The Rule of Prayer (Sermon on the Mount Series, part 9)

Preacher prayerMatthew 6:5-15

This week we move into a new section of the Sermon on the Mount. Remember where we’ve been. We started by looking at the nine beatitudes, saying that they outline the inward character of a disciple. Remember how those began—“Blessed are…” Those who have the character of a self-emptying meek, pure in heart, peacemaking disciple are blessed, even though they may be persecuted for embodying the character of Jesus. Then we moved into a section where Jesus addresses and intensifies the Law of Moses. Remember how those began—“You have heard that it was said…but I say to you.” Jesus doesn’t abolish or replace the Law, but gets at the heart of the inner attitudes that lead to sin. That section is summed up by Matthew 5:48, which Joe so masterfully preached on last week—“be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus is not calling his disciples to focus on the relentless pursuit of perfection in terms of flawless performance, but rather to be perfected in love, having the law fulfilled and embodied in us in justice and mercy and faith.

And yet, as Joe pointed out last week, performance is still the thing that gets in our way—particularly the idea that our faith is really about performing for others, rather than pleasing God. We become inwardly divided between serving self and serving God. In this next section of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus lays out nine different ways that self-interest, a need for approval and recognition, and a desire for security keep us from truly being perfect. If the Beatitudes are the nine markers of blessedness, these nine are the markers of failure—the result of trying to live life in two different directions. Today we look at the first three, which have to do with the inward division we have that prompts us to want to please or impress others, rather than pleasing God.

Go back to 6:1 and you’ll see how it begins. Jesus lays out the thesis statement for this section: “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.” The word translated “piety” here is actually the same word used for “righteousness” that we’ve been talking about throughout the series—“righteousness” being a word that encompasses right living and justice—covenant behavior. Remember the fourth beatitude – blessed are those who hunger and thirst for “righteousness”—God’s righteousness, God’s justice, and not our own self-righteousness. Jesus, as he does throughout the sermon, loops back on to this theme again here and gives its antithesis. This section of the sermon is about being righteous toward God, rather than self-righteous. It’s about exceeding the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, rather than imitating them. It’s not about performance, but about perfection. It’s about the inner reality, more than the outer appearance.

Indeed, Jesus uses the word “hypocrite” a lot in this section to describe those who focus on performing for the crowd rather than for God. That’s what the word “hypocrite” really means—it comes from the Greek theater and literally means one who is an actor that plays a role on the stage. To be a hypocrite is to be one who is outwardly playing one role, while inwardly being someone completely different.

The first of these nine markers of failure, then, has to do with playing the role of a magnanimous person. Look at verse 2: “Whenever you give alms (give to the poor) do not sound a trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and the streets, so that they may be praised by others.” That’s playing the role of a generous, altruistic person, while the real internal goal is to be recognized by others. Offering time at the Temple was announced by blowing a trumpet, but the self-righteous were even more certainly blowing their own horn about their generosity, making sure everyone knew about it. They were about gaining applause from the stage, rather than gaining the quiet approval of God.

John Maxwell tells the story of a man in his church years ago who was a big giver to the church. Everyone knew that he was supporting the church in a big way, and he believed his money should buy him some influence. One day, the man came to John Maxwell right before worship and waved a check in front of the pastor, saying, “John, unless you do what I want, this will go away.” Maxwell, looked at him and just said to the man, “Will you kneel here at the altar and pray with me?” Stunned, the man did so, and John prayed, “Lord, Bill wants to rob you right now and I ask you to forgive him for doing so…”

Yes, Jesus certainly wants us to be generous givers, but the person who is concerned about perfection rather than performance will always give in ways that no one but God will know about, and they will expect nothing in return. God is spontaneously generous to us in ways that are often secret and subversive. To be perfect as God is perfect then means to match God’s generosity in ways that are quiet, secret, and subversive and known only to him. He is the only audience we should be seeking to please. The “reward” we receive for doing so is God’s own acceptance, which often runs counter to the acceptance of the crowd, as Jesus has made abundantly clear earlier in the sermon.

Performers are always looking for credit. The perfected are always looking at Christ.

The leads us to the second area where performance gets in the way of perfection—the area of prayer. “The hypocrites, the play-actors,” Jesus says, love to stand and pray in the synagogues (at church) and on the street corners so that they may be seen by others.” And then there are those that use a lot of extra words. That’s prayer as performance.

 As a pastor, I see this kind of prayer all the time. If you ever have a meal with a bunch of preachers, for example, you can count on the fact that the saying of grace is going to last a very long time because preachers feel they have to craft eloquent prayers in order to impress their peers. Sometimes I feel that God, just like everyone else in the room, is thinking “Get on with it, already!” Then there’s the “prayer voice” that we sometimes go into in public. When I was in seminary, I was in a worship class where we took turns doing the opening prayer, and one of the guys, who I knew was from somewhere like Tennessee, suddenly started praying with a British accent: “Oh Lord, we beseech thee…” Where did that come from?

A lot of Christians seem to be very concerned about making sure their prayers get heard by everyone. They want things like public prayer at school, public prayer at political events, even public prayer on the field of play.

Have you been keeping up with the big trend that’s been sweeping the Denver area and the nation in the past couple of weeks? It’s called “Tebowing!” People are spontaneously dropping to one knee and putting their hand to their forehead to mimic the Bronco QB, Tim Tebow, who kneels on the field after a touchdown (which he has not had that much opportunity to do). Last Sunday, one of the Detroit Lions “Tebowed” over Tebow after he sacked him. You would think that the football field was an even more likely place to pray than in church! Actually, this has been going on a long time in sports, and while it’s certainly great that athletes want to express their faith, Jesus seems to be implying here that there are better ways of doing so. Interestingly, though, players never seem to pray after something bad happens. Dropping to their knees like, “Oh Lord, thank you that that 350 lb. defensive end didn’t completely separate my head from my body on that last play…” or “Lord, thanks for allowing me to strike out with the bases loaded. You’re awesome!”

Jesus makes it clear here that prayer isn’t about speaking with eloquence to impress the crowd or about making a statement in a football stadium. That’s performance. It’s not what we do in public that matters as much as what’s going on inside of us. What you are in private is what you really are. Go to the inner room, go to the quiet place, be secret and subversive about it, and God will meet you there. It’s not the performance that God wants, it’s simply us.

So, Jesus offers his disciples a framework for prayer that tells them how to regularly approach God from the secret, quiet place. We most often refer to it as the “Lord’s Prayer,” and we pray it every week, but if you look close at the text Jesus is saying that this is the “way” we should pray and not necessarily the particular prayer we should pray every time. I’ve had people get very angry if the prayer gets left out of worship on occasion, but that’s missing the point. This prayer isn’t designed to be a mantra or a rote recitation, but rather a way of prayer that orients our inner lives to the way of discipleship. When we pray this way daily, we’re being shaped for perfection, shaped to be and do what God has called us to be and to do.

We begin by calling God “Father”—that’s a relational term. God is not the Force or a distant deity, but a person. This is a title for God that goes all the way back to Exodus and the story of God rescuing Israel from slavery. God says, in Exodus 4:22, “Israel is my son, my firstborn.” Now, Father isn’t the only name we use for God, but we use it here as a reminder that God is the one whose name we hallow and take upon ourselves. Over and over again, the Bible gives us the marriage image of Israel and later the church as God’s cherished bride, and God’s people as God’s children. We begin our prayer by praising God and living into our relationship as his children. We also recognize that the Father is not far from us, but very close. “Heaven” in biblical terms is not faraway, but is God’s space that is quite near to us.

Indeed, the next part of the prayer acknowledges that fact. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. The Father longs to see the sovereign and saving rule of heaven be made real on earth, his good creation. The kingdom of heaven is not something we long to go to, but something we long to see come here in fullness. When that happens, “God’s name—his character, his reputation, his very presence—will be held in high honor everywhere” (Wright ). The first half of the prayer is thus all about God, and when we pray this way we’re putting ourselves firmly at his feet. We recognize up front that it’s God’s performance, God’s kingdom that matters and not our own.

Next we pray for daily bread, which is a way of acknowledging that because God is the creator who loves the world and his people, we can ask him for what we need—and not just what we need for ourselves, but for the needs of the whole world. It’s not just “my” daily bread, but “ours.” When we pray this prayer, we’re remembering that it’s also a call to action—to make sure that everyone has the bread they need by sharing it together. We are, in other words, to work for what we pray for.

Then we pray for forgiveness. Jesus assumes here that we’ll need to do that often, recognizing that our performance isn’t perfect. This is a sobering thought, but the good news is that forgiveness is freely available as often as we need it. The caveat, however, is that God’s forgiveness of us is contingent upon our forgiving others. The forgiven must be willing to forgive. We can’t really play the role of the self-righteous is we remember we need to forgive in order to be forgiven. This kind prayer exposes us for who we really are, which is why we should pray it often.

The framework of prayer then closes by reminding us of the difficult time of testing that will inevitably come upon us as we follow Jesus. Jesus has already alluded to that in the beatitudes. “If we follow a crucified Messiah, we shouldn’t expect to be spared the darkness ourselves.” But we can and must pray that we be kept from and ultimately delivered from evil in all its forms and functions.

Anyone who prays in this way, shut up in the quiet of a daily conversation with God, will very soon realize that God is not as impressed as others may be with our outward performance, but only desires the inward orientation of our hearts to him and the work of his kingdom. This is not a system of words we repeat, but a way of life. In fact, we might say that the Lord’s Prayer summarizes the entire Sermon on the Mount because it continually, daily, orients us to the way of God, the way of perfection in love.

Jesus then turns to fasting, the third way in which performance gets in the way. Of these nine markers of failure, fasting is probably the lesser problem for most of us because we simply don’t do it. But I would argue that when we are willing to fast, we find that denying ourselves something allows us to be filled with something else– a better dependence upon him. There’s no better way to remember that you’re dependent upon God than to go without something you take for granted every day. When your stomach rumbles, you can’t help but remember those who are always hungry. Fasting isn’t a performance for others, but a sign of radical dependence upon God.

What Jesus is giving us here is a rule of life that gets to the heart of who we really are, and not simply who we pretend to be. In a culture that idolizes actors, Jesus calls us to be real people who are radically in love with and dependent upon God. It’s in him that we find our true identity and true purpose. We need to cultivate our relationship with God daily, and that involves a disciplined rule of life that includes generosity, prayer, and fasting among other disciplines that we’ll be talking about in the next couple of weeks. It’s about cultivating the inner life, and if we do that well we won’t need to make a show of our faith—it will be naturally evident!

I want to challenge you, as I continue to challenge myself, to begin developing those daily disciplines that will begin to shape you as a disciple of Jesus Christ. (Talk about Rule of Life cards)


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