Good morning! Our eleventh Sunday of exploring the Sermon on the Mount. These last two weeks, Jesus has had some challenging words for us. If you were here last Sunday, maybe you remember Jesus' instructions on not being able to serve God and Mammon – we have to choose one. And investing with God is wiser than any investment we might make with Mammon, because all earthly treasures decay, but heavenly treasures – the kind that naturally grow out of our love and service to God and to our neighbors and neighborhoods – well, those last forever, where neither most nor rust destroy, nor can thieves break in and steal. To cling to Mammon is a fool's errand; to store up treasures on earth is a waste.
But maybe that sunny Galilean afternoon long ago, there were some in the crowd who grumbled when Jesus said not to store up earthly treasures. Can you hear it? Shh, listen to their voices: “Jesus, maybe you just don't get it. Do you know what it's like? Maybe it wasn't so bad growing up a carpenter, a woodworker; that was practically middle-class. Not everybody had that privilege, Jesus. Unlike you, I've got a wife, I've got kids. And heavenly treasure may all be well and good. But you're telling me to invest somewhere I can't see, hear, or smell to invest in things I can't touch, taste, or wear. Jesus, if I listen to you, I'm gonna die! Because what if things get hard? What if my crops don't grow? What if there's a storm? What if there's a fire? I have to store up earthly treasure, Jesus! The more I have, the safer I'll be, the better I'll feel. It's my lifeline. It's my buffer against the cruelty of this world. What do you have to say to that, Jesus?”
He has plenty, as it turns out. Maybe you've been part of that crowd before – wondering whether all this pie-in-the-sky talk of Jesus could ever be practical; wondering if you can survive listening to him. Maybe you've been worried about where your next meal will come from, or what will happen if your clothes rip and tear, or if the roof starts leaking. Maybe you've worried about the bills that keep piling up. Maybe you've just worried about little things – getting someplace on time, or passing through a dangerous situation. And maybe, just maybe, that situation has passed, but the lesson you learned from it was that little but a stockpile of earthly treasure can protect you from going through that again. Maybe, in the heat of the moment, you thought, “If I don't worry, if I don't pour everything I've got into this, if I don't let the quest for earthly treasure or food or clothes consume me body and soul, 'terrible things' will happen. Worry is the only way.”
But that ain't what Jesus says, now, is it? He sees things for what they are. This chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, now that he's interpreted the Law, is built around challenging three key idols that stand in the way of actually living it.
The first idol was reputation. The Pharisees he knew were suckers for it – they went ahead and did plenty of the right things, but they did it to get themselves credit. And in being so concerned about reputation, their hearts were far from what they said and did; they became hypocrites; their righteousness was a skin-deep affair, it had nothing to do with a Father's love. Jesus tells us to reject Human Praise like a false god.
The second idol was wealth – the accumulation of possessions, and by extension, other human pursuits. And that, too, makes us too stingy to live like God's kingdom is real. So, Jesus says, kick Mammon out the door, with all his dumb cousins.
But in hearing that, we're liable to cling to a third idol. And that idol is security. We want to know that our position, our livelihoods, are secure. And when we feel too far away from Security, we try to appease this monstrous idol with a sacrifice of our emotional, psychological, and spiritual health – we cut them up in a dish called worry, and we lay them down at security's feet as an offering.
Jesus tells us to dethrone Security. Jesus tells us to never dice ourselves up into worry. Now, I'll be honest. I'm as guilty as any of y'all here. Of all the passages in the Sermon on the Mount, this is the one that I struggle with more than any other. I'm an anxious person. I have to struggle mightily to keep perspective when adrenaline starts pumping through my veins. I can be a bit of a worrywart. And I doubt I'm alone. I, sometimes, am that guy in the crowd, raising objections to what Jesus is saying. Deep down, I know it's true. But there's that part of me that wants to try explaining to Jesus what the real world is like. Maybe you can relate sometimes.
So Jesus says, to me and to you: “You cannot serve God and Mammon. Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Isn't life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:24-25). Jesus gets right to the heart of it all, doesn't he? He tells us not to worry even about our lives and bodies – much less about essential care like food or water or clothing – and how much less about anything else we concern ourselves with? He's telling us to just abandon worry.
See, those in the crowd are prone to feel, even if it seems silly to say, that worry is essential to survival. If we don't worry, then won't that hurt us? Won't things go undone? Won't failure be knocking at our door? Well, no, says Jesus. First of all, worry does not make for health. When Jesus uses the word 'worry' or 'anxiety,' he doesn't mean sound stewardship. He doesn't mean preparation. He doesn't mean due caution. When Jesus talks about 'worry,' he means that inner state of anxiety we fall into – one that disturbs our peace, one that drives us to frantic action, one that takes the object of concern and catapults it to the top of the priority list. But worry isn't healthy. Maybe he got a chuckle from the crowd when he asked, “Which of you, by being anxious, can add a single hour to his span of life?” (Matthew 6:27). Because, deep down, they knew the very opposite was true.
We've confirmed it scientifically: anxiety tends to wear down the body and mind, and if anything, it would shorten your lifespan, not prolong it. Proverbs said, “Anxiety in a man's heart weighs him down” (Proverbs 12:25). Another Jewish writing of the day said, “Anxiety brings on old age too soon” (Sirach 30:24). The crowd knew, if they thought about it logically for a moment, that anxiety does harm. It's even right there in the word: to 'worry' something means to choke or strangle it, to bind or squeeze it, like what wolves do with the throats of their prey. When we let ourselves be worried about things, or when we worry ourselves over them, we're choking the life out of our lives. It's not healthy.
And second of all, worry is ineffective. It really can't prolong your life. Worry, in the sense Jesus means, isn't going to serve a useful purpose. Understand the difference between worrying and being prepared. How many times in your life has worrying about something actually helped? Seldom or never, I'd wager – and, Jesus is going to tell us, there's a better way. Worry is a good way to get ourselves all disturbed, but a bad way to make the change we'd like to see in the world.
And third, worry is disordered. It gets things all jumbled up. A day only has so much room, and it comes with plenty of problems of its own. Why add to them by ineffectually adding tomorrow's problems, too? “Do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble” (Matthew 6:34). Both God's kingdom and anxiety invade the present with the future. God's kingdom fills our present lives with the ultimate future, the hope of resurrection and intimacy with God. Anxiety, that counterfeit, fills our present lives with the near-future's burdens and problems – and doesn't even let us solve them.
And fourth, worry is unnecessary. It doesn't serve a useful purpose, and we can see that for ourselves if we'd just look, says Jesus. For instance, take a gander at those chirping birds over there. They don't store up earthly treasures for themselves. They don't sow. They don't reap. They don't have barns or silos or storehouses. So, by the objector's logic, they ought to all starve right away. But they don't. “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Aren't you of more value than they?” (Matthew 6:26).
Storing up earthly treasures is no part and parcel of a sparrow's game plan for life – but God takes care of them. He's their Creator... but he's your Father. The birds live, not by worry, but by faith. In Luke's rendition of this message, he's specific on the kind of birds: ravens (Luke 12:24). An unclean bird. And even still, God takes care of them, the least worthy of all creatures. Maybe Luke says Jesus is thinking of the psalm that says, “He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry” (Psalm 147:9). Two sparrows are sold for a penny, Jesus said – they're cheap, they seem expendable – and, here's the kicker: “you are of more value than many sparrows” (Matthew 10:29-31).
And then, Jesus says, take a gander at those flowers. The Galilean hills had some lovely flowers. Especially these vividly bright purple anemones. How gorgeous! And where do they get that? Do they have to work for it? Do they have to toil at it, or spin thread? No, they don't do any of that. They just grow. They get it as grace – grace from God. God clothes even the flowers with brightness and cheer, although flowers and grass are the very definition of disposable, of something that isn't meant to last. But we are.
So “why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown in the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O ye of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30). Even King Solomon, with his royal splendor, couldn't match the natural beauty God lavishes on his littlest creations. Can we really believe that God loves us less than he loves them?
Actually, many in the crowd might have said yes. There was a rabbi – he lived a couple centuries later, but his idea may have been popular back then. And he said something a lot like what Jesus said, but with a very sad twist at the end. Here's what he said: “Have you ever seen a wild animal or a bird practicing a craft? Yet they have their sustenance without care. And were they not created for nothing else but to serve me? But I was created to serve my Maker. How much more, then, ought not I to have my sustenance without care?” So far, so good, right? That's almost what Jesus is saying. We are made in God's image; we are nearer and dearer to his heart than wild animals or birds; so if they can live just trusting God, so should we be able to.
But then Rabbi Simeon takes a turn: “But I have wrought evil and forfeited my sustenance.” In other words, he says, we were originally meant to live like that, same as the birds and flowers. But that was in paradise. We're far from home now, in exile from Eden. With our sin, we've given up the right, we've lost the privilege, to live by sheer faith like the rest of creation does. So, the crowd thinks, “That's all well and good for the birds and the flowers. But our world is more complex. We're sinners; we've moved further from God's heart, not closer.”
Now, take note: The very fact that Jesus doesn't go there, means that for him, things are different. The Sermon on the Mount is not spoken to mere sinners. The Sermon on the Mount is spoken with an invitation to a radical new thing: a new covenant. Jesus isn't denying that we have wrought evil. He isn't ignoring what the Bible said about the curse in Genesis 3. But he is saying that he's opening the door to start moving beyond it. Yes, we still live in a cursed world. But if we take his hand, if we let him give us new hearts, then he separates us from our sin and restores us in God's sight – gives us new robes of righteousness that, over time, sink into and color our very souls with heaven's radiance.
And so, he says, you can start living now like God loves you without looking at your sin. And to believe God loves us that way is to trust that God not only can provide, but desires to provide. That's why he says that those who live by worry and anxiety are “ye of little faith.” Anxiety stems from a lack of faith in God as Provider – whether through a conviction that he isn't able, or – for most Jews in the crowd that day – maybe from feeling distant from God's love.
Jesus says, if you want to know how God yearns to care for you, look at the birds and the flowers – and then multiply! And have you ever seen a bird or a flower with anxiety? Have you ever seen a flower have nightmares about paying the bills? Have you ever watched a bird stuff extra worms under the nest to save them for later? And how much more will our heavenly Father care for his children than his creation? “Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the LORD watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain. It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:1-2).
Now, trusting in God as Provider doesn't mean we don't work. The birds work – they might work plenty to hunt down what they need. God is calling us to a carefree life, not a careless life. He isn't bidding us be reckless or permitting us to be lazy. Generally speaking, God provides for us through our work, same as the birds. But notice that, although the birds work, they don't worry. They don't store up earthly treasures. And they don't take it all on themselves.
When the psalmist describes the young ravens crying out to God, he's suggesting that God provides for them in answer to their prayers. That's what it says in Job, too: “Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God for help and wander about for lack of food?” (Job 38:41). And if God will hear an unclean baby bird's prayer, why wouldn't he listen to his own sons and daughters? If the birds can work while living by faith and prayer, so can you.
“Therefore, do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' For the pagans seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33). That's the difference between pagan worry and Christian faith. For a pagan, an unbeliever, it makes sense to seek after all those things. It makes sense to reduce life to a frantic quest for the necessities, or even the luxuries. Because if earthly treasure, in all its instability, is all there is or ever can be, there's really no other way to live. And if that's true, and if you've got no confidence in a heavenly Father who loves you and works all things together for your good in the end, worry would seem pretty natural, even pretty sensible. But if you believe you can earn heavenly treasure, and if you believe God will take care of you as you do, then you can let worry go. You can live by faith instead.
That's not to say it's easy. And before we move on, a caveat: there's a difference between day-to-day anxiety and an anxiety disorder. At any given time, nearly a fifth of Americans have one of those. And too often, the church has responded to people suffering from psychiatric illness by just telling them to have more faith. Truth is, just as God often meets our physical needs for food and clothing by blessing our work, so God helps those with anxiety disorders by blessing their medication or their therapy together with their faith and prayer.
Jesus didn't preach the Sermon on the Mount to give us more ammunition to judge each other – and actually, we'll talk more about that next week. Nor did he preach the Sermon on the Mount to heap up a mount of guilt on our shoulders. Jesus is offering us a new avenue to a new life, and outlining the kind of church he wants to create out of us.
And believe me: it's not a church of pagans. That's an oxymoron, and those who think it might be missing that 'oxy-,' if you catch my drift. Jesus is aiming to create a church of real disciples, not of pagans or even Pharisees. Too often, we've settled for some degree of those. And in particular, too often our biggest concerns are the same as those of pagans: get food, get water, get clothing, and get whatever else you can after that. That's where a pagan's real commitments lie. It's the only place they can lie.
But we are called to a different concern, a higher commitment. Our treasures aren't earthly; they're heavenly. And where pagans seek after the basic necessities of life, we have something else to seek first and foremost. We are called to seek God's kingdom. That means devoting ourselves to God in faith, hope, and love; it means adopting his values, allying ourselves with his cause; it means accepting him as King and orienting our lives that way. And we are called to seek his righteousness. That means living out what Jesus teaches, which only Jesus ultimately makes possible by giving us his Spirit.
And all the other things will be added unto us – when our concern is the kingdom, when God tops our priority list, when we're investing in heavenly treasure and living by faith, God will see to our other needs in his own way in his own time. That isn't to say that we have an absolute guarantee that things will be fine in this life. Birds can starve to death, and they can get hurt. So can we. Jesus even says that each day comes with its own trouble – that doesn't sound quite as happy-go-lucky as a televangelist might tell you. But it's the truth: each day has trouble of its own, real trouble. Jesus doesn't deny that; he offers us a realistic but not worldly way to approach that trouble. If we live by faith instead of worry, we can trust that God will take care of us, whatever that might look like. It means we'll get what we need to survive – almost always here on earth, but absolutely always for beyond this earth.
Worry, at its most understandable, is fear of things that can kill the body: starvation, dehydration, exposure. That's what we need food, drink, and clothing to avoid. Most everything else we worry about can't even do that, so Jesus is tackling a worst-case scenario. But he also says, “Do not fear those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28).
In other words, the most starvation can do to you is kill your body. But it can't kill your soul. Same holds true for an illness, or an accident, or spree shootings, or a terrorist. Those can all kill your body. But they cannot kill your soul. That doesn't mean we shouldn't avoid those things, where we can – but not at the cost of neglecting to seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Because if we neglect that, then we risk the deprivation or even death of our souls.
Only when we understand that can we invest in heavenly treasure as a carefree church. Faith in the Father frees us from fearing what can merely kill the body; and that dismantles our worries; and that let us focus on seeking, not food or clothing, but the kingdom above all else. That's what I'm inviting our church to do. Actually, it isn't me doing the inviting; it's Jesus Christ.
Support yourselves and your families day by day, but seek the kingdom first. Devote yourselves to the King. Spread the good news. Bring others into contact with him and his provision through you, through us. And don't be afraid. Don't worry about the costs. Watch the birds and the flowers, and see the relentless love of our Father. You won't be disappointed. “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). Amen.