September 7, 2011

Sermon on the Mount Matthew 6:5-8; 16-18



We are dividing things up a bit. We are going to look at prayer and fasting together, and study the Lord’s prayer next. It just seemed like a bit too much to squeeze into one message; even if we just focused on prayer. But the initial instructions on prayer and the instruction on fasting are very similar...so we will put them together this morning.

Even still we cannot possibly discuss everything we need to discuss concerning prayer, fasting, and the spiritual disciplines. I highly recommend Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline. It is a phenomenal book that every Christian should read. Foster’s book has some of the why? behind the disciplines, but also has very practical explanation of how to get started.

Every religious culture has practices they engage in to help them grow spiritual. Islam has the 5 pillars: They say their Creed, pray 5 times a day, fast during Ramadan, practice almsgiving, and go on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Eastern religions are characterized by meditation, yoga, and vegetarianism as spiritual practices.

Prayer and Fasting have been an important part of Jewish and Christian spiritual practice from the beginning. First Century Jews fasted at least twice a week in addition to other regular times of fasting, and had regular daily times of prayer.

For centuries the Christian church has also fasted regularly and practiced hourly prayers. Wednesdays and Fridays have been traditional days of fasting in the Christian church, and through the years fixed-hour praying has helped many in their prayer life. Prayer and Fasting are now part of a series of different spiritual practices that we call the spiritual disciplines...silence, solitude, Scripture, prayer, fasting, worship, meditation, service, etc.

These practices are meant to help us deepen our faith and grow spiritually. We do them for the same reason that a runner runs each day. No one decides to run a marathon and then goes out and runs it the next day...no, they start slow with a mile or two each day, and then adds another mile or two, and then a couple more, and, eventually, after a few months they can run a marathon!

Spiritual disciplines are practices we do that are within our ability so that eventually we are able to do things that are not within our ability. We start by praying for 5 minutes...then we add 5 more...pretty soon we are able to spend an hour or more in God’s presence.

One thing to remember is that Jesus isn’t giving us another law to follow. There is the expectation that those who follow Jesus will pray and fast, but it is not a law. In today’s passage, Jesus says, “WHEN you pray....and WHEN you fast...” Jesus wants his followers to engage in these activities because they are the means for growth in the spiritual life.

Somethings can be required or expected without them being a law. Is it a law that you have to plug your television into the wall for it to work? No, it is just a reality. If you want it to work you have to plug it in. If you want to grow spiritually there are certain spiritual exercises you must do in order to build your spiritual muscles. You must plug into the power source.

And this is certainly not earning your salvation. You don’t have to earn God’s love. He loves you. But in order to grow in our faith, we have to engage in certain practices that help us develop our spiritual muscles.

For the early Christians, and for us, prayer and fasting are at the heart of growing spiritually. If we are not growing spiritually...we are probably not praying and fasting.

So let’s look at today’s passage, and then see how these two disciplines can help us grow.

Matthew 6:5-8; 16-18

“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 others. Truly I tell you, 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.

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others 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.

Prayer

While spiritual practices are the means by which we grow spiritually...they can also be a pitfall when we do them for the wrong reasons or with the wrong motives.

Have you ever listened to someone pray and thought, “Man, I wish I could pray like that!” Or, maybe you have heard someone talk about the amount of time they spent praying...I know I have, and I felt like less of a Christian because I had it in my mind that I didn’t measure up.

People listening to Jesus often had that same experience around the Pharisees and religious leaders. They prayed well, and they prayed often. But they often prayed for the wrong reason. The pharisees knew people were listening to them...they wanted to sound spiritual and to be respected for their great prayers...so they made sure that people knew how much they prayed.

So Jesus says,

“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 others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

The problem is the hypocrites do it to be seen. They love to stand in the synagogues where everyone can see them...to be on the street corner when the time of prayer comes...so that other people will see them and think, “What a great man of faith! He is so spiritual.”

And Jesus says, “To be seen by others...to have other people appreciate your spirituality is not the point. To be in relationship with God is the point of prayer!”

The obvious reason why people should pray is to develop their relationship with God. It isn’t about being seen, it isn’t about getting stuff (which is the heart of the section on the Gentiles)...it is about being in a relationship with God the Father.

And when people pray for reasons other than to be in relationship with God...they have received their reward in full. If we pray so that others think, “What a great pray-er!” or “He has a great spiritual life!” Then we have received our reward which is the praise of men. And when we receive that reward we miss out on the true reward...the spiritual rewards and the praise of the Father.

Let me show you this video...now I am cannot be the judge of this man’s heart...but it certainly seems like he is praying for the benefit of the crowd more than he is praying to speak with God...but it is certainly a funny prayer.



In this passage, Jesus isn’t condemning pastoral or public prayers as part of worship, but He would probably warn about trying to look good or please a crowd instead of connecting with Father on behalf of the people.

So Jesus’ answer to our wrong desires of praying to be seen...the safeguard Jesus wants to put into place...is for us to do our real praying in private.

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.

The “room” here is the storeroom of the house, and it would be the only room in a Middle Eastern house with a door. This is Jesus’ way of saying, “Get away from others. Don’t let them see you when you pray because the only person who really needs to see you is God the Father!” Prayer really is about our interaction with God, and He must be the main audience of our prayers.

And this really is metaphoric...because we have no record of Jesus ever praying in a room. Instead, Jesus sought the lonely and deserted places to pray. He woke up early and went into the wilderness, away from the crowds, to spend time with the Father.

Today, we often take two very different roads, but with the same underlying problem.

Some people like to pray...long, loud, wordy, or unique prayers in public...while others of us refuse to pray in public because others might think we are not good pray-ers. Both of these are problematic because they are concerned with what others think when God alone is the audience of our prayers. The minute we pray or don’t pray because of others we are doing it for the wrong reason.

Again Jesus isn’t questioning prayer. He isn’t mandating that we pray in certain places. He isn’t giving another law...he is questioning our motivations.

Why do we pray? Are our prayers supposed to impress others or make them think we are holier than we really are? Or, are they supposed to be our interaction with the Father?

So first Jesus ticks off the Jewish leaders by challenging their attempts at spiritual elitism...then He compares their prayers to the Gentiles.

Jesus says,

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...

The Jews liked to be seen as holy so they prayed in public, but the Gentiles prayed in order to manipulate their gods to receive stuff from them. The Jewish religion had many prayers that had equals in pagan religion. Prayers of Thanksgiving, prayers offered for atonement, etc. But they had no prayers to secure rain or favors from God; God gave these blessings in response to Israel’s obedience to his covenant#.

The Gentiles, however, had many prayers in order to appease and manipulate their gods into giving them what they wanted. They would pray...trying to find the right word combinations or to use the appropriate names for their god...they would “babble” in order to get rain for their crops or health for their family or whatever.

How often our prayers turn into a shopping list of needs instead of the conversation of relationship. We are often tempted to rest in formulas for our prayers to get God to help us...when we should be living out of a trusting, loving relationship. If I just say it this way...If I try asking for this instead of that...God if you will just give me this, I will never again...

Prayer is about relationship, and God’s gifts are given freely...God already knows what you need so your prayers should not be veiled attempts to manipulate or guilt trip or whiney, pleading sessions before God. I have tried these forms of prayer, and they

do.

not.

work.

Relationship grows out of intimacy, and there is no formula.

One person wrote, “We pray not because we think our prayers earn God’s favor, but as an expression of our trust in a Father who already knows our need and merely waits for us to express our dependence on him.”

Fasting

The second spiritual discipline we are looking at today is Fasting. I have always wondered why people today struggle with fasting...there are so many places with fast food.

Fasting is a spiritual discipline that has gone out of fashion in today’s church, and there are a couple of reasons for this. First, Christian Asceticism took fasting to some pretty horrific heights. These people rightly believed that we should fast and deprive ourselves of things to focus on drawing closer to God. Where they went wrong is in their belief that if fasting is good then ALOT of fasting is better! Theirs fasting became more like abusing themselves. They were like the extreme sports of spiritual practitioners. This drove many in the Church away from fasting at all.

The second reason is that our Western culture frowns on abstaining from anything. If we desire it, then we should certainly give in to those desires. Because all our desires are part of what it means to be human...and we should not keep ourselves from anything our heart really desires. We even misinterpret Scripture to back us up believing that “God will give us the desires of our hearts.” They miss the first part which basically says, “If your heart desires God, then God will give you the desires of your heart.” We have lifted desire-fulfillment to whole new level...an unhealthy level...a sinful level.

Following after every desire is actually very harmful, and our desires, if we give in to all of them, will destroy us. And I believe we struggle to resist our desires and struggle to resist temptation because we have not learned to fast. We have given in too easily.

Let’s look at this passage again. Jesus says,

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.

But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others 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.

First, let’s get a right understanding of fasting for us today. Richard Foster says,

“The central idea of fasting is the voluntary denial of an otherwise normal function for the sake of intense spiritual activity.”

We deny ourselves of something in order to focus ourselves on something spiritual. We are denying ourselves of the physical in order to pay attention to the spiritual.

The Bible, when speaking of fasting, talks almost exclusively of food. But there are other things from which we need to disconnect in today’s world so we can focus on spiritual things. Sometimes we need to fast from people...we need to get away from others so that we can focus on hearing God. We can fast from noise and conversation...we need silence in order to think. We need to fast from media and technology...the incessant beeping of email alerts and computer screens.

We need to deny ourselves of something from the physical realm in order to focus on the spiritual realm.

And just by understanding what fasting is we can see the problem Jesus is addressing. There were some who took their fasting and wrote it all over their face. They would look gaunt and not do their normal personal hygiene things...like do their hair...they would purposely look like they were fasting. They would talk about their hunger so that someone would ask, “Why are you hungry?” “Because I’m fasting.”

And Jesus says that when we do our spiritual acts to be seen by others, then our ultimate goal is not to grow closer to God...it is not to focus on the spiritual realm...when we do our spiritual acts so that we are seen by others then we are doing those acts in order to be thought holy and righteous...and Jesus wants to challenge that action. That is not true religion. That is not God’s way.

Why should we fast? So that God is pleased.

So hide it. Don’t let others know you are fasting. Keep it a secret and look like you would normally look! Then your Father who sees what is done in secret will give you all the spiritual benefits of fasting instead of allow you to receive only the reward of earthly praise.

Just one additional note about fasting...fasting must also be coupled with obedience. Israel didn’t get this so the prophet Isaiah denounced them for fasting with being obedient. Today, I challenge you to read Isaiah 58, and hear what God says about those who fast, and yet miss the mark when it comes to obedience. We don’t have time to go over that today, but you should read it...because our fasting must be coupled with our obedience.

Conclusion

The spiritual disciplines are absolutely necessary for our spiritual growth. Prayer and fasting are at the heart of these disciplines. They are necessary for us to grow in our faith.

I would add spending time in God’s Word...but that is really what prayer and fasting was meant to enhance in the first century. They didn’t have access to the Scriptures like we do with about 30 Bibles stacked on shelves and in boxes at our house. There might be one scroll worth of Scripture for each synagogue to use...so they would listen and memorize and think about it. Their prayer and fasting would involve meditation and reflection on the Scriptures that had been read during synagogue.

We need these more than ever. We need prayer, fasting, and reflection on God’s Word so we can grow up in our faith.

It is impossible to live out the life Jesus is calling us to live here in the Sermon on the Mount...to be people who don’t get angry, and don’t lust, and don’t hate our enemies, and don’t seek revenge...unless we day-by-day take the necessary steps to grow in our faith. I think the previous section on morality points out what is lacking in us. It shines a very bright spotlight on our sinfulness. But then Jesus says, “I have not left you without help. Here are the tools you need to grow in your faith and in your ability to live this way. Pray, fast, give to the poor, reflect on my Words.”

People ask all the time, “How can I know God’s will for my life for this or that decision?” The problem is the Bible doesn’t tell us how to know God’s will for particular decisions. The Bible does, however tell us what kind of person God reveals His will to. Now that may not help us with a decision we have to make tomorrow, but if we get started today, we could be that person for our next big decision.

And that is the same way God deals with our ability to obediently live out what He is calling us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. We can’t be spiritually holy tomorrow...but we can be a lot closer in a year or two if we begin taking our spiritual growth seriously today. This growth...in theological terms we call it sanctification...takes place with each step forward...with each spiritual discipline we practice focusing solely on God alone.

Our focus is not on others...our focus is on God.

Do you want to grow spiritually? Then learn how to pray and how to fast. Start guarding your prayers so that they are about relationship and not always about needs you have and want God to fulfill. Learn to deprive yourself of the things in the physical so you can focus on the spiritual...and do all this with only one person in the audience...God.

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