The heavens declare the glory of God, but so do the birds and the lilies. Jesus urges us to look closely. They also declare the care and compassion of God.
A Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Matthew 6:25-34
There’s a difference between a healthy concern and a worry that eats at you. Healthy concern leads to intelligent, prudent action, like retirement planning. It is both wise and loving to plan ahead for retirement. It’s also good stewardship of the resources that God has entrusted to us. Healthy concern prompts us to use our heads. Healthy concern prompts us to look into things and to check on people to see if we can help. Healthy concern helps us put head and heart together as we love God and love each other.
But unhealthy worry looks like this: dithering and hand-wringing. Sweating small stuff such as whether or not the spice bottles in the kitchen are in alphabetical order, and fear that somebody might notice. In severe form, unhealthy worry grabs hold of our minds, and strangles our thinking. We can’t think straight. This kind of worry will make a talented student believe that a B is the equivalent of an F. It makes small mistakes seem like huge catastrophes. It makes us say things we regret. This kind of worry makes it hard to see anything positive in a situation. You’re stuck wearing a pair of dark glass you can’t take off. Worry makes people feel guilty about things they are in no ways responsible for. Worry stresses people out and wears them out, with the end result being that they believe “I can’t cope now,” or “I won’t be able to cope in the future.” Unhealthy worry is itself a source of great suffering.
When worry incapacitates people, the problem is obvious. But in less severe forms worry doesn’t incapacitate. It just has a hindering effect. It holds people back. What about good people who decide that they can’t afford to be generous until they save up just a little more for themselves, just to be a little more secure. What about churchgoing people who profess to trust God, but in their heart of hearts what they really believe and what they act on is the belief that the only person I can really depend on is me, myself and I. Security is what I put away for myself.
Big or small, when worry has the upper hand, a person’s eyes are focused mainly inward, on him-or-herself, and it’s hard to think of anything else. Sometimes we get desperate to protect ourselves. The heart of the worry is often something like this: I’m going to lose out. I’m going to get hurt. I’m going to be exposed. I’m going to be criticized. I’m going to look bad in somebody’s eyes. And I can’t handle that.
When we get in that state, “His Eye is On the Sparrow” is just a pretty song. No, I’m not happy. And no, I’m not free, either. If worry is in control, in the driver’s seat, God isn’t. God is pushed to the side somewhere.
Jesus saw how unhealthy worry can hinder people from participating fully in the Kingdom of God. Besides pulling their eyes away from God, worry shackles them. It distorts their ability to judge what really is important, and what’s just small stuff. Worry steals his disciples’ freedom to take risks that they need to take. Jesus’ disciples must be able to put themselves and their resources at risk for his sake. They need to be able to take up a cross for someone else’s sake, even if they are frightened. That’s what Jesus himself did for us all.
Knowing that they and we would have to contend with worry, Jesus said, “Look. No, I mean really look at the birds.” Jesus spoke emphatically. The verbs used in the Greek text there are emphatic. “Don’t just throw a glance at them! Watch, observe, scrutinize, consider them. Do the same for the flowers. See the great care that your heavenly Father takes over each and every one of them.”
Bird watchers are instructive here. They take time, a great deal of time over it. They use binoculars. They are quiet and still and patient, and they listen carefully. They observe the details, like the fact that a downy woodpecker has a short beak, while a hairy woodpecker has a much longer beak. They carry their field guides with them and regularly consult them. Bird watchers keep their eyes open. They are always learning something new.
“Look at the sparrows and the lilies.” Jesus said, “Notice the lavish attention that God gives them. How much more will he care for you, people of small faith!”
We do have a field guide for this kind of bird watching. Scripture helps us know what we’re looking at. The writer of Genesis, for example, tells us that what we are looking at is a Creator God who takes the utmost care over every single detail in the creation: every star, every plant, every animal. “God made the wild animals of every kind, it says, and the cattle of every kind, and everything that creeps upon the earth of every kind. And God saw that it was good.” On and on it goes. Every this and every that. That word “every” appears in some form more than twenty times in the that one chapter of scripture, along with the word “all.” Every and all. Every bird, every flower, and that surely includes every example of the creature made in God’s own image, humanity. The every thing in creation, the all of creation surely includes you. God’s eye is on every bird. God’s eye is on every flower. God’s eye is on every person. God’s eye is on you.
When worry pulls our eyes away from God, Jesus advises us to turn our eyes to the sparrow. And the sparrow will point us back to the God who has his eye on it and on us all.
It is possible to see this way and to think this way, in spite of fear and sorrow, and even when death is near. In an article entitled “Living on the Edge of Eternity,” Douglas Burton-Christie recounts the last trip he made to England to see one of his oldest, dearest friends, Donald Nicholl. He had met Donald decades before when Donald was his professor of religion. Now Donald was nearing death from cancer, and Douglas knew this trip meant goodbye. His friend was on the last leg of the journey home to God.
Douglas remembers the journey so well. How vivid all the world seemed as he made the train journey from London to the little village of Betley where Donald lived. He writes, “The world on this early spring day seemed so vivid, so richly detailed, so precious. The gentle rocking motion of the train as it made its way north from London; the pale gray sky stretching over an endless green expanse; masses of daffodils blooming along the roadside… two small boys running out to play soccer. It seemed important, somehow, to take note of all this.” Douglas pondered how his friend Donald might see these things, taking them in for the last time.
Douglas and Donald talked a great deal during the visit. Donald now had a bed in his study, and next to it he had pictures of the saints who had inspired him through his life. He could look at them as he lay resting. He called them his cloud of witnesses, and he spoke to Douglas about what they all had meant to him.
Donald was candid about his worries, and about the struggle he was enduring. He was determined to keep his eyes on Jesus all the way. “Pray for me,” he implored his friend. “Pray for me that I may be faithful to Jesus to the end!” This is my prayer, too. I know it is my daddy’s prayer. [Note: When I wrote and preached this sermon, my father was in the throes of his last illness.]
On their last afternoon together, Douglas and Donald took a short walk in the garden, noticing the birds that had returned from the south and the new spring grass. Donald stopped and gestured towards the sun, the trees, and the fields beyond, “As if to say, ‘Look! Look!’ He motioned again and again, now toward the birds, now toward the garden, bursting with daffodils, crocus, tulips, now toward me. His face was radiant with joy.” (Douglas Burton-Christie, “Living on the Edge of Eternity,” Weavings, vol. XIII, no. 4, July/August 1998, pp.16, 24.)
Look. Look at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field, and glimpse the one who made and cares for them all. This doesn’t make problems and pain and fear disappear as if by magic. But it does change our focus. It redirects our vision. It reminds us that our creator is still with us every minute of every hour of every day, and he is still working. It helps renew our trust in our maker, defender, redeemer and friend. And when anxiety itself is the problem, when it needs special care to be healed, with God’s help we can get help. We can do something constructive about it. Sometimes anxiety is an illness, and it is treatable.
Jesus said, “Look at the birds of the air. Their creator is taking care of them.” To get back in touch with the one whose eye is on the sparrow, turn your eye to the sparrow. Rest your eye on the sparrow. See how God is watching it? See how God loves it? See how God is watching you. See how much God loves you. Be a bird watcher. Be a world watcher.
Considering the birds and lilies makes me think of another song. In the late 1960s Louis Armstrong sang a wonderful song called “What a Wonderful World.” In his gravelly voice he sang, “I see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day, the dark, sacred night, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world. I hear babies cry, I watch them grow; they’ll learn much more than I’ll ever know, and I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” (Words and music by George David Weiss and Bob Thiele. ©1967 by Range Road Music, Inc., Quartet Music, Inc., and Abilene Music, Inc.)
Last Sunday, (our oldest church member) said pretty much the same thing to me. His face lit up as he described how one day last week, he and a friend rode on the golf cart into the woods, and they saw a baby deer, so new that it hadn’t quite gotten up on its legs yet. And he also told me about another beautiful sight he had seen, a line of baby geese walking in between their mother and father. And to think, God’s eye is on every single one of them! What a wonderful world!
I see sparrows and lilies and tall oak trees, and gardens bringing forth good food. I see black and white cows on a rich green field on the farm at home. I see our new kitten, now nearly grown, so excited to be alive, so creative in his own way, so interested in everything. I see my three-year-old next-door neighbor running and squealing with delight as the wind carries off the bubbles she is blowing. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
And look here. I see ladies dressed like the rainbow. I see gentlemen in pressed suits and ties. I hear music giving glory to God. I see children hurrying to the sanctuary and raising their arms for a hug. I see compassion in your faces, and I know the loving hearts within. And I think to myself, what a wonderful world!
And I think to myself, what a wonderful, wonderful God! Praises be to him!