One night last year, Lauren and I were driving home from a gospel meeting, and she asked me, “Am I allowed to request sermon topics too?” As all husbands know, there is only one possible answer to that question, and so here I am this morning, preaching a sermon on two of the most famous sisters in the Bible, Mary and Martha.
I think this is worth our time for two reasons. First, as we learned last week, our theme for the year is “Living for Jesus”, so it’s appropriate to consider the way two women lived for Jesus 2000 years ago.
Second, I think that Martha is in some need of character rehabilitation. She tends to get a bad rap from Bible teachers. There’s even a book out there called Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. However, when we look at what the Scriptures actually reveal about her and her sister, a different picture emerges. Let’s turn our attention, then, to the interaction among Mary, Martha, and Jesus.
There are three stories in the New Testament about these two women, and the first of these is about MARTHA’S COMPLAINT. Let’s read it, in Luke 10:38-42. This is certainly the story that people think of first when they think about Mary and Martha. In fact, for many brethren, it’s the only story they think of.
The first thing this story shows us is that Mary is kind of an odd duck. Today, we think nothing of a woman sitting and listening to a Bible teacher, but 2000 years ago, that simply was not done. By sitting at Jesus’ feet, Mary is not only declaring herself His disciple. She’s halfway to declaring herself to be a man.
The lesson here, I think, is that it’s OK to be a weird disciple of Jesus. Some people have an easy time fitting into the conventions of society, and they can be wonderful Christians. Others very much march to the beat of their own drummer, and they can be wonderful Christians too! Being godly is a whole lot more important than being conventional.
Second, notice that Jesus rebukes Martha not for serving, but for criticizing Mary. When Martha is bustling around serving while Mary listens, Jesus is perfectly fine with that. It’s only when Martha complains that Jesus defends Mary.
In life, some people are Marys. They’re not so great at adulting, but they’ll sit and listen to Jesus all day long. Others are Marthas. They’re the ones who make sure that all the Marys are fed, clothed, and pointed in the right direction.
It’s OK to be a Mary. The church needs Marys. However, the church needs Marthas too, and just like Martha doesn’t get to insist that Mary needs to become like her, neither should we insist that Martha needs to become like Mary!
The second of our three Mary-and-Martha stories is THE RESURRECTION OF LAZARUS. It’s funny that we associate this story with Lazarus, but from beginning to end of it, he doesn’t say a word. It’s Mary and Martha who do the bulk of the talking. Let’s read about their part of the story in John 11:17-35.
The first thing I see here is that in life, everybody gets their chance to shine. In this story, the one who impresses is not Mary. When Jesus arrives, she doesn’t go to greet Him, which is rude. When Martha summons her to Jesus, she storms out of the house, goes to Jesus, accuses Him of being responsible for her brother’s death, and then collapses in hysterics at His feet. Everything she does radiates mad and upset.
Not so with Martha. Despite her reputation as the one who cares more about housekeeping than God, she is the one who actually has a meaningful conversation with Jesus. In v. 21-22, even though she too holds Jesus responsible for Lazarus’ death, she expresses her conviction that He can make it right. Jesus tells her and not Mary that He is the resurrection and the life. She, not Mary, triumphantly concludes the conversation by expressing her faith in Jesus’ divinity and power. I daresay that if we didn’t have the book of Luke, our narrative about Mary and Martha would be very different.
Second, though, let’s pay attention to the way that Jesus deals with Mary’s emotional outburst. He’s not angry or condemnatory. He’s compassionate. Even though He knows what is going to happen in five minutes, when she weeps, He weeps along with her.
From this, we see once again that we don’t have to hide from God. Sometimes, we feel like we have to put on our church faces when we pray, and that’s exactly the opposite of the truth. If there is anybody we can be shockingly honest with, it’s God! He’s big enough to handle our anger, our upset, our rage. The problems come when we think we have to hide those things from Him (as if we could!) and end up turning from Him.
Our third story is the story of JESUS’ ANOINTING FOR BURIAL. Let’s look it, in John 12:1-8. By now, we should know what to expect. Martha is doing Martha things, and Mary is doing Mary things.
If, after our visit to Luke 10, we still had any doubt about whether Jesus was OK with Martha serving, this should dispel it. She’s not plopped down in the floor next to Mary. She’s bustling around making sure everything is in order, just like she was before.
That’s perfectly fine. Indeed, it’s always right for a disciple to tend to the needs of others, whether they’re male or female. In the very next chapter, Jesus Himself is going to perform a humble act of service to teach His disciples a lesson. In the Lord’s body, the people who paint the auditorium are just as important as the people who preach sermons in it, and we must never forget that.
Also, notice Jesus once again sticking up for Mary. Once again, this is a strange thing she has done. The only thing like it that we see in the gospels is the sinful woman in Luke 7 wiping Jesus’ feet with her hair as a sign of her repentance.
This is also a very expensive thing for Mary to do. In our terms, this is about a $50,000 perfume job! However, whether Mary knows it or not, this is also the right thing for her to do. She comes nearer to the meaning of the moment than any of Jesus’ other disciples do.
As a result, when Judas condemns her, Jesus defends her. In fact, He defends her so strongly that Judas gets offended at Jesus’ rebuke and ends up betraying Him to the chief priests. I think Martha’s motives were a lot better than Judas’s, who only wanted his cut of the 300 denarii, but Jesus is willing to protect Mary from Marthas and Judases alike.
I think that all of us find ourselves rolling our eyes at our brethren occasionally, but we must remember that the quirkiest Christian in the assembly is someone whom Jesus loves and values. We all take some bearing with, and some of us take a lot of bearing with! However, God put us all here for a reason, and just like Mary did, each of us has something unique to offer.
One of the most hopeful things about the Bible is that it chronicles the flaws not only of the wicked, but of the righteous too. Nearly every Biblical character is depicted as falling short in some way, but despite their failures, they pick themselves up, press on, and eventually receive God’s approval.
We see this pattern in the life of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He is undoubtedly a good man. Indeed, Luke 1:6 describes both him and his wife as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.”
However, when this good man encounters the angel Gabriel as he serves in the temple, the limitations of his faith become apparent. Gabriel tells him that he will have a son, but decades of experience have shown him that he and his once-barren, now-old wife are incapable of having children. He chooses to believe his experience rather than God’s word, and he is stricken with muteness because of it.
Despite his unbelief, after his return from temple service, his wife conceives, and in due time, his miracle son is born. Then, the Bible story gets weird. Elizabeth and the family get into an argument over whether the child is going to be named “Zechariah” (after Daddy) or “John” (as Gabriel had said). She insists on “John”, and the still-mute Zechariah confirms her decision in writing. At this point, his speech impediment is removed, and he begins to glorify God.
This story doesn’t make much sense to people from our society, so we have to do our best to read it through first-century eyes. Throughout the Bible, it’s obvious that children, especially sons, are extremely important—even more so than in our time. Not only did sons provide for their parents in old age, they also—to a people with an uncertain grasp of the afterlife—offered a kind of immortality. As long as your sons continued, you did too.
This is why the relatives want to name the baby “Zechariah”. Against all the odds, this faithful, elderly priest is going to have a future! However, Zechariah knows that his son’s life won’t be about him. It will be about God. His course will be so different that only the name given by God, a name that no one in his family ever has worn, would be appropriate. In affirming God’s choice, Zechariah also affirms that John’s life will be about the hope of Israel, not the hope of Zechariah.
Zechariah’s spiritual struggles resonate with even the best of us. We too know how hard it is to trust God’s word instead of our experiences. We know what it’s like when God’s goals for our lives collide with our own.
Faith doesn’t necessarily mean that we get everything right in the moment. Like Zechariah, we can get ambushed by a spiritually crucial decision we didn’t see coming. Faith does mean, though, that if we get off track and suffer the consequences, we don’t give up. We fight through the hard times, we try to figure out where God wants us to go, and we go there. As Zechariah learned, we too will learn that regardless of what has come before, if we will seek the Lord, we are sure to find Him.
It's not too late to download a copy of The Life and Teachings of Jesus 2020 Reading Plan PDF and follow along with us.
The Life and Teachings of Jesus - Week 2 - January 13-17:
Monday – Luke 1:39-56: Today’s reading brings the two previous passages together into one event. Mary’s visit brought a reaction from John in Elizabeth’s womb. Through the Holy Spirit (cf. Luke 1:15, 41), the Messiah’s forerunner gives testimony to the Messiah even before he was born. Elizabeth praises Mary for filling an important role in the history of salvation (vv. 42-45). Mary replies to Elizabeth with an inspired utterance. Her hymn of praise in vv. 46-55 is known as the Magnificat, (Latin for “Magnifies”). There are strong echoes of Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-10 in Mary’s words. A striking feature of this hymn is the fact that Mary views God as overthrowing established authorities in favor of the weak and poor.
Respond to God’s deeds of salvation for you in the model of Mary and Elizabeth. Write a few lines praising God (or copy a few lines from your favorite hymn). Share your words with a friend or post them on social media so that God may be praised by others.
Tuesday – Luke 1:57-66: The next two readings complete the birth narrative of John. In keeping with Gabriel’s words (Luke 1:14), the surprising news of John’s birth gladdens the hearts of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s neighbors. Next, the focus of the narrative turns to the circumcision ceremony that occurred eight days after John’s birth (cf. Genesis 17:12; Leviticus 12:3). It’s during this time that a male child receives his name. Those present (the priests performing the ceremony perhaps?) want to name the child “Zachariah after his father” (v. 59). However, when the parents demand the child be named “John” (v. 60, 63; cf. Luke 1:13) Zachariah’s “mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God” (v. 64; Luke 1:20).
Note, that three times Luke described people’s spontaneous reactions to the happenings surrounding John’s birth (vv. 58, 63b, 65-66). What do you think might be Luke’s purpose in repeating this fact?
Wednesday – Luke 1:67-80: Often referred to as the Benedictus (Latin for “Blessed”) the prophecy of Zacharias ends the birth narrative of John. The one who disbelieved (Luke 1:20) now believes, and his first response is to praise God. His prophecy (v. 67) has two sections. The first part (vv. 68-75), set in past tense, declares God’s faithfulness to the covenant with Abraham. The second part (vv. 76-79), set in the future, foretells the redemption promises to Israel that are signified in the birth of John.
For what character qualities and acts does Zechariah praise God? In what way(s) might this prayer influence your own prayers to God?
Thursday – Matt. 1:18-25: Matthew tells the story of the birth of Jesus from the standpoint of Joseph rather than Mary, as Luke does. In his narrative of events, Matthew simply states that Mary became pregnant due to activity of the Holy Spirit, then goes on to tell what Joseph does. When Mary was “found to be with child” (v. 18) that was not Joseph’s, it was expected that he would divorce her (even an engagement required a formal divorce). Nevertheless, an angelic visitor tells him not to do so because all this has happened to fulfill the prophesy of Isaiah 7:14.
These extraordinary events bring Joseph face to face with a difficult decision. What personal qualities does he display in the way he handles the situation?
Friday – Luke 2:1-7: Luke anchors Jesus’ birth in history, in the powerful world of Rome. Our Savior’s advent is not a myth, but rather it is a record of divine activity in historical time. “In those days” (v. 1), God used a Roman emperor’s decree to fulfill the plan He announced in Micah 5:2. Because Joseph was of the lineage of David, he was required to register for the new tax at his ancestral home of Bethlehem (cf. 1 Samuel 17:12). It’s popular to imagine Mary arriving into the town, riding a donkey while in active labor, or at the very least having contractions. Luke however, clearly implies that the family had been in there for some time, “While they were there,” he states, “the time came for her to give birth” (v. 6). In the crowded confines of the village, the only comfortable place to lay the newborn Messiah is a “manger” (v. 7) the lowly feed trough of cattle, sheep, and goats.
Why do you think God had His Son born in the circumstances described in 2:7, rather than in a royal or at least a comfortable household? (consider: 2 Corinthians 8:9; Philippians 2:1-10)
Keep on reading my friends. See you next week.
We'll be meeting at the Jackson Heights building at 3 PM this Sunday to ask the Lord's blessing on the new year. Hope you can join us!
- By Abiding in the Word (John 8:31-32)
Hymn: How Firm a Foundation (248)
Prayer: for zeal for the Scriptures
- By Keeping His Commandments (John 14:15)
Hymn: Trust and Obey (714)
Prayer: for more godliness
- By Loving One Another (John 13:34-35)
Hymn: Blest Be the Tie (76)
Prayer: for increased love for each other
- By Teaching Others (Matthew 28:18-20)
Hymn: Will You Not Tell It Today? (783)
Prayer: for boldness in proclaiming Jesus
- By Supporting Others’ Work (Matthew 9:35-38)
Hymn: Far and Near (139)
Prayer: for foreign evangelists and our willingness to help them
- By Becoming Like Him (Philippians 2:5-8)
Hymn: O to Be Like Thee (499)
Prayer: for greater Christlikeness
Invitation Hymn: Living for Jesus (402, vs. 1-4, then chorus)
God, who made the earth and heavens,
Rules them all by His commands;
Such a God does not inhabit
Temples made with human hands.
Nor do human hands sustain Him;
He needs nothing we can give,
But instead, He gives us freely
Every gift we need to live.
From one man, He made each nation,
All who dwell upon the earth,
Fixing their appointed seasons
And their boundaries from birth.
He desires for all to seek Him,
Not too far for each to find:
God, in whom we have our being,
God, the Father of mankind.
We cannot confine His nature
To an image we invent;
Overlooking former folly,
Now He calls us to repent.
Through a Man whom He appointed,
God will judge as He has said,
Having proved to all His purpose
When He raised Him from the dead.