Sermon: Fine-tune Your Focus - 2 Corinthians 4

Need a little fine-tuning of your own focus? Follow the example of Paul, the most focused man the first generation of Christians ever knew.

Scripture: 2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Introduction

It took six years of work, but scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory have created the world's most sensitive telescope. How sensitive? Imagine an astronaut standing on the moon, 250,000 miles from earth, smiling for the camera. This telescope, say the scientists, could tell us if she were wiggling her pinky! Such an instrument requires a vacuum-sealed chamber and the ability to focus within one tenth the width of a hydrogen atom. In plain terms, that's about one millionth of the width of the thickest human hair. The purpose of this amazing telescope - called the Microarcsecond Metrology Testbed, is to search for the tell-tell movements of earth-sized planets that might be orbiting around stars in distant galaxies, all tens of light years away. The benefits of such microscopic fine-tuning are limitless, and include the possibility of identifying distant planets that sustain life. (Source: "Tiny Measurement Gives Big Boost to Planet Hunt," July 22, 2003, http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/features.cfm?feature=2)

Whether you're trying to find a planet that's trillions of miles from earth, or simply trying to read the morning newspaper, the benefits of fine tuning your focus are obvious. You might put on a pair of glasses to help bring the morning paper into focus. Or perhaps it's a pair of contact lens, to help with the driving. You might find your research for medical purposes easier with a simple turn of a microscope's sensitive dials. And spiritually? A little fine-tuning could bring a host of answers into sharp focus, very quickly.

Scripture passage background

When Paul wrote his church in Corinth, he took a moment to reflect on his own life and ministry. It had been a difficult journey, to say the least. Paul had battled unbelievers who fought the Gospel message, health and aging challenges, great persecution, and the constant wear-and-tear that left him "wasting away (vs. 16)." At the very beginning of Chapter 4, and near the end of it, Paul writes, "We do not lose heart." But what a battle it had been, to not lose heart! The only way Paul had managed to keep fighting was to sharpen his focus, every day.

Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Need a little fine-tuning of your own focus? Follow the example of Paul, the most focused man the first generation of Christians ever knew.

I. Choose the right finish line

Ronn Bailey made the sports headlines in 2005 when he became the first amateur American to enter the Dakar Rally, the longest, most dangerous off-road race in the world. At 54, Bailey had to talk his way into the race, spend $300,000 for his custom-built car, and line up with 1,400 other competitors for the 7,000-mile race. Among the obstacles? Sandstorms in the Sahara Desert, civil strive, bandits, and land mines. In 2005, only half of those who entered finished the race, and five people died, including two professional racers. Though he trained hard for the race, Bailey and his co-driver immediately ran into a sandstorm, and shortly thereafter, ran out of gas. For five days they lived on one day's worth of water, and a single sack lunch. Finally, someone arrived with some gas, and Bailey was on his way again. With a missed checkpoint, he was disqualified from the race, but he finished the course, anyway. By the end of the experience, Bailey wasn't talking so much about the finish line he'd missed, as the finish line he'd misinterpreted. "I know now that Dakar is not a race," he said. "It's a test of a man's character."

(Source: "The Pursuit of Extreme Happiness," Eilene Zimmerman, CNNMoney.com, Nov. 15, 2005.)

If you're racing toward Dakar in a 7,000-mile endurance test, losing focus on the correct finish line could cost you your life. But losing focus on the finish line of your life's purpose could be fatal to your spiritual health, too.

Paul's eyes were on "eternal glory," even as he tackled several worthy goals in his present life. He was starting churches, spreading the message, and helping form an organized theology for the first-century church. But all of it, he said, was based on his finish line in eternity. "We fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen," he wrote to the Corinthians.

Perhaps you've been to a funeral recently, or perhaps there's one coming up in the next few days. Notice this about a cemetery, in particular. Everything you can see is temporary. The trees may have been there for decades, even hundreds of years. But no tree last forever. The buildings and streets appear rock-solid. But no roads or buildings have lasted forever, and none will. And people? The cemetery itself puts an exclamation point on the fragile nature of life.

But in that same environment is ample evidence of the unseen. For the grief-stricken, God may be very present to those who believe in Him, but He is, of course, unseen. Heaven is unseen, and so is hell. Eternity isn't visible. And most certainly, the person you may have loved greatly is unseen. The body looks familiar, but the twinkle in the eye, the laughter, the very spirit of the person you loved, is very much not there. And yet all that is unseen, in that cemetery setting, is actually what lasts forever!

This letter was written by Southern Baptist Missionary to Iraq, Karen Watson, prior to leaving for the Middle East. The letter was dated March 7, 2003. Karen was killed, along with four other missionaries, on March 15, 2004.

Dear Pastor Phil and Pastor Roger:

You should only be opening this letter in the event of my death.

When God calls there are no regrets. I tried to share my heart with you as much as possible, my heart for the nations. I wasn't called to a place. I was called to him. To obey was my objective, to suffer was expected, his glory my reward, his glory my reward.

One of the most important things to remember right now is to preserve the work . . . I am writing this as if I am still working with my people group.

I thank you all so much for your prayers and support. Surely your reward in heaven will be great. Thank you for investing in my life and spiritual well-being. Keep sending missionaries out. Keep raising up fine young pastors.

In regards to any service, keep it small and simple. Yes, simply, just preach the gospel . . . Be bold and preach the life-saving, life-changing, forever-eternal gospel. Give glory and honor to our Father.

The Missionary Heart:
Care more than some think is wise.
Risk more than some think is safe.
Dream more than some think is practical.
Expect more than some think is possible.

I was called not to comfort or success but to obedience….There is no joy outside of knowing Jesus and serving him. I love you two and my church family.

In his care,
Salaam,
Karen

(Source: "Keep Sending Missionaries," Baptist Press, March 24, 2004)

II. Accept the imperfect nature of this life

Paul may have focused on the unseen, but the things he could see were dominating his Day-Timer.

Verse 8: He was hard pressed on every side, and perplexed.
Verse 9: He was persecuted, and struck down.
Vs. 16: He was wasting away.

The visual of the chapter? "We have these treasures in jars of clay." (4:7) Pottery is good for a season, but eventually, broken. Paul would have known, more than we do, how fragile such vessels were. And once they were broken, there was no possible repair. Our bodies, Paul was saying, have a one-shot chance at fulfilling our spiritual purpose before becoming cracked, broken, and unusable.

Point of application? If you're waiting on the perfect job, perfect spouse, perfect team, perfect church, or even the perfect commute to work, you're going to wait a long, long time. So many people seem so frustrated by the imperfections of their surroundings, simply because they haven't grasped the fact that life is going to be filled with imperfections.

A handful of people are known by the circle around them as people with "short fuses." Like sticks of dynamite without enough lead time, they'll blow up quickly, sometimes over what appears to be the least king of thing. The message for folks with short fuses? There are longer fuses available, and the rest of us really need you to get one!

There are going to be days when the toast is burned, the traffic jams and an employee gets sick. There will be angry customers, demanding bosses, and golf balls that go out of bounds. That's really just the way life works.

David became the greatest king in Israel's history, but if you'll look closely at the story, you'll see that his core group was initially made up of people in distress, in debt and discontented. And there were 400 of them! (1 Samuel 22:1-2) If David had waited on more perfect individuals to form his leadership team, we'd have never heard of him! Instead, David worked with an imperfect team, helped them focus on their purpose, and became the greatest king in Israel's history.

The person who can accept the imperfect nature of this life will be happier, healthier, and more productive. Fine-tuning is required, but so is a fine attitude, right from the start.

If your church disappoints you, the Great Commission remains. Don't allow your focus to drop from the great command to the great complaints.

If a friend, a child, or a spouse disappoints you, love will still remain the greatest attribute within your control. (1 Corinthians 13)

If your plan hits a snag along the way, your mission is to stay the course, especially if you're confident God has directed your path.

When Paul was in prison, he heard reports that some who enjoyed freedom were preaching against him. What was he going to do, in light of such discouraging news? What kind of positive spin could you put on such a report, something that would justify a little short-fused anger?

Paul told the Philippians: "At least the gospel is being preached!" (Philippians 1:18)

To discover that life isn't going to be perfect is to make one of the most important steps toward maturity, and productivity. Beyond that step, however, is one that will take a lifetime to master.

III. Fine tune your focus on Christ every day

Paul says this: "… Inwardly we are being renewed day by day." (4:16) It was important for Paul to know that the fine-tuning of his faith would be a daily process. It's critically important to realize that Paul had no intention of being saved day by day. His salvation had been settled outside the Damascus Gate, as soon as he recognized Jesus as "Lord." Ever since that day he had been in the process of discipleship, growing slowly and steadily with his study of the scripture, his questions of more mature believers, and with his own experiences of sharing his story.

In this chapter alone, he mentions the work of

  • Renouncing secret and shameful ways (4:2)
  • Fighting deception and distortion (4:2)
  • Preaching for God's glory, and not his own (4:5)
  • And becoming a light in his culture's darkness (4:6).
  • In other writings, Paul confesses his ongoing battle with temptation (Romans 7), his loneliness (2 Timothy 4:9-13), and his failing health (2 Cor. 4:16)

For Paul, all of it was the "fine-tuning" process that happened every day.

Racing teams on the NASCAR circuit have precision-laced pit crews that change tires, refuel their cars, and make tiny adjustments in less than 15 seconds multiple times a race. During the race, the goal would never be to re-build or replace an engine, but rather, to fine-tune the car. To re-build during the race is to commit to losing the race.

Piano tuners don't have to re-build the shell of the instrument to make great music. Instead, they take painstaking trouble to return each note to its optimum sound.

Periodic updates on your computer won't re-create your hard drive. Instead, they add to or change minute portions of your existing computer programs on a regular basis.

And of course, a pilot doesn't attach new wings during flight. Instead, the course corrections will be made in very small, safe increments.

In all cases, fine-tuning deals with what is already there. The good news for someone dissatisfied with his or her own faith experience? You don't have to rebuild your entire faith - or "get saved again" - in order to find a sharper focus.

You and I are in a race, though Paul's racing analogies in Philippians 3:13-14, and 2 Timothy 4:7, probably weren't those that would include a NASCAR pit crew. But perhaps the pit crew analogy works best. After all, you are surrounded by a team ready to help with the daily fine-tuning, and the technology of our day means we can master this work faster than any generation before us. Ours is the first generation of Christians to have easy access to multiple translations of the Bible, and endless study helps to understand the ancient words. Only since 1948 has there been a modern-day Israel in place, modeling so much of the Jewish heritage that shapes both the Old and New Testament. Armed with instant communication tools, we can understand more about the words of the Bible than any generation of Christians in history.

What happens if we don't give attention to the daily nature of the fine-tuning process? Ask a racing team with a missing pit crew, or play a piano that hasn't been fine-tuned in a while. With a car that can't win, or a piano that can't please, you'll get the message in short order!

If you want to do your best in the race set before you, the best effort is required, and it'll be needed every day.

Conclusion

It goes down as the most famous halftime speech of all time, when Knute Rockne looked his Notre Dame football players in the eye and challenged them to win the game for George Gipp, a former player who had died of pneumonia. "None of you ever knew George Gipp," comes the speech in All American, the 1940 film. "It was long before your time. But you all know what a tradition he is at Notre Dame. And the last thing he said to me: 'Rock,' he said, 'sometime, when the team is up against it, and the breaks are beating the boys, tell 'em to go out there with all they got and win just one for the Gipper.'"

Great speech, obviously, and thankfully, the Notre Dame players won the game and put a nice ending on the story. However, if you've ever been in a football locker room at halftime, you know such speeches are few and far between. In reality, the locker room can be a quiet place. You'll see a couple of players getting attention from a trainer. Several more huddle with a particular coach and talk strategy. The coaching coordinators discuss what they've seen from the press box, high above the field, and what they've observed at field level. Mainly, players rest. They get plenty to drink. And they think about the second half of the game, and what they're going to do once play resumes.

Fine-tuning is rarely a noisy process, NASCAR pit crews excepted. The better example is a piano tuner working in solitude, straining in a quiet room to hear the purity of each note. Or perhaps it's the surprising reflection found in a sweaty locker room, as a team refocuses on the job ahead.

And perhaps that's one of the most important concepts of fine-tuning. This process requires a bit of time, some space, and a safe place for reflection. Before returning to Egypt for his "second half," Moses was "fined tuned" with a 40-year sabbatical. In reality, he had no idea that God was using those 40 years to prepare him for the last, and most important season of his life. Jesus often withdrew to the quiet places, for the specific purposes of prayer and reflection. Paul took three years to reflect upon a new theology after his salvation experience near Damascus (see Galatians 1:18). More than likely, with such examples laying before us in Scripture, you'll need some time and solitude, too.

Whether you're at a literal halfway point in your life, or whether you're just feeling a need to reflect upon your "second half," the same practices would be of immense value. Find some space, take some time, and ask the big questions about your life's significance. And when you find the answer, you'll have all the motivation you need to play your heart out, in the second half.

Andy Cook is the pastor of Shirley Hills Baptist Church in, Warner Robins, Georgia.