Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
Discipline is sort of an ugly word in our context. It has the connotation of punishment, or strictness. Maybe you think of a mean old school teacher who runs a tight ship in the classroom. Or maybe we think of the military as imposing discipline in new trainees, marching in step and keeping their uniforms flawless. You make like a little discipline. But who wants to be disciplined?
But discipline is a good thing for the Christian to practice. Self-discipline, as St. Paul taught it, for example, is not letting sin have mastery over you, but fighting it. Pressing on, like an athlete who disciplines himself for the race set before him. Christians are indeed, also like soldiers who must be disciplined for the fight we face – for the enemies rage about us.
And Lent is a good time to engage in such disciplines. It's no accident that our reading for Ash Wednesday, from the Sermon on the Mount, has Jesus teaching us about some particular Christian disciplines – fasting, praying, and giving. Surely, these are appropriate at any time for the people of God. But let's take a closer look as we begin the 40 day journey to the cross. This evening – let us consider Matthew 6 and “Lenten Disciplines”.
Jesus calls these disciplines, in general, “practicing your righteousness”. We do these things because we are righteous, not to earn righteousness. And we are righteous only by grace through faith in him. Nevertheless that faith produces works, and the word instructs us many things about how to do it all. We might call it the “third use of the law”. We might call it spiritual discipline. Or the good habits of faith. Or practicing righteousness. It flows from faith, and is instructed by Christ. Here, today, are three examples: giving, praying, and fasting.
The first spiritual discipline Christ teaches here is that of giving. And while he especially mentions giving to the poor and needy, we could expand the principle to include all the good causes a Christian endeavors to support with our giving. And such giving is a discipline.
We are taught by Scripture to give. We are taught to give in grateful response to the gifts we've been given, especially in Christ. We are taught principles of giving. For instance we are to give sacrificially, proportionately, joyfully, and of our first-fruits. And we are warned of the dangers of giving wrongly.
Many times Jesus encourages giving to the poor and needy, indeed teaching that in giving food or drink or clothing to even the least of these, we do it unto him.
Here, Jesus attacks the temptation to give in order to be seen. We are tempted to turn even the most righteous spiritual disciplines into an opportunity for self-serving, self-aggrandizing. Don't blow your own horn, Jesus warns. Do it in secret if you can, to avoid the temptation of doing it to be seen by men. And such discipline, anonymous giving, can help guard of from sin even in the practicing of our faith, and in the serving of others, and in our giving to God and our neighbor.
The next spiritual discipline he teaches is prayer. Of course the Christian prays. Scripture teaches us much about this activity of faith, the speaking to God in words and thoughts. The asking and thanking and confessing and adoring of God in our private and public prayers.
Here too, to avoid the temptation of doing it falsely, to be seen, he urges prayer be done in secret. Now, he's not telling us never to pray in public, or to pray with other Christians. Indeed, the very words of the “Our Father” indicate it is a corporate prayer – prayed by “us” to “our” Father.
The danger is in taking something good and holy – in this case prayer itself – and twisting it into a show, looking for glory, prattling on in order to impress others. If that's your temptation – then have some discipline, and control the temptation by making your prayers in private. For God will still see and hear, and answer according to his will. Thus, you are rewarded and not led into sin.
Neither is he critiquing the particular posture. Of course, we sometimes stand to pray out of respect. Sometimes we may kneel. But the point is, not to pray to be seen – no matter where or how – but rather as a deep expression of faith. Discipline yourself. Practice righteousness.
What is omitted from our text, but you surely well know, is the Lord's Prayer itself. Jesus says, “when you pray, pray then like this:” And gives us the model prayer. But more than a prayer to be repeated, the Lord's Prayer teaches us also about prayer – what to pray for – who God is, and what to expect from him. There is no better prayer to include in your Lenten discipline than that prayer he has given.
The next one Jesus mentions if fasting. Fasting and Lent were almost synonymous in the church for many years. The 40 days of Lent are indeed patterned after Jesus' own 40 days of fasting following his baptism. Most Lutherans I know don't practice fasting much nowadays, but a common practice with the same idea is “giving something up for Lent”. It might be a kind of fasting, a self-chosen self-denial of one thing or another.
There isn't any command or mandate that Christians fast a certain way or from certain foods at certain times. There is great freedom for the Christian when it comes to our personal practice of piety. Paul makes it clear that each Christian's spiritual discipline is his own: (from Romans 14)
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Take note, however, like the practices of giving and prayer, Jesus does assume his people will fast. He says, “when you fast...” not, “if you fast”. For the Christian who sets his mind on things above, and not on things of this earth, it seems only natural to have times of discipline that follow the pattern of our Lord and exert discipline in our lives. Fasting is a time-honored way for us to discipline ourselves in the faith.
He tells us not to fast in order to be seen by men, like the hypocrites do. This, too, is not an exercise in puffing oneself up, “hey everyone look at me”. Nor is it to earn merit or favor from God, however, at least not as some have tried to teach it. The reward that Jesus speaks of for fasting is not unto salvation. But it is the reward that discipline offers – deeper faith, better appreciation, a more grateful heart.
It can also bring us to greater joy in the gifts of God when the fast ends.
Take the example of a practice we have here at Messiah:
The church also“fasts” from its Alelluias during the Lenten season, only to welcome them back with joy on Easter.
Laying Up Treasures
And finally, what's this talk about laying up treasures? The contrast is clear. The things of earth are temporary and fleeting. They are treasures that cannot last. They are destroyed by moth and rust as time ravages on. They are stolen by thieves, or lost in some other way. You can't take it with you, they say, but many times you can't even keep it here. Food goes bad. Money slips away. Fame before men is fickle and fades. Even you, yourself are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Impermanence is just one reason Jesus directs our hearts away from the things below, to the things above. The things that last. The things of heaven. And so Christian disciplines like giving and prayer and fasting all serve this same end. To turn our eyes from below – to above.
To point us away from this earth which is passing away, and to turn our hearts toward Jesus – who will never die. To tune our ears to his promises, which will never be broken. To remind us of the hope of glory, where nothing fades but the righteous shine like stars forever.
Where your treasure is, there you heart will be also. Our treasures, Christians are not the things of this world which is passing away. Our treasures are things like: the Word of the Lord which endures forever. The resurrection of Christ, over whom death has no more dominion. The sacraments – by which Christ uses earthly things to do heavenly things. Common things, to bring heavenly treasures. And the Gospel itself, by which we are saved and through which the Spirit works to call and gather, to enlighten and sanctify. You have a treasure trove, a great hoard of heavenly goodies that moth or rust cannot destroy, that no thief can steal away. So set your heart here, on these, by faith. And discipline that faith all the more, practice your righteousness, this Ash Wednesday, this Lenten Season and always.
Thursday, February 15, 2018
Monday, February 12, 2018
February 11, 2018
“It's good to be here.” Peter is one of those guys who has to say something in every situation. When everyone else is puzzled or awed or too fearful to utter a sound, Peter's mouth opens up and the words just start flowing out. Maybe some of you can relate. Sometimes this works out well for Peter. He was, after all, the one to exclaim, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God”. Peter confesses boldly! Sometimes, not so much. But if there's a chance to say anything, odds are, Peter is going to be the one to say it. And so here on the mountain, with bright shining Jesus, with Moses and Elijah, a glorious glimpse of heavenly reality, Peter blurts out, “it is good to be here”.
And this time, his words convey more than he likely meant. This time, he spoke a truth more profound than he imagined. But in another way, these words leave something lacking, they beg for something more, they are a shadow of something even better, yet to come. Let's consider those words as a theme this morning, “It's good to be here”.
We say that phrase, or something like it, often enough. It's a throw away greeting, like, “nice to see you”. But even so, they're truer than we mean, aren't they? It's good to be here. It's good that God has created me and given me this life. It's good that God has placed me here, in this creation he called “good”. On this planet he created, with the sun and moon and land and sea and plants and animals. It's good to be here, another day, breathing and eating and working and playing – an existence we owe to God. Sometimes it's nice to stop and smell the roses of our very being – that God has made me, and still sustains me each day. This life is a gift. Thanks be to God.
And there are many places we'd rather not be. It's good to be here in a country that allows us the freedom to practice our faith. It's good to be here in a land of plenty, where we want for no bodily need. It's good to be here in a time of medical miracles, technological conveniences, and relative peace and prosperity that the world has never known. At least it's good on some level, and yet do we thank God for the gifts of his creation?
It's good to be here, wherever we are, but some places are better than others. And Peter found himself on a mountaintop – in more ways than one. It's a spectacle, for sure, something that must have gobsmacked this simple fisherman. But what does it mean? Why is it so good to be here?
“After six days...” the reading starts out. But that begs the question of context. What had happened just six days before? We read:
And he began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And he said this plainly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and seeing his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you bare not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.
The Transfiguration begins to look a little different in its immediate context. Peter had just confessed Jesus to be the Christ. Jesus began to tell them what that actually means – suffering, death, and a resurrection. Peter tried to rebuke him but Jesus made it clear – if anyone wants to follow him – it means self-denial, it means a cross, and then a resurrection.
Also after they came down from the mountain Jesus told them not to speak of it until after the resurrection. And they wondered amongst themselves what he meant by, “rising from the dead”.
Peter's words, “It's good to be here” show us the temptation common to all men – and sadly to many Christians – to see Christ's glory apart from the cross. We like the bright and the shiny. We like the successful and powerful. We like the mountaintop moments, the high points, the glory. But the cross? Suffering? No thanks, that's not for me. In fact when it came time for Jesus to die – most of his disciples scattered like roaches. Would they stand at the foot of the cross? Only John remained. Would they stay with Jesus then, and say, “It's good to be here?” No.
And you can see this in the churches people flock to, and the books that sell in Christian book stores, and the preachers that get all the media attention and the examples that are held up for us of growth and health and success. But if there is no cross – it's a sham, and a shame. If there's no Christ crucified for sinners, all the worldly glitz and glamor, all the bright and shiny trappings of success are only a distraction and a detriment. They can get behind Jesus, Satan. No cross means no Christ.
Yes, it's good to get a peek behind the veil. Yes it's good to see Moses and Elijah testifying to Christ. Yes it's good to see a glimpse of his true glory as the Son of God, and to hear the Father's voice confirming it. Yes, in a sense, it's good to be here. But we may not remain, as they hymn says. This is just a pit stop on Jesus' journey, for his true destination, his ultimate goal, was not the mount of glory, but the hill of calvary, the place of the skull, the place of death – our place.
Could you stand there, watching Christ suffer and die, and say those words, “It's good to be here”? To watch as he cried out, forsaken by God, to hear him mocked by men? To see him thirst. To watch him bleed. And finally to cry out, commending his spirit to God? As the sun darkened and the earth shook and the curtain ripped and the tombs opened. You might say, rather, it's good to be anywhere else. But here was God's salvation accomplished. Here, at the cross, the ultimate good for sinners like you and me. Here in the darkness, not the light, Jesus brought us back to the light.
The Epiphany season begins and ends with the voice of the Father, “This is my Son”. First at his baptism, now at the Transfiguration, the Father confirms exactly who this Jesus is. But now, in today's reading, he adds this little phrase, “listen to him”. And if we listen, closely, to what Jesus says and teaches and preaches. If we sit with his disciples at his feet and learn – not who we want him to be, but who he says he is – we will hear him plainly showing forth the cross. A sacrificial death, a substitutionary atonement – one man's life paid as ransom for many. This is why he came. Any time we hear this good news – his Gospel – we can say those words of Peter, “it's good to be here.”
This is why we gather. This is why we come to his house each week. It's good to be here – not to be seen by men, so that our friends and neighbors think of us as good church-going types. It's good to be here – not to get all the answers of how to live the good life, the happy family, health, wealth, and all the success of life. We come not for the glory. It's good to be here, because here we hear of the Jesus of the cross. Here we listen to him – and he speaks to us – not just words of condemnation, but finally a word of restoration, reconciliation, even resurrection.
It's good to be here – in his presence. Wherever he is, that's where you want to be, Christian. And he is here in a special way for you, today. A real presence, a sacramental presence, bodily and bloodily here for you in bread and wine. Here's your mountaintop – at his altar. Here is your peek at true glory. Here's your word from heaven. Here – listen to him – when he says, “This is my body; this is my blood, given and shed for you – for the forgiveness of your sins.”
“It's good to be here.” We can say that now, for Christ is with us always, even to the end of the age. But we can say it all the more, and with all of its fullness, at the end of the age - when he comes again in glory. Then, it won't just be a glimpse of his glory, a peek behind the veil for a small group of his disciples. It will be Christ coming in the clouds with an angelic entourage, the trumpet call of God and the shout of the archangel. Then all eyes will see him, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that he is the Son of God to the glory of God the Father.
There in the mansions of heaven, there in the eternal home of our God, with God himself wiping every tear from your eye, with no more hunger or thirst, no sun or scorching heat, with the Lamb at the center of the throne our shepherd, where there are streams of living water, the tree of life with its fruit in season, and leaves for the healing of the nations. Where rest and life and joy are eternal, there we will be home forever.
There all the righteous will dwell – not in temporary tents, but in a glorified body no longer subject to death. There we'll be clothed in the righteousness of Christ. And there we'll live in perfect communion, along with the prophets, the patriarchs, Moses and Elijah, the martyrs and apostles, even Peter, James and John. But most importantly we will in the presence of our God who sits on the throne, and of Jesus. And we can truly, and finally, and most profoundly say, “it is good, Lord, to be here”.