Scripture Readings: Joel 2:21–27 | Psalm 126 | 1 Timothy 2:1–7 | Matthew 6:25–33
“But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:33)
Happy Thanksgiving everyone… even though I know this wasn’t exactly the way anyone hoped this holiday would turn out. Many of us look forward to Thanksgiving as a time to reconnect with family and friends… to share a celebratory meal… turkey, stuffing, and so on. These special times, traditions, and foods, can be a welcome source of comfort; helping us feel connected to our past, to enjoy the blessings of our present, and to look forward with hope to when we can do it all again next year.
But again, our plans have had to change. Due to the rapidly rising cases of COVID-19 in New Brunswick, this weekend’s festivities have had to be set aside. As much as we all look forward to gathering with family and friends, turkey dinners, and all the traditions we turn to each year, the spread of this virus has to be curbed… for everybody’s sake. Not only here in Gondola Point, or Southern New Brunswick, but all over Canada, and all over our world. As sick as we may be of restrictions, and constantly changing plans, getting this pandemic under control still needs to be a real priority. If we keep doing what is necessary to deal with this virus, we’re paving the way for these kinds of meals and gatherings to resume. We’re not just being told not to gather… we’re being called to reorganize our priorities… to place the wellbeing of our neighbours above our own desires. To put first things first.
Something similar is going on in our Gospel reading this morning: Christ is calling for a re-arranging of our priorities… putting first things first.
Our passage comes from the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of Christ’s teachings in the Gospel of Matthew which lays out the core vision of the Christian community… entering into the heart of God’s intentions for His people already glimpsed in the Law of Moses and the 10 Commandments… a vision of life ultimately directing us to love God and our neighbours.
Far from offering legalistic rules, or abstract, impossible ideals, Christ is calling us into a way of living each day in God’s eternal kingdom: sharing His holy love with each other, and our world.
That said, this kingdom doesn’t come naturally. It isn’t our first inclination. To take part in it requires a real renewing of our hearts and minds. Reorganizing our priorities… seeking first things first. Something that is not always as simple as it seems.
Our passage began with Jesus pointing to the birds of the air, and the flowers of the field, using them as illustrations of God’s providential care. Birds and flowers don’t work and worry the way we humans do, and yet God still sustains them. The question is then: “will not God sustain and care for us as well”? Christ is teaching us His followers to take the way of trust. To not be driven by the anxiety of not having, or being enough… looking for security in things like material wealth. Instead, Christ shows us, we can truly place our confidence in the love of our Heavenly Father. Trusting Him through all of life’s ups and downs.
Jesus goes on: “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ 32 For it is the Gentiles [the nations,] who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. 33 But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matthew 6:31-33). Trust your Heavenly Father, Christ teaches us. Strive first for His kingdom… “and all these things will be given to you as well.”
This is one of those verses that we have to handle carefully, considering the wider context in which it appears. Taken on it’s own, it can seem to set up a transactional way of relating to God. Something like: if I do X for God… whatever X might be… then God will deliver all these other things that I need or want. We can see this attitude at work all over, tied to the so-called Prosperity Gospel… the idea that if we just do what God wants, we’ll get all the blessings we want. This is nothing short of trying to manipulate the LORD… turning His Kingdom into a means to achieve my own ends. What could be farther from trust and holy love than using someone like that?
Thankfully, Jesus already challenged this self-focussed motivation right before our passage today, especially in Matthew 6:24. Christ said: “No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” We cannot serve God and wealth. This is just one example, but it is a clear one, calling us to examine our true priorities. If my true master is wealth, or comfort, or security… than I will try to use God in order to strive for what I really desire. But if, following Jesus, my life is drawn into the service of God’s kingdom, then Christ tells me He will take care of the rest… come what may. Instead of striving to meet my desires, or fend off my anxieties, I am invited to live each day sustained by trust in God’s great love… even when my path leads to pain and suffering.
The Anglican priest and author, John Stott, puts it well: “to be free from worry and to be free from trouble are not the same thing. Christ commands us not to be anxious, but does not promise that we shall be immune to all misfortune.” We can also consider the life and example of St. Paul. In his letter to the Philippians, St. Paul, whose life was full of amazing ups, and terrifying downs, wrote that: “I have learned to be content with whatever I have. 12 I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. 13 I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:11-13)
In Christ Jesus, St. Paul received contentment… thankfulness, and freedom from worry. He was drawn into the service of the kingdom of God, and come what may he was confident that his life was in God’s loving hands. Rather than serving his own desires or fears, St. Paul shows us what it looks like to put first things first: to strive after God’s kingdom, and find freedom.. peace… gratitude… and true contentment.
The Good News is, after all, Good News… God’s kingdom is better than we can imagine. N.T. Wright gives this helpful reminder: “When [Jesus] urged them to make God their priority, it’s important to realize which God he’s talking about. He’s not talking about a god who is distant from the world, who doesn’t care about beauty and life and food and clothes. He’s talking about the creator himself, who has filled the world with wonderful and mysterious things, full of beauty and energy and excitement, and who wants his human creatures above all to trust him and love him and receive their own beauty, energy and excitement from him.” Jesus is not calling us to take up a way of life that is worse for us, but one that takes part in the renewing of the world by the holy love of the Living God, as His Holy Spirit sets things right, and reconciles all things in Christ… freeing us to give our lives wholeheartedly to His kingdom… learning to share in God’s self-giving love, letting it drive all that we do.
Jesus has not only given us the promise to be with us, come what may… to strengthen and sustain us as we strive for His kingdom here on earth. He has also given us the hope of eternity: of attending that heavenly wedding feast between Christ and His Church… the greatest celebration and reunion, which all our festivals at their best help us to anticipate. Where all creation will gather together joyfully giving thanks to God, sharing in His fellowship forevermore.
As we look forward to that future day, Jesus is calling us here and now to strive to share in God’s holy love. To trust and give our hearts to Him: holding first place in our lives… not because our other concerns don’t matter, but so that we can handle them empowered by God’s Holy Spirit, and led by His life-giving love.
How might this starting point reshape how we see and relate to the people in our lives? How might it impact our friendships, and families. Our neighbours, our sisters and brothers in Christ. How might placing God first free us from fears of not having enough, or being enough? Knowing that the Lord of all gave His life first of all, for you and I?
So may the Holy Spirit empower us to strive first of all for God’s kingdom. May we learn to trust more deeply in our Heavenly Father’s loving care. May we receive with gratefulness the freedom and contentment Christ longs to share with us. And come what may, may we be sustained by the hope of eternity together around God’s table. Amen.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 167.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone, Part 1: Chapters 1-15 (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2004), 66.