Sermon 10-06-13: “Back to School, Part 8: Jesus’ Toughest Command”

October 10, 2013


This week’s scripture deals in part with what I believe is Jesus’ most difficult—or at least most easily ignored—command: “Do not worry.” If we’re going to live it out, we need to trust that God will really take care of us. We also have to trust that Jesus knows what he’s talking about when tells us that his way is best: that obeying the Sermon on the Mount leads to “treasure in heaven.” This treasure isn’t merely a reward in the sweet by-and-by but is available to us now. 

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:19-34

No video this week, but you can click below for sermon audio or click here to download as a podcast.

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

A recent episode of the public radio show This American Life featured Michael Lewis, the author of the The Blind Side, the book on which the Sandra Bullock movie was based. On this radio program, Lewis narrates the story of Emir Kamenica, a Harvard-educated economist at the University of Chicago.

When Emir was a child, his family emigrated from their home in war-torn Bosnia to the Atlanta area—specifically, to the very diverse international community of Clarkston, Georgia. Emir’s family was poor when they got here, and Lewis describes the unlikely path that Emir’s life took, from getting a scholarship to an elite private high school in Atlanta, to a Harvard Ph.D., to the top of his field in economics.

When he was still in Bosnia, packing to come to America, Emir slipped into his luggage a novel that he had checked out of a library near his Bosnian home. So, basically, he brought to America what amounted to a stolen library book.

One day, for a writing assignment at the public high school he attended, Emir plagiarized a passage from this stolen book. His English teacher, Ms. Ames, was so impressed with his paper that she took Emir for an interview at the very elite and exclusive Paideia School in Atlanta. She showed the admissions officer the essay that she thought Emir wrote. They were so impressed that they offered him a scholarship.

So Emir changed schools and, as a result, dramatically changed the course of his life. And it was all because of this plagiarized essay from a stolen library book and one idealistic teacher who went out of her way to help him. Emir got an incredibly lucky break.

Or at least that’s how Emir remembers it.

But the show’s producers tracked down his high school English teacher, Ms. Ames. She remembered events very, very differently. First of all, she said that Emir would have gotten a good education at the public school he was already attending. And because he was so bright, she said, Emir would have easily gotten into the honors program at the University of Georgia or gone to Georgia Tech, and from there he could have gone on to Harvard and accomplished all the things he accomplished otherwise.

The path would have been different, she said, but he would have ended up in the same place.

Even more remarkably: Ms. Ames didn’t remember anything about the essay that Emir plagiarized. She said she didn’t show any essay to the school officials at Paideia, and, besides, it wasn’t any one thing that inspired her to help Emir: she said that Emir had distinguished himself in all his classes for months prior to that, and it was clear to everyone at Clarkston High School that Emir was bound for great things.

But get this: even after talking with Ms. Ames and being confronted with all this new information, Emir wasn’t quite willing to give up on his story—the unlikely one; the story of the plagiarized essay from a stolen book and the one angelic teacher who gave him his lucky break.

Michael Lewis wanted to know why. He said,

And that’s when it dawns on me: Emir… is just an unusually happy human being. He exudes the emotion from every pore… When you insist as Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well, you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you?

It’s just very different if you tell yourself that you simply deserve all the good stuff that happens to you: Because you happen to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard.

Did you catch that? Emir’s version of events, more than his teacher’s version, corresponds to his outlook on life: He doesn’t believe he deserves all these good things. He’s indebted to others for them. Therefore, he feels grateful rather than entitled.

Granted, the story doesn’t talk about God or religion at all, but Emir’s outlook on life comes surprisingly close to the outlook on life that Jesus says we disciples should have in today’s scripture: Understand that every good thing that happens to us, that we receive or achieve, is an undeserved gift. Emir would probably say that it’s a lucky gift—a happy accident—but we Christians know better. We know that our heavenly Father gives us these things.

“Look at the birds of the air,” Jesus says. “They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them… 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.” If God takes care of them, how much more will he take care of us. And if we believe that, then we can successfully obey what, in my opinion, is Jesus’ most difficult—or at least the most easily ignored command: “Do not worry.”

Can we really trust God to take care of us and give us what we need?

Well, speaking for myself, I would say that God has a pretty good track record of doing just that. After all, we ask God in the Lord’s Prayer to “give us this day our daily bread.” And according to the internet, I have been alive for exactly 15,936 days. I have never once had to worry for a moment about my daily bread. Every day I’ve been alive God has given me food to sustain me.

But not so fast. You might say, “I earn my daily bread! I work hard for the paycheck that enables me to put food on the table and feed my family. That’s what I do.” And I partially agree: We are responsible for doing something for our daily bread—just as the birds of the air to which Jesus refers build nests and gather insects, or worms, or seeds, or carrion, or fish. But consider what God does first: God gives us life in the first place. God gives us these amazing brains and bodies, and hands and feet. And God gives us this amazing planet that supports our lives beautifully well—and even produces the wheat, grains, milk, oil, and yeast that are the ingredients of bread. God gives us parents who take care of us when we are completely helpless to fend for ourselves. Through our parents we inherit certain gifts and abilities. And God places in our lives other people—family members, teachers, coaches, role models, and mentors—who have molded us into the people who can do useful and productive work to earn money to buy bread.

Remember my opening story about Emir: he felt lucky because this good thing, and that good thing, and this other good thing happened to him—circumstances over which he had no control and for which he was not responsible. And because of that, he didn’t feel entitled; he felt like life was a gift… But in a way, he got it wrong: because in addition to those few good things that happened to him beyond his control, there were like a million-and-one other good things happened to him along the way, which were also beyond his control, gifts that he just took for granted.

The point is, our heavenly Father takes care of us. And the birds and the wildflowers teach us to depend on God to meet our every need. So we don’t have to worry if only we’ll trust God!

Remember several weeks ago when we looked at Jesus’ words concerning anger? I’m not kidding when I say that prior to preparing that sermon I had never before considered my anger a serious spiritual problem, much less a sin. I mean, I had plenty of other sins to worry about, but not that one. Sure, I could be irritable and short-tempered sometimes; I could be a hothead sometimes; I could fly off the handle and use profanity sometimes. But these things had no bearing on who I was inside, where it really counts.

Well, through this scripture, the Lord got a hold of me, and showed me, “No, Brent, you do have a problem with anger. And it’s a sin and you need to change.” And as a Georgia Tech fan watching that game yesterday, my family can attest that I still have a lot of work to do when it comes to anger.

I’m not even kidding… As long as I get so upset about a football game, so that it puts me in a foul mood and ruins part of my day, you can be sure that I still have a problem with a sinful kind of anger. And I’m not O.K. with it. Not anymore! I don’t want to be the kind of person that gets angry about the outcome of football games. I don’t want my kids to see me like that. I want to be more like my wife and her sister, Nancy, both of whom are Auburn graduates and fans. Auburn loses some heartbreaking game, and they’re both like, “War Eagle anyway!” And I make fun of them! And I think, “I’m a more devoted fan of my team than they are of theirs because I have passion.” I’m a better fan. No, it doesn’t mean you’re a better fan; it means that they’re a better person! I’m serious. Like the cliché says, recognizing that we have a problem is the first step towards healing. And that’s true for each of the things that Jesus talks about in the Sermon on the Mount.

So decide today that you want to be different! Decide today that you want to live a life free of sinful anger. Decide today that you don’t want to show off or make yourself look good in front of other people. Decide today that you don’t want to judge other people. Decide today that you don’t want to lust anymore or fool around with sinful garbage on the internet. Decide today that you want to be a better spouse and you want to have a better marriage. Decide today that you want to be less selfish, less greedy, more generous. Decide today—finally—that you don’t want to worry anymore. Deciding doesn’t instantly change who you are inside, but it’s a necessary first step toward spiritual change.

Why should we change? Well, I could say, “Because one day each one of us will face God’s judgment and will be held accountable for how we lived or failed to live up to Jesus’ words here,” and that would be true. But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gives us a reason that is probably far more compelling to us than that, and it’s really simple: We want to do the things that Jesus says we should do, and avoid doing the things that Jesus says we should avoid doing, because we’ll be rewarded for doing so. Jesus calls this reward treasure in heaven.

And maybe you’re thinking, “Treasure in heaven! That’s such a long way off! I can’t stay focused on something that won’t happen until after I die. I’ll get distracted. I’ll forget, and my life will return to normal—with all its anger and pride and judgmentalism and lust and fear and anxiety that goes with it.” Many of you remember what it was like after 9/11—how for weeks or months after the attacks, our whole country was on red-alert; always mindful of the threat of terrorism, always on guard, always taking steps to prevent it. And then some more time passed. While we didn’t exactly forget about the threat of terrorism, it was no longer at the forefront of our thoughts. It couldn’t be. That’s human nature!

But when Jesus talks about “treasure in heaven,” he doesn’t simply mean a reward that’s way off in the future. He also means something that we receive and experience right now. In the present. And it’s a very practical reward, because it’s what everyone wants anyway: true and lasting happiness. We want to be happy, and Jesus shows us how.

Would you be happier if, for example, you never worried about anything? Um, yeah! Are you kidding?

Do you believe that Jesus himself was a happy person? We may immediately think of Jesus’ overturning the money-changers’ tables, or weeping at his friend Lazarus’s funeral, or sweating drops of blood in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying, “Not my will but thine,” but these events stand out because they were exceptions.

The Gospels show Jesus enjoying the company of his many friends, joking around with people, playing with children, being invited to and attending lots of parties. Jesus had such a magnetic personality that multitudes of people wanted to be around him all the time. No one wants to hang out with an unhappy person. Moreover, all his words about true happiness would ring hollow to his many disciples if they didn’t perceive that Jesus was himself truly happy. They listened to him because they wanted what he had. In fact, Jesus was the happiest person who ever lived, I would argue, because only Jesus could live out the words of the Sermon on the Mount perfectly.

On our mini-vacation last weekend, Lisa and I saw the Ron Howard-directed movie Rush, based on the true story of two Formula One drivers from the mid-’70s who were fierce rivals: Austrian Niki Lauda and Englishman James Hunt. When they get to the final race of the 1976 season, Lauda was ahead of Hunt by just a few points, but if Hunt won the race he’d win the season. The problem is that it was raining hard; unlike NASCAR, Formula One races in the rain. But the track was a disaster; the visibility was terrible; it was a death trap, as Hunt himself points out. Then the race began. After only a couple of laps, Lauda, who recently married, saw a vision of his wedding day, and his wife, and he does the unthinkable: he makes a pit stop just a few laps into the race. “What’s wrong with your car?” his crew cjief asks. “Nothing,” Lauda says. He unbuckles, gets out, and walks away from his car and the race.

He decided that his treasure was elsewhere: he had something more valuable than the fleeting glory of beating his hated rival, or winning a championship, or winning a pot of gold; or winning the praise or approval or love or affection of other people. Or winning any other treasure the world has to offer offer. Lauda wasn’t willing to die for those things. It just wasn’t worth it to him.

So let me ask you… What is worth dying for?

Set your mind on that! Pursue that. Make that your priority. Make that the thing you treasure most. Why waste your time on anything less?

If something is really valuable to you, it’s worth dying for. Think about this: we human beings are so valuable to God that God himself came into the world in Jesus, and suffered and died for us, in order to save us from sin and death and eternal separation from God—in order to make us a part of God’s family forever. What amazing love!

I’ve been talking about all of the gifts that God has given us, including the gift of our life on this earth, and how we should be grateful for these things. But keep in mind: most of these gifts are temporary. We lose them when we die. Therefore the most important thing we can do with this gift of temporary life while we still possess it is to ensure that we also receive the gift of eternal life.

Have you received this gift? [invitation]

2 Responses to “Sermon 10-06-13: “Back to School, Part 8: Jesus’ Toughest Command””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, this is really good. I do have a question for you. To what extent can we rely on God’s promises if we are not meeting his “conditions,” if I may call them that? Thus, Paul says, “If a man will not work, neither let him eat.” And Proverbs is replete with warnings about what will happen to lazy people (roof will leak, etc.). So it appears to me that we can’t necessarily expect God to always “take care of us” if we are not following his rules. “Seek ye FIRST the kingdom of God, and his righteousness, and THEN all these things will be provided unto you.” I think I can’t expect for things to “go well” with me necessarily if I am living with unrepentant sin, for example. Consider the children of Israel, particularly in the book of Judges. Consequently, I think I can only necessarily “take comfort” in Jesus’ admonition not to worry, because God will take care of me, if I am living “righteously.” What do you think?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I don’t really disagree. As I said in the sermon, we have to do something, but it’s very, very small in comparison to what God does. If we are God’s children, however, I think we can count on God to take care of us, even if he disciplines us. Even if or when we die, by the way, God is still taking care of us.

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