I listened to a sermon delivered last week that was part of a series on ‘The Sermon on the Mount’. Sometimes I’m amazed at the timing of things, and how God knows even during planning how appropriate a topic or passage will be, long before we are scheduled to preach it. The message was delivered only 2 days after the Federal Government banned gatherings of more than 500 people.
The text being covered in the sermon I heard was Matt 6:25-34.
Jesus is speaking to the crowd on a hillside overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and says,
25 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
As the text was read out I chuckled to myself at the perfection of pre-scheduling this particular passage on this particular week.
And yet, incredulously, the preacher did not focus at all on our existing situation as a nation or community. Even as churches have shut their doors this last weekend or are preparing to next weekend, the sermon was delivered to a listening congregation, who had understandable underlying anxiety, and the preacher did not address those fears in the slightest.
What it shows me is that we have an unfortunate ability to read Scripture with no connection to actual life. It’s all too easy to read this familiar passage from Jesus with the hue of irrelevance overlayed, just as we may have always done. You see when you live in a relatively prosperous culture, which has been relatively prosperous for your entire life, it’s difficult to imagine Jesus’ words ‘don’t worry about what you’ll eat, because God feeds the birds’ as anything more than poetry to which we can nod and agree without any stretch of our faith.
However as only this last week (it feels like so much longer) it’s dawned on us that this pandemic is going to affect us all in ways we hadn’t expected, and for likely longer, most of us are beginning to realise the ripple effects. Effects on jobs, and therefore income, and therefore mortgages. Effects on schooling and therefore the ability to work. Effects on sport and entertainment and therefore on the future viability of passtimes we’ve invested in. Effects on our health and therefore life and death for some…
When Jesus preached to the crowd on the Mount he wasn’t talking to a group of people who were worry free, telling them not to worry. He was speaking to people living under occupation, trapped in a class system that was cruel, trapped in an existence that caused much worry. They lived in a dog-eat-dog society and were constantly in survival mode, whether from government, or poverty, or disease. Jesus spoke these words into a real situation with real anxiety, and as such, these words are relevant to us today, in the midst of our current day ‘worry’.
I’d like to sit here and tell you how I’ve worked it all out and understand his words so deeply in my soul that worry doesn’t enter my mind… But I can’t do that.
The reality is that I’m a night worrier – for the past week or so it’s been between 3-4am that I wake up, and my mind begins the routine of ‘what ifs’. In my mind are questions about how long it’ll be, whether I’m doing enough social isolation, what this will mean financially over time, whether we’re preparing the kids well enough, what about elderly relatives… all of it swirls around my brain at 4am, driving me stir crazy.
I’m someone of faith. I’m someone with a theology that embraces cost and sacrifice. I’m someone who isn’t afraid of death – so what’s the deal with the 4am worry-fest? The reality is that worry isn’t something we choose – it’s something that captures us, tries to control us, intimidates us, and steals our focus. In other words, worry is not something given by God. It steals us away from him.
So when Jesus says, “Do not worry” I’m gripped by the difficulty of heeding that advice. I want to not worry, and yet I do. How do I counteract it? How do I see the way back to him? How do I escape its grasp?
So in that vein, here’s some advice and practices I’ve found helpful:
1. It’s important not to gloss over the reality of what we’re feeling…
‘Do not worry’ does not mean ‘pretend not to worry’ or ‘squash your feelings of worry’. Neither of those actions will actually help. Pretending or ignoring does not equate to trusting God, it just covers up feelings that will present themselves in other ways.
2. Don’t retreat into the spiritual clouds.
God is in control and we know it and should proclaim it and remind ourselves constantly of this absolute fact. But let’s not allow that fact to catapult us toward meaningless platitudes.
He is intimately interested and concerned with what’s happening day to day. He wants to hear your concerns and thoughts, and for you to place your worry in his hands where he can then give you a greater perspective, and can show you peace.
This is why I was so frustrated with the preacher’s message last week – it ignored the reality of what people are facing. The Bible doesn’t tend to speak in esoteric terms in a far off universe that has no relevance to life. It speaks to real people in real situations and provides real answers. Let’s be people who bring genuine hope, not platitudes that make God seem irrelevant to current events.
3. Immerse yourself in Scripture.
This, for me, is how I combat worry. This year Lucas and I are reading through the Bible chronologically. (Leviticus takes some stamina, let me tell you!) I can’t tell you how good it is for the soul to have God’s Word prioritised in my daily routine – especially right now. If picking it up regularly and reading is difficult, find a plan – use the isolation to reconnect you to good habits in this way. You wont regret it. If you use YouVersion you can choose to listen instead of read, which sometimes I do while I’m walking the dogs. There are so many times that, as I’m listening or reading, I can sense him speaking to me through the stories and situations on the pages. Scripture is not irrelevant! It speaks into our every moment, if we’re prepared to attune our ears.
4. Converse with the Almighty.
In my nightly 3-4am awake times, I pray.
“God… I don’t even have the words or the questions right now. I’m too tired. Would you have mercy?”
That was my prayer last night. Then I just asked for his presence and said his name over and again and uttered a few inane things. It wasn’t articulate. It possibly wasn’t even coherent. He’s near. I just forget it too often. Speaking to him, listening to him reminds me he’s near.
5. Resist the devil.
Some will recoil with this, but I don’t really care. The reality is that God is not a propagator of worry. He just isn’t. And as it’s used as a tool to control us and steer us from trusting him, it doesn’t take a lot of brain-power to realise that worry is from the pit of hell. So you know what? Rebuke it. Reject it. Renounce it. ‘I do not accept these anxious thoughts and command them to be gone from my mind – over which I am in control.’ Resist the devil and he will flee from you.*
6. Focus on others.
If there’s one sure-fire way to cure worry, it’s to focus your attention on alleviating the worry of others. This is the most important time for us to put our faith into action when it comes to generosity. Our wider community needs God’s people now, more than ever. And to see what counter-cultural faith in action looks like.
Jesus said not to worry about clothes or food. I suspect he’d add toilet paper and hand-sanitizer to that list today. Here’s a truth: God is a provider, and he loves a generous heart. When we go out of our way to represent his generosity and character to people he loves, in his name, that’s something he will honour. Here’s the thing though – generosity and sacrifice comes before provision… not the other way around. Who’s he asking you to bless today? Do it sacrificially and then watch his provision flow back to you because you honoured him. This is where the rubber of faith hits the road.
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.**