“Be Not Anxious”

The oracle that the prophet Habakkuk saw.

 O Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
    and you will not listen?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
    and you will not save?
Why do you make me see wrongdoing
    and look at trouble?
Destruction and violence are before me;
    strife and contention arise.
So the law becomes slack
    and justice never prevails.
The wicked surround the righteous—
    therefore judgment comes forth perverted.

Though the fig tree does not blossom,
    and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails,
    and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold,
    and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
    I will exult in the God of my salvation.

 “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear.  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 can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?  And why do you worry 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 clothed like one of these.  But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?  Therefore do not worry, saying, “What will we eat?” or “What will we drink?” or “What will we wear?”  For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.  But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”

The setting for today’s Old Testament lesson is approximately 600 B.C., and the headlines were bleak.  A huge Chaldean army was poised at the border about to sweep down on the land of Judah.  The little country had less than two decades to live.  Internally, the country was in disarray.  Moral decay, division, and common violence filled the land.  In the midst of this, the prophet Habakkuk was supposed to address the occasion, and his words were an anxious concern for the fate of his community.  “Oh Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and thou wilt not hear?  Destruction and violence are before me…The wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.”  Habakkuk is an anxious prophet speaking to an anxiety-ridden people who see “destruction and violence” descending upon them.

Does this sound familiar?  We are certainly living in a time of high anxiety.  We’re confronted with a pandemic that’s dominated our nation and decimated the lives of people around the world, with uncertainty and conflicting messages still abounding about how to address it.  We’re faced with an immigration crisis, military conflict, climate change, an uncertain economic future, violence and murder in our streets, and a nation divided both politically and culturally.  Don’t we have every reason to be anxious? 

Yet Jesus tells us “Therefore, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink.”

Anxiety comes from a Latin word meaning “to choke,” like a tight feeling in the chest.  It’s the fear that stays with us even when there is no real, concrete, knowable stimulus.  It’s the fear of the uncertain, the possible, the “what if.”  German theologians had a word for it, especially during the second World War.  They called it “angst.”  Our grandmothers used the word “fret,” and grandmothers were always fretting about something.  Whether it’s called angst, worry, or just plain fretting, we all recognize it and have experienced it.

Like someone waiting for the results of a COVID test or a biopsy.  Like a student anticipating the results of an exam.  Like a coastal resident checking the weather radar as a hurricane moves closer and closer to shore.  A teenager anxiously awaiting an invitation to an upcoming social gathering.  A speaker waiting to make an important presentation.  A high school student who’s made multiple applications to colleges and has hopes pinned on one school in particular.  Like the new employee waiting for an annual review after their first year on the job.  Or an investor checking the stock market.  A parent waiting late at night for their child to make it home safely.  Or like the pastor who tells a hospitalized parishioner, “Don’t worry, God works all things together for good,” but driving home then worries about the finances of the church.

We all know anxiety.

Erma Bombeck was a columnist in the 1960s and ‘70s who chronicled the ordinary life of many Americans.  While she has been succeeded by many very funny comedians and humorists, Bombeck had a unique way of capturing our human anxiety that is timeless. In her syndicated newspaper column she wrote the following about the worries of a child entering school for the first time:

“My name is Donald, and I don’t know anything.  I have new underwear, a new sweater, a loose tooth, and I didn’t sleep last night; I am worried.  What if the school bus jerks after I get on and I lose my balance and my pants rip and everyone laughs?  What if a bell rings and everyone goes into a door and a man yells, ‘Where do you belong?’ and I don’t know?  What if the trays in the cafeteria are stacked too high for me to reach?  What if the thermos lid on my soup is on too tight and when I try to open it, it breaks?  What if my loose tooth wants to come out when we’re supposed to have our heads down and be quiet?  What if I splash water on my name tag and my name disappears and no one will know who I am?  What if they send us out to play and all the swings are taken?  What if I spend the whole day without a friend?  What if the windows in the bus steam up and I won’t be able to tell when I get to my stop?”

Even a six-year old has anxieties, perhaps especially when being sent off to a new adventure like school with parents saying, “You have nothing to worry about.”  The sad part is that as one gets older the worries only seem to mount.

Erma Bombeck also shared some of her own personal anxieties.

“I’ve always worried a lot, and frankly I’m good at it.  I worry about introducing a group of people and going blank when I get to my mother.  I worry about a shortage of ball bearings.  I worry about the world ending at midnight and getting only three hours of a 12-hour cold capsule.  I worry about getting in the Guinness Book of World Records under ‘pregnancy’ world’s oldest recorded birth…I worry about what the dog thinks when he sees me getting out of the shower.  I worry about sales-ladies following me into the fitting room…And I worry about scientists discovering someday that lettuce has been fattening all along.”

How do we cope with our anxieties, our regrets, our worries?  The prophet Habakkuk understood anxiety, and he found an answer in faithful trust in God.  His anxious complaint that oppression and injustice go unpunished was met by an assurance from God that human worry over these concerns can be countered by trustful faith.  

Jesus too understood anxiety.  He said, “Be not anxious about tomorrow, about what you shall eat, drink, about what you shall wear;  your God in heaven knows you need these things.  But seek ye first the Kingdom of heaven and all the rest shall be given to you.”  

If anyone knows the troubles and anxieties of life, Jesus does.  But Jesus is not simply being a naive optimist, who pats us on the back and says, “Don’t worry, just trust in God and everything will come out all right in the end.”  He’s not saying that God is going to prevent our being injured, or persecuted, or wounded by other people.  No, instead, Jesus is telling us that our destinies are controlled by a God who stands with us forever.  If we trust in God, our worries and insecurities will be tied to an eternal power and purpose.  If we seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, we will be given all else that we need.  God doesn’t promise that we will escape from physical hunger, or pain, or death.  We will still know these things, but we will have confidence and companionship in the face of them.

Multiple studies have determined that about 85 percent of the things we worry about never happen.  Can you remember the things that troubled you ten years ago — or even six weeks ago?  So we are left with a small percentage of our worries that might be legitimate causes for concern.

A husband was awakened by his wife’s concern that she heard someone breaking into their home.  He slowly got up, went grumpily downstairs, and found himself staring at a gun in his face.  The burglar ordered him to hand over all the household valuables, then started to leave.  The husband stopped him.  “Before you go,” he said, “I’d like you to come upstairs and meet my wife.  She’s been expecting you every night for over 30 years.”

Worry and anxiety are a misuse of our lives and our imaginations.  By worrying we are assuming responsibility that God never intended us to have.  Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its strength.  So do not be anxious, for God knows what you need.  Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.  Amen.