Dr. Chris White November 17th, 2013
For me, the highlight of our summer vacation to New England this past summer was climbing Mt. Lafayette with Ian. It had a great beginning, a dire middle, and a head-shaking end. The beginning was so fun because we scaled it so quickly. The middle was dire because of the conditions atop the White Mountains. The end was a head-shaker because we only noticed the warning signs posted on trees when we descended—Conditions can change quickly, dress appropriately, and Do not presume a rescue team will get to you. Warning signs were everywhere, but we never saw them. And so the reversal on the mountaintop was a low point, even reckless.
The gospels should come with a warning. Jesus often takes us in a direction that seems predictable, even logical to our spiritual sensitivities, and he reverses course: a despised Samaritan is the good guy, a prodigal son finds forgiveness, and ninety-nine sheep are left on the hill to search for the lost one. We get caught in these reversals. Today’s Scripture is no different. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks to the first concerns of life on this planet—food, clothes, and longevity—and we need to hear what he says. It is liberating. But we’ll soon see that it is not all it appears.
Matthew 6:25-27: 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 that they? Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?
A literal reading might be, Do not be anxious or take an anxious interest about your life’s sustenance. We translate it worry, a word with a great German origin: to strangle. So, do not strangle yourself over interests in basic provision. Jesus does not and cannot take the issue lightly, because most people in the ancient world had real concerns about food. Bread was a common meal, meat perhaps once a week. Famines were real threats. And financial pressures were real. Through temple tithes and Roman taxes, some Jews paid as much as half of their salary in taxes.
Still, Jesus tells them and us not to strangle a day with anxiety over these things. He points to the birds of the air. They are industrious, no doubt, but they are dependent on good fortune far more than people. If God makes a way for them to eat, Jesus says, will He not much more remember those who are far more valuable? This is us, of course. And then he’ll ask, Who can lengthen life by even an hour with anxiety? That is, Why strangle a day with anxiety over how long you’re going to live? Jesus questions our questioning of God’s faithfulness. “Worry is practical atheism” (Mounce). And if we are going to pray to Him as a Father, we must presume He is at least as good as a good father on earth who anticipates the needs of his children.
Matthew 6:28-32: And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies 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, O you of little faith? So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we wear?” For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
Why would anyone worry about clothes? Common people owned only one outer cloak, and it served as a blanket as well. And just like a parent today who might worry practically about new coats and shoes for kids each fall, this is heightened by the social pressure kids feel to own something of fashion. Jesus again points them and us beyond this. King Solomon in all his royal wealth and robes never approached the intricate beauty of the natural creation. These lilies of the field do not labor or spin or sew. Yet, as beautiful as they are, they became fuel for fires in ancient cook stoves. If God can craft such beauty over and over, why might God not also have the ability to clothe you? Jesus again confronts the strangling of anxiety by reminding them that the pagans, the Gentiles literally, were the ones running after these things with the worried look of people who had not a God. You, however, have no need to run. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. There is no need to strangle your life with anxiety.
This would be the logical place to stop. Jesus has offered a great dose of comfort about the first things of life, our eating, drinking, clothing, and longevity. But he doesn’t stop, because it is time for the reversal.
Matthew 6:33-34: 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.
But seek first is our clue that we’ve not been on the same page. We thought to this point he had been talking about first things—body things, clothing things, longevity things—but we see now that they were second things. All these earth things—security, appearance, respectability, popularity—are not first things for Christ’s followers. We view them as second things. We seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness and rest in our anxiety about second things, knowing God will provide them.
A unique mark of Jesus’ ministry is his insistence on the unfolding kingdom of heaven in this world. Mark 1:15: The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news. And just after this he’ll come upon Simon and Andrew and make a kingdom call: Come, follow me, and I will make you fishers of men. Jesus spoke of the kingdom being near, and he called for a response. When it comes to kingdoms there is only one question that matters: Are you in it? There was then, and there is now, a clear sign when people embrace the kingdoms of the earth: they wave the flags, wear the t-shirts, even take up arms. Jesus’ kingdom is no different. If we are in it, the colors show.
So what are the colors? He says in the Matthew 13 parables that the kingdom of heaven is like a seed that lands on good soil and produces a crop; and so we produce fruit of this kingdom. It is like wheat that grows alongside weeds but is one day harvested and separated; and so we live as if a judgment is coming. It is like a mustard seed, small and insignificant, that grows into a tree that hosts birds; and so we trust that our small work is shaping a larger work. It is like a treasure hidden in a field or a pearl of great price; and so we surrender whatever stands between us and the Lord Jesus.
We must keep this in mind because Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world, it is from above, and so it pits us against the kingdoms of this world. Like Joseph of Arimathea boldly approaching Pilate to claim Jesus’ body, Jesus’ people have to show their first kingdom, even to the kings of the worldly kingdom. His kingdom is to be a first thing. We don’t like to think of these conflicts as real conflicts of kingdoms, but they are. In fact, most of our struggle to stay faithful to Christ is because kingdoms are colliding. Time, giving, study, service, sharing our faith, inviting people to church; personal issues like patterns of sin, withholding forgiveness, judging one another; these are kingdom conflicts.
One idea: “Future determines man in his present.” How we view the future determines how we live in the present. Which kingdom, then?
The kingdom of heaven is the first kingdom of Jesus’ followers.