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.

Juggling Morality

Juggling Morality

(or, Schwarzenegger’s Choice)

January 17, 2021*

By Pastor John Partridge

1 Samuel 3:1-20                     John 1:43-51              1 Corinthians 6:12-20

In the Terminator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger, there is a line of dialog, “Come with me if you want to live,” that has been repeated in nearly every movie in the series.  It became so well known and so repeated among fans that it was picked up and used, unaltered as well as adapted, in other movies, television shows, and video games from Supernatural, to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to the Lego Movie, Finding Nemo, and even Casper (the friendly ghost).  In each scene, as well as the parodies, that line of dialog marks a moment of decision between two paths and is often a choice between life and death.  But even though there are no killer cybernetic robots from the future to be found anywhere in scripture, we do find those exact kinds of pivotal, life-changing, moments of decision when the people in the stories are faced with decisions that will change their lives forever.   The first of these that we find today is found in 1 Samuel 3:1-20, where both Eli the priest, and his young assistant Samuel, are each faced with choices that will change them, and all of Israel, forever.

3:1 The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days, the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night, Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So, he went and lay down.

Again the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

10 The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

11 And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. 12 At that time I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. 13 For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. 14 Therefore I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

15 Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, 16 but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

17 “What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

19 The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

We understand this story better if we read the previous chapter of Samuel because, there we find that Eli’s sons are terrible priests who abuse those who come to worship under them, they steal from God, and they profane the sacrifices of God.  Eli knew what they were doing, and other than mildly admonishing them, did nothing.  Worse, God had already sent a message to Eli that his entire family would be judged, and his family line would come to an end, because of the behavior of his sons, and still, he did nothing.  In this story, God calls someone new.  God had earlier told Eli that if nothing changed, another priest would be raised up who would have the courage to speak the truth and here, God does exactly that as he calls to Samuel in the night.

I suspect that Eli knows exactly what God is doing when the boy Samuel comes to him, and he encourages Samuel to answer, to listen, and to be obedient.  And Samuel does exactly that.  Samuel chooses to listen to God and to obey him.  But Eli, despite God’s warnings, despite knowing that God was preparing judgement against him, still chooses to do nothing.  Eli chooses to ignore the sin of his sons and the injustices for which they were responsible.  Both Samuel and Eli chose between life and death.  Samuel chose to listen.  Eli chose not to listen.  Samuel chose obedience and life, while Eli chose disobedience and death.

And then, as Jesus begins to call his disciples to follow him, we hear this story in John 1:43-51:

43 The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”

44 Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. 45 Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

46 “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

“Come and see,” said Philip.

47 When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”

48 “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.

Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”

49 Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”

50 Jesus said, “You believebecause I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” 51 He then added, “Very truly I tell you, youwill see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Much like the call of Samuel by God, and through Philip’s introduction, Jesus calls Nathaniel to follow him. Nathaniel is, at first, skeptical that anything good could come from a hick town like Nazareth, but even before he has a chance to speak, Jesus knows everything about him, his honestly, his integrity, and even where he was sitting when Philip invited him to come with him to meet Jesus.  At this moment, Nathaniel had two choices, he could pretend that this was not incredible and impossible and go home and tell his friends that he had met Jesus.  Or he could choose to upend his entire life, leave his job and his family.  Nathaniel immediately recognizes that only the Messiah could do what Jesus had just done and makes the choice to follow Jesus regardless of the cost.

But what does that have to do with us?

If we have already chosen to follow Jesus, then why am I wasting my breath repeating these stories?

And the reason is simply that the choice of following Jesus is one that is in front of us every day and one that we must make many times over the course of each day and untold thousands of times each year.  In Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 6:12-20), he explains it this way:

12 “I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but I will not be mastered by anything. 13 You say, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.” The body, however, is not meant for sexual immorality but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. 14 By his power God raised the Lord from the dead, and he will raise us also. 15 Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! 16 Do you not know that he who unites himself with a prostitute is one with her in body? For it is said, “The two will become one flesh.” 17 But whoever is united with the Lord is one with him in spirit.

18 Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. 19 Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; 20 you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your bodies.

The argument that Paul was, apparently, hearing, was that since we are already forgiven by Jesus’ death and resurrection, then we can do whatever we want.  But, while Paul agrees that we are forgiven, he explains that we simply cannot do whatever we want, because not everything that can be done, should be done.  Or in other words, just because you can do something, doesn’t mean that doing so is a good thing. 

The argument that was used two thousand years ago, sounds almost identical to some of the arguments that we hear today.  In Corinth, the people said, “Food for the stomach and the stomach for food, and God will destroy them both.”  Or, in other words, I am hungry, so I eat.  But, in the end, both the food and my stomach will be buried and return to the dust from which they were created.  We hear almost the same things today when people rationalize their behaviors.  We hear “I was hungry, so I ate it.”  We hear, “I wanted it, so I bought it.” And we hear things like, “if it feels good do it,” and “the heart wants, what the heart wants.”  But not everything that our bodies want, and not everything that feels good, is good for us, and not everything is what God wants for us.

Paul says that we are thinking about it in the wrong way.  We ought not think that we can do whatever we want because we are already forgiven, we should, instead, remember that, as forgiven people, we have become, as the body of Christ, a part of Jesus and our sin, drags Jesus into the mud with us.  We would never dream of buying Jesus a hooker, or asking Jesus to participate in an extramarital affair, but that is exactly what we do when we sin.  Instead of saying, “if it feels good, do it,” we should flee and run far away from any sort of immorality and sin.  We are, Paul says, the temples of the Holy Spirit.  So, if you wouldn’t do something in church, you probably shouldn’t be doing it at all.  Because our lives were purchased on the cross, they belong to Jesus and not to us, so the way that we treat our bodies is a reflection on how we are treating God.

Every day, in a hundred ordinary decisions, we make choices about how to live our lives and how we will honor God.  Eli and Samuel made very different choices, and those choices carried them in vastly different directions.  Nathaniel gave up everything when he chose to follow Jesus, and his life was transformed because of it.

Like them, every day, we choose whether we will honor God.

And whether you hear it in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s voice or not, you can imagine Jesus saying…

… “Come with me, and live.”

It really is a choice between life and death.

What will you choose?


You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/8kwXPODOLpc

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.

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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.