Friday, February 10, 2006

Sermon 1/30/05 Matt. 6.1-15 The Prayer of the Kingdom

We live in a refugee world. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are twenty million refugees in our world today. Burundi, Somalia, Palestine the Sudan, in these and many other countries may be found people who do not have a home or country. They have nowhere to go. Some live in fear of persecution on the basis of political or racial association. Others are fleeing war or natural disaster. By whatever means, they dwell outside the margins of the world, and are people to be pitied.

We are truly insulated from this phenomenon in New England. Our nightly news is more concerned with coastal snowfall than with the hopeless tent-squalor of refugee camps. We don’t even think about it. I confess that I don’t think about it much. And even when I try I can’t imagine what it must be like for those twenty million refugees.

The closest we get to understanding what it feels like to be a refugee might be a description of his teen years that a friend of mine uses. He says that when he was a teenager, he was constantly aware that, “there is something good going on somewhere, and I am not a part of it.” There is an “in” and there is an “out” and you are definitely out. That is a refugee feeling. You aren’t important. You aren’t a part of things. You are lost and powerless. Your situation is hopeless. There is no way out. Refugees don’t have a prayer.

When we turn to our text in Matthew today, the first thing we should understand is that Matthew is a refugee gospel.

The Roman provinces were home to innumerable Greek-speaking Jewish communities. Acts chapter 8 tells us that due to persecution after the death of Stephen, thousands of Jewish Christians scattered out into these communities. They took the gospel with them, and churches sprang up wherever they went, in Lydda, Joppa, Damascus, and Antioch.

Remember, though, that these are Jewish believers. They worship in synagogues. Most of them continued to practice the dietary laws and calendar observances of their Jewish heritage; a heritage geographically dominated by Jerusalem and the temple complex. Imagine, then, what it meant for them when, on July 10, AD 70, the Roman general, Titus, breached the temple’s inner courts and set everything on fire. In September, he ordered the temple razed to the ground. Not one stone was left upon another, including those emotional and psychological stones that defined the Jews as a people.

Think about the affect on these Matthew Christians? Their confession of Jesus had made them different, yet. But they were still Jews. Now even that was gone. Who were they now? Politically, emotionally, socially, they were cut off. They were refugees.

Matthew is written to them. It is a thoroughly Jewish gospel. Matthew quotes from and alludes to the Hebrew Bible more than any of them. It employs Jewish terminology and doesn’t care to explain Jewish customs.

Matthew's gospel is also interested in, above all, proclaiming Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah. Fourteen times--seven twice over--Mathew says of Jesus’ ministry, “all this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophets.” Jesus fulfills all that has come before. Matthew records Jesus’ teaching in five great sermons, echoing the five books of Moses. Indeed, Jesus is the one like Moses who was to come. He is the Messiah, approved by God. In his mouth is the new Torah, and it is to him that God-fearing Jews should listen.

Thus, when we come to our text today, the first of Jesus’ five sermons, we should be very aware of exactly what is happening. Here is the Messiah of God. We are at the very beginning of his ministry, still in Galilee. He has just called his twelve disciples, and now he has ascended the mountain. The people have clustered about him. He has seated himself, just as Moses did, and from his mouth comes an inaugural speech: the constitution of the new Israel. But, you see, there is a problem: Jesus himself is a refugee.

Have you ever been lost and you try and get directions from someone only to discover that they are as lost as you? And invariably at first they sound like they know what they are talking about [improvises speech, which sounds fine until it ends with, “even though I’ve never actually been there.”]

Remember that Jesus said, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” Jesus gets crucifixion at the end of all of this! Suspended between earth and heaven, condemned by Jewish and Gentile courts, abandoned by his friends, he cries out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” This is the cry of a refugee. He is not at home here.

Matthew is writing this gospel to give a sense of direction to the lives of the Jewish Christians all over the Roman world. They want a home. They want to belong, to be a people. They don’t want to be refugees any longer. They want to be Israel again. But Jesus isn’t talking about Palestine; he’s talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. [read some of the beatitudes simply to introduce the word “kingdom.”] This isn’t Jordan or Tel Aviv or any other place where we can emigrate or possess. This place is something that Jesus’ describes as a reward. Jesus is a refugee, too, but he knows the way home. Like Moses, he can lead you to the Promised Land. That’s the context of our passage today. A refugee gospel written for refugees relating the message of a refugee messiah, and it yearns for what all refugees yearn for: home.

So how do we get there? Let’s examine chapter 6 vs. 1.

[1] Beware of practicing your piety before others to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

This verse is very plain: if you want to have your reward--if you want to obtain the blessing of citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven and no longer be a refugee--then you have to do this (the verb is imperative): “be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men to be seen by them.”

And what are these acts of righteousness? Look at chapter 6.

[2] So when you give to the needy . . . [5] And when you pray . . . [16] When you fast . . .” Almsgiving, prayer and fasting, these are the “acts of righteousness.” Such acts would not surprise a God-fearing Israelite. They are par for the course of what a good Jew should do. But notice that Jesus is warning us about this, he says, “Be careful!” in verse 1. What is Jesus talking about?

This warning occurs five times in the Gospel of Matthew. In each case, it is warning against false teaching which, in 16.6 and 16.11 Jesus calls the “yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” The Pharisees, even more than the Sadducees, are the principal bad guys of Matthew’s gospel. So who were these guys, what were they about?

The Pharisees were highly religious and strictly pious. But note why: because they felt that by returning wholly and completely to the Law, by obeying it in every nuanced detail, that Yahweh would again favor Israel, kick the Romans out (remember, the Romans ran the country in Jesus’ day), and re-establish the remembered theocracy.

And it isn’t like the Pharisees were just a problem in Jesus’ day. Decades later, the people reading the Gospel of Matthew didn’t like the Romans either. They were being persecuted by them, and the Pharisees were still around too. Yes, the Pharisees were still there, with their message of relief from the burden of being a refugee. The Pharisees were refugees too, and they didn’t like it any more than we would. No one wants to be disenfranchised and dispossessed. But, remember, the way the Pharisees had to overcome the problem was about them. Their superb piety would impress God and move his hand to re-establish the Kingdom and remove the burden of being a refugee.

Now compare and contrast. Jesus has a plan for getting the Kingdom, and the Pharisees have a plan. Both of them don’t want to be refugees anymore. They want a country of their own, no persecution, nor marginalization, instead: belonging! And, if 6.1 tells us anything, it says that prayer has a role to play in all of this.

Okay, now we can read our text! Look carefully, beginning at 6.5, this section is subdivided into three parts:

[5] And when you pray . . .” [7] "And when you pray . . .” [9] "This, then, is how you should pray.”

I plan to deal quickly with each part and end with some concluding observations.

The First Subjunctive

[5] And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. [6] But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

A couple of observations. Couched as it is coming after a warning against the Pharisees, we understand quite well who the hypocrites are. We are also well aware of the danger of pride when it comes to the spiritual life and are suitably warned as Jesus says, “they have received their reward in full.” And isn’t this last part wonderful, warming the hearts of introverts everywhere, “go into your room, close your door.” And I love this part here in which the Father is called “unseen.” It hints at a parallel between the way we pray and the nature of the person to whom we pray.

I also love this idea of a prayer closet. The image here is the inmost room of a house. There would be no windows or anything, kind of a person’s “holy of holies.” (Personal story or whatever of setting aside private places to pray. Having set times and places for prayer is a good idea. Idea of creating a family “prayer chair.”)

Think for a minute, too, about how strategic this is. I said before that Matthew’s gospel was a very Jewish gospel. It references the Hebrew Bible more than any other Gospel. It is also a gospel of mission. This gospel ends with the Great Commission. Matthew’s point isn’t just to speak to Jewish Christians of his day, it was to keep them “going into all the nations.” It is a lot easier to melt into foreign cultures if you don’t have to import elaborate ceremonies with you. Every house, no matter the construction or the language of its builders, has a place for prayer.

But wait a minute! Look at the promise here on this section: “the Father will reward you.” Wait a minute. What sort of reward are we talking about? The sweet fellowship of prayer? The fellowship of his peace? Certainly these are rewards, but think of the context. The context is the Kingdom. This is a refugee gospel. When we think of it this way, this section begins to change.

First, what exactly is this person up to who is praying standing in the synagogues and on street corners? Is he really doing this just so people will say how religious he is? Well, sort of. He’s hoping people will join his cause. He’s advertising. By his public prayer, he becomes an evangelist for the cause. Remember, he is a Pharisee. He believes that his effort will move Yahweh to usher in the Kingdom. Not so, says Jesus. You can’t make the Kingdom come any quicker by advertising, by marketing. The results you get from that kind of work are a return on your investment. They may look good, but they aren’t the Kingdom. You want to see the Kingdom, don’t go out and make it happen, pray and receive it.

There is a lot of hype in our time about marketing your church. We are a media-savvy people. No matter how good the product, if it isn’t marketed correctly then it will never sell, that’s the wisdom of our day.

And is this bad? We just finished a slick-program ourselves. Did we sin in doing that? Some of us have been pretty frustrated about the results. We wonder, after all the effort and expense, has anything really changed? Let me say this, and I humbly submit this to your judgment. As I read this, it isn’t so much what you do as it is where you put your faith for the results. Was your faith in your effort? Put another way, do you judge success in the church according as you see a result? Individually, are you counting on a result to convince you as to the presence of the Kingdom? Do you rate your walk with God according to visible fruits of your “ministries”? You are putting your faith in the wrong place: your efforts and their results.

Success in ministry is measured only as God measures it. It is a surprise, so to speak. God loves surprises. Business is about managing so-called risk and surprise down until it is a computable, quantifiable, recognizable equation which we can manipulate. That isn’t what the Kingdom is about. I understand how difficult it is to be a refugee, how much you long for home, but trusting in some external activity or product is not the way to get there.

The Second Subjunctive

[7] When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that 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.

Have you ever noticed that the ratio of hearing goes down as the number of words goes up? (Maybe you are noticing this now.) My Dad tells the story of my Grandfather Pater’s fondness for long prayers. Once, he says, Pater was asked to give a blessing at a family meal. Instead, he preached a sermon and, by the time he was done, the food was cold. (When I was younger, I thought that story was about his being long winded. Now that I’m older I understand that, as a married man, my Grandfather was actually seeking martyrdom.)

You may think of the author of Ecclesiastes warning, when you hear this verse. “Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. Let your words be few.” (Eccl. 5.2a) Others have taken this babbling which Jesus mentions to be a condemnation of written prayers. The term, “Hocus Pocus,” for example, is lifted right out of the lips of a medieval priest muttering the Latin mass in so confused and hasty a manner as to be smashed together and sound a lot like “hocus pocus.” This is about plain praying, it is said. Written prayers or liturgies, then, are forbidden as just as much paganism.

Another thing people say about this passage is, “Well, if God knows what I need before I ask him, then why do I pray?”

But let’s look again at this verse. We are refugees, remember? What we need is the Kingdom! Now maybe I need to define the Kingdom quickly for you. Jesus came preaching the Kingdom. The Kingdom is the central focus of Jesus’ ministry. Simply put: the Kingdom is manifest wherever Jesus rules as king. We want his rule over our lives. We have a ministry of reconciliation, bringing people into citizenship in his Kingdom. We yearn for the full in-breaking of his Kingdom. We are refugees longing for our King and his Kingdom. That is what we need.

When it reads, “the Father knows what you need before you ask him,” it is talking about the Kingdom, not your or my perceived needs.

So what does he mean by babbling? Is it about forbidding written prayers and proscribing only spontaneous praying? Not at all! Rather, it warns us against trusting in our own private piety. We are in our closets, but the need to earn came in with us. I didn’t pray hard enough. I don’t fast. I am not giving like I should. We think these things about ourselves because we believe that the Kingdom is given to us on the basis of our piety: let us pray harder and God will work.

Just as we cannot trust in programs, marketing, and other tools, even though we must use them; just as in that case we must trust in a rewarding God. So, here, we cannot trust in our piety or religiosity. There is nothing wrong with praying harder, with fasting, with pursuing virtue, but it is wrong if you trust in those things. Our God is a rewarding God. He did not hold his only Son from us, so why do we think that he will withhold the benefits of citizenship in the Kingdom of his son from us unless we are good enough? The Kingdom doesn’t come in any faster because you worked harder. Why do we keep trying to make God do what we want him to do?

A word about written prayers. I see no problem with written prayers, nor do I think they are forbidden in this passage. What counts is the intent of the heart.

The Third Subjunctive

[9] Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven; hallowed by your name. [10] Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. [11] Give us this day our daily bread. [12] And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. [13] And do not bring us to into temptation, but rescue us from the evil one. [14] For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly father will also forgive you; [15] but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

Since the earliest centuries of the Church, theologians, pastors, and authors have contemplated this prayer line by line, word by word and have found in it the summation of the gospel. That is not my goal here today. Rather, in the time we have left, I want to just make a few comments on this prayer which has been called “the Lord’s prayer,” even though we have no record of the Lord ever praying it.

With this prayer, Jesus turns from saying what not to do to saying what to do: “This, then, is how you should pray.” Many people have used this prayer as a model prayer, which is fine, but, remember, we are looking at this in terms of the Kingdom. “This, then, is how you should pray [for the Kingdom].” That’s the overall point Jesus is getting at. You are a refugee, and you are longing and aching. What can you do about it: pray like this.

Earlier I said that refugees don’t have a prayer. Now they do. They are given a foretaste of home in one another under the word “our” and the common pledge of a common prayer.
“The Lord's Prayer binds the people together, and knits them one to another, so that one prays for another, and together one with another; and it is so strong and powerful that it even drives away the fear of death.” Martin Luther, Table Talk, 338

Who gives this to us: the Father.

The overall pursuit of this discourse has been the reward of the Kingdom. You can’t make it happen by your own efforts, or earn it through some holy zeal, you receive it from the rewarding God.

But note the singular context in which Matthew places the prayer: forgiveness. After he has recorded the prayer, Matthew highlights forgiveness. We refugees need to practice forgiveness one to another.

As we join together under this prayer, so the need for forgiveness becomes greater.

[At this point, my notes leave off. I remember talking about how the injunctions to forgive and the warnings about the Father not forgiving serve as a litmus test. Putting people and actions up against this reveals something about them; no true disciple of Jesus will fail to pass the test.]
Sermon preached at North Shore Baptist Church, Peabody, MA, on January 30, 2005.

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