke 12:1-2 she is preparing another meal for Jesus, and the Twelve, and her brother and sister—that’s fifteen people—and this time, there is not a hint of a word of complaint! She had God’s peace in her heart because she had learnt to sit at the feet of Jesus and serve him joyfully. Jesus said “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). May God bless you. Let us pray.