Summer School

Upon the Lord’s Sermon on the Mount- Discourse 9 - A Devotional Paraphrase

(Sermon 29 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
By: Michael Roberts

Matthew 6: 24-34 “Seek First the Kingdom of God”

Israel was conquered by the Assyrians, and in order to create unity in the Assyrian Empire, the policy was to mix people up. Many in Israel were exiled to other lands, and others from around the empire were placed in Israel. Over time, people in Israel came to “fear the God of Israel,” while also serving the gods that they had brought with them (See I Kings 17).

Are there not parallels to most modern Christians in this scenario? Many engage in some outward services – like going to worship and doing some good deeds, and also have a measure of faith – while also serving their own gods — silver and gold, pleasures and praise, as examples of the gods of this world.

Like the people from around the Assyrian empire, many Christians may say they are within the faith, but it is doubtful they have an unwavering commitment to the clear commandment to have no other gods before the Lord. We are told that we “shall worship the Lord our God and serve only him.” Jesus, following in this same line of thought, clearly says that “we cannot serve two masters.” The consequences also become clear, once we make the attempt. We will end up loving one and hating the other. We will discover, not only that we “should not” serve two masters, but that we “cannot.” And to be especially clear, we cannot serve both God and mammon.

In origin, “Mammon” was the name of a pagan god who presides over riches. Here Jesus uses the term for the riches themselves. This term represents all resources used to secure our own ease, honor, and pleasure. What is it to serve mammon? First, it implies trusting in riches for our own happiness and well-being. It implies that our first aim is the increase of wealth, with little reference to things eternal. This focus leads us into an earthly, sensual mind, chained to the things of earth, with the desires and temperaments that go along with this passion. This focus does not open the way to life, but only increases anxiety.

What is it to serve God? First of all, this service requires faith. Faith implies trust in God as our source of strength and guidance. It implies that God is the One who gives us purpose. This faith leads to love for God and all creation. We desire to reflect God’s goodwill through all kindness and compassion. That’s what it means to serve God in the most general sense.

If we trust Christ for our help and happiness, we cannot trust in riches. Conversely, if we love the world and conform to its way, then we are not being renewed by the Spirit of God. Let us heed the words, as Jesus says, “you shall worship the Lord your God and serve only him.” To attempt to serve both God and mammon is to be pulled in competing directions, to fire and water, light and darkness. In this tension, there is no way to experience the joy of religion. One might find just enough religion to breed misery.

This does not mean that we should be without care for the concerns of life. Neither does it call for sloth or laziness in business. This temperament is contrary to the whole spirit of true religion. A Christian abhors sloth and idleness as much as drunkenness or adultery. It is the will of God that everyone should labor to eat our bread and to provide for their own household. This cannot be done without some effort and focus, careful planning and creativity. Such work also contributes to the needs of society and brings goodness into the world. What our Lord condemns here are anxious concerns of the heart, that care that drains the spirit and cultivates fear. This leads us to the next exhortation.

Jesus continues his discourse by speaking of worry and anxiety, especially around food, drink, and clothing. He asks, “Is not life more than these things?” He tells us, a little later, to “seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness.” Before you give a place to any other concern, first let Christ be your one desire, your joy, your love. Seek first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness. Righteousness is the fruit of God reigning in the heart. As we have seen, God’s righteousness is always characterized by love – love of God and of all humankind, flowing from faith in Jesus Christ, and producing humility, gentleness, patience, and every right disposition of the heart. It is “his” righteousness, not ours. It is his free gift to us. It is his work in and through us, inspired by the Holy Spirit.

This is our calling, as we seek to serve God. Trust that God will provide for our needs and will be there to see us through. Give yourself over to God’s providential care and eternal grace. Do this daily. Don’t worry about tomorrow. If you live another day, he will provide for that as well.

For one word of reflection -- this does not mean that we neglect the care of our families. At the same time, don’t use this as an excuse to continue in willful sin. Don’t say, “I would gladly serve God and prepare for eternity if I didn’t have to do what is necessary to live.” We can glorify God in our daily work. Don’t serve the devil for a piece of bread; don’t rush into hell for fear of want. This is a tragic pursuit. As we throw away heaven to secure the things of earth, we lose the one but do not gain the other. We can’t put our trust in things that are finite and perishable and expect them to not perish.

Some might fantasize about how we will serve when other hindrances are out of the way. Or, they might say that they will serve when they feel more of God’s presence. Do not deceive yourself. As Jesus says, one who is faithful with a little will also be faithful with much. It is self-deceptive to think you will be faithful only when you have much. In the parable of the talents, the one who is only given one talent does not invest it and the consequence is this one talent is taken away and given to another who did invest what was given to them (Matthew 25:14-30). The effects of these delusions can be seeds that grow weeds into generations to come.

Therefore, be faithful today. Trust in the grace sufficient for your sorrow and suffering. Don’t worry about what tomorrow might bring. The future, in this world, is not yours and perhaps never will be. We know the sobering truth. All generations from the beginning of time have gone away, and in many ways are forgotten. They lived their day and then were shook off from the earth as leaves off a tree. Ashes to Ashes, Dust to Dust! New generations come desiring to find their own way. They follow the generations before them, and receive much guidance and nurture, but in the end, they have to run their own race.

Today, it is your turn on earth. Today, give God your heart. Today, lay hold of the opportunity to do God’s will and give witness to the values of eternity. Today, rejoice to suffer the loss of all things so that you may win Christ. Today, desire nothing but that God may be glorified and to enjoy God’s blessings at this hour and to all eternity. To the One who is able to put the imperishable on what is perishable, to him be honor and praise forever and forever. Amen.