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Sermon on the Mount

Stealth Christianity

Matthew  6:1-19

Lesson audio

The Hidden Life

One of the great difficulties in practicing a mature Christian life deals with the question of ostentation. We are taught his children that we belong in church every week; that people should see our light shining before them as Christians and that in general the major difficulty we face is to make our private life and public life the same, one of Christian charity. As we mature, however, there arises the difficulty of pride. The temptation is to take pride in our public Christianity, thinking to ourselves that everyone knows what a great question we are. Christ corrects that in today’s passages.

In Giving

Matthew 6:1-4 NASB  "Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.  (2)  "So when you give to the poor, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be honored by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  (3)  "But when you give to the poor, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing,  (4)  so that your giving will be in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

 

Perhaps easiest to see how this might become a problem if we start with a simple fact: almsgiving is the direct opposite of the sin of gluttony. When you give to the poor you in some way deprive yourself of some material blessing. You might, for example, give up the privilege of eating an expensive meal at a restaurant in order that you might give the price of that meal so that someone else could eat. Almsgiving defeats gluttony. But Satan is not without recourse. If he cannot trap me with gluttony, there is always pride. It is the temptation known to the ancients as “vainglory.” This is not a temptation which is exclusive to the rich. If you time it right, you can get a lot of credit for being the first to throw an envelope into the offering plate. Even the widow’s mite can be an occasion of pride — if you stage right.

Credit where credit is due: Jesus is not talking about the typical, ordinary Jew of the time. This in particular is probably aimed at the Pharisees. In the Middle Ages the Jewish Sage Maimonides put forth his 8 degrees of charity (in ascending order):

He who gives grudgingly, reluctantly, or with regret.

He who gives less than he should, but gives graciously.

He who gives what he should, but only after he is asked.

He who gives before he is asked.

He who gives without knowing to whom he gives, although the recipient knows the identity of the donor.

He who gives without making his identity known.

He who gives without knowing to whom he gives, neither does the recipient know from whom he receives.

He who helps a fellowman to support himself by a gift, or a loan, or by finding employment for him, thus helping him to become self-supporting.

You can see that through the first seven degrees that we are increasingly blessed by being increasingly anonymous.

In Prayer

Matthew 6:5-8 NASB  "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  (6)  "But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.  (7)  "And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.  (8)  "So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

 

In these words Christ commands to you the virtue of prayer in secret. There are number practical reasons why you would want to do this anyway:

·         First, there is the advantage of having no interruptions. My children seem to have an absolutely radar like instinct for knowing when I am at prayer — and interrupting me as frequently as possible. One must persist.

·         Prayer in private has the virtue of allowing you to listen as well as talk. Listening is often what’s missing our praying.

·         Sometimes there are things that you can reveal only to God, and no one else. If you pray only with other people around, you can’t do this.

Christ points out two particular evils here. The first of them we have dealt with in charity, namely, ostentation. It’s a curious thing; but often enough the Christian has the great desire to appear to be pious. No doubt some of us must appear to be pious, so that we might set an example for others. But the temptation of pride is there.

Perhaps more to the point in prayer is the problem of repetition. You might not think that’s a problem in our church; in my particular church, prayers are hip, cool and “with it.” Repetition is not allowed. What is allowed — and might just be a bit disturbing — is a repetition by form, as opposed to content. The most common form of repetition, however, in our lives today is that which comes over the Internet. You’ve seen them; repeat this prayer exactly as it is worded, seven times, and then pass it on to 5280 of your closest friends. If you break the chain you will be struck by a meteorite at dawn the next morning. (Incoming! Meteorite!)

Chrysostom gave us his words of warning this way:

You do not then pray in order to teach God your wants, but to move Him, that you may become His friend by the importunity of your applications to Him, that you may be humbled, that you may be reminded of your sins.

We need to remember just where our prayers are headed.

In Fasting

This passage is a little out of sequence, but it fits the theme.

Matthew 6:16-18 NASB  "Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full.  (17)  "But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face  (18)  so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.

 

The question of today is not accustomed to fasting, at least in evangelical churches. Well, that’s not exactly true; we call it dieting. It is not a spiritual exercise. So why would anybody give up food (or any other physical pleasure) for a period of time and think this was spiritual? One good reason is this: if you’re not paying attention to what you’re eating, you have the time and energy to pay attention to what you’re thinking. Have you ever gotten into a routine where everything seems to go exactly the same way all day long, every day? Up in the morning, make the coffee, clean the kitchen, back in the living room, and so on — that’s how it goes. But suppose you give up one of those meals; what can you gain?

The most obvious answer is that you gain the time necessary to focus yourself on spiritual things. We are so busy today with ordinary business; skipping a meal precepts of time. It might also free up some money, if the meal you had in mind was it an expensive restaurant. Both may be given to the kingdom of God. But it’s more than that; it is a preparation of the human being for service.

If you’re missing a meal, most of us would complain about it. We are not particularly prone to the temptation to glorify ourselves a virtue of being someone who fasts, because most evangelical Christians don’t do it at all. You’re liable to be seen not so much pious as weird. This, of course, is yet another reason for you to hide the fact that you’re fasting.

May I suggest, however, that we look at this business of hidden Christianity as a whole? The problem here is this: if you are a real Christian, you are going to do works of charity and service which will come quite naturally to you. You will care for those around you and it will show. How do you avoid the reaction of the world that says, “He just does that for show”? The answer is relatively simple. If you want to hide a book, you put it in a library. If you want to hide a leaf, you put it in a forest. If you want to hide a man, you put him in a city. And if you want to hide the light that shines before men, you put it in a lighthouse. Let the lower lights be burning.

Prayer Toward God

We now begin the study of what is commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer. It is convenient to break it into two sections, the first being those prayers we address to God concerning God.

Matthew 6:9-10 NASB  "Pray, then, in this way: 'Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.  (10)  'Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.

 

Our Father

Permit me to introduce you to the foundation of Christian thought and Western civilization: the Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. When Christ taught the world to pray to “Our Father” he culminated all of Jewish thought. He alone could do this, because he alone would provide the sacrifice that would break down the wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile. At the very same time this phrase provides us with the basis of the church; as witness Chrysostom:

For what hurt does such kindred with those beneath us, when we are all alike kin to One above us? For who calls God Father, in that one title confesses at once the forgiveness of sins, the adoption, the heirship, the brotherhood, which he has with the Only-begotten, and the gift of the Spirit. For none can call God Father, but he who has obtained all these blessings. In a two-fold manner, therefore, he moves the feeling of them that pray, both by the dignity of Him who is prayed to, and the greatness of those benefits which we gain by prayer.

It is fitting that such a prayer be made in great dignity: “hallowed be your name.” We pray in that name, we baptize in that name, we bury in that name and we will rise again in that name. It is therefore fitting that we keep that name sacred within us; not as a casual obscenity. The point is capable of great elaboration, but the name is not sacred within us why would anyone else hold it sacred?

Kingdom Come

There is a high degree of audacity and faith required to make this prayer. You are asking that the creator of the universe have his will done, first by you. Who are you to ask for the privilege of participating in that? My answer is simply this: it is appropriate for us to pray this, for we are the children of the great King. But it is also dangerous; for if you ask that God’s will be done, you are kindling within your self the desire to do that which is right. The world will not let that go unpunished.

By the same token we cannot pray anything else. We are the servants of the great King of the universe, the creator of all things. If we are loyal servants — and we should be — then what else could we want? What else could possibly be appropriate? By asking this thing we are uniting our will with his will and imploring his great power to get it done. Do you not see that we are asking not so much that God will do what he pleases, but that we will be pleased with what God does?

Thy Will Be Done

Let me ask you something: do you believe that your life has a God given purpose? Or do you believe that you are put on this planet simply to meander about, doing whatever good you can but that there is no particular reason why you ever had to exist, nor is there any reason that one should do exist you should continue to do so? Modern society is based on the idea that you are a random product of evolution, with no purpose whatsoever. The Christian acknowledges in this simple phrase that this is false. But God does indeed have a plan for you, his will, is apparent to each and every Christian. What might not be apparent to you about this particular passage is that he has a will for everyone else too. When you pray this prayer, you are asking God to make sure that happens for them as well. This, of course, starts with evangelism. Did you think the Lord’s Prayer as motive for evangelism?

This is also an acknowledgment that you know who is in control of your life — despite all the troubles you find. Troubles, which you might just as well have deserved, but God himself has relieved them. Thomas a Kempis put it this way:

But here, in the midst of these troubles, what shall I say? Your will be done, Lord. I have richly deserved to be troubled and distressed. But I must bear it. Would that I could do so patiently, until the storm passes and calm returns! Yet Your almighty hand can take this temptation from me, or lighten its attack so that I do not altogether sink beneath it, as You, my God, my Mercy, have very often done for me before. And the more difficult my plight, the easier for You is this change of the right hand of the Most High.

 

By saying this we surrender ourselves to the trials and troubles which God has ordained for our lives. It is our submission to his tribulation which allows him to make us perfect for the purpose that he has chosen for our lives.

Prayer for Ourselves

Matthew 6:11-15 NASB  'Give us this day our daily bread.  (12)  'And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.  (13)  'And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.]'  (14)  "For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  (15)  "But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

 

Our Daily Bread

We might begin by pointing out the obvious. We pray for “our” daily bread — meaning that were pray not only for whatever stuffs our own particular face, but that which feeds our fellow Christians (at the least). We are explicitly commanded not only to share that which we have, but that we are to ask God to provide for others as well. It is worth noting that when we make such a prayer it is extremely difficult for us to withhold food from our brothers while asking for our daily bread.

Note, please, that it is our daily bread. My security is in God, not in my 401(k) account. That’s a difficult point for most Christians, because we’ve been taught to save frugally, invest wisely, and of course to be hag-ridden worried about the future. Surprisingly, this is a characteristic of Christians tend to have a lot more money than others. Your author has had the privilege of serving in two different churches. One of those churches was composed of people who were relatively poor. Being laid off from the job was a relatively common occurrence; the job itself didn’t pay very much. They were obliged, therefore, to put their trust in the Lord, and they did. The result was a growing and glowing faith.

My current church is composed of some of the richest Christians in America, at least by the world’s standards. Wealth, and what to do with it, quite naturally are much more common sermon topics. But I note that the existence of this wealth, and the constant concern to keep and increase, tend to sap the faith of individual Christians. Indeed, it is very noticeable that certain Christians who have risen from poverty to wealth maintain a faith much greater than those who have always been accustomed to having plenty. I leave to the reader the analysis of why this might be, contenting myself merely to state the facts.

Finally, note that he references bread, not cake. Some of us would be very content if he had happened to mention jelly donuts. But the plain truth is that we are to pray for that which is necessary, not necessarily that which is fattening. Indeed, this is the only material items mentioned in the Lord’s Prayer, from which you can gather that he does not consider our material success to be all that important. Your father knows what you need and will see that you get it. Beyond that, how fat does your wallet have to be?

Forgive Us Our Debts

Those of us who speak nothing but English might not be familiar with what other languages have in the way of tenses for verbs. I am told that learning Latin is a very frustrating experience because of all the verb tenses, their meaning and their endings. One thing we do miss, however, is the subtlety that comes from this. Our forgiving other people’s debts to us is something which is expressed in what is called the “continuous present tense.” My French teacher in high school explained it this way: when you say that you do something, you could mean that you do it once in a while, as an isolated action. Or you could be that you are continuously doing it. So for example, if you say “I go to the movies” you mean that you make it a point of taking that specific action once in a while. But if you say “I breathe” you mean that you do it all the time. The phrase “as we forgive” is in that continuous present tense; it means that we do it all the time. Which brings us to the difficulty of constant, continuous forgiveness: just exactly how do we do that?

Well, one good way to look at it is to ask how you forgive yourself. The truth is that most of us carry around two different yardsticks for forgiveness. There’s one we use for others, which is a very honest, strict yardstick. Then there is a rubber yardstick we have for ourselves. This is dishonest. Pick which one you like, and use it for everybody. My own experience suggests that you pick the rubber yardstick; I find it much easier to apply the rubber yardstick to others than I did to apply the strict yardstick to myself.

Indeed, there is no sense of being forgiven in anything Christ says without the precondition of forgiving others. Christ makes it abundantly clear that his forgiveness is contingent upon our forgiving others. Why should this be so? Let’s go back to the opening words: “Our Father.” We are a family; the head of that family is rightly concerned for the unity of that family. Anyone who answers to the word “dad” understands the problem. The little darlings are going to have to forgive each other, or family life becomes impossible. God has the same problem with us. He has adopted the same solution.

Lead Us Not into Temptation

May we begin by noting that it is “us”? We are to pray that not only personally, but as a church; we are to be kept from temptation. Perhaps you hadn’t thought of that. But may I suggest that you begin to pray for the leadership of your church, that they be not led into temptation? Let me give you a simple example. As every preacher knows, one way to be very popular as a preacher is to water down the gospel until it sounds like something for which has will always nod North and South. There is a continuing temptation for the preacher to water down the gospel until it is palatable and acceptable to practically everyone. Doing this eliminates the requirement that a person repents and confesses prior to baptism. The usual substitution is to acknowledge that you have troubles in your life and that you need God to help you out of them — which is not the same as repentance and confession. Similar difficulties come in dealing with the criminally rich. These temptations are not presented in black and white but in subtle shades of gray.

This statement is an acknowledgment that neither we individually nor we collectively are strong enough to stand up to the temptations that Satan can present. It is therefore a statement which acknowledges that fact and is contrary to our pride. For a great temptation indeed is given to every mature Christian in the thought that he can withstand the temptation of Satan by his own strength. Guess what: that’s wrong. But it is also a statement that God can give us the strength to withstand that temptation. We are not strong enough — but He is. We are acknowledging that fact when we say this.

We may close with this: we are also acknowledging the fact that Satan and temptation are real. I understand that acknowledging the reality of Satan is not fashionable in the church today. We don’t believe in that guy with the pitchfork and red tail. I don’t either. But I do believe that the Scripture is honest and accurate in describing the enemy of our souls as being both a spiritual creation who exists, and who is also powerful. Only by the power of God, as given to us at the cross, can we resist him. But before we do that we have to acknowledge that Satan exists and is our opponent. The wording in this passage can be translated “deliver us from the evil One.” Acknowledging our weakness before temptation also acknowledges the strength of our opponent — and his reality.

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