Week 1: "The Winner Isn't Who You Think" (Beatitudes, Matthew 5:3-12)
Week 2: "Love the Whole Way" (Matt. 5:43-48)
And now a sermon for Week 3: "Who Is Your Audience?" (Matthew 6:5-14)
I might start with an illustration where someone appears to be talking to you but is obviously really talking to someone else. Do you have a personal story or know one about, say, a young woman talking to another woman, but really is wanting a young man to overhear that she is not doing anything Friday night? You could use a story from history, literature, or the Bible.
Perhaps there is a scene from a movie. In Harry Potter: The Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter is invisible and Hagrid says loudly, "If anyone wanted to find some stuff, all they would need to do is follow the spiders." The other people in the room can't figure out what he's talking about because he's not talking to them. You could even start the sermon with this clip. Another possibility is to begin with a funny skit.
Now give the context of Matthew 6. You will find background material in this week's devotional in of The Wisdom of Jesus (pp. 30-41), as well as pp. 67-71 in Jesus: Portraits from the Gospels.
1. We get authenticity today.
... especially people under 40. Our parents and grandparents more or less trusted politicians, pastors, and important people. You can no doubt find many examples of this fact to introduce the concept.
For example, there was incredible outrage among the American public in the late 60s and early 70s at vets who protested the war, even though they were the ones who had actually experienced what was going on. To find that Richard Nixon had lied and actually done the things of which he was accused was a horrible shock to the American people.
Now, it seems like the opposite party wants to impeach every President. We have come to expect scandal. We assume that the squeaky clean exterior of public officials--including pastors--is not what it seems. We are cynical. We almost assume that what you see is not what you get when it comes to people in the public eye. This is a change in our culture.
Matthew 5:20 is key literary background to our passage today: "Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." This would have terrified a first century Jewish audience. Today, we assume the Pharisees were unrighteous hypocrites. They would have assumed they were the ones most righteous and closest to God. For background on the Pharisees and Jesus' opponents, see Jesus: The Mission, pages 105-22.
2. Who are you praying to in prayer?
Have you ever heard someone praying and they said things that wouldn't make much sense if they were talking to God? Have you ever heard a pastor give a lesson to the congregation in a prayer? "Lord, we know that..."
I was in a service recently when the background music cut out in the middle of the prayer and the person said, "And, Lord, we know it's distracting when the background music cuts out in the middle of prayer." Everyone laughed. It's not necessarily bad to do these things--prayer in those situations is a corporate prayer, so it is reasonable that the pray-er help facilitate bringing the prayers of everyone there to God.
But I realized at one point that most of my prayers were self-talk, that I was more talking to myself than to God. And there are those who still are trying to impress others when they pray publicly rather than talk to God. Who are you praying to in prayer?
I'm assuming that the preacher will flesh out this concept with examples that would be meaningful to the local context.
Matthew 6 gives several examples of individuals who did religious things for show rather than for God. First there is the religious person who gives so that he or she can be seen giving (Matt. 6:1-4). We are most honored by God (blessed) when we give without anyone knowing. Also in the chapter is the person who fasts or sacrifices so that others will see and they will get "street credit" (Matt. 6:16-18). But the key instance has to do with prayer (Matt. 6:5-15).
3. How to pray.
As the background material indicates,
- We do not pray to inform God. He already knows everything.
- We are incompetent pray-ers. The Holy Spirit has to help us out (Rom. 8:26).
- Praying helps us. It is more for us than for God, although we owe God our praise.
- Just maybe, God sometimes lets our prayers determine how he acts in history, how he interrupts the flow of time.
- Adoration ("hallowed be your name" - holy, sanctified, mega-special and terrifying is the sovereign God of the universe, who could squash us like an mammoth and an ant; all our prayers must be done in submission to his will--"your will be done.")
- Confession ("forgive us this day" - remembering that we need to forgive the sins of others if we expect God to forgive our sins)
- Thanksgiving (how much daily bread has he given us--every day of our whole lives for most of us. What ingrates we would be if we asked him for things and did not thank him for what he has already given!)
- Supplication (it only makes sense that our requests would come last--"give us daily bread"; "deliver us from temptation"; even these are very important requests, requests that relate to our most basic physical and spiritual needs; we should ask for our wants last of all! God does want to give us good gifts.)
Who is your true audience? Are you mostly interested in what other people around you think or with what God thinks? To whom do you pray? God or those listening in? Who do you sacrifice for--to serve God or to get street credit?
You might challenge them to pray more authentically than ever--to adore God more than ever in prayer... to be honest with God about our failings and pray for the power to change... to thank God for all the good things in our lives and for the bad that hasn't happened, not to take the credit ourselves... then humbly to ask for his help in our needs and desires.