Stress and anxiety are huge issues in today’s society. Days at work are lost and many people’s well being is diminished because of a constant worry which eats into heart and soul. The reasons for this are many and various. Jobs are no longer for life and the cost of housing is high. This places a huge pressure on many to simply maintain a roof over their heads. While rapid transport and instant communication bring many benefits, they come with stress built in. Once, ignorance could be bliss. What we did not know, we did not have to worry about. Now everything we want to know from international news to the intimate problems of friends and family can be immediately accessible to us. The range of options and opportunities has never been so great. Is not all this choice literally ‘doing our heads in?’ Linked to all this is the change in the cultural norms surrounding marriage and family life. These relationships have become much more fluid with less expectation that a married relationship will be for life. For many this will remove a safe haven of comfort and result in yet more stress and strain.
So what does Jesus teach us? In the opening words of today’s gospel reading (Matthew 6.25-34), he says simply: ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink.’ Your reaction may well be; that’s okay for him. He was not mortgaged up to the hilt nor have a grandson in trouble with the police or a sister on drugs and threatening to take her own life. Surely Jesus just swanned around Galilee with his band of merry men relying on others for daily necessities. It was easy for him. There weren’t likely to be any bailiffs at his door or a cyber attack on his bank account.
Of course, Jesus did not suffer the identical pressures that afflict many of us, but human life and emotions were the same in first century Israel as they are in twenty first century Britain. There were stress inducing problems then which can clearly be seen in the gospels. Food did not grow on the supermarket shelves. People were dependant on what could be grown or fished from the sea. It was often of poor quality and sometimes scarce. There was no social care or health service. People worried when they became ill or a breadwinner died. It was a land under occupation with the Romans demanding tax with menaces through their dreaded tax collectors. Jesus talks of the way the religious authorities placed undue burdens on people in the way they demanded the temple tax and adherence many petty Sabbath rules. Jesus may not have been stressed by cold callers asking if he had been mis sold a pension or wanted to make a claim after a serious accident he hadn’t had but he lived in a society where anxiety took a different form. He could well identify with the woman at the well of Samaria and her five husbands or the man who wanted him to settle a dispute with his brother over his inheritance. Jesus lived with the ultimate worry of the crucifixion. In the garden of Gethsemane, such was his stress that his sweat was as drops of blood.
So when Jesus spoke of anxiety, he knew what it felt like and he can command authority on the subject. Here, he is not suggesting that stress is sinful or should never be a part of our lives. Indeed, must experts in the subject suggest that a little stress is good for us. No, he is instead counselling against worrying about certain things because to do so is to question the provision of God.
At the heart of Jesus’ teaching is the Kingdom of God. This is a gift to us from God ultimately made possible through Jesus’ sacrificial death and glorious resurrection. He gifts us the right to be members of this kingdom, his club in this world and the next for all eternity. Unlike so much else in life, membership of God’s Kingdom is not based on our wealth, our associations our abilities or our looks. It is the free gift of our heavenly father to all who would seek it. If it is God’s gift and means so much, if it does not depend our obtaining so many things which the world counts as valuable and desirable, why should we continue to worry about those things?
Jesus touches on a number of areas of life which as Christian believers, members of God’s kingdom, we really should not worry about. He talks about food, which in his day the farmer would be stressing about ensuring he had a good crop. God feeds the birds of the air (sometimes from the farmer’s crop!), surely then he will feed us, valuable members of his kingdom? This is not a call to a reckless attitude to life which does not make sensible provision for our daily needs, but it is a call not to make these things a great subject of concern and anxiety. For most of us, we can be thankful that we do not have to worry about paying for the supermarket shop; our worry may be more around what we eat. As members of God’s kingdom, our worry should instead be for those who will struggle this week because they have been made redundant and their benefits have not been sorted. That’s why there’s box in the lounge for the food bank. Use it. It is through your graciousness in return for God’s graciousness that others will not have to worry.
Jesus talks of clothes. They were a big deal in his day as they are in ours. Our clothing is relatively much cheaper than theirs because most of what we wear is made by poorly paid workers in the Far East labouring in unacceptable conditions. Again, drawing from the natural world, Jesus reminds his listeners that even Solomon in all his glory was not as finely dressed as the lily like flowers which fleetingly adorn the fields of Israel in spring time. But for clothes, read material possessions. How much time do you spend acquiring them, servicing them, insuring them and importantly today, disposing of them responsibly? Jesus is not saying: ‘Don’t have them,’ but he is saying: ‘Don’t let them become a source of worry.’
Jesus also talks about status. ‘And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life.’ (verse 27) This is not an easy verse to translate as it appears in the Greek to muddle up measurements of distance and time. It may be Jesus is talking about worrying about our height, ie the way we look, or about how long we are going to live as translated here, or about or standing, our years of maturity, which was always important in first century culture. Whatever it is, these are all things which should not concern us as kingdom members. We should be grateful and thankful that God’s gift of his kingdom is of infinitely more value, the treasure buried in the field for which the man sold all he had and bought the field. (Matthew 13.44)
Jesus sums it all up in the last two verses (33 &34) ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness.’ That is a gift to be found and received. Even God’s righteousness is a gift ‘apart from the law’ (Romans 3.21) meaning we don’t have to worry about being perfect to join…but we should seek his righteousness in our lives. Jesus adds: … ‘all these things will be given to you as well.’ Is not that the ultimate ‘bog off’!
He finishes as I will: ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. ‘Today’s trouble is enough for today.’ Jesus accepts that we will have worry in life, about those whom we care about, about the work of the church and the ways of the world, but we should resist worrying about our own food, health, material goods and status and replace it with praise to God for the riches of his provision.
2nd Before Lent 19.02.2017