This post is based on a sermon that I preached at All Saints Milton on 02/10/2016, you can hear a recording here
This may surprise you, but I am not the sharpest tool in the box. I can be a bit slow and bit oblivious to the things that are going on around me.
About 10 years ago, I was driving from Scotland down to Northamptonshire in a company car on the M6. I was in the middle lane, ready to overtake a lorry when I noticed in my rear view mirror that there was a police car with its sirens on. So I pulled over into the slow lane to let the police car past. Weirdly the police car then switched off its sirens and slipped back in behind me. ‘That’s weird,’ I thought, and pulled out again to overtake the lorry. Then the police car pulled out again and put its sirens on again. So once I had overtaken the lorry I pulled back into the inside lane to let the police car past. And again the police switched off its siren and slipped back in behind me. ‘Make up your mind Mr Policeman’ I thought as I pulled out again and checked my mirror. Sure enough he had followed me again.
This carried on for about 15, maybe 20 minutes. Finally, when I pulled back in for the 6th or 7th time, the police car, with its sirens still on came alongside me and the policeman started gesturing wildly me. I suddenly realised that he was trying to get me to pull over.
So I pull over onto the hard shoulder. The police car sweeps in right behind me, breaks screeching and the policeman jumps out and sprints over to my car and opens the door. He then invites me, quite assertively, to come and sit in the back of his car.
It turns out that he’d done a random check on my number plate and because it was a fleet car the insurance documents didn’t come up. Then, because I didn’t realise he was trying to pull me over and kept flipping between lanes, he thought I was trying to do a runner. I’d managed to get myself into a real life high speed police chase without being aware of it.
We kept a copy of the insurance documents in the glove compartment so I could prove I wasn’t part of some kind of grand theft auto syndicate. But my failure to understand what the sirens on the police car were telling me made me look very dodgy.
I tell this story because I think that Jesus teaches us that in the same way that a police siren warns us that something isn’t right, worry can warn us that we haven’t got something quite right in our spiritual lives.
One of my favorite passages in in the Bible is Matthew 6:25-27
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life[e]?
This may not be completely obvious when we look at this passage in isolation, but hopefully if we look at it in light of the verses and chapters before it, then it might make sense how I got here.
Before we go there I just want to say that you can read this passage at face value (which I believe you can do) and it is one of the most encouraging passages in the Bible. It is an amazing passage, but sometimes when I look at it out of context it can seem a bit glib. This may just be me, but the one sure fire way to make sure that I worry about something is to tell me not to.
Have you ever sat in an office and been told ‘don’t worry about the accounts I’m sure no-one will question that invoice’? You weren’t worrying about the accounts before they said that to you. But now your thought process goes somewhere along the lines of: ‘Why would they question that invoice? Is there something wrong with that invoice? Have I accidentally defrauded the company? Oh my word I’m going to Prison!’.
Bu I don’t think Jesus is just giving the age old Christian platitude of ‘God will provide’. I think there is a bit more punch to these few verses when you read them in context. I think that the issue us with a challenge, which makes us ask ourselves some particularly uncomfortable questions.
This passage is slap bang in the middle of the sermon on the mount. The ‘sermon on the Mount’ which is a sermon that Jesus gives which I think is mainly about discipleship, how we as followers of Jesus should live. He spends a lot of the sermon contrasting the behavior that he expects of his disciples with the behavior of the Jewish leaders of his time.
Jesus had some well publicised run ins with the Jews. He had more than a few harsh words for them, and one of his key objections was that they were obeying the letter of the Old Testament law, but were not following the spirit of it.
Jesus kicks off his sermon with a string of examples of this including this:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment.
He saying ‘well done you haven’t killed anyone, big wow, but the law isn’t just about not murdering people. Let’s face it, I suspect very few people reading this have killed someone. But that doesn’t make us good Christians (whatever that means). God doesn’t call us to legalistically follow a set of rules, he calls us to give him our hearts and to live by the spirit of the rules that he has set out.
If you haven’t killed your boss but are quietly fantasizing about the different ways that you could, then maybe your heart hasn’t really committed to Gods model of humble submission to those in authority over you.
That’s what Jesus is talking about in the Sermon on the Mount when he talks about murder, when he talks about lust being the same as adultery and when he talks about loving your enemies.
Jesus is calling us to give God our whole hearts, not just a reluctant nod to his rules. And when we get to the middle of his sermon, for me, things get even more uncomfortable. Because Jesus calls out some of the things in this world that are competing with God for our affection. He gives examples of where a heart that wants to please God will act differently to a heart that belongs to this world.
In 6:1-4 He talks about popularity, a heart that loves God will give to the poor because it knows that God loves the poor. A heart that loves popularity more than God will make a big song and dance about it to make sure people notice.
In 6:5-18 Jesus shows how a heart that loves God will try to pray and fast in a way that pleases and honors God, whereas a heart that yearns for the respect of the other people in church will pray what they think sounds good.
And then of course starting at 6:19 Jesus starts contrasting a heart that loves God with a heart that loves money.
Then we get
“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.
This is the context of Jesus’ command not to worry.
For me Jesus, is giving us an acid test to see where our hearts are. Because unlike the law against murdering, I can’t just keep to the letter of it. You either worry or you don’t, you can’t control it. That air of trepidation when you open your bank statement just comes to you whether you want it to or not. The things that we worry about show us the things that are on our hearts.
When I worry about over spending and losing all of our savings, the level of stress and worry that I feel is a barometer of how important getting on the housing ladder is. There is nothing wrong with saving and aspiring, but if it is keeping you awake at night and causing me to worry about it, then perhaps the idea of owning my own house, and the perceived security that it will bring has become a bit of an idol for me. As Jesus says
For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.
When I worked in London and I worried about the effect that missing a deadline -through no fault of my own- would have on a project what did that say about where my heart was? It is good to work hard and do your best for your employer, but if I am worrying and kept awake thinking about things that I cannot control, then perhaps there is a message there about how I see my identity in what I do, rather than in Jesus.
These are just examples and every one of us is different. So tackling our worries and wrestling with them to find out what the issue behind them is can be a very lonely and personal thing, but it is so worth it. It is in finding these things and laying them before God that we grow.
Now I appreciate that what I have just written could lead to a feeling of crushing guilt because, let’s face it we all worry about things. There are things in life that happen and worry is the natural response. We shouldn’t feel guilty about that because it is part of being human. That doesn’t mean however that we shouldn’t look at what is behind the fear and allow God to bring us closer to him through it.
You don’t feel guilty when your check oil light comes on in the car. When a little red light comes on my dashboard I don’t don sack cloth, throw myself on the bonnet of my car and cry ‘I am sorry car! I have been a terrible owner, please forgive me?’ No I just top up the oil.
I think it should be the same with worry. We should not beat ourselves up and bemoan our lack of faith. Rather we should embrace the problem and get it fixed.
Maybe it’s about praying for more faith, maybe it’s about letting go of an ambition or about getting a better understanding of how much God loves us, whatever it is there is a challenge for us and the potential to draw closer to God through our worries.
This experience will hurt, it’s not nice to have these things come out, it’s really humbling, but if we face them rather than hiding away from them we will grow and develop as Christians, but that doesn’t mean that we will get it right over night.
We shouldn’t feel guilty for worrying because the moment we stop worrying is the moment that we have everything sorted.
Jesus ends his sermon with the parable of the wise and foolish builders. The foolish builder was in a rush, he wanted to be done quicker so he built on sand and when the winds came it fell down because it had no foundation. The wise builder on the other hand built on rock, the slower way to build, but the way to ensure that your house can stand up to the elements. If we expect that because we are Christians everything should just snap into place, we will become disheartened and we will struggle when we find ourselves worrying. If we are wise though, we will see worry as a warning sign, we will see that if we spend time asking ourselves awkward questions and living in the things that Jesus taught then slowly, over time we will become more and more like the kind of disciple that Jesus describes in his sermon. And that’s a process, a process that will go on and on until the day we die.