Every Sunday before the sermon, I try to gather us together with a centering prayer. What this prayer does is it gives us space to catch our breath, collect our thoughts, and to prepare ourselves to hear what God wants us for us today. I know, for some, the sermon is a time for a nap, but this time is truly a time of deep discipleship where we are encouraged and challenged to grow closer to God’s love. This is the most important time of the worship service.
The importance of this time is why I try to include this phrase in the pre-sermon prayer each week: Turn out the distractions of our days and of our lives so that we may be attentive to your voice and what you have for us this day. Sound familiar? These words are important for all of us, because I recognize we often come to worship distracted by the concerns, worries, and moments in our lives.
I say this because I know there are days when I come to worship distracted. Sometimes my mind wonders elsewhere, such as to challenges at home, worries about my grandfather, or the things I need to get done in the week ahead. The distractions can sometimes prevent me from engaging in worship, so I have to focus harder on those days.
What about you? I wonder how often we worship with the worries of where we will go or what we will eat for lunch pressing upon our minds. I wonder how often we worship still thinking about a tense conversation on our way to church. I wonder how often we worship, as well, thinking about what the week will be like.
Many of these things are important to be concerned about, especially lunch when we are hungry. Sometimes, however, these things can be overwhelming and take up an enormous amount of our time and energy. I’m not just talking about this time together. Sometimes these things distract us from the most important things in our lives.
So, what if I told you that some of our worries and distractions can keep us from hearing God’s voice and what the Lord wants for us? What we give attention or time to is what claims our focus. When we give too much attention to the distractions of our days, it can often prevent us from truly spending time to hear from God.
Take a moment to think how often you have felt that you cannot hear God’s voice or that God seems silent at times. In some cases, the silence isn’t because God is not speaking to us. It is because we are too distracted to hear from God. As we continue to think about what is next following the resurrection of Jesus Christ, we need to turn out the distractions of our lives, so we can focus upon God’s love and hope for us.
We are not the first generation of followers of God to wrestle with our distractions. Our text for this morning, John 10:22-30, invites us to consider how some of the religious leaders were distracted to the point that it prevented them from seeing Jesus for who he truly is. The story takes place at the Festival of Dedication, which we know today as Hanukah. During Jesus’ time, it was one of the festivals everyone was expected to go to Jerusalem to celebrate. The festival stood as a remembrance to the rededication and purification of the temple following the Maccabean Revolt around 2nd Century BC. In our passage, we find Jesus walking around Solomon’s Colonnade or Solomon’s Porch. This structure dated to the time of Herod but was named for Solomon. It was where the king would issue judgments and rulings. It was also a place, especially during the winter, where teachers would teach from in order to have some protection from the elements.
When the religious leaders approached Jesus, they wanted Jesus to plainly tell them that he was the long-expected Messiah. To us, this might seem like a simple case of curiosity or a desire for confirmation, but there is something else going on. The term “Messiah” was filled with expectations from one’s theological viewpoint. The religious leaders who approached Jesus wanted Jesus on their own terms.
In doing so, they could not hear Jesus’ true testimony about his identity as the Son of God. Jesus told them they could not hear from him, even though his miracles were a witness to his nature and purpose. They were distracted by their own ideas and desires to the point that it prevented them from hearing from Jesus.
We make a lot of negative points about the religious leaders, and rightly so, but sometimes we don’t always take the time to contextualize them into our time to truly understand them. They were the people who went to church every week. They were the people who held strong to what faith and the church has always looked like. They were the people who believed strongly that worship must look a certain way for it to be holy. Anything outside of their ideas of desires would be considered as not truthful or disservice to true worship. In many ways they are us. Their religiosity and views of what was and what is often distracted them from seeing that who stood before them was the same of God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the person of Jesus.
Like the religious leaders of Jesus’ time, our own distractions can take our attention away from hearing Jesus’ voice. This should not come as a major surprise in our 24/7, always on the go society. There are distractions all around us, and they captivate us around two major points.
First, we have our personal distractions. These are things in our lives that prevent us from hearing God’s voice or spending time with the Lord. I love noise. Most of the time, I have to have noise in the background when I am working on a sermon whether it is music or the television. Often that noise becomes overwhelming and it distracts me. Before I know it, I am more engaged with the music in my ears or the images on the television than I am on what God is saying to me.
I think this is true for all of us. Many of the things that captivates our attention are good things. There is nothing wrong with sports, our jobs, spending time with our family, or even playing a game on the computer every now and then. These are mostly good things. We have to be careful, because we can easily give too much attention to these good things. Each of these good things demand access to our time and energy. When we give these good things too much time, it comes at the cost of spending time with the Lord through worship, service, discipleship, and many other avenues.
If you are like me, though, when the distractions become a big part of our life we tend to make excuses for them. One of my favorite lines is, “Well, I grew up in the newsroom so I cannot handle the silence well.” True, but the real story is that I get easily distracted and I have to work hard to maintain my focus after some time.
We all make excuses to protect our distractions. We’ll say things like we don’t need to be in church to have a relationship with God. We’ll say things like I prayed before a game so I’m good this week. We’ll even say something akin to as long as I am saved then nothing else matters. All those things are the lines we say to protect the distractions that captivate our interest.
The other place of distraction is often in regards to our view of the church. We get distracted by the way things have always been or the way we think things should always be. We allow the decisions of the past to dictate how we view the decisions of the present. We’ll say that the way we did ministry 20 years ago should be the exact same way we should do ministry today. We will even get so discouraged about our future, that we will get distracted by our own beliefs that we are too small to make a difference. Like our personal distractions, each of these statements are nothing more than what we say to protect our comforts and the status quo.
Both our personal and church distractions come with the cost of not spending quality time to hear from Jesus. We cannot truly grow in our relationship with the Lord if we do not spend time listening for the Lord’s voice and seeking his guidance and care.
In our Scripture reading, Jesus engages the religious leaders after identifying himself as the Good Shepherd and the one who will always be there for his followers and care for them. Jesus wants nothing more than to be the source of our hope and love. Jesus wants nothing more than to give us direction for our life. Jesus wants nothing more than for us to hear his voice calling us and leading us into the places the Lord knows we can go. We cannot hear from Jesus if we are too distracted by the things of this world and not focused on the things God desires for us.
So, how can we hear from God and hear Jesus speaking to us today? First, if we want to have our attention on the things God wants for us then we have to be intentional in seeking the Lord. We have to take time to be in a relationship with God. No one else will make that time for you each week and each day. What everyone else will do is try to take that time away from you. Only you can make a priority in your life for worship, for discipleship, to be part of a community of faith.
We also have to be willing to say no to a lot of good things in life. That word, no, might be the hardest word in the English language to say. To say it means we are making a choice and deciding against something. We often think that saying no is about not doing some bad things, but that is not always the case. Often what we have to say no to are some really good things and things we enjoy.
If we really want to be attentive to hearing God’s voice, then we have to be willing to set boundaries in our life with our time so we can hear from God. We cannot say yes to everything in life and expect to have a joyous and growing relationship with the Lord. We have to be willing to say no to things, and even to ourselves, so we can have the time for worship, for discipleship, and to hear from God.
Each of us have to truly think about where we want our focus to be. Every day comes with its challenges and distractions that will try to keep us from our faith and relationship with the Lord. The true followers of Christ are those who hear the Lord’s voice and seek to be in a relationship with God that is transformative for our lives and the world. My deepest hope is that this is the type of relationship – this powerful, loving, grace-filled life – that we want with the Lord.
So, may we turn out the distractions of our days and our lives so that we may focus entirely upon the Lord’s voice and what God desires for us each day.