Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Great Surprise

The Message of the Sermon on the Mount

Part Four: Surprising Deeds

Matthew 6:1-18

There’s an Australian historian—and a very good Christian apologist—named John Dickson (YouTube him—he’s a fine speaker).  He has a great little book on leadership called Humilitas (the Latin word for humility).  He looks at humility from the standpoint of a historian, and shows that throughout history, the very most effective leaders showed humility, which he defines as “the noble choice to forgo your status, deploy your resources or use your influence for the good of others before yourself.”

One of the things that he points out is that while this may sound like common sense to you and me, it wasn’t always so.  There was a time when humility was almost seen as a vice.  For example, there was a Jewish sage named Yeshua ben Sira in the second century BC who advised, “Humble your head before the great.  Incline your ear to the poor and return their greeting in humility.”  Sounds good.  But when his grandson translated this into Greek, he changed the last word…from “return their greeting in humility” to “return their greeting in gentleness.”  You see, in the world of the Greeks and the Romans, humility was almost a vice or a certainly a weakness.  Humility is for underlings and slaves, not for people of achievement. 

Dickson cites the short autobiography of the Roman Emperor Augustus, which is one long brag fest.  “I built this, I defeated those bad guys, I instituted this law…I…I…I.”  And this was OK in that society.  They even had a name for it: philotemia: the love of honor.  To be recognized for your deeds was held in very high esteem.  It was a good thing not just to be honored, but to love being honored.

Then Jesus comes along, and again, as an historian, not as a believer, John Dickson demonstrates that the teachings and even more so, the example of Jesus brought a humility revolution.

But don’t you deserve recognition for your deeds?  Philotemia wasn’t just a Greek or Roman attitude.  It’s very much a part of all of us, and was a big part of Jewish faith as it was practiced in Jesus’ time.  

As we continue in the Sermon on the Mount, let me remind you of a few things: this message is Jesus telling us how to live the good life.  Jesus’ desire for us is to enjoy life, filled with God’s presence, even in the midst of a world that is often hostile to God and His kingdom values.  But one of the biggest barriers to enjoying this God-filled life is bad religion.         

You can see that in what Jesus says in the opening blessings, that part we’ve often called the beatitudes.  There Jesus says that the presence of God is far more accessible than what they’d been told by the religious leaders of the time.

And those same religious leaders had laid down a truly terrible example of living out faith that Jesus corrects here, in the passage we look at today.  He’s going to lay down a general principle that corrects that and then will apply that in three dimensions.

The general principle is this: deeds done in earthly view gets earthly reward; deeds done in heavenly view gets heaven’s reward.  

Jesus applies this in three areas that were considered—and really are—key measurements of the genuineness of a person’s faith and devotion.  Those areas are meeting the needs of the poor, prayer and fasting.

Here’s the general principle given by Jesus in Matthew 6:1:

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven."

The rabbis considered almsgiving, prayer, and fasting as the three chief acts of Jewish piety.  So Jesus deals with each of these three.  He first warns His disciples not to do these for man’s praise.  Then He assures them that if they disregard His warning they would get human praise but no more.  Third, He teaches them how to do the act for God alone, secretly (not for public applause). Finally, He assures them that the Father who sees in secret would reward their righteous act openly.  That’s the pattern that is repeated three times here. 

Example One: Giving to the Needy (Matthew 6:2-4)

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."

Here we see the pattern.  Some people when they give want the world to know.  They blow their own horn, so to speak.  Now some have taken this more literally—that actual horns (shofarim) were blown to announce certain offerings, or the fact that the collection receptacles for offerings at the temple were shaped like horns and that if you put a lot of coins in them, well, that would be noisy and attract a lot of attention.  Whatever it is, it isn’t really important for us here.  The point is, don’t make a big deal about your giving.  Keep it private.  Don’t do it to be noticed.  If you do, you get earthly reward now (in the form of attention and esteem), but you forgo heavenly attention forever (which we’ll pick up in the next post). 

One fundamental fact about God is His omniscience.  He knows everything.  He knows about the giving you do, and He is pleased by it.  And that’s enough.  It’s enough that He knows.  He’s the one we’re trying to impress! 

One church I was serving needed new pulpit Bibles.  Lynann’s dad had recently died, and we decided to use some inheritance money to meet that need.  In the Bibles, we placed stickers that said, “Given in loving memory of Rev. Earl and Mrs. Delphine Dale.”  But we intentionally didn’t say who gave them.  We wanted it that way.  Better recognition in heaven than on earth. 

I have no trouble about memorials with names on them, and so forth, but we need to be careful, for our own sake, about not seeking recognition for our giving.  I’d rather be unknown now, and a star on the walk of fame in heaven before the Father.

Here’s the second example: prayer.

Example Two: Prayer (Matthew 6:5-14)

Now this is a very familiar passage, because it includes the Lord’s Prayer.  We could spend weeks here, but let’s keep to the main theme of deeds done in earthly view gets earthly reward; deeds done in heavenly view gets heaven’s reward.   And let’s see how that pertains to prayer.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Let’s stop there before we get into the Lord’s Prayer and see the pattern repeated.  He’s not saying never to pray in public—sometimes that’s necessary in a worship service or before a meal.  He is saying, don’t make a show of your prayers, so people will say, hey that guy is really spiritual—you can tell by his really impressive prayers!  If you pray so people will be impressed by how you pray, stop it!  I’d rather overhear a humble man pray from his heart than a proud man pray the most impressive, theologically correct prayer any day!  And that, I think, is God’s attitude too.

So, prayer is primarily something you do, just you and God, where you get no earthly recognition, but you do get the Father’s ear and the Father’s reward.  And Jesus adds a further dimension: don’t babble like the pagans.  Again, the idea is, don’t pray in some ostentatious, showy way, whether you’re trying to impress a human audience or a divine audience.  Instead, come before the Father in loving simplicity.

So next He gives what we’ve come to call the Lord’s Pray.  Now I love the Lord’s Prayer, and I’ve often taught on it—there’s no better way to pray.  But let’s think about it today in context of what Jesus says before it, and what it means here in the flow of the Sermon on the Mount.   

Jesus is giving the Lord’s Prayer as a model of the better way to pray, the alternative to showy, earth-audience praying of the bad religious leaders of the time.  What is that better way?  Well, first, let’s hear it, Matthew 6:9-15:

“This, then, is how you should pray:
“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
    on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

Let me just give a few characteristics of the Lord’s Prayer that makes it Jesus’ antidote to the religious praying of the time:

1.    It is God-centered
2.    It is Kingdom of God centered
3.    It is simple
4.    It is practical
5.    It is deeply relational

Now think of these elements of the Lord’s Pray and compare them to the religious pray of the time.  God centered?  The Pharisee in Luke 18 prays, and his prayer is all about what a great guy he is.  Religious prayer is not only me-centered, it’s also tradition-centered, not centered around the kingdom of God.  Religious prayer is complex, uses big words, and is as far from everyday life and we can make it.  And religious prayer is more like a bank transaction than a relationship.

For Jesus, prayer is all about a relationship with a God who invites us to call Him Father.  It’s also relational in that He reminds us not to think we can pray well when we have unforgiveness toward others.  Forgiving others is the only part of the prayer that Jesus felt the need to add a few words of explanation.  That’s how important it is. 
Jesus is saying—listen, you’ve heard is said that giving to the poor and prayer is important—it is!  But let’s make sure that all your giving is real, that it’s not for show, so do it in a way that draws no attention to yourself.  God sees, and that’s all that matters.  And when you pray, do it in a way in which you get no special attention from other people; after all, what matters is what God sees.  So when you pray, center your prayers on God and His kingdom priorities, and come to Him as your Father in heaven and with a heart that is as right with other people as you can.

You see, Jesus is actually simplifying the practice of faith here, liberating it from excessive cumbersome rules and making it more accessible to people.  The good life isn’t achieved by all those rules and regs, but by knowing the God wants to have a living, dynamic, liberating relationship with you. 

So now we come to the last area that Jesus wants to reform for our good, and that’s fasting.

Example Three: Fasting (Matthew 6:16-18)

16 “When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

In the Old Testament, fasting was commanded for the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), but was practiced on all kinds of occasions.  The basic idea of fasting is this: to heighten the sense for yearning after God through the sense of hunger we feel for food. 

The early church continued the practice of fasting (see your notes today for the passages: Acts 13:1-3; 14:23).  Notice that Jesus doesn’t say “If you fast”; He says “When you fast.”  Jesus doesn’t regard fasting as some legalistic thing, or only an Old Covenant, Mosaic Law thing; He sees it as a good and valid thing.

But again, it was subject to abuse.  Some people, when the fasted, could be seen from a mile away.  They wouldn’t wash their face and they wore old clothes, and they sent out a message something like this: I look miserable because I feel miserable, but I only look and feel this way because I am so way more holy than you are!

But the same general truth applies here: deeds done in earthly view gets earthly reward; deeds done in heavenly view gets heaven’s reward.   Therefore, “put oil on your head and wash your face.”  (People used a little olive oil as hair treatment in those days.)  In other words, don’t give away the fact that you’re fasting by either the way you dress or by your personal hygiene. 

John Wesley encouraged his disciples to fast twice a week, which was the same frequency as the Pharisees.  Fasting isn’t some Old Testament thing, or a Catholic thing, or a legalistic thing; it’s a Bible thing.  In some traditions, there’s the additional idea that you should take what you would have spent for food and give it for the poor, which isn’t a bad idea, and consistent with some of the things said about fasting in the Old Testament.

Once I led a group of men who had a prayer burden for other men to be on fire for God and to take up the full load of responsibility as husbands and dads.  For three consecutive Thursdays, we fasted—first one meal, then two, and then a full day’s fast.  That was one of the most transformative experiences we had as a group of men. 

John Calvin said that there are three keys to spiritual growth: humility, humility and humility!  But how do you get there?  One of the greatest insights to spiritual growth is that we can train our inner self through what we do with our outer self.  Here, Jesus endorses and reforms three practices, that, practiced well, have the power to change who we are into more fully formed followers of Jesus. 

So, what is your practice when it comes to giving?  In particular—since that what Jesus is talking about here—what’s your default setting to giving to the poor?  We all know there are times to exercise good judgment when it comes to the needs of the poor, but what’s your default setting?  For myself, I think of the Good Samaritan story and I am convinced that the default setting needs to be—when I encounter someone in need, that person’s my neighbor, and Jesus told me to love my neighbor and seek to meet their need in some tangible way.

I have the practice—and I did this with my kids when they were little—that during the Christmas season, whenever we encountered a Salvation Army kettle, to put in a dollar.  Not just dime, but real money.  This is something I do as a spiritual discipline, to remind me about people in need, to keep my heart tender.

And what is your practice when it comes to pray?  Do you have time, every day, with God?  Is that a priority?  Donald Carson says something very wise here: “The public versus private antithesis is a good test of one’s motives; the person who prays more in public than in private reveals that he is less interested in God’s approval than in human praise.”  Are you all ready to pray to open a Sunday school class, but not ready to pray on Monday morning, when the only audience is God?

And what about fasting?  The average evangelical comes up blank when it comes to fasting.  But let me tell you, when these things—especially prayer and fasting—become a firm part of your life, you get power in your life, and power that comes from God.

Chip Ingraham tells this story:

In Santa Cruz there's a strip called Pacific Avenue, and there are a number of bars. On a rowdy Saturday night there were three very burly guys in tight T-shirts—guys who looked like they pumped iron on  steroids.  You don’t want to mess with those guys. But they were drunk and a bar’s bouncer couldn’t control them, so they called the police.

So a police cruiser pulls up, and out steps a female office who looked to be 4'11". 

Guess what happened?  She walked up to the rowdy giants and asked, "Gentlemen, do we have a problem here?"

"No, we're good here. Get outta here."

"Excuse me.  I'm authorized by Santa Cruz County to enforce the law. I'd like both of you to know that—now get over against the car!  Do you understand?" And they both started to balk a little bit, and she put her hand on her revolver.

And you know what? I've never seen two big, strong drunk guys get sober so fast.  And pretty this little gal had those guys doing exactly what she wanted. 
You know why? She has a badge that says "I have all right and authority vested in me to exercise that. You must do what I say. And if there's any problem with that, I have some power on my leg that can enforce it."

Let me tell you: you bring these surprising deeds into your life, they bring with them power.  You are a child of the King of kings. Your badge is your position in Christ. Your sidearm is the word and the promises of God.  And we get the bullets for that weapon in the time we spend alone with God.  That is where the power comes from.  And you don't have to be strong-willed or spiritual or go to seminary or know a whole lot.   Draw near to God, and know Him, and know His strength.  This is the good life.

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