November 7, 2010

Sermon on the Mount (7) – Give Generously, Pray Fervently, Fast Properly (Matt 6:1-18)

by Rev. Jeremiah Cheung

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Today as we study Matthew 6:1-18, let us reflect on three things: 1. Giving 2. Prayer 3. Fasting. Why do we need to study these three matters together? These three things are covered by the same principle.

Matthew 6:1 “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.”

This principle is very evident, one that Christians must live out. Then verse 2 says “So when you give to the needy…”; verse 5 “And when you pray…”; verse 16 “When you fast…” Clearly, Jesus used three illustrations in verses 12-18 to teach us that we must be careful in whatever we do; especially our good deeds, that we must not do them for show, to earn praises from men, or we will lose our reward in heaven. When we give, we must give generously; when we pray, we must pray fervently; and when we fast, we must fast properly.

I. Give Generously (2 – 4)

Giving is a very important teaching in the Bible. From the Old Testament to the New Testament, we can find many scripture passages regarding giving. God’s will is that we help people who are in need.

Deuteronomy 5:11 “There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.” There will always be poor people in the land. If the Lord has blessed us abundantly, we must help those with less in life, especially if they are our brothers in the Lord. Psalm 41:1 “Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the LORD delivers them in times of trouble.” When you give to the poor, the Lord will repay you when you find yourself in need, too. Proverbs 19:17 “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward them for what they have done.” To lend to the poor is to lend to the Lord, the poor may not be able to pay you, but the Lord himself will repay you and he will even add on interest. The Bible by no means opposes believers from giving. After we become Christians, we must use our money to help those who are truly in need. However, the Bible, is opposed to hypocritical giving.

1. Do not announce it with trumpets. What does announcing with trumpets mean? It may refer to an actual blowing of trumpets. The Jews blow a trumpet to summon the people to an assembly. The hypocrites blow their trumpets, and before a crowd, they announce: `We must help those who are in need.’ For example, after a flood disaster, they will blow the trumpet and call for an assembly, saying: `We must donate and help those poor people.’ They would even make the first contribution, but the Bible tells us these people are intentionally seeking honour from men. We must understand there is nothing wrong with blowing of trumpets, with giving to charity, nor calling out loudly for men to do good, but what is important is the motive behind it. Are our hearts pure? When we give, we must give generously; when we give, is there any other motive behind our giving? If so, we are being hypocritical.

2. Do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. This is an impossible thing, how can the left hand not know what the right hand is doing. We all know that whatever we do, it is not our left or right hand commanding itself to do things, our brain is the one giving the command. This is but a metaphor to caution us about our giving. When we give, we must not seek to broadcast it , but do it quietly and privately. We must give with a pure heart. But we ask, should all giving be done anonymously? How about in cases when some people wish to give in memory of their parents or to be a precedent for others to give?

Brothers and sisters, we must not become legalistic. What is important is the motive of our hearts. If we become well-known for the Lord’s sake or famous for encouraging others, then, that can be pleasing to the Lord. Some people give anonymously and that is very good. But some anonymous-givers maybe the most arrogant people around. Some anonymous-givers look down on those who do not give anonymously. They feel they are more righteous by being anonymous-givers. We must understand it is not giving anonymously or not that is the issue, the motive of our hearts is the issue here. When we read the bible, we will discover that it mentions names of some people, while some names aren’t mentioned at all. The widow who gave two mites and the little boy with 5 loaves and 2 fish were not named. Mary, who poured perfume on Jesus, was mentioned. We see therefore that being anonymous or not isn’t the point, the point is why we want our names mentioned? Why do we want to be anonymous? Are our hearts pure?

II. Pray Fervently (5-14)

There is nothing wrong with giving, and neither with praying. We may pray in the church, but when we pray, we must truly pray. Prayer is not a competition. Prayer is not letting others see that we know how to pray. Jesus said that when we pray, we must not love standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to pray. Devoted Jews pray at specific hours three times a day. But for some reason, certain people happen to always be by the street corners when the time for prayer arrives. Street corners are where many people pass by, thus, everyone can see them and hear their prayers.

Jesus said these people intentionally want others to see them because they want the praises of men. They want men to commend them as godly men. Jesus advises us against such conduct, instead, to pray sincerely when we pray. When we pray, especially before a group, Jesus alerts us against two temptations we may fall into:

1. Pray with fine-sounding, spiritual-sounding words. Prayer laden with fine-sounding adjectives and terms may project a depth we want to show, but it is not prayer. Sometimes, pastors can be tempted in this manner, too. We tend to add on many bible verses and spiritual-sounding terms to make our members feel that their pastor can really pray well; but this is not praying at all, it is but an act. Jesus said when you pray, we must pray fervently. Do not turn prayer into a public show.

2. Prayers cannot be too short. We think short prayers sound deficient, so we try to put in many different terminologies to make our prayers longer, in fact we add theological terms thinking it is a good way to make the listeners feel that our prayer is full of substance. But we forget, we are praying to God, and the Lord will not be moved by our high-sounding phrases nor will He be shaken by our imposing theological terms. If a public prayer lasts for more than five minutes that is already too long. A three-minute long prayer is more ideal.

In verses 6-7, Jesus teaches us two principles on prayer:

Be sincere– pray in your room: Jesus said we must go into our room, close the door and pray to our Father who is unseen. Does this mean prayer can only be done inside our room? Of course not, prayer in your room means private prayer. It means out of men’s sight. Praying outside refers to public prayer. Jesus tells us that our private and public prayers are to be similar. We shouldn’t lengthen our prayers just because we are praying before men. The first principle in prayer is sincerity. Both our private and public prayers must be sincere.

Have substance – avoid repetitive prayers: Are repetitions really forbidden with prayers? Didn’t Jesus teach his disciples to pray often and not give up? When Jesus prayed thrice in Gethsamane, did he repeat his prayer? We can repeat our prayers, but the point here is that we must not deliberately repeat a prayer over and over, thinking that by repetition it will garner not only men’s but God’s attention. Unnecessary repetitions in prayer do not help one bit. However, it is alright to pray lengthy prayers; in the Gospel of John chapter 17 , Jesus uttered a long prayer, but He did not repeat any statement in his prayer. Lengthy prayers are alright but it must have substance.

Found in Matthew 6:9-13 is what we call `The Lord’s Prayer’. Actually this is not the Lord’s prayer, it is a prayer pattern which the Lord gave us. An actual prayer of the Lord is found in John 17. In `The Lord’s Prayer’, there are three vows and three petitions.

We had studied this before. If you weren’t able to hear the message on the topic, you may purchase a CD or VCD from the church office. Today, let us study only one phrase from the Lord’s Prayer: `Our Father in Heaven’. For the Jews, this was a new concept. The Jews call God, Almighty God. They do not call God the Heavenly Father. But we call God our Father. He is our Father, He loves us, He takes care of us, He disciplines us, because He is our Father. When we ask from our fathers, as long as it is reasonable, fathers as fathers will do their best to give us what we ask for. Sometimes, even when our requests are unreasonable, out of love our fathers may still grant us our requests. When we ask from our Father in Heaven, He will surely grant our prayers as long as it is in accordance with His will. However, sometimes we may have to wait. When we pray we must not forget He is our Father in Heaven!

III. Fast Properly (16 – 18)

And then Jesus said, “When you fast…” Giving, praying, and fasting are all spiritual disciplines. Jesus is not against our giving or praying, but Jesus opposes false godliness. The Jews observe regular fasting days within each year, such as the Day of Atonement, or national fasting and prayer day; sometimes when the nation encounters calamity or crisis, they will call for nationwide fasting. Fasting is a spiritual exercise. Fasting is observed for the purpose of giving oneself to prayer, not to lose weight. Fasting means to abstain from food and give oneself fully to prayer, to seek God’s guidance and blessing regarding a specific matter or problem. During Jesus’ time, this spiritual discipline became a form of self-exaltation. While before, it was a sign of humility, it gradually turned into a means for self-glorification.

Today, we do the same thing! There was a time we have what we call Sunday Dress Code. We dress up in our finest attires and try to look our best as a way of showing reverence for God. However, gradually, it became difficult to tell whether we are doing so in true reverence for God or to join a fashion contest. What is our motive? On the other hand, what also is our motive when we dress casually to attend worship services? If our motive is so that men will notice us, then it is hypocrisy.

Jesus told those who fast, “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 n secret, will reward you.” Jesus tells us not to show off, not to look somber, not to disfigure our faces in order to attract attention to our fasting, with the desire to be praised for a godly deed. Jesus wants us to understand clearly what our motive for fasting is. Who are we fasting for – for God, for ourselves? If we are truly fasting for the Lord, we must conduct ourselves as in ordinary days, do not look somber, carry on as we normally do. All spiritual exercises can become an opportunity to show off, but such exercises would be in vain.

The main thrust of Matthew 6:1-18 is: do not confuse true godliness and godliness-for-show. We must ask ourselves a practical question: `Who am I trying to please with all my spiritual exercises (Bible-reading, prayer, giving, fasting…etc.)?’ When we examine ourselves honestly, we may find our hearts disturbed, however, it is then that we begin to truly face ourselves. These whole passage contains the following verses:

`v.4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’

`v.6 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.’

`v. 18 so that it will not be obvious to men 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.’

Jesus reminds us again and again that our Father sees what we do in secret. He sees and knows everything, so if all that you are doing is for the Lord, then you are blessed, because the Father will reward you. Are you seeking men’s reward or the Lord’s pleasure?