22 Jan (morning):
Key Text: Matthew 6:5-8; 16-18
I’m going to start today with a simple question; how would you rate your devotion to God? In other words, out of 10 would you say that you are very devoted or do you need some work, or are you not devoted at all?
I guess most of us would maybe hover around 5-8. Right? Maybe you are a 10 maybe you are a 1. No one is judging here; and hopefully we will talk through this morning the key element in an active devotional life.
You see the Scriptures say relatively little about the process of what we now call a “quite time”. However, rather speaks to the heart of a devotional life. The Bible mentions disciplines without giving practical guides to accomplish them.
And it is because of this that we get varying views on what these must look like and what you are meant to do and what you will experience.
This I feel leaves many of us quite in the dark about the benefit and even the reason for the spiritual disciplines.
I remember when I was younger trying to grow in the things of God and the one day I decided to fast; I had no reason for it (other than curiosity) and had no real direction other than when you feel hungry pray and seek God.
So, I woke up early (as we were at that time having a daily prayer meeting at 5am at the church) and had breakfast, as I planned to have a sunrise to sunset fast… again just to see what it is like.
So the first few hours went fine, I would say; however, come lunch time I was starting to get painfully hungry and I’m sorry to sound profoundly unspiritual but no amount of prayer was helping.
But around 6pm; I was a mess; grumpy and annoyed as I felt lest spiritual than when I started and now was just extremely hungry… well I sat on the stoop of my parents’ house with a bag of chips waiting for the sun to go down and I’m telling you that was the slowest sunset I have ever experienced in my entire life!
Now obviously, I approached the whole thing wrong, but let’s be real most of us will not even attempt this as there is zero motivation to put ourselves through this level of discomfort for something that we don’t see the benefit of.
So, this morning I would like to give direction on these disciplines so that they might be done for the right reason so that we can actually use them as they were always intended to be used.
Our passage this morning is Matthew 6:5-8; 16-18 this passage contains the middle portion of the Sermon on the Mount. It includes the Lord's Prayer.
The first part, in Matthew 6:1-18, deals with the outward and inward expression of piety, referring to almsgiving, private prayer and fasting. This part of the chapter, sometimes called the "Discourse on Ostentation.” goes over the three most important outward expressions of Jewish piety, alms giving, prayer, and fasting.
We are going to read from 1-8 and then 16-18.
6 “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.
2 “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
5 “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. 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. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him….
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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 in secret, will reward you.
Jesus not only addresses the reality of these disciplines but gives us an under guiding principle that should inform all our disciplines and devotions in the Christian walk.
But to look at this we must start with;
1.The History of Fasting and Prayer
So in terms of fasting, it must be said that there is no single origin of fasting every culture and religion has a form of cultic fasting.
By the time such fasting appears in the biblical record, it was already a well-established feature of life in the Ancient Near Eastern context. When the Scriptures address fasting, it is often to criticize, modify, sanction, or appropriate behavior that is common to the human experience. But the Hebrew Bible also introduces particular theological emphases on dependence on God that manifest in messianic, corporate, and individual ascetic themes.
Prayer mirrors this reality. It is mentioned as a reality that needs to be brought under God.
My journey with fasting, and a lot of my prayer life has been a way to improve myself; to shortcut the spiritual growth cycle.
However, if I miss the biblical emphasis it simply stays as a self-improvement tool.
And in fact there is a growing consensus of the health benefits of intermitted fasting and – for lack of a better word – meditation/prayer.
Again the world is seeing that these things are beneficial to us; however, Jesus wants us to see what the real reason is for these activities.
The Spiritual disciplines are not tools to be utilized they are methods of making God more. Which leads me to the focus of this message;
2. True God ward Disciplines
Jesus identifies two contrasting realities in this passage the hypocrite and then what the passage identifies as “you” or those who are truly seeking God.
He contrasts the method and then the conclusion of their practices.
Many of us see this contrast and so wanting to avoid all together being a hypocrite avoid Godly or God ward Disciplines.
However, Jesus was never trying to get us to avoid the disciplines; he was purifying them so that they achieve what they are designed to achieve.
To understand what they are designed to achieve let’s look at the hypocrites:
a.The discipline of the hypocrite
Jesus says it is easy to see the hypocrite they are on the street corners; they are shouting out their devotion loudly; they are making it know that they are devoted. Why? Because their reward is the praise of men.
The thing is that what these people are after is not really the praise of men; it is to honour themselves. That is why we can fall into this trap so easily.
Most of us approach the Christian disciplines; such as reading our bible’s prayer and fasting as a method of self-improvement; a way to make ourselves feel better or be better.
But the disciplines are tools to take us out of the way so that we find our significance and joy and fulfilment and future in God and God alone.
I mean yes fasting has been shown to prolong life and help with mental clarity; but the reason God gives it to a sinful world is to teach us that man does not live on bread alone.
It shows us that our bodies are not just biological they are spiritual and the only thing that can truly satisfy is God.
The end of the disciplines is not to be better it is to see and know God more clearly.
So we must look
b. The discipline of the seeker
Jesus says; “When you fast… When you pray… make sure that it is secret.
In fact in verse1 he says do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…
The emphasis needs to be off you, off your development, off what this is doing for you or how it makes you feel or might improve your disposition. The emphasis is on your Father in heaven!
So many of us spend our Christian lives looking for the benefits of following God rather than enjoying God! We seek Him in the Christian disciplines to gain more power, a better life, greater blessings. However, we miss the fact that we have Him!
And in this we miss the whole point of the Christian Spiritual disciplines of Fasting, Prayer, silence, meditation, Bible reading and memorisation, reflection etc.
The disciplines are not there to make us better, they are there to make us less so that we can see Him more!
Think about it; giving without gratitude/reward (as in verses 2-4) shows we firstly don’t need our wealth for significance we only need God.
Praying without being heard (verses 5-8) shows that we long for our God to hear us; and our hope does not lie in connections and hints, rather it lies in the hands of God! This grows our dependence upon Him.
There was an old saying that faith without hints is dead… I would suggest faith should be locked in God! I remember a friend of mine who would make it a principle of asking God and then purposely not telling anyone of His requests; so that when God answered him; He was sure it was God.
There was once where he needed work on his car and tires and prayed and then by faith took the car into be repaired; knowing full well that he had no money in his back account; well when he went to draw money he found more than what he needed.
And when Jesus shows us fasting without the approval of others (in verses 16-18) shows us that our reward lies not in ourselves but in God.
When we fast simply to see God more clearly and have Him be our primary need He becomes it.
Let me encourage you we live in an age of excess; where every need seems cared for and all wants are simply a bank loan away. We are taught from birth have it your way, do whatever it takes to make yourself happy and satisfied. The problem is that you cannot.
God ward fasting teaching our bodies that we don’t have to listen to its every impulse; we don’t have to obey it when it says jump. Rather, we seek God and allow Him to be our director and for Him to meet our needs.
So we need to look at ourselves and our motives and be mindful of what we are doing.
What is the reasons for doing the disciplines that you are doing; I would encourage the fact that if they are not God ward – in other words not directed to Him – they are simply self-help tools.
I would encourage you to practice the Christian disciplines describe for us throughout scripture and to practice them in a way that Scripture demands; that we might humble ourselves and glorify Him.
It is when we abandon ourselves to Him that He truly fulfil us; that is what each of the disciplines teach us; the show us in one way or another than He and He alone is all that we need and all that we really deep down want.