That was a bit of a marathon first reading this morning, but once in a while it is worth hearing in full. The first chapter of Genesis is a masterpiece of writing, meant to be read aloud of course, or even sung. It is a ballad, an epic saga. The poetry of it comes through in the repeating rhythm of God calling things into being in their order, seeing that everything is good, then the evening, then the morning, then the next day.
This is the first of two creation stories in Genesis. The second is the one about Adam and Eve and the garden and the snake, a different story from a different source. But the Holy Spirit who guided the formation of scripture, and who guides the Church in reading it, ensured that we had both stories. This is to make sure we get the point: the creation stories in Genesis are not scientific accounts of how things came to be, but are about why things are, what their meaning is, and what it is to be human in the world.
A key theme that both stories have in common would have been more obvious to their first audience than to us. And that is that there are no gods. There is God of course, the absolute, who exists in himself without cause. And then there are things. Such as the sun and moon, trees, creeping animals and people. God causes the things to come into being. But God and the things remain completely distinct. God is not a thing, and the things are not gods.
In the age in which the Genesis stories were composed, that was radical thinking. To most ancient cultures the sun, moon and stars were gods, and the world itself was full of gods who controlled the waters, the seasons, the fruitfulness of the earth, and so on.
Israel received a different story. God is not a thing, and the things are not gods. In fact there weren’t any gods, because the things that the nations around called “gods” were only things, after all. And God, the God who called to Israel, turned out to be not one of the gods, either, but wholly different from them.
The forces of nature, the celestial bodies, were called into being by God. They had no power or existence of their own, but only what God had given them. They were good and useful things, doubtless, but only things. To worship them, as the nations did, was therefore to make a fundamental mistake. What we worship is what we set our hearts on, and we should set our hearts only on God, the source of all being. The source of our own being, as well as that of the useful and good things that God gives us.
Now that is a roundabout way of getting to today’s Gospel reading. “Do not worry”, says Jesus. “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”
After last week’s troubling and difficult extract from the Sermon on the Mount, we seem to have moved on to calmer waters, a more reassuring place. But in fact the background to these sayings of Jesus is still trouble and difficulty, as he reminds us at the end: “tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today”.
Nevertheless the message of Jesus is one of reassurance, if only we will trust God. As with the creation stories in Genesis, the message is clear: God alone is the source of all being, God alone is to be worshipped and trusted. We are not to worry about things, because things are not gods. Things cannot save us, and we should not worship them.
The Gentiles, says Jesus, strive for all these things. That is, the nations that have to yet come to know the one true God, and who still imagine that things are gods. They set their hearts on things, and worship them. Do not be like them. Your heavenly Father knows what you need.
Gods, remember, are what we worship, what we set our hearts on. If we set our hearts on uncertain, transient things, as the nations do, we are always going to be anxious about them, restless until we have made our things secure. Except we can’t make things secure, because they are only things that come and go. It is the one true God who alone is eternal, who alone is the source of all that we need.
Idols, you see, will never give us security. The teaching of Jesus, like the teaching of Genesis this morning, is that things are not gods. They are useful, but do not worship them, for they cannot save us. And if we are anxious, if we are striving like the Gentiles to secure created things, then perhaps that is because we are worshipping them. Perhaps we have made idols of them.
Jesus calls us to examine our hearts, to see what they are set on. Where do our anxieties come from? What are the secret idolatries that we need to uncover and repent of?
Now of course there is such a thing as duty, and the responsibilities that come to us in life. We do need to make prudent provision for those, indeed prudence is one of the cardinal virtues. That is not idolatry, so long as we do not set our hearts on created things, but only make proper use of them.
What Jesus warns us against is inordinate attachment to created things. That is the root of idolatry. If we make created things the object of our worship then they will be the source of our anxiety. Because we will be seeking salvation in things that cannot save.
I was wondering while preparing this sermon where my own anxieties were. For a parish priest, the growth of the church, attendance at Sunday Mass, balancing the books, are all matters of proper prudent care – but can also be areas of anxiety if we set our hearts on them, instead of on God. Others of us might think about the mortgage or the rent, the welfare or education of our children, our next job, our health, the health of our loved ones. All of these are matters of proper prudent care, but God alone can save us, and it is God alone that we must set our hearts on.
Things are not gods, things cannot save us. God alone can do that. This is our lasting hope and sure confidence. Genesis teaches us the foundational truth that God is the Creator, but he was a Creator veiled in mystery, wholly other than the things of creation. Jesus uncovers the face of the Creator. In Jesus, we see that God is whoever it is that Jesus calls Father, and God is whoever it is who raised Jesus from the dead.These three truths are the foundation of our hope and our sure salvation: God is the Creator, God is our Father, and God raised Jesus from the dead. If these three things are true – and we believe that they are – then our hope is secure, and ultimately there really is nothing at all to worry about.