"The Priority of Simplicity and Sincerity"

Matthew 6:1-8 June 29, 2008

When Reality Makes Religiosity Backfire

It's one of the ironies of life that even non-churchgoers hold churchgoers accountable for measuring up to what they profess to be. One common excuse people give for not going to church is that "the church is full of hypocrites".

Hypocrisy involves outwardly pretending to be one thing, but the inner reality doesn't jive. For example...Dr Danny West, a professor at a divinity school in North Carolina tells this story. "Several years ago while travelling on an interstate in Tennessee, I followed a car with a 'Honk if you love Jesus' bumper sticker attached to the bumper. I am ordinarily not one to respond to this kind of invitation, but for some crazy reason I decided to take my Christian brother up on the offer. As he slowed to begin his departure onto an exit ramp, I pulled around him and honked my horn. To my astonishment what I received in return was not a smile and a blessing but rather an extended middle finger and words that I gather were not altogether holy."

For a more local example, I was told the story of Neighbour A (a churchgoer) who accidentally backed into the vehicle of Neighbour B (a non-churchgoer) who wasn't around at the time. But Neighbour C (also a churchgoer) witnessed the collision. When Neighbour B confronted Neighbour A about it, he not only denied any involvement, he excused himself quickly saying he had to go to a Bible study! Now, does that not sound like hypocrisy? What opinion does this lead "B" to form about churchgoers? What spot does this put "C" in, who has been trying to figure out how to invite "B" to church, or witness to them about Jesus?

This is easy to talk about when other Christians are involved. But the truth is we all mess up; none of us is perfect, we all run the risk of coming across as less than we profess. So others have every right to call us on it, to hold us accountable. It's a witness to the truth of Romans 2:15 - Gentiles have the requirements of the law written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness. Off-track as people are in their unregenerate state, we can still spot hypocrisy or insincerity a mile away!

As we continue our study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6, Jesus urges His followers to act differently than hypocrites: to be simple and sincere, real before God on the inside before we try to show it on the outside.

When You Act 'Religious' - What Reward Do You Seek?

Chapter 5 concluded with 6 sets of comparison with traditional law - "You have heard that it was said...[to which Jesus would add] But I tell you..." Chapter 6 begins with a new sequence of parallels. Our Lord looks at 3 common aspects of visible piety - almsgiving, prayer, and fasting - and contrasts how hypocrites do it with the way a disciple ought to do it. First let's take them as a set to show the common structure of His teaching, the main point. So we're combining verses 2-4 with 5-6 and 16-18.

"When you [give to the needy / pray / fast] don't [announce it with trumpets / pray standing / look sombre and disfigure your face] to be [honoured by / seen by / show you're fasting] by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you [ give to the needy / pray / fast] [don't let your left hand know what your right hand's doing / go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen / put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it won't be obvious to men that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen]; then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will repay you."

So all three instances have the same structure. Here it is again, boiled down, without the details, so you can see the common elements: "When you [do your religious acts] don't [make it obvious] like the hypocrites, to be [noticed] by men; I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you [do your religious acts] [keep it secret, known only to your Father who's unseen], then your Father, who sees what's done in secret, will repay you." That's the essence of those 8 verses, applied to benevolent giving, prayer, and fasting.

What's the main point? The contrast between how a hypocrite does it and how a disciple's to do it. The hypocrite practises their religiosity in public, prominently, with the intention that it be seen by other people; so doing, Jesus says, they have already received their reward. By contrast, the disciple practices in secret, to be seen or heard only by the unseen heavenly Father; then the Father who sees what's done in secret will reward you.

The hypocrite is wrong on 3 counts: wrong audience, wrong goal, and wrong idea of God. Wrong audience - playing to be seen by people rather than God. Wrong goal - present reward of acclamation by people, rather than future reward from God ("Look how pious that Smith family is as they all head off to church!" "How well Mrs Black prays - I wish I could come up with such nice phrases as she does!). Wrong idea of God - as if all that matters is the present, this life is all there is, instead of the truth that God judges by what's unseen and hidden in secret, and rewards in the afterlife.

In passing we may note Jesus does not say there's anything inherently wrong with these various religious activities - giving to the needy / praying / fasting. The Lord EXPECTS us to do these sorts of things; He says, "When you give to the needy...When you pray...etc." Just because some capitalize on these practices for their own ego doesn't mean we should stop doing them altogether.

In an article titled "From Wall Street to the Street," Randy Bishop tells the story of Kevin Bradley, a big-time Baltimore stockbroker who was caught up in big money. Every day as he walked to the office, Kevin passed by the homeless on the street. Often he took them to breakfast and just listened to their stories. He wanted to know who they were and how they had ended up on the street. He wasn't looking for a mission, but God wouldn't let him go. In 1991 after prayer and Bible study, Kevin quit his job and started the Community Outreach Centre to meet the needs of the homeless. He lived off his savings until the money was gone. At times he and his family had less food than those he was helping. His perseverance paid off, and finally others caught the vision and backed the ministry financially.

Giving to the needy, praying, and fasting are healthy antidotes to the slow poison of a materialistic, accumulating, comfort- and pleasure-loving culture. Prayer offsets materialism. Giving to the needy is a corrective to accumulating. Fasting reminds us there's more to existence than comfort and pleasure. Commentator Barclay lists 5 benefits of fasting: the value of self-discipline; release from slavery to habit; preservation of the ability to 'do without' things; its positive value for health (and de-toxing); and the enhancement of our appreciation of things.

Pastor and author John Piper calls himself a "Christian hedonist" - our supreme joy is to be found in God, not anything of this world. The Westminster Catechism began with the assertion that the chief end of man - what we're here for - is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Fasting provides us with space from this world's sensations so we can re-discover how to savour God's presence above all.

So - no more hypocrisy! It's not about looking good in other people's eyes. But it's so easy to slip into 'visible' mode. This week when the skateboard ramps were delivered for the Youth Park, I recalled a few weeks ago a reporter from our local newspaper came to the anniversary potluck and was interested in the new developments. So I called him up to let him know the ramps were about to be offloaded in case he wanted a picture of this latest enhancement to our community. But isn't that the modern-day equivalent of 'sounding a trumpet'?! Could some not construe this as the pastor seeking publicity for his good works? Even though I tried to emphasize to the reporter to mention appreciation for those providing the forklift. So...if there's a photo in the paper next week with me in a hardhat moving a ramp, some could say - "There's Ernest Dow, getting his" [reward].

God's Not Deaf, but He May Be In Our Blind Spot

Verses 7-8 contain an awesome truth about the INTIMACY - not just secrecy - a believer can enjoy with God. "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." New Living Translation puts it, "Don't babble on and on as people of other religions do.They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again." As if they have to "wear God down" with their unending intercession!

In 1Kings 18(26ff), the prophets of Baal in the contest with Elijah at Mount Carmel called on his name all day long, from morning til evening, shouting louder, slashing themselves, prophesying frantically - to no avail. In Acts 19(34), the rioting pagans at Ephesus shouted in unison for about 2 hours straight, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!"

Someone has observed, "Often we pray with our minds on hold and our mouths on automatic."

Thankfully, God doesn't require long litanies from us when we're praying. Jesus says, "Don't be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him." Of course He does; He's sovereign, He's all-mighty and all-knowing - but He's not so taken up with the business of running the universe that He overlooks or is ignorant of our deepest, most secret need. He knows our need and is ready to supply it; Php 4:19, "And my God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus."

Yet it's not done automatically; He awaits our request, He delights to respond to our asking - because He also respects our human will and (boundaried) freedom. So the Bible urges us to ask. "Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know." (Jer 33:3) "...In everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." (Php 4:6) "Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Heb 4:16) What wonderful invitations to make our needs known to our caring heavenly Father!

Of course, submitting our petitions to God requires us to overcome our pride, our self-sufficiency. Sometimes we lose sight of God in our 'blind spot', thinking we can manage all on our own. But He provides our needs abundantly when we put Him first and rely on Him. Later in chapter 6 Jesus makes a similar statement, v32 - "...your heavenly Father knows that you need them.[and follows with 33] But seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."

We won't look in detail at the Lord's Prayer (which follows v8) today, but notice how the focus is put squarely on God and His agenda in the first 22 of 52 words: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven." (Mt 6:9f) Get God in focus, give Him and His aims priority before asking about your needs - food, forgiveness, fending off evil. Wait on Him, get listening, to clarify how your needs fit in with His overall plan.

When We Ask - He Answers

God may answer in a remarkable way when we cast our cares completely on Him. Just a couple of examples in my own life from this past week...One day I was praying about an impasse involving one of our children's employment situation. I was passionate enough about it to be willing to get involved myself, but felt that probably wasn't the best solution - trying to 'force it' in one's own strength. A little later that morning, our offspring alerted us that they'd received an email from a co-worker proposing a solution to the same impasse; and that email had been written about the same time I was praying! Coincidence? Not according to verse 8.

Another answered prayer: on Tuesday I had arranged for some equipment to transport the newest youth park ramps from St.Anne's school in Clinton to Blyth. Just one problem - last year we'd timed it to coincide with a forklift which was delivering some equipment there. That wasn't an option this year. My only plan 'B' would have involved asking for a tractor from Langford lumber to go all the way across town to the high school, and that didn't seem very feasible. How would we load those heavy ramps?

I needn't have worried. Shortly after I arrived, about 10 strong youthful male teachers had responded to an appeal for help, and a chain-lift with rolling frame was just the right size to hoist the ramps onto the flatbed. God looked after it.

Sometimes until we're at the end of our resources, we haven't really begun to see how God relishes the opportunity to accomplish His purposes in ways that bring Him honour.

Shortly after Dallas Seminary was founded in 1924, it came to the point of bankruptcy. All the creditors were going to foreclose at noon on a particular day. That morning, the founders of the school met in the president's office to pray that God would provide. In that prayer meeting was Harry Ironside. When it was his turn to pray, he prayed in his characteristically refreshing manner: "Lord, we know that the cattle on a thousand hills are thine. Please sell some of them and send us the money."

While they were praying, a tall Texan came into the business office and said, "I just sold two carloads of cattle in Fort Worth. I've been trying to make a business deal go through and it won't work, and I feel that God is compelling me to give this money to the Seminary. I don't know if you need it or not, but here's the cheque."

A secretary took the cheque and, knowing something of the financial seriousness of the hour, went to the door of the prayer meeting and timidly tapped. When she finally got a response, Dr. Lewis Chafer took the cheque out of her hand, and it was for the exact amount of the debt. When he looked at the signature, he recognized the name of the cattle rancher. Turning to Dr. Ironside, he said, "Harry, God sold the cattle!" Let's pray.