Good morning everyone and welcome to worship on the first Sunday in 2021! We are only 3 days in to the new year, but so far so good!
A year ago this time we were looking forward to 2020, weren’t we? I was, if for no other reason than our first grandchild was due to arrive on Jan 15th, which he did. Little did we know!
But then, in early January we started hearing about something called Covid 19, or the corona virus. We weren’t sure what it was exactly, but we saw its power when, in March, it pretty much shut down the world and we all had to stay home, or at least at least 6 feet apart. Since then, over 20 million people in the U.S. have contracted the virus and over 340,000 have died. This has caused almost everyone at least some angst. There is a vaccine available but something like 40% of us are hesitant if not downright refusing to taking it, which is causing even more angst.
You know what angst is, right? It’s a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, typically unfocused, about the human condition or the state of the world in general. It’s a synonym with worry and anxiety. And I think all of us, for various reasons, have experienced angst in 2020. And when we do, it’s easy to lose sight of what is really, ultimately important.
And if Covid wasn’t enough, in May this guy we never heard of before, George Floyd, an African American, was killed in Minneapolis by a white police officer. You’ve probably seen the video, and he was not the only one. This set off protests and riots around the country. It brought to light a group most of us probably never heard of before – Black Lives Matter – and a bunch of people started telling us we needed to defund the police. We haven’t seen racial tension this high since the 60’s. Angst.
At the same time all this was happening, we were leading up to what turned out to be an extremely contentious and divisive presidential election. And even though most people expect Joe Biden to be sworn in as our 46th president, it ain’t over yet, and both republicans and democrats wonder what will happen when he is. Angst.
You know what gives Dan the most angst? Payday. I have a bookkeeping business and I do payroll. Now, everyone wants to get paid correctly and on time, every time; so when it comes time to click the “Submit” button to pay them, I really, really, really want it all to be correct. But earlier this year I messed up two paydays – in a row – on the same woman’s paycheck. Thankfully it was a side job so she didn’t need it to pay rent and groceries. But you want it to be right, and when it isn’t, you hear about it from the employee and their supervisor, first thing payday morning. Thankfully they were very cool about it, and we got it corrected the next day. But twice a month every month I have a wonderful opportunity to experience angst.
Now, being the good church going Bible believing folks we are, we know we are not supposed worry, right? All of us have heard the bible verses. Typically, we hear them from our non-anxious Christian friends when they quote them to anxious us. In Matthew 6, part of what we call the Sermon on the Mount, there are some verses in which Jesus says not to worry. Emily read them to us. Leading up to that, he talked about fasting and prayer, and gave us the Lord’s Prayer. He said not to store up material wealth because it will eventually be destroyed or stolen, and that we can’t serve God when we are worried about our riches.
But you and I both know that even though we can quote the verses, we don’t always walk our talk, do we?
And then in verse 25, the beginning of the angst verses, he says, “Therefore.” Therefore is an important word because it connects or points out a relationship with what came before with what comes after. And in these 8 verses Jesus says therefore three times. So let’s take a look at that progression and what it leads to. And be ready for me to do a little paraphrasing.
Therefore number one is in verse 25. Therefore, “[because you cannot serve God and money] I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?
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? [I want a show of hands on this one] And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?
And why are you anxious 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 arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?”
Therefore #2 is in verse 31 and notice how it follows from therefore #1: “Therefore [because life is more than food and clothing] do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Therefore #3 is in verse 34. And again, notice how it follows from therefore #2: [because God knows you need all these things], do not be anxious about tomorrow for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.
Don’t worry. We know this in our head, don’t we? We know that worry demonstrates our lack of faith. It keeps us awake, saps our energy, and dashes our hopes. It blinds us to God’s presence and activity in our lives. It causes mental and physical illness. It makes us afraid and angry and selfish and unsure. It causes addiction and suicide. We make stupid decisions when we worry. Yet despite Jesus saying, “Don’t,” we do.
So what do we do? I know many of us, especially if we want to sound spiritual, like to say, “I’m not worried” even if we are. I’ve done it. But what would it look if we were honest about our angst and found a way to deal with it? I’m not saying to ignore or deny the fear and the pain and the uncertainty; I’m asking what would it look like if we put it in its place. Glad you asked!
A great way to check your angst level is to perform a generosity check. The more anxious we are about the things of the world, the more we lose our focus on who is ultimately in charge of the world, and the less generous we become.
You might think I’m talking about money here, and in part I am. So take a look at your bank statement. How are you doing at being generous? Have you reduced your giving in the past year? At the same time, ask yourself if you are being generous with your time. Are you giving more or less of it to others – your spouse, your kids, your parents, your neighbors, your co-workers, whoever? Are you serving anyone anywhere? And here is something important about serving others: it does not have to compete with the time you spend with your family, because you can serve together! You only have a limited time in this world, so don’t waste it by spending it all our resources on ourselves.
Another way to deal with angst is to stop and breath. Psalm 46 hints at this. In it David writes about how great God is in the midst of trouble, and in verse 10 he writes, “Be still and know that I am God.” Calm down. Breathe. You can do that, right? Wherever you are, whatever is happening to you, stop for a moment and breathe. Maybe you’ll have to ask someone to help you or remind you. Being still is not always easy, but it’s possible. Be still and breathe.
And in that stillness, remember Psalm 23. We usually hear it at funerals, but I think David really wrote it as a song of worship and to trust in God in the midst of his own angst.
I’d like you to try an experiment. I want you to reach out and take the hand of the person sitting next to you. NO! Stop! Just kidding. I bet that caused some angst for some of you! I really want you to put your hands on your knees, palms up and open, and close your eyes. Then, take a breath, and worship:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Did you feel your angst slip away? Can you connect with the presence of God?
David starts out reminding himself who his Lord is. He does some self-talk. He says, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. Think about green. What kind of pasture would you rather lay down in – a green, life-filled one, or a brown, dead one.
He leads me beside still waters. You can drink from still waters. Still waters are safe. In contrast with moving, tumultuous, whitewater that is dangerous.
He restores my soul. This is a bit of confession on David’s part. His soul has to be crushed or damaged in order for God to restore it.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.” That’s some good stuff to know about whom God is and what he does, right?
Then he stops talking about God and starts talking to God. The intimacy level goes up a notch. It becomes very personal. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” That’s a powerful setting, isn’t it? That’s a terrible place to be.
And in that terrible place, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.” How do you eat when you are at war? On the run, quick. But here David says that even when his enemies are right there, God lays out a spread for him to dine. No fear there.
“you anoint my head with oil.” We don’t get that now, but in David’s day being anointed with oil was representative of God’s Spirit, and of healing.
“My cup overflows.” No argument over half full or half empty. It overflows. Abundance. More than enough.
Worship. Celebration. Thanksgiving. He trusts God in the midst of his angst.
Then David closes by describing reality when you trust God: “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Psalm 23 is, at least in part, a reminder to us of how God cares for and protects us in the worst possible circumstances. It reminds us whose we are. So the next time you find yourself in an angst-producing situation, breathe – and remember the 23rd Psalm. Remind yourself that no matter what is happening around you, you don’t need to be anxious because you belong to God.
There’s another angst passage in Philippians 4:4-7 that I bet is familiar. Paul wrote a letter to the Philippian church. Paul wrote most of his letters to address problems in churches, but this one is different. It is more a letter to friends, thanking them for all they have done for him, encouraging them, and celebrating what God is doing. And he set a tone or an attitude when he said, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!” Always – not just when you feel good or when things are going your way. Always. Rejoice in the Lord when it’s dark and cold and scary in your life, when things are not going your way and you feel like life has crushed you. Rejoice. Celebrate God. Worship. Look up. Remind yourself how great and awesome and powerful God is. Thank God for what he has done for you and your family and friends. Put your focus on God rather than your circumstances.
Next comes the command: “Don’t be anxious about anything.” That anything is all-inclusive. Don’t be anxious about who will be president, or about covid, or about payday or – anything. That doesn’t mean ignore or forget about them. That would be stupid, right? Just don’t let thinking them take your focus off of God.
Ya, OK – but how? Paul says that instead of being anxious, pray about everything. “By prayer and petition, make your requests known to God.”
Petition is an ask or request, perhaps even a beg or a plead. You might be on your knees with head to the ground. When Jesus prayed in the garden before he was betrayed, that was petition. The “regular” prayer may include an ask but it may not, and it also includes thanksgiving and worship. It’s broader than petition.
Paul says to pray and petition with thanksgiving. Think about how much of your prayers are asking for something and how little is thanking God. I think Paul says to be thankful because when we are, we realize how much we have. We remember how often and in how many ways God is present and active in our lives. “God, thank you for what you did for me there. Thank you for what you did for them then. Thank you for giving me that when I needed it most. Thank you for comforting me when I thought my world was going to end. Wow, God, I had forgotten all the ways you are active in my life – thank you!!”
And when we pray this way, “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We don’t totally get it, but it happens. We stop worrying and experience peace.
See, if – this is a huge if – if you are a follower of Jesus, you can be absolutely confident that, “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” We can literally bet our eternal lives on the fact that, “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation (that you might worry about), will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” So why do we worry?
Let’s be clear that seeking God first, and praying with thanksgiving doesn’t mean all the pain will go away, or that your financial situation will reverse itself, or that there will be a miraculous healing, or that everyone will live happily ever after. Or that your candidate will be president! But it does mean that if we focus first on God, we can deal with anything else that might come along. Because more pain will come. You really might lose your job. Your child might get addicted. The disease might get worse. But here’s the thing: God hardly ever takes us out of the storm; but he’ll always take us through it – right?
So what would it look like in your life if you stopped worrying and started offering up thankful prayers? What would it look like if, instead of praying, “Lord you gotta save me and fix all this!” you started to pray, “Lord my world is falling apart and I need your help, and I am thankful that you have helped me in the past. I remember when you helped me there and there and there. Wow! You are a faithful God! Thank you for meeting my needs there and there and there. You are an amazing, powerful God who loves and cares for me! Thank you for that! And knowing who you are and how you love me, I intend to trust you to take care of me now.” What would that look like?