A Sharp Sermon
Sermons in which worry was attacked Luther called "sharp sermons" (LW, 51, 178, fn. 34). Lord willing this sharp sermon can cut both ways as is fitting for a Word from God which is sharper than any double-edged sword.
First lets use the Word to expose the real problem. The problem is not there are many things to worry about. From the text it seems Jesus showed up relatively unannounced. His disciples went to Jerusalem and Jesus knocked on Martha's door. Since Martha is the one who received him, it's her home. Jesus her Lord shows up at her home tired and hungry from travel. Someone has to make the food; someone has to serve Him; someone has take care of things. It's her home; it's her responsibly.
The things you worry about are real. Illnesses strike down people every day. The economy is bad. Families are groups of sinners. Your child could get into an accident. You might lose your job. There are many real, actually quite common things, to be "worried and upset about." But that's not the problem. If you think it is, then this is how you live. "Everything will be go okay once I get past this worry." But worries are worse than the heads of the mythical Hydra which if one was cut off two more would grow in it's place. With worries, once one is slain 10 more grow back.
In our text, Jesus doesn't deny that there is work to be done. He doesn't deny that Mary has left Martha to do all the work herself. But He doesn't conclude what the insert says. He doesn't say, "Mary has chosen what is better." Jesus doesn't use the comparative "better," as if there was sliding scale between Martha's worry and Mary's Bible class. No, Jesus says, "Mary has chosen the good portion." This is a metaphor from the realm of food. Martha is worried about the real world reality of serving Jesus fitting, and delicious food. Mary has chosen to eat the good portion of the Word of God that Jesus is serving. Augustine is more graphic, "She was eating the one she was listening to" (Ancient Christian Commentary, III, 182).
Here's the problem of worry for the Christian, for the person who like Mary and Martha knows Jesus as their Lord. It's choosing the many legitimate concerns, possibilities, potentialities over God's Word. Pastors and churches have seen the felt needs of Martha, and so have developed "Bible" classes to meet them. They create Bible classes that address the real world worries of the people. You worried about relationships? There's a Bible class for that. You worried about money? There's a Bible class for that to teach you how to manage money. You worried about illness. There's a Bible class for that about healthy living. Savvy pastors and churches know that if people don't get practical help for their worries at church they'll get it from Drs. Phil, Oz, Dobson, or Oprah.
Don't I know it. Besides ask anyone coming out of a 13 week Bible class on how to manage their money, marriage, health or home and they're going to say they were helped. They don't feel as worried. They feel like they have a handle on things. Martha would've found the same things. Obviously Jesus was teaching Mary how to handle the surprise diner guest. What to cook in a 30 minute pinch. Ways to set the table more efficiently. You know I'm kidding. You know that's not the Bible class Jesus was teaching. Four months from now only Mary will understand that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die, and so, to the ire of the apostles, she anoints His feet in preparation for death. That's because she had been taught by Jesus about His suffering, death and resurrection for sinners.
There's our problem. We don't see our sinfulness as the real problem. No it's other things. It's a rebellious teen, a difficult spouse, a bad economy, a poor health history, a last minute, important guest for dinner. And so the answer is not the Gospel. No, the answer is to get Jesus to give you help with what you're worried about. "Tell her to help me" Martha demands of Jesus! When you see your problem as something other than sin, then the answer is something other than grace. And so you come away from sermons and Bible classes that deal with sin and grace thinking, "I didn't get anything out of that." Indeed you didn't.
The sharp Word of God has sliced open our hearts and laid bare the real problem with worry. It is not the things we worry about but our thinking that temporal things are more important than God's eternal Word. Now let's see if the Word of God is truly double edged. Let's see if it can heal as well as wound. Let's see if the impractical Gospel of grace can address the practical things that worry you so.
You've seen movie scenes where millions of bits of data are gathered by a spying device. You hear bits and pieces of conversation streaming into your ears so quickly that your eyes get dizzy. That scene represents all the information that factors into what happens when to whom. Or put in another way, if a butterfly flapping it's wings off the coast of Africa really does have something to do with whether a hurricane forms in the Gulf, can you really get your head around that let alone manage it?
How does the Gospel help? The Gospel says God rules the world not sin, not death, not the devil. Apart from the Gospel these three would rule, did rule. God's perfect world was ruined by the rebellion of the devil and the fall of man. God had created a world in which there were no worries. A bee wouldn't sting your child to send him into an allergic reaction. There was no death to separate you suddenly from a loved one. There was no sinful flesh eating away at family life. But we thought that we could do better than God, and the whole world came crashing in. This rebellion would have to be answered for; the broken Law of God would have to be kept.
This broken relationship between God and us is the broken well from which millions of gallons of worry gush into the gulf of your head and heart. If I just do this, this, and this, then my child will be safe; or I won't get sick; or I will have enough to retire on. You'll mend the breach between you and God by keeping the law; you'll do all that worry demands of you. But what about paying for your sins? Well, you'll work and huff and puff like Martha as if doing your best can mend the break caused by doing your worst.
It doesn't. You know it; God knows it. The only answer to God's Law which confronts and accuses us of falling short is the perfect life of Jesus. All of the things you don't do, can't do, fail to do, or say, "I'm not doing." Jesus did perfectly. God was pleased as could be with Him. There was no sin that the devil could convict Jesus of and justly call for His death by accident, disease, or old age. But God called for it anyway.
Sins had to be paid for. God really was angry over our rebellion, over our sins, over our worries which show we don't fear, love, or trust in God above all things. He was angry at our rejection of His Word as the answer to what worries us. So God the Father drove His perfect Son to the cross with the whips we deserved and the curses we merited. And on that cross the Father nailed the Son, abandoned Him to all the worries and fears of hell itself till everyone of your sins was paid for. Till the death you worry about was died. Till the devil who frightens you was defeated.
Now take that bloody cross with your Lord nailed on it and stick it in the well spewing out worries. The Gospel of the cross assures you that the God who rules the world is on your side. He didn't spare His own Son but gave Him up for you. Do you think He now abandons you to luck, fate, chance, or coincidence? He loved you so much He shed the blood of His Son to cover your sins, remove your sins, forgive your sins. Do you think the length of your life or that of your loved one is really determined by what is going in your blood or theirs?
David sings in Psalm 131, "My heart is not proud, O Lord,/ My eyes are not haughty;/ I do not concern myself with great matters/ Or things too wonderful for me./ But I have stilled and quieted my soul;/ like a weaned child with its mother,/ like a weaned child is my soul within me." Ever watch a child struggling with something too big for it? When they're small, it's boxes, pillows, and stairs. They worry the box flap to tear it; they worry the pillow to bend it; they worry how they're going to negotiate the stairs. You smile because you know they don't have to worry about any of it. You smile because in reality you do have their whole world in your hands. How much more must the God with nail holes in His hands have your world in His?
But the Gospel does more than separate you from your worries by putting them in the hands of your Savior it separates you the worrier from you the Christian. Remember that's what the Word of God and only the Word can do. No amount of practical advice, useful instruction, or relevant teaching about how to deal with worries can separate you the worrier from you the Christian. Only the Word of God which is sharper than any two edged sword can do that. It's so sharp, says Hebrews 4, that it is able to separate what you can't.
Gospel teaching and preaching takes your old adam that can never do anything but worry and drowns it once more in your Baptism, and the Gospel pulls out of that water a new man or woman created in the image of Jesus: truly righteous and holy before God. This is essentially what Jesus promises Martha in the text. When He tells her the good portion that Mary has will never be taken away from her, He is promising that her bad portion consisting of 10,000 worries can be taken from her. The Gospel does that by drowning the worrier in her and creating a brand new woman in whom God can't find one worry or sin, but only peace and faith. And if God can't find something, it's really not there.
What happened next? Jesus sharp sermon laid bare both Martha's sin and the good portion she was neglecting, going without. Does Martha go off to find practical, useful, relevant teaching for her worries or does she stay and feast on the Good portion? Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Pentecost IX (20100725); Luke 10: 38-42