Treasures

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!

“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

Matthew 6:19-24

In the ancient near-East, possessions such as fine clothes, precious stones and food were considered necessary to lessen anxieties and insecurity about the future. Jesus sees it differently, for from His point of view, these things do not bring about security in any way, for all can be lost, stolen or ruined in this very difficult and unpredictable world.

In the previous several verses, Jesus has been hammering away at a principle found in Matthew 6:1, namely that we should not be pious or religious to impress others with our great righteousness, for this is not the sort of righteousness that God is interested in. Rather, God is interested in a people who will follow Him, worship Him, and have relationship with Him. Jesus has illustrated this principle with three examples; giving to the needy, prayer and fasting, and now in these verses, Jesus addresses the money issue.

The accumulation of possessions does not increase a person’s security or safety; money cannot buy us years of life or a moment’s happiness. Following God in close relationship on the other hand, can ensure an eternity of riches in heaven, that nothing can guarantee on this earth, and while there is nothing inherently wrong or evil about either money or possessions, the love of either can (and will) obstruct our relationship with God, placing our eternal future at risk. Can a moment’s comfort on earth be worth risking eternity in heaven?

Sounds like a bad idea to me, and Jesus would seem to agree.

Here’s an interesting thing to consider: If you go back to the beginning of the chapter and carefully read the three examples Jesus has given, you will notice that in each one, He has given us some clear ideas about how to store up some treasure in heaven…

Take a look for yourself!

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Fasting

When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:16-18

In Jesus’ day, fasting was a popular, common and much valued spiritual discipline, the Pharisees for instance fasted twice per week, usually on Mondays and Thursdays. It was also a part of certain festivals, such as on the Day of Atonement, and people would often fast individually as a sign of their religious devotion; Jesus would seem to have no problem with this practice. With this in mind, let’s also remember that this is now His third example of the principle He put forth in 6:1…

The difficulty that arose here is that not only was fasting used as a spiritual practice, it was also used to impress others with one’s spirituality. In that vein, I can tell you that I know of two kinds of people who regularly fast: The ones who do it to impress others, and the ones who do it the way Jesus taught. The thing is, I can give names of people in the first group, but I have no idea who belongs to the second… and that is precisely how Jesus wanted it.

I’ve been asked many times if we, as Christians should fast, and all I can really say to that is that if the Lord leads you to fast, then you had best do so, but make sure I never hear of it. I have also been asked to attend sessions where a group gets together for “fasting and prayer” to pray for such and such. I attended one of these once, I left early, and I’ve never done it again. You are free to draw your own conclusions…

So what am I really saying about fasting?

If the Lord leads you to fasting, then obey His leading and fast. If the Lord leads a group to fasting and prayer and you are one of those being led in that direction, then do it. If not, then don’t and don’t concern yourself about what the others think of you, because f you do, then you are the hypocrite.

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“This, then, is how you should pray”

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

For if you forgive other people 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.

Matthew 6:9-15

Keeping the context of 6:1 in mind, take a look at this prayer, what do you see?

Do you see “look at me”? Do you see “gimme the goodies”?

Hardly.

What we can see here is humility, putting God’s purpose first and foremost, necessities forgiveness, and overcoming the evil one; it is elegant in its simplicity.

We are addressing the Father in heaven, acknowledging His glory and giving Him honor, and then asking for His kingdom to come in its fullness, where His will be the only will that is done on earth, just like in heaven. Notice that this doesn’t leave all that much room for my own will to be done, in fact, my will and your will are not mentioned at all.

There is a request that God would provide for us, a humble request to be sure, and then a request for God’s forgiveness as we forgive others; a scary thought for many, I might add. Finally, we are to ask God not to lead us into temptation, but to deliver us from the evil one, again a request of supreme humility. When you put this all together, Jesus is teaching us to pray in a manner that is entirely foreign to the religious life of His time, and a lot more foreign in our own time than we might like to think about, with only God’s will being mentioned.

After this, Jesus goes on to expand a little bit on the whole subject of forgiveness making a conditional statement in verse 15, which must have blown the minds of the Pharisees and their gang of friends. Truly, this is radical now as it was back then.

Was it Jesus’ intention that we simply recite these words over and over? I really doubt it; I see this as a model for prayer, the elements to be included in prayer, rather than something to be memorized and recited to the absence of anything else, particularly when we lose what He is actually saying here. Of course, I would never say that there is anything wrong with reciting these verses, or any verses.

Here’s some homework: Reflect and pray on these verses, asking Him to reveal them in their fullness to you. I think you’ll find this to be a fascinating exercise in spiritual practice. Next time, we’ll see what Jesus says about fasting.

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Prayer

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

Matthew 6:5-8

For us to properly understand these verses, and the ones to follow, we need to be reminded of what Jesus was talking about in this entire section; He set the context in 6:1:

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

If we remember this context, and that prayer is His second illustration for this point (after giving to the needy) then the significance of these verses becomes quite stark, even convicting for many of us.

Prayer, talking with God, the very core of our relationship with God, is not intended to be a public spectacle. It is not something you do to impress your family and friends with how righteousness you are; it is never to be a “look at me” kind of thing in whatever form the “look at me” might take. In fact, there really is no part of our relationship with God that is “public” except that others will see the results of our closeness as He works through us to accomplish His purpose.

I hope that doesn’t sound too harsh; but to be fair, I’m being more diplomatic than Jesus was!

With all of that said, there is of course an important role to be played by corporate prayer and worship, but clearly that isn’t what Jesus is referring to here.

Let’s be honest, when these verses are considered in context, they really don’t need much explanation, but I would like to add a note on prayer and relationship with God. God created each one of us, He knows each of us better than we know ourselves, and He comes to us where we are, relating to us in the way that He knows is most likely to be meaningful and significant. As a consequence, He relates to each one of us a little differently; there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to our relationships with Him, and anyone who tries to tell you that your relationship with Him must be like such and such is making a mistake, for our God is much bigger than that. In hearing people describe their relational experiences with God, I am often amazed by what I hear, they are so different from my own rather matter-of-fact “conversations” with Him, yet they are precious to the one describing them, just as mine are to me… and this is perfectly fine, perfectly normal, right and proper.

Yet God’s relational method is never just to make us look impressive to other people; that is the point Jesus is making here.

Next time we will continue in this passage, and in doing so, we will arrive at what is often called “The Lord’s Prayer”. I hope we will all keep this context in mind as we look at it, for in context, it is even more amazing than we might have thought… see you then!

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Giving to the Needy

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Matthew 6:2-4

There is a natural quality within most human beings to read an injunction like that in the verses above, and make a sort of legal check-list, so let’s be very clear about Jesus’ intentions in this teaching: He is not making a set of rules, procedures or protocols about how to give to those in need. Instead, He is speaking directly to our inner motivation for giving. Notice that whether or not to help those in need is not even mentioned; it is assumed.

The ones He has dubbed “hypocrites” are helping with a motivation for self aggrandizement, they want the praise and respect of their peers, to bolster their social positions. It would seem that this might impress “society” but it doesn’t have quite the same impact on the Lord. These folks wanted to impress their peers, and evidently they have their wish; and that’s all they will get.

In the Kingdom of Heaven, God wants His people to help those in need because they love God and their fellow Men, not for any worldly ulterior motive. Consider this: Has your relationship with God ever grown closer because you were praised by men? Everyone likes a little praise now and then, and a little recognition can go a long way to encourage people along the right path, but simply doing things to become popular never quite seems to bring anyone closer to God, for God doesn’t operate that way.

Quiet sacrifice for His Kingdom’s sake, on the other hand, will bring us closer to Him if we desire nothing in return for our sacrifice. The Kingdom is a place of love, community and healing precisely because the human motivation for self advancement is not present. Where this has not largely taken hold, there is little healing to be had, and love is merely discussed in academic terms.

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Sunday Sermon Notes: June 9, 2019

Title: For as Long as it is Called ‘Today’

Text: Hebrews 3

Therefore, holy brothers and sisters, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we acknowledge as our apostle and high priest. He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything.  “Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house,” bearing witness to what would be spoken by God in the future.  But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.

Hebrews 3:1-6

Chapter 3 begins with a summing up from the previous chapter: Fix your thoughts on Jesus!  We acknowledge Him as our “apostle and high priest.” The next sentence is the transition to a comparison between Jesus and Moses…

“Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses” which really sets Jesus apart as an important figure in the Jewish mindset, for apart from Abraham, nobody would have been considered greater than Moses.  “Just as the builder of a house is greater than the house itself” is the comparison between the two. In saying that Moses was faithful as a servant in God’s house, but God is the owner of the house, and Jesus is the owner’s Son and Heir; Moses was working for Him. Thus, Jesus is far greater than Moses.  While Jesus is “over” God’s house, and Moses was a servant in God’s house, we are God’s house, if  “we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.”

Moses served in God’s house. We are God’s house.

Once again, we see a stark contrast between the relationship of Old Testament Israel and God, and the New Testament Church and God; the two are profoundly different.  Israel consisted of God’s covenant people, His Nation on earth.  He was their God and they were His people.  They did not, however have eternal life, the removal of sins or a direct relationship with God.  Christians have these things and more, because while the Israelites were born into their covenant as a function of biology, we are born again into a covenant relationship as a function of the life force of the Holy Spirit within us, and as a result, we are not just His people, but His children, whom Jesus calls brothers; Israel was God’s people, we are God’s family.

This is great news indeed, and I hope you are filled with joy at the thought… BUT… this is very much a conditional statement, for there is a great big IF in the middle of it. Depending on your doctrinal positions, you might start feeling a little uneasy right about now, but I would encourage you to recognize that this is not simply “Don’s crazy thinking” here, for you might have noticed that the rest of the chapter is another warning… and I’m not making that up, obviously.  Of course, you are free to see things differently than I do.

The IF is this: …if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory. What is this hope in which we glory business?  Does he mean just a hopefulness about things in general, or does this specifically refer to something?  Jesus is our hope for glory; our author is making remaining faithful as followers of Jesus a condition for the promises.  In the verses that follow, which will be our next subject, you will see that our author cites examples from the Old Testament that back this up, so if this statement of mine seems unsettling to you, I sure hope you’ll read on…

So, as the Holy Spirit says:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
  do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
    during the time of testing in the wilderness,
where your ancestors tested and tried me,
    though for forty years they saw what I did.
 That is why I was angry with that generation;
    I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
    and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
    ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ 

Hebrews 3:7-11; cf Psalm 95:7-11

As we begin, we need to recall that this is an expansion on the conditional statement in verse 6: “And we are his house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” (Heb. 3:6b)

These verses taken from Psalm 95 recount the experience of the people in the wilderness.  You’ll remember that they kept trying God’s patience, complaining, rebelling and being disobedient in the extreme, and of all those who were saved out of Egypt, only two of them were allowed to enter the rest, the Promised Land. Not even Moses was permitted to enter into it; they all perished in the wilderness.  God had promised to deliver Abraham’s descendants out of Egypt, which He did, and into the Promised Land, which He did, even though of the ones who left Egypt, all save 2 died en route.  Yet a vast number did enter the Land, but they were born during the 40 years between the exodus from Egypt and the entry into the Land, and thus we can see that God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional for the group called the descendants of Abraham, but conditional to the individuals within the group. God kept His promise to the Israelites in the Wilderness, in spite of the fact that most of them turned their backs on Him and never entered… see how this worked?

See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice,
    do not harden your hearts
    as you did in the rebellion.”

Hebrews 3:12-15

As our attention is turned back to the “here and now” the author issues a challenge to his readers.  They are to “see to it” that they aren’t led to turn their backs on God.  Instead, they are told to “encourage one another daily, as long as it is called ‘Today'”.  As I read it, this reference to “Today” tells us that this is a command that is not just for the recipients of the letter, but for all generations until Jesus returns: Encourage one another daily, lest any should fall away from their faith!  This seems to harmonize nicely with the injunction that we love one another, don’t you think?  How can we love one another and not encourage and help our brother or sister in times of trial and testing?

With that warm and cheerful mental image of love, encouragement and community, the author drops another conditional statement: We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original conviction firmly to the very end. “Share in Christ” refers to all that we have attained in Him: Salvation, forgiveness, freedom, joy, hope, peace, sonship, eternal life, God’s family, co-heirs… all of it… IF… we hold onto our faith until the “very end.”  Then, he repeats the warning from the Psalm…

 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies perished in the wilderness? And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyed? So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

Hebrews 3:16-19

Hold on to your faith until the very end!  This is the clear message for both his original recipients in Nero’s Rome, undergoing persecution often unto death, and it is also the clear message to us today.  The various theologies might dispute what the alternative is, but all agree that we must hold on to our faith.

By now, three chapters into Hebrews, you should see the pattern: Something wonderful, followed by a warning, and then something wonderful…  What an amazing letter!  I hope you’ll also be seeing that it is not a theoretical kind of book, it is real, living and alive with vitality, the kind of life and vitality that can change a person’s outlook on life itself.

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Relationship With God

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Matthew 6:1

Thus far in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus has been showing the people how to have a better form of righteousness in their relationships and dealings with others, now He shifts the focus to show them a better relationship with God. The people of His day were used to a form of righteousness that was centered upon showing others how righteous you are, and maybe that is still the case; I’ll leave that to others to debate. It is Jesus’ clear purpose to teach something quite revolutionary and different.

The first sentence of this verse tells the story: “be careful” tells us right off that we are to be intentional in this, intentional not to practice acts of righteousness or “piety” in front of an audience. Why is that? Because it does not matter what other people think of your level of righteousness, for they have nothing to say on the subject; even when they talk quite a lot. It is only important that God knows where you are, and He knows what we do in private. That first sentence continues to the point: “…in front of others to be seen by them” tells us that if the whole reason we are doing something is to impress people, then we have a problem.

Years ago I worked in a place where everyone was made aware that on Christmas Day the boss served meals in a homeless shelter. It was common knowledge that one way to get ahead in the organization was to do the same; there was a fair amount of not so subtle pressure to be there on Christmas when the boss was there… To be sure, what the boss was doing at the shelter was a good thing, but then quite a few “movers and shakers” were there making a point on Christmas, but who was there the day after and the day after that? Christmas isn’t the only day of the year on which a person must eat. No, the gesture was merely a political one; I didn’t participate in it.

The second sentence of this verse tells the story about what Jesus is trying to impress upon His listeners: If we perform acts of righteousness simply to impress other people, then we will not receive a reward from our Father, for we have received our due from the people we have impressed with our “goodness”. Again, many people do good deeds for the wrong reasons, and let’s be honest, the guy in the homeless shelter is just happy to have a warm meal. Yes, that may be “good” but it isn’t righteousness in God’s sight. Rather, it is the same thing as trying to attain righteousness by our own ability to keep the Law instead of having faith in God.

God wants a people who do the right things when nobody else is looking, who do the right things not for worldly advantage, but because they love God and they love others: Radical indeed!

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