The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 3/12/2000
Text: Matthew 6:25-34
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Winning over worry. Nice thought, eh? Of all the living things that God created, we human beings are the only ones that worry. And we worry about everything - gas prices, the stock market, taxes, jobs, marriages, parents worry about children, children worry about parents. You name it, somebody is worrying about it. As of yesterday, four of the top five best selling non-fiction hardback books on were dealing with subjects we worry about - health, change, relationships, and money.

Jesus says we ought not to worry. Listen to him again: " 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?" As usual, what he says makes sense. We DO worry too much, especially those of us in this affluent society who seem to have less to worry about than so many others in the world. And the result is a spate of problems that we constantly bring on ourselves.

The British born movie actor David Niven was a worrier and a habitual nail-biter. Once he received a postcard written by his friend, Noel Coward, who was traveling in Italy. The card showed a picture of the Venus de Milo and said, "YOU SEE WHAT WILL HAPPEN IF YOU KEEP ON BITING YOUR NAILS."(1)

A book came out some years ago called How to Win over Worry.(2) It quoted some statistics that are probably just as valid today as when they were published in the mid-sixties. The book pointed out that more people die in America as a result of suicide (the consummation of stress, duress, anxiety and worry) than who die from the five most common contagious diseases combined. Twice as many people die by suicide as die by homicide. Fifty percent more people die because of ulcers than die because of murder. Another book by a noted physician called Stop Worrying and Get Well(3) called attention to the fact that worry causes heart trouble, high blood pressure, some forms of asthma, rheumatism, ulcers, cold, thyroid malfunction, arthritis, migraine headaches, blindness, and a host of stomach disorders. Doctors today are quite candid in admitting that more than half of the patients in hospitals are there as much because of the accumulated effects of mental problems as anything else.

The pressures of modern life, and the worries those pressures bring, have had a devastating effect on everyone of us. Billions upon billions of dollars are tied up every year in the losses incurred and the cost of treatment for those driven to mental illness brought on by the anxiety and worry which so characterize our society. Thousands go into eternity every year because they, quite literally, "worried themselves into an early grave." Worry is a huge problem.

Obviously, it is a problem that is not unique to us. The crowd that sat listening to Jesus on that Judean hillside could identify with it. Otherwise, he never would have brought it up. But, as was typical of his teaching, Jesus put the problem into perspective by pointing out some things that all could understand. He pointed toward the sky and said, "Look at the birds of the air (those little insignificant sparrows); they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?"

That made sense. It has always been true that the God who has provided life also provides the necessities to keep that life going. The point, of course, is NOT that the birds and animals are taken care of without work; that is obviously not true - it has been said that NO ONE works harder than the average sparrow to make a living. The message is that they DO NOT WORRY about that living. And if they, who are so much lower than we in God's scheme of creation, do not have to worry, why should we?

As a matter of fact, what good does worry do? That is the thrust of what we come across next. Jesus says, "can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" No one, obviously. I tend to think that, had Jesus been speaking today, he might have pointed out that, indeed, excessive worry has precisely the opposite effect: not only will worry not ADD to your length of years, it will probably considerably SUBTRACT from them...not to mention affect their quality.

As to that issue of quality of life, he addresses attention to plant 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?" Now, no one would ever deny that proper clothing is important to people. In first century Judea no less than almost twenty-first century America, that old adage "Clothes make the man" holds true. The clothes people wear reflect a certain position in society as well as offer protection and comfort. Some are terribly concerned about those clothes, so much so that they spend inordinate amounts of time and money making sure that they have nothing but the best - they WORRY about them...but Jesus says DON'T. To be sure, he is NOT saying that everyone will be provided with the latest designer fashions; what he IS saying is that they do not make any difference. As far as God is concerned, clothes do NOT make the man (or the woman), because if they did, the flowers and the grass would be higher up on the scale of things than WE are. But they are obviously not, and that should be apparent when one considers just how expendable flowers and grass really are.

The necessities of life, the length of life, the quality of life - all things that tend to worry people a great deal. But Jesus' message is clear: NONE of them should particularly concern us because the God who gives us life in the first place will most assuredly be in control of all the rest. The Lord sums up the problem of worry in one little phrase: "you of little faith." You see, that is what he has been driving at all along. He has not been trying to tell us that we should not plan ahead; he has not been trying to say that we should not be careful; he has not been trying to say that we should be totally unconcerned about what kind of life we and our families have. He just does not want us to come to the place where we begin to think that we are in this all by ourselves. That is the problem that irreligious people have. That's why Jesus says, "Therefore, do not be anxious saying `What shall we eat' or `What shall we drink' or `What shall we wear?' For those who really are convinced that we ARE in this all alone, the pagans (the Gentiles) seek all these things..." We are NOT alone. In fact, we have a loving God who "knows that you need them all," one who is in it with us to such an extent that even the things that we never think about...things like birds and lilies and grass...are taken care of as well. If we remember that, we will not HAVE to worry.

But there is another very practical side to this whole question of worry: if we spend too much time at it, we will not have time for anything else. And that is the thrust of what Jesus says about seeking "first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these other things (food, clothing and so on) will be yours as well."

Think about that for a minute. If we spend all our energies worrying about whether we will have enough food to eat, we would never BEGIN to be concerned about whether or not anyone ELSE has enough. If we spend our energies worrying about our health and the length of our own life, we would not have TIME to care about anyone ELSE'S health. And if we become overly concerned about what clothes we have to wear, we surely will not be able to concern ourselves with the clothing that OTHER people need. The message of Jesus seems to be here that the way to overcome worry about yourself is to begin to worry about others. That is what kingdom living is going to be about.

Actually, WORRY is not quite the word to use. He would not say WORRY about others, because the word "worry" has the connotation of someone's sitting around and brooding about something, and that is certainly not what he would want us to do. CONCERN is a better word. That has some of the same flavor, but it makes for a more active commitment to seeing that certain things are accomplished. If we are genuinely concerned about a situation (like the plight of those who are underfed or the delivery of health care to underdeveloped areas or the provision of needed day care to the children of working mothers), chances are we will DO something about it. If we are only WORRIED about those things, we might be content to just let someone else handle the problem.

Unfortunately, WORRY is about all many of us seem to be able to manage. This affluent society of ours, the necessity for providing only the best for our families, the constant pressure to "keep up with the Joneses," all conspire to turn us into a nation of worrywarts. Even those with a deep and abiding commitment to Jesus Christ are forced into that mold. And the result is that the church, the Body of Christ, we who are the Lord's arms and legs in the world, have sadly neglected our task. Jesus never called us to impoverish ourselves, but he most surely called us to be as sensitive to human need as he himself is. That is why he warned us about excessive worry: there is a job he wants us to do, and personal worry just gets in the way.

I recall reading of an insensitive and atheistic old witch who one time chided a poverty-stricken young boy about his faith in a living, loving Lord. She said, "If God really loved you, He would see that you had some decent shoes."

That little lad, with more insight than most of us have, replied, "God told someone, but they forgot."(4) What a terrible indictment of the way we actually WORRY about whether our clothes are the latest or our cars are the newest.

In his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, D. A. Carson recalls the fourth century Roman Emperor Julian the Apostate who tried every way he could to suppress Christianity but met nothing but failure because of the distinctive lifestyle he found among believers. He told his officials, "We ought to be ashamed. Not a beggar is to be found among the Jews, and those godless Galileans (the Christians) feed not only their own people but ours as well."(5) To say the least, we have a great deal to learn from those early Christians who, in spite of real REASON to worry...worry about property and possessions being confiscated, worry about being tortured, worry about even sacrificing life spite of all that, they could be concerned enough about others to look after THOSE needs rather than their own. But then, did they not have the promise of Jesus...Seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and ALL THESE THINGS (the food and clothing and so on) will be yours as well? Of course, they did. It is true that we ALSO have that promise, but the difference seems to be that they BELIEVED it far more than we.

Surely the birds do. The poet puts it beautifully:

Said the robin to the sparrow,
I should really like to know
Why these anxious human beings
Rush around and worry so.

Said the sparrow to the robin,
Friend, I think that it must be
That they have no heavenly Father
Such as cares for you and me.(6)

What Jesus wants us to know is that we do INDEED have such a heavenly Father...and because of that we do not have to spend all our time worrying about the necessities of life. We can live one day at a time and not have to overly concern ourselves with all the potential disasters that we tend to see looming just over the horizon. He says, "Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."

Peter Marshall once prayed, "Help us to do our very best this day and be content with today's troubles so that we shall not borrow the troubles of tomorrow. Save us from the sin of worrying, lest stomach ulcers be the badge of our lack of faith."

Newspaper columnist Molly Ivins tells a wonderful story of two little boys in East Texas: John Henry Falk and Boots Cooper. In their games they were Texas Rangers, so John Henry's mother sent them down to the chicken house to rout out a snake that had been doing considerable damage there.

They mounted their brooms and galloped down to the chicken house to investigate. They looked all around the nests on the bottom shelf, but could not find a snake. Then they stood on tiptoe to see the upper shelf and found themselves face to face with a big ol' chicken snake. They were so scared that they both tried to run out of the hen house at the same time, doing considerable damage both to themselves and to it.

Watching the commotion from the front porch, Mrs. Falk could not help but laugh. When the boys finally made it back to the house she said; "Boys, what is wrong with you? You know perfectly well a chicken snake cannot hurt you."

One of the little boys said, "Yes, ma'am, but there's some things'll scare you so bad, you hurt yourself."(7) How true! How true!

Near the end of his life, Mark Twain said, "I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."

A common ailment...WORRY. But if winning over worry is important to us (and for our own sake and everyone else's too) it ought to be, the message of Jesus is that we CAN win...if we let each day take care of itself, if we make our major concern the welfare of others rather than ourselves, and if we have faith in the God who loves us enough to take care of, not only OUR day-to-day needs, but even the needs of the birds and the lilies and the grass. After all, it is that same God who sent Jesus to us in the first place and made provision for the life we have to come.

Worry? Who needs it? Not God's people. That is why the Apostle Paul could write to the Philippians, "Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."(8)


1. James C. Hume, More Podium Humor (New York: HarperPerennial, 1993)

2. John E. Haggai, How to Win Over Worry (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967)

3. Edward Podolsky, M. D., Stop Worrying and Get Well, (New York: Bernard Ackerman incorporated, 1944)

4. George A. Buttrick, "Matthew," The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. 7, (Nashville, Abingdon, 1951), p. 322

5. D. A. Carson, The Sermon on the Mount, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1978), pp. 92-93

6. Elizabeth Cheney

7. Quoted in The Christian Ministry, Sept/Oct, 1996 p. 23

8. Philippians 4:6-7

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