The Lord's Day Morning
May 9, 2010
“It's Not About Martha. It's About You.”
Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
As we continue to prepare for worship, let me invite you to take your hymnals in hand and turn to number 115. Our opening song of praise is “All Creatures of Our God and King,” a glorious text set to one of the most beautiful and majestic hymn tunes that we have.
We’re working through the gospel of Luke in our preaching. We've come to the very end of Luke chapter 10 and this is the passage where Martha and Mary host Jesus in their home. It is the perfect passage for Mother's Day and I did not plan this so I’ll be delighted to be in God's Word with you at the end of Luke chapter 10.
Because it is Mother's Day I thought you might be encouraged and edified and instructed by a reading from the great church father Augustine. Augustine, of North Africa, was one of probably the three or four greatest theologians in the history of the Christian church, and in my opinion, the towering theological figure for the first thousand years of Christianity. What you may not know is that Augustine had a deep and abiding theological respect for his mother. She was a life-long conversation partner with him about things of the Bible and things of the Lord and she prayed for him when he was going through his sowing his wild oats experience of youth. He was not a godly young man and he lived a wild life in many ways and she prayed for him and she prayed for him until the Lord in His mercy brought him to faith in Jesus Christ. She also prayed until her husband became a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. In her day, you got married off to someone. She was a believer but her father arranged for her to be married to an unbeliever. Now, she would not have chosen that on her own but that's what happened in her day, but she prayed until her husband came to faith in Christ.
But this is two weeks before Monica, was her name, two weeks before Monica died she and Augustine were having a conversation, and I'm going to share with you a little bit of that conversation with you in the sermon later on. But five days before her last illness, they had an extensive conversation about heaven and Augustine records it in The Confessions and this is what he says. If you want to read this yourself you can look at book nine beginning in chapter eight of his book, The Confessions. And by the way, “confessions” doesn't mean sort of all the salacious details about the bad things I've done in life. It actually means the confessions of praise. I'm going to confess Your praise, God, for the things You've done in my life. So though Augustine confesses plenty of sins in this book, it's not mainly one of these horrible recounting of all the bad things you've ever done. It's a confession of praise.
But here's what he says:
“There are many things which I do not set down in this book since I am pressed for time. My God, I pray You to accept my confessions and also the gratitude I bear You for all the many things which I pass over in silence, but I will not omit a word that my mind can bring to birth concerning Your servant, my mother. In the flesh, she brought me to birth in this world. In her heart, she brought me to birth in Your eternal light. It is not of her gifts that I shall speak, but of the gifts You gave to her, for she was neither her own maker nor her own teacher. It was You who made her. And neither her father nor her mother knew what kind of a woman their daughter would grow up to be. It was by Christ's teaching, by the guidance of Your only Son, that she was brought up to honor and obey You in one of those good Christian families which form the body of Your church.”
And Augustine in the next section recounts a story of his mother's character that I want to share with you this morning. He says,
“Whenever she could, she used to act the part of a peacemaker between souls in some conflict over some quarrel. When misunderstanding is right and hatred raw and undigested, it often gives vent in the presence of a friend to spite against an absent enemy. But if one woman launched a bitter tirade against another in my mother's hearing, she never repeated to either what the other had said except for such things as were likely to reconcile them. I should not regard this as especially virtuous were it not for the fact that I know from bitter experience that a great many people infected by this sin as though it were some sort of horrible widespread contagion not only report to one disputant what the other has said, but even add words that were never spoken.”
Now isn't it interesting that as he recalls his mother's life he recalls her as a woman who sought to promote peace between estranged and quarreling friends. What a terrific attribute to draw attention to. Here's your assignment this afternoon: If you don't have a copy of The Confessions at home and you can't read book nine chapters eight and following, do this — take time to rehearse to your mother today the grace-wrought character qualities that you see in her that God has done by His Holy Spirit. If she's a Christian, you recount those things. And even if she's not a Christian, you find those character qualities which are in accordance with God's Word and you praise her for that even while you’re praying for her to come to faith in Christ as you give her words of appreciation.
Well let's prepare to worship the God who made our mothers.
O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker, for He is our God and we are the people of His pasture, the flock under His care. Let us worship Him!
If you have your Bibles I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 10. We’ll be looking at the last verses of the chapter beginning in verse 38. This is one of the great passages in the Bible about discipleship and I'd like you to be on the lookout for four things as we read it together. First, I want you to be on the lookout for what this passage teaches us about the discipleship of women. If we look at verse 39 and Mary's sitting at Jesus’ feet and studying the Word with Him and listening to His teaching and Jesus’ words in verse 42 about this not being taken away from her becomes very imperative. This is an extremely important passage in the Bible about the discipleship of women.
Secondly, I want you to look at the posture of Mary in verse 39 especially. How is she sitting, how is she positioned as she is devoted to Jesus’ teaching and what does that teach you?
Then especially in verses 40 to 42 I want you to see what Jesus says is a potential enemy of discipleship. What is a potentially dangerous distraction from discipleship?
And then finally in verse 42 again, just in the first few words, I want you to see what the delight of discipleship is. The focus of the whole message will be on discipleship itself but we’ll use these four things to help us walk through the passage and focus on that one great thing.
Well let's pray before we read God's Word together.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word. Every syllable of it is breathed from Your mouth. Every syllable of it is true. Every syllable of it is meant for our edification, our reproof, our correction, our training in righteousness. So we ask that You would teach every one of us the truth of Your Word, opening the understanding of our hearts by Your Holy Spirit, causing our wills to respond to the claims of Your truth, and by grace living out the truth of Your Word. Open our eyes Lord that we may behold wonderful things in Your law. This we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it:
“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.’”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
I gave my wife a Mother's Day card from the dogs. I'm not sure whether you've read it yet. It's from the dogs. It says something like this: You know — “Happy Mother's Day Mommy! We love you.” And then you open it up on the inside and it says — “P.S. We know what W-A-L-K spells.” (laughter)
Okay, I know that many women when we come to this passage and Proverbs 31 secretly sigh and groan inside. I know that. The preacher gets up and he starts reading Proverbs 31 and you go, “Oh no, not her! Not the Proverbs 31 woman!” And you get to this passage and you know that Martha is coming in for a lickin’ here. And you go, “Oh no! You know I work my fingers to the bone trying to take care of my family and then comes the “Martha sermon”! Here it comes!” And you almost want to stand up in protest in defense of Martha. I know, in secret you want to say, “Okay Jesus, go ahead, fine, be all spiritual with Mary. You’re not going to eat tonight! And look, You and the disciples, You’re going to do the dishes!” I know.
That's why it's important for us to understand that in the end, this passage is really not about Martha, it's about you. It's about you and me. This is a huge big-picture passage about discipleship and Jesus is not making a snarky comment to Martha here. Jesus is actually looking after Martha's soul. But what Jesus says to Martha is just as applicable to His male disciples as it is to a female disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so I want you to look at this passage through the lenses of a disciple today and understand it's a passage about discipleship. It's not about Martha. It's about you. And I want you to look at three things with me.
I. The discipleship of women.
I do want us, first, to give attention to what this passage teaches us about the discipleship of women because it is huge. And you see it in verse 39 to begin with. Look at what's happening here. Mary is with Jesus, He's come to Martha and Mary's home, and she's wherever He is in the sitting room of the house, and it says “she sat at the Lord's feet and listened to His teaching.”
Now, it is probably impossible for those of us that live in the world we live in to appreciate the force of this. If we were in a room full of Muslim women, this passage could knock them over with a feather because of the six hundred million Muslim women that exist in the world, not one of them has ever heard a word addressed to them from Muhammad in the Koran as a disciple. The whole Koran is written to men. This is why Muslim women respond to the gospels because they see how Jesus treats women and how He values them.
You know, Dorothy Sayers1 said of Jesus — what was it she said? It was something like this — “Finally,” she says to her fellow women, “finally we have found a man who neither flatters us or patronizes us, but He respects us and loves us.” And Muslim women get the force of this passage. They’re blown away that not just a teacher but the teacher is paying attention to this woman and welcoming her into the circle of His disciples, because this was utterly revolutionary in Jesus’ day to treat a woman as a disciple. And so I want you to see what this passage says about the distinctive discipleship of women.
Jesus honors women as His disciples and that is very important for us to understand, especially in a congregation like ours which is confessionally committed to complementarianism.2 We believe in male/female role relationships. We believe that the Bible says a lot about how men and women relate in the home and in the church and we believe in an all-qualified male eldership. We believe that the shepherds of the church are to be men and so very often in the back of minds of women who visit and women in our congregation there is this sneaking suspicion that chauvinism is afoot. And so I want to say three things real quickly about that.
The first thing I want to say is this: Dear sisters in Christ, the reason we believe in male shepherds in our congregation is simply because the Bible is so clear about this. We are simply bowing the knee to the authority of Scripture. This is so important to understand. I received a letter a couple of years ago from a lady in our congregation who said, “Your teaching on male spiritual leadership has led me to embrace the opposite view.” I understand that there can be a suspicion and that's some kind of chauvinism afoot. But this is misguided Please understand that our first commitment is to the authority of the Word of God. That's why we believe in male shepherds in this congregation.
But the second thing I want to say is this: Understand that the authority such as this that has been given to the male shepherds of this congregation is for the express purpose of edifying all of you, women and men, as disciples to do the work of ministry. What does Paul say that Jesus gave pastors and teachers for in Ephesians 4? “For the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry” — in other words friends, women, female disciples here at First Presbyterian Church, male disciples who are not church officers, the elders, pastors, teachers of this church, we exist not to do the ministry but to equip you to do the ministry. That's what we exist for. We exist to equip you, sisters in Christ, and you brothers in Christ, we are not elders, to do the ministry of the church. That's all we exist for. And so our service and such spiritual authority that we have is all designed to bless you and to equip you to do the ministry that God has called you to, whether it's in your homes or in your vocation or in all of the avenues of ministry that are open to those of you in the church.
Third I would say this: Our commitment to male spiritual headship in the home and in the congregation is a manifestation not of chauvinism but actually of deep respect for women which I hope mirrors the respect that Jesus shows Mary in this passage.
After Missye Rhee Breazeale died last year, I received a letter from Gordon Reed who was my boyhood pastor. Many of you know Dr. Reed. He's preached here in this church many times, he was a professor at Reformed Seminary and more recently as a pastor in South Carolina, and he knew how much Missye Rhee meant to me and how well she served me and this congregation and he had had the experience of having two administrative assistants over his course of ministry that had served him in a remarkable way and he knew what the loss meant to men. And so he wrote a letter and he said to me, “Ligon, if we're lucky” and I'm quoting him, “if we're lucky, maybe God will let us serve them in the age that is to come.” He meant it and I would love that.
Now women, you may saying, “That's still not fair. You’re calling on us to serve sinners now.” And you may have a point and you’ll have to take that up with Jesus. He had the opportunity to appoint a female apostle if He wanted to. He didn't. But He did welcome women into the circle of His disciples and He treated them with dignity and regard and I would want you, sisters in Christ in this congregation, to be able to bear witness that there is not an egalitarian on the planet that loves you or respects you more than your pastor does. I would put the women of this congregation up against any women in the world — for your consecration, for your encouragement to me, and with every breath that I have I want to serve you. So I want us to see the distinctive discipleship of women in this passage.
II. The posture of the disciple.
There's another thing that I want you to see and again, look at verse 39 again. I want you to see the posture of the disciple. And I want you to see the posture of the disciple because I want you to see the devotion of the disciple. What's Mary doing? She's sitting at the Lord's feet and listening to His teaching. What’d she do? She's in a posture that acknowledges what? Jesus’ authority. In this culture, teachers, rabbis, taught typically sitting down, and those who were in the circle of their teaching especially in smaller group settings would often recline or literally sit at their feet.
Have you ever heard someone say, “Well I was sitting at the feet of John Piper last week” meaning that they were sitting under the authority of his teaching of the Word? Or I was sitting at the feet of D. Martin Lloyd Jones via a recording the other day — it's language of discipleship. Well that's what she's doing. She's sitting at Jesus’ feet. What does it do? It acknowledges His authority. And she's doing what? She's listening to His teaching.
That is what a disciple does. A disciple is devoted to the authority of Jesus and sits under His teaching. A disciple acknowledges the authority of Jesus and drinks in His teaching. A disciple is not telling Jesus how he or she thinks it ought to be. A disciple has his mouth closed and he's drinking in every word that comes from the Savior.
Is that you? You know, in this world that's in love with its own opinions, do you like to tell Jesus how it ought to be or do you like to hear Jesus tell you how it ought to be? Do you sit under the authority of His teaching and close your mouth and say, “Speak Lord, for Your servant listens. I want to know what You think, Jesus. I'm not here to tell You what I think, I'm here for You to tell me what I ought to think. I want to sit under Your Word. I want to be close to You. I want to drink in everything that You've got to teach.”
And how do you do that in this world today? You do it by gathering under the Word of Christ Lord's Day after Lord's Day, week after week, because where can you hear Jesus speak today but in the proclamation of His Word. That's where you hear Jesus speak today.
And so His disciples long to be where He is speaking, they long to gather under His Word and to be edified by His teaching. They cannot stand to be away from it. It's the air that they breathe, it's the food that they eat, it's the water they drink. They have to have the Word of God.
Is that you? Does that describe you as a disciple? Do you delight in the teaching of God's Word? Do you delight in Jesus’ teaching? You want to have Jesus instructing you?
May I say that if you do, won't that show in the way that you attend the public services where the Word of God is preached? May I just speak personally to you and say that over the last year I have seen a more sporadic pattern of attendance than in the fifteen years that I've been here at First Presbyterian Church to the point that I've asked myself, on more than one occasion, “Are they tired of me?”
If we're disciples, we want to be at His feet, under His Word, and we can't wait to get there. We won't let anything keep us from that. We've got to be there. That's where Mary wanted to be because she was a disciple. Mary's showing you where a disciple wants to be just in her posture. She's showing you where a disciple wants to be. The posture of Mary shows you the devotion of a disciple.
III. The distraction of discipleship.
So we see the distinctive discipleship of women in this passage, we see the devotion of a disciple in this passage, but we also see the distraction of discipleship in this passage and it's in verses 40 to 42. Martha comes out, Jesus has just descended upon her house bringing who knows how many people with Him, and she's scurrying around trying to get something on the table for them, trying to clean up, trying to straighten up. Mary's in there listening to the teaching and she comes in and she gives Jesus an earful. “Jesus, please tell her to come help me.” And Jesus, Jesus knows the tendencies of our hearts and what Jesus says to Martha is not a hard rebuke, it's something that is indicative of His understanding of what her own unique temptation was. And her temptation was to be all caught up in the busyness of very important details and to forget the most important thing.
And my friends, if ever there was a culture in which we are susceptible to that very temptation it is ours. We live in the busiest culture in the history of the world. We are constantly surrounded by, and bombarded by, busyness. And you know what? Most of our busyness is superficial busyness. I think our forefathers who were far less busy got a lot more done than we get done because we spend so much time doing superficial stuff. But we're busy all the time. There's stuff going on all the time. There are beepers going off and phones going off and iPads going off and iPods going off and cell phones going off and there's stuff going on all the time. And that busyness is an enemy to discipleship because it keeps our eyes focused on a multitude of less important things and we forget the most important thing. And the Lord Jesus says to Martha, “Martha, in the midst of all the things that you have to do, don't forget the most important thing.” My friends if ever there was a generation that needed a Lord's Day, it's ours. If ever there was a generation that needed the public worship of the Lord morning and evening on every first day of the week, every Sunday, it's ours because we are twenty-four/seven, three hundred and sixty five days a year busy, preoccupied with stuff, and my friends, we can forget the most important things in life because we don't even have enough time to stop and think. We don't even have enough time to stop and think.
I read to you from Augustine's Confessions, his words about Monica his mother. I won't read it to you now, but I’ll challenge you to read it for yourself. If you look at book nine about chapter ten or so he records the last conversation he ever had with his mother. He was thirty-three years old, she was fifty-six years old, and five days after he had this conversation with his mother she became ill and nine days later she died. So two weeks after this conversation she's dead. And Augustine says that they got together and they dwelt in a long conversation about the blessedness of the life of the saints above.
Augustine records the final conversation that they had together in his Confessions and this is what he says:
“I believe that what I am going to tell happened through the secret working of God's providence for we were talking alone together and our conversation was serene and joyful. We had forgotten what we had left behind and we were intent on what lay before us. In the presence of Truth, which is Yourself, we were wondering what the eternal life of the saints would be like, that life which no eye has seen, no ear has heard, no human heart conceived, but we laid the lips of our hearts to the heavenly stream that flows from Your fountain, the source of all life, which is in You so that as far as it was in our power to do so we might be sprinkled with its waters and in some sense reach an understanding of this great mystery. Our conversation led us to the conclusion that no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed luster upon it, was worthy of comparison or even of mention beside the happiness of the life of the saints.”
And he goes on to describe the conversation. It's really seraphic. It's almost mystical.
And then Monica looked at Augustine and she said these words — now remember she doesn't know this. Five days later she's going to become ill, two weeks later she's going to be dead. She looks at Augustine and she says, “This life has lost all hold on me.” And then she says to Augustine, “For three decades I prayed that the Lord would make you a Christian and you are a Christian now.” And she said, “This life has no more hold on me.”
Now look, I understand what Paul says, yes, to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord and yes, it's better to be with the Lord. But Paul also says what? But for me to stay here is profitable. If the Lord had given Monica twenty more years of life she would have been used profitably. I am not denigrating the work that Christians are supposed to do here and now in this world, in our families, and in the community. That is hugely important. Most of my discipleship of you is to help you in those areas, but do you see what she values? The busyness of this life has lost its hold on her. There's something more important, more permanent that has laid hold of her soul.
And I just want to ask you a question — is that the case with you?
IV. The delight of discipleship.
One last thing. I want you to see the delight of discipleship. You see it in verse 42. It's in the first few words. Jesus says — “One thing is necessary.” And I don't know about you, but when I hear those words from Jesus’ lips, I'm all ears. I want to know what one thing is necessary. Please tell me what one thing is necessary!
You know what the answer is? Fellowship with Me. Jesus is saying to Martha, ‘The most important thing in this world is fellowship with Me.’ Everything else pales in comparison. ‘Mary,’ He says to Martha,’ has chosen fellowship with Me.’ No one will take that away from her. The soul's communion with Christ is the one necessary thing. Everything else passes away. Your wealth here will pass away, your vocation here will pass away, your family here will pass away, your relationships will pass away, the institutions that you invest your life in will pass away, the communities that you invest yourselves in will be gone, but the soul's communion with Jesus Christ by faith in Christ in response to the free offer of the Gospel will never end. It is the one necessary thing.
So let me ask you, do you believe what Clint sang? Do you believe it? Would you rather have Jesus than silver or gold? If there is anything in this world that you care more about than your communion with God through Jesus Christ, then there is a part of your heart that is committed to idolatry.
And you see this is what Jesus is saying — “My disciples treasure Me more than anything. My disciples delight in Me more than anything. My disciples long to be in My presence more than anything. My disciples value Me before anything in this world.” Is that you? Can you say it? “Lord, I want You more than I want to be wealthy, more than I want to be popular, more than I want to be successful, more than I want to be powerful. Lord, I want You more, I want You more than I want a good relationship with my husband. Lord, I want You more than I want a good relationship with my wife. Lord, I want you more than I want a good relationship with my children or with my parents. Lord, I want You. You are my vision. You are my treasure. You’re what I want.”
Is that where you are?
Do you see why I said this passage is all about discipleship? It's not about Martha. It's about you and me. It's about whether we understand the one necessary thing and that's something that men and women together need to understand. May God by His Spirit open your eyes to it. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, by Your grace through the Gospel be thou our vision. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Grace be with you.
1. Dorothy Sayers, Are Women Human? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971, 2005), 69pp.
Women, she noted, were “the first at the Cradle and the last at the Cross.” The many women who appear in the gospels, says Sayers, “had never known a man like Jesus–there never has been such another. A prophet and teacher who never nagged at them, never flattered or coaxed or patronized; who never made arch jokes about them, never treated them either as 'The women, God help us!' or 'The ladies, God bless them!'; who rebuked without querulousness and praised without condescension; who took their questions and arguments seriously; who never mapped out their sphere for them, never urged them to be feminine or jeered at them for being female; who had no axe to grind and no uneasy male dignity to defend; who took them as he found them and was completely unselfconscious. There is no act, no sermon, no parable in the whole Gospel that borrows its pungency from female perversity; nobody could possibly guess from the words and deeds of Jesus that there was anything 'funny' about women's nature.”