Do not be anxious

A sermon preached at Our Saviour Lutheran Church on Trinity 15, 2 October 2011.
Text: Matthew 6:24–34
A recording of the sermon can be found here.

There’s no denying it: today’s Gospel reading is a difficult text. But it’s not your typical difficult text. Usually we find passages of the Bible difficult because we find them hard to understand, or the point they seem to be making is hard to fit into the rest of the Bible’s teaching. However, Jesus’ teaching today is difficult precisely because we do understand it and because it does fit in with the rest of the Bible’s teaching:

Do not be anxious about anything. Do not worry about food and drink, clothing and shelter: your heavenly Father knows your needs, so your anxiety is misplaced. Trust in God, and leave everything to His care. This is the consistent message of the God’s word in the Scriptures.

Peter writes, “Cast all your anxieties on Him and He will take care of you.” Paul writes, “Be anxious about nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” And King David sings, “The LORD is my Shepherd; I shall not want.”

But why is this a difficult text? It’s supposed to be comforting, making your life easier and less burdensome, not more? Not to put too fine a point on it, it’s difficult because we don’t think it’s true. A young girl called Rosie whom I taught early in my teaching career put it with admirable clarity when she declared: “Sir, that’s just stupid!” You wouldn’t put it so bluntly, but many of you probably think the same. It’s stupid because it’s so blatantly not true: people in the Horn of Africa don’t have enough to eat, and Christians are not excepted from the effects of the drought and famine. The houses and possessions of Haitian Christians were in no way exempted from the effects of the earthquake there. Streams of lava and clouds of ash don’t magically pass over Christian homes when volcanoes erupt, and wars are no better. Yet thousands upon thousands of Christians in those situations are praying for their daily bread, for protection, for shelter.

So it’s just stupid, isn’t it, when Jesus tells His disciples not to worry but to trust in their heavenly Father. Because His track record isn’t exactly brilliant, is it?

This is only natural—and this is precisely why Jesus teaches us what He teaches. Our attention is naturally drawn to the promises Jesus makes: of material sufficiency. And then we look at the material circumstances of people around us and make a judgement on whether that promise is reliable or not.

Now, let’s be clear about one thing: if Jesus’ promise at the end of Matthew 6 isn’t reliable, then that means that He isn’t entirely reliable. Which means that we can’t always trust Him. Which makes Him a pretty dangerous Saviour. Which of His promises are you willing to trust, and how will you decide? When it comes to trusting in Jesus’ promises, it’s all or nothing, because it’s a matter of eternal life and death. You can’t pick and choose, because Jesus is Lord, not you. God is God, and you are not.

And this is precisely the point of Jesus’ teaching. The real point isn’t about our material well-being at all. How does He begin?

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money. (Matt. 6:24)

The main problem when we are anxious about our material well-being is not that we are being anxious, which is both miserable in itself and bad for us. The real problem is far more serious: idolatry, the worship of the false god of Mammon.

Do you remember the explanation of the First Commandment in the Small Catechism? You shall have no other gods. What does this mean? We should fear, love and trust in God above all things. And as the Large Catechism explains in greater detail, your god is therefore that things which you fear, love and trust in above all things. If it isn’t the Triune God, YHWH of the Scriptures, then it’s something else. And the chances are that it is Mammon:money, possessions, material well-being.

If you don’t trust God to provide for you, it’s not just that you are anxious about your well-being. It also means that you don’t trust God to be God—in sickness and in health, for better for worse, for richer and for poorer. It means that you don’t trust God to make the right decisions about your life, to give you what you need when you need it. You don’t trust that all things work for the good of those who love God. All—even poverty, deprivation, sickness, hunger and, yes, even death.

To judge God’s competence or the value of His promises on the basis of whether you, or your neighbour, or the people of Ethiopia or Haiti, are being well-fed, clothed and housed, and preferably in rude health for good measure, is to place yourself in the place of God as the judge of what is good, right and salutary. It is to have eyes only on this world, this life, and to equate God’s kingdom and His righteousness with how things are going in a fallen creation. It is to desire to lay up treasures on earth.

But as Jesus teaches us, there is no place in a human heart for two gods. There’s plenty of space for any number of idols, but there is only room for one God. If it’s Mammon, that leaves no room for YHWH. You cannot serve God and Mammon.

Besides, what good is worry? How does it help? Martin Luther uses the illustration of a short man sitting in a corner and hoping by his anxiety about his height to grow taller. How daft. Likewise, when it comes to our daily or bodily needs, we can worry to our hearts’ content, but it won’t help us one bit. God will provide in the way that He sees fit. Call on Him in all your troubles. When you hand them to Him, they cease to be your problem, and you can be assured that all things work out for your good, because that’s what He promised. You may be blessed with sudden relief, like the widow of Zarephath was, or perhaps your heavenly Father has an even better plan for you.

* * * * *

It is a simple question of trust. Whom do you trust. Or better still: whom can you trust? Can you trust your own strength, skill or ingenuity? How far will they serve you? Can you trust your health? Can you trust the market? The government?
Or do you trust the God who sent His Son not only to tell you about God’s love but to put God’s love into action by dying for you in order to bring you life that lasts far beyond the passing pleasures and pains, riches and deprivations of this world? Would you trust a Christ, through whom all the world was created, suffered hunger and thirst, rejection and loneliness, and ultimately death by torture, so that your hunger and thirst for righteousness and the favour and friendship of God can be satisfied.

Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. Seek first that life where God no longer reckons your sin to your account but instead makes the righteousness of Jesus yours. Seek first His kingdom, which is not a matter of eating and drinking earthly food and drink—things that can only sustain for a time—but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Jesus has commanded us to pray for our daily bread. In so doing we are released from anxiety, because by commanding us to turn to Him, He makes Himself our God, and takes responsibility for our needs. And as we receive our daily bread with gratitude, whether in abundance or in meagre portions, we continue to receive food and drink that of the Kingdom that is coming: the incorruptible, inexhaustible food and drink of heaven, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. You may spend the rest of your days with your stomach full and satisfied, or you may die of malnutrition or even starvation. You may face the rest of your life in warmth, comfort and shelter, or you may die of exposure or violently at the hands of your enemies. Either way, in the Kingdom of God, you will always be filled and satisfied with the bread of heaven which will never run out; your cup will overflow without end; and you will sit permanently under the shelter of God’s wings, at the table prepared in the presence of your enemies.

And all these other things will be added to you as well, according to God’s will.

May the Holy Spirit strengthen us in faith that we may always trust our heavenly Father’s abundant goodness and mercy so that at our lives’ end, we are received into His everlasting kingdom, where we will be able to walk by sight and not by faith.

In the name of the Father, etc.

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