STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH FEBRUARY 23, 2020
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
NEVER AGAIN: LOSE YOUR FOCUS
Hebrews 12: 1 – 13; 2 Corinthians 4: 7 – 12; John 16: 31 – 33
This Wednesday is Ash Wednesday – the beginning of Lent, a season of penitence when Christians reflect on Christ’s death and our own sin. When we hear the word “Lent” we often think of “giving something up”. For some people this is a joke. Others don’t have a clue what it means. Some do it as an empty ritual. Some need a little more than a brief spiritual practice. Others take it to the extreme. So we need to ask: is this spiritual practice effective. Does it really get to the heart of Lent?
Lent is a wilderness season. Just as the Israelites wandered the wilderness where they recognized their faithlessness, and just as the Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where he struggled with what tempted him most, so we’re led by the Spirit to face our own weaknesses and to name the things which entice us to sin. The solitude of the wilderness invites us to inward reflection. The harshness of the wilderness calls us to examine our spirits with stark honesty. But what are we looking for? What is sin?
Sin is defined in many ways – idolatry; our disobedience to God’s commands; our selfish nature; any behaviour which separates us from God; addiction; the harm we do to others. Sin is also, as Jesus points out in the Sermon on the Mount, found within our deepest thoughts and feelings, informing our attitudes and actions; feelings of pride, envy, lust, anger, gluttony (i.e. excess), avarice (i.e. materialism) and sloth. Sin is self sabotaging. When we sin, we work against God’s gift of salvation and we make a mess of our lives. Sin is “self-defeating”. It is anti-Christ – it works against Christ’s redeeming work. This sabotage may not be as blatant as killing someone or being selfish or wishing someone ill. Sabotage often begins in our patterns of thinking and acting which cause us to act in ways that are destructive and ineffective. They catch us in a downward spiral. They become a habit, then a compulsion and then a way of life which we repeat. These patterns work against God’s will preventing us from living in healthy productive ways, in healthy productive relationships and with healthy productive attitudes. They derail us, mess up our lives, and turn us into helpless, hopeless victims. Years ago, I had a friend who complained about her husband, a lot. Over time, I noticed that the complaints weren’t new, they were the “same old, same old.” When I pointed that out, she exclaimed, “Yes, he just doesn’t get it!” Neither did she. There are awakenings in life that once we have them, we never go back to our old ways. Those awakenings are gifts of God. They lead to repentance. We “get it” and we say, “never again.” So, instead of giving up chocolate or beer or doing nothing for Lent, let’s wake up to the thoughts, attitudes and behaviours which lead us away from God and God’s will for our lives. Let’s turn our lives around and never go back. To begin, let’s never again lose our focus.
I don’t know about you, but I lose my focus about a hundred times a day. I go to send Diane the liturgy and end up sending a dozen emails except the one I intended to send. I go to get something downstairs and come back with everything but. In the middle of a sentence another thought runs through my brain and the first one falls out. Those things are easily corrected but when I lose my focus on Christ, things go from bad to worse. There are two main ways we take our eyes off Christ. One is by not being present right now and, paradoxically, the other is by only seeing what’s in front of us – taking our eyes off the big picture.
There’s a lot of talk these days about living in the present, being in the now, showing up. When I’m in the present, I give my undivided attention. My mind isn’t wandering. I never say, “sorry I missed that”. I’m engaged in what’s happening in that moment. I see what’s in front of me. I taste my food. I remember my drive. I play the piano and it sounds like music. I follow a recipe accurately. I remember appointments. When my mind wanders, I lose my focus and make mistakes. Losing one’s focus in other ways has grave consequences. It’s not surprising that in the 6 days of creation, God’s whole being was centred on the task he set out to do. Divide light and darkness, sea and sky; create dry land with plants; set the stars and planets on course; get some fish and birds going, add some beasts and critters; and create human beings. One nano second of distraction would have sent a frozen, half finished Earth hurling through the void. When David showed up to take on Goliath, he wasn’t watching a dog out of the corner of his eye or thinking about lunch. David’s heart was on the God of Israel and his eye was like a laser focused on the middle of Goliath’s forehead. A mental hiccough would have cost him his life. Living in the present isn’t easy. In any moment we are longing for the past, reliving it with shame, or regretting missed opportunities. Or, we’re imagining what could be, worrying about the future, or planning for something down the road. In a way, the past and future are illusions, our memories aren’t accurate, and our future is fantasy. Anthony Bloom writes of being in the resistance movement in France during WW2. He was stopped by a Nazi officer who demanded to see his papers which, of course, were forged. He recalls that his first reaction was to be completely awake to what was happening. Nothing existed but that moment. Time stood still. He realized that in that moment, he had no past, because if his personal history were to come to light, he’d be shot. But the made up past he had wasn’t real. He also had no future because he had no idea what was about to happen. Any personal long-term goals he had vaporized. Everything was now. When there’s a lot on our plate, we often check out. We become overwhelmed and anxious. Soon, we can’t function; we’re one big bundle of stress. We see a mountain of work, a family in major dysfunction or a future personal disaster, but we don’t see the next thing. Jesus said, “Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when the time comes.” (Matthew 6: 34). In reality, all there is, is the moment you’re in. All you can see is what is present and all you can do is the thing in front of you. More often than not, when we’re in the present, troubles vanish because most of the time, nothing is harming us except ourselves. And regardless of our circumstances, God is present with us. When we’re awake to “God with us” we find the calming peace of the Spirit. So, we repent of our propensity to lose focus by “borrowing trouble from the future” or living in the past.
At the same time, we need to keep our eye on the big picture. Not only is God present, but God is unfolding a divine, cosmic plan. We’re not on Earth to stand still. The author of Hebrews reminds us we’re running a race and reaching towards a goal. Focused on God’s purposes, we can withstand the struggles and indignities of life. We can be faithful, because Christ is alive in us and we know eternal life is waiting. When faced with temptations, we can resist because we know there will be consequences – in this life and the next. The longer I live, the stronger my trust in Christ becomes. Life has taught me that God has been there in the past and he is here now. Whatever lies ahead, God will be there too. He will not abandon me, and he will not abandon you. There’s a lovely scene from The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel where Sonny Kapoor, the young hotel owner comforts a guest with the words, “Everything will be alright in the end. So, if it’s not alright, it’s not the end.” The promise of God is that Christ will return one day, and all sorrow will end – everything will be alright in the end. When we keep that promise in sight, when we are focused not on what life is doing to us, but on what God is doing in life, we become, “more than conquerors, through Christ who loves us” (Romans 8: 37).
Scripture gives us powerful examples of losing focus and keeping focus. At the time of Jesus arrest, the disciples are asleep. They’re not present in the moment to Jesus’ emotional or spiritual pain or to the danger he’s in. When he’s arrested, they scatter and deny him. They are sent into a panic by the unfolding events and fear of the future. They can’t see the big picture. They’ve lost the vision and scope of what God is doing. Jesus, on the other hand, has “set his face towards Jerusalem” (Luke 9: 51) He’s focused on the big picture and has steeled himself for what’s coming. He knows that soon he will be “in the place of honor, right alongside God”. The joy of this vision allows him, to remain present to his suffering as it happens; to “endure the cross” (Hebrews 12: 2). The big picture enables him to show up for the cross. Rather than running away or calling on an angel army, he fulfills God’s will, experiences the fullness of his torment and dies to save humanity and all creation. When we keep our eyes on the prize, we too find we can face the “now” and endure whatever life throws at us.
Lent is not only for individuals, it’s also for congregations. Churches often fall into despair because they’re not living in the present – they’re lamenting the past when Christendom reigned, everyone went to Church and the Sunday School was huge. When we look into the future, rather than seeing God’s plan and trusting him to be faithful, congregations can become fearful and our fear leads to defeat and resignation, and we close another church. We also lose our focus when we lose sight of God’s vision for our congregation and chase after every opportunity to do “good” that emerges. We run off in every direction. We burn out because we’re spread too thin. Our resources are drained on many worth causes, but not on the mission God has laid out for us. We end up working for God, rather than doing the work God has called us to do by keeping our focus and sticking with our vision. We need to focus on the big picture – the end results of our vision, and we need to focus on the present – on the next thing we need to do. We need to hang on to the big goal, while remembering the daily tasks of sharing Christ with others and being a nurturing congregation. And if things don’t go exactly as expected, we change the plan, not the vision.
God is with you in every moment, you need only pause to see him there. And God has a purpose and a plan that he is unfolding, you need only keep your eyes on the prize. Practice those two things and you will never again lose your focus.