Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Sermon: Matthew 6: 1-18 Kingdom Piety

Who are you trying to impress? That might be a question you’ve asked, or even been asked in the past. It might be a colleague who always gives the impression they don’t care about the job - until the boss walks into the office, and suddenly they’re the most attentive, helping worker ever. It could be a teenage boy attempting to look cool in front of the girl he fancies, acting completely different than when he’s with his friends.

When it comes to the practice of our faith, there’s a chance that we can do something similar. We can be aware of our audience and seek to impress them. How do I look to them is the most important question.

As we’ve seen so far in these Lent services, Jesus is setting out what life in his kingdom will look like. It begins with the blessings that only God the Father can bestow - not by our performance; it continues as we observe Jesus’ commandments and obey the heart of the Law by loving God and our neighbour. So what about giving and praying and fasting? These were common features of religious life in the Judaism of Jesus’ day. Do they have a place in the Christian life?

The first verse is the key to our reading tonight: ‘Beware of practising your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.’ Jesus is saying that there’s a danger in doing these things in order to be seen by others around us - that we seek to do good things for bad motives.

Take giving, for example. When you want to give to the church or give to the needy, do you make sure that everyone knows that you’re giving? Would you hire Maguiresbridge Silver Band to come and make a big show so that everyone can see what a good person you are?

The whole band might be a bit much; but it seems that in Jesus’ day, some outwardly good people had a trumpet sounded, like a fanfare, as they distributed alms. Perhaps they were even blowing their own trumpet, to use the phrase.

Now that’s not something we’re likely to do today, is it? But while we might not have musical accompaniment to our generosity; we could still have the same desire to be seen and thought well of. We might be aware of our audience and try to play to it - perhaps a big cheque and a photo in the paper; a plaque showing our generosity; a good showing in the subscribing list.

Yet Jesus has a name for those who act in this way: hypocrites. We all know what a hypocrite is - someone who says one thing and does another - it comes from the Greek theatre where an actor would put on a mask to become another character. Outwardly, we appear as generous, zealous for God; yet inwardly our motive is our own praise and standing before other people.

Here’s what Jesus says: ‘So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.’

If you live for the praise of others and you receive it; then that’s your reward. That’s all you’ll ever receive by way of reward. But these hypocrites (and the danger for us) is that we focus on the seen, and forget about the unseen. Jesus warns us against hypocrisy, and instead calls us to live by faith: ‘But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.’

Don’t draw attention to yourself or your giving; focus on the unseen one who sees - the Father, whose praise and reward is worth receiving.

We find a similar pattern when we turn to fasting, at the end of the passage. We’re in the time of the year when people are asking - what are you giving up for Lent? It can be so easy to slip into a martyr complex - yes, I’m suffering terribly for the Lord by giving up Facebook and chocolate for a few weeks - and make sure everyone knows about it.

Or as Jesus says: ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly, I tell you, they have received their reward.’ There may well be times when it’s appropriate to fast from food, or from something else; but keep it between you and God; otherwise you’re running the danger of doing it for the wrong audience; trying to impress others by appearing super-spiritual.

Right at the heart of the passage, we find the central point of application as Jesus teaches on our religious practices. We’ve thought about giving and fasting, but now we come to praying. Jesus says that it can be easy to fall into the trap of praying to be seen to be praying; making a show of it in front of others.

In all of these, I’m preaching to myself as much as to you - perhaps with greater danger with the greater expectation to pray, and be seen praying. So what should we avoid in our prayers?

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you they have received their reward.’ As we’ve seen with the others, it’s not praying that’s wrong - it’s praying to be seen; praying with wrong motives.

Later on in the service we will pray together - but I’m to make sure that as I lead our prayers, I’m not praying so that you all will be impressed and think - what a rector! Rather, as we pray, our desire is to join together in coming before our Father, praying for the audience of one. We don’t want to use big, complicated sounding words and flowery phrases - God isn’t impressed in those ways.

Rather, Jesus says that we’re coming to our heavenly Father, the one who made us, the one who sees in secret; the one who knows what we need before we ask. We come in simplicity, expressing the concerns and desires of our hearts, and not our supposed spirituality superiority or imagined intelligence.

It’s to our Father, then, that we pray, and Jesus gives us the words to pray - a prayer itself, and a pattern for our prayers. In the Lord’s prayer, we recgonise who it is we pray to - Our Father in heaven - asking that his name will be honoured (hallowed); that his kingdom will come and his will be done here on earth as it is already in heaven.

We express our needs, confident that God will supply them - since he already knows what we need: daily bread; forgiveness of our sins (and the grace to forgive those who hurt us); and guidance in our walk.

As we think about the practical expressions of our faith - giving, praying, fasting - we examine ourselves as ask: who are we doing this for? The motives of our hearts are expressed in the way we live and the praise we seek. To live for the praise of people brings immediate satisfaction; popularity; respectability - they have already received their reward.

Jesus calls us, not just in Lent, but every day, to live in the sight of God our Father as we give and pray and fast- living for his glory, not our own; recognising our dependence on him; looking for those words of commendation on the last day: Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.

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