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?