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A Tale of Two Birth Announcements

Look over Luke 1:5-25; 57-66.

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Annunciation of the Angel to Zechariah by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1490, fresco in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Florence) Public Domain

We all know the story, don’t we? Zacharias (an “official” “ordained-type” priest) goes in his proper time to offer incense within the Temple. The Angel Gabriel appears to him there, announcing the upcoming birth of John the Baptist, along with his role as forerunner and preparer of the way of the Lord.

Zacharias responds, objecting, “How will I know this for certain? For I am an old man and my wife is advanced in years.” [v. 18] Gabriel then identifies himself by name, and declares that Zacharias will be mute until his words were fulfilled.

Time passes and so things come about. Zacharias regains his voice finally upon naming his son “John” at his circumcision, in response to community objections because this is not family name of their line.

We all know the story.

Now, please look over Luke 1:26-56.

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The Annunciation by Pinturicchio (1501, fresco in the Cappella Baglioni, Collegiata di Santa Maria Maggiore, Spello) Public Domain

We all know this story, too, don’t we? We see this played out in Christmas pageants almost annually, no? The Angel Gabriel appears to Mary, declares her favored, calms her confusion, and announces that she will conceive the Son of the Most High and name Him Jesus.

Mary seems to respond much as did Zacharias, pointing out a physical incongruity as she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” [v. 34]

But far from punishing her, as it could seem Gabriel did to Zacharias, the angel answers graciously with not only the answer to her question (that the power of the Most High would overshadow her), but he gives her an additional sign declaring that Elizabeth (her kinswoman) is six months along expecting the birth of John. Their exchange ends with “’nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her” [vv. 37-38]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So, like, am I the only one who ever wondered, “what’s the difference here?”

Zacharias clearly ticked Gabriel off, while Mary didn’t. It’s one thing to point to the “rank order” difference between them. There’s certainly a difference of “graciousness” between them. Lots of flavorful differences, but I always sensed there was more here than that.

And… why should we care? What difference does, or should, it make to us… to you and me… here and now… why these two encounters went the way they did?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I think the answer to both questions is the same one… “Faith”.

The difference between the two encounters is “Faith”. And the reason we should care, is also “Faith”.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It never dawned on me, until very recently, that Zacharias… even faced as he was with the terrifying countenance of an Angel of God Almighty… doubted the truth of his words. Even INSIDE the Temple, standing next to the Altar of Incense as he offered up incense to God!

Seriously?

All of Gabriel’s words spoke to FUTURE events, not present events. Zacharias was going to have to go from that place, be with his wife in the proper time, conceive John, and watch nature take its course for the next nine months.

But that wasn’t good enough for Zacharias.  He says, “how will I know this for certain?” (We know italicized words are inserted by editors.) So he wants to know, right here, right now, why he should believe Gabriel. Waiting apparently isn’t good enough. (We know for certain that the issue is doubt, because Gabriel tells us that.) Zacharias is rendered mute until all was fulfilled “because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.” [v. 20]

Zacharias needed to know these things were true before he was willing to do his part. Clearly, his part in this miracle would be of crucial importance. It was he and Elizabeth who needed to conceive this child. But before he would go to that trouble, before he would dare go communicate this to Elizabeth, before he would risk Elizabeth’s heartbreak, disappointment, or disgrace… he had to have a sign. He had to KNOW this was true, before he could obey.

Gabriel gives him an unmistakable sign of his authority and power, using his words alone to stop all words for Zacharias until the truth was borne out.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So what is different about Mary? She, too, asks a “how” question.

The difference is that her question is one of “means”, not “verification”. She was perplexed at the appearance of Gabriel, not terrified. Gabriel declares the upcoming conception, birth, and kingship of Jesus, and Mary does not express doubt at the announcement. Rather, she asks how this is to come about, what is she to do? She knows she is virgin. Is that to change for this miracle? How should she obey the will of God?

Gabriel responds to the “how” of the question… that “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” [v. 34-35] (By the way, that word “overshadow” only appears 5 times in the New Testament. Once here; then three times referring to the Cloud around Jesus, Moses, and Elijah in the time of the Transfiguration that came upon (and terrified) Peter, James and John, from which came the Voice saying “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”[Luke 9:34-35]; and third when Peter’s shadow heals the sick [Acts 5:15].)

Unsolicited, Gabriel offers Mary the sign of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. Mary yields unconditionally to God’s will and embraces Gabriel’s words, the hurries off to aid Elizabeth in her first pregnancy. Isn’t it interesting that Elizabeth had only “come out”, publicly acknowledging her pregnancy in the month before Mary’s arrival? No way was Elizabeth going to endure the risk of disappointment had she miscarried, or been merely deluded into thinking she was pregnant. She would not face either the jibes or the condescending looks of other village women as her face began to round and her figure became more full. She was an elder of her town, disgraced by the curse of barrenness perhaps, but nonetheless righteous and dignified of demeanor. She would not be mocked.

But by the time Mary arrives, Elizabeth KNOWS. She knows for sure that she carries life within her. The baby has quickened, and for the first time she has the glorious sensation of life moving inside her as he responds to her motions or sounds around them. No words describe the joy of hugging new life with your very self, as a woman can in this time.

Mary comes, calls out in greeting, and the Holy Spirit already filling John [v. 15] now fills Elizabeth as well, and her joyful encounter with Mary as they attend to one another’s needs for the next three months (Elizabeth’s third trimester, Mary’s first), offers blessing to them both. Even as I type those words, I can only pause and wonder in awe at what those months must have been like. What would evenings have been like in such a home? Zacharias silent (no choice there), Elizabeth growing ever more excited even as getting around gets more difficult and stilted, and Mary finding her appetite less predictable, perhaps napping now and again, and sensing the changes in her body as the Christ waxes in form…

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What does all this mean to us, Gentle Reader?

Well, God does the impossible all the time. For those who are ready and seek Him, miracles are all around.

When they come, sometimes they are hard to believe in. That’s just the truth. But! When one is willing to yield to them, God grants. When one is willing if and only if there is a sign attesting to the truth… well, God accommodates and a sign will be given. We see this over and over again throughout the Scriptures (Gideon, etc.) However, as we see from this text, while faith that may be, it is a flawed sort of faith. (I, for one, have engaged in such flawed faith countless times, so no judgment here!)

But there’s another kind of faith. There’s a faith that takes a truth on the authority of the speaker, and simply says “Yes!” before it asks “How?”

There, I think is both the difference between the two Gabriel missions, and the significance to us today.

Zacharias wanted proof before he would act. Mary was willing to act before any proof was offered.

Both were engaged in astonishing blessing and miracle. Zacharias just had to go about it with a bit more inconvenience. That and, frankly, their lingering doubts certainly would have robbed him and Elizabeth of months of joy and consolation.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The Holy Spirit, the overshadowing Power of the Lord Most High, certainly wins out in every miracle. Let us simply say “Yes!” first, ask “How?” afterwards, and watch events unfold!

Grace to you, Gentle Reader!

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Posted by on July 16, 2017 in Quiet Time, Sermon Seeds, Uncategorized

 

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Would we dare?

The Omega

“Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” [Hebrews 12:1-2]

The Alpha

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Never, before today, have I thought of Christmas in terms of “shame”. Of Mary’s shame of conceiving out of wedlock, Joseph’s shame to wed a pregnant bride, their family shame to bear their son in a cast off stable, to bed Him in a feed trough…

And what of Jesus Himself? Who can even begin to conceive of the contrast between His glorious throne, and swaddling clothes, nappies, and nipples?

And yet… and yet… He EMBRACED that! ALL of them did! Who can imagine such a thing? Mary dared deadly shame to say “yes” to the Angel Gabriel. Joseph dared to trust Mary when she told him of Jesus’ conception.

And Jesus? Jesus willingly embraced His humanity, placing Himself in the care of this incredible couple. He embraced the shame. He accepted His own weakness, helplessness, dependency.

Doing so… as a puny little infant… His very presence terrified a king, prompting the slaughter of countless boys. His presence inspired other kings, who paid Him homage and presented Him gifts. His danger, and the warning of an angel, uprooted His family to an alien country to preserve His life. Did they travel in secret? Like people ashamed? Traveling by little known routes, not to be seen, moving by night, resting and hiding by day?

How strange does this all seem for the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

Did they despise the shame? Yet did they all embrace it, for the love of God and those He came to save? Did they love us? Somehow know that somewhere, sometime, you and I would be sitting here praising God for all this?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

All this… all this shame… they took on and embraced, that WE might come to be freed of OUR shame! That our own shames, guilts, sins, be remembered no more. That we stand clean and clear, robed in the righteousness of Christ before the Holy Throne of the Father!

What about us? That’s the question that came to me this morning. That’s the question the Lord confronted me with this morning.

Does “shame”, a concern about what other people will think of me, ever prevent me from doing the right thing, a righteous thing, an action of grace?

It has, Gentle Reader. I must be honest. There are times I have refrained from doing “the right thing”, because it would embarrass me. You too?   * head nods here *   Well, our human frailty gets us all sometimes.

But just let me encourage you, Gentle Reader. Let me ask you to encourage me as well, from time to time. Acts of grace, of compassion, of gentleness… should never be constrained by “how it looks” to others, or whether we will “lose status” by embracing the shame. Do the right, the gentle, the loving… and let onlookers sort themselves out before the Throne.

Jesus’ earthly life began embracing shame. His earthly life ended the same way. But throughout… He is, was, and ever shall be… King of Kings, Lord of Lords…

“Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” [Philippians 2:8-11]

 
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Posted by on December 15, 2015 in Advent Devotions, Sermon Seeds, Uncategorized

 

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Making an Entrance

WisdomThe people were waiting for Zacharias, and were wondering at his delay in the temple. But when he came out, he was unable to speak to them; and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple; and he kept making signs to them, and remained mute. When the days of his priestly service were ended, he went back home.

After these days Elizabeth his wife became pregnant, and she kept herself in seclusion for five months, saying, “This is the way the Lord has dealt with me in the days when He looked with favor upon me, to take away my disgrace among men.”

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.” [Luke 1:21-29]

We see Zacharias, first finishing his duty, his time as a priest in his division.(I cannot imagine what this would have been like for him, unable to speak, yet unable to have relations with his wife (in order to remain ritually clean for Temple service), and having both this tremendous promise from the angel and his constant reminder of its truth through his inability to speak.) Only upon completion of his service does he return home, and John is conceived. Did Elizabeth believe him when he wrote out or pantomimed this incredible revelation?

Elizabeth then shuts herself away for the first five months of her pregnancy. I am struck by her blessing of God, in its focus on her disgrace. How deep must her bitterness have been across those barren years? Her focus is not on the glorious power of God in miracle, or on the joy of a son and heir coming into the world, but on her relief from shame and disgrace. I don’t judge or condemn this… I am simply struck with compassion at how great her suffering must have been up until then. Why, I wonder, did she not allow herself to be seen by the other women during her first two trimesters? Did she fear, I wonder, that this might be snatched away from them and she miscarry? I cannot imagine that she could bear the bitterness, shame, or disappointment of that. Did she fear even greater ridicule if she lost the baby?

It is from there, from that point of Elizabeth’s seclusion, that we see God send forth Gabriel to Mary. Scripture highlights the time, measuring it from the starting point of John’s conception. How interesting! John, as forerunner and herald of Jesus, is the first tick of the clock timing Jesus’ advent.

Then we see an amazing thing. Gabriel is dispatched by God to go find Mary in her own city, and he walks in on her! Now, most angels in the Bible are “encountered” when the person walks up on them… or God sends angels off to “go before” people, leading them somewhere. Only a few times do the angels walk up to encounter people, and even less often is that their primary mission. (E.g. The angels walk up and encounter Lot on their way into Sodom.)

Likely we have seen, read, and pondered the Luke narrative of this encounter many many times, Gentle Reader. So this year, my attention has not so much been drawn to the momentous and incredible wonders of this meeting. For some reason, and I invite you to join me here, the Lord’s spotlights have been focusing on much littler things…

In this case, I’m amazed at the “everyday-ness”… the seeming “ordinary-ness”… of the opening of this Cosmically Incredible Encounter. Gabriel goes to Mary’s city, commissioned to find her and announce this wonder, and he simply “walks in on her” and greets her with the Angelic Salutation… the “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee.”

And her response? Makes me smile… No sign of fear or even questioning words, just simplicity and a bit of confusion… “But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was.”

How would we likely respond in similar circumstances? I am struck by the “taking in stride” of it all.

 

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“Don’t Touch Me!” — Why Not?

Empty TombNow after the Sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary came to look at the grave. And behold, a severe earthquake had occurred, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was like lightning, and his clothing as white as snow. The guards shook for fear of him and became like dead men. The angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; for I know that you are looking for Jesus who has been crucified. He is not here, for He has risen, just as He said. Come, see the place where He was lying. Go quickly and tell His disciples that He has risen from the dead; and behold, He is going ahead of you into Galilee, there you will see Him; behold, I have told you.”

And they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy and ran to report it to His disciples. And behold, Jesus met them and greeted them. And they came up and took hold of His feet and worshiped Him. Then Jesus *said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and take word to My brethren to leave for Galilee, and there they will see Me.” [Matthew 28:1-10]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Jesus *said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing Him to be the gardener, she *said to Him, “Sir, if you have carried Him away, tell me where you have laid Him, and I will take Him away.” Jesus *said to her, “Mary!” She turned and *said to Him in Hebrew, “Rabboni!” (which means, Teacher). Jesus *said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” Mary Magdalene *came, announcing to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord,” and that He had said these things to her. [John 20:15-18]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

There are two accounts of the first few hours of Resurrection Day, from two different Gospels. So much wonder, beauty here. So much we could speak of. But today, I’m simply going to savor the day… and point out an “odd thing” here, it seemed to me for a long time.

Both passages clearly express the feelings of the women who came to the Tomb. Great grief, ready to anoint His body properly, confusion at the empty Tomb. Then, the first passage shows us how overwhelming their joy was when He appeared to them directly (verses 9 & 10). They bowed down and worshiped Him, taking hold of His feet. (Would we do any different? I doubt it.) He sends them on to the Disciples, to deliver His orders. (By the way, they are not believed… but anyway.)

In the second passage, we see Mary Magdalene grieving, distraught at His body having been stolen. Jesus comes upon her quietly incognito and asks why she is so sad. She tells Him. (Did He plan to reveal Himself before she exposed her pain? Was His “original plan” just to deliver His message and go His way? Did her tears move His compassion to reveal Himself? How often do our tears move His compassion to reveal Himself, when He may not originally have planned to? — Sorry, those are the kinds of questions that come to me when I ponder Him in scripture.)

Jesus reveals Himself, simply by speaking her name with all that Love in His heart. She melts, calling out to Him AS HER TEACHER! “Rabboni”.

But, that’s when Jesus does something very strange, indeed. Grief or not, compassion or not, love or not, joy or not… He forbids her from touching Him! Really? REALLY? Is He KIDDING? No, He’s not. He gives a very specific reason not to be touched…

“Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’”

What a strange thing to say… Certainly it must have seemed so for those who heard Him that day. And this passage confused me for a long time. But one day, when I realized that as I grew in my own maturity in Christ, Jesus’ relationship changed with/to/in me. Is He my Lord, Savior, Master, God? Yes… all of that… yes. But ALSO, as I have become an adult in the Father’s House, Jesus has become very much my Friend, my Captain, and beyond all else, My Big Brother. (Now, I was blessed in this life to HAVE an incredibly wonderful Big Brother, so this has not been a difficult transition.)

Now, as I’ve grown up, did Jesus CHANGE? Of course not. He’s the same yesterday, today, and forever. But with reference to me, my life, my experience, His relationship has changed over time. What’s more, the “old relationship” has to pass away, to make room for the new.

I’ve spoken before of absolutely fabulous teaching that has blessed my life. I have worked with and for some incredible men and women of God. They poured themselves out to help me grow and learn and serve, and any good you see in me is to their credit and God’s. (My faults and failings are entirely my own, thank you!) But over time, these wonderful people have become peers and colleagues… no longer mentors and teachers. Oh, that’s not to say I still don’t learn tremendously from them, or that I do not seek their counsel from time to time. But equally they sometimes learn from me, or seek my counsel. The relationships have changed. They’ve grown RICHER, but distinctly different.

Jesus, through the Cross, had changed not just the Universe… but EVERYTHING. His relationships with those who had loved Him in His earthly life had changed. There was going to be more change. Ultimately, the Holy Spirit was to come, and He would be INSIDE them!

This Resurrection Day was the beginning of this “interim time” between the Cross and the Pentecost. And it was of critical importance to Him that they, ALL of them, Disciples, family, holy women… everyone… begin to release and let go the Old relationship with Him as “Wandering Rabbi”… and prepare for the new relationship with Him as Glorious Lord Within.

Please notice the strange words He wraps around His instructions to the Disciples…

“Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.’” 

He must ascend to the Father, yes. But He takes great pains specifically to point out… “brethren”… “My Father and yours”… “My God and yours”… These are words of equality, peerage. These are words I would never dare to say but that He said them intently and first.

He puts Himself, now, and “His brethren”… on level and equal ground.

I haven’t got all the answers about this, Gentle Brethren. I just point it out. And He brought it to me very intently, when I asked about the “Why Don’t Touch”?

He no longer wanted to be seen in His old relationship. That needed to make way for this New One. As Firstborn among many brethren, that we be joint heir with Him.

More to come…

 
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Posted by on April 20, 2014 in Quiet Time, Sermon Seeds

 

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Martha… Mary… and Sleepwalking

In recent days after the tragic school shooting in Newtown, we’ve seen a marked change in people all around us. Often, those who were irritated or annoyed at the scamperings and antics of small children have become much more patient and tolerant. Many of us have treasured our own families and youngsters more. Countless thoughtful people have pondered how such a thing could happen, and how a repetition might be avoided.

In a Bible Study I attended that following weekend, the question was asked, “How is it that such events have such a profound impact on so many people?”

It seemed like people tend to draw together, to become more thoughtful, to treat one another better, after any earth-shattering tragedy, whether natural or man-made. I’ve seen this with hurricanes, with tornadoes, even severe winter storms. We saw this in the wake of the Towers coming down, the Oklahoma City Bombing, (for those old enough) the Challenger Shuttle Disaster, or (for the even older) the Assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King.

There is something utterly arresting about inconceivable tragedy. It draws our gaze hypnotically. We tend to watch the event over and over again on our television screens. We hover over our news outlets to glean every new detail as it surfaces. We start conversations with total strangers in public places, as if hungry for the simple human contact, like needing to assure ourselves that we are alive but the event really happened. And then we often close up into some nook or cranny for private reflection for a time. We have to process this… somehow we have to weave this anomaly into the fabric of our lives and sense of reality.

I won’t pretend to know the answer to “Why do we do this?” But I’ve observed one thing, whether a tragedy is individual and personal, or whether it ripples across an entire culture, country, or the world…

That is: Shocking tragedy focuses the attention on a single point and issue, like a laser beam.

It seems as if the event, whatever it is, sits in the middle of a table in front of us, like a gigantic centerpiece. We can hardly take our eyes off it. We can hardly discuss anything else. All the other events of our lives that go on around us, seem filtered and interpreted in light of this Centerpiece Event.

My personal theory is that we relate, personally, to such an event as Newtown. We see our own children or grandchildren as having been potential targets. We feel the pain of heartbroken parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and teachers. We hug our own loved ones just a bit closer, grateful that we are where we are, and Newtown is where it is. Suddenly, nearly instantly, these sometimes “annoying little people” are SIGNIFICANT! These relationships are the most important things in our lives, and everything else seems a bit trivial. Little handprints on windows and mirrors can be wiped off, broken lamps can be replaced. But these precious loved ones, these relationships… THESE are fragile. These are irreplaceable.

There is a profound truth beneath all of this, that we seldom see so clearly. The truth is: These relationships are real and important, and our “stuff” with which we usually keep ourselves so very busy… is not. Each of us are granted one single “lifetime”, and we have absolutely no idea how long or short that is. It is measured, moment by moment, in breaths and heartbeats granted by our infinitely loving and gracious God, from His breath to ours as free gift. And we, unutterably privileged as we are, get to decide how we spend them.

Centerpiece Events, like Newtown, tend to remind us of this… and prompt us to think and deliberate just a little bit, on how we spend them. It’s as if we spend much of our day sleepwalking, just doing what we do because it’s there in front of us to be done, with little reflection or question. Then a Centerpiece Event explodes on our horizon like a thunderclap, suddenly jolting us from our somnambulence and reverie into uncomfortable wakefulness.

There’s the fundamental battle of the Christian Life. The constant tension between the Significant and the trivial, the Important and the meaningless, the Truth and the facts. It doesn’t seem to matter how often we hear the lesson… sometimes we just need to hear it again, don’t we?

Now as they were traveling along, He entered a certain village; and a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. And she had a sister called Mary, who moreover was listening to the Lord’s word, seated at His feet. But Martha was distracted with all her preparations; and she came up to Him and said, “Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to do all the serving alone? Then tell her to help me.” But The Lord answered and said to her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and bothered about so many things; but only a few things are necessary, really only one, for Mary has chosen the good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” Luke 10: 38-42

As with all scripture, there’s a vast array of Truth contained in this narrative, but The Lord focuses me here on just the issue at hand. Jesus quietly contrasts the Significant from the Trivial in His response to Martha. I hear this message echoed throughout these days both individually, and institutionally.

There’s a few things to notice here, between Mary and Martha. One, it is clearly Martha’s house, that is, she is the elder of the sisters. It is SHE who invites Jesus in, and scripture says she “welcomed him into her home”. Of Mary we see two things… both what she DID (listened to the Lord’s word), and where/how she did it (seated at His feet, a posture and location of a student or child). We see her fixed attention on who Jesus is, what Jesus is (teacher and Lord), and what Jesus says. She chooses to spend her time, her heartbeats, on her relationship with Him, on the attention she can give to Him as He speaks, and the blessing she can receive from Him as she hears and learns.

Martha, on the other hand, chooses to expend her heartbeats on different priorities. Please notice, these are not BAD priorities, not “wrongful acts” or what anyone could consider “sin”. They are just different than Mary’s. Martha is the hostess of The Lord, and goes about the activities appropriate to the role, preparing the place, the meal, possibly His lodgings if He is staying for the night. The Gospel tells us these preparations “distract” her, taking her attention away from focus on her Guest directly, placing her “preparation agenda” higher than her “relationship” directly with Him. When she DOES address Him, in fact, we see a remarkable thing. She tries to “use” Him, to “leverage His authority” to get Him to enter into her agenda, and rebuke her sister, forcing Mary to aid in her work.

Just short of rebuke, we see Jesus respond with a simple, “No.” No, He will not yield to Martha’s will here. Mary has got it right, Martha has missed the point, and Jesus will not “play her game”.

In short, Mary has chosen the “Significant”, Martha the “trivial”, and Jesus is not about to move the right person the wrong direction. Mary rests in her relationship with Jesus, listening and adoring. Martha seeks to “work for” Jesus, doing all these things she can do to be pleasing to Him and to look like a good hostess in His sight.

Jesus says Mary has chosen the “good part”.

Now, this passage is often preached and taught in terms of the contrast of time expenditure between “prayer” and “ministry of action” or “works”. And that is certainly true. For traditions that recognize the distinctions between the contemplative and the active in ministry, this passage is iconic as illustrating that contrast. All such teaching is true, good, and real.

But for just a moment let’s look at this another way. As individuals, especially in light of these momentary “wake up calls” we get when we focus on shocking tragedy, don’t we seem to experience these “Mary/Martha” moments? Don’t we tend to live our lives, day to day, in something of a “Martha Mode”? Aren’t we constantly keeping ourselves busy and distracted, even as Christians, “doing stuff FOR Jesus”, rather than focused on just “being WITH Jesus” and enjoying the fellowship, the close intimacy, of that?

In terms of the current discussion, by the way, I’m not talking so much about “prayer” or “religious” activity as being Jesus’ focus. To show my age, for a moment, I’m saying “The Medium is the Message”. That Jesus said the Significant was “relationship and intimacy, mutual enjoyment”, and what was trivial was “preparation, busy-ness, and activity”. THIS is the truth we are reminded of in a tragedy. When there IS something concrete and helpful to be done, as in the aftermath of a disaster, by all means we do that! But even there, even then, we tend to be more focused on people, on their hearts, on their needs for comfort and fellowship, than simply on their hunger or thirst.

Institutionally, as we gather as “Church”, do we not see this same dynamic at play week after week? Is it an uncomfortable question to ask, “Are we, as a Body of Christ and local church, more concerned with our busy-ness, our activities, our schedule, our ‘preparations’, than we are about our relationships… both to the lost and the community around us, and among ourselves?”

It is SUCH an easy slippery slope to slide into… at least for me! Like gravity pulls the chocolate to the bottom of a glass of chocolate milk over time. Tragedy seems to “stir the glass” from time to time, emulsifying and rebalancing the Significant with other activity. Reminding us of the sacredness of people, and the importance of relationships and touching hearts, beyond simply “maintaining the mechanics of our ministries”.

Need concrete examples? Am I sounding too “theoretical”? Well, I’ve caught myself becoming so enslaved to my daily calendar that I’ve sometimes hesitated to respond to someone’s urgent need for a counseling appointment because my calendar dictates that that afternoon I’m doing shut-in visits. Or I’ve seen a query made to a vibrant adolescent youth ministry in a church (touching teens who are often the “only Christian” in their unchurched homes) from church financial leaders asking, “How often do your youth go get seconds at the Wednesday night supper, and why?”

Gentle Reader, so often I am asked, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” or “How can a loving all-powerful God allow such tragedy and evil?” I make no pretense of having the answers to these questions. I bow my head to the nature of “mystery”, and to the Father’s thoughts above my own. But I can tell you this… I can see one “effect” of such things… they are huge wake-up calls to the “Significant” versus the “trivial”. Am I saying this is “Why?”, or that “God does or allows this for such and such reason?” Absolutely not! No such thing! Only He can answer for Himself in such matters…

But, Gentle Reader, I am so a work in progress… yet so frail and subject to the trivial… and, from what I observe, I am not alone in this. So, in my own life, such events provide FOCUS on what Jesus declared to be the “good part”… the relationship, the sacredness, the fellowship. And that I should never EVER see my relationship with Him (or, frankly with anyone else) as a simple “means to an end” of executing my own agenda and To-Do List.

Are “activities” good things? Are there real chores in Kingdom? Of course. Jesus had the disciples do many things, conduct many activities, perform many chores. But each of them were in response to relationships in two directions: One, obedience to Him. Two, meeting the needs of others. Relationship is the “good part”, and “activity” is in the service of the former.

My prayer, then is: “Dear Lord, please use me to extend Your love and grace to others through relationship as the most important item on my agenda. Help me attend to the Significant, rather than getting caught up in the trivial. When I pull all my activities and busy-ness about me like a cloak, I only puff myself up seeking Your recognition of my merit and my significance, and that is foolish illusion. Let me treasure Your sacred children, and relationships, with Your heart and Spirit… without having to rely on the reminder of tragedies to waken me from my sleepwalking. Amen.”

Please keep me, and my frailty, in your prayers, Gentle Readers! Grace to you all.

 
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Posted by on December 29, 2012 in Quiet Time, Sermon Seeds, Uncategorized

 

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