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Freedom and Focus
June 26, 2022*
By Pastor John Partridge
Have you seen the demonstrations of the capabilities of some of the new cameras? I’m talking about the new phones with three lenses and a few other high-end cameras. One of the neat tricks that they can do is known as “variable focus.” In days past, you could turn the lens to change the focus, but whatever you focused on, once you took the picture, that was what you had to live with.
But variable focus cameras not only take the picture that you saw, but several more, from different angles, and the technology allows you to change the focus of the picture after you’ve already saved it in memory. For example, you take a picture of some friends at a wedding, and after you get home you notice another person, in the background, doing something interesting. A few years ago, you would just have to wonder who that was, or what it was that they were doing. But with this technology you can open yesterday’s picture, zoom in, and refocus on the person in the background.
It’s a lot like real life. We can choose what we want to focus upon. Our eyes do that naturally, but we do that with the way that we live our lives as well. I used to work as an engineer, but the focus of my life changed. Or consider Alfred Nobel. Mr. Nobel was a brilliant scientist who spoke six languages, earned his first patent at the age of twenty-four and eventually held 355 patents for a wide variety of discoveries. But his best know patent was for a safe method of using nitroglycerine as an explosive, in other words… dynamite. That patent made him a wealthy man, but when a newspaper erroneously wrote his obituary before his death, they referred to him as a “war profiteer” and he didn’t like it. Mr. Nobel didn’t want his legacy to be one of destruction, and so he created, and gave his entire fortune to, the Nobel institution, so that annual prizes would be given to those persons who “conferred the greatest benefit to humankind.” Alfred Nobel changed the focus of his life, and it made a difference to the world.
With that in mind, let’s read today’s scriptures and, as we do, let’s look for where we can see the focus of the people in them. We begin with 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14 and the story of how Elijah ends his time on earth and passes the mantle of his ministry onward to his apprentice Elisha.
2:1 When the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. 2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to Bethel.”
But Elisha said, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So, they went down to Bethel.
6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; the Lord has sent me to the Jordan.”
And he replied, “As surely as the Lord lives and as you live, I will not leave you.” So, the two of them walked on.
7 Fifty men from the company of the prophets went and stood at a distance, facing the place where Elijah and Elisha had stopped at the Jordan. 8 Elijah took his cloak, rolled it up and struck the water with it. The water divided to the right and to the left, and the two of them crossed over on dry ground.
9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me, what can I do for you before I am taken from you?”
“Let me inherit a double portion of your spirit,” Elisha replied.
10 “You have asked a difficult thing,” Elijah said, “yet if you see me when I am taken from you, it will be yours—otherwise, it will not.”
11 As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. 12 Elisha saw this and cried out, “My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!” And Elisha saw him no more. Then he took hold of his garment and tore it in two.
13 Elisha then picked up Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. 14 He took the cloak that had fallen from Elijah and struck the water with it. “Where now is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” he asked. When he struck the water, it divided to the right and to the left, and he crossed over.
Everyone knew that today was the day that God would take Elijah from the earth. Elijah knew, Elisha knew and, in the verses of scripture that we skipped, hundreds of Israel’s prophets along the path of their journey also knew and asked Elisha to be sure that he knew (He did). But along the way, several times, Elijah tells his apprentice to stay behind and Elisha, however obedient he might normally have been, flatly refuses to be anywhere except where Elijah is.
Elisha is completely focused on loyalty, respect, and honor.
As a result, Elijah asks what he can do for Elisha before God takes him away, and Elisha asks that he be twice as spiritual, twice as godly, twice as powerful, twice as devoted, and twice as close to, and twice as focused on God as Elijah had been. Elijah knows that this is not a gift that he can give and so he tells his friend that if God allows him to see him as he is taken from the earth, then he will know that God has given him this gift. And he does. As proof that God has given him this gift, on his way home Elisha repeats the miracle that Elijah had just performed when he slaps the Jordan River with Elijah’s coat, the water parts like the Red Sea in front of Moses, and he walks to the other side on dry land.
We see the same focus on priorities and… well… focus, in Luke 9:57-62, as the time came for Jesus to be taken up from the earth.
57 As they were walking along the road, a man said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”
58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.”
59 He said to another man, “Follow me.”
But he replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”
60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead, but you go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”
61 Still another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but first let me go back and say goodbye to my family.”
62 Jesus replied, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God.”
This passage draws a distinction between the different sorts of people who followed Jesus. We usually talk about Jesus’ disciples, but in this passage, we also meet people that we would, in modern language, refer to as Jesus’ groupies. They were enamored of Jesus and what Jesus was doing but Jesus makes it clear that they are only attracted to the idea of what he is doing and not to the reality of what he was doing. To the first case, Jesus simply reminds the man that Jesus and all who follow him, are homeless. There is no healthcare plan, there is no home base of ministry, there is no wealth, and there isn’t even a definitive destination for their journey together. And in the next three cases, Jesus’ responses all ask that these groupies reconsider what their priorities really are. To be a disciple, rather than a groupie, requires a complete and dedicated focus. A farmer that looks back, or becomes distracted, while plowing a field will not be able to plow straight lines but will instead plow a field with wandering furrows.
But why is that important? Why do wandering furrows matter? Why does focus matter?
Those questions are answered by Paul as he writes to the church in Galatia to explain how the followers of Jesus Christ should use the freedom that Jesus paid for with his life (Galatians 5:1, 13-25).
5:1 It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whateveryou want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
Paul reminds the church that Jesus has purchased our freedom and the reason that he spent his life to do that was… freedom. Paul cleverly repeats those words, saying that we were set free for freedom, in order to remind us that if we do not stand firm in what we believe, then we will give up what we have gained, give away our freedom, and return to our slavery voluntarily. Yes, we are free. But Paul’s reminder is that using our freedom to serve ourselves, to pursue a life of pleasure, or to be argumentative, angry, and destructive with one another, takes us back to the slavery that we once escaped. Rather than practicing immorality, impurity, worshipping idols of stone, fame, money, or work, witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, rage, selfishness, division, envy, drunkenness, and free sex, the followers of Jesus Christ are called to live lives of service to the people around us, to love our neighbors, and be loving, joyful, kind, agents of peace, goodness, and faithfulness, and to be calm, faithful to God, and to one another.
How we use our freedom, is what distinguishes Jesus’ disciples from groupies.
How we use our freedom reveals our priorities and our focus.
If we focus on the wrong things, we throw away the freedom for which Jesus paid so dearly and return, voluntarily, to a life of slavery to sin and death.
Our freedom has been bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus. But the only way that we will be able to keep it is to stand firm and keep our focus on the mission in front of us. If we lose our focus, our paths will wander and take us places that we never want to go.
Can you hear Jesus asking?
Are you disciples or are you groupies?
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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. These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.com . All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.