I thought this sermon, preached this morning in Odiham and Mapledurwell an a rather peripatetic Sunday, was a bit weak and as much for me as for others. Yet, I was stopped at the door of both churches for people who felt it ‘spoke’ into a situation in their lives, and for one I’ve just emailed a copy for a third party. It is such a huge encouragement for preachers when people do this, so my thanks to them for being brave enough to tell me their stories afterwards. Prayers too for the situations concerned, and in grateful thanks to the friend whose story I share anonymously (but with permission) – I hope I got it roughly right; God seems to made good use of it!
I wonder how many of us would admit to being more anxious and worried about the state of the world, and the quality of life that our children and grandchildren will inherit, than we were a year ago? I certainly am.
We are reminded by today’s Gospel from Matthew, that Jesus lived very much in the present, the today. He knew his ultimate task was the salvation of all people through the cross and resurrection, but by focussing his attention on the situation presented to him, his words and actions celebrated the goodness of God in the here and now, whether it be by bringing healing where there was suffering, or harnessing the beauty of creation to make a well worked point. He recognised and worked towards the future through his focus on the present.
It is very easy just now, to relate to the spiritual leaders of Jesus time who were largely gloom and doom merchants. All was shadows and vanity; perceived in others, like their Roman rulers, and then proclaimed in their own blinkered view of how to be religious. Philosophers were at it too; focusing on taking people outside of their own troubles into another place; what we might now call the cult of escapism. They were so worried about jockeying for their own future positions, that they forgot to stop and look at the beauty and importance of what God was revealing in the present, through Jesus.
Our reading from Romans this morning, explains to us what that present reality was, and is; it is a journey to the perfection that God intended for creation, and an understanding of our role in that. The biblical narrative is full of the broken-ness of the people Israel, and their relationship with God. Likewise God uses the creation he gave humanity dominion over, to make possible their freedom, their healing, and their understanding of God’s promises to them: think of the plagues in Egypt, the parting of the seas, the stilling of the lions’ mouths to save Daniel (Daniel 6:22), the promise of the river of the water of life (Rev 22:1). With us, creation is yearning and eager with hope for the time when we are fully and finally redeemed in the new creation of God’s Kingdom, when the lion shall lie with the lamb (Isaiah 11:6). But Jesus is telling us in Matthew that unless we stop and focus on the present, we will not be aware enough of what God is doing around, in and through us. Therefore, we will not be right with God (i.e. live in righteousness), and not have taken our part in the ‘now and not yet’ of the revelation of his glory.
We progress towards the full revelation of his Kingdom one day at a time. This is why Jesus wants the people that follow him to live predominantly in the present, for the benefit of the future. By making God the creator, God the healer, God brimming with good things, the focus of our attention today, it fills today with beauty, and energy, and excitement. This helps us and others, to love him, and express our faith in him. Looking for God in the here and now, breeds positivity, and means we don’t worry as much about tomorrow. Celebrating what God is doing today and seeking to share that with others, is building the Kingdom of God: “Put the world first, and it gets moth-eaten in your hands. Put God first, and you’ll get the world thrown in.” (Tom Wright)
Yet living without worrying about the future seems an impossible task today, and for some living with constant anxiety is a significant health concern. The anxiety that is most dangerous, is a constant that infects everything someone sees themselves as, and everything they do. It is unrelated to the obvious causes of anxiety like work strains and family life. I spoke to someone this week who described from personal experience how difficult the journey is for a chronically anxious person to accept Jesus’ second commandment to “love your neighbour as you love yourself”; in other words that they are called to love themselves, and therefore be kind to both themselves and others. For them it meant they gave themselves a window in the day when they were “allowed to worry” and outside of that they had to constantly tell themselves that they could worry in that time window, but just now they needed to set their anxiety aside, remember God loved them, and focus on the beauty and tasks in the present moment. Some days, they admitted, they were better at this than others, but over years of patience and practice, it helped.
Given the news stories that we are bombarded with, it is very easy to want to change the world ourselves, or simply become depressed and frozen into inactivity because we know we can’t. But we can change ourselves, a little bit at a time, a day at a time. Today, and each day, Jesus is asking us to live in the present. Let us pay attention to what it is that God has given us to focus on, today. That might be sharing the beauty of spring bulbs in our garden, or the countryside and its wildlife, with friends or family members. It might be writing letters of gratitude to people who have helped us through recent life-changing circumstances. It could be the busy-ness of bringing others to church so they too can worship and pray. It might be showing our vulnerability by admitting to another person that we are overly anxious and perhaps in need of external help; or listening to someone else in similar circumstances who needs our support. These, and many others, are Kingdom building actions. Yet it may be that by simply resting in and enjoying the now, and being assured that God will restore our strength, we will be equipped with the energy and enthusiasm to recognise and achieve what God is asking us to contribute to his Kingdom now, for the future.