Sermon on the Mount #2 – “An Audience of One”
Reading: Matthew 6:1-21;25-34
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
This is the second in our series looking at Jesus’ ethical teaching “The Sermon on the Mount” from the gospel of Matthew and covers teaching about prayer, fasting, what we treasure and the things we worry about. As well as exploring the great wisdom and guidance in these passages, we will wrestle with the question of in contrast to Matthew chapter 5 (which calls us to “shine our light so all may see our good deeds”), Jesus in chapter 6 calls us to not boast about our righteousness but rather have an audience of one – God
Handouts and Extra Material.
Bible Study Material
Today I have entitled my sermon “Audience of One”. It is a phrase I stumbled across in my readings for this sermon. Have you heard that phrase before?
It is sometimes used by coaches or mentors to encourage us not to compare ourselves to others but rather to do things in a way in which we are proud of. For example, an artist might be encouraged to not create pieces which might be popular with the crowds but rather paint from the heart, make sure that what is on the canvas reflects them as an artist. That your key audience is an audience of one – yourself.
Or a coach of an athlete may encourage a runner by saying that the only person they are competing against is themselves. It doesn’t matter where you come in a race if you have put in your best. The person you must make proud in this race is an audience of one – yourself.
This phrase swept through Christian circles and youth talks but with a different focus. The youth pastor would encourage us to see that in our lives … in our words and actions … it is less about trying to please the people around us but more about pleasing an audience of one … God.
So far this year we have been working through the gospel of Matthew and today we find ourselves in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount – looking at how we live as Christians or our ethical framework. In the first part of our bible reading Jesus warns us to “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them” but rather to do things in secret where only God will see you. Your righteous acts should have an audience of one – God.
Jesus uses the example of giving – don’t give with a trumpet fanfare so everyone will see, but in secret. Or don’t stand on the street corner when you are praying so everyone will see – “but when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.” Verse 6
But does anyone see the possible contraction with what we looked at last week. In Matthew chapter 5 Jesus was encouraging us to be like a lamp on a stand … to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.” Matthew 5:16
So which is it … do our good deeds in secret or to let others see them? To give some context here, the prayer that Jesus is most likely talking about in Matthew 6 is the daily Jewish prayers. In the first century when Jesus lived, every day around 3pm in the afternoon, followers of the Jewish religion would be encouraged to stop what they were doing and pray for 15 minutes or so. The Pharisees and teachers or the law would make a big show out of it … just happened to be standing on a street corner when 3pm came and stopping to make elaborate prayers … making sure that everyone saw.
Jesus was saying that the daily prayers were supposed to help us in our relationship with God – not show other people how good we are. That’s why we should do to our room and close the door and pray. This is between you and God. If you are praying worrying about what other people are thinking of you then it is not going to be a spiritually helpful prayer. And it doesn’t need to have beautifully crafted words – because it is only God listening. This type of prayer is to grow your connection with God. It is prayer for an audience of One.
Then Jesus goes on to give his followers an example of how one of these daily prayers could go. We sometimes have the impression that the Lord’s prayer was a totally new prayer that Jesus came up with – different to anything they had ever heard before … but it has a lot of similarities to the style and flow and even some wording of other Jewish prayers at the time. In the original Greek (and even in Aramaic) the prayer is quite poem like and has rhyme and repetition – making it easier to stick in people’s minds.
And yet the words contain profound theology and ethical teaching – ethical and spiritual teaching that do confront and challenge those who pray them.
For example – “Our Father in Heaven”. Right from the very beginning Jesus makes clear that this prayer is not an individualistic prayer but a communal prayer. OUR father in heaven.
But aren’t we supposed to be praying this in our homes alone with the door closed to an audience of one … we should be praying MY father in heaven. Why is it OUR father?
Philosopher and theologian Paul Tillich in his book “Dynamics of Faith” acknowledged that all teachings of Jesus but particularly in the Sermon on the Mount has both a “vertical and horizontal dimensions of faith”. Jesus teaching calls us to reach up to God, to connect with the Almighty and to grow spiritually. But at the same time, Jesus teaching forces us to look around and to see that faith is lived out horizontally – in our relationship with others, with society and with creation. Our faith is both vertical and horizontal. Love God and Love others.
So even if we are praying this prayer alone in our room with the door closed – the very first line “Our father in heaven” acknowledges that we are not praying alone. We are part of a larger family of followers of Jesus. An eclectic group of people whom we are joined with through our faith in Christ. Both individually and together we offer God praise “Hallowed be your name”.
When we pray “your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” it has both vertical and horizontal faith elements – we want God’s kingdom to be established in our lives but at the same time we want God’s kingdom to come to our world. And we are challenged to consider what God is calling us to do to bring that vision to reality.
As we keep moving through – did anyone else notice that Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer uses the word Debts and Debtors rather than the word “sins” (That the gospel of Luke uses). Wonder why? It is because Matthew is writing from a Jewish perspective to a Jewish audience. In Jewish thought, sin incurs a debt to God that must be paid (hence the sacrifice system). And while the two terms, debt and sin, can be seen as parallel, and even complementary, to a Jewish audience, debt is the better word. You want God to forgive your debt and in the same way are called to forgive those who are in debt to us.
The line “lead us not into temptation” is sometimes problematic for us because we don’t think God would normally do that. But remember when we talked about Jesus being tempted in the desert and I said in Jewish thinking, temptation was things on our path that might trip us up or cause us to stumble outside God’s will. This prayer is asking God’s help do that we might not to take that false step.
Which is actually a good segway into the rest of the chapter as Jesus moves from a pattern of prayer to more ethic teaching about forgiveness, fasting, treasure and money … all things that can trip us up.
I was listening to a reflection by Rev. Adriene Thorne who was saying that these teachings have a duel focus for Jesus. On one hand Jesus is once again warning against being spiritual in a way to make sure others notice … praying in public, obvious giving, long wordy prayers, disfigured faces when fasting … spiritual practices should not be about glorifying us. But at the same time, Jesus is still encouraging us to do these spiritual practices. Jesus is affirming that it is spiritually helpful for us to pray and give and fast.
We are only weeks away from Lent which is a traditional time when we are supposed to put aside some worldly things and focus a little more on spiritual practices. Rev Adriene in her reflection challenged us to consider what would it mean to prayer more or give more or fast more this Lent – not in a showy way but in a way which helps us to spiritually grow closer to God?
The bit in the chapter we skipped over in our bible reading was about not storing up treasures on earth. Not that I think treasures on earth are bad … but there is no need to store them up. If we are trusting that God will indeed provide our daily bread then can we be a little more generous with our treasures we have stored up? I think that this applies to churches as well as people. I am proud that we are a church who is not sitting on a investment for a rainy day, storing up treasures on earth but rather are investing in the mission of God in the here and now.
So how are we going with all of this? After 2/3 of the Sermon on the Mount, you travelling ok. Feeling like you have this all under control?
I don’t know about you, but I find the sermon on the Mount is relentless teaching. As you try and catch your breath after one lot of teaching and Jesus is already into the next lot. It is one after the other after the other … and while as I mentioned last week, it can become a little disheartening as you see the bar for Christian living … the bar for ethical standards that Jesus is setting get higher and higher.
But I also mentioned last week about Grace – that while Jesus does set the bar high, Jesus also provides help for us to stive to live to those standards. And as we get to the end of Matthew chapter 6, Jesus reminds us of this help and Grace when he invites us to look at the birds of the air and the flowers of the field – they are not worried about what other people are thinking of them or how they need to impress, nor are they worrying about storing up treasures in barns – they are just being birds and flowers. They somehow inherently know that God will look after them, that God will help them.
Jesus in words full of grace, remind us that we are more valuable than birds or flowers – so we don’t have to worry either. Rather we are simply encouraged to seek first God’s kingdom and seek the righteousness that comes from living the way of God’s kingdom. If we do that, all the other things will fall into place. Don’t worry. Seek first God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness. Good advice as we prepare for the last part of the Sermon on the Mount next week. Amen