Sunday, February 27, 2011

Epiphany 8, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 6:24-34
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
February 27, 2011 (The Eighth Sunday after Epiphany, Series A)

This Gospel lesson stands as a reminder to us that, even when it seems like there’s a lot to worry about in the world, worry is still a form of sin against the First Commandment. Now, that may sound like a rather harsh statement. After all, when people worry they are suffering because of those things which they worry about. To accuse them of sin sounds a bit uncaring and callous toward the very real sufferings they endure. But it’s true. Let me read from a portion of Martin Luther’s explanation of the First Commandment as found in the Large Catechism. “A ‘god’ is the term for that to which we are to look for all good and in which we are to find refuge in all need. Therefore, to have a god is nothing else than to trust in believe in that one with your whole heart. As I have often said, it is the trust and faith of the heart alone that make both God and an idol. If your faith and trust are right, then your God is the true one. Conversely, where your trust is false and wrong, there you do not have the true God. For these two belong together, faith and God. Anything on which your heart relies and depends, I say, that is really your God.” So far Luther. One implication of this idea, that to have a “god” is to trust in someone or something for help in time of need, is that if you don’t trust God to give you what you need, then He’s not really your God. A person who worries about anything in this world is, by worrying, accusing God of not being able to provide for them, which is not an accusation that we can ever level at God without committing a terrible sin in so doing.

But simply saying it’s a sin to worry doesn’t really help all that much, does it? It only makes the one doing the worrying feel that much worse. After all, we all worry at some point or another, especially when events in this world and in our own lives give us plenty of excuses to do so. We all know in terrible and graphic detail the kinds of things our fellow human beings are capable of, terrible and destructive things which give our worries and fears plenty of ammunition. Even worse, for some of us who have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, the neurochemical imbalance that results from our illness makes even irrational fears and worries physically impossible to dismiss at times without the aid of medication and/or counseling. To add guilt to that mix, only makes the situation worse for the person caught up in worries and fears. And so, in addition to admonishing us not to worry, Jesus reminds us of the reason we need not worry, namely God’s providence.

Providence simply means that God provides for His people. He didn’t simply create the world and then walk away from it, the way a watchmaker makes a watch so that it can run on its own without his help. Rather, He is intimately involved in His creation. His attention is given to every molecule, every atom, so that it continues to exist and serve His purposes. If He withdrew His gaze from any part of creation, that part would cease to exist. When God created the world by His Word of power back in Genesis 1, that wasn’t a one-time thing. Rather, the words that He spoke then are still effective, and His power still stands behind them to keep everything going in this world according to His will. To be sure, often things happen which are not what are His will for His creatures, namely sin and the results of sin, but even these things He makes to serve His purposes in the long run.

It is because of this doctrine of providence that He knows, better than we do, what it is we need. It is because of this doctrine of providence that we do not need to worry about what we will eat or what we will wear. God knows that we need all these things. And He will provide them in His own time and in His own way. What we are to be concerned about, however, is our relationship to Him. As Christ says, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.” After all, whether we have good times or bad during this life, we will all die sooner or later. And so our first concern should be with our eternal destiny. But even that, though it’s to be our first priority, is not something that needs to be worried about.

So what does it mean to “seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness?” If you ask most people what that phrase means, they will probably tell you that it means to try to live a good life, not do anything too terrible, don’t murder or commit adultery or steal or lie, and be kind and help people and so on. And those who, in fact, live up to those goals in some sense are to be praised, from the perspective of what make a person a good citizen or a good neighbor. But that’s not what Jesus is talking about here. The kingdom of God, and the righteousness of God, are not to be found in trying to live a good life. God expects perfection, and we are incapable of that. Those who look for the kingdom of God and the righteousness of God in their own works are sinning against the First Commandment just as surely as are those who are constantly worried about the things of this life, because they too fail to recognize that these things are free gifts of God and not rewards for our work. Not to mention that trying to achieve salvation by our effort will only increase our worry, since we constantly fall short.

The kingdom of God and the righteousness of God are found, instead, in God’s Word to you that tells you that His righteousness is already yours in the waters of Holy Baptism. The kingdom of God is found in His declaration that your sins are forgiven, wiped out, and done away with, and that Jesus’ perfect life is what God sees when He looks at you. To seek His kingdom is to be diligent in hearing the Word of God and eating and drinking His body and blood, because it is through these things that you receive your true eternal health and happiness. God’s kingdom comes to you as a free gift. His righteousness comes to you as a free gift. The gift is that your sins are forgiven for the sake of Christ’s death on the cross, and that you will rise with Him from the dead and live forever with Him in heaven, where we will never again be even tempted to worry about food or drink or clothing, let alone unemployment, disease, or disaster, because Christ will be all in all to us. Compared with that, the troubles and sorrows of this world are nothing. We have Jesus, and He is everything. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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