By Paul Koch –
A few months back my friend Joel mentioned how he loved pictures of soldiers receiving Holy Communion in the midst of war. Since his speaking of it, I have found myself more than once scanning for such images on the internet. They’re fascinating to me, especially those ones from World War 2. These are haunting and powerful black and white images of soldiers kneeling shoulder to shoulder receiving the body and blood of Christ for the forgiveness of all their sins. There is one in particular of several Marines receiving the gifts of Christ on the island of Iwo Jima. In the distance you can see all the warships and machines of destruction stretched across the horizon. The landscape has the feel of one that has been recently altered and perhaps forever transformed by the bloodshed. But there in the foreground in crisp detail you can see the body of our Lord being placed into the mouth of one of his own dear children.
I wonder what that must have been like. What was it like to receive life while mired in so much death?
I had a member in my previous congregation who was a Marine in the pacific theater during World War 2. He never would talk much about it, but he often confessed that the only way he held it together, that is, the only way he was able to move on with life afterwards was because of the constant gifts: the constant blessing of our Lord in his life. When he would talk specifically about the war he would talk mostly about the men that fought alongside him. He spoke about those he lost, but also about those with whom he kept in touch until the end of his life. There was a brotherhood that was formed in the terrors of battle.
And so, when I look at those pictures something else comes to mind. These men were receiving the gifts of Christ right there in the battlefield, where men stood beside each other in the heat of battle. Not only shoulder to shoulder in Holy Communion, they were shoulder to shoulder with weapons in hand, eyes scanning the horizon for the enemy, ears attentive to the sound of approaching danger. Just as they were bound together in the blessing of Christ so they were bound together in the struggle and peril of what was to come in this life. They relied on each other, and needed one another. The only way they were going to get through it, the only way they were to be victorious, was to go together. To go alone was inevitably to go to the grave.
I think that there is something of this brotherhood that lays behind our Lords words in Luke 12. In fact, I think the battlefield only brings into sharper clarity and contrast the reality that exist for all God’s children each and every day they labor on this earth. When our Lord instructs his disciples to not be anxious about anything he isn’t dismissing troubles in our lives. He isn’t speaking some sort of mumbo jumbo or quoting Bobby McFerrin saying, “Don’t worry be happy.” No, our Lord is reorienting the perspective of his brothers and sisters. He is calling us to focus on what is really important, what is eternally crucial before we fill ourselves with the anxiety of temporal things.
So he says, “Do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing.” So he directs our attention first to the ravens, the birds of the air. They don’t sow or reap, they don’t build little storehouses for themselves to make sure they never run out of food. No, they are simply provided for. How? Well they are provided for out the bounty and goodness of God. His creation provides what they need. So if God will provide for the birds, won’t he provide for you? After all you are of much more value to our God than the birds yet he has not forgotten them.
He then goes on to talk about our clothing. Our Lord directs our attention to the lilies of the field. Without work or worry or long labor they simply grow into beautiful flowers. In fact, Solomon in all his power and prestige and wealth was never clothed as beautifully as a lily of the field. So Jesus says, “If God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!” In other words, if God makes sure that the grass has clothes don’t you think he will take care of you? Now the grass may not have designer jeans and the ravens may not be eating prime rib but they are provided for out of our Father’s divine goodness and mercy. And if he provides for them he will provide for you.
Now this is the delicate point of the sermon. Is the thrust of this text that we need to check our greed? Are we supposed to not worry about superficial things like clothes and food, not to mention cell phones, cars or new homes, and just be happy with what we’ve got? After all, a pair of sweat pants from Walmart will cover my legs just as well as a new pair of slacks from Brooks Brothers; if we can stop desiring the latest and best things out there we would be better off, right? Then again, such an idea might not help our coveting hearts. I fear that instead we would all silently judge those who drive nicer cars or have better clothes than we do. So perhaps the point is more that we just don’t need to worry and trust God above all things. I mean you work, you do your best, but you don’t need to be anxious about tomorrow because you are the children of God. Your Father in heaven loves you and your worrying isn’t going to change that.
But, while that may be true, I don’t think that is really what this text is getting at. I mean, sure, you don’t need to be anxious about such things and, yes, your Father in heaven will not forsake you. But if this text is a reorienting of your perspective, if it is shifting your eyes away from the material things of this life, away from the things the world seeks after, then on what is it refocusing? Not on yourselves, not on your own spirituality or morality. No, it focuses you on the God’s things, specifically on his kingdom. Jesus says, “Seek his kingdom, and all these things will be added to you.” Seek the kingdom of God, seek his things and these earthly things, these worries about what we eat and what we wear will be added to you. They will be provided.
Now, this isn’t some sort of magic trick that God performs. We aren’t confessing that like the Israelites travelling through the wilderness we will wake up and God will simply have rained down groceries on our lawn each morning that we have to go and pick up. No, it actually just makes good sense. When you seek the kingdom of God, where do you seek it? What do you go looking for? Where has he promised to be for you so that you might find his kingdom? You see, our Lord doesn’t hide his kingdom away from his children. In fact, we are told in this very text that “it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” So we look for it exactly where he said it would be. We look for his kingdom in the proclamation of a Word that kills sinners and raises the repentant to new life. We seek a kingdom where the promises of God are washed over our heads, and all our sin is drowned and dies, and the righteous garments of Christ perfect life are graciously draped over our shoulders. We taste the kingdom of God when we receive the body and blood of our Lord in, with, and under bread and wine for the forgiveness of all our sins.
So we seek his kingdom where he promised to be found and we look to our left and to our right and what do we find? We find one another. We find brothers and sisters in Christ. We find people from all walks of life, with various gifts and abilities and vocations in this world. We look around and we find what the soldier on the battlefield knows is the key to survival. We look around and we find that we are not alone. As we kneel shoulder to shoulder to receive life in the midst of death we find that we also walk shoulder to shoulder with a mighty army of God’s children.
By receiving what is his good pleasure to give us we are brought into the richness of his kingdom. We are brought into relationships with one another, into a fellowship that provides and nourishes and supports. In this fellowship we provide ourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. Like those old black and white photos, we gather together in the midst of war and destruction to receive life and forgiveness. And with that very promise of forgiveness you rise again and engage your world without worry, for you are not alone. You have brothers and sisters marching alongside.