September 9, 2018
St. Matthew 6:24-34
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Katy Perry is not part of my musical diet. Yet a song of hers caught my ear when it was commissioned as a promo for the Rio Olympics. It employs a line from today’s Gospel, “O ye of so little faith.” It’s an inspirational song for the American Religion. Against all odds, you can succeed: “I won’t just survive / Oh, you will see me thrive … Oh, ye of so little faith / Don’t doubt it /Victory is in your veins.”
This is the American faith: through determination and grit, you can prosper. This faith is a faith in self: victory is in your veins. I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that if you’re competing in the Olympics, a lawyer walking into the court room, or wrestling with a diaper that’s overflowing. A little self-confidence is called for there.
But when Jesus says, “O you of little faith,” He’s not talking about believing in yourself. This faith is entirely outside the self. This faith directs us to God the Father who promises to be Father to us. This faith is in the Father who will do what a good father does: protect, provide. He doesn’t let his children starve. His focus is the well-being of his family.
Faith in God the Father is directly juxtaposed today with anxiety about the future. “You cannot serve God and mammon.” The service of mammon is more than just greed, the desire for more and more money, or power, or status. Serving mammon is looking to anything or anyone besides God as the source of good. Luther says in the Large Catechism, “Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”
I recently reread Tolkien’s The Hobbit. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve read it, but this time I noticed something I’d never seen before, right at the end. Bilbo Baggins is back home, and he hears news of what happened to a very minor character, the Master of Lake-town.
The old Master had come to a bad end. Bard had given him much gold for the help of the Lake-people, but being of the kind that easily catches such disease he fell under the dragon-sickness, and took most of the gold and fled with it, and died of starvation in the Waste, deserted by his companions.
The dragon-sickness is the love of treasure and the inability to share it. “The old Master” becomes rich, but the riches don’t make him free, they make him a slave, and he dies alone.
The dragon Smaug is an important figure in the book, but I wonder if dragon-sickness isn’t Tolkien’s allusion to the dragon in the Bible, Lucifer. In the book of Revelation, that dragon is the one who “deceives the whole world” (12:9) and who “make[s] war” with those “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” [12:17].
How does that dragon try to deceive you? He makes you worry about your future. Not only about what you will eat, what you will drink and what you will put on, but worry about your children, worry about your church, worry about your country, worry about your health, worry worry worry.
And all that worry is really saying, “I do not have a God. I do not have a Father who will care for me. I am alone.” But it’s a lie. It is the Lie spoken by the dragon from of old, that God does not have your best interests at heart.
The antidote to worry is to listen again to your Father’s Word. I have found repeatedly, to my own shame, that my own times of inner turmoil are when I’ve stopped taking God’s Word seriously. It’s easy for a pastor to read the Bible “professionally,” as it were, so that he can teach a class or have something to say for a sermon. But the times of peace, when anxiety flees, are the times when I hear God’s Word as directed to me, personally, as the Word of a Father to His anxious child.
So what is He saying to you and me this morning? “I know what you need. Don’t you see how well I provide for the birds and the flowers? And haven’t I counted the number of hairs on your head, which is more than even the most devoted parent does?”
But the Lord does allow His doubting servants to come even to the brink, that we might learn to drive the doubt of God’s goodness from our hearts. So the poor widow of Zarephath is down to her last bit of flour, and her last drops of oil. She is going out to get specifically two sticks for a fire, and she and her son will eat the last bit of bread and then die.
Job loses his property and his children. Abraham and Sarah wait for a child until they are old and barren. Noah spends years and years building the ark, and each passing year must have raised the intensity, wondering when the storm would finally begin.
For each of us, too, it is a gift when He allows the struggle to deepen. He is preparing us to see just how far He will go to care for us, and just how deep His love is for us. And He is driving out our own dragon-sickness, our belief that our gold can save us, that self-confidence can save us, that strength of character and persistence of effort is our hope.
Finally, the Father shows us in Jesus that He is with us even in the hour of despair. That moment when Jesus feels most alone, when He cries out, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” – precisely then is the moment when He is providing for the salvation of the world. He does not abandon His Son to the grave.
Your God is the God who raises the dead, who forgives your sins and gives you precisely what you need when you need it.
Here are His answers to the questions: What shall we wear? The royal robe of Christ’s righteousness, the garment given at Baptism. What shall we eat? The bread from heaven, the body of Christ. What shall we drink? The wine which is the blood of Christ, cleansing us from all our sins.
Therefore do not worry. Everything you need has been provided already for you in Jesus. ✠inj✠
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts in Christ Jesus.
The Rev. C.S. Esget, Pastor
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Alexandria, Virginia