We were in the car on the way home from church Sunday a week ago. I had just preached on Matthew 6:19-34 where Jesus tells his listeners not to worry. I asked Em how church was and she told me my sermon was good but…
I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I had made some alright jokes about the toilet paper crisis, so I wasn’t sure what could have been the problem with my sermon. (You can listen to the sermon here if you want.)
‘Your sermon was good but I think there’s something that everyone misses when they preach that passage. When Jesus talks about the birds and the flowers he does it in the context of death.’
This was the bit she was referring to:
‘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?
‘And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor 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?’ – Matthew 6:25-30
She pointed out that when we teach this passage we teach it as saying ‘Look at the birds and flowers, God cares for them so don’t worry.’ But part of us thinks ‘Yeah but they die.’ Her point was that Jesus isn’t saying ‘Look at the birds and the flowers – don’t worry you’ll be fine’. Jesus ends the paragraph about the birds by saying that we can’t postpone our death by worrying. And then the part about the flowers finishes with the flowers being thrown into the fire. So what Jesus is actually saying is ‘Look at the birds and the flowers, God cares for them, and they die. You will die, and God cares for you too.’
When I talked about the passage I said that we do not need to worry because we have seen that God feeds birds, and clothes flowers, both of which are less valuable than us. If his character is to care for those things, then he will look after us.
I then pointed out that while we see his character in the small things, we see it in the big things too. He sent his son Jesus so that by his death and resurrection we find forgiveness, life and welcome into God’s family in him. God feeds us and clothes us spiritually by his Son as well as actually feeding us and clothing us with physical food and clothes. God’s care spans from our smallest to our biggest need.
This is all true, and…
In the passage, Jesus is talking about worry in the context of our death. Worry will not save us from death. Birds and flowers die, but that doesn’t remove them from the circle of God’s concern. Nor does death remove us from God’s care. We may die but death cannot separate us from the love of God. Which of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? You can’t. Your death is inevitable. So why worry?
No, much more important than worrying about your death – which will contribute nothing to stopping the unstoppable – is to spend your energies on something greater:
‘So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’ – Matthew 6:31-34
The antidote to worry is not living a life free of danger, or hardship, or fire, or death – that is impossible. The antidote is to trust God to look after the small stuff, and commit yourself to the big stuff – seeking his kingdom. That means committing yourself to loving God and loving others. It means loving your neighbour and sharing the good news of Jesus.
You won’t prevent your death. You worrying about your death won’t stop it any more than fretting about tomorrow will stop the sun from rising. But if you commit yourself to the kingdom of God, you have a much greater, more life giving, concern to fill your days with.
So then, hypothetically, say that you were confronted by the spectre of a worldwide public health crisis. How does one seek the kingdom in a time like that? Does not worrying about what you will eat, drink, or wear mean you shouldn’t stockpile food? Does the inevitability of death mean social distancing measures are a waste of time? Should we not bother trying to prevent the disease because we’re all going to die anyway?
Here’s what I think:
1. Worry and wisdom are not the same thing
This passage, and the passage that precedes it about not storing up treasure on earth, is pretty clearly telling us that we shouldn’t be hoarding goods. We hoard out of fear, and plenty of people have been talking about how our fear hurts others who cannot get enough.
That said, wisdom does mean that we should have some supplies available if we need to isolate for a few weeks. Proverbs 30:25 calls the ant wise because it will store up food in the summer. So be wise, but don’t be greedy.
2. Generosity defeats worry
Remember how seeking God’s kingdom means loving God and loving your neighbour? A really practical way to love your neighbour is to be generous. Be generous with your supplies for those who don’t have enough, with your time for those who need extra help, generous with your kindness for those who are anxious, generous with your friendship for those who are isolated, generous with your money for those who must miss work, and generous with your grace for those who do stupid things. When we are generous, we make a practical demonstration of our trust in the providing character of God.
3. Seeking the kingdom means social distancing for your vulnerable neighbour
Some people have been saying that churches choosing not to meet together is giving in to fear. And perhaps for some it is – but I suspect that for many (and I hope for all) it is motivated by a love for our neighbour. We know that this disease will hurt the oldest and the most medically vulnerable among us. If there is anything we see in the life of Jesus it is his care for those who are weakest. So the choice to not meet in large groups is a choice to love our neighbour because we do not know what the invisible effects of our love will be. We cannot stop anyone’s death by worry, but we can speed it along by not being concerned for the needs of the most vulnerable.
Do we still need community, worship, prayer, encouragement, and teaching from God’s word? Yes! Yes! Yes! As much now as ever. But we can do it in groups of five or ten (if it’s safe). We can watch our sermons live streamed, we can meet together to pray, we can Skype other groups, we can bring our own meals and eat together. We can wash our hands, and stay apart. We can build deeper relationships and reliance on God and his people than we ever have before.
And if we’re in total lockdown? We can figure out church over Skype (actually probably Zoom because Skype is pretty unreliable) or Facebook live. We might even discover an effective way to include people who can’t make it to services in person but still want to be involved when this whole thing is over.
What if we’re overreacting? Then we have overreacted out of love for the vulnerable and we have potentially supercharged our small groups and online ministry. That can’t be too bad, can it?
4. Your faith will not save you from COVID-19, but it will save you from death
No doubt we will hear stories of Jesus healing people of COVID-19. I’m sure of it, and I’m sure that people’s faith will be strengthened by these miracles. But many others will get sick, and recover naturally with the immune system that God has provided for us. Others have died already, and many more will die before this thing is done. You might die of this, but you probably won’t. However, you will die of something. Unless Jesus comes back first, you’ll die of heart disease, cancer, a car accident, a freak head injury from a falling sparrow, or something else. The people saved by the blood of Jesus are not immune from death. Lazarus died, Peter died, Mary, Mary, and the other Mary all died, John died, Lazarus died again, Martin Luther died, John Wimber died, Mother Teresa died, John Stott died, Reinhard Bonnke died, and you and I will die. But we will not stay dead. If we trust in Jesus we will rise again, just like him, free from death and disease, ready to enjoy his new creation.
But till that day, we’ve got a job to do. It’s to seek the kingdom – loving God and loving your neighbour. That’s a calling if ever I’ve heard one. So don’t worry, you’ve got a lot more important things to do with your time.
Some final notes:
Jesus’ return: Yes. If Jesus comes back we won’t die. And that’ll be great! But current statistics are that 100% of all people who have lived but are not currently alive on the earth have died (except Enoch and Elijah, thank you Bible nerds). So based on those stats, we should be expecting to be dead at some time in the future.
Starving to death: Do these verses promise that God will stop people from starving to death? I don’t think so. I think they promise that God knows what we need and all that is provided for us comes from him. My guess is there are faithful Christians who have died of starvation. But I’m sure there are also plenty of faithful Christians who can share miraculous stories of God’s provision when they were sure they would die of starvation. Either way we are going to die, but death does not remove us from God’s care.
If you are anticipating a lot of downtime in the near future can I recommend a book for you to read or listen to? Weird, Crude, Funny, and Nude: The Bible Exposed is my book full of Bible stuff and dumb jokes. Get it right here, or from Amazon, Audible, iBooks, and more.