Artwork: Karoly Ferenczy, Sermon on the Mountain (1896)
Jesus said, ‘Do not be anxious about your life…’
Notice that is phrased as a commandment, not a therapeutic suggestion.
I must say I’m always convicted and challenged by this command because confess to you that I am a worrywart. I always have been prone to worry. Perhaps you are too.
And I’m particularly convicted by this portion of the Sermon on the Mount because Jesus told His humble first-century audience not to worry about basic life necessities (food and clothes) – things that I have never had to worry about, as I’ve always been fortunate enough to have them in abundance.
So what then do I worry about? Things like family matters, work or church-related issues - important things, but secondary to the basic life necessities of food and clothing. My worries are luxuries!
And why do I worry anyway? Jesus says, Which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? In fact, far from adding hours to your life, excessive worry – and the bad habits people engage in to alleviate that worry – may even subtract years from your life. Yet even if worrying doesn’t shorten your lifespan, it will certainly make your life less enjoyable and fulfilling. And Jesus came that we might have life and have it more abundantly. Surely a life that is more abundant will involve less worry.
Apart from concerns of health and longevity, its sobering to think of the number of hours of my life I have wasted in worrying.
Worrying is fundamentally about control.
It’s not clear to me when my mind is spinning in worry if I think I’m accomplishing anything, somehow magically fretting my way into managing the circumstances I’m anxious about. But the anxiety is always about a certain person or situation that is outside of my control; and the unconscious assumption seems to be that if only I could get a handle on it, and direct it towards my own end, that would make things better.
So then to worry is fundamentally self-centered, it is a desire to be my own master. It’s almost to put myself in the place of God despite being woefully unqualified for the task.
Friends, the hard truth this morning is that to worry is to fail to trust in God. It is an act of disbelief. And I know that’s hard to hear for all you worriers out there, but please know that I’m preaching mostly to myself today.
To have faith is to have a practical, everyday reliance on the care and provision of our heavenly Father. It’s about seeing God in our lives and our lives in the hands of God.
You’ve heard the phrase ‘let go and let God,’ which is admittedly a cliché, though one that can be helpful up to a point if your grip on the steering wheel of life is too tense. My concern about that phrase is that it could be interpreted to mean that you should take your hands off the wheel altogether, that don’t have to do anything or bear any responsibility, when instead what you ought to do is relax your grip, prayerfully ask for God’s guidance and the wisdom to steer rightly under His providence, acknowledging that much is indeed outside your control.
So friends, ask yourself, this week, where in my life do I need to do this? To relax my grip so as to steer both calmly and confidently, trusting that God will graciously lead me and guide me through the twists and turns and the hazards to the destination He desires for me.
So again, to live a life of faith is to have a practical, everyday reliance on the care and provision of our heavenly Father.
I should highlight the main thing that prevents us from doing so; and that is what Jesus mentions at the beginning of today’s Gospel when He says: You cannot serve God and money. The word used there for ‘money’ is literally mammon, which refers not just to money but possessions also, and the powerful spirit that makes us strive after these things. Mammon is an idol, a false god, a power capable of influencing or moving other things. And Mammon rules us by provoking anxiety. It’s one of the main thing that causes us to worry. Mammon inspires an insatiable possessive spirit within us that makes us hungry to acquire more and worry when we feel we don’t have enough, which we never do, according to the mammon perspective.
So mammon has mastery over us; and it is a harsh taskmaster, not unlike the figure of Pharaoh in the Old Testamenmt story of the Exodus.
The Israelites, the people of God, were slaves of Pharoah in Egypt, who forced them to make bricks with less straw – which sounds a lot like the modern business practice of increasing production while reducing material and labour costs.
And at one point after the LORD brought them out of slavery so that they could serve Him in freedom, while they were in a time of testing in the wilderness, the people longed to go back to Egypt where they had better food. So if we see Pharoah and Egypt as figures of mammon, this shows the addictive power that mammon can have over us and how it draws us away from trusting in God. So mammon is a primary power provoking anxiety in our world.
What about anxiety in the church? That, I think, is what our first reading from Galatians is about.
What causes Christians to worry? In the Galatian case it was division, competing agendas, and above all, a fundamental disagreement about the gospel – what is the core Christian message and how is it good news?
Paul, the author of this letter, was an early Christian missionary and writer who founded the church in Galatia, which is in modern-day Turkey. After Paul moved on from Galatia, he became aware of opponents, false teachers, who had gained influence in the Galatian church. They were teaching that Christians had to observe the Law of Moses, esp. circumcision, in order to be true Christians. They taught that one needed faith in Jesus plus circumcision, the physical mark of one’s obedience to the Law of Moses.
Of course, nowadays, no one is advocating for that, but there are movements in the church that similarly say we need Jesus plus something else - a really vibrant, charismatic faith, or the right religious practices, or that it doesn’t matter much what we believe as long as we’re good and loving people.
In all of those cases, we basically trust in ourselves and our own works, not Christ. And whatever it is, it will cause anxiety: is my faith vibrant enough? are we doing it right? have I crossed every doctrinal ‘t’ and dotted every ‘I, are we good and loving enough? We don’t need Jesus plus, we need Jesus period.
Back to our reading from Galatians – Paul tells the congregation under the influence of these false teachers: It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised. … They desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.
Circumcisions here essentially equal converts to the faith. The more new members who are circumcised, the more converts won, the more the church grew, the more successful their ministry appeared.
So this is basically about impressive church statistics (which is not so different from the spirit of Mammon).
Churches today are likewise very fixated upon (and anxious about) statistics (average Sunday attendance, annual per capita giving, online viewing metrics. And if those stats are trending downward, we feel ashamed, if they are trending upwards, we feel proud and boast.
But as Paul says, far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. It's a striking phrase. What does he mean?
Earlier in this letter, Paul speaks of himself as crucified with Christ (2.20), and that the flesh with its passions and desires (5.24) was also crucified. Paul is saying that the entire world system, including mammon, in all their false glory is dead or destroyed in its power to attract him. It has no power or influence over Paul. Likewise Paul is dead to the desires and attractions of the world, for he serves Christ as his new master in perfect freedom.
In closing I'd like to pray our collect or prayer of the day, which I would encourage you to pray everyday this week as you continue to reflect on today's readings. And I'll expand on each part of the prayer to aid us in applying it to our lives:
Keep us, Lord, with your never-failing love and mercy and under the guiding hand of your good Providence; and, because without you our human frailty cannot but fall, keep us ever by your help from all things hurtful (the things that cause us worry, excessive anxiety), and lead us to all things profitable to our salvation (…), through Jesus Christ our Lord (the One who, in His death and resurrection, overcame suffering and death – the ultimate sources of worry – so that by His Spirit we might walk in newness of life). Amen.