February 17, 2013

Sermon, First Sunday in Lent

True Holiness
Psalm 50, Isaiah 58, Matthew 6:1-18
First Sunday in Lent
February 17, 2013

One of the wonderful things about having a lectionary is that it takes us through the Bible every year, and it does so in a way that combines our daily readings with the readings, prayers and sermons on Sundays.  And this cycle of prayer and worship is purposeful and assures that we will be led into the great doctrines of the faith, and the great principles of the Christian life in an orderly and understandable fashion every year.  I promise that if you pray the prayers and read the daily Bible passages, and attend the worship and the sermons on Sunday, you will grow in the knowledge of the content, meaning, and application of the Bible.  I also promise that the more years you do this, the deeper your understanding will grow, and the greater your faith will grow, for faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.
There is, of course, a caveat.  It must be done with the intention of seeking and obeying God.  It must be done in faith.  In the time of the prophet Isaiah, about 740 B.C., the Jews, who only enjoyed peace and prosperity because God had delivered their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, brought them safely into the Promised Land, and preserved their peace and freedom, had drifted into a casual and mechanical observance of the Old Testament means of grace.  I say their observance was "casual," because very few of them were serious about knowing or loving God.  They went to "prayers,"  they read the Scriptures, they offered the sacrifices, they kept the feast days, and they even fasted, but their hearts were not in these things.  They had become merely the rituals that identified and unified them as a nation.  I say their observance was "mechanical" because they believed that observing them guaranteed God would bless them with continued peace and prosperity.  If you put the gear lever of a running automobile in "Drive" and push the gas pedal, it will move forward.  That is the mechanical view the Jews had of prayer, and worship.

So when their enemies suddenly became powerful enough to threaten them, they faced a spiritual crisis, as well as a national security crisis.  In their minds, they were the good people.  They kept the ceremonial worship laws of the Old Testament, therefore, God owed them peace and prosperity.  But here were these heathen nations, who never even heard of the worship laws, rising up against them and threatening to overpower them.  How could God allow that?  Hadn't they done everything God expected of them?

In a word, no.  The Psalm for this morning says God had stopped accepting their sacrifices (Ps. 50:9).  Why?  Because they were not offered with the right understanding.  They thought they were feeding God and giving gifts to Him.  But God says He already owns the animals: he does not need to have them sacrificed to Him by the Jews.  If we look at Psalm, 51:17 we see God telling Israel the real sacrifices He desires are a humble spirit and contrite heart.  I am reminded here of Samuel's words to Saul, "to obey is better than sacrifice."  In other words, God wants our hearts to enthrone Him above all things.  Our hearts, our loving obedience, are the real sacrifices He wants.  Devotion to Him in such a way that we become what Romans 12:1 calls, "living sacrifices" is the sacrifice that is acceptable unto God.  The other sacrifices are expressions of our living sacrifice, not replacements for it.

In Isaiah 58 God addresses the insincerity of worship and life that prevailed in the days of Isaiah.  He recognises their daily devotions and national religiousness.  "They seek Me daily," He says, "and delight to know My ways as a nation" (Is. 58:2).  But look what He says in verse 4.  "Behold, ye fast for strife and debate, and to smite with the fist."  He is saying they are using their religion as an offensive weapon.  They fast in an effort to get God to enable them to cheat in business, and to harm people they don't like.  They have attempted to use prayer as a magic spell to cause God to do their will.  Listen, please, this is important.  It is a good thing to pray for the downfall of evil.  It is good to pray, "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven."  It is good to ask God to "beat down Satan under our feet."  To do so is a prayer of love, asking God to deliver all  people from oppression, violence and strife.  Let us pray for this every day.  But that is not what Israel was doing here.  Israel was praying that God would do evil things to people for them.  Rather than combat evil, they wanted Him to join it, just on their side.

I doubt anyone hearing or reading this sermon prays for personal revenge or success in wickedness.  I do think there is another application to this passage of Scripture that could apply to us.  I refer to the practice of doing Christian things, like praying and reading the Bible, yet not applying ourselves to Christian living.  I refer to hiding from our responsibilities in life by pretending to apply ourselves to holiness.  You have heard the saying that someone is so Heavenly minded he is no earthly good.  I think it is possible to be that way, and to be so intentionally.  There is a story line that has many variations in details, but always the same point.  It tells of a minister who works diligently on his sermons, studies his Greek and Hebrew, memorises Bible passages, ensures that he understands every point of doctrine correctly, and spends hours each day in the Bible.  Yet, while doing these good things, he neglects his church and home, so his congregation and family fall apart.  In other words, his faith has become disconnected from his life.  Like the gurus of some of the other religions, he is trying to retire from life.  Instead of going to a mountain in Tibet, he retires to his study, but the same principle motivates him and the monk.  He fails to love and support his wife.  He fails to guide and teach his children.  So they grow emotionally distant from him, and even angry at him.  One day, the children grow up and leave physically as they left emotionally years earlier.  One day he notices that his wife is just a person who lives in the same building, as though they were strangers in the same motel.  The spiritual climate of the church declines, because the people are not taught that doctrine and life are as vitally connected in the Church as oxygen and blood in the body.  And the minister, call him The Reverend Good N. Tentions, begins to realise he should have spent more time in the family room and less time in the study, and more time showing the Christian life to his congregation by example and less time writing scholarly papers about it.  In other words, he should have put more of his faith to use in life.

This story is very flexible.  We can take Reverend Good N. Tentions out and replace him with Mr. I. M. Bossy, a hard driving supervisor at work who neglects church and family to make more money.  Or Mrs. Sue Per Christian, who is always bragging her prayer life or arguing about doctrine.  Whatever name gets placed in the story, I pray it will not be yours, or mine.

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