Putting First Things First
Based on Amos 8:1-12, Colossians 1:15-28, Luke 10:38-42
I think that it goes without saying that all of our lives are full to over-flowing. Many in this Sanctuary have their days filled from before dawn to well after dusk. This includes the folks who have retired from the work-a-day world and who tell me that they are busier than ever; many wonder openly to me how they ever had time to hold down a job in the first place! Yes, most of us have more things to do in one 24-hour period than we can get done. It’s often necessary to make “to-do” or “honey-do” lists to try to keep all the balls stay in the air. Because of all this, the companies that make time organizers and apps, and the consultants who sell time efficiency programs will probably never run out of work trying to help us all get a handle on our busyness. Given all the things going on in our lives, it is difficult sometimes to discern what to focus on first and foremost.
I was discerning on these truths as I was being led in the creation of this reflection. While deep in thought, I was reminded of a YouTube video entitled the “Jar of Life”; some of you may have seen this. The “Jar of Life” is an empty, see-through container like they package party sized snacks. Around the jar are bowls containing medium sized river rocks, pea gravel and sand. The sand represents the unimportant things in our lives that takes up our time. The pea gravel are those things that are important, but not critical or life-defining. The river rocks are those things that are most important to our health and well-being. The container is the amount of time that we have allotted to our lives. We have to choose the order in which each substance goes into our time jar – sand, pea gravel, or river rocks. One thing’s for certain, we’re only given a finite amount of empty jar to fit in all of the given material.
Our scriptures for today help us to learn about what happened to our spiritual ancestors when they focused on things other than the LORD versus when they focused appropriately on the God we see in Jesus and what he had to say. Let us go to God now in prayer, asking for help to put our spiritual lives in order that we might focus on the first things, first…
The prophet Amos is on a roll…continuing the strident diatribe that began last week (and pretty much continues throughout the book). God is telling the prophet that the season for the Kingdom of Israel is about to end – in words attributed to God, “…I will never again pass them by….” God speaks of the many ways that the people have been unjust to one another and strong have oppressed the weak. God’s consequences are harsh and the future bleak. In verse 10, God even says that the people will (in local parlance) “be snatched bald” and have to wear sacks for clothes. The real consequence, however, comes in verses 11 and 12 where God states that a famine will come to the land, a famine “…of hearing the words of the LORD.…” The people will wander looking for the word of the LORD but will never find it. Yet even with this threat, the people don’t put the LORD first and repent.
Contrast the people and leadership of the Kingdom of Israel and the new believers in Colossae. In this opening chapter, the Apostle continues in the vein that we heard last week, telling all who will hear this letter read that Christ is the first among all things: “…He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything….” The Christ has reconciled us all through his death and resurrection and we can thus be presented holy, blameless and irreproachable. With a caveat, “…provided that you continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard,…” Did you catch that? We have the ability to come forgiven and redeemed if we continue to put the Christ, who is in all things – first in all things.
We pick up the story of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke today as he is in the house of friends in the town of Bethany, just two miles from Jerusalem. It is a scant four verses long, but it contains a powerful lesson. Its power comes from the fact that we, all of us believers in Jesus, live in a “Martha and Mary” world, don’t we?! On the one hand are the millions of things we have on our “to-do” lists, and on the other we are presented the choice to sit and listen to what Jesus has to teach us. Most of the people in this County and Country make the choices not to be in church, not to study God’s inspired word, and not to be in community with others who are focused on trying to live into their God-image. There are even those who regularly attend churches who choose to limit their time with Jesus to an hour a week, once or twice a month, when outside life events don’t come first. Jesus’ response to Martha calls to all of us in our busyness, “…you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing….”
The cathedral in Milan, Italy, is the second largest church in that country and the third largest church in the world. It took almost 600 years to build and the photographs of it show that it is an awesome tribute to both God and to human creativity. It is also a sacred building which was constructed in a manner to focus one’s thoughts and vision on something greater than ourselves. Case-in-point, over the triple doorways of the cathedral entrance there are three inscriptions spanning the splendid arches. Over one is carved a beautiful wreath of roses, and underneath it is the inscription, “All that which pleases is but for a moment.” Over the other is carved a cross, and there are inscribed the words, “All that which troubles us is but for a moment.” But underneath the great central entrance to the main aisle is the teaching, “That only is important which is eternal.” If we focus our limited lifetimes first on these three truths, we will not be as troubled by worldly trifles, not be as interested in the passing distractions or fads of the moment. We will focus spiritual lives first and foremost on Jesus’ words, “there is need of only one thing….”
Brothers and sister in Christ, our time here is limited, it is finite, it will end at some unknown point with our deaths…every one of us. The people that I talk to who are nearing that transition point in their lives never speak of wanting more things, more money, more conquests, more work or more Facebook friends or posts. They always seek more time to put right failed relationships, ask for forgiveness for wrongs done, to wish that they had spent more time at the feet of Jesus. This time at the feet of Jesus is my way of categorizing those things like wishing for more time with beloved family and friends, being on vacation, making memories that are positive and healing, doing good for others in need, being people seeking unity and redemption instead of division. These are certainly the things that we can learn when we sit at Jesus’ feet and listen.
Yes, our “Jar of Life” is going to be filled. In my life I hear from people that their days are so full that they don’t have the capacity to stop and consider what is most important. They act like first responders, running from one crisis to the next (some of their own making), never stopping to evaluate what is most important in their lives. They might focus on their financial health (as we have done with our Youth over the last month – and as some of you have done with the adult Dave Ramsey program), but still the minutia and distractions rule their lives. It is like putting the sand into our Jar of Life first. When we put the unimportant things in our lives first, they use up our time and do not ever make us feel like we’ve accomplished anything. They are idols that waste the time we have and never give us peace. Same with the pea gravel of important but not ultimate things – if we fill our jars first with these, we will not fill our lives with the most important things for us and for our world.
Only by first filling our jars of life with the river rocks, the most important things (e.g., building healthy and equitable relationships, addressing social injustices, attending to our spiritual growth and discipleship, spreading the good news) will we find the way to live truly fruitful lives. By attending to the most important things first, then we have room for the less important and possibly for some of the unimportant. The only way we find the ability to identify the most important things is by spending time at the feet of Jesus, alone and with other believers. Jesus tells us again today that we need not be distracted and worried about so many things in our lives. There is need of only one thing – that “thing” is to put Jesus, the “firstborn of all creation”, first in our lives. Amen and amen!