“Your Heavenly Father Knows”
September 27, 2015
Focus on the Father’s priorities as you trust in the Father’s care.
I. We have concerns (Matthew 6:25)
II. But we also have a God who cares about this stuff (Matthew 6:25-30)
III. So we should focus on the Father’s priorities (Matthew 6:31-33)
You and I have never lived near the edge of famine. But Jesus did, and it forms the background to some of his key teachings. So I want to start this morning with an illustration from Del Tarr, a missionary to Africa in the 1960’s. Psalm 126:5-6 says “Those who sow in tears will reap with songs of joy. 6He who goes out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with him.” Del Tarr is going to use these verses as an encouragement to witness, even through suffering. But his illustration also teaches much about what it means to live on the edge, and over the edge, of starvation.
He says “I was always perplexed by those verses until I went to the Sahel, that vast stretch of savanna more than 4000 miles wide just under the Sahara Desert. In the Sahel, all the moisture comes in a four month period: May, June, July, and August. After that, not a drop of rain falls for eight months. The ground cracks from dryness, and so do your hands and feet. The winds of the Sahara pick up the dust and throw it thousands of feet into the air and it drifts slowly across West Africa as a fine grit. It gets inside your mouth, inside your eyes.
The year's food, sorghum or milo, must all be grown in the rainy months. After the harvest, in October and November...these are beautiful months. The granaries are full. People sing and dance. They eat two meals a day. The sorghum is ground between stones to make flour and then a sticky mush. It is eaten hot; they roll it into little balls between their fingers, dip it into a sauce, then pop it into their mouths. The meal lies heavy on their stomachs so they can sleep. December comes, and the granaries start to recede. Many families omit the morning meal. By January not one family in fifty is still eating two meals. In February, the evening meal diminishes, even more during March. Children succumb to sickness. You don't stay well on half a meal a day. April is the month that haunts my memory. In it you hear the babies crying in the twilight. Most days are passed with only an evening cup of gruel.
Then, inevitably, it happens. A six-or seven-year-old boy comes running one day with great excitement. "Daddy! Daddy! We've got grain!" he shouts. "Son, you know we haven't had grain for weeks." "Yes, we have!" the boy insists. "Out in the hut by the field – there's a burlap sack hanging up on the wall – I reached up and put my hand down in there – Daddy, there's grain in there! Give it to Mommy so she can make flour, and tonight our tummies can sleep!" The father stands motionless. "Son, we can't do that," he softly explains. "That's next year's seed grain. It's the only thing between us and starvation. We're waiting for the rains, and then we must use it."
The rains finally arrive in May. The young boy watches as his father takes the sack from the wall and does the most unreasonable thing imaginable. Instead of feeding his desperately weakened family, he goes to the field and with tears streaming down his face, he takes the precious seed and throws it away. He scatters it in the dirt! Why? Because he believes in the harvest.
It’s a great illustration of wholehearted commitment to witness. We have to believe in the harvest enough to share God’s truth even when it hurts. But it also shows what it’s like to live without assurance of basic nutrition. The famine that brought Israel’s sons to Egypt is classic. Only because God sent seven fat years, and gave Joseph the knowledge and wisdom to store up the excess did Egypt survive – and Israel. In an agricultural economy, for all of history up until the twentieth century, a crop failure meant you were months, or at most a few years from starvation, malnutrition and death. This truth has formed the background to countless human lives, especially for the poor, the kind of people Jesus taught. And it’s that truth, of poverty and uncertainty, that Jesus addresses in Matthew 6:25-33. In a way far more astounding in that culture than in ours, Jesus says “don’t worry about these things.” Matthew 6:25 “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on.”
Jesus has just finished three quick paragraphs in which he pictures the ways sinful people hedge against their uncertain lives. Some he says in verse 19, store up treasures on earth. If I just have enough the uncertainties of life will become certain. Some, verse 22, focus on pleasures. The eye is the lamp of the body. If I distract my eyes with enough pleasure, the uncertainties of life won’t bother me. And some try to serve two masters. They try to be devoted to God, but they hedge their bets by being devoted to money. Jesus recognizes that these things are not cures for anxiety, but expressions of it so he gives a new instruction to those in God’s kingdom. ‘Do not be anxious about your life.’
Don’t be anxious. This is the ‘fear not’ of the passage. Other translations say ‘do not worry.’ The Greek has the implication of a dithering, a sorting and resorting, almost compulsiveness. “Do not be anxious about your life,” Jesus says, “what you will eat or what you will drink.” Here he is talking about your physical life. As we’ve just seen basic food and water could be very real concerns in that culture. In the same way, worry about the body ‘what shall we wear?’ could be a real concern in that culture. Even the most poverty stricken corners of our world tend to be clothed in at least discarded t-shirts. But in that day if your one set of clothes wore out, there might not be another. And if winter turned cold, your life would be at stake.
So one of the first things we have to notice is that these were real, and real world, causes of potential worry. That leads to two initial thoughts about ourselves. First, we don’t have that many real life or death worries. If you were to go home today and open your cupboards, your pantry, your refrigerator, you would find enough food to last a long time. If you were to open your bank account or your paycheck, you would find that at the rice and beans level, you have enough money to feed yourself for a long time. And even if you don’t there is this social safety net in most Western countries that will provide basic and sometimes abundant food. In the same way if you were to go home today and open your closet, you would find clothing enough probably to last the rest of your life, and to provide warmth for even the coldest Houston winter.
So while we may be concerned about food and clothing, it is almost never in a life or death way. Our kids do not have kwashiorkor syndrome. We’re not freezing to death on the roadside. But that doesn’t mean we never have life or death worries. When a loved one is diagnosed with cancer or battles with depression or gets involved with the wrong substances or the wrong people, that is life or death. When we lose a job or our expenses pile up and pile up to the point where our bank accounts are empty, our credit cards are maxed and the collection agencies are calling, that’s a real concern. And we want Jesus to address those kinds of worries. And I believe he does here.
But before we get to that we have to recognize that we also have many concerns that are frivolous. We may not have any real concern about what we will eat, but we waste our time worrying about at, ranging from ‘I want to find a restaurant where I can have all I want’ to ‘will people look down on me if I eat at Taco Bell.’ We look in our cupboards and say ‘oh, we ate that last week. What can we do for variety?’ We have no real concerns about what we will wear, but we spend many hours rejecting what’s in our closets because ‘it makes me look fat’ or ‘it’s a little worn’ or ‘it’s not stylish.’ How many hours and dollars do we spend anxiously hunting for some semblance of the latest fashion. We aren’t worried about real issues, but about the frivolous and the meaningless.
So, sometimes we’re worried about real stuff – the cancers, the drugs – but often we are worried about things that make no difference. I was amused this week at the outrage in New York City when the security around the Pope’s visit threatened to delay the delivery of some people’s new iPhones. I’m constantly amazed at how many people seem genuinely concerned about who is going to win American Idol or whether Tim Tebow will ever get to start at quarterback. Is the Princess of Wales spending too much on her darling children? Will the Fed raise interest rates? How will the market respond? Will the new iPhone be another best seller or has Apple finally started its terminal decline?
The answer Jesus gives is remarkable. It addresses the real concerns, but in doing so addresses all the frivolous distractions of our hearts as well. It starts in verse 25 and continues through verse 30: Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?
Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? In the midst of concerns, real or imagined, real or frivolous, Jesus asks us to recognize that there are more important things than our fears and our worries. Life, he says, is more than just feeding a machine. The body, he says, is more than just an object to be kept warm. Those things are important, but there is more to life than staying alive. As creatures made in the image of God, there are more important things in life than life, such as good in the face of evil, love in the face of hate, joy in the face of suffering and eternal life in the face of mortal death.
So that’s true, but it is not his whole argument. Verse 26 “Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” We love this image. The robin hopping around after the worm, the woodpecker digging into the tree, the hummingbird sipping the flower, they are working, but not worrying. They can’t make or manufacture what they need to live. Jesus says “Your heavenly Father feeds them.” Jesus attributes the worm in the ground and the insect in the tree and the nectar in the flower to the direct care of the Heavenly Father. And then in an argument from the lesser to the greater he says “Are you not of more value than they?” “Yes.” If God values the birds enough to care for them, how much more will he value those made in his image.
The heavenly Father values us, sees us as valuable. This is a tremendously important truth. Now it can be overdone. If you listen to contemporary Christian music you may at times cringe at the lyrics. In 2008 a group called Chasen wrote a Christian chart-topping song called ‘Crazy Beautiful.’ The chorus said “Whoa you're oh so beautiful, you don't need anyone's approval. You've got to believe in yourself you know you are, you're crazy beautiful.” Another line said “There’s no need to change; you’re beautifully made.” That’s taking our value way too far toward crazy uncritical self-centeredness.
But we do have value in God’s eyes. We are made in his image and he loves us with an intense crazy love – and not because we deserve it. Yet He loves us more than the birds in the air, the stars in the sky or any other created thing. So life is more than food and clothing? Your life is more valuable in the Father’s eyes than the birds he sees or the flowers he’s made or anything else.
On top of that, verse 27, “which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” This is the heart of this teaching. The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, discussing the word ‘anxious,’ caught this so clearly. This anxiety, they said “is self-concern relative to the future. The questions show that worry is what is meant. It is worry that makes a proper concern foolish by fostering the illusion that concern for the means of life can grant security to life itself. The future is not in our hands. We cannot add one cubit (either length of days or stature) by worrying. The right course is to seek first the kingdom, and God will see to other things, not removing uncertainty, but taking the worry out of it.” Do you catch that? It’s not that concerns about things like food and clothing are not valid, it’s that worrying about them does no good. You can have valid concerns, but worry and anxiety don’t help.
Jesus gives another example, which he elaborates more than the first. Verse 28: “And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” It’s a beautiful picture. Because we live in the great state of Texas, I hope we’ve all seen a field full of wildflowers. We’ve probably taken pictures of our kids in the bluebonnets, or marveled at the Indian paintbrush in the hill country. The lilies of the field Jesus mentions could be one of several kinds of wildflowers, or it could be a reference to wildflowers in general, which are almost as abundant in Galilee as in Texas.
But his point is that the beauty of these flowers is given to them freely by God. Solomon, who had more riches than any other Hebrew king, couldn’t buy clothes that rivalled this free gift of beauty. So why worry about clothes? Even though clothes are a legitimate concern, worrying does no good. And implied here, for us, is that anxiety about the money situation in our personal lives doesn’t add a dollar to the bank account or buy us one more thing. Only God can provide. And he can use our industry or diligence or planning as one of the ways he provides. But he can’t use our fear or anxiety, our sleepless nights or hand wringing. Furthermore, Jesus says, he provides generously, even to those who don’t get consumed by anxiety. He clothes the flowers of the field gorgeously, and they are transient, temporary, here today gone tomorrow.
How much more will he provide for us, the ones made in his image, the ones redeemed by his son, the ones whose here-today-gone-tomorrow lives are transformed by that redemption into eternal life. And he does provide for daily needs. I think we’re often shy about saying this, because we think ‘Oh yeah, he has blessed me, sometimes in extraordinary ways, but I don’t want to talk about it because not everybody receives what I do.’ But he deserves praise for what he provides, and he has provided abundantly for so many of us.
And even if our earthly possessions are not abundant, God’s people have found that he does provides for our hearts, everything we need for life and godliness. Paul said “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. 13I can do everything – thrive in all these circumstances - through him who gives me strength.” He says “My God will supply your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.”
Why can we feel this way? The story is told of a pastor on a long plane flight. At some point the fasten seat belt light came on. A voice said, “We will not be serving the beverages at this time as we are expecting a little turbulence.” As the pastor looked around it seemed many of the passengers were becoming apprehensive, craning their necks to see out the windows or hunkering down in their seats. Then the storm broke. The thunder could be heard even above the roar of the engines. Lightning lit up the dark skies, and within moments the plane was like a cork tossed on a celestial ocean. One moment it was lifted on terrific currents of air; the next, it dropped as if about to crash. The pastor confessed that he shared the fear of those around him. “As I looked around the plane, I could see that nearly all the passengers were upset and alarmed. Some were praying, wondering if they would make it through the storm.”
“Then, I suddenly saw a little girl. Apparently the storm meant nothing to her. She had tucked her feet beneath her as she sat on her seat; she was reading a book and everything within her small world was calm and orderly. Sometimes she closed her eyes, then she would read again; then she would straighten her legs, but worry and fear were not in her world. When the plane was being buffeted by the terrible storm when it lurched this way and that, as it rose and fell with frightening severity, when all the adults were scared half to death, that marvelous child was completely composed and unafraid.”
When the plane safely reached its destination and all the passengers were hurrying to disembark, the pastor lingered to speak to the girl. Having commented on the storm and the behavior of the plane, he asked why she had not been afraid. The child replied, “Cause my Daddy’s the pilot, and he’s taking me home.”
That’s the attitude Jesus wants us to have in the face of needs, wants, and real concerns, and even more so in the face of frivolous concerns: “My daddy is the pilot and he’s taking me home.” My life is more than my needs, way more than my concerns. God cares for me with a crazy extravagant love, and he can provide. My worries can’t provide. So faith will trust in his sovereign care.
But there’s more. Jesus’ conclusion is ‘don’t worry,’ but he adds a wonderful alternative. Verses 31-33: Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Don’t worry about even legitimate concerns, because your anxiety will not help. Don’t worry about frivolous concerns because your anxiety is a distraction from what is important in life. The Gentiles, non-believers, have all these anxieties, but believers have a Father who knows their true needs better than they do. He created and formed you. He wove you together. He knows what you need, body, mind and soul. It is disrespect for God if you can’t trust him to provide what you really need. It is a lack of the right kind of fear.
But when you are caught up in worries, fears, true concerns, or frivolous Facebook distractions, just being told ‘stop it,’ even by Jesus is ineffective. We’ve done this before: if I tell you right now, ‘don’t think about your tongue,’ . . . most everyone is thinking about their tongue. A negative command is hard to obey.
Jesus knows this. His main purpose in the Sermon on the Mount is not to get us to stop doing things, but to begin doing the alternative, to begin being what he designed us to be. What we need is the expulsive power of a new affection, a new obsession, somebody recently called it “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek his kingdom, seek righteousness and you will no longer writhe under the anxiety of seeking other things. And God who knows your need, will supply your need. A new obsession with the kingdom, an affection for righteousness will displace the worry and fear that can so easily dominate our lives.
But what is this kingdom that we are to seek? What is this righteousness we are to pursue? The immediate context of this teaching is the Sermon on the Mount, which some call ‘the constitution of the Kingdom’ and which summarizes Jesus’ teaching on true heart righteousness. So we seek his kingdom by seeking the character qualities describe in this Sermon: pure in heart, poor in spirit, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, peacemakers, merciful, gentle and humble, willing to be persecuted for the Kingdom’s sake.
We seek righteousness when we hunger and thirst for integrity in our prayers in our giving, in our marriages, in our words, in our witness. We seek the kingdom when we seek to love our enemies, to care for our neighbors, to pray with God’s priorities. We can’t read these chapters without gaining some idea of what it is to be part of the Kingdom that is now and not yet. We can’t read the Gospels without getting some sense of our utter dependence on God and the heart integrity he longs to build in us. We can’t read the New Testament without seeing the awfulness of our sin and the greatness of his salvation, the glory of his promised return and eternal reign. This is what we are to seek, this is what we displace our anxieties with, and our temptations and rebellions.
This, according to twentieth century missionary E. Stanley Jones, is what we were made for. He says “I am inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not my native land; faith is. I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. I live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath--these are not my native air. But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely--these are my native air. . . . We are inwardly constructed in nerve and tissue, brain cell and soul, for faith and not for fear. God made us that way. To live by worry is to live against reality.”
I want to close with a simple illustration from the Gospel of Luke. You’re all familiar with the story of Mary and Martha. What you may not realize is that Jesus uses the same word for anxiety there as he uses here. Luke 10:38-42 Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.”
You are anxious and troubled about many things. We’re all Martha, to some extent. But one thing is necessary – to sit at the Lord’s feet and listen to his teaching, to seek his kingdom and his righteousness by seeking him. Only Jesus can so fill you that these anxieties and worries calm themselves to peace. Only Jesus is the pilot, and no matter what the turbulence, he’s taking you home. Only Jesus can offer a kingdom and a righteousness as a purpose for the days of your journey. Seek him, his kingdom, his righteousness and all these things he knows you need will be given, while at the same time the frivolous things, the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace.