A Journey With God: A Tale Of Two Sisters
Have you ever noticed how often the New Testament sets two personalities in contrast with each other—the one attractive and the other not so attractive? There is the Prodigal Son set against the backdrop of his older brother. There is the beggar, Lazarus, portrayed over against the rich man, Dives. There is the stark contrast between the Publican and the Pharisee as they prayed in the Temple. Even the crucifixion is marked by the startling contrast between the two thieves flanking Jesus on crosses of their own—one of them is cursing Christ while the other is claiming Christ.
Here in the tenth chapter of Luke we see the same pattern at work in what I shall call “A Tale of Two Sisters.” The story is short, just 114 words in length, but its message stretches all the way from the first century to our own. Its truth is timeless. In the story, Martha is contrasted with her sister, Mary. Jesus had come to their home for a visit and the two sisters responded to that visit in sharply contrasting ways. Let me show you what I mean…
Look first at Martha.
Back on May 21, 1927, this nation’s newspapers ran the headline: “Lindbergh flies New York to Paris in less than 34 hours!” Last year, the U.S. government unveiled plans for an experimental jet capable of making the same trip in less than 3 hours! If all of life has speeded up at the same rate our air travel has, then we are now living ten times faster than we were 70 years ago. Life at the end of the twentieth century has pitted the human race against the “rat race”—and, frankly, the rats seem to be winning! If God wants to speak to us, He’ll just have to leave a message on our answering machine—we are too tied up in busyness to wait for His call.
That was Martha’s problem way back in the first century. Jesus and His disciples stopped by for a meal and a visit. The Bible says: “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.’” And Jesus replied: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things but only one thing is needful.”
What did Jesus mean when He said that? Well, food at an ordinary meal during the time of Christ consisted usually of just one dish—a casserole with rice, with meat or fish, or a kind of vegetable stew. The family sat on the floor or on low stools around the pot and dipped into it with bread or with wooden spoons. So Jesus was saying to Martha: “Look, here you are all worked up into a frenzy trying to prepare an elaborate meal for me, but I am an old friend, practically part of the family. One dish would have been enough.”
Now Jesus clearly was not unappreciative at Martha’s efforts at hospitality. Her motive was right, but her method was wrong. But let me speak a word here in praise of Martha. We need Marthas in life. Mind you, it is not easy being Martha and some people just aren’t up to the task. I love the story about the woman who accompanied her husband to the doctor’s office. After the doctor examined the husband, he called the wife into his office alone. He said: “Your husband has a fairly serious illness complicated by terrible stress. If you don’t do the following your husband will surely die. Each morning, fix him a healthy breakfast. Be pleasant and make sure that he stays in a good mood. For lunch, fix him a nutritious meal. For dinner, prepare an especially nice meal for him. Don’t burden him with chores around the house. Don’t discuss your problems with him, as it will only add to his stress. And most importantly, love on him constantly, meet his every need, satisfy his every whim and desire. If you can do this for the next six months to a year, then I think your husband can regain his health completely.” On the way home, the husband asked his wife: “What did the doctor say?” She replied: “He said you’re going to die!”
It’s not easy to be a Martha, but we do need Marthas, don’t we? We need them at home. We need them at work. We especially need them in the church. The reality is that it is because of the Marthas that church budgets are balanced and church babies are coddled and cuddled and church buildings are built and church missions are undertaken. Max Lucado says that “Marthas are the energizer bunnies of the church. They just keep going and going and going.” And if there is a downside to being a Martha, it is that sometimes they might need to slow down just long enough to remember the purpose for which they serve so that they do not elevate their mission over the Master. It is possible, you see, to get so busy doing the work of the Lord that we forget the Lord. That was Martha’s problem.
Now there’s a message here for us. How hectic has your life become? Do you belong to too many organizations, try to attend too many meetings, take too much on your plate literally or figuratively, subscribe to too many magazines, possess so many things that they become a burden, accept too many invitations? You say: “Yes, that’s my problem all right—too much to do.” But the answer is not to move out into the country and live like a hermit. No. The answer is not changing our address, but changing us.
Not one of us here has a life anywhere near as hectic and demanding as that of Jesus: thronged by jostling crowds, continually on the move with no place to call His own, bombarded by requests for help and healing, constantly attacked by those who opposed Him. Yet He never lost His sense of peace, poise and serenity. The Gospel writers portray Him always unruffled and unhurried, never agitated, always perfectly aware of the needs of those around Him. So the answer for us is the answer Jesus gave to Martha. We need to accept Christ’s gift of peace in our hearts right where we are, right in the middle of our hectic and chaotic lives.
That brings me to look at Mary.
Jesus said to Martha: “Your sister, Mary, has chosen what is better.” Mary didn’t stumble onto the good; she deliberately chose it. Remember, please, that she would have felt exactly the same pressure that Martha felt, but she chose to sit first at Jesus’ feet. She chose to focus her mind and her heart on the things of Christ, trusting that Christ in turn would help her with the work that needed to be done. She didn’t seek to escape the pressure. She sought instead, with Christ’s help, to manage the pressure.
George Selwyn, who wrote some of the greatest chapters in the history of Pacific missions, was educated at Eton and Cambridge, England. He went on to become the first Anglican bishop of New Zealand. There, he entered into a ministry which was costly in the extreme, but nevertheless, he pursued it with both determination and courage. There is a memorial built to honor him there. It is a large white marble sarcophagus, and carved into the top is the figure of the bishop, stretched out as if he is sleeping. There is a look of great calm and peace and beauty upon his face. His hands are folded upon his chest. Behind the monument, there is a window in the shape of a cross. The window is made entirely of crimson glass so that at certain times of the day when the sunlight streams through the window, a great blood-red cross falls upon the face and the hands and the heart of the sleeping bishop. To me, that is a picture of how George Selwyn chose to live his life. He chose to follow Jesus Christ. He lived out that commitment every single day. No matter how he was tested, he held fast. No matter how great the pressure, he never wilted. No matter how intense the demands upon him, he never snapped. Like Mary, he chose to devote himself solely to Jesus Christ, and like Mary, the peace that gave him could never be taken away.
Look at Jesus Himself. Through all of his terrifying suffering, He remained calm, confident and serene. Before the spinelessness of Pilate and the buffoonery of Herod and the cruelty of the soldiers and the red-hot hatred of His enemies—no one speaking for Him, no one standing with Him—and yet, through it all, He possessed a peace which could not be taken away. How could He do it? Because He knew that He belonged to God and to God alone.
That’s why I keep coming back to this pulpit Sunday after Sunday, pouring out my heart and my life before you, trying to help you remember that you belong to God through Jesus Christ, that you are heaven-bound, that you are wrapped in the reality of resurrection, that death will never conquer you. For when you understand that and when you surrender your life to Jesus Christ, then you can face any challenge and overcome any obstacle. For there is no one else who has ever lived like Jesus lived, and there is no one else whom so many have sought to be like in their living. Jesus is the One on whom I am betting my entire life. And Jesus is the One who called me to this pulpit. I have now spent sixteen of the best years of my life trying to preach Jesus and trying to live Jesus among you. I have given my all to call you to give your all to Him—and if you give your all to Him then He will give His all to and for you. That’s the secret or peace in your heart.
So give your heart to God in Jesus Christ today. There is no better place than here. There is no better time than now…