28/2/01 Ash Wednesday : Matthew 6:1-21, 2 Cor. 5:20b-6:10
A new missionary recruit went to Venezuela for the first time. He was struggling with the language and didn't understand a lot of what was going on. Intending to visit one of the local churches, he got lost, but eventually got back on track and found the place. Having arrived late, the church was already packed. The only pew left was the one on the front row.
So as not to make a fool of himself, he decided to pick someone out of the crowd to imitate. He chose to follow the man sitting next to him on the front pew. As they sang, the man clapped his hands, so the missionary recruit clapped too. When the man stood up to pray, the missionary recruit stood up too. When the man sat down, he sat down. During the preaching, the recruit didn't understand a thing. He just sat there and tried to look just like that man in the front pew.
Then he worked out that the preacher was giving announcements. People clapped, so he looked to see if the man was clapping. He was, and so the recruit clapped too. Then the preacher said some words that he didn't understand and he saw the man next to him stand up. So he stood up too. Suddenly a hush fell over the entire congregation. A few people gasped. He looked around and saw that nobody else was standing. So he sat down.
After the service ended, the preacher stood at the door shaking the hands of those who were leaving. When the missionary recruit stretched out his hand to greet the preacher, the preacher said, in English: "I take it you don't speak Spanish."
The missionary recruit replied: "No I don't. It's that obvious?"
"Well yes," said the preacher, "I announced that the Acosta family had a newborn baby boy and would the proud father please stand up." ( Copyright 1999 Gibson Productions )
Almost all of us live two lives: what people see outside and what is really going on inside. At school we learn what outward signs of attention will please the teacher. In a job we learn to "put up a good front" whenever the boss happens to stroll by. As if donning masks, we style our hair, choose our clothes, and use body language to impress those around us. Over time, we learn to excel at hiding truly serious problems. People tend to judge by outward appearances and so can easily be fooled.
Matthew Chapters 5-7 announce that the time has come for us to change not just the outside, but the inside. In Jesus' day, religious people tried to impress each other with showy outward behavior. They ostentatiously gave money, wore gaunt and hungry looks during a brief fast, prayed grandly if people were watching, and went so far as to wear Bible verses strapped to their foreheads and left arms.
In his famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus blasts the hypocrisy behind such practices. God is not fooled by appearances. We cannot fake behaviour to impress him. He knows that inside the best of us lurk dark thoughts of hatred, pride, jealousy and lust - internal problems only he can deal with. Jesus goes on to present a truly radical way of life, free of pretense.
These three chapters, among the most analyzed in the entire Bible, present a fresh view of the world. In one sense, Jesus says, the truths presented here are not new: They fulfill, rather than abolish the Old Testament law. In another sense the way of life described is more radical than anything before or since. Jesus' words turn many normal assumptions upside down. With statements like, "Blessed are the poor in spirit ... those who mourn ... the meek ... the peacemakers ... those who are persecuted," Jesus attacks those who strive to build a good image by appearing powerful, successful, and assertive.
In today's reading Jesus deals with three spiritual disciples, perhaps the reason that this reading has been chosen for the start of lent. He deals with giving, praying, and fasting. Each discipline is addressed in an identical way.
1. Jesus assumes his disciples will give, pray, and fast.
2. He warns not to do these things in order to impress people.
3. He guarantees that those who try to impress people will receive their reward, that is to say, be noticed.
4. He gives instructions to give, pray, and fast secretly.
5. He assures his disciples that what God sees in secret he will reward openly. The reward could be in time or eternity, in happiness or in character building.
Jesus said we are to give secretly to those in need. God will see this and reward those who give. This contradicts the way of the world which says that success is about popularity. That you achieve happiness and security by storing up money, only giving away what you feel you have to. In Jesus' time money was given away to impress others. Today people may give money out of guilt or duty.
What we do with our money shows what, or who we really trust in. Jesus tells us that what is inside is important, not what we have.
Those of you who were at the P.C.C. on Monday night will know that our church finances are far from healthy. For 2001 we need to receive £460 per week in the collection plate, but in 2000 the average was £290.
The Bible says we are to give generously and happily. Not just out of our surplus, but giving to God first and trusting him to supply our needs. Although our giving is to be in private, God knows what we give, and what this says about our prioritties.
Jesus said we are to pray secretly. This is the mark of true discipleship. It doesn't matter if you can pray out loud eloquently at the front of church, or in a prayer meeting, if those prayers are insincere and not accompanied by private prayer. Jesus said that we would not impress God with many words but with a sincere heart.
It is important for us to come into God's presence to worship him for who he is, to praise him for what he has done, to confess our sins, and to intercede for our friends, families and neighbours, for our church locally and across the world, for those who are in need throughout the world.
Jesus expects his disciples to fast in secret. To give no clue that they are fasting. The Pharisees fasted twice a week accompanied by a hang-dog expression and a failure to wash or shave so that people would notice them.
Fasting can be helpful for us today. It can sharpen our prayer life, making us aware of God, showing him that we mean business, and that there is more to life than the material.
A fast does not have to last long. Joan of Arc would fast until lunch time. We could do that regularly, or build up to fasting for longer periods. It is worth reminding ourselves at the start on Lent that our Lord fasted for forty days in the wilderness.
The Sermon on the Mount is about living solely for God and not for appearances. So we can bring our inner and outer lives together.
As we enter Lent we might like to consider how we can give, pray, and fast in the light of Jesus' words. We can do this in a way that can transform millions of lives. How ?
We can give financially to those in need. Financial support is still needed following the earthquakes in El Salvador and India, even though they have disappeared from the news. As I mentioned earlier, our church needs more money given on a regular basis to enable it to keep going.
We can pray and fast for El Salvador and India, for our church's future, and for individuals. At the P.C.C. we discussed praying and fasting for Valda as a church. We are inviting everyone to do this each Wednesday in Lent. People can do this in whatever way that they feel led, but there will be an opportunity to pray during our Lent Course which will start next Wednesday at 8 p.m. in the Church Hall. We can also pray for Bert Hikin, who will be undergoing surgery following two recent bouts of chemotherapy. We can pray for others known to is who are unwell, such as John and Ann Mottram.
Do other people see what we are really like inside?
How do our friends try to impress each other?
How can I be different this Lent for God ?