FINDING OURSELVES IN THE STORY
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It’s Sunday. A day in which we have each chosen to attend a worship service in a building called a church. Why do we do this? Think, for a moment, about why you came to Blythwood Baptist Church this morning.
Now, of course, there are many answers to this question. This morning we will just explore three.
First, I hope, would be a desire for an encounter with Jesus. We seek an opportunity to praise and worship God because we are very aware of what God has done for us by including us in His family; we are forgiven and redeemed. As we regularly affirm in the communion service, we remember the cost of that redemption, and so we offer thanksgiving. We come to worship.
In addition to encountering Jesus in worship, when we attend a church regularly we also choose to share with others in fellowship. We engage in human friendships that are rooted in a common understanding of our faith in God and the work of our Lord Jesus.
So, we come to church on Sunday with the specific intent to worship God and encounter the Lord Jesus; we come to engage in fellowship with brothers and sisters.
And a third reason that we come to church is to explore ways in which we can serve our Lord Jesus by offering service to those around us. Some offer service by; playing an instrument, offering voice in word or song, baking for fellowship times, caring for and teaching younger members of the fellowship, exploring possibilities for engagement outside the church in community, and, …well you fill in the blank!
Worship, fellowship and service.
I just love the way the Gospel of John describes the life of the family in Bethany. Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. In the passage read earlier, it is just a few days before Jesus’ arrest, trial and execution. Jesus and the disciples were invited for a meal and Martha is in the kitchen preparing that meal.
She had been in the kitchen baking the bread and succulent, savory lentil stew all day. Everything had to be just right for tonight’s dinner. Thirteen men and any number of hangers-on might turn up – but Martha loved the challenge. She had scrubbed and swept every inch of the house until it shone – not a speck of dust or dirt would DARE to show itself.
She sang and hummed as she worked – and now and again she looked out of the window space at the glorious blue sky. Each time she had to pop into the courtyard to pick sprigs of fragrant herbs, she would stop for a moment to enjoy the warmth of the sun on her face and hands.
At one time it would have bothered her that her sister, Mary, only lent a hand sporadically. Now she realized that the cleanliness of the house and the flavour and presentation of the food were just not priorities for her. No, perhaps that was being a little unfair –beauty and ambiance were certainly important to Mary.
The pots of flowers and herbs around the courtyard were artfully arranged – to Martha, herbs were food additives to snip and use in the delicious dishes she prepared from day to day – but for Mary, they were creative art for all the senses. The pots were set to the best visual advantage and as the long robes of the guests would sweep past sweet basil or pungent rosemary, the fragrance would waft up; leaving each one with an indefinable sense of pleasure and well-being.
Mary often took walks in the fields and hills near the town and would return with an armload of meadow flowers to decorate the house and dining table – flowers that most people would overlook and trample on without a thought.
As Martha worked contentedly in the kitchen she thought about the change their friend Jesus had brought into their home and how his grace and wisdom had adjusted their views of each other and seasoned their relationships. His open-handed acceptance of their differences, the way He affirmed their abilities, how He welcomed each of the gifts they offered out of their love for Him – all of these things had softened their attitudes to each other and enriched their lives together. They saw each other through His eyes, a completely different perspective that enabled them to love each other in a way they had not found possible before.
Mary was out there at the front of the house now with their brother, Lazarus, watching the road, waiting to greet the expected guests. Lazarus, the revived, the re-born, Lazarus had literally been given a new, second life to live. The family had much to be thankful for – it would have been difficult for two women to manage on their own – Lazarus’ resurrection was an incalculable gift to them.
Whenever Jesus and his disciples visited, Lazarus rejoiced in just ‘being there’, being the host for this special friend, ensuring that Jesus’ smallest wish was anticipated and fulfilled. Lazarus’ gift of thanksgiving to Jesus was to offer him the protection of a secure, private place to rest while He visited the capital city of Jerusalem – Bethany was a suburb of the political and religious centre, barely a three-mile walk – far enough to escape the controversies for awhile, close enough that Jesus and his disciples could be in the temple every day, if they so wished.
Ah, that was the group arriving now – Martha could hear the excited chatter as Mary and Lazarus greeted each one courteously, helped them to take off dusty sandals, offered refreshing water for their feet and a cool drink to slake their thirst. Martha went to the cool, dark corner of the kitchen where she kept the large pitcher of drinking water under a rough, clean cloth; she was ready to help Mary carry and distribute tumblers to refresh their guests.
She could hear Peter’s voice; loud, authoritative and confident – ‘Oh, Peter,’ Martha sighed to herself, but with a smile, ‘you always think you know everything – one day something is going to overtake you that you cannot handle by yourself…’
And Jesus’ reply; always seeming so gentle, but somehow with more firm authority and clarity than Peter could ever muster. There was a wider smile now, on Martha’s face, tinged with joy at hearing their dear friend’s voice.
All twelve of the male disciples were here, that meant Judas would be here, too – Martha’s smile slipped, a fleeting frown creased her brow – she could not quite put her finger on why she did not like Judas – all of the disciples were difficult in one way or another – Peter’s over-confidence, James’ and John’s sense of entitlement and arrogance – each had some characteristic or mannerism that was a problem; but all of them, except Judas, seemed to be softened, made easier to be with, simply by the proximity of Jesus himself. Judas alone appeared to be untouched by Jesus’ presence. Judas seemed to be consistently negative and critical, particularly towards anyone who did not share his personal view of what was right or wrong.
After a time to unwind, easy conversation, laughter and the sharing of news; the men took their places around the table and the women followed Martha into the kitchen to help carry the bowls of stew and loaves of bread to the table. The women would settle around the work table in the kitchen to enjoy a good gossip, and then they would eat after the men had finished.
At first none of them noticed that Mary had slipped out – Joanna was telling a story about life in the palace in Jerusalem in her inimitable way, with wild dramatic gestures that had them all in stitches – then, Martha noticed that the murmur of men’s voices from the next room had stopped, you know how it is, that sudden, embarrassed hush. Joanna dropped her arms and her voice faltered, sensing a change in atmosphere in the house …
A wonderful aroma wafted through the warm kitchen – it was not the fragrant smell of cooking, this was musky, flowery, sensuous, rich and beautiful. Unaccountably their spirits were lifted and their eyes lit up, ‘wow, whatever is that…?’
Their rising sense of pleasure, joy, and well-being was suddenly shattered by a loud, jarring, jeering voice; “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages!”
As one, the women held their breath – and Jesus’ voice could be heard clearly, quickly intervening, cutting off the possible debate on the relative merits of charity versus worship; “Leave her alone, it was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”
Whenever we come to this passage we always think of how wonderful and gracious Our Lord was in affirming Mary’s actions and intentions – and this is, indeed a beautiful thing – notice, though, how Jesus also seeks to protect and restore Judas. If John’s suspicions of Judas’ dishonesty were firm enough to mention in his gospel, you can be sure it was a ‘murmuring point’ for the other disciples too. By cutting off any debate of Judas’ comment, Jesus also silenced any suggestions from the other disciples about Judas’ true motive for wanting to appropriate the money from the sale of Mary’s perfume.
Our gracious and all-forgiving Lord sought to give Judas every possible opportunity to repent, to turn away from his disastrous and destructive course, accept forgiveness and enjoy restored fellowship with Jesus himself and with the other eleven disciples.
This story tells us about the dynamics within two fellowship groups – the little family in Bethany and the disciples, both men and women, who travelled with Jesus throughout Galilee and Judea.
And this story tells us a great deal about how relationship to Jesus Christ affected individuals and consequently the dynamic of the fellowships to which they belonged. This brief passage has a mine of gold for us today as we seek to participate in and enrich our fellowship together in partnership with the Lord Jesus.
As I talk about each individual, think in your own heart who it is that you identify with the most.
I think it is safe to say that each one of us here would begin by identifying with Lazarus. Each of us has come to the Lord, as the apostle Paul puts it, “dead in our sins” and Jesus has given each one of us new life, renewed life lived in fellowship with Him as part of God’s family, reconciled to the Father. We all, like Lazarus, love to sit with Jesus; we long to stay close to Him so that we can learn from Him. We ‘recline with Him around the table’ at least once a month. Jesus has given each of us a new life, part of our gift of thanksgiving to Him is to stay close to Him as much as possible, to rest in His presence first of all.
Second, we come to Martha. Are you a Martha? I know I am. I just love Martha, always ‘doing’ stuff – whether it is working around the house, fixing up the home for hospitality, organizing the funeral arrangements, going out when any decent woman would stay at home like Mary swathed in mourning veils with a mountain of handkerchiefs. Not Martha, she goes out to meet Jesus and give Him a piece of her mind for coming too late to save her brother. Martha the practical, Martha the do-er, Martha, one of the women that John writes about in chapter 11 verse 5; “Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.”
Take a look at Martha here in chapter 12, “Martha served…” Martha isn’t complaining about Mary’s lack of womanly attitude anymore, Martha is focused on employing her own gifts that can be used for the Lord and His work. Martha accepts that her sister is different, she supported and cared for Mary in her grief when Lazarus sickened and died, and here she is ‘serving’, because that is what she does best, that is what she does well.
Close relationship with Jesus has enabled Martha to see the world with new eyes, to see her family and in particular her sister, the way the Lord sees them – precious and different and of infinite value to Him. She no longer has the desire to compare her gift of service with Mary’s gift of devotion. She knows that the Lord sees their hearts and loves and values each for who and what she is. There is no competition.
And, Mary. Now while I suspect that most of us are a Martha we all have a secret desire to be a Mary. Mary has a tender and wise heart and a gift for demonstrating and enhancing worship. Mary sensed Jesus’ distress and pre-occupation on an earlier visit and realized that He needed to know there was someone to listen to Him quietly. Mary hangs back when Jesus is on the road to visit the tomb of his friend Lazarus – to give Him space to grieve without reproaching him for being tardy.
And here, in this passage, we read that Mary takes the most precious thing she has, to use as a gift of thanksgiving and worship – nothing is too much to give to her Lord.
Are you a Mary? Has God given you a sensitive heart to discern the deep, unspoken needs of a sister or brother? Do you have a gift for creative and extravagant worship? Are you willing to go outside of your comfort zone, outside of society’s judgment of what is right and proper in order to offer your best to Him? Do you want to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn from Him?
I have focused here on the family, brother, and sisters, but perhaps you identify more closely with one of the disciples. Self-esteem, self-sufficiency, a sense of self-worth are all good things, attitudes to aspire to; but it is important that they not get in the way of relying on the Lord Jesus – as they did with Peter.
Or the brothers, James and John; focused on getting ahead, busy ensuring their rightful place, consumed by making sure that everyone involved recognized their exceptional gifts. Pride blinded their ability to hear what Jesus says about who and what was truly important in the Kingdom of God.
If we had read further into John’s gospel, and on into the book of Acts, we would have read about how each of these disciples absorbed the things Jesus had taught and demonstrated, and how engaging with Him in fellowship changed each of their lives.
Except, of course, for Judas.
Perhaps, I hesitate to suggest it… some of us may, sometimes, be like Judas – Judas shut Jesus out of his life, rejecting the work Jesus could accomplish in his heart. According to the writer of the Gospel of John, Judas suffered from a sense of guilt because of his own dishonesty and this led him to lash out at those around him, most notably in this story against Mary. Judas was busy finding fault and criticizing – But Jesus did not focus attention on Judas’ specific sin, rather he sought to encourage Judas to evaluate his life – Jesus gave Judas opportunities to come clean, to confess, and to receive the unqualified forgiveness that was offered.
If Judas had accepted this opportunity that Jesus offered, he would have been able to enjoy the warm relationships with others that we see in the lives of the family at Bethany and the camaraderie among the other disciples – no one of them was perfect – but all came to acknowledge their own weaknesses and allowed their relationship with the Lord Jesus to work in their lives and hearts so that they might live in joy-filled fellowship together with others and with Him.
Who are you today? We are all Lazarus – are you also a Martha or a Mary? Are you a Peter, a James or a John, or a Judas?
Whoever we are today, we can safely and securely add; “Now Jesus loves …” insert your name here – “Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.” Jesus loved each and every one of His disciples, yes, even to Judas he offered every possible opportunity to return to full fellowship and relationship. Jesus loves you, Jesus loves each of the other people sitting around you, and Jesus loves me.
Like Lazarus, recline, at table with Him this week. Like Mary, sit at his feet. Like Martha serve him with joy and gladness. Like the disciples, be attentive and open to learn from Jesus’ words and example. Share within fellowship together, contentment and peace as you meditate on His love.