Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Sermon on the Mount III

View from the site of the Sermon on the Mount

It’s been a little while since we left off our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount, the most important sermon in Jesus’ ministry.  So I thought today would be a good day to get back to it and continue to talk about these teachings which are right at the core of Jesus’ instructions for our lives today.

We left off last time with talking about the “Lord’s Prayer,” or what we should really call the “Disciples’ Prayer” since Jesus gave it to us to pray.  It’s such a handy prayer because it helps us focus our minds and our thoughts on the most important things in our spiritual lives.  

It begins with the Father God, because he should be the focus not only of our prayer lives but of our entire lives:  “Our Father who is in the heavens” (Matt. 6:9). 

Next is sanctifying the name of God:  “May your name be made holy” (Matt. 6:9).  What does it mean to make God’s name holy, to sanctify God’s name?  To make something holy, to sanctify it, means to set it apart or to lift it up as sacred, so it will be revered and respected.  We sanctify God’s name (we set it apart from every other name) when we do something godly in the name of our God, when we give people a reason to see that God is holy.  When Christians help people after a disaster or tragedy, it sanctifies God’s name.  When we show care and concern for people who are hurting and broken in God’s name, it sanctifies God’s name.  Whenever we unselfishly do good deeds as Christians, it sanctifies the Name of God.  May God help us sanctify his name more and more every day, and may he himself sanctify his name every day in our world, so that more and more people will come to love and honor our God.  And may we be careful never to do anything that will bring dishonor to our God. 

The Disciples’ Prayer also reminds us to focus on God’s coming kingdom, to prepare the way of the Lord:  “Your kingdom come, your will be done; as in heaven, also on earth” (Matt. 6:10).  How do we do that?  How do we help God’s kingdom to come on earth?  By preaching the gospel with our words and also with our actions.  To advance the kingdom, God’s kingdom must come first in our own hearts and lives.  God’s will must be done right here in our own lives.  And then, when we ourselves are walking in obedience to God, when we are submitted to him as king, then we’re in a position to bring others into the kingdom, and even bring groups of people to God.  What an honor and a privilege it is to lead people into the kingdom!  That’s what we can do right now to advance God’s kingdom. 

But in the future, there will be another stage in the coming of the kingdom, when Jesus returns to claim his crown and to rule on this earth.  We are also praying for that to take place.  That is the goal that we look forward to as Christians, a goal beyond this life, a goal even beyond death for many of us:  to rule and reign on this earth with Jesus, in a beautiful kingdom of righteousness and peace that will last for hundreds of years.  That’s the kingdom we want to come. 

And even beyond that, we’re looking to God’s eternal kingdom in a new heavens and a new earth where righteousness dwells.  You know, it solves a lot of problems in life if we keep our goal firmly before our eyes.  If you know where you’re going, it helps you sort out how to live your life right now.  Amen? 

Then, only after all these things:  after starting with a focus on God the Father, then praying for the sanctifying of God’s Name, and then praying for the coming of God’s kingdom— only then does the prayer turn to our personal needs:  “Give us today the amount of bread we need” (Matt. 6:11).  For many of us, this is how we start our prayers, with our personal needs, and this is the part of our prayers that gets the most attention.  That’s what we’re often the most enthusiastic about lifting up to God:  a list of all the things we need.  

Now I’m not saying that it’s wrong to pray about these things.  I’m not saying that we should ignore our needs when we’re praying.  Jesus said that we should bring these things before the Father in prayer.  But you know, honestly, that can get kind of boring after a while, especially if that’s all we ever pray about.  Maybe if we focused more on the majesty of the Father God, on his holiness and on his kingdom, on the great things he is doing and is about to do, maybe that would make praying more exciting.  Now I know I’m just as guilty as anyone of praying too much for my own needs.   But Jesus wants us to expand our prayer lives.  He wants us to come into the presence of the Father first and remind ourselves of his glorious nature and his wonderful plan for our lives.  And then we can talk about our needs.

Next, the focus is on forgiveness for what we have done wrong:  “Forgive us what we owe (because of sin), as we too have forgiven those that owe us (because of sin)” (Matt. 6:12).  This asking for forgiveness is very important.  Because as Jesus warns us just after this prayer, if we don’t forgive others, God will not forgive us (Matt. 6:14,15).  This means we have to forgive everyone, including those who do terrible things to us.  This doesn’t necessarily free them from the consequences of what they have done.  Vengeance is the Lord’s and he will repay.  God is going to deal justly and fairly with sin, especially if they don’t repent of their sin.  But we need to forgive them anyway to free ourselves from the hurt and the bitterness that the memory of that sin brings into our lives.  The pain of that hurt will just keep on hurting us until we forgive the person that did it.  Only then can we get free of that hurt.  But we also need to forgive so there will not be any obstacle that might keep them from coming to Jesus, repenting, and being forgiven.  When we forgive sin that has taken place against us, we show the world what Jesus is like:  that the reason he came was to forgive sin, and he will forgive those who come to him in repentance. 

Then the last part of the prayer focuses on avoiding the temptations of wickedness.  “And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from evil (or from the evil one)” (Matt. 6:13).  It’s important for us to remember that there is wickedness and evil in this world:  real evil, that affects every one of us every day.  There’s a constant spiritual battle going on for our souls and for the souls of others.  It can be very tempting to forget about that battle:  and in fact, it’s much more pleasant to pretend that there isn’t a battle going on.  Battles are not pleasant.  But if we forget the war that’s going on, if we forget to resist evil, then evil will gain a victory over us, and we will be defeated.  So it’s important for us to remember the battle and ask God to give us victory. 

But look at that first part again:  “Do not bring us into temptation.”  Does God actually bring people into temptation?  Another way to translate this is, “Do not bring us into testing.”  We know that God did test people in the Bible:  God tested Abraham (Gen. 22:1), he tested the children of Israel in the desert (Ex. 15:25, 16:4, etc.).  The book of Proverbs says that “the LORD tests hearts” (Pro. 17:3).  So God does test people.  But Jesus says that we should pray not to be tested.  How can we avoiding testing? 

James says that the reason something is a test or a temptation in our lives is because of our sinful desires (“But each is tempted by his own desire when he is drawn away and enticed,” James 1:14).  If we can eliminate those sinful desires, those things will not be a temptation to us.  So when we pray to God not to bring us into temptation, and to deliver us from evil, one of the things we’re praying for God to do is to strengthen us in our hearts so we can resist evil desires. 

Each of the parts of the Disciple’s Prayer are so important that we should never let them drop out of our prayer life.  We need all of them to have a healthy and balanced prayer life.  So let’s quickly review them all again:

Focus on Father God
Focus on sanctifying his Name
Focus on his kingdom
Focus on our daily needs
Focus on forgiving
Focus on avoiding evil

In the next part of the sermon, Jesus talks about fasting.  “And whenever you fast...” (Matt. 6:16).  Fasting (which means not eating or drinking) was a regular part of people’s religious lives at the time.  The custom for the Jewish people in Jesus’ day was to fast on Mondays and Thursdays.  Do you remember when the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable said, “I fast twice a week” (Luke 18:12)?  The early Christians fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays.  There were also special fasting days every year like Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement), or to remember terrible events in the past like the destruction of the Temple.  But there were also many other reasons why people fasted:  the whole community might fast and pray if there was the threat of war or a need for rain; individuals might fast and pray for someone to be healed, or to mourn someone’s death, to repent for sin, or for many other reasons. 

In the New Testament, Jesus himself fasted for forty days at the beginning of his ministry (Matt. 4:2).  But then, during his ministry, he didn’t tell his followers to do any extra fasting.  This was a puzzle to people, because even John the Baptist taught his disciples to fast.  So the disciples of John asked Jesus, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples do not fast?” (Matt. 9:14).  So Jesus told them a parable about a bridegroom and his friends to explain that while he was with them, his disciples didn’t need to do any extra fasting.  But when he was taken away from them, he said, then they would fast (“And Jesus said to them, ‘Can the sons of the bridal chamber mourn while the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast,” Matt. 9:15). 

And this is just what happened.  In the book of Acts, the disciples fasted and prayed to seek direction from the Lord, and before anointing people for leadership (Acts 13:2, 14:23).  It seems they also sometimes fasted and prayed when they were praying for people to be healed.  And since Paul still calls the Day of Atonement “the Fast” (Acts 27:9), it seems quite clear that they continued the traditional times of community fasting.  So for the early Christians, just like the Jewish people, this was just a normal part of their religious lives. 

When Jesus spoke about fasting, he didn’t tell us when we should fast, he just assumed that we were going to do it from time to time.  His concern was that when we do fast, it should be something private between us and God.  Fasting is not something that we should be proud of and show off to others:  “oh look how spiritual I am, I’m fasting.”  No, to do that was to miss the whole point (“And whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance in order to be seen fasting by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full,” Matt. 6:16).  

Instead you should keep the fact that you’re fasting a secret, in fact you should hide the fact that you’re fasting.  Only this kind of secret fasting, Jesus says, will get a reward from the Father (“But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face 18 so that you may not be seen fasting by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will repay you,” Matt. 6:17-18).  Here Jesus clearly teaches that there is a reward for fasting if you do it the right way.  It is a good thing to do from time to time.  But you must be sure to do it the right way. 

After that, Jesus began to talk about money issues.  I think that most of us need help in the area of finances.  But unfortunately, there are so many voices saying so many things on this topic today that it can be very confusing.  We’ve mentioned several times the prosperity gospel that has distorted this topic beyond recognition.  But Jesus was very consistent and very clear when it comes to money. 

Matt. 6:19:  “Do not store up (or save up) for yourselves treasures on the earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” 

That’s a pretty clear statement.  Our goal in life is not supposed to be gathering earthly wealth.  The word for treasure here can mean a treasure chest or a storeroom, or the treasure itself that you would store in a place like that.  In other words, this is talking about the accumulation of wealth beyond our basic, everyday needs.  That is not the kind of treasure we should be trying to accumulate. 

Matt. 6:20:  “But store up (or save up) for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroy and where thieves do not break in or steal.” 

We’re supposed to store up our treasure in heaven, where we can get an eternal benefit from it—not here on earth where it can so easily be stolen or destroyed.  The main difference between Jesus’ day and our day is that the list of ways that your treasure can be stolen has gotten a lot longer.  Today we’ve got to worry about hackers in some other part of the world draining our bank accounts.  Or inflation making our money worthless (although that was also happening in Jesus day, though more slowly than today).  It might be your pension fund going broke or being scrapped by your company, a stock market crash, or any one of dozens of other ways that you can lose everything you’ve saved up in a moment’s time.  What a terrible thing to see your life savings disappear before your eyes. 

All of this means, of course, that investing in this worldly system is not a good investment.  It’s much better, Jesus says, to make an eternal investment, an investment in heaven.  How do we do that?  By using our money to advance God’s kingdom.  When we give to help ministries, when we give to help people in need, we’re storing up treasure for ourselves in heaven. 

Even using our money to advance ourselves in the kingdom of heaven, like attending Christian seminars or buying Christian books and videos, or even going on a tour of Israel, these, too, can be an investment in God’s eternal kingdom.  There are many, many different ways that we can invest in the kingdom of heaven.  And that’s what Jesus says we should do:  not just piling up wealth on earth for someone to waste after we die.  Sorry to say, that’s what usually happens to large inheritances, just like with those who win the lottery.  Pouff!  The money is gone.  And then what good was all that scraping to save?  How much better to use our wealth for eternal things, things that can bring an eternal reward. 

Matt. 6:21:  “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be, too.”

You can tell what’s in someone’s heart by the way they spend their money.  If their money goes to earthly things, that’s what’s important to them.  If they spend their money on heavenly things, that’s what’s important to them.  What could someone tell about your life by the way you spend your money?  Where does the evidence say that your heart is located?  Or as somebody put it one time, if you were accused of being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?  Could anyone tell you were a Christian by looking at your financial records? 

Jesus continues talking on this topic in the next couple of verses, but many of us would never know it because of the expressions he uses, which are not familiar to most of us:

Matt. 6:22:  “The eye is the lamp of the body; if then your eye is single, your whole body will be full of light.”

Does that sound like he’s talking about money to you?  These are not expressions we use today.  So what’s the meaning?  Prov. 22:9:  can help us understand:  “He who is good of eye is blessed, for he has given from his bread to the poor.”  Here we can see that this expression “good of eye” (tov-ayin) means someone who is generous.  It seems to come from the experience of someone who is in need asking for help.  If you ask someone for help, and the look they give you is a good one, in other words a friendly, helpful look, this usually means that they’re willing to help you.  But if they give you a bad look, if they make an uncomfortable expression with their eyes, they’re probably not going to help you.  So someone who has a good eye is a generous person. 

That’s in Hebrew.  In Greek this comes across instead of a “good eye” as a “single eye” (a-plous’).  This is similar to our expression “single-minded.”  A single-minded person is focused on a single goal, he doesn’t allow all kinds of other things to distract him from his goal.  In the same way, someone with a single eye is straight-forward, honest and sincere.    And this shows itself especially in how he treats those in need.  So in the Greek idiom of the day, a person with a single eye was a generous person. 

In Jesus’ teaching, he calls the eye “the lamp of the body.”  This is the idea that the eye takes light from the environment around us and shines it into our bodies.  And this is certainly true in the sense that the eye gathers light from outside of our bodies and “shines” that light into us in the form of images that we receive and process in our minds.  So in this sense the eye is a gateway to the outside world, particularly with regard to light:  it lets in light.  If your eye is single, that is, if it’s focused straight ahead, or we could say if it’s unobstructed, it will let in lots of light.  So what Jesus is saying is that a generous person, a person with a good eye, is a person that lets in lots of light, and is filled with light.  This is a symbol of being filled with the light of God. 

Matt. 6:23:  “But if your eye is evil (or bad), your whole body will be dark.  If then the light that is in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” 

Here we have another expression that’s not so familiar to us today.  But the “evil eye” is a very well-known expression in the Middle East.  In fact, there’s even a little talisman (the hamsa) that you will see everywhere that is intended to avert the evil eye.  What is this all about?  In Middle Eastern culture, an evil eye is an eye that is envious and greedy or stingy.  The person with an evil eye wants what you have and doesn’t want to give you anything back in return.  In fact, many believe that if someone gives you the evil eye, it brings a curse, and will bring something bad into your life.  Because of this, in Muslim society, people avoid directly accepting a compliment, in order to avoid the evil eye (they say instead “God has willed it,” Masha’Allah). 

So what is Jesus talking about?  He’s playing on the double meaning of “evil eye.”  It could just mean an eye that’s not working very well, as we would say, a “bad eye,” which means it doesn’t let in as much light as it should.  But if we add the other meaning of “evil eye,” it means that a person who is not generous is not filled with the light of God, but instead is filled with darkness.  And if the only light you get from your eye is darkness, how terrible is that inner darkness!  How terrible to live a life filled with darkness and removed from the light and the love of God!  This is a very strong statement by Jesus in favor of generosity and against selfishness and enviousness and greed. 

Rabbi Joshua, who taught just after the time of the New Testament said, “The evil eye and an evil nature and hatred of mankind put a man out of the world” (Mishnah Aboth 2:11).  This, too, is a very strong statement against selfishness and greed.  Having an evil eye puts you outside of human society.  Another saying from the early rabbis is this:  “A good eye and a humble spirit and a lowly soul—those who have these are of the disciples of Abraham our father.  An evil eye, a haughty spirit, and a proud soul—those who have these are of the disciples of Balaam the wicked” (Aboth 5:19). 

Jesus’ teaching is very similar to these in many ways.  But he draws out the difference in a way that highlights our inner spiritual life.  Having a good eye, being generous, fills you with the light of God; it puts you in touch with God himself.  Having an evil eye, being greedy, fills you with darkness, which points toward an eternal darkness away from God.  The implication of his imagery of light and darkness, good and evil, is that being generous or not is not just a better or worse way to live, but has spiritual consequences, eternal consequences.   

If you think that’s reading too much into Jesus’ words, just look at how he summarizes these words in verse 24:

Matt. 6:24:  “No one is able to serve two lords; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other.  You cannot serve God and mammon.”

Instead of light and dark, good and evil, now we have God and mammon.  What is mammon?  It’s just the Aramaic word for wealth.  This word was commonly used by the rabbis and others in their discussions of money and property.  For example, Rabbi Jose said:  “Let the mammon of your fellow be as dear to you as your own” (Aboth 2:12).  This means that you should value the wealth and property of your neighbor just as highly as you value your own belongings.  If everyone had this attitude, no one would ever steal from each other or cheat each other when it comes to finances. 

When Jesus mentions mammon, he’s continuing his discussion of two alternatives with regard to money:  before he was talking about the good eye and the evil eye, now he’s talking about God and mammon.  What does this mean?  That the one who has a good eye is serving God, and the one who has an evil eye is serving mammon.  What does it mean to serve mammon?  The word “serve” in the Biblical languages also means to “worship.”  So while the person with a good eye is serving and worshipping God, the person with an evil eye is serving and worshipping wealth and the things of this earth. 

And Jesus says you can’t have it both ways.  You can’t serve two lords.  You’re going to end up loving one and hating the other.  That’s just the way it is; that’s the way it works.  This is the danger of the prosperity gospel.  It teaches that you can love God and money:  that you can have your cake and eat it, too.  But Jesus says, no, you’re going to have to choose.  And if you choose wealth, you will end up, finally, hating God. 

So then, how should we live?

Matt. 6:25:  “Because of this I say to you, don’t be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor for your body, what you will put on.  Isn’t life more than food and the body more than clothing?”

Here Jesus explains that worry is the source of the problem.  Being anxious about the things of this life is what leads to greed and selfishness and envy.   But the solution to the problem is to trust God, and realize that there’s more to life than food and clothing.

Matt. 6:26:  “Look at the birds of the heaven, that do not sow or reap or gather into barns, yet your heavenly Father feeds them;  are you not worth more than them?”  

If God takes care of the birds, you think he won’t take care of you?  Now please notice that Jesus is not saying that you can just sit around and do nothing and all your needs will be taken care of.  His comparison is to birds.  And if you’ve ever looked at birds, you notice that they are constantly hopping around looking for food.  They’re quite busy.  They’re always doing what they can to find food, looking in every little corner.  They’re busy creatures.  But the point is that God has already provided all they need in the environment around them.  They just have to go out and get it.  It’s the same in our lives.  We need, of course, like the birds, to continually go about and do the things that we need to do to find the things we need.  But God has already provided everything we need in abundance.  It’s available to us.  We don’t have to worry about it.  We don’t have to become greedy and envious and selfish.  There’s more than enough for everyone.  How many meals in a day can you eat?  How many things can you wear at one time? 

Matt. 6:27:  “But who of you by being anxious is able to add one cubit to his age?”

This is a god-joke.  You can’t add a cubit, which is a measure of distance, to your age, which is a measure of time.  In the same way, being anxious doesn’t contribute anything to your life.  It’s not the right kind of thing to be helpful.  Being anxious helps you in your life just as much as a yardstick will help you measure your age:  in other words, it doesn’t help at all.  God knows what we need, and he will provide it for us.

Matt. 6:33:  “But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be provided for you.” 

This is what’s more important in life:  seeking God’s kingdom.  Remember what we saw in the Disciple’s Prayer?  “Your kingdom come, your will be done; as in heaven, also on earth.”  First we seek God’s kingdom right here in our own hearts and lives.  First we seek for ourselves to be righteous.  Then we seek to spread that kingdom and that righteousness around to others.  If that’s our first priority, before mammon, before earthly treasures, if that’s what we’re seeking in life, God is going to take care of the rest.  That doesn’t mean we do nothing.  No, we seek God’s kingdom, we seek his righteousness.  That means that we’re busy with the work of the kingdom.  We’re busy making ourselves more godly.  We’re busy helping others come to God.  We’re a busy people.  But we’re not worried.  Because we know and trust that God will provide for us. 

Matt. 6:34:  “Therefore don’t be anxious for the next day, for the next day will be anxious for itself.  Sufficient for the day is its trouble.”

Jesus is not painting an unrealistically rosy picture of life.  Each day, he says, has its own troubles, each day has its own difficulties.  You can’t get out of those and still be living in this life.  But, he says, just take it one day at a time.  And did you notice the god-joke?  “The next day will be anxious for itself.”  Let tomorrow worry about itself.  There’s no need for you to worry along with it.  Amen?

So many people let their worry about the things of the world stop them from serving God.  I’ve got to have this and I’ve got to have that, so I’ve got to work extra hours at work, and pretty soon there’s no time left for the things of God, no time left for the greater things in life, no time left for seeking the kingdom of God.  And then they die, and they leave all that mountain of stuff they’ve accumulated for somebody else to clean up.  Because it surely won’t go with them.  It all just stays right here.  Worldly wealth has a very limited shelf life.  But if our treasure is in heaven, it will never pass away, and will keep on generating dividends for eternity. 

What about you?  Are you seeking the kingdom?  Are you building yourself up in the faith?  Are you generous with your time and your resources to those in need around you?  Are you free from worry about life?

Let’s finish up with a quick summary of this part of Jesus’ message:

1) Don’t store up treasures on earth, but store them in heaven—use them to serve God.
2) Generosity will fill your life with the light of God, while a lack of generosity cuts you off from God’s light, and plunges you into darkness.
3) You cannot serve both God and wealth:  you will end up loving one and hating the other.  So choose wisely.
4) Don’t be anxious, because it won’t help you at all.  Worry is not a useful thing.  Trust God instead.
5) Seek God’s kingdom first before anything else in your life, and he’ll take care of your daily needs.

Amen?

Let’s pray:  Father God in heaven, we glorify your name today.  You are the holy one, you are the mighty one, you are worthy of praise.  May your name be lifted up all over the world as holy and righteous and true.  And may we lift up your name as holy by everything we say and do.  May your kingdom come, may your will be done in our lives immediately:  just like it is in heaven.  And we pray that your kingdom will come into the lives of many people today, that they will come to know that you are the true God.  And may your reign soon descend upon all the earth and Jesus come back to us again. 

Father God, we lift up our own individual needs to you today.  You know what they are.  Please meet those needs so we can be free to serve you.  And help us to be a forgiving people, both of those who repent of what they have done to us, and those who don’t.  We forgive them Lord, and pray for them to come to know you more.  Please forgive us, too, Lord, for the things that we have done wrong.  And help us to avoid doing wrong in the future.  Help us grow stronger in our faith so we can avoid temptation and have victory over evil.  And we give you all the praise and the glory.  In Jesus’ name.  

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