March 9, 2014

Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7
Matthew 4:1-11

“Avoiding Distraction; Living into God’s Purpose”

As we began the forty-day journey of Lent this week, we may have decided to take on a Lenten discipline. Some of you may have decided to give something up, like coffee, or chocolate, or video games, or taking the elevator (as my sister once did). Some of you may have decided to take something on, like praying or reading scripture every day, or attending worship or bible study every week, or giving more of your time, talent, or money to do some good in the world.

You may be thinking today about how you are going to avoid the temptation to break your Lenten discipline. How are you going to make yourself get up earlier in the morning to spend time with God in prayer each day? How are you going to stop yourself from giving in, and buying and eating the Easter chocolate that is already in the stores? How are you going to stay firm in your commitment to pray, worship, and give more to God with all the many other demands on your time and attention?

Although temptation and sin are the usual ways of describing this dilemma, I wonder if “distraction” is a better word for what so often goes wrong in our attempts to follow Jesus more closely during Lent and throughout the year. If you’re anything like me, distraction can get in the way of getting a lot of things done.

For example, on Friday evening I meant to go home after finishing with the World Day of Prayer Service and setting things up ready for this morning. But I got distracted. Mark Behrend had given me a tin whistle to try out for next Saturday’s St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser, and I thought I’d just take a few minutes to look up a fingering chart online. When I started looking, I found a whole series of Irish music lessons for learning to play the tin whistle, and I got so wrapped up in it that I didn’t get out of here until around 8 pm.

I’ve come to realize that if I have a really important project that needs to be completed, the best thing to do is to remove all the possible distractions. I usually need to write sermons at home so that the phone ringing and people dropping by to see me in the office don’t keep distracting me from the writing.

I usually need to do my reading for school in the library, so that church work (and particularly email) don’t keep interrupting the flow of my reading or researching. And other times, when I should be spending quality time with my husband, I know that it would be smart for us both to put away our cell phones and computers so that we can pay attention to each other.

The pace of life has become so quick, and the quantity of information and communication to which we are exposed today is so immense, that I think “distraction” has become one of our biggest problems as individuals, families, and churches. And in this context, Lent can be, for us, a time to re-focus our attention on God and God’s will for our lives. It can be a time to slow down, to limit the distracting input, and to look to God for direction and strength.

As people of faith, we believe that God has a purpose for our lives. Sometimes we call it a mission. Sometimes we call it a vocation – a calling. But the point is that our lives have meaning because God has a purpose for us – a purpose for us as a group (as a congregation, as a church), and a purpose for us as individuals and families. And if we have a purpose, then distraction is a problem when it keeps us from accomplishing that purpose – the mission God would have us do.

Our Genesis reading points out that human beings in general have a purpose. The story goes that “the Lord God took the person and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it.” We are supposed to be farmers. We are supposed to be stewards of the Earth. We are supposed to look after the world God made. Another translation of the Hebrew words, “to till it and keep it,” could be “to serve it and protect it.”

But as the story continues, the human beings get distracted from their purpose of tilling and keeping the earth, and they start serving and protecting themselves instead. They have plenty of food to eat already, but the fruit of this special tree looks better, more appealing, and if the reports are true, it may even have the added benefit of making them wise. And so they eat it and become even more distracted: Oh no, we’re naked! We better cover ourselves up. We better hide. We better serve and protect ourselves.

The Gospels assure us that Jesus understands what it is like to be human – to be like Adam and Eve – and to be tempted to distraction from our true purpose and mission. Today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew comes from a turning point in Jesus’ life. This is before Jesus begins to preach, and teach, and heal, and perform miracles. This is before Jesus embraces his mission in the world to proclaim the Kingdom of God and enact God’s love for the people in word and deed.

The only thing that has really happened so far is Jesus’ baptism. On that day, when Jesus came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” And that’s when Jesus is led by the Spirit out into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Jesus knows that he is God’s Beloved Son. Jesus knows that he has received the gift of God’s Holy Spirit. On some level, I think Jesus knows that God has special plans for him, but he’s got to decide what to do about it. Perhaps he should turn the stones into bread, serving his own desire to be fed and nourished. Perhaps he should test God’s love for him, throwing himself off the top of the temple and claiming God’s protection of him as the first priority. Maybe he should claim all the kingdoms of the world – after all, he is God’s Beloved Son, and all this could be his.

But these thoughts and temptations are a distraction from Jesus’ true purpose, from his mission in the world, and he knows it. After pushing aside the distractions, Jesus receives the help and direction of the angels. And as the story continues, he is beginning to fulfill his true calling – proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven as come near,” and gathering disciples to work with him in fishing for people.

I wonder how many of us have a good sense of what our true calling really is. What is our vocation – the mission that God has prepared for each one of us, and the purpose from which we should avoid becoming distracted? It’s not only clergy that receive a calling from God, you know. And it’s not only missionaries who sense that God has a particular purpose for their lives.

Like Jesus, when we are baptized, we receive the assurance that we belong to God, and we are loved by God, and that the Holy Spirit has been poured out and settled on us. We are God’s people, and that means that God has a purpose for our lives.

In general terms, we know that our purpose is to serve and protect the Earth, and to share God’s love in word and deed. But specifically, each one of us needs to figure out God’s particular calling for our lives. It’s not just a matter of choosing a job or a career, but it’s responding to a call to dedicate our lives to the purposes God has for us – in work, in family, in the community and in the church.

Earlier this week, the Session received a letter from the Principal of the Presbyterian College in Montreal. One might guess that it would be about students preparing to be ministers in the church, but instead it was regarding young Presbyterians figuring out God’s calling for their lives.

The letter began like this: “To Ministers and Sessions, Many young people struggle to understand their vocation in life. Presbyterian College is glad to announce that on June 10-13, we will host a one week conference for up to fifteen young people in their twenties who are interested in exploring their dependable strengths; each person’s special talent for excellence…

“Participants will: learn to identify their own unique dependable strengths, explore what it means to use our gifts for God’s purposes in the world, consider how we can use our gifts within the church, and encourage and support one another within Christian community.”

Our Session agreed that this program sounds like a wonderful opportunity for young adults to consider what God may be calling them to do with their lives. Although the seminary would likely be happy to identify a few young people who are called to become ministers or missionaries, the purpose is much broader than that.

The program is aimed at assisting people in discovering and using their own particular strengths and gifts to serve God’s purposes in the world and in the church – creating teachers and scientists, doctors and nurses, computer techs and trades people, researchers and bus drivers, waiters and store clerks, managers and accountants, husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, grandparents and aunts and uncles and friends, who all have a sense of God’s purpose for their lives and a commitment to use their gifts and strengths to serve God’s purposes in the world and in the church.

As we begin this season of reflection and re-focusing our attention on God and God’s purposes for us, we might particularly want to pray for the young adults in our congregation as they explore what God is calling them to do with their lives. In particular, let’s pray for those who are struggling for direction, and for those who are feeling anxious about not having the answers come to them easily.

We might also want to pray for one another – including those of us who seem to have our occupations and roles in life pretty much determined by now. We might pray that God will help us, during this season of Lent, to live out our vocations more fully and deeply. We might pray that God will keep us from being distracted by the busyness of life, by ambition or self-interest, by greed or fear or anything that keeps us from the true purpose that God has for our lives.

If we have given something up for Lent, or taken on a spiritual discipline for this season, let’s not let these things distract us from our true purpose, but use them to help us pay special attention to God and God’s will for our lives.

And as we celebrate Holy Communion together today, let us focus on Jesus who is the host at the meal. Let us remember him and how deeply and fully he loves us, even to the point of giving himself for us. And as Jesus gives himself for us, may we be nourished and strengthened to give ourselves for others, according to God’s will and purpose. Amen.