Sunday, September 23, 2007

Worry, The Static That Clings (Overcoming Worry, Part 1)

[I shared this message during worship with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, this weekend.]

Luke 14:15-24
True story. A business executive, his responsibilities increasing, found himself worrying more often about more things. He came to a decision: He would do all his worrying on one day each week. He chose Wednesdays. Worry Wednesdays. When a problem came along that made him anxious, he would jot down his worries about it, put all the notes into a worry box, forgo worrying, and just do his work.

The funny thing is that when Wednesdays rolled around and he opened the worry box, he almost always found that the problem that so concerned him had either already been solved, was on its way to being solved, or wasn’t really a problem after all.

That man’s experience reminds me of something writer Mark Twain once about worry: “I have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

Whether we know it or not, each of us has an inborn desire to be in tune with God. It’s only natural that we want to have contact with the One Who made us and Who, we learn from the Bible, has great dreams for our lives. Worry is a static that keeps us from tuning into God, from knowing and being assured that God is there for us.

Worry is the opposite of faith. Faith, you know, is trust in the God we meet in Jesus Christ, no matter what. Worry is obsession with the “no matter what,” leaving God completely out of the equation.

Worry can so consume us that we begin to think that we’re in this life alone, that nobody else cares.

Worry can paralyze us, rendering us incapable of living life more fully.

Worry can also send us into a frenzy of activity that leaves us exhausted and hopeless.

Faith calms us down, allowing us to live our lives and let God see us through.

In our Bible lesson for today, Jesus tells the story of a wealthy person, symbolizing God, who wants to throw a dinner party. In those days, wealthy people gave two-tiered invitations for their feasts. First, they invited their friends to come to the party on such and such a date, at such and such a time. Then, when everything was ready, they sent their servants back out to the invitees to say, in effect, "Dinner's on!"

But, in Jesus's story, one by one, consumed with daily concerns, the invitees, when they receive their second invitations, make excuses for why they won't be able to make it to the feast.

“Can’t do it,” says one, “I have to check my latest acquisition.”

“I can’t,” another says, “I have to try out my new possession.”

(It strikes me that one reason these first two people were so worried is that they apparently bought things before they'd seen them or tried them out! Imagine how worried we'd be if we impulsively bought a new car or a new house without a test drive or a look-see. No wonder these people were so worried!)

“No can do,” says a third, “Gotta spend time with my new bride.”

The wealthy man becomes furious! He decides that if his friends won’t show up, he’ll invite every Tom, Dorothy, and Harry in town.

Of course, Jesus tells this story in part to show us what the Kingdom of God is like. Its language echoes the prophecy found in Isaiah 25, a portion of which made up our Call to Worship earlier in the service.

The party to which Jesus is referring is, in part, the great messianic feast that will happen in eternity. God’s kingdom is a party. For those who repent of their sins and follow Jesus Christ, it starts here and will continue in a new heaven and a new earth. Through Jesus Christ, God invites the whole human race to attend. All who receive Christ, accepting His invitation to follow Him, will be at the party forever.

But there’s another important lesson in Jesus’ story, one that relates to the question of worry in our lives. It’s this: If we accept God’s invitation to the party, God will care for us forever. Jesus once said that if we follow Him, we will have troubles. (Thanks for that promise, Lord.)
Difficulties come both to those who trust in God and to those who choose the path of worry. It's so easy for us to allow our troubles to cause us to turn deaf ears to God.

One of the things I've been doing the past several weeks is look through old worship bulletins from the past seventeen years at Friendship. The other day, I ran across the funeral bulletin for one of the four Friendship members who have died since 1991, Karen Hendrickson.

For those of you who never knew her, Karen was one of the greatest saints of God I ever knew. Not yet thirty-seven when she died, intelligent, good humored, a one-time Peace Corps volunteer, whose profession was working with environmental clean-up, a guitarist, a wife and mom, rare is the day Karen doesn't cross my mind. It's hard to believe that she's been gone ten years already!

Hours after Karen's death, Tom gave me a note that Karen had written for me to read on her death. (Many of you received similar notes from her.) One of the most striking things she wrote was, "Please help everyone to know that just because I have died doesn't mean that their prayers did not 'work.' Healing is so much more than having a whole and perfect body."

Then, Karen wrote, "I'll be seeing you again--then we can forget all this sadness."

Karen suffered with her cancer. She wondered what God wanted to teach her through her illness. She wondered why she couldn't "catch a break" and watch her children grow up. But she remained focused on the future she knew the crucified and risen Jesus gives to all with faith in Him. Daily, she exchanged her worries for trust in Christ!

We simply cannot allow the cares of this world, the difficulties, real and imagined, to separate us from God. Each day, God is inviting us to rely on Him, rather than ourselves. To be truly happy, we must choose faith over worry.

There are two big things I know about worry.

First: It disorients us. It throws us into a panic until we can hardly see straight. When I was young, I used to keep myself awake at nights worrying over things and not seeing a way out, only to learn, like that guy with his worry box, that things weren’t as hopeless as I’d imagined.

The second thing I know for sure about worry is that it disperses our focus. The fact is that you and I have control only over ourselves and only over ourselves in a single instant of time. Everything else--past, future, other people--is out of our hands. We need to focus on how we’re living right now and give everything else to God. That’s the way to live more happily. And more productively.

The key to overcoming worry is to establish and maintain a strong relationship with the God we know in Jesus Christ. Rough times come to every person. But when we focus on God, rather than on our worries, we will be all right, no matter what. Read aloud with me those words that are in the bulletin that come from Romans 8: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

Romans 8 also tells us, "I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us."

We can forgo worry when we remember that we belong to the God Who has secured a place for us at His forever banquet!

A few weeks ago, my son Phil and I drove to Columbus for the wedding of a friend of our family. On the way, I asked Phil to read from Michael Korda’s fantastic new biography of Dwight Eisenhower. I was struck by something that Eisenhower said to an aide on the morning of the D-Day landings. He had just visited with soldiers and paratroopers about to storm the beaches of Normandy. As he contemplated how many of those young men would likely died, risking their lives to free the world from Nazi tyranny, Ike said, “I sure hope I know what I’m doing."

There have been many times I’ve said that in my life. Last week, I told my mother-in-law the same thing: “I hope I know what I’m doing.” She replied sagely, “Mark, whoever really does know what they’re doing?”

The plain fact is that, whether it’s in our personal lives, our work, or our relationships, none of us has any idea about how things will turn out in the next moment
. Or the next. Or the next. We can either worry about that. Or we can heed Jesus’ invitation to follow Him even in the midst of life’s uncertainties.

Since I came to faith in Christ some thirty years ago, when I've confronted daunting circumstances, the ends of which filled me with worry, I've found one simple prayer to be an antidote for all my anxiety. If someone could create a transcript of this prayer that I either say under my breath or in my mind, they'd think I was just parroting some religious talk. But I mean all two words of this prayer. Do you know what it is? "God help!" That's it, "God help!" The amazing thing is that God always hears that prayer and my worry is dissipated.

Some of you have heard me speak of Laurie Beth Jones. She’s a businesswoman and writer who’s a real inspiration.

A relationship with a domineering man who tore her down and intimidated her threw Jones, as a young woman, into a near suicidal depression. She got away from that man and eventually started an advertising business which became successful.

It became too successful in fact. She and her partners were so busy managing their business that they were doing less of the work they’d started the business to do in the first place.

Jones came to know that things had to change. She needed to set her life in the direction she sensed God wanted her to follow. She bought out her partners, began accepting fewer clients, and finished work on a book for which she still didn’t have a publisher. (It became the bestseller, Jesus, CEO, by the way.)

In the midst of all this turmoil and change, Jones sat down with her accountant to discuss four properties she owned which were worth less than she’d paid for them. The accountant toted up her debt. It came to almost $200,000.00, serious money thirty years ago!

But Jones perplexed the accountant. “Laurie [he said], this is really serious. Why are you looking so happy?” Jones says that the only explanation she had was that, after putting her life back into God’s hands, she felt certain she was on the right path. “It didn’t matter what it had cost me to get there,” she said.

Laurie Beth Jones had plenty to worry about. But she didn’t worry. She forged on. She kept tuning God in and the static of worry out. That’s what we can and must do as well.

On October 7, 14, and 21, we’re scheduled to look more at Overcoming Worry. But fundamental to doing so is the simplest and yet most difficult step of faith: Giving each moment to the One Who gives us all our moments and Who gives us life beyond all our moments on earth.

We must give ourselves to Jesus Christ.

He’s inviting us to do that again today.

Don’t spurn His invitation.

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