“Do not worry,” says Jesus. Well – easier said than done. If we were to stop and share at this point all the things we have worried about in the last week, I expect the list would be quite a long one. Some of the worries might have been fleeting ones – whether we would make the train we were aiming for, or whether we’d have time to fit in the things we needed to do. There’s a time limit on those sort of worries – once their moment has gone, it’s gone.
Other worries might be more persistent; worries about a family member, fears for our health, financial concerns. Then there is that that sort of generalised anxiety that convinces us that the world is going to the dogs, and that we are doomed with it – the political situation in Europe and the US doesn’t help us to feel at ease.
So when Jesus says “don’t worry” it is easy to write off his words as naivety. But let’s remember that this was a man who lived in an occupied country, and who was deliberately going head to head with both the Jewish and Roman authorities. He was asking for trouble, and he knew that he would be very likely to find it. After all, his cousin, John the Baptist, had just been arrested, and was languishing in Herod’s prison for preaching much the same message as him.
So what does Jesus mean? How can his words help us in the midst of our very real anxieties? How can we reclaim them from the rather sentimental images with which they have often been illustrated –chirruping birds singing sweetly in blossom-laden trees and sunlit meadows full of flowers? It can’t just be a matter of distracting ourselves from harsh realities with pictures of baskets of kittens, can it?
Perhaps it helps if we read this Gospel passage in the light of the first reading, from Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul was convinced that God was going to intervene dramatically in history at any moment, that Christ was going to return to wrap up the whole sorry mess of the world. He may have got the detail wrong – that literal second coming didn’t happen – but I think his instincts were spot on. Something different was happening, something new, because of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. He had seen it in his own life. A dedicated, ruthless opponent of Jesus and his movement, he had committed his life to rooting out what he saw as the dangerous heresy that he had brought. But after Jesus had spoken to him in a vision on the road to Damascus, his life had been turned around. And it wasn’t just the change in his own heart that had bowled him over, but the reaction of the Christians he had been hell-bent on persecuting. Instead of hating him, they had welcomed him, sheltered him, cared for him. Whatever they had, he wanted; that capacity to love, no matter what the cost. No wonder he writes so often of love – love that does not keep score of wrongs, that endures, that heals, that extends to enemies just as much as to friends. He had been on the receiving end of it. Something new had happened in his life, and through his ministry it was happening to others too. A new world was being born.
The imagery he uses in his letter to the Church in Rome is of that new birth. “The whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now” he says, but look, the birth is happening. He has seen the “first fruits of the Spirit”, like that moment when the baby’s head crowns, the moment when, even if you are the mother in labour, you really do feel that it is nearly all over, and the child you long for is really going to arrive.
We thought this morning at our All Age Worship about God at work, God who works to bring about his creation, labouring six days for something he acclaimed as “very good” as it says in the opening chapters of Genesis. Our epistle today echoes that first creation. God is still at work, it says, making a new creation out of the mess we have made.
We thought about our own work this morning, our daily realities, with all their delights and their pressures, and we tried to look for God at work in them, because if we can’t find him there, we won’t find him anywhere.
And that is where it seems to me that this reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans – and that Genesis account of creation – touch on and enlighten Jesus’ words to his followers. Don’t worry, he says. Don’t worry, not because there is nothing to worry about, not because everything is fine and dandy, but because God is at work, in us, in our lives, in our world. That doesn't mean that nothing will hurt, or fail, or die – Jesus himself dies – but that whatever happens is not the end of all our hopes. In and through the things that seem to have gone wrong, God can bring to birth a new creation. That’s the good news. Tomorrow is in God’s hands. We are in God’s hands. Whatever goes wrong – and whatever goes right – is in God’s hands. God is at work, and that means that, ultimately, there is nothing to worry about.