The Sermon on the Mount (continued)
Reading: Matthew 6:7-21
Last week we looked briefly at the Beatitudes, and then focussed on what it means to be salt and light. In short, we are called to be people of influence. We watched a movie this week about a gifted man who influenced the duration of the Second World War by cracking the German enigma codes. Like Churchill, one man made a huge difference.
I must admit that it left me with more than a lump in my throat. How much influence will I have? What difference will I make? – These were the thoughts that travelled home with me. The main character in the movie was treated badly and his life ended too early. It made me wonder how much people remember us for at the end of the day. Watch “The Imitation Game” – before or after the Oscars. This man was worth his salt. It is estimated that his work reduced the length of the war by some two years.
The Sermon on the Mount is a challenge to everything that undergirds modern life and society. The beatitudes of Matthew 5 are part of that challenge. The question is – are they a standard set for us to follow? Or all statements of fact? For example, tell me that the meek are inheriting the earth, and I’ll give you plenty of examples of where that is not true.
Tom Wright puts it like this: In our world, still, most people think that wonderful news consists of success, wealth, long life, victory in battle. Jesus is offering wonderful news for the humble, the poor, the mourners, the peacemakers. Wright, Tom (2014-03-20). Matthew for Everyone: Chapter 1-15, Part 1.
The beatitudes are not about happiness. They are about promises which are real now for Jesus’ followers – not just in “heaven” at the end if our lives. They are a taste of things to come. Jesus ushers in the upside-down Kingdom which is ultimately the right way around. The individual beatitudes require a lot more attention of course. Perhaps during Lent you could go back to them. In time we will investigate more about where and what heaven is and what the future holds (if we dare).
You have to read the rest of Matthew 5 to see how we are to be like Christ, who is ultimate salt and light, and that we all together are the new Israel who by following Jesus influence the nations (ethnicities?) around us with that flavour and light! All kinds of things crop up in chapter 5, especially reconciliation (which comes first before worship), and truth-telling. And turning the other cheek. And love for enemies. When you pray for those who persecute you, guess what? You are being children of God (“of your father in heaven!” vss 44-45). And here we read about being perfect (like that same heavenly father – vs 36). Being salt and light has broad implications indeed.
The key to understanding this business of where and what heaven is, is staring us in the face, or shining at us on a screen each Sunday. It’s in the Lord’s Prayer which the Narrative Lectionary includes in today’s reading.
Matthew chapter 6 starts with a general discussion on prayer and acts of righteousness (or piety). “When you pray” is about public and private prayer. Private prayer should not be showy. It’s not about impressing people or long repetitive prayers. After all, says Jesus, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Of course persistence seems okay under certain circumstances, as illustrated in the story of the widow and the unjust judge. (See Luke 18:2-8 – although this too has a twist at the end of the account).
And so we come to the Lord’s Prayer. The key to it all is in this directive in verse 9: “This, then, is how you should pray.” I don’t think it actually says: “this is what you should pray” – although I am totally committed to praying the Lord’s Prayer. In Luke 11:2-4, on the other hand, Jesus gives the same prayer, with some variations. If it is a matter of accurate repetition, we might have a problem choosing one of the two.
The prayer, then, is like a scaffolding to build on, or a framework (both terms come from Tom Wright). Wright says that Jesus may well have intended us to pray the prayer like the Jews did their prayers – three times a day using “short powerful prayers”. But it’s clearly more than that. It is a powerful outline of key issues in our following of Jesus.
Myron Augsburger writing about Matthew puts it like this: “The beauty of this prayer, called the Lord’s Prayer, has been honoured in both spoken word and in music. Across the lines of culture and language, the Lord’s Prayer has served as the model for Christians to approach God. No liturgy is complete without it and no prayer can surpass the scope of meaning contained in its simplicity.” Augsburger gives these as an outline of the key matters in the prayer:
- The honour that worship accords to God.
- The humility that recognises our dependence upon God.
- The hope that the rule of God creates.
Let us pray…
As we spend some reflective time in prayer today, let’s use this broad structure.
PRAYING – ABOUT GOD
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name (v9).
- Honour his name always in prayer before you do anything. Focus on God. To reverence His name is worship.
- He is our Father. Our relationship to Him is key. If you pray “our father” you are claiming John 1: 12 as yours.
- He is the living God, not an idol. He dwells “in heaven”. We are not to pray using mindless repetition of this prayer – we are to reach out in prayer to the living God who already knows our needs.
- Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (v10)
Here is the key we mentioned earlier. The kingdom comes here as the will of God is done here. Praying this means focussing on Him – seeking His will – and not just asking Him to bless our ideas and programmes.
What does it mean for His Kingdom to come?
- In my life? In your life?
- In your family
- In your suburb, your city, your nation
- In the world.
This takes us into a time of intercession for all of these people and places. We are to ask God to reign, to break through into each level of our life. What other areas could we include?
Read Matthew 6:33 as you reflect: But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
So much in chapter 6 challenges us about our priorities. It ends with this well know verse:
Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. (Matthew 6:34)
And so we proceed to the rest of the prayer which involves our needs.
PRAYING – ABOUT OURSELVES
The part of the prayer about us comes afterwards:
Give us today our daily bread. (v11) Here are some possibilities. You can add your own:
- Now we ask for our needs to be met
- This is bread sufficient for the day
- It includes money and whatever else we need for the day
- It reminds us that God provides – all the people in the supply of these things are working on His behalf (even though they may not recognise this)
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (v12)
Forgiveness is part of our Christian DNA as it were. The verses which follow the Lord’s Prayer spell that out clearly: For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14-15).
Give some thought this week to the difference between having our debts forgiven by God (as we do the same to others) and having our trespasses forgiven, as we commonly pray (see Matthew 6:12). Whichever translation you prefer or favour, when you pray, asking for forgiveness has got to be there somewhere. It’s not an option. Here are some considerations – again add you own areas which need work when it comes to forgiveness:
- Have you asked for forgiveness? Or are you usually in the right anyway? (In your view).
- Have you forgiven all?
- Have you forgiven yourself?
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (v13)
There is this clear warning that there is a battle on. (The Kingdom of God at hand – and the enemy reacts quite violently in the Gospel accounts). We need help.
- What persistent temptations do we need help and protection from?
- Where is evil/the evil one obviously at work?
- In what way are we seduced by evil?
- Remember Jesus prays for us in his regard in John 17:15. Read this at home.
- Remember Ephesians 6:16: In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Also read 1 John 2:14, and 2 Thessalonians 3:3. And of course read 1 Peter 5:8 – Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Amen