Forest Hill Church, 14 December 2003
One of the less nice bits about being a preacher is when you fire up your computer to find out what the set passages for the Sunday are, and you discover that the Scripture in question is talking directly to you! Never mind what God wants to say to the congregation, God is about to use this scripture to preach you – in other words me, the preacher, a sermon!
“Don’t worry!” says St Paul. “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Hmm – anybody would think God was trying to say something to me this morning, never mind whether there’s a message for any of you! You see, right now I am worried, desperately worried, since my job comes to an end at the end of this week, and after twenty-five years, I shall be thrown on to the job market. Talk about sharks – and I’ve reached that awful age of fifty, when it is far, far harder to find a job.
But St Paul tells me not to worry, and, when I stop and think about it, so does Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. Remember: “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you - you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, "What will we eat?" or "What will we drink?" or "What will we wear?" For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
Hmmm. Ever get the impression God is trying to say something?
It’s easy, isn’t it, to worry? We think, when someone tells us not to, “Oh, it’s all very well for them, they’ve got a job,” or “Their child or spouse is quite fit” or whatever our particular problem happens to be. St Paul, we reckon, would have had it easy. And as for Jesus…..
But did they? I don’t think so. This St Paul on his sufferings: “Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches.” Maybe St Paul did know what worrying was all about, no?
What about Jesus? Well, do you remember when He was tempted in the desert? That must have been a worrying time for him. We’re apt to think that just because he was able to resist the temptation, it would have been easy for him to do so. And, of course, the things he was tempted with aren’t really things we understand. But if it was easy, would it have been temptation? Might it not have been just as hard for Him to resist the blandishments of the evil one as it is for us, say, when we are trying to give up smoking, or trying to lose weight, to resist the lure of just one cigarette, or just one chocolate. For Jesus, it must have been every bit as difficult. Worrying, or what?
And have you forgotten the Garden of Gethsemane? “Father, if it is possible, take this cup from me.” Worrying? Yes, of course He was worried.
Okay, so Jesus worried, and St Paul worried. So how come they tell me not to worry, and how am I supposed to do that, or rather not to do that?
Well, the reason they say not to worry is that worrying is futile: “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” Worrying doesn’t do anything, it just makes you lie awake at night kicking the sheets, and tossing and turning and getting up to go to the loo, and generally making a nuisance of yourself to your poor husband who is trying to sleep! You can’t do anything constructive when you worry.
I am reminded of the prayer that people who go to Alcoholics Anonymous are taught to use, remember it: “God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference!”
But it is all very well for Jesus, and for St Paul, to tell us not to worry. The thing is, as I’m sure we all know, that is very much easier said than done. No matter how much we resolve not to worry, we tend to do it by resolutely thinking of something else. Which is all very well, but then something reminds us, and it’s like feeling you have missed a step on a staircase, and, next thing you know, you are worrying away again.
So how do we not worry? Both St Paul and Jesus seem to give us the same answer: pray about it. Yeah, right. I don’t know about you, but my “praying about it” seems to be like going “Oh, please, Lord, please, please, please, pleasepleasepleasepleasePLEASE!” all the while working myself up and demanding what I want, which might not at all be what God happens to want.
Trusting God is very far from easy. You know that and I know that. We – at least, I do, you might be a lot more spiritual than me – find it very hard to really believe that God knows best, to “cast all our cares upon him”. One dear Christian lady, now gone to glory, once said “It’s easy enough to cast all your burdens on Jesus; the difficult bit is leaving them there!”
How very true! We like to pick over our bundles, to remind Jesus that we’ve given them to him, and what, please, is he proposing to do about it? Where’s that job, then, Jesus?
We Protestants don’t tend to go much on symbolism, unlike our Catholic friends. I don’t know how many of you know the works of the novelist Rumer Godden, but she, in later life, was a devout Catholic and wrote some wonderful novels about nuns, and their life. In this extract, the nun, Philippa, is writing to a much younger friend, Penny, whose husband has had to take a lower-paid job, just when their first baby was on the way. Philippa has found an old book entitled “Ancient Devotions to the Sacred Heart”. “I was going to throw it away,” she writes, “when my guardian angel made me open it… It’s for you, too, Penny. Listen: ‘… whoever you are, whatever you are, there is room for you I Him . . . the hearts of mortals will forsake you but the most faithful heart of Jesus will never deceive, will never abandon you.’ Donald, and his new work and worries,” wrote Philippa, “you with yours and new responsibilities, the baby and all your hopes for him, gather them all up and put them into that great heart, and go to sleep!”.
We Protestants would probably say “put our worries at the foot of that great Cross”, but as I said, I’m not altogether sure it’s possible without first knowing, really knowing that “the most faithful heart of Jesus will never deceive, will never abandon you.” And that is a difficult thing to know. We have to practice it, little by little, a few minutes at a time. And we have to practice it when things are going well so that, when things are going badly, we know how to trust Jesus, how to lay our worries at his feet, and how, as St Paul says, in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”
And then, when we can do that, we are told, “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That, I think, is one of the touchstones as to whether we are succeeding in dealing with our worries as a Christian should. Are we at peace? If we aren’t, why not? What has gone wrong? Perhaps it is time, once again, for us to recommit ourselves to being Jesus’ person, to remind ourselves of his enormous love for us, the love that cares, the love that is intimately involved with us, to the extent of knowing the number of hairs on our very heads. Because once we can trust Jesus, once we can really be aware of his love for us, then the rest follows. Amen.