Laying the Ax to the Root of Worry


Matthew 6:25-34

Text Comment

 

v.25     Knowing the Bible as we do, clearly the Lord is not saying that we are not to take action to provide for our own and others’ physical necessities.  He expects his people to be hard working and responsible.  There have been some Christians who have taken the Lord’s words here to heart and, wanting to heed them, have refused to see to the needs of themselves and their families, serene in the confidence that the Lord would provide.  Even very fine Christians have sometimes made this mistake.  When Hudson Taylor, on his first visit to China, found himself in a great storm at sea, he felt it would be dishonoring to the Lord to wear a life-belt; so he gave his away.  He later realized that he was taking the Lord’s remarks out of context.  [Stott, 166]

The Lord’s concern, as the rest of the paragraph will demonstrate, is with priorities and the attitudes of the heart that flow from them.  The Lord’s point, following the previous paragraph, is that we can be unfaithful to the Lord by worrying about worldly possessions as surely as we can be unfaithful by coveting them and serving them.

v.26     A theology of ecology and environmentalism in a single verse:  the Lord’s care of the birds, on the one hand, and the far greater value of human beings on the other.

            Luther writes:  “You see he is making the birds our schoolmasters and teachers.  It is a great and abiding disgrace to us that in the Gospel a helpless sparrow should become a theologian and preacher to the wisest of men… Whenever you listen to a nightingale, therefore, you are listening to an excellent preacher… It is as if he were saying, ‘I prefer to be in the Lord’s kitchen.  He has made the heaven and earth, and he himself is the cook and the host.  Every day he feeds and nourishes innumerable little birds out of his hand.’”  [In Stott, 164]

            And perhaps you have heard the little poem:

                        Said the robin to the sparrow:
                           ‘I should really like to know
                        Why these anxious human beings
                           Rush about and worry so.’

                        Said the sparrow to the robin:
                           ‘Friend, I think that it must be
                        That they have no heavenly Father,
                           Such as cares for you and me.’
                                    [In Stott, 165]

            Actually, however, the Lord doesn’t say that the birds have a heavenly Father, but that you do!  It is your heavenly Father who feeds the birds.  That is the point.  If your Father in heaven takes such care of his lesser creatures, how much more will he provide for his own children?

v.27     Anxiety not only does not lengthen life, it may well shorten it!  Worry is pointless, futile, as well as unfaithful.

v.28     The point, once again, is that if God cares so wonderfully for the lower echelons of his creation, how much more will he provide for his children.

v.32     An unconcern about these physical needs of life should distinguish Christians from unbelievers, who have no such confidence in the Lord and see themselves as left to their own devices.  Once again in the Sermon the Lord compares the conduct of his disciples to that of pagans.

v.33     You will notice that the Lord does not despise the “other things,” worldly possessions.  He promises to provide them in an appropriate measure.  Chesterton points out that Jesus said ‘Seek first the kingdom and all these things shall be added unto you.’  Buddha said, ‘Seek first the kingdom and then you will need none of these things.’  Christ’s message is life and world-affirming not denying.  But he is telling us that motivation and ambition are everything in God’s judgment of our actions.  [Everlasting Man, 338]

v.34     The promise of God’s provision does not mean that we can look forward to a life without problems.  But our problems don’t need to be enlarged by worrying about them beforehand.  God knows about these too and can be trusted to carry us through them.  The Lord seems to be saying something like, “You can always worry tomorrow, but, since tomorrow never comes, since it is always today for us, worry can always be deferred.  [Morris]

Every human being is a “seeker.”  We have been made that way and cannot help it.  We are all looking for something and our lives are directed by those interests.  Our ambition is what makes us tick.  [Stott, 160]  You have only to read the newspaper, or listen to people talk, or watch the television to see how human life is shaped by and directed by the desires that human beings have.  Jesus, as always, begins with the realities of human life, and here he builds on that universal characteristic.  People become what they seek; they become what they worship; their desires, to a very great extent, define their lives.  So, Jesus says, if you are people who seek me, if you desire me and my kingdom and my righteousness, if these are the great ambitions of your life, there are going to be marked, obvious differences between you and those who seek other things, the things of this world.

And once again, characteristically, he braces us with an absolute contrast not the relative, the softer contrast we are hoping for.  “Don’t worry about your body,” he says, not, “worry less about it than other people do.”  He says, “Seek the kingdom and let God provide the other things,” not, as we might have thought he would, as we sometimes wish he had said, “Be sure to seek the kingdom more than most people do and be moderate in your seeking of the things of this world.”  With Jesus it is always all or nothing!  Given the sinfulness of our hearts and the subtlety of the Devil and the powerful attractions of the world, the Christian life will never arise out of half-measures.  It is the person who forsakes the world who serves Christ and the person who forgets the other things who is the loyal disciple of Jesus Christ.  Albrecht Bengel, the great German Pietist, whose commentary on the New Testament is a model of brevity and compression, caught the Lord’s meaning when he commented on 6:33:  “Qui id primum quaerit, mox id unum quaeret.”  It is an all-encompassing devotion that the Lord is after in the hearts of his disciples.  He does not mean seek the kingdom first and then, when you’ve done that, you can seek the things of the world.  He means seek the kingdom and leave the rest to God.

The Lord’s point is that this putting the kingdom first, this putting God first, for that is what it means, this putting holiness of life first, and leaving the accumulation of things and the pleasures of worldly comforts for God to supply as he will, not only will single you out among the people of this world, who tend to be fixated on worldly things, but will bestow on you the great blessing of living without worry and anxiety.  The commandments of God are not burdensome.  No one ever lived a sadder life, no one ever lost out on better things, because he put Christ first and tried to serve him in everything.  Everyone who ever did that lived a richer, happier, more fruitful life for it.  That is Christ’s promise here.  The things unbelievers seek God will give to those who love and serve him, but give them in a way that leaves no regret as is so often and so sadly the case with those who acquire the things of this world by seeking them.

In the Sermon on the Mount the Lord is interested, as we have seen, in the witness of his disciples’ lives.  He wants others to see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven.  He wants us to show the world a higher life and force unbelievers to ask themselves where such a life comes from.  Putting first things first, putting Christ’s kingdom first, not only puts your money where your mouth is as a Christian, but it opens the way to demonstrating the reality and power of Christian faith before the world.  After all, a Christian is a person who says that:

he wants to live for eternity not for time;
that Christ, who loved me and gave himself for me, is worth any sacrifice in this world;     
that there is more pleasure in serving Christ than in anything the world can offer; and
that the way of Christian faith is the only way to live human life as it ought to be lived because what Christians believe is true, whereas unbelievers are basing their lives on a giant falsehood.

Who is going to believe us when we say that, who is going to take that view of life seriously, who is going to think that Christ really means so much to us, if we Christians seem to care about worldly possessions as much as non-Christians and if we seem to be as anxious about jobs and income, about bills and taxes, about food, clothing, and shelter, about our entertainment and the enjoyment of ease, as any unbeliever is?  What Jesus is asking of his disciples is nothing more nor less than their putting their money where their mouth is.  Stand up and be counted for the truth you profess!

If a person says that money is unimportant to him but he is always talking about it, always worrying out loud about his bills, always flying into a rage about taxes, always casting an envious eye at those who make more money than he does, surely people can be forgiven for not taking him seriously when he says that money is not important to him.  Well, when Christians live lives that are not in some very important ways dramatically different from the lives of those around them, different in the very ways that a Christian’s different ambitions should make them different, different in ways that everyone can see are better, lighter, happier, sounder, why should unbelievers take any notice of our message or believe that we have discovered the secret of life?  Jesus is entirely willing to throw down that challenge to us and to the world and does so any number of times in the Gospels.

He is reminding his disciples here, he is reminding us that in a world full of lust for worldly things, of the envy of those who have more, and in an anxious world, a world of people distracted by worry that they will not get their share or get to enjoy it, a Christian’s cheerful unconcern about these things and satisfaction in giving his life to God is and must be a powerful witness born to a different and a better life and to the source of that life.

Before leaving for missionary service in China, William Burns, the great revival preacher of 1830s and 1840s Scotland – a man who had spent ten years preaching to immense congregations and could have had any number of influential pastorates in his homeland and so lived a comfortable and influential life in Scotland – received this advice from his friend John Duncan, the celebrated “Rabbi” Duncan.

            “Take you care of his cause, and he will take care of your
            interests; look after his glory, and he will look after your
            comfort.” 

Well he did.  Hardly a man has lived who more faithfully put the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness first.  And hardly a man ever lived who lived more comfortably.  There were plenty of tomorrow’s worth of things to worry about in China, but he had a remarkably fruitful ministry there over twenty years.  When asked if he knew William Burns, a fellow missionary exclaimed, “Know him, sir?  All China knows him; he is the holiest man alive!”  [In Smellie, R.M. McCheyne, 101]  When, after his death, his personal affects were collected and sent home to Scotland, they filled a single small box:  a pair of trousers, a shirt, his Bible, another book, and a Chinese flag.  Not much to show for his years, or was it?  A happy life, indeed; a wonderfully fruitful life!

Not everyone is called to live such a spartan life, to be sure, but is it not the glory of our faith that so many good men and women through the ages have, in loyalty to Christ, and desiring to put his kingdom first, lived in such cheerful indifference to worldly things and have not only lived lives of which this world is not worthy but forced unbelievers to reckon with the power of their faith.  Has there ever been one of these, who sought first the kingdom of God, has there ever been a single one who had to beg for his bread?  And have these men and women been distracted by anxiety and worry about food and clothing and shelter, about income and about expenditures?  Not much.  They lived largely without those burdens.  They proved our Savior’s words, that “faith is the grave of care!”  [Krummacher, Elijah, 42-43]

And just that is the Lord’s great point and our great lesson in this text. “Faith is the grave of care.”  Now this section we just read begins with a “therefore.”  His remarks in vv. 25-34 are connected to, you see, and flow from the argument that has gone before it.  The Lord has already told us that earthly treasure is temporary and unreliable.  He has said that an earthly or worldly ambition blinds us to the true meaning, purpose, and secret of life.  He has already warned us that we cannot serve both God and money; that we have to make a choice between them.  The Christian disciple has made his choice:  he will lay up his treasure in heaven not on earth.  He will give his loyalty and his service to God not to money.  But that commitment, that choice has vast implications for our attitudes toward many things in life.  It must be reflected in the state of mind we bring to our daily living.  That is, faith always has a practical outworking.  Real faith, true faith changes attitudes and behavior in the profoundest ways.

It is very interesting to me and surely an index of the deceitfulness of sin that we who live in such abundance and such peace in the United States of America have as much trouble putting the kingdom of God first as have Christians who might be said to have had much greater reason to doubt the Lord’s sure provision of all their needs and wants.

Helmut Thielicke, the German theologian and preacher, sometimes referred to as the German Billy Graham, preached a famous series of sermons on the Sermon on the Mount at St. Mark’s church in Stuttgart during the terrible years 1946-48.  His congregation was living through the devastation – physical and psychological – that was the aftermath of the destruction of Germany and the humbling of its people at the end of the Second World War.  He reminded them of what it had been like to run for safety as the air-raid sirens sounded, to hear the fall of the bombs, to see the new destruction when they ascended to ground level again after the attack.  To see their homes collapsing in flames, to see their neighbors and their loved ones dead or dying.  What comfort could they take, in such a time, from the Lord’s remarks about birds and lilies?  How could they apply his command not to worry about their lives and their living in such a time?

Well, said Thielicke,

“I think we must stop and listen when this man, whose life on earth was anything but birdlike and lilylike, points us to the carefreeness of the birds and the lilies.  Were not the sombre shadows of the Cross already looming over this hour of the Sermon on the Mount?”  [in Stott, 168]

His point was that this teaching, coming from Jesus Christ’s own mouth, must be universally and absolutely relevant.  It must be as true in war as in peace, in poverty as in wealth, in sickness as in health, in affliction and trial as in prosperity and happiness.  For Christ does not base his exhortation to us to seek first the kingdom and leave the rest to God on anything that depends on our circumstances in life.  He bases it on those things that never change and never can change:  the love of God for his children, the certain victory of the kingdom of Jesus Christ, and the promise of eternal life for those who trust in him.

In other words, Jesus is telling us, in other words, what we are always told in the Bible:  that we have to live by faith, not by sight.  If we depend upon what we can see with the eyes of our body, we will never live this way, putting God first.  It is our faith, our conviction of what is true but yet unseen, that teaches us that the pursuit of worldly goals is foolish and wrong.  There was truth enough in vv. 19-24, but the Lord adds more argument on top of what he has already given.  Faith knows that worldly possessions and pleasures are temporary and that they crowd out the love and service of God in a person’s life.  But faith also knows that it need not worry about having enough for life, even for happiness, because God, our heavenly Father, will always care for his children.  Faith knows this.  We know this, if we are Christians.

But we don’t always KNOW this, do we?  Our faith must be practiced.  Faith is not a reflex action, like a heartbeat, automatic and undirected.  Faith must be set to work.  It operates at our command.  That is the burden of the Lord’s remark when he addresses us, his disciples, at the end of verse 30,  “O you of little faith…”  He is speaking to us, his disciples, and saying that, while we believe, we do not believe as confidently and assuredly as we should.  We often do not assert our faith and practice our faith.  It needs to grow stronger; it needs to be exercised until it is a more powerful force in our lives.

In the Gospel of Matthew, on four other occasions, the Lord refers to his disciples as men of “little faith:”  When they cried out in fear in a storm on the Sea of Galilee (8:26); when Peter, walking on the water, lost his presence of mind and cried out, ‘Lord, save me,’ (14:31); when they forgot to take bread with them and wondered about their next meal (16:8); and when they failed to drive a demon out of a boy (17:20).  In each case, the disciples were, at that moment, failing to trust the Lord for his help and provision in a moment of need.  And, in each case by referring to their little faith, the Lord was saying to them, “I might have expected more of you.  Knowing what you know, having seen what I have showed you, I expected more from you.  There was no reason for you to doubt, or to fear, but you did, because your faith was weak and you were not putting it to work!  I expected more from you than this.”

We know well enough that our faith is often weak.  We know that the Lord is talking to us when he addresses his disciples as men and women of little faith.  We are exposed time and again for the weakness of our faith and often at precisely this point the Lord is making in our text this morning.  We worry about food, clothing and shelter, about worldly possessions and an adequate supply of them.  We worry and stew, we get angry and envious, we spend far too much time thinking about such things as if our life consisted of them and our happiness depended upon having enough of them.

But brothers and sisters, God did not set his love on you before the world was made; Christ did not go to the agony of the cross for you, the Holy Spirit did not form the new man within you for you to spend the rest of your days in this world hankering after the same things unbelievers long for and worship.  You have not been saved to live as if this world’s treasures which are so quickly passing away were the sum and substance of your life.

So tell me: What are your ambitions?  Everyone has desires for things.  A little boy wants to be cowboy or a firefighter.  An adult man wants this job or this promotion or this home.  But at the last there are only two ambitions, all the rest is but a variation on a theme.  There is the ambition to seek the kingdom of God and his righteousness and there is the ambition to seek this world and its rewards.  Search you hearts.  What are your ambitions?  Is it to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ in every way?  Is it to live a holy life to the praise of your God and Savior?  Is to demonstrate in various important ways that Christ is your Lord and Master and you love it that he is?  Is it to have a powerful, persuasive witness to the unsaved?  Is it to be a faithful churchman, serving the church because it is the apple of Christ’s eye?  Is it to be a man or woman of prayer?  Is it to be a loving husband, father, friend, whose attitude and conduct adorn the gospel of Jesus Christ?  Is it to live a warriors life, to live by faith in Christ a life of victory over the very temptations that the people of this world find impossible to resist?  Is it to live so that everyone can see that you have your eye set on the world to come?  Is it to be a person whose daily life is characterized by the love that God has poured out in your heart?

Are those your ambitions?  Well, if they are, say so.  Tell the Lord, tell yourself, remind yourself every day what your real ambitions are.  And then look up.  It can all be yours.  It is amazing what a human being can become and what he can accomplish if only God will bless his ambition.

As Augustine lay dying, we are told that the names of three people came continually to his lips:  Monica, his mother who had taught him the faith as a boy and had prayed for him during his rebellious years and who had died shortly after his becoming a Christian; Adeodatus, his son by his unnamed mistress and who had died while still a young man, and the mistress herself, with whom Augustine had lived as a common-law husband for some years, whom he had loved deeply, and whose departure – sadly demanded by the foolish customs of that time –  had broken his heart.  [Robert Payne, Fathers of the Western Church, 179]

I like that scene very much.  It is a true picture of a godly life at its end.  There will be sadness in life to be sure; some of it caused by our own foolishness and sin.  The Lord acknowledges that here in v. 34.  He is a realist, the Lord Jesus Christ.  There will be sadness to be sure.  But on your deathbed it will be sweet sadness if only your life has been in truth lived for God and for the kingdom of God.  Augustine had nothing else to do but grieve those whom he had loved and lost, because his life had been well spent.  He hadn’t cared much about worldly things and had no concern for them now.  The Lord had managed that part of his life and had managed it wonderfully well.  Augustine had sought the kingdom and left the rest to God.  And now he was free to die in the same spirit in which he had lived.  How many there are who cannot do that in our world.  How many find that on their deathbed they are oppressed by fears because they lived for that which now they must leave behind and they left uncared for what would have bathed their deathbed in light.  Not so Augustine and not so multitudes upon multitudes of Christians through the ages.

My great task as your minister, my supreme responsibility is to connect this world to the next in your minds and your hearts, to keep firm the connection between time and eternity.  It is not, as too many ministers nowadays seem to think, to help you to live happy lives in this world.  Although as Christ says here, the best way to be happy here is to live for what endures forever.  If I keep your eyes fixed on the world to come, you’ll get this world thrown in as a bonus.  Another way to put that is that my great responsibility, my supreme duty as your minister is to prepare you to die and to die well.  It may take one’s whole life to prepare for death but all that is required is that you live seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  Do that and you have nothing else to do but die and then be welcomed among the faithful servants of the Lord.  Forget the world and the things of the world, your heavenly Father can take care of those matters far better than you and will take care of them with your best interest in view.  You concentrate on living for him every day and in all the ways you know very well are most important in your own case, and, while you do, relax and enjoy the freedom of knowing that you have done all that you have to do.  God will take care of the rest.  The main thing in life, is to keep the main thing in life the main thing in life.