Building on Purpose
Dr. Jim Denison
I read this week an unusual list of instructions, purportedly written for those traveling the jungle regions of South America. The title: “What to Do If Attacked by an Anaconda.” The instructions are as follows:
If an anaconda attacks you, do not run. The snake is faster than you are. Lie flat on the ground. Put your arms tight against your sides and your legs tight against one another. The snake will come and begin to nudge and climb over your body. Do not panic. After the snake has examined you, it will begin to swallow you from the feet end. Always from the feet end.
The snake will now begin to suck your legs into its body. You must lie perfectly still. This will take a long time. When the snake has reached your knees, slowly and with as little movement as possible reach down, take your knife, and very gently slide it into the side of the snake’s mouth, between the edge of its mouth and the snake’s head.
Be sure your knife is sharp. Be sure you have your knife.
The events of this day are larger than any anaconda, and fortunately, far more exciting. Our faith family will begin today the largest and most expensive building project in our church’s history: a three-story garage for 750 cars, built beneath a three-story Community Life Center.
When our project is completed we will have the space we need to continue growing our preschool, children, and youth ministries; to gather in greater numbers for adult Bible study, fellowship events, and large weekday ministries; to reach more of our community than we have ever been able to reach before.
But how do we keep from being swallowed? How can we be sure to keep the main thing the main thing, to remember our purpose as we “continue the vision,” to keep our eye on the reason why we are stepping into this exciting chapter of ministry together? Where are life’s circumstances threatening to swallow you personally, to distract you from your purpose and calling in the will of God?
Invite Jesus into your home
Jesus’ words to Martha are God’s words to us today: “…only one thing is needed” (v. 42). We somehow believe that is true. Our culture is fascinated with life purpose in these days.
Seven Habits of Highly Effective People was a best-selling book and movement in the 80’s and early 90’s, similar to Rick Warren’s The Purpose-Driven Life today.
I remember often Winston Churchill’s statement to the House of Commons in June of 1941: “I have but one purpose, the destruction of Hitler; and my life is much simplified thereby.” Every time I think of his words, I am moved and challenged by them.
In my study are inscribed words from Abraham Maslow which I quote often: “An artist must paint; a poet must write; a musician must make music, if he is to be ultimately at peace with himself.”
What purpose will give your life true meaning?
As our text begins, we find Jesus on his way to Jerusalem and the cross; he will die in four months. He stops at Bethany, a village two miles east of Jerusalem. Here Martha lives with her sister, Mary, and brother, Lazarus; their home is his when he is in Judea.
This family was so prominent that many friends would later come even from Jerusalem to console them on the death of Lazarus. Now, on this occasion, Martha “opened her home to him” (v. 38), meaning that she received him as her honored guest.
Martha’s name meant “lady of the house,” and she certainly lives up to it here.
She is making the preparations necessary for proper hospitality in the ancient Middle East—cooking food (without electrical appliances), cleaning the home, preparing the furnishings for the meal to come. All of this is good and necessary.
But Martha soon confuses ends with means. She becomes “distracted” by all her preparations—the word means to be “drawn around with anxiety” which shows on her face and in her soul. She thinks more about her food than her guest; she becomes consumed with the meal and forgets the Master for whom it is intended.
Mary, her younger sister, makes no such mistake.
She had been helping with preparations earlier, but now has “left” Martha (v. 40) and “sat at the Lords’ feet listening to what he said” (v. 39). Homes of their culture were often furnished with flat chairs about two feet tall, covered with soft material and cushions. We imagine Jesus sitting on one such chair, perhaps cross-legged, while Mary sat on a rug on the floor before him.
She “sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said” (v. 39). This is the position of a disciple before the teacher (we speak of “sitting at the feet” of a great person still today). It was extremely unusual for a Jewish rabbi to take on a woman as his student and disciple, but Jesus did so here with Mary. In the same way, he invites you to his feet today.
Note that Mary was not only in his presence, she was present with him. You are in his presence now; are you present with him? Are you listening to what he wants to say to you?
In so doing she has “chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (v. 42). “Better” refers to the best dish on the table, which is fellowship with Jesus.
Now Martha sees her younger sister at Jesus’ feet instead of in her kitchen. So she “came to him,” words which actually mean “she exploded into the room at him.” She “flew off the handle,” or “lost it,” with Jesus, and demanded that he send Mary back into the kitchen.
Making demands of the Lord of the universe doesn’t usually go well for us. It didn’t for her.
Jesus replies, “you are worried (internally divided, distracted, anxious) and upset (externally and visibly agitated, in tumult) about many things” (v. 41). This is the inevitable result of putting second things first.
“Only one thing is needed”—not the dishes but the dish, not the many but the one.
The point is not the meal, but the Master who attends it. The point is not the menu and the food, but the One who shares them in their home. This event is not about Martha, it is about Jesus. It is not about her culinary skills and homemaking artistry, but the Lord of her home. Her preparations are a means to the end of communion with the Lord.
How to choose the “one thing”
Last week I received a book in the mail from God. Its human instrument was the author, a spiritual retreat director named Fil Anderson. Fil directed the silent retreat in Atlanta which was so significant in my life seven years ago. I had no idea he had written a book. In the note he enclosed, he reminded me of our retreat together, and of the sermon I preached afterwards to our congregation. I sent a copy of the sermon to him at the time. He found it the day before, reread it, and felt impressed to send his book to me. Listen to the title: Running on Empty: Contemplative Spirituality for Overachievers. God wrote it for me. And for you.
In the book Fil tells some of his own story. He confesses that he had been “hooked on approval,” to use Brennan Manning’s term. In a chapter titled, “Confessions of a Recovering Work Addict,” he admits, “My life was filled with doing things for God rather than pursuing intimacy with God” (p. 5). Later he admits, “…my activity determined my identity” (p. 7). He speaks of being “addicted to the powerful drug of recognition” (p. 59, of “my addiction to work and busyness” (p. 102). He was so busy working for God that he had forgotten how to walk with God. He was “running on empty.”
What happened to change things? First, he discovered his true identity.
Fil, once a Young Life staff member, says, “A major cause of the frustration and confusion that characterized my life was that I looked in the wrong places for the answer to whom I am. I looked to high school students involved in my ministry and wore myself out being the best friend they had ever encountered in order to hear them praise me as a good friend. I looked to the staff and volunteers I worked alongside and did all I knew to do to gain their respect and approval. I looked to my wife and kids to tell me I was the best husband and dad a person could ever hope for. I looked to my extended family and closest friends to tell me I was a godly man, so I did whatever I felt was necessary to gain their approval.
“Yet identity, my identity, is something that only God can give me. Only the Inventor can give to the invented its identity, significance, and ultimate purpose” (pp. 64-5).
Fil came to discover his God-given identity: that he is the child of God, loved completely by his Maker and Father. That all his busyness could not make God love him any more. That all his failures could not make God love him any less. That his pretending to be more than he was, his pretending to be someone of significance and value, was killing his soul. He quotes a “wise, old preacher who said, ‘Be who you is, because if you ain’t who you is, you is who you ain’t'” (p. 64).
Second, he discovered the source of spiritual power: sitting at the feet of Jesus. Giving God time to work on his soul. Fil learned that he is not responsible for the health of his spiritual life—God is. His only job is to put himself before the Lord, so the Holy Spirit can do his work. Daily prayer, Bible reading, worship, solitude, weekly worship with his faith community—these were the means by which God filled his tank and healed his soul.
He had been Martha, consumed with preparations and busyness. He learned to be Mary, consumed with Jesus. So can we. So must we.
Martha’s work and preparations were essential to the meal and event of this day. All the work which is before our congregation is essential to the next chapter of our history and ministry. Every shovel turned today, every cubic foot of dirt removed tomorrow, every yard of concrete poured, every nail driven, every wall erected will advance the Kingdom of God. Every program we move and reorganize for these months, and every shuttle we ride to come to worship and ministry here, will be our investment in God’s future for our lives and our congregation. These are historic, God-sent, Spirit-directed days. The future is as bright as the promise of God.
As we make all our preparations, though, let’s make them at the feet of Jesus. Let’s remember that we are not called to build buildings, but the Kingdom; that this is not about us, but Jesus. That he is the Master of this meal, the guest of this home, the Lord of this church. That he is the church’s one foundation. That we do this for him, in his power, for his glory.
Let’s apply that same fact to our personal lives and service. Every hour we spend this week is to serve him. Every client or customer you see, every friend at school, every family member you serve, every soul you touch, is eternal. Let’s do it for him. Let’s surrender our plans and programs, our work and worth to Jesus. Let’s find our identity in his love, and put our souls where he can fill and feed them each day this week. Let’s work like Martha, while we worship like Mary. And we will glorify Jesus together.
Fil tells of a friend I presume to be Australian. He writes, “Over the years, every time I would encounter John Staggers, a dear friend, he would grab me by the shoulders, look deep into my eyes, and ask the same question: ‘Mate, is Jesus enough for you today?'”
What is your answer this morning?