Seek Ye First Back to all sermons

Date: December 6, 2013

Speaker: Pastor Cameron Arensen

Series: Book of Matthew

Category: Gospel of Matthew

Scripture: Matthew 6:19–6:34

Synopsis: We are called to be members of the kingdom of heaven. Yet we still live on the earth, surrounded by the world’s stuff and all the concerns (and enticements) of daily life and the world around us. How can we reconcile the tension between heavenly values and daily living? In Matthew 6:19-34, Jesus calls us to a radical new way of looking at and thinking about life and treasure and commands us to “Seek Ye First…”

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Every day of our lives as the followers of Christ we face a dilemma, a constant tension. We belong to the kingdom of heaven. But we live on the earth.

Every day, as members of the kingdom of heaven we wake up and face another day of life on earth. We do what every other human being does. We get up. We put on clothes. We eat, we drink, we work, we shop, we play, we go home to rest. We live our lives on the earth and we are surrounded by the stuff of this earth.

Jesus looked out at his audience that day on the mountainside, and he saw farmers and fishermen, housewives and tax collectors, merchants and carpenters. Today he looks out over this congregation and he sees teachers and engineers, doctors and businessmen, pilots and accountants.

How does being a member of the kingdom of heaven influence our lives on earth and particularly our attitude toward the “stuff” which makes up our daily lives? This is Jesus’ topic in the last half of Matthew 6. We are covering two paragraphs today; the first goes from verses 19-24. The second takes us from verses 25-34. In these two sections, Jesus gives us two basic admonitions or warnings against two very common traps that we can fall into in regard to the stuff of this life.

Let’s read the first paragraph:

Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.

No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.

Here is the first warning: Don’t fall in love with the stuff!

This is the first great temptation we face as we look around at the world. It is the temptation to fall in love with the stuff of this world and this life. It happens so easily, doesn’t it? Especially here in U.A.E. Walking through the gold souks, or strolling through one of the shopping malls, or watching the latest model cars driving down the street. Everything the world has to offer is on display here. So Jesus’ words to us are timely. Be on guard. Don’t be seduced.

Actually Jesus’ words are even a little stronger than they appear in our English translations. We could translate this: “Stop laying up treasures on earth…” The form of the words indicates a command to suspend an action already in progress. In the old life, outside of Christ, we were busy laying up treasures on earth. Now as members of the kingdom of heaven, we are to cease and desist. Stop loving the stuff. Stop being seduced by the lure of earthly treasure.

Instead, our lives are to have a new focus, new priorities; we are to be driven by a new value system. We are told to “store up treasures in heaven.” One of the underlying themes of Jesus’ teaching in this sermon and many other places in Matthew is the theme of rewards. We don’t have time to explore it at length today, but at some point we’ll stop and examine it as we work our way through Matthew. But here is one of the clearest references we’ve seen yet. It is possible to “store up treasures in heaven.” Somehow, what we do and don’t do here will have implications on what we will one day own or experience in heaven. So in one way, we could say that what Jesus is calling for is not really a life of sacrifice, but a life of enlightened treasure seeking.

Jesus goes on to give four reasons for his warning.

First, Earthly treasure is temporary but heavenly treasure lasts forever.

Earthly treasure is transitory, destructible and insecure. As Jesus gives his examples of moths, rust and thieves, keep in mind that Jesus did not live in a cash economy. People had little in the way of money and if they did, there were no reliable banks or saving institutions to keep it in, or safes in which it could be locked away. People’s treasure was in the things they owned. And all of it was vulnerable. The rich invested in fine and exotic fabrics for use in clothing and wall hangings. But many of them were made from wool and susceptible to moths.

I remember when we were living in Kenya, we once had to put our household goods in storage for an extended period of time. We didn’t have much of great value, but we did have one nice Persian carpet. We had rolled it up carefully in plastic. When we went to unpack our things and we unrolled the carpet, moths flew out. As we looked carefully, we could see that the carpet was completely destroyed as the moths had eaten away many of the woolen threads that gave it its beauty. It was good for nothing but to be thrown away.

Metal objects can rust or be broken. And anything else was susceptible to thieves. Now we might be tempted to think: “That was the old days! Now we have banks and safes and mutual funds!” But just how safe are they? Inflation eats away at value. Taxes and fees take more. Stock markets crash. Bubbles burst. And in the very best case scenario, when your investment schemes all pay off handsomely, you can’t take one dirham with you when you die.

The second reason for Jesus’ warning is that The location of your treasure will determine the location of your heart. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. In a way, this is a chicken and egg puzzle. Which comes first? Is our heart focused on the earth, therefore we put our treasure here? Or is it the fact that our treasure is on earth that keeps our hearts anchored here? While both are true, Jesus seems to be emphasizing the latter. The more treasure we have on earth, the more we will be preoccupied with the matters of this life and this earth, and the less time, energy and affection we will have to invest in kingdom treasure.

The third point Jesus’ makes is stated a little more obscurely:

The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness.

I confess that Jesus’ logic and the specific intention of his figure of speech here is confusing to me. But I think the overall intent of what he is saying is clear enough. I think we can interpret his reference to the eye as a symbol or shorthand reference to our value system – the means by which we look at the world’s stuff and then place relative value on it. And if our value system (or eye) is skewed and “bad” or unhealthy, it will affect all of life. So we might summarize it this way: A corrupt value system will lead to moral and ethical blindness. A corrupt or misplaced value system will cause us to lurch from one poor choice to another and result in a life full of moral compromises.

Paul spells it out this way in 1Timothy 6:9-10: But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.

Finally, Jesus highlights the essential contradiction between loving God and loving earthly treasure. I can’t say it anymore concisely than Jesus said it himself. You cannot serve God and money. In fact, Jesus actually uses the word “Mammon” in this verse, personifying riches as a rival god. Money and love of riches is an idol, a false god that the world loves to worship. But Jesus warns us clearly – we cannot love and serve God and love and serve money and wealth at the same time. One will win out over the other, and cause the other to be despised, neglected and even hated.

Be careful, member of the kingdom of heaven. Do not fall in love with the world’s stuff. And if you are in love with the world’s stuff, stop it! You need to repent and ask God’s forgiveness. You have been worshipping at the altar of a foreign god!

So that is warning number one. What is the second one? Let’s read the second paragraph, beginning with verse 25:

Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? 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 arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith.

Therefore do not be anxious, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we wear?” For the Gentiles seek after all these things and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

If Jesus’ teaching in the previous section was “Don’t fall in love with the world’s stuff,” his teaching in this section is equally clear. Don’t worry about the world’s stuff!

It is a logical progression, is it not? We might listen to what Jesus said in the previous section, and yet protest: “Yes, but we have to eat! We have to have clothes to wear! We have to live somewhere and pay the rent!”

Five times in this section Jesus uses the same word and three times he gives it in the form of a command. He uses it in different forms. “Stop being anxious” and “Do not become anxious.”

What exactly does this word mean? The Greek word originally meant to divide into parts; to distract, to make it impossible to focus one’s thoughts. It is the opposite of being single minded. Worry is that nagging anxiety that eats away at us, destroying our inner peace, distracting us and troubling us, giving us no rest and hindering us from being effective members of the kingdom of heaven.

Specifically, Jesus defines what we are not to be anxious about in the first part of verse 25: Do not be anxious about your life… He actually uses the word “soul” there. I think we can paraphrase it as that which is necessary to keep body and soul together. He then goes on to spell this out as “food, drink and clothing”. Having enough of this world’s stuff to survive. He elaborates on these areas of concern again in verse 31. So Jesus is telling us: “Don’t worry about the basic necessities of life.” Don’t worry about the stuff!

As I have sought to digest Jesus’ logic in these verses, I believe we can reduce it to three basic principles or commands that will enable us to escape the trap of anxiety and worry.

First, Focus on your heavenly Father.

Twice in this passage Jesus refers to “your heavenly Father.” This is deliberate. When we enter the kingdom of heaven, we enter a family and it is a family with a Father – a Father in heaven. Remember how Jesus taught us to pray? “Our Father in heaven.” And one of the basic responsibilities of fathers is to take care of their children.

Especially this Father. Jesus uses two “how much more” examples to drive his point home. The birds of the air and the wild flowers of the field. The birds of the air don’t sow, reap or gather into barns. Yet God, our heavenly Father feeds them. We are much more valuable to God than birds. “How much more” will he feed us? The wild flowers don’t toil or spin. Yet God clothes them in beauty. You are much more valuable than the flowers. “How much more” will God clothe us?

Now we need to move cautiously here. Jesus is not against sowing, reaping, toiling or spinning. Jesus is not telling us not to work. He is telling us not to worry! If God feeds birds who do not sow, reap or harvest, how much more will he feed his beloved children who do sow, reap and harvest? If God clothes the grass with gaudy colors, even though they do not toil or spin, how much more will he clothe his children who do work hard?

God is, by his very nature, a Provider. He is our Father. He is our heavenly Father. Not only that, but Jesus specifically reminds us repeatedly that our Father knows what we need. We saw this in the preparation phase of the Disciples’ Prayer back in Matthew 6:8: Do not be like them (the Gentiles) for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Jesus repeats that same truth here in verse 31-32: Therefore do not be anxious, saying “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear.” For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all.”

Ultimately, the solution to worry is faith. Faith in our heavenly Father. When we worry, Jesus accuses us in verse 30 of being “of little faith.” Faith is about trust. Trust your Father.

If you visit almost any large city in a developing nation, it is not uncommon to find young children on the streets of the city, begging and stealing and doing almost anything to stay alive. In Nairobi, they were referred to as “street kids”. They are kids who have fallen through the cracks of society. Many are orphans and most are homeless, often sleeping under cardboard at night to keep warm. One lesson these kids have learned the hard way; no one is going to take care of them. They have to survive by their own wits and ingenuity, by begging, pleading or stealing. Many of them seemed to have a common style of speaking – a kind of high pitched, whining tone, made up of many words, quickly spoken in a desperate rush.

Here is what Jesus is saying to us. “You are not street kids!” You are not like the Gentiles – which Jesus is using here as a reference to unbelievers, those who are outside the family of God, outside the kingdom of heaven. They do not know God. They do not have a Father in heaven to rely on. They are the world’s street kids. Their approach to life, and even to prayer, makes sense for them. But not for us. We do have a Father! So stop thinking, acting, praying and worrying as though you were an orphan, or an abandoned child.

So this is the first antidote to worry: Focus on your heavenly Father. He is a provider by nature. He is in heaven. And he knows what we need even before we ask him.

The second principle or command: Focus on the purposes of God. This passage contains one of the most powerful, life transforming verses in the Bible. It is a command with an accompanying promise. It is found in verse 33: But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (that’s the command) and all these things will be added to you. That’s the promise. What things? The things Jesus just listed: food, drink, clothing, all that we need to keep body and soul together.

You may remember from a few weeks ago and the message on the Disciples’ Prayer. In that message I divided the ingredients in the prayer into God’s Purposes and Our Needs. Both are to be part of our regular prayers. What Jesus tells us here is that we are to align our lives in the same way. If we will prioritize and pursue his purposes – his kingdom, his will, his righteousness - he promises to meet our needs.

A very wise, older missionary once shared this principle with me, and I have never forgotten it. It has given me guidance in many confusing situations. He expressed it this way: “God makes himself responsible for the consequences of our obedience.” In other words, do what’s right and God will manage the outcome. If we take care of God’s business, he’ll take care of ours. And we can stop worrying.

The final principle that Jesus gives here as an antidote to worry is this: Focus on today. That is what he is saying in verse 34: Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

This is another major source of worry, isn’t it? What is going to happen tomorrow? What if I lose my job? What if the stock market crashes and my retirement fund loses half its value? What if a typhoon blows my house away? What if I get a life-threatening illness and I don’t have adequate health insurance? The list goes on and on. What is Jesus’ answer to this? Well, Jesus doesn’t tell us that nothing bad is ever going to happen. We need to remember what John Piper shared with us two weeks ago. The whole creation is groaning, and we ourselves are groaning as we live in this fallen creation in decaying, dying bodies. Bad stuff does happen. We do suffer. What Jesus is telling us is this: Focus on today. He will give us enough strength and enough provision and supply to do his will today. Tomorrow he will give us enough for tomorrow. What we tend to do is exhaust today’s resources fretting about tomorrow and the future. We run mental videos of all the bad things that might happen.

First of all, most of the bad things we worry about never do happen.

Secondly, worry doesn’t do any good. It doesn’t prevent the bad things, the hard things that come into our lives. That is what Jesus tells us in verse 27: And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? Jesus doesn’t say we’ll never die. We will die. What he tell us is that worrying will neither prevent nor delay that reality. It is utterly useless. It only depletes our resources and causes us to lose sleep for no good purpose.

I like to express it this way: God doesn’t promise to give us grace for “what ifs”. He only promises to give us grace for what is.

So whatever hardships or difficulties we may face today, take God’s provision of resources and strength and face them today. You can face tomorrow, tomorrow, because the same gracious heavenly Father who meets your needs today has promised to meet your needs tomorrow. After all, he is the one said, “I will never leave you or forsake you.”

So, members of the kingdom of heaven: We have a glorious future to look forward to. But for now we are living on earth. How shall we relate to the stuff of this life? First of all, don’t fall in love with the stuff. And secondly, don’t worry about the stuff. Instead, keep your eyes focused on your heavenly Father who knows your needs. Pursue his purposes. And live just one day at a time.

Discussion Questions

Read Matthew 6:19-24 together.

Mark Twain once said, “It is not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that trouble me. It is the parts of the Bible I do understand that bother me.” This is one of those passages that is all too clear – and if we are honest, troubling.

  1. Does this passage mean that it is wrong to plan for retirement or have a savings plan?
  2. How can we tell if we are laying up treasure on earth in violation of Jesus’ teaching?
  3. What do you think laying up treasure in heaven means? How can we do it?
  4. What is Jesus’ saying in verses 22-23? How does it apply to our lives?
  5. Jesus’ words in verse 24 seem very black and white. How can we reconcile this stark contrast in our life choices?

Read Matthew 6:25-34

  1. What is the logical connection between this paragraph and the preceding one?
  2. Why is the reference to God as “Father” significant in this context?
  3. What do the birds of the air and the lilies of the field have to teach us about the character of God?
  4. In the sermon, Pastor Cam made the statement: “We are not street kids!” How do we sometimes act/think/pray as though we were?
  5. Can you point to specific ways that verse 33 has shaped your life? Can you point to any current decisions or situations you are facing where this verse applies?
  6. How does this section of Scripture (Matthew 6:19-34 as a whole) support or contradict the prosperity preachers?