Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Lord Jesus, let me condemn my sin
in Your company,
face to face with Your holiness.
Though I bow my head and heart in shame,
still let Your hand clasp mine;
let it be Your love which searches me,
Your sorrow which wakens my sorrow.
Let my sorrow deepen
knowing I have wounded
my Friend, my Master, my God.
Yes, Lord, I have crucified and crucify You again,
by many different sins,
by often repeating the same sins,
by obeying, crowning, myself.
Forgive me, Lord Jesus:
Lord Jesus, wash me clean,
Lord Jesus, make me whole,
Lord Jesus, hold me fast
in Your company forever.
Adapted from My God My Glory, by Erik Milner-White
Secret Piety and a Joyful Faith
Today is Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Lent is the time we prepare ourselves to celebrate Easter. We focus on our journey of faith. We do certain religious activities that are intended to help us grow in our faith. The Scripture lesson for today offers us some thoughts about how we go about that. Our passage is from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus speaks:
“Matthew 6:1” Piety is a word that we don’t use too often. Literally, the Greek says “doing righteousness.” “Be careful how you do your ‘acts of righteousness’” (NIV). These are the things we do to maintain and develop our relationship with Jesus and to grow closer to God.
Jesus reminds us that whatever we do to grow in our faith, make sure we don’t do them with the goal of having others see us. Practice a secret piety. It isn’t wrong if other people see us doing these practices of piety, but if our goal is to be seen doing them, we miss the point.
In Jesus time there were three primary religious practices. Jesus talks about each of them in this passage. I want us to look at each of these practices, and then give you two practical suggestions for each of them, what that might look like in our lives during Lent.
First, in verses 2-4, Jesus talks about giving alms. There were certain rules as to what the Jews were expected to give to support the work of the Temple, but they were also expected to give alms, which was money that was used to help the poor.
“Matthew 6:2-4.” Notice that Jesus doesn’t command us to give. He simply assumes that we will give. “When you give…” This is one way of reminding us that our giving is a spiritual matter. We don’t take an offering during worship just for the purpose of paying the bills. Certainly that is a factor, but Jesus recognizes that our giving impacts our relationship with God.
Inside the Temple in Jerusalem there was a small room called the Chamber of the Silent. Inside that room there was a box and people would put their money into the box. That was “giving alms.” The money was used to help those who were poor, those who couldn’t buy food or oil for their lamps. Some people, Jesus called them hypocrites, went on a grand parade as they walked into the Chamber of the Silent to put their money in the box. They drew attention to themselves and made sure that everyone saw them give their money. The Greek actually says that they gave so that they could be glorified, rather than God being glorified.
To be honest, I have a hard time imagining anyone today giving in a way that is intended to bring glory to themselves. Maybe a billionaire who gives enough money to build a beautiful new sanctuary and then puts up a bronze plaque with their name on it falls into that category. Most of us are never likely to have enough money to do something like that. I sometimes wonder if we have gone to the other extreme, hiding the amount we give, not because we are trying to be humble but because we are ashamed of the amount we give. You’ll need to figure out if that describes you.
Let me suggest that what Jesus is saying in this passage is that the amount we give is important, and the motives for our giving are also important. There are probably lots of reasons we give. Let me suggest two motives that are positive, one vertical and one horizontal. The vertical motive for giving is to strengthen our relationship with God. We give to show our love for God. We give to say “Thank you” to God for all that God has given us. We give to show that we trust that God will provide us with what we need. The second motive is horizontal, as a way of sharing God’s love with other people. We give to help the poor or to support missionaries. We give to strengthen the ministry of the church, which is the body of Christ.
Let me suggest two ideas during Lent. First, take some time to reflect on your motives for giving: How do you decide how much to give, to the church and to other places? Do you give because you’re supposed to give, or to make yourself feel good? Do you give just enough so that you don’t feel guilty? Is God calling you to change how much you give and why you give?
Second, I encourage you to give an anonymous gift. Ask God to show you a person or an organization. Then give a gift of some sort, unexpected, unrecognized, no strings attached. It is a secret act of giving, a secret piety, that will bring joy to someone else and also to you.
The second religious practice Jesus talks about is prayer. “Matthew 6:5-6” Notice again that Jesus doesn’t command us to pray. He assumes that we will pray. In Jesus’ time, devout Jews would pray at least five times a day. In the morning and in the evening they would recite the Shema – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” It usually was done at home and took about three minutes. At nine in the morning, noon, and three in the afternoon they would pray the Shemoneh Esreh – 19 short prayers or benedictions.
The custom was that wherever you were when the time came to pray, you stopped and prayed. Jesus talked about the hypocrites making sure that they were in a prominent place when those times came around. A couple of minutes before lunchtime they would go out to the parking lot and get in their car and drive toward Sewickley. Right at 12:00 noon they just happened to be in the intersection of University and Beaver Grade. They would stop their car, get out and offer their prayers. You aren’t supposed to disturb someone who is praying, so the traffic would get backed up and everyone would see how devout they were, how holy they were. Jesus said that when they do that, they have received their reward in full, the honor and respect of other people. However, their prayers did nothing to help their relationship with God.
We could talk for hours about prayer and some of the ways people misuse prayer or make excuses why they don’t pray. Rather than doing that let me offer you two suggestions for Lent. First, I invite you to pick one person and pray for that person every day. Or pick a different person every week. Pray that God will work in his or her life. Pray that the person will know God’s love and presence in a new way. Pray that she or he will be drawn closer to God’s heart. Pray that God would use that person in some sort of ministry. Don’t tell that person, or anyone, about your prayers. Pray a secret prayer, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
The second suggestion is to experiment with a different type of prayer than your normal prayers. Maybe that means praying the Psalms, reading them as your own prayer. That might mean praying the Lord’s Prayer every day, slowly and deliberately reflecting on each phrase of the Lord’s Prayer. Maybe it means listening to God, sitting in silence for five to ten minutes and trying to hear what God is saying to you. Maybe that means walking through your neighborhood, praying for the people in each of the houses. Whatever it is, try praying in a new way during Lent.
Let’s look at our third religious practice. “Matthew 6:16-18” I put off fasting as long as I could, but here it is. Again, Jesus doesn’t command us to fast. He assumes we will. I’m curious, how many of you fast during Lent, in some way? I admit, I don’t like fasting. I like to eat. But that is exactly why I need to fast. Fasting helps us to know God better. When you fast, every time you think about food, which for some of us is quite often, you turn your heart and mind to God. You pray, and acknowledge that Jesus is your Lord, not food. Fasting is a way to humble ourselves before God.
The Pharisees fasted on Mondays and Thursdays. Those were market days. People from all around a town would go into the market, which would be crowded. Jesus describes the hypocrites fasting in a way that draws attention to themselves. They had a sad and gloomy look on their face. Some of them even put dirt on their faces and wore sackcloth. They made themselves look as miserable as possible, and let everyone around them know how miserable they were.
As with the other religious practices, Jesus said that these hypocrites have already received their reward – attention and honor from other people. Instead, Jesus challenges us to fast in a way that doesn’t draw attention to ourselves. Take a shower, brush your teeth, and comb your hair. Put on some nice clothes.
Above all, smile. In spite of your hunger have an outward expression of joy and an inner joy that comes from knowing that God loves you and is with you, a joy that comes from knowing that you are being faithful and obedient to God, a joy that comes from knowing that unlike millions of people in our world, you could go eat if you needed to, a joy that comes from having your life defined not by what you eat, but by who you are – a beloved child of God.
Practically, here is what I would suggest. If you are planning to fast, great. Keep it up. If you have never fasted before, try giving up one meal during Lent. Or, give up one type of food that you really crave; chocolate, dessert of any sort, soda or coffee. Whenever you think about food and want to eat, simply turn your attention to God, praying for God’s grace and thanking God for the joy of his love.
The second suggestion I’d like to make is a bit different. I saw a post on Facebook this week. Supposedly, this is what Pope Francis said about fasting:
Do you want to fast this Lent?
- Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
- Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
- Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
- Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
- Fast from worries and trust in God.
- Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
- Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
- Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
- Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
- Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
- Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.
O for a closer walk with God, a calm and heavenly frame,
A light to shine upon the road that leads me to the Lamb!