Bian Lian is the Chinese mask dance. On stage to the delight of the audience the dancer changes masks almost as if by magic. In doing so he changes his persona as well; becoming character after character after character. It really is quite captivating. Let me show you what I mean.
Today we start a new series ‘ A Journey To The Heart of Prayer’ exploring the Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. My hope is that as we dig into Jesus prayer as a model for our own prayers, that our prayer life might deepen and grow, individually and corporately.
We are going to start that series, that exploration by taking a journey behind the mask to the heart of devotion. Looking at the wider context that Matthew puts the Lord’s Prayer in.
Of course the wider context is Jesus Sermon on the Mount. We see that the journey to the heart of prayer starts with what Philip Yancy calls God’s revolution of Grace in the beatitudes. Jesus says that it’s not those who have got it all together that are blessed it’s not an elite group in society, the rich, male, religious Jews… rather it’s those who are poor, who hunger and thirst for righteousness, there is the Kingdom of Heaven. It’s when, as was wonderfully portrayed in the video we watched during the offering, when we drop the mask, that we’ve got it all together and we know that we need God, and God’s grace.
That journey to the heart of Prayer is also a journey into a new life, a life where as we encounter and know God’s lavish, over the top generous, undeserved Grace, that we journey through life with a changed heart. Those who are blessed because Jesus meets them in their poverty are too be salt and light. To live in a way that shows the flavour and reflects the light of the one who loves us. Over the past eight weeks we’ve been working through Jesus articulating that in terms of our moral responsibility, our ethics, and the way we relate to others. Jesus said that our righteousness was to be greater than the scribes and teachers of the law, and he had given a series of case studies to show us what he meant.
That it wasn’t just a matter of thou shall not kill, but at a heart level we were to overcome anger with seeking reconciliation just as we had received God’s grace. To be bridge builders not grave diggers.
That it wasn’t simply about thou shall not commit adultery, but rather that because we were objects of God’s love and subjects of his Kingdom, that we should treat each other not as objects of sexual desire, but as fellow brothers and sisters in Christ… to have an unadulterated passion in a sex saturated society. That one of the consequences of that was that we should value marriage in the throw away society we live in.
That it wasn’t just about using the right words to make a vow, or to make a vow that we could break with impunity, but rather because we have experienced the steadfast, faithful, trustworthy love of God, that we should live with our heart in our mouths, havea courageous integrity in a world of hype and insincerity.
Now in the passage that We had read out to us this morning Jesus applies the same idea to peoples religious observances, their religious obligation or as we might call it their spiritual disciplines.
He says “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.”
The focus of our religious observances is not to be that the world is our stage. Rather the focus is that secret heart relationship with God. Again in a very modern teaching style Jesus gives three case studies to show us what he means. He picks three examples of religious observance that are common to most religions round the world giving money to the poor and needy, prayer and fasting, and shows us what he means.
In each case, he gives an over exaggerated, satirical sketch of some people’s behaviour. Maybe today he’s gt rowan Atkinson to do a Mr Bean take off of them. Maybe we don’t read the bible and realise that Jesus is being humorous and satirical, but we are supposed to laugh at the ridiculous behaviour of those who seek public recognition for the righteous acts. Then in a very matter of fact way Jesus tell us how to journey beyond the mask to the heart of devotion.
In Jerusalem when there was an urgent need a trumpet would sound and people would come to the temple to give. Well says Jesus you see people hurrying off check books in hand off to the charity auction or whatever and they want to be seen, that’s Ok they’ve got their reward when they make it to the society pages. But you don’t need the trumpet blast and the flash bulb, in fact be careful you don’t even do it to blow your own horn, rather do it in secret without the fanfare. Do it because of the grace of your father in heaven. He will see it and reward you. If your business transaction is with the world that’s where your read is, if it’s with God that’s where the reward comes from.
5 “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. 6 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. 7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Likewise says Jesus when you pray it’s not about who sees you praying. Again in Jerusalem there were public times of prayer, and men would be invited to come to the front and lead prayer in the synagogue. And Jesus says if you pray at those times so that people will be impressed by your religious fervour, well you’ve got your reward. Rather at the heart of your prayer life is a secret place. Is an out of the public eye relationship with God. This is not by the way a condemnation of public prayer, there are times when we gather that it is right to offer up public prayers. But rather that our prayers at that time should come from the wellspring of our private prayer time.
Likewise the words are not the key thing. It’s not about the length of prayer or the flowery nature of the words or saying the right formula, or rather ironically when you think of how we use the Lord’s Prayer repeating the same thing over and over again. Why use all those words, why shout God knows what we need even before we ask him.
I love this summary from Leonard Sweets Book Soulstunami… it kind of puts it in perspective doesn’t it.
16 “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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.
Jews used to religiously fast two days a week. Originally fasting was a sign of humbling one’s self before God, of showing repentance, that we were sorry for our sins. It was accompanied often by putting on sackcloth and ashes. By Jesus day, showing people you were fasting by the way you looked and dressed had become part of the ritual. Jesus dosen’t say don’t fast rather he says when you do, don’t make a big thing of it. Again if you simply want people to see you are doing the right thing, you’ve got your reward. Rather it’s between you and God.
Jesus uses the economic metaphor of transactions to say that if God is our audience when it comes to our religious devotion then God is also the one who rewards us. WE may use them like a mask to seek the fickle adulation of the crowd, but in the end at the heart of our devotion is the faithful love of God. The reward is that we grow deep in our knowing and being known by the one who genuinely loves us.