You might remember that we have been looking at “living like Jesus” and using the Sermon on the Mount as a guide to Jesus’ values and Jesus’ lifestyle.
Matthew 6 starts with an introduction: Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them. Jesus then used three examples of acts of righteousness: giving to the needy, prayer and fasting. Today we will consider prayer and fasting but, before we do, we have a little problem.
In 5:16 Jesus said, Let our light shine before others, that they may see our good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. A few verses later, and in the same sermon, Jesus said, “Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others to be seen by them.” Who are we going to believe – Jesus or Jesus?
The difference between those two statements is the motivation. Why are we doing it? In the first one, we let our actions be seen so that God may receive glory. In the second, it is because we want to be seen. We want glory. Why do we do things publicly? Is it so that God will receive glory or so that we receive glory? A.B. Bruce has said we should ‘show when tempted to hide and hide when tempted to show’. Do you get that? Sometimes we are tempted to hide our light under a bushel – hide our faith, be a secret Christian – and Jesus says, “Let your light shine. Let people see so that God might receive glory.”
Other times, we are tempted to make a display of our goodness so as to applauded. At those times, Jesus says, “No, just do it secretly.”
Last time we looked at this, we noted that Jesus said that those who make a show of their acts of righteousness and receive honour have received all they will get. There will be no further reward from God. On the other hand, when things are done secretly, God sees that and He rewards it.
Let’s read Matt 6:5-18
As with giving, Jesus assumes that Christians will pray and will fast. He doesn’t say, “If you pray” but “When you pray” and “When you fast”. He regularly prayed. Many times we are told that Jesus prayed. Often He went away by Himself to pray. That ties in with the emphasis here on finding a quiet place by yourself. Sometimes He got up early and went out by Himself to pray. Sometimes He prayed all night.
We know of only one specific occasion when He fasted, but that was a 40-day fast, in the wilderness, prior to starting His ministry. I suspect though that fasting would have been a regular part of His lifestyle. Jesus was so sincere about His relationship with His Father and His ministry that I am sure there were times when He put prayer ahead of eating. Or, for example, when He prayed all night, He was fasting from sleep. Fasting might not mean not eating. It might be foregoing some other pleasure, or activity, in order to give that time to prayer.
Many Christians can testify to the benefits of fasting. For many it brings greater spiritual focus and awareness. They feel more spiritually alive. I believe it is a way of reminding ourselves that some things are more important than food. People do not live by bread alone. We tend to think that we must eat. Fasting puts things in perspective: no, actually prayer is more important. If we don’t eat for a while, it is incredible how much more time we have that we can give to prayer. Fasting is also a way of expressing to God our sincerity and seriousness. Sometimes people will fast when they are facing a particular issue or decision. That says, “God, I am desperate. God, I am crying out to you.”
Again, Jesus says here, “Don’t make a display of it so that people will be super-impressed with your deep spirituality. Dress normally, smile. Don’t look gloomy and sorry for yourself. Don’t draw attention to it.”
The same thing applies to prayer. In contrast to those who prayed in the synagogues and on the street corners “so as to be seen by others”, just go away by yourself and pray in secret. God sees that. God will reward that. This is not saying that we shouldn’t prayer together or that we shouldn’t pray in public. The Bible teaches that we should, but if our motivation is wrong, then the right thing to do is to go away and pray privately.
It is tempting to try to impress other people when we pray. I know that sometimes I realise I was more conscious of others listening to my prayer than I was of God listening. And I can try to craft a spiritual sounding prayer using fine words because I want people to think well of me. When that is the case, I should go away and pray privately where there is no temptation to impress others.
In any case, we should have times of quiet with God. Jesus often did. We should try to have a routine of quiet time with God. C.S. Lewis wrote, “…the very moment you wake up each morning…All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back, in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that larger, stronger, quieter life come rushing in.” (Gumbel, p.155)
I struggle to realise that prayer is more important than busyness. Some of you know John Daniel. I remember him quoting his wife, I think, saying, “Five minutes in prayer in the morning can save hours later in the day.” But we (or at least, some of us) tend think that we must get on with the tasks.
Five hundred years ago, before all the distractions of radio and iPads and newspapers, Martin Luther said, “It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business of the morning… Guard yourself carefully against those false, deluding ideas that tell you, ‘Wait a little while. I’ll pray in an hour. First I must attend to this or that.’ Such thoughts get you away from prayer into other affairs, which so hold your attention and involve you that nothing comes of prayer for that day.” (Gumbel, p.155).
So, Jesus says, “Find a quiet place.”
His first warning was against doing it to attract attention. His second warning is against babbling. Some people think that the more their words, or the more flowery their words, or the louder their words, the more God will hear them. Jesus says, “Actually, God already knows what you need.” We don’t have to inform Him, or persuade Him, or brow-beat Him.
If God already knows, why do we need to pray at all? If God gave us everything we need without our asking, we would soon forget that we even need God. Prayer reminds us where the blessings really come from and that we must not take them for granted.
Then Jesus gave an example prayer. In English it is just 53 words long (57 words in the Greek). It can be prayed in less than 30 seconds. But let us see what it teaches.
Our Father in heaven. That phrase reminds us to whom we are talking. We are talking to a father – someone who loves us. It is a wonderful, warm, loving, strong, image that speaks of intimacy.
But, at the same time, it is our Father in heaven. This Father is no ordinary father. This Father lives in heaven. He is the God of all creation; the God who reigns over all. In prayer, we can speak to God. That is incredible. We can speak to God. And He loves us. And we can talk intimately to Him.
Hallowed be your name. May Your name be holy and revered. May You receive all honour.
Notice how our first desire in prayer is that God is honoured. In our society, people do not even think about God, let alone thank Him and praise Him. God is ignored and treated with contempt. This prayer is that that might change. Do you pray that God will be honoured as He should be?
But if I pray that prayer, then it applies to me as well. Father, may I give you honour. May my life cause people to acknowledge and respect You. May people see my good deeds and give you the glory.
May Your Kingdom come. May Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. In heaven, God’s will is obeyed perfectly. May it be like that on earth. May God be acknowledged as King and may all people serve Him faithfully. Our second desire in prayer is that God may reign.
What is it like in God’s Kingdom? There would be no concerns about mass surveillance because there would be no violence or crime that would require surveillance. There would be no selfishness or ambition that would cause people to viciously attack their opponents through bloggers. There would be no illness, no crime, no violence, no broken relationships. Jesus tells us to pray for those things now.
This world is a mess because we have rejected God’s ways, but God’s Kingdom will be perfect. In our prayers we are to long for the coming of God’s Kingdom. We benefit. Life will be much better for us. But it is also a prayer for God. May He be enthroned as King in the affairs of men and women. May He be honoured and loved and obeyed.
Applying it personally: Help me, Lord God, to do Your will. Be King in my life. This is a prayer of submission and obedience.
Give us today our daily bread. Notice that this whole prayer is plural – our Father… give us… forgive us. Having prayed for God’s glory it is not wrong to ask for our own daily necessities. This is not selfish. God wants us to ask. It is especially not selfish when we are praying on behalf of others – give us. We want everybody to have the things they need and we look to God as our provider.
The next line of the prayer is for our forgiveness. That is one of our most fundamental needs. We need to be forgiven. We need to be close to God, not distant from Him because of our sin.
There is, of course, a twist in the tail of this one. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive others.” Jesus reiterated that straight after teaching this prayer: For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your father will not forgive your sins.
Last week we heard the story of the servant who was forgiven a huge debt but refused to forgive a much smaller one. Because he was unforgiving, his forgiveness was revoked. We will be forgiven only as we forgive. It is not that we have to earn our forgiveness. It is that we are expected to recognise how much we have been forgiven and therefore to extend that same grace to others.
Jesus labours this point. It is important. The forgiveness we have received, we are expected to pass on.
The last request in the prayer is for protection against temptation.
Look at what is included in that prayer. These are the things Jesus says are important:
- God’s glory
- That he be honoured
- That he be obeyed
- Our daily necessities
- Our spiritual well-being; our holiness
- forgiveness for the past
- help to remain pure in the future.
What did Jesus prayer for? Think of some examples. Was it not exactly the things covered in this prayer? Let us pray like Jesus.
For many of us, prayer is a struggle. Many feel that their prayers are inadequate. Or we are easily distracted. But let us persevere. Jesus says it doesn’t have to impress people. It doesn’t have to be long. Just pray. Just talk to God about His glory and His Kingdom, about our daily needs and about our discipleship.