How can the addiction to anger or to lust be broken? How can Christians experience the righteousness of the heart in these areas? We think through these questions based on Jesus’s extraordinary Sermon on the Mount.
In this message, we enter, explore, and savor the Lord’s Prayer, which is to say, the prayer he gave his disciples. And what a gift it is! We see in this first sermon that it is those who can call God, “Father” from a full heart who can pray this prayer in a way that helps them and changes the world.
The famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher said that he once thought the Lord’s prayer a short prayer but had come to think of it as the longest prayer. He said that if someone stayed with each word, “suckled at it,” as Martin Luther put it, he couldn’t get through the Lord’s prayer in a lifetime.
This morning, we are going to follow Beecher’s advice and Luther’s example. We will not rush through this best of prayers but enter it, explore it, and savor it, beginning with its first word. But before we get to that word, we need to look at what immediately precedes it, for Jesus said, “This, then, is how you should pray…” In the original language, that is simply, “Thus, therefore, pray…” Therefore? What is the therefore there for?
Jesus has just instructed his disciples not to be like the gentiles, who prattle in their prayers. And they do this because they don’t know God – who he is and what he is like. First century gentiles would sometimes list every god they could think of when they prayed, hoping they would mention the right one. But Jesus’s people know there is one God and, and they know who he is: the God of Abraham and – gloriously – the Father of us. For them prayer is an expression of faith, not of desperation and doubt.
People who don’t know God often think of prayer as a magical incantation – better get every word right or it won’t work! – or a persuasive sales pitch. People who know God think of prayer as a conversation with the Father who loves them. They don’t need to impress God. They don’t need to get his attention. He doesn’t need to be begged and his arm can’t be twisted.
When the great preacher Haddon Robinson’s kids were young, he would sometimes grab a fistful of pennies and close his hand tight. Then his kids would try to pry his fingers open. The rules of the game dictated that once a finger was opened, it couldn’t be closed again. As fingers were forced open, pennies would drop, and the kids would snatch them up. When they got all the pennies, they would run off happy and play.
People who don’t know God think they must pry his hand open to get what they need and, once they’ve got it, run off and do their own thing. But God is not tight-fisted; he is open-handed. He doesn’t withhold what we need, and he doesn’t want us to leave him when we get it. Instead of prying his fingers open, he wants us to take his hand and do life with him as his beloved children.
And that brings us to the first word of the prayer—in the original language. In English, it is “Our” but in Greek it is Father. Placing a word first in a sentence gives it emphasis in Greek and in this sentence Father is emphatic. From this one word, the rest of the prayer flows. To pray it in a way that is powerful and transformative, a person must be able to say its first word from a full heart: Father.
And right there is the problem. It is hard for people who don’t have faith in fathers to have faith in Father. There is an approach to spiritual living that speaks of the twin poles of consolation and desolation within the human heart. Consolation describes the uplift of spirit that happens as people move toward God. Desolation describes a depression of spirit that happens when people (knowingly or unknowingly) move away from him. For many people, the very word “Father” causes desolation, not consolation.
During the pandemic, Rob Kenney launched a YouTube channel that he called, “Dad, how do I?” It has about 4-and-a-quarter million subscribers and has had tens of millions of views. In his videos, he provides practical advice (like “How to fix most running toilets”) and emotional support (like his three-minute “I am proud of you!” video, which has had 1.4 million views).
When Kenney was a kid, his parents divorced, and his dad got full custody. Shortly after that, his dad met someone and started spending weekends with her. He would make sure the cupboards were stocked with groceries, then he’d drive an hour away, leaving his kids to fend for themselves. That went on for a year. At the end of the year, he got his kids together and told them, “I’m done raising kids.” And he left.
Rob, who was then 14, went to live with his 23-year-old newlywed brother in a 280-square-foot trailer. (Most hotel rooms are bigger than that.) Now, Kenny, a Jesus-follower in his late 50s, is trying to help people like him who are missing their dads. Reading people’s comments on his videos – people from around the globe – is enough to bring you to tears. They say things like, “No one ever told me they were proud of me.” Or, “The sad reality is that my dad … never taught me anything, or said he loved me, or that he was proud of me.” Or, “My father left me when I was 3 and my mom is very strict to me because of her boyfriend. I barely ask her stuff anymore. I love you, dad.”
In the final words of the Old Testament, God promised to send a prophet who would “turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers” to avert disaster on the land (Malachi 4:5). But that has not happened in our society.
You may think, “My dad was no winner, but that was a long time ago. I’m over it.” I hope that you are, but this I know: you never outgrow the need for a loving father. When Bob Russell’s kids were young, at the end of each day his family would hold hands and pray together, then the boys would go to bed. After they got settled in, he would go up and kiss them goodnight.
One night, his nine-year-old said, “Mom, I can’t remember whether Dad kissed me good night or not.” When his wife told Bob that. he burst through his door, jumped onto the bed, and wrestled and tickled him. They laughed and Bob kissed him, and then they just laid there in the darkness for about fifteen minutes and talked—it was a beautiful, sweet time.
Every night for weeks after that, as soon as they said “Amen,” the nine-year-old would bound up the stairs, get in bed, and holler, “Dad, you didn’t kiss me good night.” Then Bob would go up, jump on the bed, and repeat the ritual.
One night after he left his youngest son’s room, he walked by his older son’s room and said, “Good night, Russ,” which he did every night, and Russ called back (as he did every night), “Good night, Dad.” On this night, though, Bob thought, “Every night Russ hears us laughing and carrying on in the next room. Then I go by and just say good night. Maybe he’d want me to do that to him.” So, he bolted through the door, jumped on the bed, and started wrestling with his older son—and nearly got whipped! Then he said, “Rusty, I want you to know how proud I am of you and how special I think you are. I want you to know I love you.” Russ said, “Okay, Dad.”
The next morning, as Bob was walking by his door, Russ said, “Dad, could you come in here a minute?” He went in. Russ hemmed and hawed a bit, and finally said, “Dad, thanks for coming in last night. I never get too old for that.”
Neither do we. Young or old or in between, we need to know we are loved by our Father. That may be difficult if you didn’t know your earthly dad and may be even more difficult if you did. But not impossible.
When Kim Tate was a little girl, her parents divorced. Her dad was supposed to pick her up on weekends, and she would sit and watch out the window, waiting for him to come. It was as if all the world depended on his visit. Sometimes he was late, and she would wonder if he was coming. At other times, he simply didn’t show, and she would think, “He doesn’t love me. I don’t really matter.”
When Kim went off to college, her life went off the rails. She moved in with a guy and they eventually got married – but she was miserable. In her misery, she and her husband started going to church, and she heard about the God who loved her and whose Son died for her, and she believed in him. She started a study of the Book of Deuteronomy – and interesting choice for a new Christian – and she was taken by the phrase, “hold fast” (or “cling,” as some translations have it) “to God.” She couldn’t get over the idea that her heavenly Father wanted her to cling to him. Her words were, “What an unsurpassable gift for that little girl staring out of the window, waiting for her dad, and wondering if she really mattered.”
What an unsurpassable gift for all of us.
When you can genuinely address the God who made heaven and earth as Father, it will change your life, your mood, and your future. To call the God of the universe “Father” is to know that you are known. A Sunday School teacher taught her young class to repeat the Lord’s prayer. Whenever they didn’t understand the words – “art,” “thy,” and “hallowed” – their minds filled in the blanks. One kid filled it in this way: “Our Father, who art in heaven, how’d you know my name?”
He was onto something. Your Father knows your name. And he knows your history – remembers things you do not – experiences, fears, pleasures. He understands you – what moves you, what you hope for, why you do the things you do. Your Father knows you.
When you genuinely address God as Father, you know that he can, and will, take care of you. Everything you need, he has. To call God “Father” from a full heart is to breathe a giant sigh of relief. I will be alright.
I was with our friend Mike Taylor on the day he died and on the preceding day. On the day he died, he was able to squeeze my hand and mumble an inarticulate answer to my question. The previous day, though, he was able to speak. The doctors had just told Mike and Audrey that the next 24 hours were critical, so I asked Mike if he was afraid. He answered: “No. I have Jesus. I will be alright.”
People who know God as Father and Jesus as Lord have that kind of assurance.
When you can call God “Father” from a full heart, you not only know that you are known, and that you are safe, but also that you are wanted. People who can pray this prayer, and not merely recite it, know that they are loved—and that changes everything! In Adam’s horrific collision with sin, humans didn’t lose arms or legs; they lost love. To be unloved – or to lack the knowledge that one is loved – is to be insecure and afraid or to be guarded and angry.
Love liberates us. Some people go through life in chains because they do not know – have never known – that they are loved. Knowing yourself to be loved – deeply, genuinely, eternally – is the foundation for being able to love. Why do we have so much trouble loving other people? It is because we haven’t received love.
What could change that? What could open us to love? Knowing God our Father loves us. This is why the words of 1 John 3:1 have resonated with millions of Christ followers over the past two millennia: “See what great love the Father has given us that we should be called God’s children—and we are!”
Eugene Peterson and his wife were sitting in an airport, waiting for a connecting flight to Israel, when a little boy near them jumped up and began running. As he ran, he shouted, “Abba! Abba! Abba!” to his dad, who swept him up into his arms. That is a true picture of how the God of heaven and earth feels about us, and how we might feel about him.
Only if we get this first word of the prayer right – that is, if we can say it and mean it; say it from a full heart – we will be able to pray the rest of the prayer in a way that will help us and make a difference in the world.
We’ve all heard the maxim, “Hurt people hurt people.” Yes, but “Loved people love people.” That’s why, when we pray, “Father” from a full heart, we can say the next word, “our,” with joy. It is impossible to pray “Father” aright in a way that excludes others.
So, in the prayer, we address “Our Father,” not “My Father.” We ask Father to give us our daily bread. We ask him to forgive our debts. We ask him to lead us not into – but away from – the trial that will become a temptation. When I pray “Father” aright, I take you with me into my prayers.
But how can I pray “Father” aright? Over the years, I have shared with you a little of my own relationship with my dad. I was afraid of him. He could get angry quickly. Growing up, I never shouted, “Abba! Abba! Abba!”– at least I don’t remember doing so. But I do remember staying out of his way, going in my room and closing the door, keeping things from him that might set him off. Instead of comfort, there was fear. Instead of intimacy, there was distance.
That was my fatherhood model – and I know that some of you had much worse models. By God’s grace in both our lives, my dad and I began experiencing healing in our relationship well over a decade before he died; some of you never experienced that. So how can you address God as Father from a full heart? Our entire society is suffering terribly from “absent father syndrome.” I fear the curse of which Malachi spoke has come upon us, for the hearts of the fathers have not been turned to their children and the hearts of the children have not been turned to their fathers (Malachi 4:5). So, I ask again: How can we pray “Our Father” from a full heart?
There is only one way I know: believe on the Father’s Son Jesus. When you do, his Spirit will come into you, the Spirit of sonship and daughtership. That is what changed my life and even, eventually, my relationship with my dad. That is what enables me to speak truthfully, though often haltingly and sometimes with tears, when I say, “Our Father…”
The apostle Paul writes, “…those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children.”
Those who confess Jesus Lord, who believe in him and come over to his side receive in themselves the Spirit that calls God – like that little boy in the airport – “Abba!” This Spirit enables them – even those who had no dad or whose dad was cruel and abusive – to joyfully call God “Father.”
Paul explains to the Galatians that “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” That is Jesus’s Spirit in our hearts. When we believe in him and confess him Lord, we get his life (and with it his troubles), his future (in both places where Paul speaks of this, he goes right on to say that we are God’s heirs), his Spirit, and his Father.
If you have not yet trusted Jesus and come over to his side, I encourage you to do so. If you don’t know how, talk with one of our prayer helpers today, or with a friend who has already done so, or with me. We would all love to help you take this important step.
If you have already taken this step, yet still find it difficult to say “Father” from a full heart, you probably need to work through some things. God will help. Ask him. Perhaps you will also want to confide in a wise Christian friend or counselor.
Know this: God wants a loving, healthy Father-Child relationship with you even more than you do. He will help you enter it.
 Bob Russell, in the sermon “The Pressure of Fatherhood,” PreachingToday.com
 Kim Cash Tate, “A Father Worth Waiting For,” CT magazine (July/August, 2019), pp. 79-80.
 C.L. Null, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Christian Reader, “Kids of the Kingdom.”
What changes would the Republican Party make if Christians, who have been a key bloc within their base, could no longer deliver enough votes to compete with Democrats for national offices? How would the party react to a 12 percent drop in giving from Christian donors over the next decade? Would they stick with the Christians?
We may find out. The number of Americans who identify as Christian has declined by 12 percent in just a decade. The Pew Research Center has projected that Christians could be a minority group in the United States by as early as 2055. Even if the rate of “switching” – a change in religious identity from the one in which a person was raised – stops increasing but remains constant, Christians will still lose their majority status by 2060.
Should switching cease entirely, which social scientists do not expect, the percentage of Christians in the U.S. would nevertheless decline due to Christian deaths outnumbering Christian births. Apart from a Christian spiritual awakening or revival, Christians are on their way to losing their majority status and, with it, their political clout.
They are already losing it. Six years ago, Fox News website ran an article titled, “A look at white Evangelical angst over declining clout.” Newsmax, a right-wing news agency, just ran an article that began: “Demographers predict evangelicals, who helped elect Donald Trump, will likely cease being a major political force in presidential elections by 2024.”
If even Fox News and Newsmax are convinced that Evangelical political power is waning, what must politicians be thinking? Does anyone seriously believe that conservative politicians won’t jettison Christian legislative commitments if that’s what it takes to form new election-winning coalitions?
When conservative Kansans voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have removed state protections for abortion, shockwaves were felt throughout the conservative political community around the nation. Catholic and Evangelical Christians in Kansas had failed to deliver. What did this portend for politics in the rest of the country?
The day is coming when historians will claim that a breakup between conservative Christians and the political right was an inevitability. And because Christians tend to be a loyal bunch – they consider faithfulness a virtue – it is doubtful that they will be the ones to initiate the breakup.
What will Christians do when their suitor and protector has abandoned them or, and this is the more likely scenario, tried to hang onto them while pursuing other voting blocs? Will they stick around for years, decades even, like a betrayed spouse hoping somehow to regain their partner’s devotion?
Where will Christians be when they are left behind by both parties, unwanted, ignored, and only remembered when some tight political contest brings old suitors calling again? They will be in a better place than they are now, for they will have discovered where their power lies and where it doesn’t.
The idea that Christians need governmental power for their cause to succeed is false. If history is any indication, the opposite is true. In its first three hundred years, Christianity was politically powerless and, by the mid-third century, fiercely persecuted. Yet for those first 300 years, the number of Christians grew at about 40 percent per decade. Compare that to the U.S., where Christians have exercised great political power but have gone from about 90 percent of the population to 64 percent in just three decades.
Some Christians will find all this discouraging – will experience “angst over their declining clout.” But from a biblical perspective, they needn’t worry about their clout; God has plenty. Their mission is not – and never was – to give their particular “kingdom of the world” a religious facelift but to disciple all the nations.
At the time of the communist takeover in China, the country had about a million Christians. After 70 years of repression and sometimes brutal persecution, the number of Christians has increased 100-fold and is predicted to top 200 million by 2030. Chinese Christians are fulfilling the mission Jesus gave them with spiritual, not political, clout. Christians here can do the same.
This class session focuses on the righteousness of the heart and how it contrasts with expressions of anger and contempt. Anger and contempt have ravaged society and family. Our hope for the future lies in the righteousness of the heart, which comes through faith in Christ.
When I was a boy, I wanted to be just like Mickey Mantle. In 1961, he had 514 at bats and he hit 54 homeruns. That means he hit a homerun one out of every 9 or so at bats. He was walked 126 times – he still holds the record for the most walks in a career. Pitchers were terrified of him. He could hit from either side of the plate and hit more homeruns with his left hand than his right, even though he was a right-hander.
I wanted to be like Mickey Mantle. Once, when I was practicing hitting left-handed, I drilled a long one over the garage, just like Mickey. Then I heard glass breaking. I ran around the garage and saw that I had broken the window in my neighbor’s home. He had moved in just days before. When I looked through the broken window, I could see him sitting in the chair right next to the window, tossing my ball up and down. That was how we met.
I wanted to be Mickey Mantle. He was 5’11” and weighed 195 pounds in his prime. I weighed 190 (after eating two hamburgers, a hot dog, and a banana split), but I was 6’5” in my prime. He could see a mile. Without my glasses, I could see about 6 inches. I wanted to knock balls out of Yankee stadium just like “the Mick,” but I wasn’t built like him, couldn’t see like him, couldn’t run like him, and didn’t think like him. I was never going to be a Mickey Mantle.
Is it that way in the spiritual life too? If you are not born with an aptitude for it, will you never be good at it? If you were raised in a home where no one talked about God and his kingdom, no one showed you how to pray or read the Bible, is it too late?
It is not too late. But the time to start is now. You might never be a Mickey Mantle (or a Miguel Cabrera). but you can excel at being you in the kingdom of God. You will never excel at being you anywhere else.
You have what it takes. but that does not mean you won’t need to change. I’m sure that Mickey and Miguel had what it takes, but they still had to learn, adapt, practice, work. Do we think it takes less to succeed in the kingdom of God? You might be thinking, “But this is by grace!” Absolutely! But grace inspires effort. So, Paul could say in the same breath, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me” (1 Cor. 15:10).
You can become more that you have ever imagined (1 Cor. 2:9) and know God in a way that is richer that you’ve yet experienced. God’s grace will help you learn, adapt, practice, and work. And that will flood your life with hope.
I was going to preach today on the Lord’s Prayer, but I realized that many people are unable to pray that prayer to any real advantage. They can recite it from memory, but they can’t pray it from their hearts. It takes a certain kind of person to do that – the person Jesus depicts in the Sermon on the Mount, So, today is a set-up day: we will look at the Sermon to learn how to become people who can pray the Lord’s Prayer to great advantage. And then, next week, we will look at that magnificent prayer itself.
Many people come to the Sermon with the idea that in it Jesus gives us a bunch of new rules that are even harder to follow than the ones Moses gave. Then they either grimace and go to work or they say things like, “No one can do these things—that’s why we need Christ’s righteousness, not our own.” Both approaches are unhelpful.
Jesus is not laying down a new, more difficult law that supersedes the Law of Moses, nor is he giving us rules that we can’t possibly follow so that we will be forced to trust in his righteousness rather than our own – as if we have any righteousness of our own! In the Sermon, he shows us what a life of faith in him looks like. Or, put another way, what it looks like to live as children of the heavenly Father.
When we come to the Sermon, we are liable to focus on the things we need to do but fail to notice the beliefs and values that make the doing of them possible. So, we try to pray for our enemies – because Jesus tells us to do that – without loving them. We recite the Lord’s prayer, but we have no desire for his kingdom to come. We give to people in need, as Jesus taught us to do, but we resent them for it.
If we approach the Sermon this way, we’ll either become disgruntled, hypocritical legalists or sophists who explain away any Scripture that doesn’t fit our practices. Today, we look at what Jesus told us to do, why he told us to do it, and how faith fits into it – for faith is everywhere present in this teaching.
In Matthew 6, which is where we are going to focus our attention, Jesus issues five major directives, and then gives secondary directives that illustrate how to carry them out. The first of those five major directives is (verse 1), “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” Jesus then uses giving, praying, and fasting to illustrate how this could be done.
The next two major directives form a couplet and are about where and where not to invest your time, energy, and thought. Those directives are (verse 19): “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … but (verse 20), store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” (Where you store your treasures – that is, where you invest your time, energy, and thought – is one of the major life choices all of us must make.)
The fourth and fifth major directives are another couplet – they also go together. The fourth is (verse 25): “…do not worry about your life …”; and the fifth (verse 33) is “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness…” Jesus understood that you will never not worry about your life until you are busy seeking his kingdom and righteousness.
The five directives introduce three basic life questions, which you will need to answer for yourself. They are: Who is my audience? Where am I investing my life? What am I seeking? How you answer these questions will help you understand where you are in following Christ and what you can do next.
The first question is, Who Is My Audience? and the directive that goes with it is, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” Jesus then gives three illustrations of how this could be done in his hearer’s lives. That he illustrates this in three different ways emphasizes how critically important this is for anyone who wants to be Jesus’s disciple.
He begins, “Be careful” or, as the NIV translates the same word elsewhere, “Watch out!” “Be on your guard,” or “Pay attention!” The reason for the strong warning is that this will happen unless we take steps to preclude it. Jesus is talking about one of the great obstacles to a genuine and fulfilling life of faith. The minute we start using religion (and all the things that go with it, like Bible knowledge, giving, praying, fasting, church attendance, positions of service, and much more) to impress people, genuine faith goes out the window.
Jesus knew that we must choose our audience. We cannot play to two audiences at once, not if one of those audiences is God. Trying to do so will simply make faith impossible. Jesus, on another occasion, asked some religious leaders: “How can you believe who are after glory from each other” – and the implication is that they could not – “and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 PAR). We must choose our audience.
The issue here – it lies behind this instruction and practically all of chapter 6 – is faith. Faith cannot be sustained when we do what we do – especially when what we do is religious in nature – to receive people’s approval and the rewards that go with it. I believe that many Christians live in a state of low and deteriorating faith because they have chosen the wrong audience.
How do you know what audience you’ve chosen? Ask yourself some questions: Does my behavior remain consistent around both religious and irreligious people? Do I read the Bible when others don’t know about it? Do I pray when I am not in church? Do I volunteer to serve even when no one thanks me? Am I always looking to see if people notice when I do something good?
I love the story of the missionary couple who left Africa on the same boat as Teddy Roosevelt. They had served for many years with little recognition. When they got to New York Harbor, they could see thousands of people had lined the waterfront for a chance to welcome the former president home. But no one came to welcome them home.
They rented a cheap apartment in New York, but a dark mood had descended on the husband. His wife tried to cheer him up, but he was deeply depressed. He said to her: “We come home after years of sacrifice and no one comes to see us, no one cares, no one notices. But the president comes home after a safari, and thousands of people turn out to welcome him.”
His wife tried to console him, but he went into the bedroom, closed the door behind him, and stayed in there for a long time. When he came out, his demeanor was completed changed. He told his wife, “The Lord showed me that we haven’t come home yet.” God was gracious to that missionary. But think about the years he had wasted playing to the wrong audience. His self-doubt and depression didn’t begin when he arrived in New York, and it could have been prevented, had he played to the Audience of One.
The next question is Where am I investing my life? Faith-filled people who live their lives before God are people who invest in heaven and not on earth. Jesus issues a pair of directives in regard to this: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth… but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven…” These twin commands are about where we invest our lives, which is to say where we spend our time, money, and thought in expectation of future benefit.
There is an inviolable principle that underlies Jesus’s thinking. Where we invest ourselves (that includes our money but is bigger than that) is where our heart will be set. This is not about our affections (not primarily, anyway), for the Bible does not consider the heart to be the seat of affection but the control center of life. This is about direction. The heart orients our life. It chooses our course.
Your heart always sets course for your treasure, and if your treasure (your investment of time, money, and thought) is with God, your whole life will be oriented toward him. But if you invest your time, money, and thought for an earthly return, your life will be oriented to things. And if that is the case, your experience will be one of chronic uncertainty, envy, anger, and diminishing hope.
The good thing is that we can choose to store up treasure (invest our time, money and thought) with God in heaven starting today. We don’t need to feel a certain way to do it. We can choose to do it, and if we do, our heart will follow our investment.
Just a word of warning (which Jesus offers in two different ways): you cannot choose both heaven and earth, God and Mammon (which the NIV translates “money” in verse 24). If you try, you will be continually off balance and will create for yourself all kinds of problems. You will be like a St. Louis driver who can’t make up his mind whether to vacation in Minnesota or Louisiana. He keeps changing his mind, changing direction, and colliding with the people around him. The on-again, off-again life is indicative of an investment problem.
The third major life question is: What am I seeking? and the twin directives that go with it are: “Do not worry about your life” (verse 25) but seek first his kingdom and righteousness” (verse 31). God installed a warning alarm in you to alert you whenever your guidance control system has locked onto the wrong target. That alarm is worry.
Worry is not normal—any more than a fire alarm is normal. It signifies that something is wrong. But if the alarm is going off all the time, we will come to think of it as normal and try to carry on doing what we always do. Worry is a sign that we need to stop doing what we have been doing and check our heading.
Many people react to worry in a counterproductive way. Rather than checking their heading, they try furiously to gain control of the situation. They think that if they can get a handle on what’s happening, the worry will go away. It never does.
Our building’s fire alarm system has a control panel that has its own, softer (but very annoying) alarm. I have silenced that alarm many times but silencing it does nothing to change the underlying cause that triggered it. If the cause isn’t addresses, the alarm always sounds again.
In the same way, people can silence worry’s alarm by engaging in distractions (that’s America’s favorite approach) or by taking medications (one in six of us are on antidepressants), but the underlying cause that triggered worry remains in play. I am not saying we should not silence the alarm in appropriate ways – that may be necessary and helpful. (Thank God for good medications!) I am saying that we are only prolonging the problem – and perhaps making it worse – if we silence the alarm but do nothing about the reason it is going off.
What can we do? We can seek God’s rule over us and his character within us – his kingdom and his righteousness. Doing so puts us in a place – the only place – where worry can be dealt with effectively. It also puts us in an environment where faith can grow. From there, we can pray the Lord’s prayer from our hearts, not just recite with our lips.
Let’s go back to the three basic life questions and try to answer them: Who is my audience? Where am I investing my life? What am I seeking?
Who is your audience? Let’s say you realize that you have been seeking applause from people rather than God, with the result that your faith is very weak. What can you do about it? Jesus counsels you to take up the practice of secrecy: to give, pray, and fast – or pull weeds around the church, visit a shut-in, help a stranger – without telling a soul. Every believer needs a secret life with God that just he and they know about. Doing good deeds in secret is a part of that. It frees us from pride and ignites our faith.
Where am you investing your life? Let’s say you realize that your life is disordered. You vacillate on things, waver, and cannot commit. You are enthusiastic about God for a while, and then you cool off. (That indicates an investment problem.) What can you do about it? Inventory your investments, giving special attention to where you spend your thoughts and your time.
If you are not yet invested with God, start now. It will help to have a stable investment instrument like daily prayer and Bible reading, church attendance, a small group, a church or other ministry venture. These need to be regular investments – daily, weekly, repeatedly.
What am you seeking? If you don’t know what you’re seeking, think about where are you looking? That will help you figure it out. You might look for car keys in the sofa cushions, but you won’t look for the car there. If you are looking in the refrigerator, it is probably not for jumper cables. If you’re looking everywhere but the church, the Bible, and in service, it is probably not God’s kingdom and his righteousness that you are seeking.
One last thing: if the worry alarm is going off, stop and ask yourself what you are trusting. Scholars say that “Mammon” (v. 24) means “that in which one trusts.” Putting your trust in something other than God will set off the alarm – that’s the way you were designed. Will you choose to trust God today?
One of the most influential teaching sessions in history took place on a mountainside – possibly because of the acoustics – and is known as the Sermon on the Mount. It is not a sermon in the modern sense of the word, and most contemporary churchgoers would not recognize it as such. While it imparts information, it was not Jesus’s goal to fill his student’s heads with data but to change their lives for the better.
When Jesus first gave the Sermon on the Mount, none of his hearers took notes and many of them did not know how to write. So, Jesus, like other teachers of the time, used words, images, and ideas intended for hearers rather than note-takers. The images Jesus used – the narrow way and the wide way, the house on sand, daily bread, treasures in heaven, the beam in the eye, and many more – are so memorable that they have long lived in popular culture.
The profundity of the teaching – the way it is organized, the brilliance of its insights, the unforgettable conclusion – can hardly be overstated. What contemporary readers, as opposed to first century hearers, might miss is that the sermon is intensely practical. Jesus intended this teaching to help people flourish under God’s rule and live richly satisfying lives with each other.
The way many readers now approach the sermon, including some well-known scholars, obscures its purpose. Indeed, for many years scholars approached the sermon as if it were a compilation of disparate instructions, sewn together by early editors, offering tidbits of insight and inspiration. Fortunately, the tide of scholarship has now turned, and academics are again valuing the sermon as a unit, and so appreciating its structure and flow.
Well-meaning people can approach the sermon in a way that is equally unhelpful. Wanting to be right, they focus on the things people are told to do but fail to notice the beliefs and values that make the doing of them possible. So, they try to pray for their enemies – because Jesus tells them to do so – without loving them. They recite the Lord’s prayer, but do not desire his kingdom to come. They give to people in need, as Jesus taught, but then resent them for it.
If we approach the Sermon this way, there is a good chance that we will either become disgruntled, hypocritical legalists or sophists who explain away any Scripture that doesn’t fit our practices. It is important to see what Jesus told people to do, but it is also important to understand why he told them to do it. It is also helpful to see what all this has to do with faith, which is important throughout the Sermon.
One of the governing directives within the Sermon is Jesus’s insistence that his followers eschew any use of religion to increase their standing among their peers. He says, “Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them.” He then offers three real life examples of how this might happen.
The reason for the strong warning is that this will happen unless steps are taken to preclude it. Jesus is talking about one of the great obstacles to a genuine and fulfilling life of faith. The minute one starts using religion (and all the things that go with it, like Bible knowledge, giving, praying, fasting, church attendance – even “soul-winning”) to impress people, genuine faith goes out the window.
Jesus knew that everyone must choose their audience. They cannot play to two audiences at once—not if one of them is God. Trying to do so will simply make faith impossible. Jesus, on another occasion, asked some religious leaders: “How can you believe” – and the implication is that they could not – “since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?”
The issue here is faith. It cannot be sustained when people do what they do – especially when what they do is religious in nature – to receive people’s approval and the rewards that go with it. Many religious people live in a state of low and diminishing faith because they have chosen the wrong audience.
I usually post a Following Jesus Today class midweek, but we did not have class this past Sunday so that class members could attend a Ministry Fair and learn about local and global ministries our Church supports. So, instead of a class, I thought I would post a H-E-A-R journal entry from earlier in the week.
H-E-A-R Journals are a regular part of the D-Groups – discipleship groups of 3 to 5 people – that happen at our church. D- Group members read the same Scriptures each week, try to understand and apply them to life, and respond to the truth they see. When they meet with their group, they share one of their journal entries from the week.
I read Mark 9-10 on Saturday. My HEAR journal follows. (This is not exegesis, but devotional thoughts based on a particular text.)
Highlight (Mark 10:51): “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him. The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
Explain: Jesus didn’t simply heal blind Bartimaeus. He first asked him what he wanted him to do. Jesus either did not know what the man wanted, or the man didn’t know what he wanted (think of the man in John 5 who had been paralyzed for 38 years), or he knew it would benefit the man to articulate his desire. Sometimes it is necessary to clarify our thoughts and set our hearts before faith can ignite.
Apply: It is good for me to think and speak to Jesus about what I want.
Respond: Jesus, I want to keep growing – more and more – in the knowledge of God. I want to be pure – sanctified wholly. I want to be humble, free of the demand that things go “my way,” ready to go a different way when I see wisdom in it. I want good work to do through my later years – work that I can share with Karen. I wanted never to be governed by fear or sin. I want hope to energize me until I die—and hope becomes sight. I want my sons and their families to experience you in these same ways. I want to bless people through my work. I want our church family to be united, fruitful, and joyful. I want to be free of deceit. I want to see you in the glory you had with the Father. I want more and more to want what you want for me.
(For more information on D-Groups, see Foundations, by Robby and Kandi Gallaty.)
“This kind comes out only by prayer.” Jesus said that about a stubborn unclean spirit, but there are many things in our lives that “come out” only by prayer: stubborn marriage problems, addictions, financial needs, and more. Learning to pray is necessary to a life in which we can do what we need to do when we need to do it.
The text of this sermon is included below for those who would rather read that listen.
When they came to the other disciples, they saw a large crowd around them and the teachers of the law arguing with them. As soon as all the people saw Jesus, they were overwhelmed with wonder and ran to greet him. “What are you arguing with them about?” he asked. A man in the crowd answered, “Teacher, I brought you my son, who is possessed by a spirit that has robbed him of speech. Whenever it seizes him, it throws him to the ground. He foams at the mouth, gnashes his teeth and becomes rigid. I asked your disciples to drive out the spirit, but they could not.” “O unbelieving generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring the boy to me.” So they brought him. When the spirit saw Jesus, it immediately threw the boy into a convulsion. He fell to the ground and rolled around, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?” “From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd was running to the scene, he rebuked the evil spirit. “You deaf and mute spirit,” he said, “I command you, come out of him and never enter him again.” The spirit shrieked, convulsed him violently and came out. The boy looked so much like a corpse that many said, “He’s dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him to his feet, and he stood up. After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer.” (Mark 9:14-29)
Our text ends with Jesus’s explanation that “This kind can come out only by prayer.” This kind: the difficult kind, the stubborn kind, the tough, intense, pernicious kind can come out only by prayer. He was speaking about an unclean spirit, but I believe there are other things that plague us that can only be effectively handled by prayer. There are marriage problems that will never be resolved except by prayer. There are financial predicaments, relationship impasses, job difficulties, health setbacks that can only be overcome by prayer.
There is something unexpected about this verse—but I am starting with the end of our text, and we really should begin at the beginning. We’ll return to that unexpected thing in a few minutes, but before we get to that, let’s see where we are; let’s get some context.
Jesus had taken Peter, James, and John up a very high mountain where they had an experience which, as far as we know, no one else has ever had. On that mountain, they stood in the presence of two of history’s greatest heroes, Moses and Elijah, even though they had lived (in one case) many hundreds and (in the other) more than a thousand years earlier.
But that was only the beginning. They saw Jesus transfigured before their eyes. They could hardly bear to look at him – he was as bright as the sun. The sight was awesome. They were confounded. Frightened. And then they heard the voice of God address them directly and they nearly came undone.
They never forgot what happened on the mountain. At the end of his life, knowing that his death was near, Peter was still talking about it. It was a mountaintop spiritual high. And yet this incredible, wonderful, unforgettable experience on the mountain was followed by chaos and confusion in the valley. That often happens.
The mountaintop is not an escape but a preparation. It is not a place to live but a place to be restored for service. Peter wanted to build shelters and stay there, but Jesus did not oblige him. We occasionally, by God’s grace, ascend the mountain but we inevitably, also by God’s grace, return to the valley – that’s where we live and do good.
Jesus took three disciples with him up the mountain, but he left the other nine in the valley to carry on the work. When they returned to the Nine, they could see that a crowd was gathered around them. It was not a happy crowd. There were experts in the Jewish law there and an argument was in full swing.
Because people were focused on the argument, the crowd didn’t notice Jesus until he was quite close. When they saw him, they ran to him. Something about Jesus caused the people in the crowds to marvel. Mark does not tell us what it was, but some people think that Jesus looked different after the transfiguration, the way Moses looked different when he came down from the mountain.
Jesus walked right up to the Nine and asked them what they were arguing about. It is possible that the experts in the law had challenged their authority to perform exorcisms. Whatever the case, before the disciples had a chance to answer, a man in the crowd interrupted.
He had brought his son to Jesus, but Jesus was gone. So, he asked the disciples – who were, after all, his representatives – to expel an unclean spirit that was ruining their lives. But your disciples, the man said, don’t have what it takes. The Greek is something like, “They lacked the strength to do it.”
I don’t think this distraught dad was the only person talking, for Jesus did not answer him;he answered them. I think that means that other people were all talking at once: the disciples, the teachers of the law, people in the crowd. There were accusations and recriminations – it was chaos.
Amid all the clamor, Jesus says (literally), “O unbelieving generation, how long will I be with you? How long will I bear with you?” Notice the word, “unbelieving.” It is important to the story. Jesus then says of the boy: “Bring him to me.”
When the spirit saw Jesus (I don’t know how a spirit sees – was it through the eyes of the boy or in some other way?) it convulsed the child. He fell to the ground, rolled around, and foamed at the mouth. Jesus immediately turned to the dad and asked, “How long has this been happening to him?”
The dad said, “From childhood.” Think of that. Year after year of anxiety and fear, always on high alert, always worried about what other people are thinking. And the great sadness the dad felt for his son in his torments, the helplessness, and then the hopelessness. And then someone told him about Jesus, so he brought him his son, but what he found were nine disciples who couldn’t do anything … except argue. For a moment, his hope had risen. For a moment, he could almost believe that Jesus would help. But this fiasco poured cold water on his flickering faith.
That is something to think about. Do you, a follower of Jesus, make it easier for people to believe in Jesus or do you make it harder? If knowing Jesus isn’t changing you, if you argue, get angry, and talk and act just like people who don’t belong to Jesus, you are making it harder for people to believe.
Listen to this dad’s words: “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” There is not much faith there – but there is a little. Faith figures largely into this passage, into Jesus’s teaching, and into effective prayer. The principle is this: “According to your faith will it be done to you” (Matthew 9:29).
Because the disciples knew how important faith is, they once said to Jesus, “Increase our faith!” Do you know how Jesus answered them? (I paraphrase.) “You don’t need great faith. You need genuine faith. If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, “Be lifted up and cast into the sea, and it will be done for you!”
Can so little faith really lift so heavy a mountain as a critically ill child, a critically ill marriage, and impossible job situation, an extreme financial need? Is it true that only a little faith is necessary? How can that be?
A little genuine faith on our part is enough, but only because it is joined to Jesus’s great faith. The one who “ever lives to intercede for us” also intercedes with us when our prayers align with God’s will—and his intercession makes all the difference. When we wear his yoke, he does the heavy lifting. When to this dad Jesus says, “Everything is possible to the one who believes,” the one who believes and for whom everything is possible is preeminently Jesus. The desperate father’s smidgeon of faith is joined to the faith and faithfulness of Jesus the son of God. “This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith” (1 John 5:4).
The word of Jesus to this dad somehow revived the dying embers of his faith – a word from Jesus can do that – and he cried out, “I believe!” then immediately added, “Help my unbelief!” And Jesus did help his unbelief. If Jesus sees even a spark of faith, he will tend it, help it, blow on it until it becomes a fire.
I want you to notice something it took me a long time to understand. Within the same person at the same moment, belief and unbelief can coexist. That is because, as I often remind you, we are bigger on the inside than we are on the outside. People are a little like the old-style hard drive in your 1980s Tandy computer. They have bad sectors. They can be tooling along, trusting God and everything seems to be fine, when suddenly they access a bad sector – that is, they discover a part of their life where unbelief dominates – and their faith crashes.
Most of us struggle to face the fact that these bad sectors – these areas of unbelief – exist in our lives. And because we don’t face it, we don’t understand why our genuine efforts produce so little fruit for Christ.
But Jesus is willing to help us. This prayer, “I believe; help my unbelief” is one that I have often prayed. And the Lord has helped me. And he will help you too.
Jesus aided this man’s belief and helped his unbelief by answering his prayer. Answered prayers greatly help our belief and systematically dislodge our unbelief. In this case, Jesus commanded the unclean spirit to leave the boy and never come back. But notice that the answer to this dad’s prayer did not at first seem very encouraging. The spirit shrieked, sent the boy into prolonged convulsions (the Greek says something like, “much convulsing), and then came out, leaving him lying on the ground, looking to all the world as if he were dead.
Sometimes things look worse after the Lord answers our prayers. We think, “This is your answer?” But if we stop trusting at that moment, we’ve stopped trusting too soon. With the fearful father looking on, Jesus raised the boy; he was finally free, and the father’s faith was helped.
Jesus then went into a house and his disciples went with him. As soon as they were alone, the Nine asked him (verse 28), “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” They had driven out demons before, but this time they failed. Why?
Pay attention to Jesus’s answer in verse 29; there is where we find something unexpected. “This kind can come out only by prayer.” Only by prayer. Not by rituals. Not by smarts. Not by determination. Not by study. Only by prayer.
Are we clear on that? Then, let me share an observation: Jesus didn’t pray. He said that this kind only comes out by prayer, but he didn’t pray … then. But he did pray, day after day and sometimes night after night, year after year. Jesus’s life was characterized by prayer. It was punctuated by times of prayer. Jesus is not, I think, talking about praying on the spot but about praying before you’re in a spot. This kind does not come out by praying loudly in the moment but by praying (as Paul would later put it) “on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18) from a life that is increasing in faith.
I’ve known people who seemed to think if they tried really hard to believe and spoke very loudly when they prayed, their request would be answered. I haven’t seen them succeed any more than the prophets of Baal succeeded when they tried the same thing. Prayer that has power is not the prayer of a moment but the prayer of a life – a life connected by a thousand cords to Jesus.
At four places in the New Testament record, we hear Jesus tell his disciples (and the people listening in), “When you pray …” Those words brought something definite to the disciples’ minds, something that might not come to ours. For them, “When you pray” referred to the three times every day when they said their prayers. That was their practice and Jesus didn’t put an end to it, though he did instruct them to do it differently.
You will never know the power of prayer if you only pray when you feel like it. Powerful prayers don’t appear magically in an emergency. They come out of a praying life. Larry Knapp and I were once stuck in a small village in Senegal when the taxi we were riding in broke down. It was our third car repair of the trip. I was anxious to get back on the road and get our 13-hour cross-country trip behind us – thirteen hours spent in the back of a small, crowded Renault station wagon in 100-degree heat. Finally, the car was ready. Together with five Africans, we stuffed ourselves into the car. The driver started it up but, before we could leave, the call to prayer rang out over the loudspeakers. Everyone, including the driver, bailed back out of the car, unrolled their prayer mats, and said their prayers, as they do five times every day.
It was three times a day for the people to whom Jesus was talking. When they heard him say, “When you pray,” they assumed he was talking about their regular prayer times. When you read Jesus saying, “When you pray…” does anything definite come to mind? Do you have regular prayer times? A twelve-second prayer before a meal is good, but it’s like a twelve-second fill up at the gas station. It won’t get you far.
Jesus said, “When you pray,” because he expected his people to pray. His disciples knew from watching him that the power to live well is gained, at least in part, through prayer. It’s no wonder they asked Jesus to teach them – men who had been praying all their lives – how to pray.
When Matthew tells this same story, he includes a part of Jesus’s answer that Mark leaves out. Mark records Jesus saying, “This kind comes out only by prayer,” but Matthew adds, “Because you have so little faith.” Faith is spiritual muscle that is strengthened (in part) by prayer. People who don’t pray don’t have the strength they need when they need it.
Jesus, whose faith in his Father was unbreakable, prayed regularly. He once went on a 40-day prayer retreat. He sometimes prayed through entire nights. He got up early in the morning to pray. And, no doubt, he joined his family, friends, and neighbors in the three daily times of prayer.
I am not suggesting that you go on a 40-day prayer retreat or spend entire nights in prayer (though I am not suggesting that you don’t, either). I do suggest that you have a regular prayer time each day. There is not a one-to-one correspondence between time spent praying and power, but there is a relationship. I can’t promise that if you pray three times a day you will have power to move the mountain of illness or financial need or marriage troubles. I can promise that if you don’t pray, you won’t.
Some people try to pray as they go – to pray when something comes to mind. That is good and we should do that. But in my own experience, I have found that I am much better at praying as I go if I have prayed before I left. The two kinds of prayer are symbiotic. The regular prayer time fuels the pop-up prayers and the pop-up prayers make the regular prayer time richer. If I cut out one, the other inevitably suffers.
There are difficult things in your life, in your relationships, in our church that will only come out by prayer. If you don’t pray, they won’t change. Learn to pray. Ask for help. Read books on prayer. Set a prayer schedule. But, most importantly, do it. Pray!
 Dallas Willard says something very like this – only says it better – in Renovation of the Heart.
To read some Bible scholars, one would think that Jesus viewed women through a twenty-first century feminist lens. Other equally-well regarded scholars, seem to think that Jesus looked at women through a pre-Nineteenth Amendment lens. It seems to me that people attribute to Jesus the view they want him to have.
It has been suggested, for example, that Jesus chose male apostles because God designed men for leadership in a way that he did not design women. On the other hand, it has been argued that the sex of the first apostles is immaterial. The important thing was not their sex but their number – twelve, like the number of Israel’s tribes – signifying the emergence of a new people of God.
But Jesus’s view was neither a post-modern nor a pre-suffrage American view; it was not an American view at all. The temptation to baptize our views in Jesus’s name must be resisted. We must go back to what he actually did and said and judge not just our views but our actions and words by his.
We cannot make sense of what Jesus did and said by looking through a twenty-first century American lens, whether liberal or conservative, egalitarian or complementarian. His contemporaries could not make sense of what he said and did by looking through their first century lens either. Jesus did not think of women – nor relate to them – the way his society did then or ours does now.
In first-century Israel, women – and for that matter, children – were treated as essentially inferior to men. Women, for example, were not permitted to testify in court, for it was believed that they were not emotionally stable enough to provide reliable testimony.
In first-century Israel, men had the right to divorce their wives “for any reason,” but wives were only permitted to divorce their husbands for two reasons: employment in a “disgusting trade” – one that made them ceremonially unclean – or heresy. A woman could not divorce her husband even if he was a violent, abusive, philandering brute.
Girls did not attend school and remained mostly illiterate. A famous late first century rabbi insisted that “The words of the Torah should be burned rather than entrusted to women.” The earliest extant mention of Torah study by women instructs: “And you shall teach your sons and not your daughters.”
Jesus lived in a world in which many rabbis would not even speak to a woman in public, much less teach one. The Jerusalem Talmud quotes: “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle.” In other words, a woman’s place is in the home.
Jesus lived in this world, but he did not adopt its views. The fact that Jesus accepted women disciples must have been a constant source of controversy—and gossip. In his public teaching, he addressed both women and men. Some of his dearest friends were women. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke all mention women who followed him and “cared for his needs.”
Christianity is sometimes faulted for a low view of women. It is not because of its leader. Jesus not only taught women, the first person to whom he disclosed his messianic identity was a woman. The first person to whom he appeared after the resurrection was a woman. The people to whom he first gave the honor of announcing the conquest of death were all women. Jesus did these things because he was Jesus, not because he embraced the views of his time. Or the views of our time.
We cannot make Jesus a spokesman for feminism, egalitarianism, or complementarianism. These are constructs that are, at best, built from original source materials; they are not the materials themselves. Our goal must not be to fit Jesus into our framework, but to fit ourselves into his. Jesus will not ask us whether we hold progressive or conservative views, but whether we have loved and honored others. It is not our views that will be judged; it is us. It is our actual interactions and not our nuanced views of others that reveal who we really are.
When asked what was the greatest of the Old Testament’s 613 commands, Jesus answered: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). In this class, we look at what it means to love God – our cultural ideas of love may lead us astray here – and how we can do that with our hearts, souls, minds, and strength.
If you have been part of the class online, you may wonder where our co-teacher Kevin was. He woke up ill, and I missed having him with me – he is a great teacher! He’s fine now and will be back with us next week.