Norman Rockwell Paints Self Portrait

I want to take you to a Scripture today in which Jesus speaks directly into our fears.

But for you to really grasp what the Lord wants to say to you, we need to start with an insight from the world of art.

This is a favorite painting of mine by American artist Norman Rockwell. The message Rockwell put in this painting is the same message that Jesus has for us in this unpredictable time.

Plenty of artists have painted self-portraits. But this one is different. It’s a triple self-portrait. Rockwell managed to paint himself, gazing in a mirror at himself, while the painted self paints himself.

The entire thing is a painting: in real life, you had Rockwell, painting Rockwell, looking at Rockwell, who was painting Rockwell!

Why now, of all times, would I show you a painting in a sermon? Here’s why: because in your life and mine right now there is a foreground, and there is a background. And which of the two you focus on will make all the difference in how you navigate this crisis.

Dig a little deeper with me. The foreground is everything that’s right in front of you today: working remotely, kids studying at home, social distancing, grocery store items out of stock, jarring news on a daily basis. That’s our foreground right now.

In a similar way, in the foreground of the painting, you see lots of things happening at once:

On the chair to the left, there’s a glass of Coke that’s leaning precariously on an open book: if Rockwell’s knee happens to bump the chair, the Coke is going to spill and the glass is going to break.

To the right, there’s a wisp of smoke wafting up from a bucket that contains rags Rockwell used in his oil painting. One of them is smoldering, and it appears he doesn’t notice that he’s about to have a fire on hand.

On and on, lots of things are happening in the foreground that can keep you occupied.

But—if all you focus on is the foreground, you will miss the most important thing the artist is telling us.

What matters most is in the background.

In the background, on the top right of the artist’s easel, are four other paintings. You probably missed them until now. But they aren’t incidental. They’re not accidental. They are, in fact, central to experiencing the whole message of this portrait.

Because when you zoom in on the background, you realize each one is the self-portrait of an artist who introduced their generation to a new way of seeing: Van Gogh, Picasso, Rembrandt, and Durer.

So Rockwell’s message is that it was those who came before him who were guiding his journey. The entire message here, the place to focus to make sense of it all…is the background.

And so it is, Jesus says, in life. The usual way we go through life is focusing almost entirely on the foreground of what’s happening right in front of us. But in the Scripture we come to today—which takes on new significance in the current crisis—Jesus beckons us to find peace and purpose…by focusing on the background.

Open your Bible or Bible app to the sixth chapter of the book of Matthew, chapter 6.

What does it look like to follow Jesus in the midst of this thing that’s unlike anything any of us has ever faced?

What does our Lord say when we’re stressed and scared, when we do not know what the future holds?

That is exactly what Jesus is addressing in Matthew chapter 6, beginning with verse 25. Speaking into our fears, Jesus says…

“I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?”

We hear that and inwardly say, if we’re honest, “But I am worried about my life! How could I not be?!”

Knowing that about us, how common fear is in the human experience, Jesus directs our attention from the foreground of worry, to the powerful background that we lose sight of when we worry. Here’s his call to focus on the background, verse 26:

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? (Yes!) Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? (No!)

If you take a walk in your neighborhood later today, if you pay attention in the background, you will hear:

  • Robins
  • Cardinals
  • Chickadees
  • Mourning doves
  • Sparrows

Jesus says, listen to them. Look at them. They don’t worry about the future. And yet, Jesus says, “Your heavenly Father feeds them.” He doesn’t speak of his Father. He speaks of God as your Father and mine. And to seal the deal, he asks, “Are you not much more valuable than they?” Meaning, you matter to God far more than the birds that he feeds.

He’s urging us to focus on the background, the invisible but powerful reality that we have a Father in heaven who loves us and will guide us in the midst of this.

In the same way that the great works of Van Gogh and Picasso and Rembrandt and Albrecht Durer influenced and shaped and guided Norman Rockwell in the painting of his self-portrait, your Father in heaven is going to guide and provide for you in the continuation of your self-portrait, if you will, the forming of Christlike character in you. And me.

This is the greatest test of faith in our lifetimes. So focus on this background, that your Father in heaven values you greatly. Let that background reality push worry back.

Jesus isn’t done yet. Verse 28 he continues…

“And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 

So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them.

We’re asking similar questions today: “How can I get groceries? Where shall we find toilet paper? When will my Amazon items be in stock?” These are all foreground fears, the same fears Jesus was speaking to back then.

And for our foreground fears, Jesus offers us the same solution he held out then—the famous Matthew 6:33…

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”

And verse 34, which takes on new meaning for so many lately. Jesus urges…

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”

And to that last statement, all God’s people say, “Amen!”

One day at a time, focus on the background that your heavenly Father knows what you need, and values you greatly. So seek His kingdom and righteousness first. Trust God to take care of the rest. Believe that today.

There’s an old hymn that goes, “This is our Father’s World, and let us never forget, that though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.” That’s the background that Jesus calls us to see with eyes of faith, to remember.

Whatever is going on in the foreground, remember who is in the background. Set your heart on God’s kingdom and his goodness. Put that first. Make that what carries you through the chaotic foreground right now.

What does it look like to seek God’s kingdom and righteousness first?

Two main things: remember the Christian’s hope of heaven, and then from that place of eternal security, radically live out of Christ’s love here and now. This is what the early Christians took to heart, lived out, and changed their world—one day at a time, one conversation at a time. The hope of heaven and love of Christ in the background is what moved them to love well in their ever-changing foreground.

I want to conclude with the true story of Tom Chisholm. Thomas Obadiah Chisholm was born in the mid-1800s. From an early age he struggled with health issues. His impaired health affected almost everything he did. In time, Tom became a Christian and developed a love for writing poetry.

Regarding his poems, Chisholm wrote: “I have sought to be true to the Word [of God], and to avoid flippant and catchy titles and treatment. I have greatly desired that each hymn or poem might have some definite message to the hearts for whom it was written.”

That’s a good guideline for how you and I can use social media right now: “I have sought to be true to the Word [of God], and to avoid flippant and catchy titles and treatment. I have greatly desired that each hymn or poem might have some definite message to the hearts for whom it was written.”

One day in the midst of the ever-changing disappointing foreground in Tom Chisolm’s life, he sat down and wrote a poem about the background—about God’s unfailing faithfulness. It was a simple poem that Tom Chisholm penned in faith. That poem has now been sung across the world as the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

Follow the connection with me between the painting we began with, and the hymn we end with. Just like Rockwell was informed and shaped and influenced by great artists in his background, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” was inspired by the background of God’s faithfulness to Tom Chisholm amidst his foreground circumstances.

Whatever may come for the Christian, God is our Father, who knows what we need, and great is his faithfulness. May the Lord’s faithful character and eternal kingdom become the background that powerfully transforms how you see the foreground during this crisis.

Let me pray for you.

Our Father in heaven, we’re in the midst of the painting, so we can’t see how it will look in the end.

But we trust you.

We trust that we are far more valuable to you than the birds that you take care of each day.

We trust you, that we are more valuable to you than the spring flowers which are beginning to bloom around us.

We commit one another to you, asking your hand of blessing—the blessings of good health, peace of mind, and freedom from worry.

Take us by the hand, Lord God, and lead us through these days—one day at a time.

We ask this in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen!