October 7, 2018

Indeed Your Heavenly Father Knows

Passage: Joel 2:21-27, Psalm 126, 1 Timothy 2:1-7, Matthew 6:24-34
Service Type:

For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
“Why do you worry?” asks Jesus, “Why are you anxious? Do you really think that worrying will let you live better or live longer? Then why worry?” But we do worry and anxiety does beset us and now our worry is worsened by guilt. Jesus said not to worry so clearly I’m not measuring up. We can only conclude that we are spiritually defective. (One of the reasons people are afraid to go to church is they fear being made to feel spiritually inadequate.)

It important to understand that our Lord’s word is meant to bring us relief and encouragement and hope. His word is never meant to bring us distress or despair. We should understand too that the anxiety of which he speaks in our scripture text isn’t anxiety of every sort; specifically it’s anxiety connected to acquisitiveness. The worry Jesus speaks of is in the context of his saying that you cannot serve God and wealth. This kind of anxiety/worry is a spiritual problem. But not all anxiety is a spiritual problem.

We hear a lot these days about mental illness. According to the Government of Canada, mental illness is experienced by 1 in 3 Canadians during their lifetime. Anxiety as a psychological problem would come under the title of mental illness. Panic attacks, for instance, are a psychological disorder having nothing to do with one’s spiritual condition. A panic attack is a sudden onset of overwhelming anxiety for no apparent reason. Severe panic attacks are immobilizing. In such matters we must be careful never to suggest that someone’s faith is weak because of these things.

If you ask me why some people are afflicted with panic attacks, I can only say, “Why do some people develop arthritis in their right knee? Why do some people develop astigmatism in their left eye? I have discovered that I am somewhat claustrophobic and the vision of my left eye is permanently blurred by scar tissue from a cornea ulcer; but this has nothing to do with my spiritual condition.

So what anxiety does Jesus have in mind? What does Jesus mean when he says, “Don’t be anxious; worrying won’t help you live longer or live better”? He means this. There is a kind of anxiety we suffer because we persist in pursuing what isn’t God’s kingdom. A few verses before Jesus tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and therein shed our anxiety; he says, “Don’t lay up for yourselves treasure upon earth, where inflation erodes it and governments tax it. You lay up treasure in heaven, for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” We know this truth—what we cherish is what we pursue and we will find relief for much anxiety in seeking first God’s kingdom.

2. As Jesus addresses this matter of worry or anxiety born of acquisitiveness I notice that his focus or emphasis is on God—the one he calls “your heavenly Father.” Jesus turns our attention away from ourselves to God. The great antidote to this sort of worry/anxiety is our deepening appreciation for God who loves us and provides richly for us. Jesus keeps circling back to this point about the grandeur of God. The birds of the air, even though they have no idea how to sow or reap, are fed by “your heavenly Father.” The grass of the field doesn’t know how to sew nor spin but God exquisitely arrays them with flowers. Your need for food and drink and clothing, the matters of everyday living, is indeed on “your heavenly Father’s” radar. Notice where Jesus turns our focus—your heavenly Father and how profoundly God values you.

So think for a moment about how many birds there are in the world. According to the American Museum of Natural History the number is between 200 and 400 billion. I would translate this rather wide margin as, there are lots and lots of birds, so many, in fact, that we have a hard time counting. Every fall I see many groups of Canada Geese flying south in their famous “v” formation. According to the Canadian Wildlife Federation there are about eight million Canada Geese. When I watch these geese flying, they do not appear malnourished. All these countless birds, ever though they have never planted a crop nor harvested into a storehouse, according to Jesus, are fed by “your heavenly Father” who loves you profoundly. If God can do this why are we anxious?

Some have misunderstood Jesus’ tone here in saying to his anxious disciples, for example, that they have tiny faith. The context, however, doesn’t suggest for a minute that Jesus is disgusted or angry or contemptuous. The context suggests surprise, amazement even: “Come on, guys, have you forgotten who I am and what I’ve promised? Have I ever let you down before? Haven’t you always found me true to my word? Why is your faith so tiny?” Our Lord speaks in a spirit of surprise, yes, but also compassion and gentleness and encouragement, not in a spirit of contempt or disgust.

There are over 7.6 billion people in the world and we know that there is enough food in the world to feed them all. The problem isn’t sufficient food for all but its appropriate distribution among us all. On this our Canadian thanksgiving day we acknowledge the abundance of what we have. Year by year crops are planted all around our world and year by year God gives the increase in the life he gives to plants. Jesus calls us to reflect on who it is we serve, on whose kingdom we are to put first.

William Law was a sixteenth century English clergyman, a contemporary of John Wesley’s. Wesley, in his sermons, was fond of citing from Law’s most famous book, A Serious Call to a Devout Life. William Law wrote, "Receive every day as a resurrection from death, as a new enjoyment of life; meet every rising sun with such sentiments of God's goodness, as if you had seen it, and all things, new-created upon your account: and under the sense of so great a blessing, let your joyful heart praise and magnify so good and glorious a Creator."

What William Law calls us to envision at the dawning of each new day and what Jesus was teaching his disciples, focuses our attention in the same place—your heavenly Father.

3. In view of the wonder of God and his goodness Jesus goes on to say that our first priority is to strive for God’s kingdom and his righteousness. The antidote to this anxiety isn’t simply to “stop it.” If that is all Jesus said he would be irritating and useless in equal measure. This kind of worry for the matters of everyday life is overcome as a new preoccupation captures us. When the One who really is worthy of being first in our lives is put first.

Jesus is saying more that “put first things first.” He isn’t saying there is magic in a strategy of figuring out what your first things are and then organize yourself to do those first things first—as helpful as being organized can be. Jesus is saying there really is a “first” in life that is worthy of pursuit of being first. You true self is found in this relationship with this One who loves you profoundly. The One who put you and me ahead of himself at the cross where he gives himself without remainder for our sakes.

As I reflect on Jesus’ teaching here I am reminded about how expansively I use the word “need.” I look at my life and can see that yesterday’s luxuries have become today’s necessities. A news article described this phenomena listing that in 1960 less than ten percent of North American families owned a dishwasher or colour television, in 1975 less that ten percent of families owned a microwave, and in 1990 less that ten percent of families had a cell phone or access to the internet. And I am embarrassed to say that I get anxious when the dishwasher breaks down. Sometimes when my wife tells me she needs to buy something I will observe, “well, that’s an interesting use of the word “need.” (She has much to endure in life.) Of course, standing in a golf equipment store I can see much that I “need.”

But there is a reassessment about need that I find implied in our Lord’s teaching. Most of the people Jesus was talking to could only dream of what I consider life’s basics. Putting his kingdom first orders all other things and calls me to reassess what the kingdoms of this world say is first and their grip on my own life. I note, for example, that I have a closet full of clothes I will never be able to wear out. When Jesus died the soldiers gambled for his clothes—he didn’t have a closet full somewhere that family members had to deal with. To be sure it was an excellent garment—that is why the soldiers gambled for it and didn’t simply rip it up—but there was only the one. I think this points me to a simplicity of life with respect to things.

4. I invite you to reflect on how we might pray in light of this text; how are we to pray about the matters of everyday life. We have some indication in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount when Jesus taught us to pray “give us this day our daily bread.” I am suggesting we consider our prayer after the pattern we find in the prayer that is Psalm 126—the Psalm we read/prayed in our service today.

The Psalm itself is divided into two halves; the first part is joyful, the second a more sober realism sets in. The first half remembers a great day when “the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion.” In 539 BC, King Cyrus of Persia won Babylon in what he claimed to be a bloodless victory. Within two years he had sent home captives from all the subject peoples who had been detained in Babylon. For the Jews, who had spent 70 years in captivity, this must have been a moment of delirious joy, as suggested in the first half of the Psalm. “Then our tongue was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy.”

The second half of the Psalm address a difficult situation currently being faced. “Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” continues the Psalmist, “May those who sow in tears reaps with shouts of joy.” Please note the larger pattern. First, praise of God for a time when God restored fortunes and then a prayer of supplication for such restoration to be manifest in the current moment of difficulty.

Could we not then pray in this pattern when it comes to our need? We begin with praise of God; “Lord you feed the birds with an open hand, you clothe the grasses with beautiful flower, you know everything we need.” And then to proceed to ask for the restoration or to lay the need pressing on our hearts before him. I find that reflecting on the wonder of the One who hears my prayer profoundly helps me to let go of worry. In fact I find myself somewhat freed. Further, while I realize that Jesus has been addressing a particular sort of anxiety, I find that a prayer that focuses on the wonder of “our heavenly Father” lessens other sorts of anxiety as well.

4. Jesus calls us to rest on the promise of God implied in the actions of God. God’s knowledge of your need for these matters of everyday life isn’t information tucked away in his mind rather they are on his mind so that “all these things will be given to you as well.”

… and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.