Notes from the sermon by Toby Parsons 8th July 2018
Reading Luke 12:1-34
Let’s imagine three friends meeting each other. It’s a bright sunny morning, there’s not a cloud in the sky and even though it’s early the sun is warm. They head down to their favourite café. There’s a great aroma of freshly baked pastries. They sit down and enjoy a coffee or a fresh orange juice. It tastes good. They share a laugh and a joke, saying how much they’re looking forward to the day.
Then they each go on their way – one hops on a bus, and heads into town to plead with the bank about extending their overdraft again. One flags down a taxi, off to the hospital to get the results of their biopsy. The third walks down to the college, to sit their final exam.
There are many things in our lives that cause us to worry – finances, health and exams, to name but a few. And, for most of us, I suspect we don’t start the big, daunting days by relaxing and chatting calmly about how much we’re looking forward to what’s in front of us. The scene we’ve just imagined isn’t realistic. It isn’t what happens day after day in the world around us.
So when we read that Jesus said “do not worry about your life or about your body”, we might dismiss it as a nice but unrealistic call. Or we might feel guilty that we do worry – I guess we worrying about worrying.
But what is Jesus really saying in that third part of today’s reading, when he says in verse 29 “do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it”? What’s he teaching us about worry?
There are three points I’d like to think about in response to that question. Firstly, that God shows and invites acceptance. Secondly, that taking action matters. And thirdly, that Jesus’s death and resurrection are the ultimate way of God providing for us.
I guess that just before Jesus starts talking about worry in verse 22, his disciples have shown some anxiety about how they’re going to feed and clothe themselves as they continue on their amazing journey with Jesus.
His response is clear– worrying isn’t necessary and achieves nothing. He invites us in verses 24 and 27 to think about birds and flowers. The ravens don’t sow or reap, but they’re fed. The wild flowers don’t labour or spin, but they’re clothed. And we can’t add a single hour to our lives by worrying. It’s easy to see these verses as simply an exhortation not to worry – a good aspiration, but perhaps not all that helpful. But Jesus is also making the point that we’re valued for who we are.
Ravens don’t get a great press in the bible or indeed elsewhere. They’re scavengers, feeding on the dead and attacking the eyes first. Even British Bird Lovers Dot Co Dot UK comments that the collective noun for ravens is “An unkindness”. And in Genesis, we read that Noah first sent a raven out of the ark when the flood was easing. It didn’t come back. But God created ravens and values them; they’re accepted in their natural form for what they are and I suspect Jesus’s choice of the raven is deliberate.
God values the wild flowers too, giving them fantastic colours, making them a truly vibrant display. And we read that Solomon was valued in his splendour – but Jesus knew and accepted that despite Solomon’s wealth and wisdom, his appearance could never compare with the wild flowers. He was valued and accepted for who he was, and who he wasn’t.
So there’s a call here to know we’re valued individually, for different things. Being accepted, and provided for, isn’t conditional on change – we’re accepted by God as we are. And in that context, the reminder that we can’t add a single hour to our lives by worry is perhaps an encouragement to accept ourselves as we are. Maybe we’re ravens, maybe we’re wildflowers, maybe we’re Solomon, but we’re all uniquely valued by God. And we’re all invited to accept ourselves – and, by implication, others – rather than worrying about how we could or should be different.
So… acceptance. An important part of how we think about worry. But not something that takes us away from action.
In the parable of the rich fool, from verse 13 to 21, we read about the futility of storing up earthly treasure. And you could chose to read verse 28 as a reason for not making an effort – it says “if that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown in the fire, how much more will he clothe you – you of little faith”. So God provides for flowers that do no labour and we’re told he’ll provide for us, so do we just need faith? Can we put our feet up and relax, if only we trust in God?
Jesus’s words about worry are spoken to the disciples. A group of sometimes confused, sometimes doubting, sometimes amazed individuals at the centre of the most incredible phase of history. I sometimes wonder what it would have been like to be living at the time of Jesus? Surely it would’ve been mind-blowing simply to be one of the crowd, let alone one of the disciples? So an instruction for them to take action was perhaps unnecessary – you feel it would have almost been impossible to sit still and not be moved by what was happening, by the energy and passion of Jesus.
But Jesus does call the disciples to action in the last few verses of the passage. The instruction in verse 33 – “sell your possessions and give to the poor” – is much-debated, and no doubt worth a Sunday in its own right! The key thing is about responding to God and about what we have in our hearts.
The small phrase at the start of verse 31 is key – “but seek his kingdom”. For the mistake of the rich fool was surely to look inwards, to be selfish, to ignore the needs that would inevitably have been around him.
There was much in Jesus’ day that wasn’t right – from the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, to the people who were shut out of their communities as unclean. And there’s much in our own day that we’d want to change – from an asylum system that dehumanises, to the prevalence of loneliness. But Jesus didn’t just sit there wringing his hands – worrying about what was wrong. He didn’t just teach his followers, although that was certainly important. He acted in practical ways, being the one who touched those that others wouldn’t, who spoke to those used to being ignored.
Worry in its negative form is stifling, restrictive, de-energising. It can lead us not to act through fear of the consequences or of getting it wrong. But if our heart is focused on God, if our “worry” is about things that pain God, and if we can act on that, rather than being worn down by it, then that feels in keeping with Jesus’ words in this chapter, with his call to seek God’s kingdom.
So action, to go along with our acceptance.
And of course the final point to reflect on is God’s provision for us. Jesus tells us in verses 30 and 31 that God knows our needs and will provide for us. Our experience of prayer tells us that this doesn’t always mean that everything we need – or that we think we need – just appears in front of us. And we know that material needs simply aren’t met in many places around the world. Where there isn’t enough food, water, medication.
And here it’s perhaps not what Jesus says that we need to look at, but what he ultimately does. His acceptance of death on the cross, his resurrection from the grave, and his offer of eternal life. That overcoming of death – the thing we might naturally fear the most – is the way in which God truly and completely provides for us, offering hope and inviting us not to worry.
To accept who we are;
to accept others;
to accept that we are loved and valued individually …
to act on the things that cause pain, and that place burdens on people …
and to remember the ultimate hope set before us, through the resurrection.