Text: Matthew 6:24-34
Date: Epiphany VIII + 2/27/11
Lutheran Church of the Incarnate Word, Rochester Hills, MI
In our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount He has been telling us who believe on Him what He is making us to be as His disciples. Quite opposite of any top-10 list of desirable traits the world would come up with He calls us “poor in spirit,” “those who mourn,” “the meek,” “those hungering and thirsting for righteousness,” “merciful,” “pure in heart,” “peacemakers,” persecuted and otherwise reviled or rejected by the world for His sake. He has ushered us through the blessed door of our new identity in Him and citizenship of heaven. Then He reveals the heart of God’s holy Law to us and with His Word creates a new heart in us, a heart cleansed and beating in rhythm with God’s will. Because we will not hear the end of the Sermon in Matthew 7 in the lectionary however, today’s selection acts as the last word we hear on this mountain as next Sunday we climb another mountain to celebrate the Transfiguration only then to descend into the blessed valley of Lent. After the challenging words of God’s Law fulfilled by and in Jesus, the last words are comforting and reassuring as He says, “do not be anxious.”
The prohibition against anxiety follows our Lord’s proverbial saying, “No one can serve two masters…you cannot serve God and money.” In saying this He, at once, puts His finger on the main struggle of the Christian life and, at the same time, liberates us to the service of God.
In His rather humorous illustrations of bird farms and flower factories Jesus takes the basic concerns of life—food, drink and clothing—to address any and every earthly concern that, after all, seeks only to weaken faith in God. You will recall that later, in the parable of the sower, He will warn how “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” of God and makes faith wither (Mt 13:22). The apostle Paul likewise warns Christians, saying, “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6). Jesus summarizes the whole issue by saying, “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you,” “these things” being all those of this world over which you have worried and fretted and agonized so much.
Of course we live in a day and in a community where “these things” are so much more than merely what fits into a grocery bag or on a closet hanger or on a shelf in the wet bar. Even in times of economic recession or even depression we have and possess and, we might as well admit, obsess over so much more material wealth than almost any other society or era. It’s hard for us to imagine what Jesus had in mind when He painted His picture of anxieties and fear among a people who every day lived closer to poverty than we possibly ever have or will. Our American society, for all the evils and negative marks it that deface it, still at least has the heart to provide food stamps, or churches or the Salvation Army with the freedom and encouragement to maintain food banks and clothing donations, and even hospitals which provide emergency surgery first asking questions later. Not only so but we even have enough generosity left over to help those in other areas of the world troubled with life-threatening situations as in Africa or Haiti or New Zealand where President Rev. Robert Erickson of the Lutheran Church of New Zealand has requested our prayers this day for those affected by last Tuesday’s 6.3-magnitude earthquake. They are calling the earthquake the most deadly disaster in New Zealand in 80 years with the death toll now rising above 100 and hundreds more possibly still trapped in collapsed buildings. Thousands are in shelters. Imagine having everything of our earthly possessions stripped away in an instant.
And of course we have a pretty good imagination as anxiety builds over many lesser concerns such as the balance in the checkbook or the gas gauge in the car nearing zero. But what do such fears have to do with faith in God? Even when we hear the promise, “seek first the kingdom of God…and all these things will be added to you,” we tend still to be thinking mainly about “these things.” Those who preach a so-called “prosperity gospel” would have you believe that the more you put seeking God’s kingdom first in your life the more God will shower “these things” upon you.
What is the kingdom or reign of God and the righteousness of God of which Jesus says we are to seek first? The kingdom is the saving mission of Jesus. “His righteousness” is the restoration of an eternal relationship with God through the forgiveness of our sins. When God’s kingdom or reign and His righteousness is truly your number one concern it’s not that life will necessarily become any easier or richer for it. “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” In fact quite the opposite may still happen. Indeed it will, as Jesus would tell in the parable of the rich fool.
There Jesus said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” The parable is the story of a rich man who decided to build bigger barns to store his crops. The man thinks out loud, saying, “I will say to my soul, Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” “But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’” (Lk 12:14-21). Indeed, the day is coming when all “these things” will be stripped away. Then the one and only thing needful as we stand naked before God is that declaration of righteousness which is alone by faith in the blood of Jesus shed for us for the forgiveness of our sin.
So no, it’s not “seek God’s kingdom” and then you’ll get a lot of things. Rather it is seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and then…all “these things” will be just that—things; things that will eventually grow old, rust, wear out, die and disappear. “These things” aren’t really that important after all, are they? This is how Jesus liberates us from anxiety to the more joyful service of God. It is just as St. Paul wrote to young Timothy, saying, “there is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs. But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness” (1 Tim 6:6-11).
I guess I’m building the case to apologize for a misleading sermon title today: “Relax.” That is, after all, the word of the rich fool and not of the disciple. The word of the disciple is, “Kyrie, eleison. Lord, have mercy. Come and feed me with Your grace and Your righteousness. As a vessel emptied of any worthiness of my own, fill me with Your Word, Your gifts of faith, hope and love.”
Almighty God, heavenly Father, You have called us to be Your children and heirs of Your gracious promises in Christ Jesus. Grant us Your Holy Spirit that we may forsake all covetous desires and the inordinate love of riches. Deliver us from the pursuit of passing things that we may seek the kingdom of Your Son and trust in His righteousness and so find blessedness and peace; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. (195)