People in advertising know that fear sells. Have you seen advert for the latest kitchen hygiene product from Detol? The Detol no touch hand-wash system! The idea behind it is that the thousands of germs which may be on the end of your liquid soap pump might hurt you, so now you can buy an automatic soap dispenser, recommended retail price £9.99, which means we never have to touch a germy nozzle again! Great idea… but completely pointless… So I get bacteria on my hands from my soap dispenser, but what do I do next? I wash my hands! Foiled again, pesky bacteria! The thing is, we’re all terribly afraid of bacteria these days, unless of course it’s L. Casei Immunitas or lactobacillus casei shirota, and advertisers know they can use our fear to sell us pointless things. Fear causes us to act irrationally.
In the gospel reading which we heard earlier, Jesus tells us how to live a life which isn’t dominated by fear and anxiety. But to some of us his words might not quite hit home. Jesus lived in a largely rural world. It might have just about made sense back then to tell people to trust God not to worry. But he didn’t have school fees or a mortgage to pay; he didn’t know the strain and stress of modern life, particularly during the economic squeeze. And what about all the people who do look to God and who do seek his kingdom and righteousness, but are still cold, hungry and thirsty, who suffer form preventable illness, who don’t have nice clothes to wear and who live in poor accommodation? Should we really take Jesus advice seriously? His words might seem a little hard to swallow.
Well I think we should. In fact, I think that Jesus teaching liberates us from the fear and anxiety which, far from making life better, makes it considerably worse. There are two things that Jesus says can liberate us from being ground down by anxiety:
The liberating love of the Father
The truth is that, rich or poor, we worry. You worry about getting more (or even enough) if you’re poor, or you worry about hanging onto what you have got if you’re rich, and you worry about a whole raft of things in between. This tells us one thing and one thing only. Getting more doesn’t free us from worry. Having little or nothing is a source of great misery and stress, but you can’t make your life less miserable and stressful simply by having more. So worrying about how much we have is useless, it turns us in on ourselves. It is completely unproductive, except, maybe of stomach ulcers. As Jesus said, you can’t add another moment to you life through worrying. Far from it! You may shorten it.
Worry grinds us down into the ground, but Jesus wants to raise us up to live lives of hope and joy, and so he reminds us that although our troubles make us feel unimportant, our lives is of great value to God. Jesus points us to the natural world, to birds and flowers. If God cares enough for birds that he feeds them, and cares enough for ‘grass of the field’ (which lives and dies in a matter of days) that he clothes them with beautiful flowers, won’t he also supply the needs of his people? Jesus wants us to realise just how important human beings are to God. Much more important than flowers and birds. If God loves us so much, he will give us what we need.
Now Jesus isn’t saying that we don’t need to work, or that we can be lazy. Martin Luther, the German reformer said that some people think that Jesus’ teaching means that we can sit back and wait for God to drop a roasted goose into our mouth. But that really isn’t what Jesus has in mind. Anyone who knows birds knows that they are actually quite industrious – God feeds them by providing in nature the means by which they can feed themselves. Gardeners, likewise, know that plants expend a great deal of energy in producing flowers. They are not ‘Lazy’ (if you can refer to a non-rational organism in that way), they work incredibly hard. Both birds and flowers cooperate with God. In both cases what they lack is not industry but anxiety.
So we too should work hard, we do what we need to do, but we’re not to worry about things which lie completely outside of our control. That really is the folly of worry – we end up making ourselves responsible for things which human beings could never really be responsibility for – and we forget that there is a God.
The liberating desire for God’s Kingdom and righteousness
This phrase ‘strive first for the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these will be given to you as well’ really is the key to understanding Jesus’ radical call to live a life without fear for tomorrow. The Kingdom of God isn’t a static territory like the United Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is a dynamic reality. Neither does striving for God’s Kingdom mean striving to get into heaven when we die. That is far to individualistic a view of religion for Jesus. To strive for the kingdom of God is to strive to see God’s reign as King, which is already a present reality, become more and more apparent.
God’s righteous kingdom is one in which there is no poverty, hunger or thirst, where there is no trouble or war but only peace. It is a kingdom of perfect justice and fairness. So if we are to strive for these things, we make them priorities in our own lives as individual Christians: in the way we are with our families, in the way we behave to each other in church, in the way we spend our time and money. But we are also to strive for these things in the life of our community, to pray for the day when the kingdom of God is made known in all its fulness. The question we always need to ask is this, ‘how are the values of God’s Kingdom reflected in the life of our Church?’
This is why, despite there being people throughout the world who have little or nothing, who experience much trouble in life and little comfort, that we can still say, with confidence, that God provides for his beloved children. In fact, he provides abundantly. He provides abundantly by asking those who have received much to be the means by which he provides for those who have little. As we seek to live the life of God’s kingdom, we will necessarily seek to bring people out of poverty. We will try to alleviate suffering, sickness and trouble wherever it is found. And if the Kingdom of God really becomes our primary ambition, if living under God’s righteous reign becomes what we value most highly, then we will have a faith which can face trouble and still remain firm, because whilst churches come and go, whilst money comes and goes, whilst people come and go, the kingdom of God comes and grows and will one day fill the whole earth with justice, mercy and peace.