Your Father knows

St Michael’s, 21st February 2016

Readings – 1 Corinthians 10:1-13; Matthew 6:1-8 (16-18)

When I was about 7 or 8, Mum and I had an argument – not an unusual event in our household I have to admit. But on this one particular occasion I remember, we were in the living room, and to end the argument (or perhaps to avoid losing it) my Mum stormed out of the room and headed down the hall for the kitchen. Before she’d even reached the kitchen door, while she was still out of sight, she called back, ‘And don’t poke your tongue out at me!’ … how did she know? I was totally astonished … there was no way she could have seen me … I checked all the angles, the reflection in the hall mirror, the direction of the windows … I seriously thought she was a witch!

Roll on the years and I become a mother myself. Now, I have never used the girls as illustrations for our sermons, but they’re grown up now, they’re not here to be embarrassed, and this particular story has passed into the family folklore. I’ve asked M’s permission, too – she just wants me to tell you that she’s not the same girl any more!

Anyway, when M was young – preschool or early years – if ever she was told off, or we had a disagreement, she would storm out of the house. It used to worry me at first – it was a quiet street, there was very little traffic so there was little danger, it was simply that I didn’t know where she was. But I very quickly learned that if I left the front door open, in a matter of minutes she would sneak back into the house and go to bed for a nap – it was her safe place, her sanctuary. I would wait to hear her footsteps on the stairs, then go and shut the front door and let her sleep for a while. On this particular occasion, I listened quietly for her to return, heard her come in the door, climb up the stairs, but at the top I heard her turn right into our bedroom, instead of left into her own. So I called upstairs, ‘And go and sleep in your own bed, not mine!’.

She was down those stairs so fast I felt dizzy, ‘How did you know?!’ .. the mystery was solved for me (though I didn’t tell M for a few years – let her think I had that much power!). My Mum knew I would poke my tongue out at her, because I always did – it was my rebellion. I knew M always came back and went to bed … though she never tried to sleep in mine again. Mums know these things.

Now I know that when I hear a good story in a sermon, I quite often remember the story – but not the point it was illustrating. So let me tell you right at the beginning, if you remember nothing else I say this morning, the punch line is quite simply, ‘God your Father knows’ … my Mum and I both knew what our children would do simply from past experience. Yet they are always capable of surprising us … our knowledge, especially of the future as they grow and develop into adults themselves, is limited.

But God our Father knows us inside out, in every detail, for all time. That’s one thing Jesus wants us to realise in this section of teaching from Matthew’s gospel, from the so-called ‘Sermon on the Mount’.

So let’s look at it together now … and as we read, notice how many times we’re told, in one way or another, that our Father knows …

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. (6:1)

At first sight, this verse totally contradicts something Jesus said only a chapter ago … look back to 5:16 …

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (5:16)

The difference is a simple matter of motive … many older versions make it a bit clearer like this …

Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ in front of others in order to be seen by men …(6:1)

Your Father knows the thoughts of your heart, and if your motivation for doing a good deed is so that men think well of you, you may (or may not) get the reward you desired, the approval of men. So God will add nothing to this particular equation … you have what you wanted. But if your motivation is to glorify God, or to love someone on his behalf … then you may still receive no appreciation or gratitude at all from men … but your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (6:4).

Your Father knows the thoughts of your heart.

What are the ‘acts of righteousness’ Jesus mentions in 6:1? From the following verses we see that they are; giving to the needy (6:2-4), prayer (6:5-15) and fasting (6:16-18).

Tim is going to look more closely at the Lord’s prayer (6:9-15) next week, so we’re going to skip over those verses for now!

So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honoured by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (6:2-4)

No-one is suggesting that the Pharisees actually employed a musician to announce their generosity! It’s simply the same phrase that we use today – to blow one’s own trumpet, meaning that we boast about our own achievements or abilities, making sure as many people as possible know about them. Your Father knows the thoughts of your heart, and he knows if your gift is given from genuine charity, or to gain attention and the praise of men!

But notice Jesus doesn’t say ‘If you give’ … we may fight shy of talking about money in church, but it’s one of the most frequent topics of Jesus’ own teaching. There is a Christian attitude to money – cheerful generosity … giving with joy because we can, because God has provided for us. One of the prayers on our service cards says, ‘All things come from you and of your own do we give you’. Our giving is an act of gratitude to God … it’s also trusting that he will continue to provide, day by day … I’m sure Tim will say more about God’s provision when we look at the Lord’s prayer next week.

Jesus is speaking here of giving to the needy. This giving is on top of the temple tax (or tithe), and any offerings (that is, of the sacrificial system … for sin, fellowship, guilt etc). While it was expected that a good Jew would give alms to the poor – as a reflection of the love God has for those who are in need – Jesus says clearly that they were not to reveal how much they gave … I’m not at all sure it’s possible for us to … not let (our) left hand know what (our) right hand is doingexcept perhaps when the less gifted of us attempt to play the piano … but Jesus often used exaggeration to make a point … our giving is for God’s sake, not our own, and your Father knows how much you give. Whether it is financial, or in time and effort, we are not to make a point of how much our giving costs us … is it important that you know how long it takes me to write a sermon, or what a mess the kitchen is in by the time I’ve finished? Of course not!

I do want to make one simple point, however, about our giving; that is over and above the offerings we give to the church. We are expected not only to be generous, but also be wise in our giving … to seek out the genuinely poor and needy, who not only need God’s practical provision, but whose greatest need is to know that God loves them whatever their circumstances. Try to find a way to give that makes God’s love known to those who need it most … that’s one reason we chose Operation Christmas Child for our coffee morning project last autumn … the children not only receive a shoe box full of gifts to make them happy, but also the opportunity to learn about the love of God, which has far greater value, eternal value. And by the way, if you haven’t already seen it on the church website … our church shoe boxes went to children in Belarus.

Your Father knows the thoughts of your heart.
Your Father knows how much you give.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. (6:5)

Jesus simply reinforces the message that God knows the motive of our hearts – and if what we truly want is the approval of men, we may have it!

I love this quote from Matthew Henry, from the late 1600s … in his commentary on this passage …

It is taken for granted that all who are disciples of Christ pray. You may as soon find a living man that does not breathe, as a living Christian that does not pray. If prayerless, then graceless. (Matthew Henry – Concise Commentary)

I have admitted before, that I find prayer the hardest Christian discipline. But I know that prayer is essential to the Christian life and to our on-going, growing relationship with God. So I persevere.

But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (6:6)

Once again, there is an apparent contradiction here, let me read you a familiar verse from elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel … in Matthew 18, Jesus says to his disciples,

Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them. (Matthew 18:19-20)

There is a particular power to praying with others … and I for one find it easier to pray in company … but both are necessary. Praying with others creates a unity among the people of God, expresses our common faith, our life together as the church, as the family of God. It’s a time when we can encourage each other and learn from each other, and sometimes it’s an opportunity for God, through the Holy Spirit, to speak directly into a situation. It is always a guarantee that Jesus is present, that the kingdom of God is among us.

But Jesus made a habit of going off to pray alone … and so should we. Prayer in the secret place is faith either at it’s most intimate, or it’s most desperate. When we are alone with God we can be totally open about our doubts, hopes, fears and desires. We don’t have to shape our words for others to understand, or be concerned about confidentiality … or to use words at all. We can pray with emotion, we can sing, shout or whisper in a way that isn’t possible in the company of others. Prayer in the secret place is just us and our God, Father and child … and like all children we can be wayward at times, or angry or be in a sulk, and our Father can be loving, and stern and patient and kind – sometimes all at once!

And our Father sees, and our Father hears … so prayer in the secret place is above all else, honest; raw, naked honesty.

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (6:7-8)

Let’s get one thing straight – prayer is not nagging God to make up his mind to do things your way. This is the ultimate mystery of prayer … that your Father knows what you need before you ask him so why ask at all? Let alone why be persistent in prayer as Jesus tells us elsewhere we should. I have read a number of books about prayer over the years … and all I can tell you is, try it and see. If you are not in the habit of regular, daily prayer, try it. Set aside a few minutes each day to read your Bible and pray … if you already set aside, say 10 minutes, make it 20 … and read two chapters of the Bible instead of just one. The one common theme or phrase, in all the reading I have done on the subject, is pray until you pray … there comes a point when disciplined, dutiful prayer, focussed on what you know of the character of God, is transformed and is transforming … it won’t happen every time, it may not happen for weeks or months … but your persistent obedience in prayer will be rewarded …

Your Father knows the thoughts of your heart.
Your Father knows how much you give.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

We’ll come back to the idea of rewards in a minute.

Let’s skip over 6:9-15, and read from 6:16f,

When you fast, do not look sombre as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. (6:16-18)

Fasting is once again in fashion … whether it’s the 5:2 diet, or giving up something for Lent, or doing good deeds every day through Lent … fasting is trending on the internet and therefore among the younger generations. In past years I have given up things for Lent … sugar in my tea, crisps, internet games, watching Neighbours. And I have felt the benefit. Most years I try and add in a spiritual discipline … a time of prayer, reading a Christian book, reading some additional bible notes. Yet I have to ask myself, what is my motivation … is it to lose weight, or to gain some kind of spirituality, to feel good about myself? In Isaiah 58, God says,

Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter –
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? (Isaiah 58:6-7)

It’s not really about me, is it? If I miss a meal, all well and good. But if I miss and meal and feed someone else instead … ?

And once again we are in the secret place … it’s between you and your Father. We often share together about our Lent discipline … and when we do we can encourage each other and pray for each other. And that’s good … but it’s not the whole story.

Your Father knows the thoughts of your heart.
Your Father knows how much you give.
Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Your Father knows what is done in secret.

So what is all this about rewards? Each of these sections ends with a promise that, your Father who sees in secret will reward you

Is God enticing us into obedience for our own personal benefit? As I draw to a close, I want to take you to a popular verse in the Psalms … popular, yet I believe one of the most misunderstood in the Bible. Psalm 37:4,

Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. (Psalm 37:4)

I have heard this verse used to justify all sorts of prayers and petitions – at least, the second half of the verse. But context is everything …. if you delight yourself in the Lord … what then would be the greatest reward you could desire? More of Him … to see him more clearly, love him more dearly, and so to follow him more nearly, day after day. This is the mystery of prayer … and of fasting and alms giving. To delight in the Lord and so to gain the desire of your heart to know him more and more. And although we won’t be looking at it for another couple of weeks … that’s what Jesus goes on to affirm in the next section …

But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. (Matthew 6:33)

What is the motivation in your heart for prayer, and fasting and giving to the needy? What is the greatest reward you can imagine in your Christian life?

Your Father knows …


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