How God grabs our attention. Midnight communion 2020

I’ve recently read a book ‘Stand out of our light', by James Williams 

It is about how social media - which, don’t get me wrong, offers so much - grabs our attention and often takes us away from the things that we would want to focus our attention on.

So for instance, as part of my preparation on this, I needed to check a fact on YouTube, and then saw a link to a short video with Mr Bean, Rowan Atkinson. I was caught. And I clicked it!

That is what the social media platforms - vkontakt, facebook, YouTube, instagram, google or yandex are - in fact - trying to do. They want us on their platforms and to stay on their platforms, because while you are there you are giving them your attention, you are giving them information about yourself, and they can use that information to target you with ads that, as they get to know you, are being designed for you.

There is no evil genius behind it. There are algorithms. Algorithms which notice that you click on videos showing Mr Bean doing silly things, and so they’ll offer you click bait of more videos of Mr Bean doiing silly things. Algorithms which notice that you are drawn to conspiracy theories - right wing or left wing - and so they’ll offer you click bait of more of those. Algorithms which notice that you click on things which you would prefer other people did not know that you click on, and yes, that information will also go into the pot, and they will offer you click bait.

Well we live in a world which is trying to attract our attention. Social media has just taken the whole thing up a level or two. But adverts are trying to attract our attention. News programmes are trying to catch our attention. That girl or boy is trying to catch our attention, or we are trying to catch their attention. Politicians are trying to catch our attention. Preachers are trying to catch our attention.

I am trying to catch your attention.

And - believe it or not - God is trying to catch our attention.

And God is not beyond using click bait! Good click bait. He is not beyond using something to make us curious.

There is a story in the bible about a man called Moses.
God wants to speak to him, so shows him a bush which burns but is not consumed by the fire. And Moses goes over to investigate.

And in the story of the birth of Jesus, God - I guess you could say - uses click bait.
He uses a star, and the wise men notice the star and take the bait. They want to find out more, and they travel to Jerusalem.

He uses angels in the sky appearing to shepherds - and he tells them about a child wrapped in linen clothes and lying in a manger.
And they take the bait: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place”

But there is a big difference between why we try to catch the attention of others, and why God wants to attract our attention.

Most of the time, we want to catch the attention of the other, for our own gratification - to get them to do something that will benefit us.
God wants to attract our attention because he loves us, because he has done something for us, and because he wants us to know his presence, his peace and his joy.

He has something to say to us:

He wants to say to us, who have forgotten him, who have become blind to him and deaf to him, who have given up on him, that he has not given up on us. He still loves us. He opens his arms to us in forgiveness and acceptance. He wants to show us righteousness, the right way to live - so that we are not slaves to the instant, and to our passions - but so that we can be free to give our attention to the good and the true, free to receive love and to give love, free to sacrifice ourselves for the sake of others, and to serve and to become beautiful people on the inside. He wants to show us how he is faithful to his promises (for over 2000 years God had promised his people Israel that one day the Messiah would come, and now it is happening), and he wants to give us a certain hope of his coming kingdom of joy and life and love and abundance and peace and mercy.

God has something to say to us, and he wants us to listen.

But that is not all.

The problem is that many of us stop there - and in stopping there, in listening to the message, all that happens is that we become proud and arrogant and think that we are superior to others - because we know the message and they do not, because we are in and they are out. 'Knowledge’, as St Paul wrote, ‘puffs up’.

So God does not just want us to listen to his message.

God wants to attract our attention, so that we - who in our attention are zipping off here, there and everywhere - will, in our minds, focus on him, and come to him, come to meet him, come to encounter him.
The eternal came from heaven to earth in order that we who are from the earth, who are of the earth, might meet with the eternal.
And it is that meeting, that encounter, which will transform us - either for condemnation or for salvation, for eternal life.

So the shepherds and the wise men do not just learn from the star, or learn from the angels, that a great king or a saviour has been born. 
They go to meet him.
And when they meet him, it changes them.
The wise men kneel down and worship him, and the shepherds walk away praising God.

They take the bait, they have gone to see the baby born in the stable, and he now commands their attention. The spotlight falls on him, and they cannot see anything else apart from him - or perhaps, more accurately, they cannot see anything else except in his light. 
And they are filled with joy. 

The great icon writers get this. The light portrayed within the icon does not come from outside the icon, but from the presence of the person who is the focus of the icon. 

How does God get our attention today?

How does God get the attention of people who think they are sophisticated and that they do not need him, who have made themselves their own centre and reference point, who have become blind and deaf to him?

Well there is the click bait, the things that grab our curiosity today, that draw us in. 
It might be an attractive website, or a book, or a preacher. 
It might be a wonder, a person who has been transformed, an act of gratuitous kindness.

But God, in his mercy, has another way of attracting our attention. 

He can, in his mercy, disrupt our lives, make us realise that we are not in control, let alone immortal; strip away from us the things that we rely on.

And there are those great disruptive moments in our lives

Having a baby
Getting divorced
A business deal that goes disastrously wrong
Being made redundant, losing our income, and not knowing how we will survive
Bereavement and the loss of one who we love
There is sickness and there is the plague.

They are crisis moments - in the fullest sense of the word 'crisis', which in Greek means judgement. They can make us turn from God or they can make us turn to God - and only we can make that decision

We can continue to think that we can live without God; or we can rail against God - like the self-tortured Ivan in Brothers Karamazov - or we can cry out to him for mercy, for that encounter with God - in which, in the spotlight of his presence, everything and everyone else, loses its power to grab our attention.

Over this Advent period I have been struck by a very early Christian image of the nativity. It comes from the mid C4th. A shepherd stands and gazes at the baby in the manger. It took me a week or so to notice that it is not just him looking at the baby, but that the baby is looking at him. 

The story is told of the man who used to go into an empty church, sit down and stay there for an hour or two, and then quietly leave. The vicar said to him, ‘You must have a great deal to pray about’. ‘Oh far from it’, says the man, ‘I come here and sit down and I look at Him and He looks at me’.

I pray that this Christmas, amidst the many things clamouring for your attention, including the mobile phone, that there will be something that grabs you and draws you - not just to hear the message of Christmas - but to actually meet with the eternal Son of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born on that first Christmas night.


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