Piety and Prayer – February 26, 2023, First Sunday in Lent
Psalm 113, Matthew 6:1-15
February 26, 2023
Last week, we left Jesus on the mountain preaching his famous sermon, and we went with him to another mountain, the mountain of the Transfiguration. And I suppose they could be the same mountain, though the Bible doesn’t say, and there are many mountains in that part of the world!
At any rate, today, we’re going back to the previous mountain. And we’re looking again at Jesus’ words from his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” And if you remember, the last thing I talked to you about from that sermon, was that “righteousness matters.” Do you remember that? I said that being like Jesus does matter. Aiming for righteousness is important. And it is a better way to live!
I hope you took that to heart. As I said, too many Christians think righteousness is unachievable, and they use that as an excuse not to bother. “Besides, it can’t be all that important, anyway. Can it?”
Well, as I said before, It can, and it is! But as we thought about all that, I mentioned – very briefly – these words of Jesus that begin our passage for today. Sometimes I go by things quickly and they might not be as memorable. So here they are again. Jesus says, “Beware of practicing your piety before men, in order to be seen by them.” Now, my Thesaurus – actually, the Thesaurus button on my computer – says that “piety” is “Goodness, faithfulness, and Godliness.” And after my previous sermon, I would add “Righteousness.”
And as we think about piety, the first thing I want you to notice here, is that Jesus didn’t stop with, “Beware of practicing your piety before men.” He continued. He said, “…in order to be seen by men.” You see, I believe we are to practice our piety. We are to be the example. We are to be Christ’s ambassadors. We are to be the light of the world. We are to live our faith visibly, in order to show the world that our faith works, and in order to glorify God and promote his kingdom!
But! It’s the attitude of our piety that’s important! And the attitude of our piety is to be one of humility. That’s what Jesus was saying. The attitude of our righteousness is to be an unassuming thing. We aren’t righteous only so the world can see us as righteous. We aren’t pious in order to be recognized and praised for our piety. We are pious, we are “good and faithful and godly,” so that God’s kingdom is shown in our lives, and so that others will realize that we are his, and so that people will see that it is a better way to live!
Jesus then continues that admonition by bringing up the subject of prayer. And he talks along the same lines. “Do not pray like the hypocrites.” he said. “Do not stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners in order to be seen by men.” There’s that phrase again!
“On the contrary.” he says, “Go into your room and shut the door.” Now again, that doesn’t mean we should avoid praying in public. That doesn’t mean we should shy away from prayer. We are still the example. We are still the city set on a hill. But as always, with Jesus, it’s a matter of attitude. We need to keep in mind why we are praying? And it should not be, as Jesus said, “…in order to be seen by men.”
Now, I know we preachers – we worship leaders – are called upon to lead prayers. And I always try to emphasize that it is just that. It is leading prayer. It is not “praying for.” When the pastor prays, we all should be praying! That might mean waiting in silence. It might mean sitting and concentrating on God’s presence. It might mean agreeing with what is being prayed – with an “Amen.” It might mean adding silent prayers to what is being said.
Sometimes a Sunday morning prayer is offered as what is called a “leading prayer.” That’s when the leader begins a subject in prayer and then leaves time for everyone else to pray silently for that concern. But even when it’s not a “leading prayer” the leader is still “leading prayer.”
Of course, the problem is the same as it is with piety and righteousness. Sometimes Christians don’t see the power, or the efficacy – the effectiveness – of prayer. Or they don’t see themselves as being very “spiritual.” So they “don’t bother.” And, as with many parts of our faith, I suspect there are more “not bothering” people in this world than there are people who intentionally avoid prayer. Let’s not be “don’t bother” people! We need to “bother!”
So then Jesus teaches us how to pray! And this is what I wanted to lead up to. And no, I’m not going to take this step by step, because a sermon on the true depths of the “Lord’s Prayer” would take hours! Maybe days. But I’ll just hit a highlight or two.
First of all, I want to emphasize the introduction to this prayer. Jesus says, “Do not heap up empty words and phrases.” Because it’s not the words of our prayers that matter but the attitude! In fact, sometimes it’s not words at all. Sometimes it’s listening. And sometimes it’s venting! And sometimes it’s even singing!
In all of that, one thing to keep in mind is what Jesus also says here. “Your father knows what you need even before you ask.’” That doesn’t mean we aren’t to ask. Because one of the most important parts of prayer is our interaction with God! As I’ve said before, when we pray, when we confess, it’s not as if we’re telling God something he doesn’t already know! But we tell him anyway! It’s a matter acknowledging our need before him. It’s humbling ourselves in our confession. It’s attitude, isn’t it!
And so we don’t “heap up empty words.” Prayer doesn’t have to be complex. This prayer Jesus gave us is a simple prayer, isn’t it? But it’s powerful. And of course, the greatest part of its power is that we have to mean it! That’s also the hardest part. That’s the part we can never stop working on! We pray this prayer every week. And yet, how much do we really mean it from one time to the next?
So think about this simple prayer. First, we acknowledge God’s holiness. We acknowledge God’s power. “Hallowed be thy name.” Then we acknowledge God’s sovereignty. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Again, do we really mean that?
Then we ask God for things. That’s the word “supplication.” “Give us this day our daily bread.” And notice the daily nature of that request! It’s not “Give us always.” It’s “this day.” “Daily.” They couldn’t gather more than a day’s worth of Manna in the wilderness. God wanted them to know their daily reliance on him!
And then there’s forgiveness. And that’s attached to the previous sentence with the conjunction, “and.” And it becomes, “And forgive us – daily – as we forgive others.” Those two things go hand in hand! And it’s the daily interaction with God that’s important!
The last “petition” is that God protect us from evil. “Keep us from temptation and deliver us from evil.” (I said it that way because “lead us not into temptation” is too often misunderstood as God “tempting us.”)
Then lastly, Jesus circles back to his beginning statement about the sovereignty of God. “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory – forever!”
That’s it! It’s a really simple prayer! But it’s powerful in that way. And it puts us in proper perspective with God, doesn’t it? It is God who is sovereign, not us! Remember we just said, “Thy will be done.” We can tell God what we want – and we should! But we can’t tell God what to do. And we can’t tell God what should or should not be right or wrong! Too many people don’t want anybody deciding such things for them, much less a God! So they avoid God! (And church, for that matter!)
But too often, even within church circles, too much theological discussion is spent deciding what we’re comfortable with God being, rather than finding out what God really is! And we are much better off when we recognize that we’re not in charge! We are much better off when we seek to discover what God is like, rather than deciding what we want him to be like! It is a much better way of living when we recognize that it’s God who’s God, not us!
So, God is God. And we are his ambassadors! And when we say we are his, everything we do reflects on his kingdom. Isn’t that a great thought for the Lenten season! When we say we are God’s people, everything we do reflects on his kingdom. And that means all of us! Not just those of us who are leaders!
So, consider all these things Jesus said that day. Think about piety. Think about prayer. Think about the attitude of those things. Remember that God is God. Know that he is sovereign. Seek him daily. Remember that, how you live, shows his kingdom to the world. And remember, in all things, to give him the glory!
Eternal God, you have indeed called us to be your people. Help us to live as you would have us live. Help us to be people who show your kingdom to the world. Help the world to see through us that you have given us a better way to live. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever, Amen.