translations render Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:27, “And can any of you by
worrying add a single hour to your span of life?” However, the Greek word
translated ‘span of life’ can also be translated ‘stature’ and the Greek word
translated ‘hour’ is in fact ‘cubit’ (about one-and-a-half feet), and so a
better translation would be, “... add one cubit to your height?”
noted earlier that the word Jesus uses for ‘body’ translates both literally as
your ‘body’ and metaphorically as your gathered congregation. And so, it is not
really a stretch to say that, among the layers of meaning here, is, “And can
any of you by worrying bring about the numerical growth of your church?”
ironic humour would have it, after the service this morning — at which, for a
variety of reasons, quite a few members of the congregation were absent — two
members were lamenting how small the congregation is, compared to a couple of
larger independent churches local to us, and how hard it is to know what to do
about it ...
firstly, don’t be anxious! Size does not equate to health, nor to long-term
commitment. And, in any case, we aren’t comparing like for like, as the
Anglicans are simply spread across the city in smaller gatherings — which have
their advantages, as well as disadvantages. If greater size was the best
yardstick, we should close all our churches and gather together at the Minster —
but I don’t fancy the chances of that proposal being well-received, for some
very good reasons, as well as, inevitably, some unhealthy reasons.
the old hymn goes, God made them great and small. And as the saying goes,
comparison is the thief of joy.
thinking about anxiety, and this coming Sunday’s Gospel, which is relatively
familiar and, therefore, widely misunderstood.
is addressing the experience of anxiety, which must be very common: at least, I
experience anxiety, fairly regularly; other people tell me that they experience
anxiety — and I see it up-close in those closest to me; and the bookshops are
filled with titles addressing anxiety. So, this would seem to be a live issue.
Greek word Jesus uses for anxiety is brilliantly descriptive: it describes
being pulled apart.
word he chooses for ‘life’ refers to the soul, or life-breath that animates us.
In biblical imagery, we have heart and mind and strength and soul. Heart refers
to our will, or capacity to choose, between right and wrong, good and evil; and
how such choices, repeated over time, shape our character. Mind refers to our
capacity for insight, informing our choices, and again, over time, shaping our
disposition. Strength refers to our capacity to exercise force, in the Physics
sense, to act on the basis of our informed choices. Soul refers to our
life-breath, to these elements being held together, as a living person, at the
sovereign decree of God.
attempts to pull them apart. The experience of anxiety can even lead to panic
attacks, to breathlessness, or the physical suggestion of a loss of soul.
Again, the use of language demonstrates Jesus’ incredible insight.
also chooses a word for the body which both refers to our bodies, in the
physical sense, and is a metaphor for our community — as in the use, later in
the New Testament, of the term body of Christ for the church. A playful word.
Jesus is addressing anxiety in relation to our selves and our community, to the
network of relationships that are an inextricable part of who we are. And Jesus’
concern is for wholeness, or shalom.
the summary of Jesus’ advice (to skip the middle, which I’ll come back to) is:
desire to know the reign of God over every area of your life, and to know his
approval of the life he has given you, and you will find that all these
elements that have been pulled apart by anxiety are brought back together.
point is not that if you seek to obey God you will not experience anxiety, but,
that if you desire to know God then this is how you can respond whenever you
feel anxiety rearing its head. Which, in my case at least, is often.
how do you do that? Firstly, Jesus invites us to look beyond ourselves. Notice
the birds. They don’t sow or reap or gather into barns — this last, a play on
words, the same root as the synagogue or the gathering of the people to
worship. But the point isn’t really a comparison, it isn’t about us, whether
workaholic or lazybones, devout or never coming to church. It is about birds,
who don't experience anxiety, but, most of all, it is about God’s sovereign
the observation about the flowers of the field, except that this one also
weaves in reflection on the past story of God’s dealing with his people.
God is sovereign over our community, however it looks, and over our past or
history or story; and if that sovereignty is expressed through delight, through
approval and provision; then we can desire to know that in our lives too.
so, we are invited, in all things, in the place of anxiety, the thing we are
anxious about, to imagine God’s reign in this place. To eagerly anticipate that
this might be so, and soon, and to look for even the smallest signs of that
breakthrough. For example, by praising God for who God is and for what God has
done and for what we trust that God will do again.
is a work of the heart and the mind and the strength — our wills choose it, as
an informed choice, on which we act, hard though it might be at first, until we
find that, God delighting in the soul he has created, our whole being is
brought back together. Anxiety is defeated, not once-and-for-all, but, over and
over again, day after day.
births desire, delight births delight. Worship brings our scattered lives back
into wholeness. Anxiety is, more or less, universal; but, there is a cure.