Canadian Thanksgiving Sunday

TEXTS: Matthew 6:25-33 and Hebrews 4:12-16


“So I’m telling you,” [said Jesus,] “don’t go worrying about your life, about where your next meal is coming from or what you will find to drink. Don’t stress about what you look like or whether you’ve got the right clothes to wear.

“Life is more than food, isn’t it? And the body is not just a clothes rack, is it? Look at the birds flying around. They don’t do any farming. They don’t stock up the pantry with extra supplies. And yet your Father in heaven feeds them. You are worth more than they are, aren’t you? So what good does worrying do you? It won’t make you live any longer—not even an hour—will it?

“And why do you worry about what to wear? Think about the wild flowers.

“They grow without ever shopping or sewing a stitch. But you can take it from me that they are clothed more perfectly than even a princess at a royal wedding. If God takes such care over dressing the wildflowers, which bloom today and are mown down and composted tomorrow, how much more care will God take to make sure that you have the clothes you need? Yet you find it hard to trust!

“So don’t get all anxious and go asking, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘Where will we find a drink?’ or ‘What on earth will we wear?’  It is the people who don’t put their trust in God who put all their energy into these things.

“You can rest assured that your Father in heaven knows perfectly well that you need these things. So you can make your first priority the new culture of God and doing the right thing, God’s way, and all these other things will be taken care of for you.”*

That’s our gospel lesson for Thanksgiving Sunday, from an Australian Scriptural paraphrase by a Baptist minister called Nathan Nettleton. It’s Matthew, chapter six, beginning at verse 25.

The Revised Common Lectionary ends the reading after verse 33. I’m not sure why. Because there’s only one remaining verse in that chapter—and it’s this one: “So don’t stress out about tomorrow,” Jesus said. “Just deal with the troubles of today, and leave tomorrow’s worries until they come.” *

Or, as the King James Version renders it: Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”

Give no thought to tomorrow. Don’t worry about food or drink or clothing. Or the mortgage payment. Or your children’s education. Or your own retirement.

Really? What kind of crazy advice is that? I mean, that’s right up there with “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44), isn’t it? Or with “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (Matt. 5:39).

All of these quotations—including that famous “lilies of the field” reference—are from Jesus’ “Sermon on the Mount” recorded in chapters five through seven of Matthew’s gospel. And if we weren’t so used to hearing them—so used to hearing Jesus say things like, “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (Matt. 5:40) … we might take him seriously!

We might take Jesus seriously. And if we took him seriously, we might want to ask him, “Lord, what were you thinking?”

What were you thinking, Jesus? That is terrible advice! If we didn’t bother to plan for the future … what would become of us?

Jesus, you’ve got your head in the clouds. You just don’t know what it’s like to live in the real world.

Be honest. Have you never thought that maybe Jesus of Nazareth was just a starry-eyed idealist? With no clue about what life is like for those of us who do have to think about mortgages and grocery bills and credit card statements? Jesus never had to pay off a car loan. He walked everywhere! As far as we know, the guy had no wife or children to support. No financial commitments. No obligation to be in the office or in the shop on Monday morning—and to get there on time.

So we hear these words of Jesus and we shrug them off. We dismiss them because … Well, maybe because we’re afraid that if we think about them too deeply, we might come to the conclusion that Jesus was just a starry-eyed idealist with his head in the clouds. And we don’t want to go there. But on Thanksgiving Sunday, that is precisely where the gospel takes us.

So … was he? Was Jesus simply out of touch with the real world? Disconnected from the real lives of ordinary people?

I think the answer to those questions is a resounding NO! For one thing, Jesus of Nazareth—for most of his life—was an ordinary person. He was raised by a small-town carpenter who must have often struggled to support his wife and growing family. All you have to do is look at the average tradesman today, and you get some sense of how up-and-down that life can be. When there’s plenty of work around, things are good. But when the economy slows down, and the work dries up, life can get pretty tough.

There’s no reason to think things were any different in Joseph’s household. And if—as many attest—Jesus himself earned his living in the trades … he would have known how hard it could be to make ends meet.

Yeshua bar Yosef—Jesus the son of Joseph, from Nazareth in Galilee—was ordinary enough that, to begin with, even his own siblings questioned whether he’d really been given a mission by God (Mark 3:21, 32). And the people in his hometown synagogue certainly were not convinced: Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” (Matt. 13:55-56). Who does he think he is? Matthew’s gospel says that “they took offense at him” (13:57).

It wasn’t until after the fact—after Good Friday turned into Easter morning—that large numbers of people did begin to take Jesus seriously. However, those who did take him seriously right from the start—his original disciples—quickly learned that this was a man without rose-coloured glasses (and not just because they hadn’t been invented yet!).

When his followers wanted him to raise an army and boot the Romans out of Palestine, he immediately threw cold water on that idea.

Why? Well, probably at least in part because he sized up the chances of success and realized that the Jews were outgunned; they simply were no match for the Empire’s well-trained, well-disciplined, and battle-hardened troops. Any uprising would be swiftly and brutally crushed. Jesus knew that very well. And besides, that wasn’t the kind of Messiah he was called to be.

No. This carpenter-turned-travelling-rabbi was neither impractical nor naïve. So what, then, are we to make of his “do not worry about tomorrow” speech up on the mountain?

We need to consider who Jesus’ audience was that day. He wasn’t addressing the House of Commons or the United States Senate or the Jerusalem Chamber of Commerce. He sat on a hillside and spoke to “the crowds”—as Matthew tells us at the beginning of chapter five.

And while there may have been a handful of VIPs present, it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of those assembled were from the lower strata of society. Ordinary fishermen. Unskilled labourers. Slaves. Women. The working poor. The least of the least. His usual audience.

See, when Jesus counseled them to trust in God and not worry about tomorrow, he knew he was speaking to people who really had few alternatives. There was nothing much they could do to improve their circumstances. He knew that, and so did they—which surely must have been a source of deep concern for them. When you know you’re in a precarious situation—and especially when you realize there’s nothing you can do about it—what are your choices?

You can worry. Or you can take the risk of trusting in God. Trusting that—if you ask your heavenly Father for help—somehow, things will turn out all right in the end.

That isn’t as easy as worrying, I guess. But it’s certainly no less productive. In my own life, if I’ve learned anything, it’s this: the more I trust God, the less prone I am to panic about things.

Anyway, once we consider all of that, perhaps Jesus’ address to these folks makes a bit more sense. To those of us who have stock portfolios to tinker with—or who just have secure and steady employment—he might well give a different message.

Yeah. I kind of think so. My guess is that his words were to some extent tailored to his audience on any given occasion.

Why? Because Jesus of Nazareth was anything but naïve. He always seems to have known exactly who he was dealing with—whether it was a disenfranchised peasant hoping for a crust of bread or a “rich young ruler” seeking wisdom. To the one, he said, “Do not worry about tomorrow.” And to the other, “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven” (Matt. 19:21).

There’s a bigger picture, too. The Letter to the Hebrews touches on it when it describes Jesus as our “great high priest who has passed through the heavens” (4:14).

The role of a high priest is to make intercession for ordinary people, and the author goes on to say this: “… ours is not a high priest unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who, because of his likeness to us, has been tested [in] every way, only without sin” (4:15).

The bigger picture is: this Jesus—who has become our great high priest in the court of heaven—is not only our Saviour and Christ. Scripture and tradition informs us that he was God in human form—the Divine Word that “became flesh and lived among us,” as John’s gospel (1:14) says.

That is the simple truth of the doctrine of the Incarnation; in Jesus of Nazareth—son of Joseph and Son of God—the Creator of the universe became, in some incomprehensible way, one of his own creatures. Jesus was truly and fully God, and yet he was truly and fully human, as well.

Don’t fry your brain trying to make sense of the paradox; you’ll never do it. Not in this lifetime, anyway. But, you know what? That doesn’t matter! The important thing is: Jesus really does know our every weakness. Jesus really does understand our trials. He knows how strong—how seductive—temptation can be.

The God who lived through Gethsemane knows what it is to feel anguish, to be in fear for one’s life, to want to escape from a desperate situation. To find a way out. Jesus—who faced the tempter in the desert—Jesus understands how reasonable it may appear to cut corners, to compromise and avoid unpleasantness: “Just this once; what’s the harm?”

Jesus understands. He’s been where you are. He’s tasted all of our human existence—joy and sorrow; disappointment and satisfaction; anxiety and relief. He has even died our death. And he has defeated the grave.

Here’s something for which we can all be truly thankful today: even as Christ was identified with us in his dying, so also are we identified with him in his rising. Easter morning was not only the triumph of the Son of God over sin and death; it was also God’s promise to us—his assurance to us—that we, also, shall be raised. The grave was not the end for Jesus; it’s not the end for us, either. God’s “bigger picture” includes you and me.

And—as I think about it—I guess maybe that brings “the lilies of the field” into the bigger picture, too. For if we are truly held in the hands of God (as I believe we are) and if our God is trustworthy (as I believe he is) then, in the economy of heaven, tomorrow will take care of itself!

So, today—as you tend whatever turkeys are in whatever ovens—I hope you have some lilies on your festive tables. Or flowers of some kind, to remind you that you really are not alone as you face life’s challenges and enjoy life’s blessings. And that you are not in charge, either. Which—in the bigger picture—is a very good thing!

And—because you and I are part of that bigger picture—there’s even better news. Whatever is going on—however substantial our problems or how shameful our mistakes—Jesus understands! And, through him, we may indeed “boldly approach the throne of our gracious God, where we may receive mercy and in his grace find timely help” (Heb. 4:16).

Will someone say, “Amen”? Thanks be to God!


* ©2008 Nathan Nettleton

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