Posted by: Keith Clark | October 20, 2010

Seek First the Kingdom

The audio of my sermon from October 17 failed to record, so instead of an mp3, here is the manuscript of my sermon, “Seek First the Kingdom,” based on Matthew 6:25-34. (The manuscript differs only slightly from the actual delivery of the sermon.)

First, the text:

“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 important than food, and the body more important than clothes? 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? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 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? So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
–Matthew 6:25-34

They are words that are perhaps as well known as any words in Scripture, any words spoken from Jesus’ mouth. It’s difficult to find anyone who is unfamiliar with the command Jesus sets forth in the text we’ve heard together today: “Do not worry. Don’t be anxious.” Yet it is at least equally difficult, if not more difficult, to find anyone who actually takes Jesus seriously. Rather, most of us write off this command as idealistic, unrealistic, as though Jesus got a bit carried away with excitement, failing to realize how incredibly difficult obedience to such a command would be.

Jesus speaks of worry because he knows how strong its grip can be on our lives. He knows how it can strangle the life right from our body, how it can choke us so we can no longer breathe in the air we so desperately need to survive. He had no doubt witnessed its power firsthand growing up. Perhaps there were times when his own family struggled to put food on the table, after all carpentry wouldn’t have provided his family with the steadiest of incomes.

But even if Joseph never struggled to find opportunities to use his skills, surely Jesus saw some of their family friends struggle from time to time, certainly he heard the question, “How are we going to provide clothes for our children?” or at least he saw on their faces the look of uncertainty that communicates clearly without words, “How are we going to make it to payday?”

And there’s no doubt in my mind Jesus saw evidence of just how dramatically such doubts, such questions, such struggles can impact the lives of the worriers and those around them. He had to have seen the shame on the face of a husband who wasn’t sure he could provide for the family. He had to have seen the disappointment on the face of a mother who didn’t know from where her children’s next meal would come. He had to have seen the confusion on the faces of children whose parents’ relationship was on life support because their worries had strangled the life out of their relationship, choked it off from the air it so desperately needed to survive.

And certainly Jesus saw the fear that inevitably shows up on the faces of those who are worried about their health. Surely he saw it in the eyes of the father who doubted whether his daughter would make it through the week, not to mention to her wedding day. Surely he saw it in the eyes of the grandchildren who hoped against hope that their grandmother would make it to their next birthday. Surely he saw it in the eyes of the pregnant, young mother-to-be, who teetered on the brink of total breakdown at the thought her husband might not be around to help raise the precious child that was headed into the world to join them, hopefully them.

Surely, too, he saw it in the eyes of the daughter, who wondered herself, whether she’d ever be able to enjoy the wonderful blessings of life lived in the daily company of another to whom she would give her entire being. Surely, too, he saw it in the eyes of the grandmother, who wondered herself, whether she’d ever be able to enjoy watching those grandchildren grow up to become the blessings to the world she knew they could be. Surely, too, he saw it in the eyes of the husband, who wondered himself, whether he’d ever be able to share those precious moments with his wife: holding his newborn child for the first time, seeing the first smile, watching the first steps, hearing the first words. Surely he had seen the way people around him often treasured life on earth more than anything else, and thus lived their entire lives in bondage to the fear of physical death.

Indeed he had seen it all from a front-row seat, and he’d seen the way such worry can absolutely strangle all the life out of people, even before their greatest fears have a chance to become reality. Which is precisely why he says:

“Wait a second. Are any of you, by worrying about losing your lives, getting any more out of your lives? Are any of you, by worrying about tomorrow, getting any more out of today?

“Look at the birds of the air; they are carefree, not worried about a thing, they just do what they were created to do—sing their songs, fly around, build their nests. Even then, they freely improvise, graciously receiving whatever God provides, even the stuff you throw away, the stuff you call trash, to build their little homes. Yes, God takes care of them, and you count far more to God than birds.

“And what about the fields filled with flowers. They don’t spend energy trying to make themselves look pretty; God has made them more beautiful than they could ever have made themselves. If God gives such attention to the appearance of flowers—many of which go unnoticed, undiscovered, unseen—don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do everything possible to take care of you?

“What I’m trying to say is: relax! Don’t be so obsessed with getting, protecting, securing, preserving. Instead, freed from your worry about those things, you can pay attention to all of God’s giving, because when you do, you’ll never miss out on anything that really matters. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when they come up. For now, enjoy all that God has given and is giving!”

Now we, who live in arguably the most prosperous society in human history, come together to listen to these words. We have more clothes than we can possibly wear, more cars than we can possibly drive, more rooms in our homes than we can possibly fill, more channels than we can possibly watch, more food than we can possibly eat, more doctors than we can possibly see. And yet we are cuffed and shackled by fear so that we can hardly move.

We are obsessed with getting, protecting, securing, preserving. And so we keep listening to the voices that are raking in profits as a result of our obsession with fear: The news networks which between 1990 and 1998, when the nation’s murder rate declined by 20 percent, increased the number of murder stories they relayed by 600 percent. The pundits, who are making millions off of the listeners they are trying to stir up against the folks richer than them. The politicians, who convince us if we don’t vote for them our borders will be invaded, our jobs will be lost, our taxes will go up, our government will fall apart, our social security checks may not last, even our country as we’ve known it may no longer be what we’ve always known it to be. Even our society, which has convinced us that the worst possible outcome is death, so we must exhaust every possible treatment and spend every dollar necessary to postpone death as long as possible. And for some reason, we keep tuning in every night, we keep listening every day, we keep rewarding the fear-mongering politicians with our votes, we keep paying for more and more treatments.

And Jesus looks at us, and says:

“Are any of you, by worrying about losing your lives, getting any more out of your lives? Are any of you, by worrying about tomorrow, getting any more out of today? Look at the birds of the air; they are carefree, not worried about a thing, they just do what they were created to do—sing their songs, fly around, build their nests. Even then, they freely improvise, graciously receiving whatever God provides, even the stuff you throw away, the stuff you call trash, to build their little homes. Yes, God takes care of them, and you count far more to God than birds.

“And what about the fields filled with flowers. They don’t spend energy trying to make themselves look pretty; God has made them more beautiful than they could ever have made themselves. If God gives such attention to the appearance of flowers—many of which go unnoticed, undiscovered, unseen—don’t you think God will attend to you, take pride in you, do everything possible to take care of you?

“What I’m trying to say is: relax! Don’t be so obsessed with getting, protecting, securing, preserving. Instead, freed from your worry about those things, you can pay attention to all of God’s giving, because when you do, you’ll never miss out on anything that really matters. Give your entire attention to what God is doing right now, and don’t get worked up about what may or may not happen tomorrow. God will help you deal with whatever hard things come up when they come up. For now, enjoy all that God has given and is giving!”

Which is a way of saying:

“Stop seeking your kingdoms, and start seeking the kingdom of the one who is good to all, whose compassion is over all created things, who is faithful in every word, and gracious in every deed, the one to whom all creatures look for food at the proper time, the one whose hands are opened so that all creatures are satisfied with good things.

“Seek first the kingdom of God.”

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