Death by Distraction

Death by Distraction

January 31, 2021*

By Pastor John Partridge

Deuteronomy 18:15-20          Mark 1:21-28            1 Corinthians 8:1-13

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. Those who think they know something do not yet know as they ought to know. 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.

Baptism: Not About Water

Baptism: Not About Water

January 10, 2021*

by Pastor John Partridge

Genesis 1:1-5             Acts 19:1-7                 Mark 1:4-11

If you have watched any of the Snickers candy bar commercials for the last few years, you almost certainly remember some of the dramatic transformations that people make when they are “hangry” and then, get better after eating a Snickers.  The way in which the advertisers portray this human metamorphosis is intended to be funny, and it often is.  But it’s funny because many of us already have experience with family, friends, or ourselves, being a little (or more than a little) cranky, or “hangry” when we haven’t had anything to eat.  I remember a number of times when, as loving as we knew him to be, my mother would send me to my room and caution me not to bother my father until after he had eaten dinner.  Our children can testify that similar things have happened in our household as well.  In all these cases, we recognize that our irritability, crankiness, or “hanger” really doesn’t have anything to do with noisy children, or anything else.  The real cause is simply that we are hungry.  Likewise, I watched a television show yesterday as on of the main characters argued with his mother about doing a mother-son dance at his wedding.  Many excuses were thrown out including the choice of music, and her inability to dance, but in the end, all her excuses weren’t about any of those things, but were entirely based upon her fear of looking foolish and being mocked by her new in-laws.  Often, the thing on the surface that everyone is talking about, isn’t really the root of what’s important.

And that’s exactly what’s going on today as we celebrate the baptism of Jesus.  The baptism of Jesus, and the subsequent tradition, and sacramental theology, as well as our many interpretations and denominational differences that revolve around the act of baptism, despite often disagreeing about how the water is to be applied, are all, in the end, not about water.  To explain what I mean, let me begin in the beginning.  The very beginning, at the time of creation, where we read this description in Genesis 1:1-5:

1:1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.

In the beginning… God.  Right up front, that’s the important bit.  The earth was formless and void, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.  You will notice that water is a part of the story.  And water may even be an important part of the story.  But water is not what the story is about.  The story is about the Spirit of God, the miraculous work of God, and the transformation of darkness into light.  And the light, we are told… was good.

And if we keep that example in mind as we read the story of Jesus baptism, we will see more clearly, that it is a story about something much more important than the immersion in, or the pouring of, water.  The story in the gospel of Mark 1:4-11, says this:

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. The whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem went out to him. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River. John wore clothing made of camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. And this was his message: “After me comes the one more powerful than I, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to stoop down and untie. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”

At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

As we did in the Genesis creation story, we must watch for who is doing the action.  It may remind us of English class where we were asked to identify the nouns and the verbs, but it is important that we separate the players and actors from one another in the story.  We must ask ourselves, what is the story about, and who is doing the most important action?  And, in this case, it is God, once again, who is the one that we must watch.  In this case, although they are all important to the story, John the Baptist, the Jordan River, and even the entire Judean countryside and the all the people of Jerusalem, are only set dressing for the important action.  Jesus comes to the river, is baptized by John, and God shows up.  As Jesus was coming out of the water, heaven itself is torn open, and the Spirit of God descends upon him and God the Father speaks from his throne in heaven saying, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

Yes, Jesus was baptized, with water, by John, but that is not the important part of the story.  The important part that is central to understanding the story, is that the Spirit of God is the principal participant who is doing the important action of the story.  This is a story from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, and it is only after this anointing, or baptism, of the Spirit that Jesus performs miracles and does all the other things that we read about in the gospel stories.  And so, we see that while baptism is vitally important to the story, it is the baptism of the Spirit that is central to the story, and not the immersion, or the pouring, of water.

But, if you want to double check and make sure that description is correct, look at Luke’s story about baptism in Acts 19:1-7 where he says:

19:1 While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they spoke in tongues and prophesied. There were about twelve men in all.

The men that Paul met in Ephesus knew about John the Baptist, and had been baptized with water, but Paul says that, as important as water baptism was, it was not the most important part.  The most important part wasn’t to be baptized with water but to be baptized with the Spirit of God.  And then, without using water, Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came upon them, and they received abilities that they had never had before, and this was illustrated for us when they spoke in foreign languages and prophesied about the future.

Paul’s explanation is that our being baptized with water is a two part action, our part is to repent of our sins and be baptized with water as an outward symbol of our repentance, but God’s part is to enter into us, at the time of baptism, in an act of transformation and empowerment, so that we are spiritually changed from the inside out and given the ability to do things through God’s strength, and through God’s Spirit, that now lives within us, that we could never do alone.

So, you see, the reason that we return to the story of Jesus’ baptism every year, isn’t just that water baptism is important, or that it is one of our few sacraments, means of grace, or moments when we can personally encounter the living God, although all those things are important.  The most important reason that we return to this story every year, is that it reminds us of the work that God began at creation, the work of transforming darkness into light.  The story of Jesus baptism reminds us that this was the moment of God’s empowerment of Jesus, as Jesus received the anointing of God’s Spirit and it reminds us that our baptism represents something far greater than our repentance and our interaction, by immersion, pouring, sprinkling, or otherwise, with water.  The story of Jesus’ baptism reminds us that we are the actors and the players in God’s work, that because of our baptism, we are baptized, anointed, and filled with, and completely transformed by, God’s Spirit who has taken up residence within us.  And, not only because of our actions in consenting to, and being baptized, but most importantly because of God’s actions at the time of our baptism, we are now equipped to do whatever amazing, and even miraculous thing that God calls us to do, through the power of the Spirit that lives within us.

As much as our denominations might argue about it, baptism was never about water.

Baptism has always been about transforming darkness into light, transforming evil into good, healing the broken, sharing the Good News of God’s rescue, and doing the work of God in the world.

Baptism was never about water.

It has always been about God transforming and equipping us to do his miraculous work in the world.

Let us remember our baptism…

…and get to work.


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/_kNHAqSfq90

Did you enjoy reading this?

Click here if you would like to subscribe to Pastor John’s weekly messages.

Click here to subscribe to Pastor John’s blog.

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.