Theme: Distraction (Sunday 15 November, 2020)
Series: Trip Hazards 10:45am
Bible Reading: Matthew 25:14-30
Preacher: Phil Swain
Last week we started a new sermon series based on the lectionary gospel readings from Matthew on Trip Hazards – things that can trip us up in our spiritual growth. I shared a story about a time on the Hillsong chapel stage when I stepped backwards and didn’t see a foldback speaker and went sprawling over the floor. The lack of awareness was my problem … and that is the key to this series.
Last week, this week and next week we are looking at some faith trip hazards – things like hypocrisy, distraction and fear. We are not raising these issues to make you feel guilty or shamed but rather to help all of us be more aware of these things so that we don’t trip up as much. Our goal is to also find some tools, techniques, wisdom that might help us not trip up as much and hence allow us to be more fruitful in our spiritual life and growth.
Have you ever seen the kids animated movie UP? What is the recurring joke with Dog … SQUIRREL! To those who have no idea what I am talking about (and I am thinking of the 10:45am congregation who are watching a recording of this sermon) … the Dog in the movie (who can talk) keeps getting distracted half way through a sentence … often by seeing a squirrel. And it just seemed the example I had to use when talking about today’s topic of distraction.
Actually, if you talk to my family, they would tell you that I sometimes get distracted half way through a sentence. I would argue that people just interrupt me half way through a sentence but apparently sometimes when I am talking I will just pause, in a moment of distraction, and then keep talking.
I don’t think I do … but I will admit that I usually have 100 things racing around in my mind at any moment and it is quite possible that I do get distracted mid-sentence by my own [pause] words and thoughts.
Distractions have been around right from when Adam and Eve where distracted by a piece of fruit … but we live in a society that is distraction overload. We have so many things around us constantly that are trying to grab our attention … and this (our phones) is the worst culprit. Statistic show that around 2/3’s of adults and ¾’s of young people say that they are regularly distracted from the task at hand. This constant fragmentation of our time and concentration has become the new normal, to which we have adapted with ease, but there is a downside: more and more experts are telling us that these interruptions and distractions have eroded our ability to concentrate.
And this is the problem when it comes to our spiritual growth. If we think about the classic spiritual disciplines that help us in our spiritual growth – prayer, bible reading, meditation, spiritual conversations, worship, stillness and solitude – the traditional practices of these disciplines require an investment of time, focus and attention … and seem to be less fruitful when they are interrupted or distracted.
Am I being to tough by saying that our current lifestyle of multi-tasking, speed switching, multi-sensory way of living is hindering our spiritual growth?
Jesus in the parable of the seeds explained in Matthew 13:22 that the soil with the thorns represents the distractions that life, ambition and wealth and that these distractions can choke out the fruitfulness of God’s word planted in us.
But I need to be careful here. I clearly said that these sermons were not supposed to be guilt inducing. I don’t want people to think that anyone who uses Facebook or YouTube or Netflix or who has been distracted by election results on Twitter this week are condemned like the unfruitful seed in the thorny soil. But at the same time … Jesus is saying that we need to be careful of the things that limit our fruitfulness. So we need to address how distractions are impacting our spiritual growth.
Can I just pause for a moment and put in my definition of distraction because I think it might be helpful. The dictionary tells us that distraction is a thing that prevents someone from concentrating on something else … but I would want to add to that distractions are the little things that make you miss the big thing or the important thing. And this is where today’s bible reading from Matthew 25 comes in.
The usual takeaway – the blue picture – of parable about the 10 bridesmaids is about being ready for the return of Jesus. It is the section of Matthew that is about judgement in the kingdom to come, so it usually is interpreted as a parable about not being foolish or lazy but rather being wise and prepared and keeping watch for Jesus return.
But I want to add another perspective which was beautifully picked up in the kids YouTube video that Edwina found for me and I showed at the beginning of the service (I will also show it at the end if you missed it).
In the video, there are three … shapes, blobs … that are trying to get into the party by talking to the host as he walked by on the road to where the party was being held.
But the blob called Phil gets distracted by lots of other things – thinking about the celebs who will be at the party, the clothes that he is wearing, a bunch of other things – he is so busy thinking about all things that he misses what is most important, batteries for his torch so that he can still be on the road to meet the host.
Was the foolishness of the 5 bridesmaids not just that they were unprepared but that their preparations and readiness for what was most important was distracted by other things.
You see, I want to say that the things that distract us are not necessarily bad … they are only are problem if they distract us from the more important thing.
Yes, Facebook is distracting, but I don’t think it is bad. Netflix is distracting but its not bad. Speaking to our more mature members in our 10:45 congregation, I know that many of you spend a lot of time worrying about your family, or the future, or distracted by health issues … but these thoughts are not bad. They only become a problem if they take your eyes of the bigger, more important issues.
Isn’t that the message of the Mary and Martha story in Luke 10:38-42. Let me read verses 41-42 from the Passion Translation. “The Lord answered her, “Martha, my beloved Martha. Why are you upset and troubled, pulled away by all these many distractions? Are they really that important? 42 Mary has discovered the one thing most important by choosing to sit at my feet. She is undistracted, and I won’t take this privilege from her.”
Martha’s distraction about being a good host is not a bad thing, but being so distracted that she not only misses the opportunity to sit at Jesus feet but the distraction was causing friction in her relationship with Mary … then the distraction was not helpful.
Jon Bloom from desiringgod.com wrote in an article, “Jesus pointed out to Martha that her values were disordered. She had shifted her attention from the greater importance to the lesser. So, in our busyness, we must ask, what is the real distraction? What does our heart desire? Are we choosing “the good portion,” seeking the great “one thing” (Psalm 27:4), or something less?”
I think that this is the challenge to us. Sure, some of us might be hearing God say to us that we are spending too much time on Twitter or Facebook or Netflix or worry or whatever … if that is the case, then listen to God.
But for me, the challenge that I want to share with you is that idea of not letting the lesser distract us for the greater. Let us make sure that we are not being distracted from the things that are spiritually fruitful from the things that are less fruitful.
But this brings us back to the point I made earlier about the traditional spiritual disciples of prayer, bible reading, worship, meditation etc. The traditional ways of doing these are so susceptible to distractions. Can you sit and pray for more than a few minutes without being distracted? Can you read the Bible for any length … or sit with a verse and let God speak to you through it? If you can, great … keep doing it. But many of us struggle with this.
And so how do we make these traditional practices work for us in our distracted lifestyle? I want to suggest two things – two ideas for you to take away and work out what they might mean for you in your spiritual journey.
1) Customise these practices to work for you.
I remember talking to a Catholic nun one time and confessing that I literally can’t be still. My body does not cope with stillness. (I was on a retreat and as part of the retreat she had encouraged us to sit in the chapel and pray for an hour … and I couldn’t do it). Do you know what her advice was to me? Walk and pray instead. She said that the praying is the important part and if I can’t sit and pray, then I should walk and pray. Customise the spiritual practice so that they work for you. If you have trouble reading the bible, then listen to it being read to you as a podcast. If you struggle to settle your mind, then do some yoga before praying, whatever works for you. Just make sure that you don’t let the lesser distractions take away the more important things that are spiritually fruitful. Customise.
The second idea or concept that I want to leave you – I find confronting. It is the word:
Distractions are only distractions because we don’t have the will power to not let them become distractions. The bible refers to self-control as a gift from the spirit (Galatians 5:23). As a fruit of the spirit, Self-control is cultivated in us primary through the spirits work but also secondarily through our intentional hard work. Self-control is a like a muscle that will get stronger the more we exercise it.
Quoting again from Jon Bloom’s article:
There’s no getting around the hard work of applying ourselves and figuring out what works best for us. But if we prayerfully and faithfully apply ourselves, the Spirit will empower our efforts and we will see our capacity for self-control increase.
I told you that it was confronting … but if we want to lessen the probability of being tripped up by distraction, here are two things that can act a bit like the Velcro strips on the floor that are covering up the cords – customising spiritual practices to work for you and self control. Both of these will require an investment of time, focus and energy … which means that they are ripe for distraction. But as Jesus said, if we tame the thorns that are surrounding us then we are much more likely to be spiritually fruitful.
I wish to finish with one last analogy that I found in my prep work. Another way of viewing distractions is through the lens of time investment. Each day we have 1440 minutes to invest … 1440 minutes to spend on the mundane, the important, the necessary and the trivial. Some of those minutes are taken up by things like sleeping, eating etc. We invest other minutes in our work, study, household etc. We might have say 250 minutes left to invest after all that … maybe more, maybe less. How do we invest those minutes? It is important to invest in our families, in our relationships, in ourselves – our own relaxation, exercise, engagement etc. These are time investment decisions that we do everyday so that we have a balanced, healthy and blessed life.
A distraction is a time investment without a return – a time tax – an expenditure that we can’t get a refund of.
Time spent distracted simply means we have less to spend on other more important and fruitful things. God wants us to have a blessed life, a full life, a joyous and meaningful life … and this is more possible when we invest our time wisely.
Maybe Jesus in verse 13 of bible reading, when he says, “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour” … maybe that is not a threat to be on the edge waiting for the second coming of Jesus … but rather an invitation to keep watch and not lose track or be distracted about where we are spending our days and hours but rather be wise in controlling the distractions and investing more into the things of this world and the spiritual things from God that bring us life.
One last quote from Jon Bloom … actually it is a prayer.
Whatever it takes, Lord,
increase my resolve to pursue the good things
that you call me to do,
and deliver me from the fragmenting effect
of fruitless distraction.