TIME TO SIT AT THE LORD’S FEET
A Sermon by Rev. Grant H. Odhner Preached in Rochester, Michigan February 13, 1994
“Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister …” (John I 1:5)
Only a few times in the Word is it recorded that Jesus loved specific people (see John 13:34; 15:12; Mark 10:21; Rev. 3:9,19). The disciple John is called a number of times “the disciple whom Jesus loved.” But the only other people that Jesus is said to have loved are Martha, Mary, and Lazarus.
There must have been special qualities in these people that warranted the Lord’s declared love. Of course the Lord loves everyone. But it appears that He loves some more than others, because some receive His love more than others (and therefore receive His blessing more). So in the Word the Lord is said to have “loved” these people, because they represent qualities that receive His love. Today we’re going to focus on two of these people: Martha and Mary.
“Jesus loved Martha …” Martha was obviously a sincere follower of the Lord. She must have been deeply affected by His power and His teaching. As she once declared: “Lord, I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who has come into the world” (John 11:27).
But the quality that is most distinctive about Martha is her energy. She is a woman of action. We can imagine that not everyone had the confidence or initiative to reach out to that awesome Prophet and to welcome Him into their home. Some would say, “Who, me? Invite that great man into my home?! Cook dinner for Him?!” Others might have reservations about this controversial person who was gaining the suspicion and disfavor of their priests and lay leaders alike. But “Martha welcomed Him into her house.”
We see Martha’s energy again when her brother Lazarus has died. She leaves the mourners and goes out to meet the Lord as He comes to raise Lazarus from the dead. Mary sat in the house (see John 11:20). Martha, more than once, is described as serving the Lord at mealtime, preparing His dinner. Mary, more than once, sat (see Luke 10:39,40; John 12:2,3).
The Lord was literally speaking of people like Martha when he said: “Come, you blessed of My Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in” (Matt. 25:34f).
Martha’s willingness to acknowledge the Lord, receive Him in her heart, and serve Him with her hands, was “food” which nourished the Lord’s greatest hope. He hungered and thirsted for people to receive Him and be saved. For as he said His food was to do the will of Him who sent Him, and to finish His work – which was the salvation of all people (see John 4:34).
Martha especially represents the life of useful activity, serving the Lord from love. She represents also the willingness and eagerness to serve others. This basic willingness to serve is what first welcomes the Lord into our life. While our merely thinking about others can bring the Lord’s presence to our minds to a degree, it does not bring His conjunction. The Lord actually enters in and “sups with us, and we with Him” only when we “open the door” by willing and doing (see TCR 719, AR 937).
We all know and appreciate people who are doers, who have the will and take the energy to reach out to help or to accomplish useful things that need doing. We all respect people who do more than just mean well and think well. And it is even apparent that such people are “loved by the Lord.” Their unselfish efforts carry their own delight and are their own reward.
So also, each one of us, according to our unique gifts, is able to serve others. We are all able to live a life of use. This life is the greatest potential source of heavenly delight to us. Our life of use is the “Martha” is us, which Jesus loves.
Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister.
Mary was a very different kind of person from Martha. She was obviously equally devoted to Jesus. But she was not active by nature. She didn’t rise up immediately and go out to meet Jesus like Martha, but came only when Martha brought the Lord’s request that she come. Mary was obviously a reflective person. She sat at the Lord’s feet and heard His Word, while Martha expressed her love for the Lord by practical work – making Him dinner. Mary, on one occasion, expressed it by a symbolic gesture, a gesture bred of thoughtful devotion: she anointed the Lord’s feet with costly ointment. The impractical nature of this act annoyed some of the disciples, who thought that the money spent for the ointment could have been put to better use. But her act was a thoughtful one and did not go unrewarded by the Lord.
Mary represents the affection for truth, the affection for learning and thinking and reflecting on what’s true. “Mary sat at the Lord’s feet and heard His word.”
Martha’s and Mary’s contrasting body language confirms what each one represents. Martha is always doing, on the move. Mary is described as sitting or doing something that implies minimal movement.
“Sitting” corresponds to a state of thought (see AC 2684, 2688) – not a distracted, quickly shifting kind of thought, but a quiet thought that is focused. “Sitting” is expressive of an attentive, receptive mind. When we enter a room to talk with someone, and the person remains working and bustling around, they may be nodding and saying “Uh-huh’ but the body language tells us that, for one reason or another, he or she is not really devoting thought and attention fully to us. On the other hand, when someone immediately drops what he is doing and sits down before us, we sense right away the willingness to listen. The gesture says a great deal about the mind-set. It is worth a thousand words!
It is obvious from this why. the Lord commanded the multitudes to sit down before He fed them (see Matt. 14:19, 15:35; see also the Mark, Luke, and John accounts). His feeding them signified His life-giving instruction and people’s willing reception of it. “Sitting down” involves quieting our own active life of thinking and doing, and giving attention. Mary’s “sitting before the Lord and hearing His word,” then, pictures a very beautiful quality: the quality of unselfish attention to the Lord’s Word and reflection on it.
Reading the Word and reflecting on it is not an end in itself. The end must always be life. A life devoted solely to meditation isn’t very productive.
On the other hand, often our problem is the opposite one. We simply don’t have the time, or take the time, to read the Word and reflect, or to worship. We are surrounded by “more pressing” needs. We are too busy working, fulfilling obligations, raising children, keeping our household in order, doing church business, re-connecting with our spouse, or doing something recreational.
Of course there is nothing wrong with any of these activities. They are all part of a useful life, and this is the goal: to live a fruitful life. But fruit is only as good as the underlying soil is rich. When the soil becomes depleted, the fruit becomes stunted, tasteless and insipid.
Our actions are only as good as the state of mind that’s within them. And our state of mind is according to our will and our reflection from principle. The love and thought that go into our actions are what make those actions spiritually meaningful. For example: having children and educating them is meaningful to the extent that we determine to do it from love and to the extent that we reflect on the importance of what we are doing, what it means to the Lord and to His kingdom. Again, spending time helping a neighbor with some project is spiritually worthwhile to the extent that we have reflected that it’s a useful thing to do, and are seeing it as a way to bring the Lord present.
Reflection is what makes us human, particularly reflection about what is loving and eternal. When the reflection within our acts dies or becomes obscure, our acts lose their spiritual life.
It is common for us to cease acting reflectively. Our life is continually changing. Yesterday’s insight loses its power to sustain us today. What is fresh with meaning for us eventually becomes habitual and perfunctory.
What’s more, sometimes we lose our sense of purpose even when we set out to do good. All of a sudden we find ourselves doing something for the wrong reason. For example, we might begin to think of the rewards that will come our way for doing what we’re doing, and we begin to work for them rather than for the sake of being useful. Or sometimes we start out with good intentions but a negative attitude sets in and we begin to be distracted by petty things – perhaps we become annoyed with people, or notice their faults, or feel resentments. Again, sometimes we let ourselves feel so busy that we get caught up in the mere mechanics of a task and then we’re just “going through the motions.” Or we get so wrapped up in what we’re doing that it becomes a persuasion, a “cause.’ We lose our objectivity, our ability to benefit from fresh perspectives. This is when we tend to feel that it’s all on our shoulders, and we lose our trust in Providence.
We can imagine a number of these things at work in Martha in the incident from Luke, where: “… Martha was distracted with much serving, and she approached [Jesus] and said,
‘Lord, do You not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Therefore tell her to help me.'”
Here we see the “Martha” in us gone wrong – our active life, beset with negative emotions, in need of reflective truth.
But even when this part of us is not so obviously negative, it can still put pressure on us to attend to active business. “Many jobs need doing,” our “Martha” argues persuasively. “It’s getting late. The food is not on the table. Jesus is waiting for His dinner. Sitting at the Lord’s feet at a time like this is irresponsible.” And we can feel pressure from other voices in us to spend our precious “oil” on more practical, pressing problems. Could not our devotion to the Lord be better expressed by helping “the poor”? When cast in this light, the “Mary” in us can seem to be a pretty narrow, and even self-indulgent, part of our life.
But Jesus loved Mary. And twice He defended her actions against those who would have her serve in a more active and practical way. The part that Mary had chosen was necessary, a good part, and would not be taken away from her. “The poor you have with you always …”. There is always some active service to be done. Many things cry for our attention. But if the Lord is not remembered, if our devotion to His eternal purposes is forgotten, what is the point? He is then no longer present in our efforts. He is no longer communicating love through us. Our acts have lost their spiritual motive and quality. So Jesus speaks to that spurious pressure that sometimes wells up in us: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and troubled about many things. But one thing is needed, and Mary has chosen that good part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:4042).
” Martha, Martha …” The attention-getting repetition says, “Hold on. Stop your activity for a moment. Let go of your intensely-focused feelings and attitude. Let another line of thinking enter and affect you. Think. Refocus. Let’s put this into perspective. “
“One thing is needed One thing can bring spiritual meaning to our life of usefulness, and that is quiet reflection. We need to take time in our busy lives – regularly if not frequently – to read and meditate on the Lord’s Word. We need to sit quietly at His feet and listen to Him. For as He said, “The words that I speak to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). That is, His words alone bring spiritual life. So let us renew our resolve, together with the psalmist: “I will meditate on Your precepts, and contemplate Your ways. I will never forget Your precepts, for by them You have given me life” (Psalm 119:15,93). Amen.
Lessons: Luke 10:38-42; John 11:1-7,17-37; John 12:1-8; AC 9297:4
Arcana Coelestia 9297:4
There is a continual appearing and presence of the Lord in the truths of faith. How this is to be understood shall be briefly told.
The presence of the Lord with a person is in the good in him, because good makes his life, but not truth except so far as it springs from good. From this it is that the dwelling place of the Lord with a person is in the good of innocence. And therefore when someone has been regenerated, the Lord is present with him not only in good, but also in truths which are from good. For the truths then have life from good, and are that good in a form. By means of this form the quality of the good can be perceived … From this it is evident how it is to be understood that the Lord then appears and is present also in the truths of faith …
It is said in the church that faith is from the Lord. But it is to be known that the faith which is from charity is from the Lord, but not faith which is separate from charity … A person can know whether the faith in him is from the Lord or from himself: one who is affected by truths merely for the sake of a reputation for learning, in order that he may gain honors and wealth, and not for the sake of the good use of life, is in a persuasive faith, which is from himself and not from the Lord.
In the truth of faith there are theoretical matters and practical ones. That person is in faith from the Lord who regards the theoretical matters for the sake of the practical ones. He sees the theoretical ones in the practical, and in this way from both linked together looks to the good use of life. He is affected by both theoretical and practical aspects of faith for the sake of this end. The reason [why such a person is in faith from the Lord] is that the use of life with him is good, because it is his end. And all aspects [of a person’s mind] are formed according to the use of life …
That this is so is very manifest from those who are in the other life. All there, without exception, are reduced to the state of their good, or to the state of their evil, and thus to the use of their life. This had been their end, that is, what they had loved above all things, and what consequently had been the very delight of their life. All are reduced to this. The truths or falsities which had made a one with this use remain, and more besides are adopted which link themselves with the former and complete the use, and cause the use to appear in its own real form.
From this it is that spirits and angels are forms of their use … Moreover, a result of this is that the character of spirits is known the moment they are present. Their truths of faith are known from their faces and from the beauty of these in respect to their form. And the good itself, which is the use, is known from the fire of love in their faces which gives life to the beauty. It is also known from the sphere which surges from them.
From all this it is again evident what the Lord’s presence in the truths of faith is.