A Life Out of Focus
June 13, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15 Mark 3:20-35 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Are you acting like a hamster in a cage?
Quite a few years ago, I heard a story on the radio in which the storyteller which, if my memory is good (and that is often doubtful), was James Dobson from Focus on the Family. But the story that he told was about a pet hamster that they had in the living room, in a cage, on the coffee table. And for hours, that hamster, who was aware of his captivity, worked tirelessly to escape. The hamster knew that the cage door that opened at feeding time held the possibility of his escape and continually pawed, poked, pried, and prodded at that cage door in hopes of finding a way to freedom.
But the storyteller saw something that the hamster didn’t. On the floor, beside the sofa, not far from the hamster cage, lay the family cat. The eyes of that cat were locked on that hamster and never left. If the hamster had been able to find a weakness in his cage or manage to squeeze through a gap in the door, his freedom would have been cut surprisingly and shockingly short. That cage, which from the hamster’s perspective was a prison was, from a wider perspective, the only thing that stood between him and a quick death from the claws and teeth of the cat.
Just like that hamster, we often make errors in judgement because our focus is too narrow. We are focused on ourselves, or on today, or even tomorrow, and the choices that we make based on that narrow focus, ultimately prove to be shortsighted, or even harmful, when we look back on them twenty years later. I have known quite a few people who, when they approached retirement, have fervently wished that they had done a better job of saving and investing when they were thirty years younger.
And it is exactly that sort of out-of-focus thinking, when viewed from a different perspective, that we often see in the spiritual stories of scripture. The first of these we will read today comes from first Samuel chapters eight and eleven, when the people of Israel demanded that God give them a king, not because they needed one, but because everyone else had one. (1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15)
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to leadus, such as all the other nations have.”
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so, he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[c] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
11:14 Then Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal and made Saul king in the presence of the Lord. There they sacrificed fellowship offerings before the Lord, and Saul and all the Israelites held a great celebration.
Samuel knew that having a king was a bad idea. Samuel told the people that it was a bad idea and that doing so would be offensive to God. But the story tells us that “the people refused to listen to Samuel,” They demanded a king, and God gave the Saul who had the same lack of vision that the people had.
But shortsightedness and lack of vision isn’t something that mystically ended as we move from the Old Testament to the New Testament, nor is it even something to which Jesus’ own family was immune. IN Mark 3:20-35, we hear this story of Jesus casting out demons:
20 Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. 21 When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.”
22 And the teachers of the law who came down from Jerusalem said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul! By the prince of demons, he is driving out demons.”
23 So Jesus called them over to him and began to speak to them in parables: “How can Satan drive out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 If a house is divided against itself, that house cannot stand. 26 And if Satan opposes himself and is divided, he cannot stand; his end has come. 27 In fact, no one can enter a strong man’s house without first tying him up. Then he can plunder the strong man’s house. 28 Truly I tell you, people can be forgiven all their sins and every slander they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.”
30 He said this because they were saying, “He has an impure spirit.”
31 Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.”
33 “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked.
34 Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
As I noted, there are two groups to be considered here, and each has their own expectations and their own agenda, and those expectations, as well as those agendas, constrain their vision and make them unable to gain a broader perspective. The first of these groups is Jesus’ own family. When they hear that Jesus is drawing such an enormous crowd, and that people are coming to see him cast out demons, their assumption is that he has gone completely around the bend, lost his mind, and gone insane. From their perspective, Jesus was their son, or their brother, the oldest son of Joseph the builder, a guy that was supposed to be home, managing the family business, and taking care of his mother. Despite the miracles that Mary saw at the time of Jesus’ birth, none of them can understand that Jesus might be more than just a tradesman who was supposed to be at home caring for his responsibilities to his family.
The second group that we see are the teachers of the law, who are so fixated on following the rules, preserving, and controlling the status quo, and protecting the insiders by keeping the riffraff outside where they belonged, they are unable to comprehend that Jesus, a common, uneducated tradesman, and laborer from the rural sticks, could possibly be doing what people said that he was doing. And, when they found that he was indeed casting out demons, simply because he was not one of them, a member of the established church leadership, and one of the insiders, they can only assume that God is not with him and so his power must come from the devil instead.
Just like the elders and leaders of Israel in the time of Samuel, and a lot like that hamster, the wants, wishes, desires, and biases of each group, cause them to be shortsighted, lose focus, and be unable to have enough perspective to see what was really happening. Twenty-one centuries later, all we need to do is open a newspaper, turn on a television, or open a web browser to see that people, inside and outside of the church, are still suffering from that same lack of vision. But in Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth, Paul passes along some advice on how to keep our lives in focus. (2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1)
13 It is written: “I believed; therefore, I have spoken.” Since we have that same spirit offaith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.
16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.
5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.
Paul begins by laying out what our perspective should be, we believe in Jesus, that God raised Jesus from the dead, will one day raise each of us from the dead, and that same grace is extended to more people every day. With that perspective, Paul says, even when we are suffering and wasting away, inwardly we are renewed, and our momentary troubles are forgotten because our hope for the future outweighs any of our earthly struggles. Because we have this perspective, because we have this vision, we do not focus on our struggles, our pain, loss, grief, and suffering, but instead focus on our faith, our mission, and our eternal future.
When we fail to do that, when we fail to maintain that perspective, we begin to live our life out of focus and we are distracted by our wants, wishes, desires, biases, irrelevant theological disputes, partisan politics, pain, passion, power, and all sorts of other things then we become just like that hamster. We find ourselves struggling to open a gate that will only result in our being torn apart and eaten by a more powerful enemy than we ever imagined.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, let us keep our focus on our mission, our faith, and our eternal future.
Because only then will we be able to live our lives in focus.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/6eMmREiy2fM
Did you enjoy reading this?
Click here to subscribe to Pastor John’s blog.
Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.
Click here to visit Pastor John’s YouTube channel.
*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.