A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
Sunday 27th September 2020
During this service twins Felix and Austin were baptised.
On Wednesday mornings now we are studying the Bible passage for the coming Sunday. So, since Wednesday I’ve been thinking about two things Jesus said, “Do not worry.” “Do not be afraid.”
I’ve been a bit exasperated with Jesus as a result. You and I have been living with a very significant level of worry for the past six months. Not a single one of us can have escaped it. If there has ever been an experience in which everyone has shared in virtually the same way in the last 100 years, this is it. Paul and I were talking about this the other day, about how right at the basic level, we are learning to live with a worry about some very simple things – going into a room with others, having a conversation, going about the everyday tasks of life. Right inside of us there is a low level anxiety about living that has come to the fore. Is this person too near me? Why isn’t that person wearing a mask? Have I washed my hands? Perhaps this can serve as a reminder to us who have had so much freedom and privilege in our lives that there are others who live with this sort of basic anxiety every day of their lives: those with poor mental health, those who live a subsistence existence, the man who came here on Monday have lost everything in the past six months. Maybe we are learning to understand that sort of life just a tiny bit more.
But for now, I’m a bit exasperated with Jesus. “Do not worry?!” “Do not fear?!” Come one…
But let’s turn to this passage from Luke, which mirrors word for word the same thing in the Sermon on the Mount. Let’s first look at what Jesus doesn’t say.
Jesus isn’t saying that anxiety is a sin: anxiety, in and of itself, is not wrong. At no point in this passage does Jesus simply say, “Do not worry”. Twice he uses those words, but both times he qualifies them. First Jesus says: “Do not worry about the food and the drink you need in order to stay alive”. Then he says: “Do not worry about tomorrow.”
It is not worry and anxiety that Jesus seeks to turn us from, but worry and anxiety about certain issues. As we read through the New Testament, we see that people of God are no strangers to worry and anxiety. Paul worrys about the fate of the Galatian churches and how they were growing in the faith. He worrys about some of his companions. One of the best-known passages about Jesus himself, in the Garden of Gethsemane, paints a picture of a man under so much stress and anxiety that Luke tells us is sweat was like drops of blood.
So I don’t think that Jesus is condemning worry. It’s not wrong to be anxious. Perhaps that lifts some of the mental burden. We may still have anxiety and worry in our lives but we don’t need to feel guilty about worrying! Anxiety and worry can be a a sign that we care deeply about things and we want what is best.
But the other side of the coin is that when Jesus says, “Do not worry” he is telling us to become so laid back that we become irresponsible. Jesus stresses this point in the passage because he says: “Look at the birds: they do not sow seeds, gather a harvest and put it in barns; yet your Father in heaven looks after them!” Now we may read this as saying, “Don’t worry – God’s got it all under control!” but you don’t need to be an ornithologist to know that birds actually work extremely hard! They make nests for themselves, they prepare for a hard winter, they get food in for their young, they don’t leave anything to chance. Birds are not irresponsible: they get their lives in order. But there is nothing to suggest that they are acting out of anxiety for the future but rather that they are following their natural instincts, for survival and a decent quality of life.
And I think that’s what Jesus expects us to do: not to be so anxious for ourselves that our lives become dictated by fear for our future security. But to behave like the birds: to be responsible in our behaviour and to plan ahead in a responsible manner.
So then, we can see first of all what Jesus isn’t saying: he is not saying that worry and anxiety, in and of themselves, are wrong. So no guilt if you’re worried right now. And he’s not saying that Christian faith acts as an alternative for responsible behaviour: we need to be sensible about the future and not leave ourselves wide open to the cruel waves of fate that often threaten to overwhelm us.
But what is Jesus saying then? Why is my exasperation with him a misunderstanding?
I think Jesus teaches us two important principles here.
The first of these is honesty about our values. We need to recognise the importance of material things. There are people, religious people often, who are very impractical: “Food, clothing, a place to live – these things aren’t really important: what really matters faith”. But that seems to me to be a false piety arising out of the security of our situation. You can only say such things when you have got used to having them. So when Jesus talks here about anxiety, he’s not saying, “Don’t worry about food and clothing and the everyday things in life because they’re not important” On the contrary he says, “Your Father in heaven knows that you need all these things”.
These things – the basics of life – are important. Part of our response to anxiety is to recognise the importance of these things. God knows they are important to us and that he will give us our daily bread. Notice in this passage that Jesus calls the disciples, “You of little faith”. There’s only a few times when Jesus speaks to people like that: once when the disciples were afraid of drowning at sea, once when Peter was sinking in the water, and a third time when the disciples had forgotten what Christ provided for them in his miracle-working power. So each time the disciples are called “you of little faith”, it’s because they haven’t taken to heart the presence, the promise and the power of the love of God. We become anxious when we forget the power of God’s love in our lives.
So whenever we do become anxious about things, the answer is never to resort to false piety and say, “Oh well, those things aren’t important anyway”. The answer is found in looking beyond ourselves, and even beyond the situation itself, to remember the promise of power, the promise of God’s presence and the love made available to us through Jesus Christ. God is our Father. He is faithful – and he knows how important the basic necessities of life are to us. Jesus says elsewhere, “Which father, if the child asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” Our Father in heaven, who is faithful in every way, will give good things to those who ask him.
And there, perhaps, lies the second principle which Jesus shows us: that the battle against worry and anxiety in our lives has something to do with the perspective by which we view life. For some reason our passage cuts off one verse from the end of this section, which is a mistake I think, Because it is here that Jesus says: “Instead, strive for his kingdom and these things will be given to you as well.” Or perhaps more eloquently, “seek ye first the kingdom of God.”
To seek the kingdom is nothing less than accepting the kingship, the rule of Jesus Christ in our lives: to give our lives to him, to recognise at times that he knows better than we do, that the world and all that is in it are his. It is to allow Jesus to be king of the whole of our lives and to allow his will and his perspective to shape our choices and habits; our relationships, our job, our money, our church activities, our hobbies, our housing arrangements, our fears about this hateful pandemic. That is what we do when we baptise, we say that Jesus is the king of Austin and Felix today, that his rule is going to guide their living and that, together, we are committing to make that happen.
Friends, the Kingdom of God is not a place: you can’t draw it on a map. The Kingdom of God is seen wherever an individual or a group of individuals say “Jesus is Lord.” It’s an attitude of heart, a pattern of behaviour, measured in humility and self-sacrifice, not square kilometres. When we realise that in ourselves, Jesus says, the kingdom of God has come.
That is the commitment that God calls for, asks of us if we wish to wear the label, ‘Christian’: a commitment that does not come easily to any of us because we all want to retain some element of control over our own lives and, truth be told, we sometimes like to worry. But says the Good News of Jesus Christ, as we learn to truly hand all things over to God, to allow them to come within the scope of his kingdom, so we will be released from anxiety about those things.
It is not easy to say: “I am not anxious about my job” “I am not anxious about my mortgage.” It’s certainly nigh on impossible to honestly say, “I’m not worried about Covid-19.” We cannot say any of these things out of false piety. We are not saying that jobs or housing or even life itself are unimportant. Only that we surrender any right to self-determination: that we hand all things over to God and bring them within his Kingdom power. When we begin to get that perspective on our lives, it seems to me that there is a chance that anxiety will cease and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God. Because God is faithful and his faithfulness endures for ever and he will never let us down.
Jesus said, “Do not be anxious about your life…your heavenly Father knows that you need.” God is faithful – and his faithfulness endures for ever. May we learn to rest in the faithfulness of God.