April 30, 2020
This week’s message is a reflection on some important words of Jesus recorded in Matthew’s Gospel that might have something to say to us in our isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the Gospel of Matthew chapter 6, verse 25, Jesus says to his disciples, “Do not worry…” Now I don’t know about you, but many people have had plenty to worry about during our lockdown, so it’s good for us to ask what Jesus meant when he urged his followers to set aside their anxieties. Are we to take this as a word to apply to our situation today?
It’s no secret, as recent surveys have shown, that levels of anxiety and worry have increased during our restricted living circumstances.
In the times recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus and his disciples in Galilee faced quite different circumstances. Yet, the levels of stress they had to endure may have been equal to even worse than that yours right now.
Life in 1st Century Palestine as a follower of Jesus involved many uncertainties and daily pressures. To follow Jesus often meant living outside the norms and expectations of mainstream society. It led to being marginalized, being maligned, and after Jesus’ death, even being hunted and threatened with death.
That’s not how most of us are faring at present in Melbourne. Yet many of us are stressed and anxious in varying degrees due to the pressures of being forced to stay home and stay away from others.
Taking a closer look at chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, we see that Jesus says…
25 ‘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? 26 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? 27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?
The Greek word translated in verse 25 as “worry” is Merimnao (Mer im nah ho). It’s handy to know that it had both a positive and a negative sense in the ancient world…
- Positively, it meant “to show concern”. For example, you are right to worry – to have appropriate concern – to avoid eating UberEats every night lest your salt, sugar and saturated fat intake goes through the roof! That’s a positive and helpful sense of worry that this Greek word in verse 25 could apply to.
- Negatively, as Jesus uses it here, there is unnecessary, unhelpful, and unhealthy anxiety that we sometimes generate. This type of worry might be fretting over the way other people rate our appearance, feeling ill about a future prospect for a big promotion at work, or losing sleep over the next big purchase that will improve our position in society, like a fancy car or bigger house. We could rightly translate Matthew 6:25 as “do not be filled with anxiety”. In the light of the whole chapter we could even translate it, “Therefore, do not lack faith.”
Let me say clearly that if your own worries today are debilitating for you in some way, this is not be treated lightly or simply prayed away. If you are experiencing deterioration in your health, like continual interruption to sleep, or heightened anxieties causing changes to your well-being, I urge you to speak with a GP and ask for assessment and assistance.
In Matthew 6:25 Jesus speaks about worries we often create within ourselves as we look at the world around and wish that our lives could be more successful or more secure or more prosperous. And, of course, worries like this have been exacerbated during the restrictions imposed on us during the pandemic.
Jesus has been speaking of the exterior life as it should be lived out in alignment with the “kingdom of heaven” or the leadership of God each day.
Now, in this section of Matthew chapter 6 he turns to the interior life – what the Bible often refers to as the “heart”, or the core of a person’s will and self.
He’s directing his followers to align their values, priorities, vision and security with God’s values, God’s priorities, God’s vision for life, and God’s offer of security.
1st Century people in Palestine often worried about wealth, prosperity and security. No wonder Jesus refers to the love of wealth as a direct enemy to faith in God in verses 22-24.
Material wealth for 1st Century Jews was often seen as a blessing from God or a reward for personal piety. Worry about what to eat, drink, wear, earn, how to pay tax, how to be safe dominated life. Of course, these sorts of worries about in our world today, don’t they – How I earn more money than I have? How can I acquire all the possessions other people seem to have? How can I make people like me more than they do?
Now, I know that none of you who are listening or reading this article ever think like this 😉. But we know how such pursuits can lead to false security and a grossly inaccurate assessment of one’s standing before God today, just as they did among 1st Century people.
Self-generated or peer-pressured “worries” of these kinds should be set aside by followers of Jesus – stop fretting about future security and prosperity is what Jesus seems to say. Worry about what we haven’t yet acquired or achieved robs us of the peace of knowing God’s wisdom, provision and peace; it steers us away from the priorities God has for life. Such worry transports us into that realm of trusting in perishable idols that so often distract, disappoint and divide.
But note that Jesus doesn’t merely give a warnings, he flips the concept into positive action. Jesus put principle of “not worrying” in a positive proverb found in verses 33…
31 So do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” 32 For [the people of the nations] run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 33 But seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Instead of anxiety about tomorrow, as they start each day, followers of Jesus are urged to pray and prepare, putting God first in all plans and pursuits, hopes and ideals (see The Lord’s Prayer in vss 9-13).
Note that Jesus doesn’t say put God first, then family second, then work third and so on, as if there is a ladder of earthly priorities that follow on after God. Instead, Jesus urges his followers to put God first in all these things:
- first in family,
- first in finance,
- first in work,
- first in how we see ourselves,
- first in what we hope for the future,
- first in who we choose to love and serve,
- first in what we think we should acquire, and so on.
When we put the “Kingdom of heaven” or the leadership of God first in our planning and purposes, Jesus says, we will also find ourselves in that space where we see God’s blessings and gifts and appreciate what is already ours by grace.
We need hearts that value God as the greatest treasure of all (vs. 21) – something we can ask God’s Spirit to generate in us.
A while back Time Magazine published an article titled “The science of anxiety” pointing out how so many people worry themselves sick about such things as deadlines at work, their future promotion, the path ahead for their children, and their many financial debts.
It takes more than willpower to stop this sort of worrying. You already know that, because you’ve already tried it. You’ve thought, “I shouldn’t worry about this,” and yet you just keep on worrying about it. What can we do?
From a spiritual point of view, here are some tips for putting Jesus’ teaching into practice.
- Gratitude – Let’s spend time each week practicing gratitude towards God – sum up God’s past and present mercies. This will make us more ready in mindset for what tomorrow may bring. Look around with the help of others in your household or circle of friends and say, “thank you”. Jesus said in Matthew 6:28-3, “See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labour or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendour was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you – you of little faith?” He calls us to change our viewpoint; to look at our lives afresh each day through eyes of gratitude and faith.
- Get to know God – American pastor Rick Warren says you must get to know God. God cares. Jesus says in Matthew 6:32, “People who don’t know God and the way God works fuss over these things” (The Message). Having a deeper relationship with God is fundamental to rising above the worries Jesus is talking about. The Apostle Peter put it this way, saying “Give all your worries and cares to God, for God cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7 NLT, 2nd edition). He wrote this to Christians who were being persecuted for their faith! We have a Heavenly Shepherd who cares for the flock, a Redeemer who has overcome our greatest enemy, and a spiritual guide and helper to strengthen us for life’s journey.
- Live one day at a time, but plan ahead with God in mind – There’s an old Yiddish joke that asks: How do you make God laugh? The answer: make a plan. It’s a cruel joke, yet some people will think it sounds true in our current circumstances. The Bible warns about plans without God in mind, for sure (e.g. James 4:13-14). But Jesus didn’t intend you to stop planning wisely for the future. After all, Jesus himself had plans for the days ahead as he turned towards Jerusalem and his mission goals. He gave his own disciples plans as he sent them on missions for weeks at a time. At the end of Matthew’s Gospel he even gives his Apostles future global plans to make (e.g. Matthew 28:19-20). Here’s the kicker, we should have a positive worry or concern for our future and plan with God in mind. But here in Matthew 6 Jesus calls his followers to also live in the moment – to pause in the present; to replace anxiety about our future security with faith in our loving heavenly Father; to appreciate God and all God gives and calls us to. Chapter 6 of Matthew’s closes with Jesus saying, “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
From a therapeutic point of view, The Rev. Dr. J. Dana Trent (a graduate of Duke Divinity School, professor of World Religions, and former end-of-life care chaplain) gives some sage advice for managing anxiety and worry in a physiological and mental sense during this pandemic.
She says that in a time of great worry in her life she learned why deep breathing works and wrote a book on how to make it work for all of us. She writes, “I was advised to calm my body’s automatic response to anxiety through deep breathing. Though I resented this remedy, I began the meditation practice… Our body’s homeostasis is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, comprised of two parts: sympathetic and parasympathetic. These two systems regulate our respiratory and circulatory processes, among other essential functions. The sympathetic division is the “fight-or-flight” response that prepares our bodies to cope with urgent situations like COVID-19. It releases norepinephrine to increase our pulse and blood pressure, diverting essential resources to the heart, lungs, and muscles. Anxiety fuels this system, so much so that we feel we are always on alert mode. But anxiety is not sustainable — it never was — especially in what is likely to become a (lengthy) global crisis. Even when we move through COVID-19 together — and we will —there will always be another crisis. The key, then, is learning simple and practical ways to help us cope. So, while our sympathetic system feels sorry for us and feels it must remain “on call” especially mid-coronavirus, it is our parasympathetic division that is the real key to coping. This system, stimulated by deep breathing, releases acetylcholine to slow down the heart rate, lower blood pressure, and relax airway muscles, soothing anxiety.
Jesus tells us in the Scriptures, “So don’t worry about tomorrow, because tomorrow will have its own worries. Each day has enough trouble of its own” (Matthew 6:34 NCV). If you’re worrying about tomorrow, you may not enjoy today. Don’t miss today’s blessings, even in troubled times. It’s OK to plan for tomorrow, but you live in the present as well. When you’re always worried about tomorrow, the future can be overwhelming. Breathe in… exhale. Give thanks. Get to know God. Be present. Be connected. God is a giver of grace and strength to sustain you and secure you in something greater than you and your worries.
This prayer may be of help to you:
“Dear Heavenly Father, I admit that I often forget that you are with us and for us. I often forget what you are like. Overlook my ignorance and grant me insight; I need to get to know you better. Help me to put you first in all the pursuits of life to re-calibrate my hopes and plans. Help me to live in the present today while I make plans for my tomorrows. Displace my worry with greater faith in your goodness and daily provision. This I pray in the name Jesus Christ, who with You and the Holy Spirit are the one true God, now and forever. Amen.”
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