Futurists, a number of decades ago, had some predictions about what life would be like now. The hope was that advances in technology would allow us to work less and live less stressful lives. We would be able to sit back, relax and enjoy the fruits of technological gains.
I have seen the advance in technology, but I’m still waiting for the drop in stress. If anything, things have become more stressful. It is not that life is more difficult, but we are more connected and more available to all the areas of life that are calling for our attention.
There are so many things in the world that are screaming for attention. We try to solve one issue, only to have five more take its place. This can lead to a high level of anxiety. This is nothing new, as Jesus deals directly with this dynamic in the passage that we read.
I need to make something clear when we talk about anxiety. The anxiety that Jesus speaks about in this passage is not the anxiety that is based on a chemical imbalance. Jesus is not telling people with clinical anxiety to just stop feeling their anxiety. Rather Jesus is speaking about the anxiety that develops when we lose our priorities and allow ourselves to be pulled in too many directions.
We should also acknowledge that Jesus is not dismissing our physical needs. We shouldn’t just quit our jobs and believe that food will magically appear in our homes. Jesus knows that we need our physical needs met. At this point, we should state that there is a difference between needs and wants. My children often come with me with lists of their “needs” and I quickly recognize them as their wants. It is okay to have wants, but we should not mistake them for our needs.
But even when they are legitimate needs, getting completely focused on them can lead to great anxiety. I’m sure most of us have experienced this at some point. The solution to this anxiety, according to Jesus, is to seek first the kingdom of God. That sounds great, but what does that mean? What is the kingdom of God and how do we seek it? That is what we are going to look at.
What is the Kingdom of God?
How important is the kingdom of God? I can say without a doubt that the kingdom of God was the centre of both Jesus’ preaching and healing ministry. We are told at the beginning of the Gospel of Mark that the gospel that Jesus preached was that the kingdom of God was at hand. The miracles that Jesus performed were both illustrations and signs about the coming of the kingdom of God.
But what is the kingdom of God? Even though this seemed to be the most important thing to Jesus, I find that many Christians have not thought deeply about it. I have also been told that many Christians have never heard their pastor preach on the kingdom.
If people have thought about the kingdom of God, they may think about it as heaven. Normally we think of a kingdom as a place and the only place where God seems to be reigning is in heaven. In addition, Matthew often calls the kingdom of God the kingdom of heaven and so people assume the kingdom is heaven. The truth is that Matthew replaces God with heaven out of sensitivity toward his Jewish audience’s reverence for the name of God. Mentioning heaven is not locating the kingdom but identifying who the king is.
That is not to say that there is no connection with heaven. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The prayer is for the kingdom to come, something we have seen was very important to Jesus. But what does that look like? When God’s will is done on earth as it is in heaven. God is already reigning in heaven. The goal for the kingdom of God is for that same dynamic to take place on earth. That is the first thing that we need to know, that the kingdom of God is on earth.
The second thing we need to know is that there is a present and future aspect to the kingdom of God. When did the kingdom of God arrive? The kingdom arrived with the ministry of Jesus. All of the things that we read about in Jesus’ ministry, from sermons to miracles, were part of the kingdom’s appearing. The crucifixion and resurrection were major events in the kingdom of God. But if we look around, we see plenty of areas in which God is not reigning. People still get sick and suffer. People hurt one another and seek their own profit by taking advantage of others. Theologians call this, living between the times. On one hand, the kingdom has begun and we can see signs of God’s activity. But on the other hand, we are waiting for the kingdom to come in its fullness. When will this happen? It will happen when Jesus returns. Then all evil will be destroyed and God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The third thing that we need to know is that the kingdom has a king. We talk about the kingdom of God, it can seem rather impersonal and abstract. However, essential to the kingdom of God is the role of the king. The king is God. The title of king is not just a term of respect. Rather God really is a king and we are supposed to obey our king. It is true that we are saved by grace and there is nothing we can do to earn God’s love but that does not mean that we are off the hook when it comes to obedience. We must take God’s role as king seriously.
This leads nicely into the fourth thing we need to know about the kingdom and that is it needs a people. Anyone can call themselves a king but if they do not have a people that they are ruling, then it really doesn’t mean anything. Who are the people of the kingdom of God? We are. The Church. Christians of every race and language, of every tradition. All those who trust in Jesus are part of the kingdom of God. This is very important. Churches can get competitive and feel envy or jealousy over what is happening in another church. But the truth is that we all belong to the same kingdom. If one church has five hundred baptisms in a year, that is as much a victory for us as it is for them. We are all on the same team and working for the same goal. One of my favourite parts of being a pastor is working with other pastors and congregations from different Christian traditions. There may be differences in style and emphasis, but we are working together for the same kingdom.
How Do We Put the Kingdom First?
That is a nice theology lesson but the point of all this was to avoid situational anxiety by putting the kingdom first. Knowing what the kingdom is does not mean that we know how to make it first.
So what does it mean to seek first the kingdom of God? Let’s start with what first means. In this case it is not about logical order, in the sense of doing one thing and doing the other. So it is not about seeking the kingdom and then after that consider all your other needs. Seeking first here means that the kingdom is the number one priority. You still care about where you are going to sleep and what you are going to eat, but all of that takes place in the shadow of kingdom concerns.
How do we seek the kingdom? Think about the things that we have learned. There is a king and we are the king’s people. What does the king want us to do? This teaching is found in the midst of the sermon on the mount, so that is a good place to start. Jesus has taught us what the Christian life is supposed to look like. We need to put our efforts into this. Too many people have looked at the sermon on the mount and judged it to be too difficult and have not even attempted it. Will we live the sermon on the mount life perfectly? Probably not, but as subjects of the king, it is our duty to try our best. Again, we should not condemn ourselves when we stumble, rather we should learn from our mistakes.
How does this fit with the anxieties of life? A number of things happen. God often will provide for our needs. I have seen this numerous times in my life. In addition, if we are following the commands of the king, that means that we are also taking care of each other’s needs. The picture of the early church that we have is of a community where no one was in need because they shared what they had. But there is something else that takes place. When we seek first the kingdom, there is a change in our priorities. When we focus on ourselves, we feel every missing want or need very keenly. But when we seek first the kingdom, our eyes are taken off ourselves and put onto the big picture. The kingdom is much bigger than each of us as individuals. The kingdom is much bigger than this one church. When we have our eyes on the kingdom, our problems don’t seem so big.
I do not want to dismiss the stress that goes with the troubles of life. I have experienced financial and physical needs and it is no fun. God cares about these needs and there is a reason why we are told to pray for our daily bread.
But beyond our individual experiences, there is the kingdom of God. God is the king and we are his people. The kingdom is big and it is growing. It began with Jesus’ ministry and it will be fulfilled when Jesus returns. In between the times, there will be difficulties. But the king will never forget about us.