Summary: True devotion to God does not require recognition, only the humble knowledge that we need to come before God in full and complete dedication.
Today marks the halfway point in our Lenten journey. As we gather this morning on the third Sunday of Lent, I would like to begin by taking just a moment for us to be reminded of what Lent is all about. I want to do this not only because we are halfway through the Lenten season, but also because this morning’s passage from the Sermon on the Mount really strikes at the heart of what Lent is all about. If you remember, Lent is a time of preparation; the forty days (excluding Easter) when we empty ourselves of the old, the dirty, the bad, so that we can take on the new life that is made possible through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate every year at Easter.
In and of itself, Lent is a very important time of the Christian year, and also an important time for the life of believers. The problem, though, is that we have a tendency to contain this season to just six weeks of doing good, rather than building a Lent that becomes a way of life. And that’s why this passage from the Sermon on the Mount, and all of the Sermon on the Mount, really, is so important; because when Jesus stood on the mountainside and taught the disciples and the crowds, he was directing them on a way of preparation for new life with God. In other words, he was teaching about a whole new way of life.
You know, we really do miss the point about Lent. In fact, in recent decades, I think we’ve made Lent so much about what we “give up” that we forget the “why” behind those practices. On the first Sunday of Lent this year, Mary Ellen came home from church and while she was eating her lunch, she told Ken and I about how they talked in Sunday School about what they were going to give up for Lent. So Ken and I asked Mary Ellen if she was going to give something up, and she said yes, “junk food.”
So then Ken asked, “Junk food, well, what does that mean? Is it like desserts, or what?”
Well, Mary Ellen explained that it was all junk food, like pizza, and desserts, and bad things. And sure enough, Mary Ellen finished her lunch and without a word, she went about playing—no request for dessert or anything. But then, that evening, when dinner was finished, Mary Ellen asked me what we had for dessert. And I said, “But Mary Ellen, you gave up junk food for Lent.”
Mary Ellen says, “No, that’s not what I said.”
And I said, “Well, that’s what you told me and Daddy at lunch.”
Then Mary Ellen went on to explain to me that what she actually gave up was “SOME junk food.” About that time Ken walked in the room, and Mary Ellen asked him for some dessert. He engaged her in the very same conversation I had just had with her. In the end, Mary Ellen had dessert, and that bit about giving up junk food for Lent was completely forgotten.
Does that sound familiar to any of you? We give up things for Lent because that’s the “appropriate” thing to do. And maybe we do a little better than Mary Ellen in sticking to our covenant for those forty days. But then went Easter comes, we congratulate ourselves, move on with our lives, and it turns out that practice didn’t make any difference. Obviously, these practices, as a general rule, do not have any profound and lasting impact on our lives.
When Jesus was preaching his Sermon on the Mount, he knew that there were some important practices that could change our lives, our life together, and our life with God. And that’s why he begins now this second part of his sermon with a lesson about the importance of giving, praying, and fasting. It turns out that most good Jews in Jesus’ day were faithful in their giving, praying, and fasting. The problem, though, was that they engaged these practices for selfish purposes. So that they would appear faithful and pious, so that people would know they were “good” people, and on and on. And the point Jesus wants to drive home in our passage this morning is not so much the importance of giving, praying, and fasting, but the fact that if these practices are to truly have a profound and lasting impact on our lives, then not only must they be engaged regularly, but they must always be entered into reverently and humbly, with all focus on God and God alone.
We are going to spend some time thinking about the attitude in which we engage these practices about which Jesus is teaching. But first, I want us to consider for a moment why it is important to engage the spiritual disciplines, like giving, praying, and fasting, on a regular basis. A few years ago, a book came out entitled, My Year of Living Biblically. The author, a gentleman by the name of A.J. Jacobs, is an agnostic, and he made the decision that for one full year, he would follow every single rule in the Bible as literally as possible. His book, obviously, is an account of his experience. The year-long experiment did not result in a radical conversion for Jacobs. However, Jacobs did acknowledge near the end of the book that his engagement with these Biblical and spiritual disciplines brought about in Jacobs’ life an openness to faith that had not existed before.