First things first

April 8th, 2019

Luke 10:38-42

Poor Martha; she seems to be lost in the New Testament story. Of all people, Jesus should have recognized and congratulated Martha for her servant heart. We can all put ourselves in Martha’s shoes. Company has come at the last minute, details haven’t been worked out; the table must be set, food prepared. One wonders if Jesus had also brought along the twelve disciples. How many tasks did Martha need to perform? She needed Mary’s help. Our sympathies are not with Mary, but with Martha. Why? Because we’ve all had those moments when there was too much to do, too little time, and not enough help.

We’ve all been captured by the “tyranny of the urgent.” We’ve been caught with lists too long and so many things that need to be accomplished yesterday. The overwhelming sense of our day is that we must keep running a frenzied pace or the whole mess will eventually catch up with us. We work longer hours than we should or need to work; we miss the most important moments of life. The watchword has become not quantity, but quality. Not quantity time with children, just quality. Not much time with friends, just make it quality. Not much time for God, just make it count.

Quality relationships, quality parenting, a high quality of personal prayer life; all require time. We cannot rush the important things of life and expect to gain real meaning or real quality. Why do we rush the important things of life? Because we have got so many ordinary things to do that we just have run short of time. One of the tragedies of the modern technological and information age is that we have created so many electronic devices to “save us time” and allow us to do more and be more efficient that we must give incredible amounts of time responding to these means of communication. On a plane recently, I overheard a man complain that he had to respond to four hundred text-mail messages every day. In the terminal he was furiously trying to respond to all those messages and finally, in frustration, just threw his cell phone to the floor. What is truly important?

The speed of computers has led us to believe that people should respond instantly or quickly to our many queries of them online. Another man said, “I need some time to think about my response, but so many people expect an immediate answer and are angry when I don’t respond quickly.”

The urgent often keeps us from putting first things first. As I moved from a smaller church to a larger church, one of my friends who had watched me work long hours and become frustrated with my ministry reminded me, “Protect your think time.” What a concept. Time to think and perhaps write. Time to think about my response in communication. Time to think about what my family really needs. Time to think about ways to care for my neighbors and people in my circle of influence. Jesus understood that Mary was alert to the most important things.

Years ago one harried mother of three sought solace in a clean house. Her children and husband desperately sought to have her attention and time to just be together, but her passion for cleanliness and a “germ-free” environment drove her activities every day. Over the years that family drifted farther and farther apart as both husband and wife gave their attention to the minutiae of home and work and ignored the more important work of relationships and play and communication.

What was Mary doing? We can only conclude that Mary gave her attention to Jesus. We can imagine that Jesus talked to her about his travels and his teaching. Jesus may have told her about the Gerasene demoniac or his experience in the wilderness. He might have talked with her about real-life issues or the matters of the heart. Mary must have hung on every word that Jesus offered, perhaps saying what the disciples said: “You have the words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Mary’s life was ordinary enough, but when Jesus came to town something extraordinary was taking place. Mary just wouldn’t miss the opportunity.

Years ago, as I traveled through Nepal, I had an opportunity to drive up into the Himalayas early one morning to watch the sun rise. Our tour had been long and I was tired and feeling sick, so the morning of the early tour I pulled the covers over my head and went back to sleep. I’ve always regretted that decision. I had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the sun rise over the highest mountain range in the world, and I passed it up because I was sleepy. Mary wouldn’t pass up the most important thing: spending time with the Master.

I wonder what would happen to the church if we placed as much importance on spending time with the Master as Mary did? I wonder what would happen to committees and classes and teams and ministry if we sought to spend as much time in listening prayer and hearing the words of Christ as we do in getting the job done?

John paints a different picture of Martha in his Gospel. Jesus comes back to Mary and Martha’s home to find that the funeral of Lazarus has already taken place. Who comes running first to Jesus? It’s Martha. Running to Jesus she says, “If only you had been here sooner, Lazarus would be alive.” Jesus tells her that Lazarus will live and tells her that he is the resurrection and the life.

Martha answers, “Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah.” Then, running into the house, she calls Mary. (See John 11:17-26.)

In the presence of Jesus the “tyranny of the urgent” fades, and the one with an open heart catches Martha discovering the power of putting first things first.

Adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual 2007 © 2006 Abingdon Press

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