DO NOT WORRY
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We’ve come to our end of the current journey through the Sermon on the Mount. We’ve spent these weeks of Ordinary Time sitting with Jesus in the verdant valley. Sitting at Jesus’ feet paying attention to Jesus’ invitation “Let anyone with ears to hear, hear.” We’ve looked at what it means to build our lives on Jesus’ words – hearing and doing them. Our firm foundation. We’ve looked at what it means to be blessed – what it means to be in a good situation in the Kingdom of Heaven. We’ve looked at the interior change that Jesus brings about which affects how we see things, which affects our disposition and will. We’ve looked at anger, at love, at truth, at possessions.
It seems fitting that we end with what Jesus had to say about worry. We worry about so many things it seems like a bit of a waste of time to me to list them – it also might make us more worried if I stood up here and listed them!
Let us first though talk about a definition of worry and what Jesus is not talking about here. Some translations have put this “Take no thought for the morrow” or “Do not be careful” (literally meaning full of care). We’re not talking about not planning. We’re not talking about not taking precautions or going through our lives in a foolhardy way. We’re not talking about sitting around waiting for things to fall into our laps either. Someone has defined worry like this – “Worry is a disproportionate level of concern based on an inappropriate measure of fear.” The word that is used in Greek here was used in other contexts like this – “I cannot sleep at night or by day, because of the worry I have about your welfare.” That was a letter from a wife to her absent husband. Here’s another one by a poet known as Anacreon – “When I drink wine, my worries go to sleep.”
Now the thing about telling someone not to worry is – does it ever really work? I look at it the same way I look at someone saying “Calm down!” Has that ever actually worked? I remember hearing once “Don’t tell someone to be calm, be the calm.” Bring the calm. “Don’t Worry Be Happy” was a number one song back in the day and a lot of people liked it. Maybe it’s my contrariness but I reacted to that song by saying “Don’t tell me what to do and especially don’t tell me what not to occupy my thoughts with.” (my apologies to Bobby McFerrin fans and I know that song was popular and had a catchy hook and that whistling part).
The Apostle Paul has some lines that are equally well known as these words of Jesus. Philippians 4:6-7. Paul was often quite propositional in his writing. Not that he never used imagery or metaphor. Think of the way he compared the Christian life to running a race. Pressing on toward the goal. I love that stuff. Paul, of course, didn’t simply stop at saying what not to do but he added something to do, which we’ll come back to.
But look at how Jesus talks about this everyday human concern. He’s just finished talking about what master we are going to serve. “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” Jesus is talking about the necessities of life. The bottom rung on the hierarchy of needs years before Maszlow. Is life not about more than basic needs? Is it not about safety and security and love and belonging and accomplishment and fulfilling one’s purpose? Are not all of these needs met in the person of Christ and in living as a beloved child of God in the kingdom of Heaven?
Yet we’re going to worry. I’m sure that it has something to do with our own individual personalities, our own psychological makeup. Some of us are more prone to worry than others. What do we do?
Jesus gives us a beautiful image to consider. Someone has said here Jesus is speaking the language of poetry. You can imagine that there were birds and flowers around this group of people listening to Jesus teach on the mountain. Paul told it straight ahead. Be anxious for nothing. Jesus is talking about worry of course. He uses the verb for worry five times in this passage.
Jesus asks us to look. We’ve been talking throughout these weeks about having eyes to see as God sees. About having eyes of faith that see in the light of the Kingdom of Heaven. Look, says Jesus. And it’s not just cast a casual glance at or notice some birds or flowers in passing. The word for look here has the sense of throwing in or casting into. Cast your eyes at the birds. Consider the lilies of the field. Stop. Delve into this. Examine this carefully. Consider this well. It’s like stopping and smelling the roses writ large.
Cast your eyes at these birds. They don’t sow. They don’t reap. They don’t gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.
Now we can only take this poetic language so far, I believe. How literally do we read the Bible is a question we should always be asking. How seriously do we read the Bible is another good question. Are we to take these words and say “Well great no more planning for me – I’m going to be like a bird and look Jesus even said so!” Are we to be like those of whom Paul writes in Thessalonica who refused to do any work because after all, God would provide (and let’s not use that verse to justify why there shouldn’t be such a thing as social assistance). The birds are working for their food after all – they’re not sitting around their nests with their beaks open waiting. Are we to say “Well surely there are birds who don’t make it.”? Of course, there are. Surely there are lilies that don’t make it. There are Christians who starve to death too. We need to watch how we’re interpreting these things. I remember once being asked to do a Bible story for some children in Bolivia. Very much spur of the moment. I talked about the child with the loaves and fishes. Finished with something like “So God will look after what you need.” That didn’t resonate with many of those kids I’m sure. Many were not doing well. We might look at a story like this and think “What is God asking us to do to make sure that the birds and lilies are thriving?” What is God asking us to do to make sure that those who are far more precious to him are doing well?
We’ve said throughout this that the Kingdom of Heaven subverts expectations. Turns them upside down. Some of the common rabbinical teachings of his time contrasted the carefree lives of animals with how people had to earn their living by the sweat of their brow. We get this right? Have you ever looked at the cat lying there or the dog lying there going “It must be nice! You don’t have a care in the world. Just sleep for 18 hours and hang out on the back of the couch.” Jesus is turning this teaching around saying look to the birds as an example of God’s care for all. Vegetation was often used in the Bible to signify the transient nature of life. How quickly our time goes. Psalm 103:15-16. Isaiah 40:6-8. Here Jesus is saying look to the birds of the air and the lilies of the field for a different reason. Someone has put it like this – “Jesus is asking us a profound question: if God provides for the smallest and most insignificant creatures, don’t you think he can provide for you, his most precious and important creatures…Worry keeps me focused on my own limited resources. Trust keeps my attention on God’s abundant resources… Worry happens when I am on the throne of my life when I live in the kingdom of me. But we trust when God is on the throne of our lives and we live in his kingdom.”
So strive first for the kingdom of God, and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well.
It’s been called the hinge of this whole sermon. The hinge of our lives. The thing on which everything else depends. The reign of God. Jesus as Lord. Jesus as the one who has ushered this kingdom in, is ushering in, will usher it in. We ourselves as beloved daughters and sons of the king. A kingdom characterized by mercy, by love, by justice, by generosity, by poverty of spirit, by a hunger and thirst for righteousness, by peace, by purity of heart. A kingdom, wholly dependent on the one whom we are called to listen to and whose words we are called to do. To see everything we are called to do – pray, care for the poor, worship, fight injustice, gather around this table – in light of this God’s kingdom.
So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today. There is no promise that we will not have troubles. We’ve been talking about soul-shaping exercises throughout these weeks. For the final one, I want to come back to Paul’s words. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.
The Lord is near.
Do not worry about anything, but in prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Let your requests be made known. In his book, James Bryan Smith suggest writing them down. He suggests making a note about what we can do about our concerns. Leave the rest to God. Let God be enthroned. The kingdom of Heaven is not in trouble. You - beloved children of the King - are not in trouble. God grant that these truths may be made ever more clear to our hearts.