The Way of Humility
Grace & Fairview United Methodist Churches
March 30, 2014
Matthew 6: 1-24 (CEB)
“Be careful that you don’t practice your religion in front of people to draw their attention. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.
2“Whenever you give to the poor, don’t blow your trumpet as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they may get praise from people. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 3But when you give to the poor, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing 4so that you may give to the poor in secret. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
5“When you pray, don’t be like hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them. I assure you, that’s the only reward they’ll get. 6But when you pray, go to your room, shut the door, and pray to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees what you do in secret will reward you.
7“When you pray, don’t pour out a flood of empty words, as the Gentiles do. They think that by saying many words they’ll be heard. 8Don’t be like them, because your Father knows what you need before you ask. 9Pray like this:
Our Father who is in heaven,
uphold the holiness of your name.
10Bring in your kingdom
so that your will is done on earth as it’s done in heaven.
11Give us the bread we need for today.
12Forgive us for the ways we have wronged you,
just as we also forgive those who have wronged us.
13And don’t lead us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one.
14“If you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.15But if you don’t forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your sins.
16“And when you fast, don’t put on a sad face like the hypocrites. They distort their faces so people will know they are fasting. I assure you that they have their reward. 17When you fast, brush your hair and wash your face.18Then you won’t look like you are fasting to people, but only to your Father who is present in that secret place. Your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
19“Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. 20Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in heaven, where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. 21Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Today marks the halfway point in our Lenten journey. As we gather this morning on the fourth Sunday of Lent, I would like to begin by taking just a moment for us to be reminded of what Lent is all about. I want to do this not only because we are halfway through the Lenten season, but also because this morning’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount really strikes at the heart of what Lent is all about. If you remember, Lent is a time of preparation; the forty days (excluding Easter) when we empty ourselves of the old, the dirty, the bad, so that we can take on the new life that is made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate every year at Easter.
In and of itself, Lent is a very important time of the Christian year, and also an important time for the life of believers. The problem, though, is that we have a tendency to contain this season to just six weeks of doing good, rather than building a Lent that becomes a way of life. And that’s why this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, and all of the Sermon on the Mount, really, is so important; because when Jesus stood on the mountainside and taught the disciples and the crowds, he was directing them on a way of preparation for new life with God. In other words, he was teaching about a whole new way of life.
You know, we really do miss the point about Lent. In fact, in recent decades, I think we’ve made Lent so much about what we “give up” that we forget the “why” behind those practices. On the first Sunday of Lent this year, Mary Ellen came home from church and while she was eating her lunch, she told Ken and I about how they talked in Sunday School about what they were going to give up for Lent. So Ken and I asked Mary Ellen if she was going to give something up, and she said yes, “junk food.”
So then Ken asked, “Junk food, well, what does that mean? Is it like desserts, or what?”
Well, Mary Ellen explained that it was all junk food, like pizza, and desserts, and bad things. And sure enough, Mary Ellen finished her lunch and without a word, she went about playing—no request for dessert or anything. But then, that evening, when dinner was finished, Mary Ellen asked me what we had for dessert. And I said, “But Mary Ellen, you gave up junk food for Lent.”
Mary Ellen says, “No, that’s not what I said.”
And I said, “Well, that’s what you told me and Daddy at lunch.”
Then Mary Ellen went on to explain to me that what she actually gave up was “SOME junk food.” About that time Ken walked in the room, and Mary Ellen asked him for some dessert. He engaged her in the very same conversation I had just had with her. In the end, Mary Ellen had dessert, and that bit about giving up junk food for Lent was completely forgotten.
Does that sound familiar to any of you? We give up things for Lent because that’s the “appropriate” thing to do. And maybe we do a little better than Mary Ellen in sticking to our covenant for those forty days. But then went Easter comes, we congratulate ourselves, move on with our lives, and it turns out that practice didn’t make any difference. Obviously, these practices, as a general rule, do not have any profound and lasting impact on our lives.
When Jesus was preaching his Sermon on the Mount, he knew that there were some important practices that could change our lives, our life together, and our life with God. And that’s why he begins now this second part of his sermon with a lesson about the importance of giving, praying, and fasting. It turns out that most good Jews in Jesus’ day were faithful in their giving, praying, and fasting. The problem, though, was that they engaged these practices for selfish purposes. So that they would appear faithful and pious, so that people would know they were “good” people, and on and on. And the point Jesus wants to drive home in our passage this morning is not so much the importance of giving, praying, and fasting, but the fact that if these practices are to truly have a profound and lasting impact on our lives, then not only must they be engaged regularly, but they must always be entered into reverently and humbly, with all focus on God and God alone.
We are going to spend some time thinking about the attitude in which we engage these practices about which Jesus is teaching. But first, I want us to consider for a moment why it is important to engage the spiritual disciplines, like giving, praying, and fasting, on a regular basis. A few years ago, a book came out entitled, My Year of Living Biblically. The author, a gentleman by the name of A.J. Jacobs, is an agnostic, and he made the decision that for one full year, he would follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible. His book, obviously, is an account of his experience. The year-long experiment did not result in a radical conversion for Jacobs. However, Jacobs did acknowledge near the end of the book that his engagement with these Biblical and spiritual disciplines brought about in Jacobs’ life an openness to faith that had not existed before.
I share that story with you in order to say this: spiritual disciplines (and in particular those addressed by Jesus in our reading this morning) really do change our lives and direct our hearts toward God. Giving, praying, and fasting help us seek to be open and responsive to God. Remember, Jesus came in order to make possible for humanity a new relationship with God, and what Jesus is teaching us in our passage for this morning is how to grow in the relationship that he has made possible for us.
But the thing of it is, we can’t just give, pray, and fast, and expect that automatically our relationship with God will grow. That’s the other lesson Jesus is teaching here this morning. We have to enter these disciplines with the right heart. Ultimately, at it’s very core, that’s what this is all about. Jesus is challenging his listeners to confront what and whom they worship. Are they worshipping themselves, something else, or the living God? Because, so often, Jesus sees these people shouting their prayers from the rooftops, or rattling their coins in the offering plate, and he knows they are not worshipping and praising God, they are worshipping and praising themselves. The problem here, as we can all guess, is that such practices do nothing to draw us into God’s presence. In fact, they may even separate us from God!
I am sure there is not a single one of us here who wishes to separate ourselves from God; at least I hope not! So we would do well to heed Jesus’ teachings this morning! The life that truly is life, the “Lenten” life, is one that choses the way of humility; the way that puts all else aside and focuses all attentions and all resources toward God. They way of humility is one in which we empty ourselves every day, not just during the season of Lent, so that we can be filled with God’s goodness. So what are the keys to this way of humility, the way of life that Jesus would have us follow?
The first key is getting your priorities straight. Like so much in our lives, this is much easier said than done. We can have good priorities and good intentions, but then when it comes to the actual practice, a little voice in the back of our minds gets the best of us. We give ourselves a little pat on the back and think to ourselves, “Well, I really am quite the model Christian; I did my devotions every morning this week!” Or we drop our tithe into the offering plate as it passes by, and then immediately go about judging the person sitting next to us who put nothing in there. But the thing of it is, the ways we serve God should give glory to God, not to ourselves! When it comes to growing in our relationship with God, it is only God that matters; not ourselves, and not anyone else.
Which leads us to the second important key to this way of life that Jesus is teaching about, and that is to learn to live in the presence the loving Father. In other words, our priority must be God at all times and in all places so that we can learn to live in God’s presence everyday. And to truly live in God’s presence, we have to reject the cheap thrill of accumulating empty praise, fleeting recognition, and flimsy relationships in order to embrace the one relationship that really matters. We have to monitor ourselves so that we do not drift into an unhealthy righteousness like that which Jesus described; practices which look good but which have absolutely no substance! The simple truth of the matter is that if our life and the way we live it is about anything other than God, then our priorities are off, and we are the only ones who can get things back in focus. Jesus has laid the path out for us, but it’s up to us to stay on track.
Jesus’ teaches a lot in this section of his Sermon. There can be no question about that. I very easily could preach three different sermons about what he teaches us here about giving, praying, and fasting. But what I want us to hear today is that these practices, and all practices in the life of faith, are completely meaningless if the motivation and the priorities are wrong. So here’s my challenge to you this Lent; don’t worry so much about the junk food, or the TV, or staying off Facebook. Instead, take the next 20 days to get your priorities straight. Do everything you can to push aside the selfish motivations that drive your actions. Take time to consider those things in your life that take precedence over your relationship with God. Practice praying “in secret”; perhaps God will open your eyes to how certain habits in your life need to change, even as you are practicing drawing into his presence. Whatever it takes to get the focus off yourself and onto God, work on it in this special season of preparation.
Do these things now, so that when Easter comes, you are truly prepared for a fresh beginning, and the life that truly is life!