Listening at the Feet of Jesus

People often ask me about some of the differences between Mongolia and America. There are a lot of differences, of course, but one of them is in the area of hospitality. I haven’t traveled much in the countryside, but I understand that you can just stop at any ger you see. When you do, the family will welcome you in and give you tea and even let you stay with them. That sounds very kind and generous. We don’t really have anything like that in America. If a stranger came to the door of my house in America, I might not even let him come in. I guess people probably wouldn’t open their door to just anyone here in the city either.

In America, at least in the area where I live, people don’t usually come to your house without being invited. We didn’t have guests a lot when I was living with my parents, but when we did, we spent a lot of time preparing. My parents would spend a long time getting the house perfectly clean; they might even stay up late at night cleaning the carpets. My mom would make sure she had lots of food prepared, a lot more than the guests could possibly eat. But, if some family had just showed up at our house without an invitation or without letting us know that they were coming, we might have felt embarrassed. We have that problem here sometimes. We’re not always ready for guests, and sometimes someone shows up at our apartment, and we don’t have any food to give them. We are nervous and embarrassed and might have to run down to the store to buy some boov or candy. If they want to stay for a meal, that might be a bigger problem, because we might just be eating leftovers, and there might not be very much food. If they wanted to stay the night, we would be trying to figure out where everyone could stay.

We’re going to read a story today from the Gospels about a family who had some unexpected guests and how they dealt with that. Let’s read from Luke 10:38-42:

Тэд зам зуураа, нэгэн тосгоноор ороход Марта гэгч нэгэн эмэгтэй Түүнийг гэртээ хүлээн авав. Тэр эмэгтэй Мариа гэдэг охин дүүтэй бөгөөд дүү нь Эзэний хөлд суугаад үгийг нь сонсож байлаа. Марта үйлчлэх ажилдаа түүртсэн тул Есүс уруу ирж,

—Эзэн, дүү минь үйлчлэх ажилд намайг ганцаар орхисныг Та анзаарахгүй байна уу? Надад тусал гэж түүнд хэлээч гэв. Харин Эзэн

—Марта, Марта, чи мөн ч их зүйлд санаа тавьж зовох юм даа.  Үнэндээ ганцхан юм л хэрэгтэй билээ. Мариа өөрөөс нь зайлуулагдашгүй сайныгаа л сонгон авчээ гэв.

This story takes place at a time during Jesus’ ministry when he was traveling around from city to city, teaching people about God’s kingdom. As Jesus was traveling with his disciples from one city to another, he stops at Martha’s home. We know from other gospels that Martha and Mary were friends of Jesus, but this could have been the first time he met them. Jewish hospitality was more Mongolian than American. Martha welcomes Jesus and his disciples to her home, just as any family would be expected to do. But it was a little like the situation I mentioned earlier, where she wasn’t really prepared. She probably wasn’t expecting visitors, so she’s hurrying around to get things ready. Instead of sitting down and talking to her guests, she was busy trying to see how she could get the things she needed to make them comfortable.

But let’s stop and think for a minute. When people come to our homes, why do they come? Do they come because they are hungry or thirsty and they think they can get a free meal from you? Well, sometimes that might happen, but, most of the time, someone comes to your home because they want to see you; they want to talk to you and listen to you. But we don’t feel like we can sit and talk to them, until we have given them something to eat and drink. That’s how Martha felt. She was actually doing what a hostess would naturally do.

Martha’s sister Mary was in the house, also. We don’t know if Martha and Mary lived together, or if Mary was a guest, too, but Martha obviously expected Mary to help her get things ready for Jesus and his disciples. But Mary does something very unnatural; she goes into the room where the men are. That’s not too strange in our culture; men and women freely mix here. But in Israel, especially in Jesus’ time, men and women were mostly kept separate. Jesus’ teaching would have mostly been directed at men. But Mary goes into that room and sits down at Jesus’ feet and listens to him talk. Maybe he was teaching his disciples about the kingdom, maybe he was just telling stories or talking about the day’s news; but, whatever it was, Mary chose to just sit and listen.

When Martha sees Mary, she can’t believe what’s happening. There is so much to do. Imagine if thirteen people showed up at your door and wanted to spend the night. You would probably want everybody in the family to help make preparations, right? The Mongolian Bible says that Martha had too much to do (ажилдаа түүртсэн); but, in the original language, it says that she was distracted or panicked. She couldn’t focus on anything else, because she was so focused on getting things ready. I can understand how Martha felt. I remember when we first moved to Mongolia, and we were doing lots of repairs to our apartment. We had many heavy sacks of cement delivered, and I had to carry all of them up the stairs to our third-floor apartment. There were lots of people around who could have helped me, but they all just sat there and watched. I was getting so angry at them, thinking, “Why won’t somebody pick up a sack and carry it up for me?” (That’s an exception to the rule. There are lots of times Tiffany or others are working hard and could use my help, and I don’t get up and help them. It’s not because I’m sitting at the feet of Jesus; it’s usually just because I’m lazy.)

So Martha saw her sister just sitting there, and she got angry. And because she was angry, she reacted in the wrong way. Maybe it would have been better if she had called Mary aside and said, “Please help me get dinner on the table.” But, instead, she walks into the room, and shames her sister and her guests by saying, “Jesus, tell Mary to help me.” She even suggests that Jesus doesn’t care about how hard she has to work. She takes her problem, and makes it seem like it is Jesus’ problem to take care of.

Jesus looks up at Martha and sees how hard she has been working. But he doesn’t seem to give her any sympathy. He points out that Martha is so worried about so many things, but that there aren’t very many important things on her list of things to do. In fact, there was just one important thing. There was just one thing that was necessary. The necessary thing was the thing that Mary had chosen to do—spend time listening to Jesus. Jesus said he wasn’t going to stop Mary from doing that.

I think that the main thought that God wants us to take from this story is this: Even though there may be a lot of things that we feel like we need to accomplish each day, nothing is more important than the time we spend listening to God.

If you’ve read that story before or heard someone preach about it, that’s probably the lesson that you learned. But let me ask you a question: Was Martha wrong? Life is busy. Our plans sometimes get wrecked by things that crop up unexpectedly. Is it wrong for us to do the work that comes our way each day? Is it wrong for us to offer our guests tea instead of sitting and listening to them? Is it wrong for us to go to our work place instead of spending all day reading the Bible and praying?

It’s easy for us to look at this story and see Martha and Mary as enemies, representing two very different ways of approaching life. We think, “Martha is the kind of person who tries to serve people, and Mary is the kind of person who listens to Jesus. And Jesus says that Mary is the better kind of person.” But the story reminds us that they are sisters. They are not opposites; they are two sides of the same coin.

Listening to Jesus isn’t the opposite of serving others. Look back at the verses just before this story. What story does Jesus tell in Luke 10:25-37? He has just told the parable of the Good Samaritan. What is the point of that parable? It is all about how important it is to love our neighbors and to serve them. So, Jesus doesn’t think that serving people is a bad decision. In fact, he doesn’t tell Martha that she’s done the wrong thing; he just says that Mary has chosen the more needed thing. Jesus isn’t upset with Martha because she is serving; he is correcting her attitude of worry and complaining. Two weeks ago, Ganbold reminded us that we can’t receive God’s promises if we’re complaining. And I think it’s also true that we can’t even listen to God when we’re complaining. So Jesus corrects Martha because of her attitude, not just because of her actions. Of course, Jesus and his disciples would need to eat; and, of course, someone would need to fix the food. Martha’s job is important, too.  

Think about what would happen if we were all Mary all the time, living a life of meditation, carefully listening to Jesus, but we never did any kind of service. There have been people like that all down through church history—monks and nuns who hid themselves away from society to be close to Jesus. They spent hours in prayer and Bible study, but they never went out and served the world. Maybe that’s what some Buddhist lamas are like also.

I was sitting on a microbus one day, and the man across from me started talking to me. We talked about music and a lot of different things. But then he asked me about what kind of work I did. I told him that I helped teach in a Christian church. He said, “That’s great! The Christian churches do a lot to help people. My religion doesn’t do anything for anybody. The lamas just pray and chant and study the Buddhist scriptures, but they don’t help anyone.” I don’t know if that is true, but that was his opinion. So, serving people is important. What if we just studied and listened to God all the time but never did anything? Would that change the world for Jesus? James 1:22 says, “Гэхдээ өөрсдийгөө хуурдаг зүгээр нэг сонсогчид биш, үгийг хэрэгжүүлэгчид бологтун.”

But, on the other hand, what will our lives be like if we live a life of constant service but never listen to Jesus? We will waste so much of our energy. We may be serving God and serving others, but we won’t be serving effectively and we might not be serving in the way or in the place where God wants us to serve. It is possible for us to get so involved in our work—even good work—that we forget why we even started doing it. What if we just worked all the time and never got direction from God? Would that change the world for Jesus?

So serving and listening are both important. Martha’s attitude—her worry and complaining—was what was wrong.  I could talk for a while here about the sin of worry, but we’ll save that for another time.

What I want to talk about, though, is the praise that Jesus gives to Mary. He says that she has chosen the better thing. Even though Jesus has just talked about the importance of service in the parable of the Good Samaritan, he seems to be saying that action and service are not as important as listening to Jesus. Maybe I shouldn’t say that listening to Jesus is more important than serving. Maybe it’s better if I say that we are not ready to serve until we have listened to what Jesus wants to say to us first.

We have several examples in the Bible of the importance of waiting to hear from God before we start moving forward in anything, even in ministry. Remember the instruction that Jesus gave to his disciples before he returned to heaven. He told them that they were going to share the good news all over the world. But they weren’t supposed to begin right away. What were they supposed to do instead? In Luke 24:49, Jesus says, “Харагтун, Би Эцэгийнхээ амласныг та нарт илгээнэ. Харин та нар дээрээс ирэх хүчийг өмстлөө энэ хотдоо үлд.” Before they could be ready to serve, even in something as important as sharing the gospel, they needed to wait, pray and listen, and receive power from the Holy Spirit.

But we need to learn to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen, not just because we want to get our instructions from him. That wasn’t why Mary was sitting there. She wasn’t trying to find out what kind of ministry Jesus wanted her to do. She just wanted to be with him. She sat at his feet and listened to Jesus, because she loved him. That is one of the ways we can best show love to someone—to really listen to them.

Some of us are not very good at listening. We live in a noisy world, and there are a lot of things to distract our attention. This happens to me all the time. I’m working at my computer or reading or watching a movie, and Joel comes up next to me and starts talking. I am aware that he is there, but I’m not really listening to what he says. After he has talked for a couple of minutes and had no response from me, he begins to feel like I don’t care about him very much. The way I can best show Joel how much I love him is to turn off the computer or the TV or shut my book and give him all my attention. When I really listen to him, he feels valued and respected, and he knows that I love him. That’s how Mary showed her love to Jesus; she really listened to him. She put aside all of her house work, she put aside all of the other distractions, and she sat down and listened with all of her attention. And that’s what God wants from us, too. He wants us to listen to him just because we love him, not because we’re going to get something from him.

Obviously, today we can’t physically sit at Jesus’ feet and hear him audibly speak to us. But God does still speak, and we can still listen.

He speaks to us through nature. Psalm 19:1 says, “Тэнгэр нь Ертөнцийн Эзэний сүр жавхлахг зарлаж, Огторгуй нь Түүний гарын бүтээлийг тунхаглаж байна.” Romans 1 tells us that through nature, God tells us about his eternal power and divine nature. When we go to the countryside or even look at the mountains and the sky here in the city, do we stop to think about what God is trying to say to us through his creation?

God speaks to us most clearly through his Word, the Bible. When we read God’s Word thoughtfully and prayerfully, we’re like Mary, showing God our love for him by paying attention to what he is revealing to us. We ought to all give daily time to reading the Bible, not just for what we can get out of it, but as an expression of love to God. And, as we do that, God will be faithful to teach us what we need to know about who he is, about who we are, about what he has done for us, and about what he wants us to do for him.

And sometimes, God speaks to us more quietly and more personally. He often does that as we talk to him in prayer and then give him time to speak back to us. When I was in university, I spent a lot of time praying for God to show me his will, what occupation he wanted me to choose. But I was so busy with school and work and social life that I wasn’t really stopping to listen to him. One night at church, a lady was testifying and she reminded us that it’s important not just to pray, but to give God the opportunity to answer. I realized that I had not been doing that. The very next morning, I made time in my schedule to listen to God. I prayed, but then I just sat silently and listened. It was that morning that God called me to be a missionary.

But we will never hear God unless we make a place for some silence in our lives. Our world is too busy, too noisy, for us to hear God, unless we make an effort to do so. Even Jesus had to make space in his daily life for listening to his Father. The Bible tells us that sometimes he got up early in the morning, before anyone else was awake. Sometimes he sent his disciples away in the evening, and he went up on a mountainside to pray. The important thing to notice is that he made quiet times to listen to his Father, and we probably need to do the same thing in our lives. If we never make an effort to listen to him, we probably won’t hear him speak to us.

That’s not an easy thing. We’re busy, almost all of us. We have school or work or family or ministry responsibilities, but it’s when we’re at our busiest that we most need to listen to God. Martin Luther once said, “”I have so much to do today that I’m going to need to spend three hours in prayer in order to be able to get it all done.” 

I’ll confess that I’m not a very good listener. I’m not always good at listening to people; and I’m not always good at listening to God. But I want to be a better listener. I want to take time like Mary to sit at Jesus’ feet and listen to him, not just so that I can know what to do next, but to let him know that what he says is important to me. I hope that you will take the time this week to sit at his feet and listen also. Even though there may be a lot of things that we feel like we need to accomplish each day, nothing is more important than the time we spend listening to God.