And what’s worse, is that many of us are poisoning ourselves.
I don’t mean that we’re sitting around drinking arsenic or antifreeze, and I’m not even thinking about more ordinary poisons like cigarettes or alcohol. But in many ways, the poison that we are consuming is just as real, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only made things worse.
The poison that I’m talking about is the negativity that surrounds us and seems to beat us down at every turn. The newspaper and the evening news are filled with bad news, the radio station playing in our cars and office spaces, breaks in every ten or twenty minutes to share still more horror, mayhem, fear, and death. I’m sure that some of you think that I am exaggerating. But am I? Even a little bit of poison, the tiniest bit of arsenic or cyanide, taken in small doses, accumulates over time and will eventually kill us or cause irreparable harm. And I’m convinced that living under a constant bombardment of negativity can do the same thing.
I’m sure that no one’s death certificate is going to say that their cause of death was “negativity,” but I’m equally certain that that this everyday toxic stew contributes to deaths that are listed as heart attacks, strokes, high blood pressure, depression, suicide, and other health issues that wear our health down over time.
But what can we do about it?
We don’t control the news and we have no control over the pandemic, so what control do we have?
And the answer is, more than you think.
I once had a coworker that radiated negativity in the way that Charlie Brown’s friend Pigpen is surrounded by a cloud of dirt. Any, and every, conversation with her became a conversation about how terrible life was. A fender-bender became a sermon about how the world hated her. There was never any recognition that she, and her son, were alive and unhurt. It was all about the expense, the inconvenience, the trauma, and on, and on, and on. No matter what it was about, after a conversation with her, I would inevitably walk away depressed as if I had somehow contracted her contagion. She was a nice enough person, but her constant focus on the negative caused people to stay away from her.
My experience with that coworker has always reminded me that we have choices. We ewget to choose our attitude toward the things that happen to us. We get to choose our focus. We get to choose what we listen to, what we watch, what we read, what we talk about, and with whom we associate.
We make our own stew.
The church in Philippi was concerned about Paul, about his health, and about the various imprisonments and other difficulties that he had faced. And Paul writes back to encourage them, and to remind them not to dwell on the bad news that they had heard. He said,
8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9 Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.
10 I rejoiced greatly in the Lord that at last you renewed your concern for me. Indeed, you were concerned, but you had no opportunity to show it. 11 I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. 12 I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13 I can do all this through him who gives me strength.(Philippians 4:8-15)
Paul had been repeatedly arrested, imprisoned, shipwrecked, beaten, flogged, and driven out of town. He had every reason to complain. And yet, he wrote to ask his friends not to do that but instead to be content in whatever circumstances they found themselves. Rather than focus on our trouble, our pain, or any of the bad news that surrounds us, Paul encourages us to focus on the good things in our lives, things that are noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable and anything that is excellent or praiseworthy.
I’m not suggesting that we should be ignorant of what’s going on in the world around us. It’s important to be informed and know what’s going on, but don’t allow yourself to simmer endlessly in a toxic stew of negativity.
We get to choose our attitude toward the things that happen to us. We get to choose our focus. We get to choose what we listen to, what we watch, what we read, what we talk about, and with whom we associate.
Let’s do our best to look for the silver lining, to look for the places where God is at work, look for the blessing, look for the good in every bad situation, and focus on the things that good, pure, noble, and praiseworthy. Let’s spend more time with people who encourage us, spend more time encouraging others, and less time dwelling on the negativity that wears at our souls.
There is a photograph that circulates occasionally on internet forums and viewers are typically encouraged to look at it for five or ten seconds before reading the text that follows. The photo is of a street scene with passing cars, and, in the foreground, several attractive young ladies dressed in somewhat… revealing attire. But, after looking at the picture and reading the text that follows, you are asked if you noticed that one of the cars was being driven… by a dog. Of course, no one usually notices that particular detail and is compelled to look back at the photograph. Sure enough, right in the center of the picture, the car driving down the street has a dog in the driver’s seat.
But, as unusual as that is, why does almost no one, male or female, notice that the first time?
And the answer if focus. Our attention is naturally drawn to people and not to machines, particularly cars and other things that we see all the time. We weren’t looking for a dog driving a car, so we didn’t see one.
It’s the same thing that creates some absolutely hilarious complaints on the comment cards returned to our national parks. People complain that they weren’t allowed to touch the lava at Volcanoes National Park in Hawaii, they complain that there was nothing to see but rocks at Arches National Park (which incidentally has some of the most spectacular 65-million-year-old geological features that you well ever see), they complain that watching water boil at home would be more impressive that seeing the geysers at Yellowstone, that the Grand Canyon is just a big hole in the ground, that Sand Dunes National Park is just a “big pile of sand,” that Yosemite’s snow fed waterfalls stop by mid-summer because the Park Service must be turning them off, that some of the roads were closed by snow at Glacier National Park, and many, many, more complaints about bears, rattlesnakes, mosquitos, and other things that most of us would expect from our visits to these spectacular places.
But the reason that these people were disappointed was… focus.
If you expect a national park to have the same amenities as the Ritz Carlton, you are certain to be disappointed.
And it is that idea of focus that brings us to today’s first scripture. At first, as we read Luke 24:36b-48, it seems to be the same as the passage that we read last week. And it is similar. But before we finish reading, we notice that the focus of our reading is different than before. And that shift in focus becomes even clearer as we read our other scripture selections for today.
36 While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
37 They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
40 When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. 41 And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate it in their presence.
44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
As we read Luke’s retelling of the resurrection story, the beginning sounds the same as what we read in John’s account last week, but while the point, the focus, of John’s story was the skepticism and doubt of the disciples and the future generations who would hear their story, Luke doesn’t even mention it. Instead, Luke focuses on how Jesus was the fulfillment of God’s prophecy and how God was keeping his promises to his people. Jesus asks for, and eats, food in their presence to prove that he is not a ghost or a spirit, but is indeed, a living, physical, flesh and blood human being. And, while Luke also repeats Jesus offer to touch the nail holes in his hands and feet, this too is offered up as proof of his humanity and not to dispel doubt. But in the end, the point that Jesus makes in Luke’s gospel story is that everything that God’s prophets had ever written about the coming Messiah, in all of scripture, had been fulfilled through Jesus, and they were witnesses of all that had happened.
What’s more, Luke’s story includes an emphasis, a focus, on reminding the disciples that a message of repentance and forgiveness of sins would be preached, in the name of Jesus, in every nation of the world and would begin in Jerusalem. And while that part hadn’t happened yet, Jesus still declares that the disciples were his witnesses. And so, we see that while Luke is obviously telling the same story that we heard from John, the focus of Luke’s story is different and so we see a different message in it.
And even though John’s focus was different, we see from his actions, and those of Peter, in Acts 3:12-19, that they certainly understood Jesus’ message of repentance because of the words that they spoke to the gathered crowd after they healed the blind man at the gates of Jerusalem.
11 While the man held on to Peter and John, all the people were astonished and came running to them in the place called Solomon’s Colonnade. 12 When Peter saw this, he said to them: “Fellow Israelites, why does this surprise you? Why do you stare at us as if by our own power or godliness we had made this man walk? 13 The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, has glorified his servant Jesus. You handed him over to be killed, and you disowned him before Pilate, though he had decided to let him go. 14 You disowned the Holy and Righteous One and asked that a murderer be released to you. 15 You killed the author of life, but God raised him from the dead. We are witnesses of this. 16 By faith in the name of Jesus, this man whom you see and know was made strong. It is Jesus’ name and the faith that comes through him that has completely healed him, as you can all see.
17 “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer. 19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord.
Peter and John proclaim to the gathered crow that they understood that the people acted the way that they did, and made the choices that they made, because they were ignorant of the truth. But, now that they knew the truth, they must repent of their sins, and turn to God for forgiveness.
And even though the focus of John’s gospel story was on the shock, skepticism, and doubt of the disciples, he also understood that the message of sin, repentance, and forgiveness was inseparable from it because in 1 John 3:1-7 he writes these words:
3:1 See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. 3 All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.
4 Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. 5 But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. 6 No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him.
7 Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. The one who does what is right is righteous, just as he is righteous.
John understands that the most important message of the resurrection story is the message of sin, repentance, and forgiveness but also that having heard that message changes us and how we choose to live our lives. Once we know, and believe, the story of Jesus’ resurrection, we know that one day we will become as he is, and it is that hope that directs our lives in new directions. It is that hope that guides our paths away from lawlessness and toward purity and righteousness.
It is that hope that drives us to share our message with the world and with the people around us so that they will no longer be ignorant of the truth, repent, and find forgiveness and hope.
The first step in making the world a better place is for us to become better people. And the first step we must take to become better people is to repent of our sins, draw close to God, and become, every day, more like Jesus.
That is message that we must share, and that is the message that has, does, and will continue to change the world.
Because while some people will try to describe the message of sin, repentance, and forgiveness as a message of condemnation, in truth it is a message ofhope that the world desperately needs to hear.
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.