Seeking First

Seeking First

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

I know they’re well-intentioned. I’m sure they’re just trying to be helpful. I’m confident that their purpose is nothing more than to clarify God’s Word and help us find things easily.

Yet, more and more there are days on which I find myself wanting to take a bottle of correction fluid and cover over all of those little section titles we find in our modern Bible translations. You know the ones I mean: Every few verses, there’s a little heading inserted, telling you what you are about to read in the verses which follow. Look in your own Bibles, and I’m sure you’ll see what I mean. Almost every popular translation and printing in the last few decades has them, and in some cases they’ve even been incorporated in translations which date back several centuries.

In most cases, these descriptions are accurate, and they do help break the text into smaller, more easily-digestible chunks. They’re helpful to us in more rapidly finding certain topics upon the written page, in the same way that chapter numbers and verse numbers give us a systematic method of organizing and zeroing-in on specific sections of the text. These headings, of course, just like the numbering system, aren’t actually part of the Bible.

There are, you’ll find, sometimes unfortunate breaks in the text due to the chapter and verse numberings, too—breaks that can give us a false sense of the continuity of the topics and ideas in God’s Word.

At least the numbering system doesn’t attempt to guide our interpretation of the text, though. Sometimes the headings have a tendency to do that. By breaking the narrative or the poetry into those convenient chunks and giving those chunks names of human origin, there’s a chance that we will sometimes view the Bible wrongly. We can start to see it as a series of isolated vignettes, an anthology of one-act plays or one-man shows. Worse still, it can begin to be broken down into a collection of pithy wisdom and inspirational sayings, rather than the over-arching record of the message of God’s eternal and ongoing work of providence and salvation.

Our Gospel lesson for this 8th Sunday after the Epiphany runs this danger in many modern translations of the Bible. Most of them insert a section title or heading in between the 24th and 25th verses of Matthew 6; something on the order of, “do not be anxious,” or “do not worry.” Good advice to the believer, to be sure, and a good summary of the text which follows, for here Jesus tells His hearers not to worry about food or clothing or the future. He tells them that such concerns are indications of a weakened faith, of having mixed-up priorities.

And what is sin, after all, but a lack of faith in God, and a demonstration of bad priorities about that which He gives? We worry about so much in this world, and Jesus points to just a few of our basic concerns here. In worrying about such things and so much more, we question God’s goodness and provision, and we show that our priorities are for quickly-fleeting comforts, rather than lasting, eternal joy.

What’s more, Jesus points out that our worries and concerns accuse God of having His priorities mixed up, too.

Does God worry more about generously feeding the birds or beautifully clothing the flowers than He does about us, the crown of His creation? It seems we think so sometimes, based on our behavior. That’s why it’s so important that we not let that artificial break between verses 24 and 25 lead us further astray. You see, verse 25 starts with a “therefore,” from Jesus. He’s drawing a conclusion for us, explaining why our understanding of His words ought to be a certain way. To break that conclusion off from the teaching of Jesus which precedes it would cause us miss a key point He was trying to make.

And what was Jesus saying in the verses that precede His admonition to take comfort and not be anxious? He was saying the same things that He had been teaching them throughout this Sermon on the Mount—that there is God’s way, and there is man’s way, and that God’s kingdom provides the greater reward. We can serve the Lord, or we can serve Mammon—a Semitic word which more or less encompasses all worldly wealth and possessions.

That is: Money and everything that money can buy. Jesus warns us that serving both gods is impossible. To put it mathematically, it’s a mutually-exclusive solution set. An either-or choice between two masters. We’ll love one and hate the other, or be devoted to one and despise the other. Jesus says so. What is it going to be for you? The Creator or His creation? The Heavenly Giver, or His earthly gifts?

It’s apparent by the way we spend most of our time and effort that we’ve made that choice, and that our lot has been cast in the wrong direction. We worry and fret so much about the things of this world that we feel compelled to apply the bulk of our time and the best of our efforts toward acquiring more and more of them. To quote a popular phrase of a few years ago, “Bigger, faster, better, more.”

It’s interesting to note that this section of Jesus’ sermon, speaking about priorities and worries, follows closely on the heels of Him teaching His hearers the words of the Lord’s Prayer. That prayer, which we say so much and yet take to heart so little, perfectly expresses a faith-driven surrender to God. In its own way, that prayer asks nothing more that that we allow God to be God, and that we be conformed to His commandments and receive all the blessings He has in store for us, both now and for eternity.

The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer of a faithful heart, one which sets aside the anxieties and priorities of this life, and lives trustingly in God’s grace—receiving the food and the clothing and all the other blessings He will provide us according to His perfect will. What’s more, it’s the prayer of a heart that receives not only this world’s blessings, but the blessings of the world to come.

When Jesus tells His hearers not to engage in a battle between the masters of God and money; when He tells them not to worry about the things of this world, He’s simply telling them to live the Lord’s Prayer. He’s reminding them that, ultimately, it is God and not money that provides them their daily bread of food and clothing—of “all that we need to support this body and life.”

Yet the prayer—and Jesus’ elaboration on it here in today’s text—go far beyond just satisfying our physical needs of this life, don’t they? And not only far beyond, but they actually precede, pre-empt, and overshadow those shallow, temporary needs. That’s where faith takes over.

Everyone, to a certain extent, actually does worry about the things of this life. Maybe it’s not food or clothing, because God may have provided you with an abundance of His created gifts of Mammon that those things aren’t really a concern for you on a day-to-day basis. Much of the world is not so fortunate, so there’s something both for your thanksgiving to God and your consideration of your neighbor.

But at some point—on some level—you do have plenty you worry about, don’t you? Maybe it’s your health. Maybe it’s whether you’ll be able to get a job, keep a job, or hang onto one or more jobs long enough to retire.

Maybe it’s whether you’ll have enough in the checking account to pay the rent or the mortgage, or enough stocked away in the years to have daily bread and clothing once your working years are over. Maybe you worry about how your kids will go out into the world or how your parents will go out of it. And maybe your biggest worry is what sort of impression you’re making on others with your own worries and priorities.

There’s no end to the list you could generate of things to worry about, today, tomorrow, the rest of your life. It would be a constantly churning, constantly growing list. Some are significant and some are trite. Some are reasonable and some are neurotic. Yet making that list is an exercise in futility, because no matter what you do, there’s always going to be something else to worry about.

Jesus understood our concerns as well as the futility of constantly focusing on them when He told His hearers, “do not be anxious for tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself.” That is, piling on one worry after another is pointless, for another one is always around the corner, waiting, much like sin is always crouching at the door looking for an opportunity, or the devil is constantly prowling, looking for someone to devour.

In fact, that’s exactly what all your anxieties are: They are products of the devil. They are enticements to focus on what you fear, what you love, and what you trust—whatever it is that you fear, love, and trust more than you do God. They are the devil, the world, and your own weak flesh coaxing you to forget the Lord’s Prayer, the Lord’s providence, the Lord’s promises, the Lord Himself.

Repent! Repent of your divided mind and heart, flitting constantly between God and Mammon. Repent of your worry about food and drink and clothing and span of life, and all the rest of those things which are the daily bread your heavenly Father knows full well you need. Do you think you are the one who needs to remind God of who He is, and all that He does? Repent of this as well.

But repent most earnestly and most humbly and unceasingly that you do not seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, for it is in this that your greatest danger lies. As Jesus said, in seeking and receiving God’s kingdom and righteousness, all the other things about which you worry will be addressed, in God’s own way. For it is not in wanting or seeking the things of this world that you are unique in God’s sight. That wanting and that seeking simply lump you in with everyone else.

For we know from our understanding of His Word that God gives daily bread to everyone—even to the evil—without our prayers. And we further know that His gifts of worldly things—just like His gifts of eternal things—are given to us out only of His fatherly and divine goodness and mercy, apart from our worthiness or merit.

You are most precious to God on account of that gift which He has given you above all else: The gift of the righteousness of Christ Jesus, bestowed upon you in cleansing water and bleaching blood. The stain of your sin; the rebellion of your worry; the hatred of your devotion to seeking Mammon apart from the kingdom of God—all these are fully removed—for Jesus’ sake alone. In comparison to the implications and dangers of not having that righteousness in your possession, all the worries and anxieties about everything else ought to fade to nothing.

But you do have that righteousness. It is your possession; a gracious gift from your true Master, the One who still loves you when you hate Him; who is devoted to you when you despise His gifts; who serves you when you serve the gods of this world.

He feeds the birds who don’t plant or harvest or scheme to get their neighbor’s inheritance or house; He clothes in glory the lilies who don’t fret or strive or chase after brass rings or golden parachutes. Think of it: Your worth to God so greatly surpasses the value of all the rest of His creation that He shed His own precious blood to feed you with forgiveness and dress you with divinity.

That is why we can repent of our divided loyalties between the masters of God and worldly things; that is why we can set aside our anxieties about what we value in life: He alone has given us our value. It doesn’t depend on what we have earned or what we will accumulate.

Our true worth depends entirely upon that which we are given, and that which we can also give to others: The Good News that we have a Father who knows what we have truly needed and will truly need. The Gospel assurance of Jesus that He has provided all this and more to us in full strength; sufficient both for this life and for the life to come.

All your tomorrows rest secure in the kingdom of God. Your value is in Christ Jesus, your glory is in His cross, and your little faith is magnified and made perfect in His righteousness. May it ever be so, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.