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Showing posts with label The Sermon on the Mount. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Sermon on the Mount. Show all posts

Monday, November 13, 2023

How Did Jesus Teach People to Pray?

I have odd question to ask.  It is an especially odd way to start a sermon on what Jesus said about how to pray.  Here’s the question:  Is there anyone here an expert on Dolly Parton?

I am not an expert on Kenny Rogers nor have I ever met him.  I have never even been to a Rogers concert.  I only know 2 or 3 songs Kenny Rogers sang.  But, I did dress up like Kenny Rogers once.  But do you think that qualifies me as a Dolly Parton “expert”?  Absolutely not!

Well, what does this have to do with Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount and prayer. 
I’m glad you asked!  Part of the fun of Halloween is being able to dress up like a character and pretend to be something or someone you’re not.  The reason I mention this is pretending to be something you are not is also the definition of a hypocrite.

Matthew 6:5
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. 

Actors and actresses portray characters—sometimes so believable it’s amazing!  But just because an actor plays a doctor on TV, that doesn’t mean you should take his medical advice!  An actor takes the stage to play a role to entertain.  Their reward is the crowd’s applause.

In Jesus day, the religious leaders liked to put on a show by praying out loud in public.  It was a great honor to be asked to pray in meetings at the synagogues.  Everyone would see you and know you were a respected member of society.  But you didn’t have to wait until the Sabbath to be show off your amazing prayer skills.  Jews in the New Testament prayed three times a day—in the morning, the afternoon, and the evening.  Many religious leaders would show up to public places and pray out loud so everyone could see just how spiritual they were. 

However, Jesus warned us not to put on a show when it comes to our relationship with God and prayer.  He said, “Don’t be like the hypocrites…”  In ancient Greece, hypocrite was the word for an actor who performed in a theater.  Jesus said our relationship with God is to be real, not pretend and certainly not an act we put own to convince others we’re something we are not.  If your goal is to impress others or earn their admiration when you pray, then that is the only reward you will get.  And the praise and admiration of people is cheap and fleeting.  Ask a real actor or actress and they will tell you—one day you’re a star and the next day you are forgotten.

Matthew 6:6
But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private.  Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.

When You Pray…
Jesus’ instructions for prayer are very simple.  Go away by yourself, shut the door, and pray to you Father in private.  Notice that Jesus said, “When you pray…”  That means Jesus expected His followers to pray.  It’s not if you pray.  It’s when

you pray.

Prayer is essential in a relationship with God.  It is how we connect with God.  Prayer keeps us focused.  Prayer takes our attention off ourselves and our problems and plugs us into the divine source of all life. 

I saw a video recently that is a wonderful illustration of prayer.  Some construction workers using a corded circular saw to cut some boards on a worksite.  Unfortunately, the word was not long enough to reach from outlet over to the saw horses where they were cutting the lumber (and they didn't have an extension cord).  They thought they were geniuses because they figure out a solution.  They would plug the saw into the outlet and rev the saw up to full speed.  Then they would unplug it and run across the room and let the residual spinning of the blade cut a little bit on the saw.  So little by little, they could cut through the board.  But when I saw it, I thought, "why not just move the saw horses closer to the outlet so you can keep the saw plug into the power source?"

That is how prayer is for so many us.  We do not have the power within us to be all we need to.  God is our source of life and prayer keeps us plugged into The Source of True Life.  Unfortunately, we often are like those construction workers.  We plug into God through prayer and get revved up, but then we unplug and run away to live life.  We run down so fast.  So we run back to our source of power to rev up again and unplug to go live life.  Why don't we just move closer to God through prayer and stay plugged in?  That is what prayer is supposed to be.

And Jesus assumed His followers would pray.  So he said, when you pray, do it privately.

Do It Privately…
Jesus is very clear.  Don’t use prayer as a means to impress others or win honor.  If you do, that’s all the reward you will ever get.  For some, looking good to others may seem pretty valuable.  Is that what you want?  If it is, then go ahead and pretend.  But the applause of people is a very cheap and short-sighted reward.  We are meant for so much more.

Now, does that mean we shouldn’t pray in public at all?  If that’s the case, I’m in big trouble because as a pastor, I prayed in public quite frequently.  A public prayer like a pastor prays at the beginning of a worship service is a different kind of prayer.  The pastor is praying on behalf of the whole community.  The pastor is trying to put the whole congregations' hopes and concerns into words and speak to God.  That is something appropriate to do in a worship service or other public gatherings.  

Our public prayers are part of a communal experience we share once a week in communal worship or at other public gatherings that celebrate what should be happening privately in each of our lives every day.  But if we aren’t praying privately on a day to day basis when no one can see, then our public prayers become hypocritical acts performed only for show that have no real substance.  Jesus said, don't be like that.  he said, when you pray, do it privately, to your Father...

To Your Father…
Jesus gives a very powerful clue to reveal the most important element of authentic Christian prayer.  He said, “When you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father."  There’s no magic formula.  You just talk to God the way you would talk to your Father.

How would you talk to your earthly father?  Many are blessed to have great fathers that are easy to talk to.  Some of you love to talk with your father.  Others had a great father, but he has passed away and you miss the meaningful conversations you had with him.  You understand how wonderful it can be to talk to a loving father.  That is how you talk to God.

Not all fathers are easy to talk to.  I understand.  Mine wasn’t.  But that’s because earthly fathers are imperfect humans and sometimes selfish or broken.  Some people struggle with the image of God as a Father because they never had a good father.  I didn’t have a good father, but it never kept me from relating to God as a Father, because I simply know that God is the perfect Father.  So I imagine what it would be like to talk to my Dad if all his shortcomings and failings were taken away and he was made perfect in every way.  

So when you pray, imagine the ideal father, the perfect father.  He would be easy to talk to.  He would always be kind and patient.  He would be slow to get angry.  He would always have time for you and always want to talk with you.  He wouldn’t be self-absorbed and always wanting to talk about Himself.  Instead, He would be keenly interested in you always wanting what’s best for you.  He would love you unconditionally and help you in everyway He could.  He wouldn’t try to bribe you by giving you everything you ask for, but instead would give you the things you really need and guide you to grow as an individual to reach your full potential.  That is what God is like.  He's the perfect Father.

And how would you talk to this perfect Father?  There’s no magic formula.  You just talk.  And sometimes you would have a long conversation about something really deep.  Other times you might make a joke about some silly thing you did that day or some irony you encountered.  Sometimes you might just send him a text message on his cellphone to check in or to pass along a bit of information or to ask a quick question.  Sometimes you may call in desperation and say, "Help!  I'm out of gas!" or "I've got a flat tire!  What do I do?"  Sometimes you might just call and say, "I love you, Dad."

Prayer isn’t hard.  If you talk you can pray.  And we communicate all day long in many ways to many people.  You do the same thing with prayer—only you are doing it with God, who is your Father.

Matthew 6:7-8
“When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!

As far as I know, all religions include some form of prayer.  And there are often elaborate formulas for how to pray.  Many religions have prayers that are chanted over and over again--the idea being the gods will eventually be worn down by the incessant prayers of the supplicants.  It’s sort of like the 4-year-old child who bombards his mom with the endless request:  “Can I have a cookie?  Can I have a cookie?  Can I have a cookie?  Can I have a cookie?”  

Jesus says, don’t be like that.  God cannot be worn down by our incessant chanting, but He does care about you and wants to help you with what you really need.  He knows what you need.  In fact, Jesus says, your Father already knows what you need even before you ask! 

Some people ask, “Well if God already knows what I need, why do I have to pray.”  Well, for one thing, because we need to talk to God.  He’s the source of Life.  Prayer is how we plug in.

Another reason is prayer changes us.  Sometimes we start out praying for one thing, but through the process of praying we realize we’re asking for the wrong thing.  So we grow through prayer.

I can think of another reason.  The spiritual forces of darkness cannot stand to hear our prayers.  You cannot see, it, but Scripture says we are engaged in a spiritual battle.  Demons are all around wanting to trip us up and lead us astray.  Our prayers to God are a loud shrill that pierces their ears and drives them insane until they flee away.  So pray.  Pray, pray, pray!  It doesn’t have to be some fancy prayer.  You just have to talk to your Heavenly Father and the Enemy flees away.

We will talk more about prayer next week when we consider Jesus’ instruction about the Lord’s prayer.  But I challenge you to focus on prayer this week.  Establish a specific time each day when you will spend time in prayer.  And then also pray short prayers throughout your day.

You can study all kinds of materials and formulas about how to pray, but the best way to learn is simply to pray.  So, get out there this week and practice!  Just pray!

Monday, August 21, 2023

Explain the Beatitudes

Matthew 5:1-2
One day as he saw the crowds gathering, Jesus went up on the mountainside and sat down. His disciples gathered around him, 2 and he began to teach them.

Today, we begin a study of Matthew chapters 5-7, what are known as Jesus’ famous “Sermon on the Mount .”  The sermon gets its name from the big hill (or mount) where Jesus shared these teachings.  Many consider these to be Jesus’ central teachings about how to live as His disciple.  The Sermon is only three chapters long, but it is packed full of wisdom that challenges us to be a better follower of Christ.  So, we will take it slowly, lesson by lesson, until we work all the way through. 

We start with  Matthew 5:3-12, what is commonly called The Beatitudes.  Beatitude is a fancy word that means “A state of supreme happiness and blessing.”  People will often say, “I am blessed!”  If you ask how they are doing, they might respond, “I am blessed!”

What do you think of when you think of being blessed?  Does it mean life is good, all is well, you're happy and content? Well, Jesus’ definition of Beatitude—supremely blessed—may surprise you.  Let’s take a look at what He says about being truly blessed.  Let's go through the blessings one by one.

Matthew 5:3
“God blesses those who are poor and realize their need for him,
    for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Right off the bat, we get a clue Jesus is going to turn our ideas of blessings upside down. Do you honestly think you are blessed when you are poor?  Does anyone actually go around saying (without sarcasm): "Yep, I'm so broke I can't afford to put gas in my car. My rent is passed due, and I have no money to buy food.  I'm truly blessed!"

Most of those folks Jesus ministered to were that kind of poor. But Jesus said they were blessed, because He knew it gave them an advantage over rich people because they knew they must depend on God.  When we have money, it's easy to forget how much we need God.  Why do you need God?  You can take care of yourself.  Or at least we think we can take care of ourselves.  We have a false sense of security.  Let me remind you:  your money cannot save you.

But most Bible translations render this verse to say, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  And that is important, because Jesus isn’t just talking about your finances.  There are people—in Jesus day and in our own—who feel as though they are spiritually safe and secure.  They say to themselves: “I’m a good person.  I treat people fair.  I live the right way.  Therefore, God will be good to me.”  This was the basic philosophy of the Pharisees in Jesus time.  And it’s the way many people think today.  But, God doesn’t owe you anything.  Our so-called righteous deeds are but filthy rags in the sight of a pure, perfect, and holy God.  And so Jesus says, “You are truly blessed if you really know you are poor in spirit and realize you desperately need God to save you.”  It isn't those who think they are good; it is those who know they are not good and rely completely on the mercy of God that He welcomes into His Kingdom.  And Jesus goes on, smashing our preconceived notions of what it is to be truly blessed:

Matthew 5:4
God blesses those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

We’ve had a lot of deaths in our community lately.  It seems like the last few months have been particularly hard.  Our bereavement committee has been working overtime to provide meals for the families.  According to Jesus, that means we are truly blessed.  Does it feel like it?  Do you feel blessed when someone you love dies?

Jesus is pulling from Old Testament Scripture in Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 where it says:  “Better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.  After all, everyone dies—so the living should take this to heart.  3 Sorrow is better than laughter, for sadness has a refining influence on us.  4 A wise person thinks a lot about death, while a fool thinks only about having a good time.”

We live in a culture where we want to avoid pain at all cost.  And yet the cliché really is true.  No pain.  No gain.  We live in a broken world.  Things are not as they are supposed to be.  We are not as we’re supposed to be.  If we never realize this (and feel this), we are missing out on something really important.

Matthew 5:5
God blesses those who are humble, for they will inherit the whole earth.

This beatitude is a difficult one to translate.  The NIV says:  Blessed are the meek.  The NASB says:  Blessed are the gently.  The NLT uses the word humble.  The Greek word is praus, which means mild of disposition, gentle of spirit.

In Jesus day, the Romans were the one’s who possessed the Holy Land.  They were the powerful and proud ones.  They used violence to subdue the Jews and anyone who resisted them.  Some in Israel wanted to use violence to rise up and overthrow the Romans.  Jesus says, no.  It is not the violent or proud or powerful who will possess the land.  It is the humble, the gently, the meek.  These are the kind of people who will possess the Holy Land.  In fact, they will possess the whole earth when God's Kingdom comes on earth.  So, you are blessed if you are humble, gentle, and meek.

Psalm 37:7-9 – “Be still in the presence of the Lord, and wait patiently for him to act.  Don’t worry about evil people who prosper or fret about their wicked schemes.  Stop being angry!   Turn from your rage!  Do not lose your temper—it only leads to harm.  For the wicked will be destroyed, but those who trust in the Lord will possess the land.”

Matthew 5:6
God blesses those who hunger and thirst for justice, for they will be satisfied.

Most people know what it’s like to be really hungry.  Can you remember the last time you were famished?  Or what about a time you were truly parched?

One day, some are going to be truly satisfied—like a starving man who finally gets food; like someone dying of thirst who finally gets cool, refreshing water.   Those who hunger and thirst for justice—for all that is wrong in the world to be made right—will finally be full and satisfied because God will make it all right.

Matthew 5:7
God blesses those who are merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

This one goes right down into the core of Christianity.  We say it every time we pray the Lord’s prayer.  “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

There are so many offences in this life that just cannot be repaid.  If we demand every wrong done is repaid in full, it will make our life (and everyone else’s) a living hell.  And at the end of it all, we will not be satisfied, because some debts cannot be repaid; they can only be forgiven.  So, you are blessed when you show mercy, because you will receive mercy too.  Do you want to be angry and full of pain and resentment all your life?   Or do you want to be at peace with God and yourself and the world around you?  You don't forgive for the sake of the one who wronged you; you forgive for the sake of your own peace of mind.

Matthew 5:8
God blesses those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.

If I were to put this in my own words, I would say it this way:  You’re blessed if you’re totally sincere, because you will actually see God.

When you’re your thoughts are pure, when you’re motives are pure, when you are totally sincere,
then you will see God.  Most of us have a long way to go on this.  Often, we don’t even know the impurities that lie within us.  We need God’s help to root them out.  The Christian journey is walking alongside Christ every day, allowing Him to reveal the impurities within us until we are totally sincere and blessed to actually see God, face to face.

Matthew 5:9
God blesses those who work for peace,
 for they will be called the children of God.

Most people agree a little more peace in the world would be nice.  Then we wouldn’t have wars and fighting.  The problem is:  you want things your way and I want things mine.  And this country wants this and that country wants that.  And it seems like the only way to settle it is to fight and see who comes out on top.  Of course, the one that comes out on top can’t stay on top forever.
The biggest, baddest bully grows old and weak and someone takes their place.  Even the strongest empires rise and eventually fall.  It always happens--always has, always will.

Jesus came to end all that.  He came to bring true peace.  It’s not a peace where the weakest people must submit to the strongest rulers.  It’s a peace where we all finally live in a right relationship with our loving Creator God—as we were originally intended to live.

God's true children spend their lives working to bring this kind of peace on earth, more and more.

Matthew 5:10
10 God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.

Living for God and doing the right thing may make you blessed in God’s Heavenly Kingdom, but it may not feel much like it in this world.  In fact, it may make you a lot of enemies in this world.  Those who want to remain in darkness will fight to keep your light from exposing them. Even if you aren't overtly calling them out on their wrong behavior, your righteous life exposes their unrighteousness.  So, if you are truly living for Jesus, people who aren’t will mock you, persecute you, lie about you, and say all sorts of evil things because you follow Jesus.  But don’t worry about it, because you are blessed.  The Kingdom of Heaven is yours.  And Jesus said in Matthew 5:11-12:

Matthew 5:11-12
11 “God blesses you when people mock you and persecute you and lie about you and say all sorts of evil things against you because you are my followers.
 12 Be happy about it! Be very glad! For a great reward awaits you in heaven. And remember, the ancient prophets were persecuted in the same way.

The Kingdom of God is Not of this World
As we review what Jesus said about who is truly blessed—supremely blessed and happy—we can clearly see Jesus’ definitions are not at all the same as the world’s.

You can strive to be blessed according to this world’s definitions.  You can strive for:
wealth, comfort, power, prosperity, and selfish fulfillment.  But this world and what it stands for is passing away.  At most, you may have 100 years to scrape and scratch and fight to hold onto the things of this world.  But the end will come.  You will have to stand before God and give an account for your life.  And then you will have all eternity to answer for it.

But those who repent and turn to Jesus, turn their back on this world and its values.  They become children of God and royal priests in the Kingdom of God.  And Jesus atones for all their sins.  They are made pure and righteous before God.  They offer mercy and receive mercy from God.  And theirs is the glorious Kingdom of God,  in which they will dwell for all eternity in everlasting life--where there will be no more sin or sickness or suffering or sorrow or death.

Which Kingdom do you choose?  The kingdoms of this world or the Kingdom of God?

If you choose God's Kingdom, pray to Him today.  Ask Him to forgive you.  Promise to follow Jesus from this day forward.  Thank Him and receive His Holy Spirit to lead you and guide you and empower you to live for Jesus every day.