Seek first the Kingdom of God
This talk was given by Paul Wintle on as part of our worship service at Main Street Community Church in the building and over the Internet.
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Before the talk, Matthew 6:25–34 was read.
On Easter Sunday, we looked at the resurrection story through the emotions and eyes of the women who were first at the empty tomb. We considered their fear, their bewilderment, their possible mental health issues that they experienced as they tried to piece together this confusing and confounding news that Jesus had risen from the dead.
Last week, as we thought about Cleopas and his friend on the road to Emmaus in a similarly confused state until Jesus found them and showed himself to them in the breaking of bread. Even when he disappeared, he was with them as their hearts burned within them, as they returned joyfully to Jerusalem, the former seat of pain and separation.
Today’s reading from Matthew 6 begins in a similar vein if we want to read it that way. Anxiety, worry, perhaps even fear. Stephen Dray, in his short commentary on Matthew’s Gospel, points out that since God has given us life, why worry about lesser things, and that if God cares for birds, he must surely care for people, and that anxiety, he says, is fruitless as it never achieves anything.
He goes on as far as to wrongly suggest that anxiety is a source of defective faith. How dare he? Can I imagine Jesus talking this way at the centre of the Sermon on the Mount? I think this is a lesson in missing the point for Mr Dray and discouraging Christians everywhere because I believe that anxiety is real.
If COVID has taught us one thing, it’s that our emotional health cannot and must not be taken for granted. What Jesus is talking about here is much more delicate, much more important than a simple message of, “Don’t worry, trust God” .
How many of us have been crushed by unhelpful, so-called Christian teaching in our past, when we’re told to exercise more faith? As if it were dependent upon ourselves to muster up an extra dollop of trust in God from within in order to overcome our present strife.
Jesus, having preached so far in what we know as the Sermon on the Mount, implores his listeners how to treat others, how to give, how to fast, how to pray, and now turns to the matter of building up treasures in Heaven. He uses the normal and everyday condition of worry to signpost his listeners to something much, much more exciting and deep. Seeking first God’s kingdom and his righteousness.
In his helpful book, We Make the Road by Walking, Brian McLaren says this about anxiety. “Jesus advocates the opposite of an anxiety-driven system. He describes a faith-sustained system that he calls God’s kingdom and justice. When we each focus anxiously on our own individual well-being without concern for our neighbour, we enter into a rivalry and everyone’s worse off, but,” says McLaren, “when we learn from the songbirds and wildflowers to live by faith in God’s abundance, we collaborate and we share, we watch out rather than compete, we bless rather than oppress.”
When that happens, he says, “It’s easier to see how everyone will be better off.” We desire what God desires, so we work for the common good. At that central point of the Sermon on the Mount, we have such an important learning opportunity. Just as many of the psalms are structured in such a way as to have the main point directly at the centre of it, maybe Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount with his grand teaching can be summed up with this central theme, “Seek first God’s kingdom and his righteousness then all the natural, simple things of the world like food and drink and clothes will not be worth worrying about in comparison.”
How do we put God’s kingdom first? Giving God preeminence all the time, to quote the great theologian Martin Ansdell-Smith is far from easy. “However,” he says, “However, that we may never achieve it consistently in this life, is no reason not to attempt it.” If we as human beings find it hard to put others’ needs before ourselves, which is a strong part of what Jesus is talking about in this particular sermon.
For example, not to call someone a fool in anger, looking lustfully at someone being as if we had committed the actual sin of adultery with them in our hearts. Going the extra literal mile for the enemy, who has forced us to walk even one mile. Even loving our enemies, and if we needed instruction on how to give our finances and pray and fast so that we store up treasures in Heaven. How is it that we put God first in all things?
The key I think is a little further down on in Matthew 7:12, where Jesus says, “In everything, do to others what you would have them do for you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” The golden rule from the mouth of Jesus. Seeking God’s kingdom first is about others. It’s about God so it would seem in all these things. Notice in Matthew 6:32 and 33, Jesus talks about all these things. Then in Chapter 7:12, he summarizes “in everything” .
This seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness, aside from being a jolly 1970’s chorus, is in practice about everything, and other people first. The preeminence of God, the putting God first in everything is to love our neighbour. Jesus had already said it in Matthew 5, and when he is approached later on in the Gospel, he hammers the point home when asked by a teacher of the Jewish law, which was the greatest of the law.
In Matthew 22:37, Jesus replies, “Love the Lord your God, with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment.” The second is like it, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” All the law and the prophets hang on these two commandments. How can they be like one another? Love is the key to both.
The holistic best life is God’s kingdom, summarized in these short passages. Not even the 10 commandments get a look in. Love your God, love your neighbour. We often have difficulty trying to love ourselves, and it’s often here that we are anxious and worrisome. We panic that if we can’t love ourselves enough, then how can we love our neighbour the same, or even more?
Do you know, I’m not sure that’s Jesus’ intention here. I rather like to think that the intention is found, again, in Matthew 7:12. “Treat others how you would like them to treat you.” That’s love in a nutshell. That’s the kingdom or reign of God when it works best. When we put others first, we put God first. When we put God first, we put others before ourselves. Either way, it works.
A few months ago, we spent some time looking at the parables of Jesus, the parables of the kingdom. Many of which are in Matthew’s Gospel. We were seeking a new normal as we came out of lockdown two I think that was. We reminded ourselves today that the way of the reign of God is this new normal. It always was that way in Heaven, and now we pray and act as if it were coming here on Earth. On Earth, as it is in Heaven.
Jesus explained this to his disciples just a few verses before our text today, so it’s all in context. This truth to seek God’s kingdom first on Earth as it is in Heaven is so central to the teachings of Jesus that he puts it directly in the middle of his Sermon on the Mount. Everything leading up to it has been about how we treat others. Leading on from verse 33 continues the vein of treating others well by not judging them, by helping others keep on the right track. By building together on the right solid ground.
We can see why those hearing Jesus words were astonished by his words of power and authority and how life-changing for our community if we put them into action. This is true of how we treat our fellow believers in Christ, yet it is also how we treat those presently beyond our fellowship circles.
Loving others doesn’t begin when they step over the threshold of a church and declare “Jesus is Lord”. Our challenge is to treat people like they belong before they belong until they belong. It is that consistent approach to loving people. Maybe this sounds a bit too social gospel for you. Maybe you’re hoping that I’m going to remember that Jesus also talked a lot about repentance and its importance in the life of anyone turning to Christ. Of course, that’s not today’s topic, and it’s something that we’re likely to return to in these next few weeks as we look at some of the things that were sought having been lost. The coin, the sheep, child.
Having lived in the Christian world for the whole of my life, I’ve heard many claims about needing to repent, about having more faith and even more things will be given as a result of that. Even quoting Matthew 6:33, I’m not a believer in the prosperity gospel that God will give you more money if you give up stuff for him, it may occur as a side effect, but don’t count on it. Jesus has only just said that you can only serve one master, God or money.
The most important thing that Jesus implores of his followers, his listeners is to seek God’s kingdom first. What is the kingdom of God? It’s God’s domain, ever-expanding from Heaven to Earth, on Earth as it is in Heaven, or to quote Arthur Ainger in God is Working His Purpose Out that amazing hymn, “The Earth will be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”
David Bosch in his seminal book Transforming Mission notes that Matthew has two terms that appear together as eminently missionary notions. I hope you’ll forgive the misinterpretation here. Perhaps not interpretation, mispronunciation, the terms “basileia” God’s reign, and the Greek, “dikaiosyne”, something like that. Justice or righteousness.
It seems that’s at the central point of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:33, these things come together like never before, God’s reign and righteousness slammed together, or perhaps it’s God’s reign and justice slammed together, or maybe it’s God’s righteousness and justice slammed together.
Justice and righteousness seem to come as a pair throughout scripture, throughout the whole of the Bible. Let’s look at the Psalms, Psalm 43:5 says, “The Lord loves righteousness and justice. The Earth is full of his unfailing love.” “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne. Love and faithfulness go before you,” say Psalm 89.
Again in Psalm 103:6, “The Lord works for righteousness and justice for all the oppressed”. Hosea 2:19, “I will betroth you to me forever; I will betroth you in righteousness and justice, on love and compassion”. In other prophets, we have the same truths ringing in our ears in Isaiah 9:7 that famous verse we read at Christmas time, “He will reign on David’s throne, and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever”. In Jeremiah 9, what looks like a poem, we read, “I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice, and righteousness on Earth, for in these I delight” .
David Bosch explains that the problem of translating stuff into English doesn’t always capture the nub or the essence of what is meant in the New Testament Greek. That word, that Greek word, that I was stumbling over a moment ago, “dikaiosyne”, something like that, is one such word. When we read it in our New Testaments, we often read it or translate it as righteousness or as justice, but Bosch thinks that it can be both in equal measure, “both and”, and then we put our own layer of understanding of what justice means or righteousness means from our own experience. That’s layered on top as well.
For example, if we translate Matthew 6:33 from the RSV that “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness and all these things shall be yours as well”, it may mean that the spiritual is more important than the material. If only we have our priorities right, putting God’s reign and righteousness above this-worldly concerns, God will bless us materially as well.
If, says Bosch, on the other hand, we translate from the New English Bible “Set your mind on God’s kingdom and his justice before everything else and the rest will come to you as well”, it might mean that Jesus asks us not to be concerned with our own desires and interests, but with the practice of justice in respect to those who are the victims of society, that this is what God’s reign is all about. In other words, translations put different spin, different emphasis on things, and neither may be right nor wrong. They are just that, translations.
I’m sure that our mental understanding, our heart understanding, our head knowledge of how God works in and for us as individuals will enable us to conclude which translation suits us best perhaps in different situations. Bosch concludes that “dikaiosyne”, that word for justice and or righteousness, is faith in action, the practice of devotion, doing the will of God.
Indeed, if we look back to Matthew 5 when Jesus has his list of things he is teaching from. Teaching about: murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, the famous eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hate your enemies, love your enemies discourses. He then supersedes the Old Testament accepted authority and says in each of these occasions, he says, “But I say”. “But I say” .
Jesus is moving stuff onto another plane. In some sense, he is tightening up the Old Testament law but in another, he’s telling his listeners that God’s reign is fuller than just doing or not doing stuff. It’s another order. Another kind of obedience that springs from merely obeying the rules, it’s more personal, it’s looking out for the other, it’s seeking first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness or his justice relates to both God and neighbour. It manifests itself in active faith in God’s involvement in history.
What does this mean for us? Seeking God doesn’t mean that God is hidden. Like in a game of hide and seek, we know that the hider is not really lost, but they are hidden in order for us to find joy when we find them. The game brings mischievous pleasure to the hider in finding somewhere to hide. The joy comes when both the hider and the seeker are reunited.
In the same way, I don’t think God normally deliberately hides himself, and if he does, then the whole of scripture tells us that this is a God who wants to be found. That’s why Jesus came as a baby. We can’t miss it. “God in a bod”, God in a body. There is so much for us all as individuals and as a fellowship to discover about God and his love and compassion for us and his world.
Let us take joy in the birds which Jesus obviously did as he outlined in this “don’t worry” message. Let’s be aware this springtime of the obvious and beautiful blooms of blossom and flower that we see around us. They speak praise of God’s beautiful creation. They remind us that things do just happen because they happen and all because God knows and ensures they do, even from perhaps a seeming behind-the-scenes position.
What does it mean for you, for us, to seek God’s kingdom? Is God lost to you right now? I’m convinced he wants to show himself to you. How is it that you are seeking God? Or are you waiting for him to come out of hiding, or is there an element of you or I having to do our bits of active seeking ourselves, putting ourselves into a position where we can receive from God, where God can be found?
Does seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness and justice involve a certain action perhaps to award someone? Does it involve backtracking, maybe even saying “sorry” in order to serve well? Will it involve some form of action or service as we begin to emerge from lockdown and perhaps even offer our church buildings and activities to our wider community? Will you take involvement to attend or befriend, to pray, or to give? The importance of presence cannot be overlooked.
As we begin our Sunday activities, again, on these fortnightly services back in the worship area, once more, we will need another person. We will need another, sorry, in-person to greet, to smile, to welcome at the door. Maybe prepare communion, lead worship, preach. Perhaps take part in Sunday club in months to come, even serve refreshments in time as well.
Those are the sorts of things we seek out when we come to church. That’s the old stuff that we used to do, and perhaps are likely to want to do again. Of course, there are other ministries that we might be seeking to become part of too, not just on a Sunday, seek God now, about now, and about the future because the kingdom of God is both the present and the not yet.
Jesus’ central message to seek first God’s kingdom is never easy. It puts another before ourselves, it puts God first and centre. This is kingdom living. “It is our spiritual act of worship” as Paul says in Romans. It is loving at great cost, and Jesus knew all about that for his loving and his life cost him everything for us.
References and sources
Bosch, David J, Transforming Mission.
Dray, Stephen. Discovering Matthew’s Gospel: Follow the King (Crossway Bible Guides). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1998.
McLaren, Brian D. We make the Road by Walking: A Year-long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation and Activation. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.
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