Death by Distraction
January 31, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
On several long car trips, I have seen signs along the highway that remind drivers to put their phones down and to avoid distracted driving. Not long ago, that wasn’t something that we even thought about. We didn’t have phones in the car, or computer screens for navigation, or many of the other things with which today’s driver can be distracted. We had a handful of radio buttons and maybe a box full of cassette tapes and the highway signs only reminded us to fasten our seat belts. But while our children, radios, and fast-food lunches always had the potential to draw our attention away from the highway, today’s abundance of electronic devices distract us in similar abundance and our distraction at seventy miles an hour in heavy traffic can become deadly in the blink of an eye. Our life, and the lives of those around us, depends upon us keeping our focus on the important things and not being distracted by the army of ephemera that nags at the edges of our consciousness.
But scripture tells us that our spiritual lives are much like that, and worse.
In Deuteronomy 18:15-20, Moses warns the people of Israel that they must listen to God and not be distracted.
15 The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”
17 The Lord said to me: “What they say is good. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. 19 I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name. 20 But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, is to be put to death.”
Moses warns the people that while it is critically important to listen to God’s prophets and to obey God’s commands and instructions, they must be careful not to be distracted by people who only pretend to speak for God. He says that there will inevitably be people who speak fake and false prophecy for their own benefit, or who attempt to speak for other gods to distract God’s people and shift their focus from where it should be. Just as it is when we are driving, God’s people are at risk any time that our attention turns away from the main thing.
In Mark 1:21-28, an evil spirit comes into the synagogue and is afraid of Jesus.
21 They went to Capernaum, and when the Sabbath came, Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach. 22 The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. 23 Just then a man in their synagogue who was possessed by an impure spirit cried out, 24 “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God!”
25 “Be quiet!” said Jesus sternly. “Come out of him!” 26 The impure spirit shook the man violently and came out of him with a shriek.
27 The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, “What is this? A new teaching—and with authority! He even gives orders to impure spirits and they obey him.” 28 News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.
The impure spirit knows who Jesus is and is afraid of his power, but it also is trying to begin a discussion with him that is a distraction from Jesus’ main message. But Jesus knows the importance of keeping his focus on the main thing and does not allow the impure spirit to distract the people in the synagogue from the message that he is teaching. The spirit tries to steer the discussion in the synagogue to one about Jesus’ intensions toward the spirit world, but while Jesus’ presence and his message will ripple into their world, what happens to demons and impure spirits is not the focus of Jesus’ ministry. The message of Jesus isn’t about the destruction of evil spirits, but about the rescue of the lost and the salvation of the living.
But what application does that have for us today?
Of course keeping the main thing, the main thing means sharing Jesus’ message about rescuing the lost and the salvation of the living. That is, after all, the mission of the church and the mission of every follower of Jesus Christ. But keeping the main thing, the main thing can mean more than that as we see in Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. In that place, there were people who had converted from Judaism, people who had been Christians for some time, and people who had only recently converted to Christianity from idol worship.
In Corinth, most of the meat that was available had been sacrificed to some idol at the pagan temples and then sold later in the meat market. Similarly, the traditional place to hold many weddings, celebrations, and other gatherings was at those same pagan temples. So, among the people of the church, there was a dispute. If Christians stayed away from the idols and pagan temples, they would miss the weddings of their friends, and be excluded from many celebrations and business opportunities. If they refused to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, they might rarely eat meat at all. And so, in the middle of this dispute, Paul writes these words to the church (1 Corinthians 8:1-13):
8:1 Now about food sacrificed to idols: We know that “We all possess knowledge.” But knowledge puffs up while love builds up. 2 Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 3 But whoever loves God is known by God.
Paul recognizes that the more mature believers understand that the idols aren’t real. They know that our God is the only god that there is and that gods made of stone and metal had no real power. Whether they attended an event at the pagan temple or ate meat that had been sacrificed there made no difference. But many of the newer converts, who had grown up in that system, still believed that setting foot in a pagan temple, or even eating the meat that had been sacrificed there, gave power to those gods, and gave them power over you.
And what Paul says, is that “We possess all knowledge.” Yes, we know that these are false god. Yes, we know that attending your nephew’s wedding at the pagan temple makes no difference. We know that eating meat, or not eating meat, makes no difference. But, if we read the rest of this passage, Paul encourages them not to do these things anyway. Why? Because even though idols and false gods have no power, and even though believers in Jesus Christ had every right to attend social gathering and eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols, exercising that right caused harm to fellow believers whose faith was not yet as mature as theirs. Attending those gatherings, and eating that meat, caused less mature believers to doubt their faith and possibly leave the church. Paul says that more important thing is not what knowledge we have, or what rights we have, but that we do not cause harm to our brothers and sisters in Christ. For Paul, it wasn’t an issue of knowledge or of rights, but of keeping the main thing, the main thing.
Even two millennia later, this idea flows into everything that we do. One of the foundational principles of the Methodist movement is “Do no harm” and it is often a check for us to keep the main thing, the main thing and to keep our focus where it belongs. Even though we have every right to hold in-person worship, we must consider what harm we might cause to fellow believers by exercising that right. Even though we may personally feel that we have every right not to wear a mask in public, do we cause harm to the people in the community, and to fellow believers, and to their faith, if we choose to exercise that right. Paul’s message to the church in Corinth, and to us, is just because we have the right to do something, doesn’t mean that we should exercise that right, or that exercising that right is a good thing.
The more important principle is to do no harm.
When we drive our automobiles down the highway, we understand that the full focus of our attention is required for the task at hand, and that our distraction can lead to our death, or to the death of others.
Moses warned that God’s people needed to test the people who claimed to be prophets and only listen to those that proved to be real because being distracted from God’s message could lead to death.
When Jesus preached in the synagogue, he did not allow the impure spirit to change the subject and distract him from the focus of his message. The main thing, had to remain the main thing and the most important message wasn’t about the future of the spirits, but about rescuing the lost and calling God’s people to repentance and obedience. Paul knew that throughout our daily lives we run the risk of distraction and death.
We must constantly struggle to keep the main thing the main thing. To keep our focus on the mission of the church, to rescue the lost, and to preach a message of salvation and the Good News of Jesus Christ. And in the process of doing that, we may occasionally need to set aside our rights, to surrender to God some of the things that we feel like we have earned for ourselves because the main thing isn’t about exercising our rights, or about doing things just because we can do them.
The main thing is to do no harm to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and to the community around us.
Because despite living in a country where we hold our rights to be incredibly important, sometimes our rights are a distraction from our main purpose, focus, and mission.
And distraction is death.
Let us keep our focus on rescuing the lost and sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ.
And let us continue our struggle to keep the main thing, the main thing.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/QV5D2PTS5Cw
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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.