Audio Currently Unavailable

Hey! Pay Attention

The message of this passage from Ephesians is a straightforward one: The followers of Christ must be careful to live a Christian life.

Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time.

Pay attention, the writer of the letter tells his friends in Ephesus. Pay attention, pay close attention. Pay attention closely and pay attention to things close by. Pay attention to the important things and, indeed, to all things. Pay attention now. Keep paying attention.

My fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Kessler, was a woman who required her class to pay attention, in all things, perhaps because she had paid attention to this passage in Ephesians. She was, after all, a woman of faith and a faithful woman. She was upright. She was also stern; but she was not, it turned out, unforgiving. Her class began each morning with singing:

Good morning to you,
Good morning to you.
We're all in our places with sunshiny faces.
Good morning to you.
Good morning to you.

Whatever the weather, we'll make it together.
Good morning to you.
Good morning to you.

The class continued with verses to learn--verses of Scripture, almost always from the Psalms. Mrs. Kessler could imagine in 1956 that she had Jewish students. She could not imagine that she had either Muslim students or atheist students, and, probably, she did not.

There were also verses, though of quite another sort, to write. These were the result of not paying attention, writing 50 times or 100 times or even 150 times, staying in at recess to write over and over and over again, "I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class."

At least that was my experience. I was not the most attentive of Mrs. Kessler's students. I would write at night in anticipation of what was surely to come -- and so as not to miss recess -- "I will not talk in class. I will not talk in class." In groups of 50.

This writing at night was one of those notions that seemed like a good idea at the time. The class would go out for recess. Mrs. Kessler would go out somewhere. I would wait five minutes or four or three, place my punishment on her desk and run out to join my friends. Then one day -- no doubt a 150 day when I'd waited maybe two minutes -- I ran. And as I ran out, I ran into Mrs. Kessler on the stairs. I didn't know which of us was more surprised. I suspect now she wasn't surprised at all. "Richard, have you written your sentences?" "Yes, ma'am." It was the truth, I had written my sentences. She looked at me. I looked at the stairs. "Well, then," she said, letting me go.

"I will not talk in class." Pay attention.

I had another teacher, Mrs. Robinson, who had me write my name one thousand times when I'd failed to put it on a test. Pay attention. Pay close attention. Pay attention closely and to the things close by. Pay attention to the important things--no, to all things. Keep paying attention. Always pay attention.

Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time...

"Be careful how you live." The Greek says something like "See to things very carefully." The adverb carefully underlines the need for utmost concentration on leading the good life,

The wise life, that makes "the most of the time..."

The implication is that the wise life not only pays attention, it is prudent as opposed to wasteful. It is the opposite of foolish, which suggests in the Greek frantic--imprudent, wasteful.

"Be careful how you live...making the most of the time...because these days are evil!" I want to say we'll come back to that haunting phrase in just a minute because I have all this interesting stuff about other things. I don't know: biblical attitudes toward wine. Anything to avoid that phrase: "because these days are evil." But that other stuff will have to wait for another time, for now it is important to say that when the world is evil, that is, when it seeks to distract us from what is good, when it would turn us aside us from the way we should go, we shall have to turn away from it. Now. Now in these days, we may have to turn away from the world to pay attention to God's will.

This is not to escape the world. There is nothing in the letter to the Ephesians to suggest that these followers of Christ are to leave Ephesus, to go out in the desert and make a life apart from the world. Not at all! For they are to be wise. When Jesus says to his disciples in Matthew, chapter 10, they are to be "wise as serpents," it is because he is sending them out into the world "like sheep into the midst of wolves." When the writer of the letter to the Ephesians tells them to put on the whole armor of God, it is so that they may do battle "against the powers of this present darkness"--powers that are in the world.

But today's passage does not end in darkness. Far from it. In fact, the passage focuses its own attention on the final verses:

Do not get drunk with wine...but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

In other words, this business of paying attention, of paying close attention, of keeping on paying attention to the important things, even of turning away from the distractions of the world to do so--this is not dismal work. The Christians in Ephesus were not to be dismal people. Markus Barth reminds us that "early Christian congregations were singing, jubilant, exulting assemblies"--like modern-day congregations in parts of Africa. My friend Gerald Stephens writes me from the Congo that he has "never seen so much unmitigated joy during worship." Gerald goes on:

"I've been in evangelical churches where folks were well-trained to 'act' joyous...But here, it's no act. It's not Pentecostal ecstasy either, but a kind of reasoned joy. And, probably the most joyous times are the offering times--the singing reaches its loudest, the dancing and clapping is at its most unbridled. Usually, there are at least two offerings per worship service--one for the parish, the other for the poor.

"Worshippers come forward dancing and singing to put their money into a box at the front of the worship place. I most enjoy," Gerald said, "watching the older men dance to the front, chuck their money in the box, and then dance back to their places. They're dressed to the nines and do a kind of understated two-step while holding their arms outward and bent at the elbows--think of rendering one's head, shoulders, and arms into a kind of "W." Somehow their hips take on a life apart, swiveling, swaying. Can you imagine in one of our churches in the United States, where the clerk of session or the chair of the finance committee would come forward with his or her offering like this? It's great stuff! It's especially great because it's so extraordinarily sincere, in no way contrived."

But as great as this stuff is, it does not take in the whole of the counsel of the writer of the letter to the Ephesians, for he is not talking only about worship or even about worship first. He is talking about life.

The Christian life may require paying attention, but it is not a dismal paint-by-the-numbers sort of life. The Christian life is not a dismal task at all. It is no more grinding work than fourth grade was, ending as it did with a picnic in the forgiving Mrs. Kessler's backyard, walking as a class from the school to her house, two-by-two, in straight lines, no doubt, and finding ourselves, all of a sudden, in an English garden, where we ate and ran and played and sang and danced and felt our hearts fill with the music.

Stop. Pay attention. Not to the world. Do not listen to the world. Listen to the word of the Lord:

"Sing and make melody--make music--to the Lord in your hearts, always giving thanks...for everything, always giving thanks, giving thanks for everything," in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.