Into the Desert with God (a sermon for Ash Wednesday on Matthew 6:1-21)

A couple of weeks ago I read these words in a book called Making New Disciples, by Mark Ireland and Mike Booker; I’m not sure whether the ‘I’ in this story is Mark or Mike, but this is what he says:

A few years ago I spent a week trekking and camping in the Sinai Desert. Reading the Bible in that austere landscape I realized afresh that, as David Runcorn says, “the Scriptures teach us that there is no path to God that does not pass through the wilderness. The God of the Bible is the God of the desert”. I was leading daily Bible studies on the life of Moses, but I could have chosen any one of the many figures whose faith was shaped in the desert – Abraham, Jacob, Elijah, John the Baptist, St. Paul, and, of course, Jesus. The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone. There is something about the unforgiving landscape of the desert, where danger is never far away, that forces us to do serious business with God. In Scripture and in life, the school for discipleship is the desert rather than the oasis.

I was really struck by that phrase, ‘The time of greatest spiritual growth is not when all is going well and flourishing, but when everything is stripped away and we are left with God alone’. That’s what Lent is all about! At the end of the day, giving stuff up isn’t an end in itself. What we’re beginning tonight is a journey into the desert where all our distractions are stripped away, so that we’ve got nothing to rely on but God. We strip our life down to the bare minimum, to the essentials, to the things that are really important, and then we use a few, basic spiritual disciplines to draw us closer to God in love, and closer to our fellow human beings in love as well. That’s the point of Lent.

What are those basic spiritual disciplines? Jesus names them in our gospel reading for tonight. There are three of them, and they’re very familiar to all of us: generosity, prayer, and fasting. Everyone understood in the time of Jesus that if you wanted to live a godly life, these three disciplines were essential; no one would even think about trying to live in God’s way without including them. So as we begin Lent, it’s a good idea for us to revisit these disciplines.

So let’s start with generosity, or ‘almsgiving’, to use the older word that the NRSV uses. In verse 2 Jesus introduces the subject: “So whenever you give alms…”. Growing as a disciple of Jesus includes growing from a selfish, self-centred person into a loving and caring person. Generosity – especially generosity to the poor – is a vital part of this. The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus encouraging us to do this; in one place he even says that when we care for the needy it is really him that we’re caring for.

In Isaiah chapter 58 the prophet warns the people of his time that God isn’t impressed with fasting and liturgical worship if it doesn’t lead to a change in the way we treat the poor. He encourages the people to loose the bonds of injustice, to share their bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless into their homes, and to stop pointing fingers and speaking evil of other people.

Now of course there are obvious ways in which we obey this commandment, and I don’t need to give people in this congregation any lessons in it.  But let me just take this a little further and remind you that one of the purposes of giving is to knock selfishness on the head. We don’t just give for the sake of the people to whom we give; we give for our own sake, too. Paul tells us in his first letter to Timothy that godliness with contentment brings great gain. I don’t know about you, but I’m not a very content sort of person. I live in a culture where I’m constantly bombarded with ads for all sorts of gadgets I don’t really need. Giving, in this context, is a counter-cultural act; it helps me to focus not on my own imagined needs, but the needs of others. As I grow in holiness, the idea is that I will grow not just in generosity, but in my enjoyment of generosity. And that’s a real work of God!

If we ask, “How much should I give?” I always remember C.S. Lewis’ rule: if my giving isn’t making a difference to my standard of living, I’m probably not giving enough. There should be things I’d like to do that I can’t do because of my commitment to Christian generosity.

And of course, generosity isn’t just a matter of money. It’s also about my time and talents. How do I love my family, my friends and neighbours, and the people I don’t even like? This is all included as we think about our relationships with our neighbours.

The next thing Jesus deals with in this gospel is prayer. Prayer is one of the ways we love God with all our heart. If we love someone, we want to spend time with them; after all, the greatest compliment you can ever pay a person is to spend time with them! When you do that, you’ve given them a priceless gift; you’re never going to get that time back. That’s why we call it ‘spending’ time.

When it comes to prayer, Jesus gives us some very simple guidelines in this passage. He assumes that his followers will pray regularly. Everyone has to find the best way of doing that – that is to say, the time of day and the place of prayer that works best for you. Some are night people and find that praying last thing at night is good for them. Others like to get up early. Some pray at work, and some pray at home. Some pray out of doors, and some indoors. Some pray mainly by themselves, and some pray mainly with their spouse or their family. It doesn’t really matter; what matters is that we pray regularly.

Jesus also tells us to pray sincerely. In the bit we didn’t read, he talks about how some people like to ‘heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words’ (6:7). It isn’t especially important what words we use, or even how long we pray; the important thing is that we mean what we say!

In Philip Yancey’s book ‘Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference?’ he tells a story about a man who worked in a downtown rescue mission. At the mission they had prayer meetings, and some of the street people prayed rather direct prayers. One day one old guy prayed, “Thank you, God, for Metamucil”, and someone else chimed in, “That’s a 10/4, God!” Perhaps we could learn something from the simple directness of this man of the street, who prayed out of the honesty of his heart.

A third thing I learn from the Lord’s Prayer is to pray simply. This is not an elaborate prayer; it approaches God simply as Father, and prays first of all about his concerns – his name, his kingdom, his will being done – and then about the necessities of life – forgiveness, daily food, deliverance from evil. And it’s short, too – there’s nothing particularly virtuous about long prayers.

These are some of the guidelines Jesus gives us about prayer – pray regularly, sincerely, and simply. And in all our praying let’s remember the fundamental goal – to grow in our relationship with God.

The third discipline Jesus mentions is fasting. What’s fasting all about? Well, as I said at the beginning, we need to have our distractions stripped away, so we can focus on God and growing closer to God. Fasting is the discipline of turning away from things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to God and God’s call on our lives. It might be a fast from TV or the internet. It might be a fast from buying books. I know of one person who fasted from electronic screens one Lent; that would be a very difficult fast for many of us, but she claimed it was a huge benefit to her life.

The classic fast, of course, is a fast from food. This is something we aren’t very good at in our culture, and I must confess that I really only do it during Lent. Last year I made it a habit of doing a twenty-three hour fast once a week. In other words, I missed two meals, breakfast and lunch, so I didn’t eat from after supper Tuesday night until just before supper Wednesday night. I spent those mealtimes in extra prayer and spiritual reading, and when I felt hungry during the day, I tried to remind myself of my hunger for God, and turned to God in my heart in prayer, wherever I happened to be at the time. I have to say, I found it a very beneficial discipline. Not everyone can fast in this way – some have health issues that preclude it – but I suspect that there are many of us who could benefit from it.

So we have these three basic disciplines of godly living, disciplines that Jesus assumed his disciples would take on: prayer, fasting, and giving to the poor. Let’s finish by reminding ourselves that Jesus is very concerned about the spirit in which we practice these disciplines.

When you give, he says, don’t insist on having your name on the plaque on the wall. Don’t even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing. Keep it secret, so only God will know, and God will reward you. Don’t do it to impress others; do it because you love God.

And when you pray, don’t do it ostentatiously. Find a secret place where no one will catch you doing it. Jesus isn’t telling us we should never pray with others (he prayed in public himself several times). He’s getting at our motivation: don’t pray to impress others, pray because you love God.

And when you fast, don’t make a big noise about it. Don’t fast to impress other people; fast out of love for God.

What Jesus is talking about here is the question of who we’re living our life for. We’ve all got an audience, if we want it: family, friends, co-workers, fellow church members. But we’re not to live our lives to impress this audience. Rather, we’re to live our lives for an audience of one – God – and ‘Your Father who sees in secret will reward you’. What will the reward be? A deeper sense of closeness to God, a greater joy in loving others, and in turning away from the things that distract us so that we can give our best attention to the God who loves us. That’s what Lent is all about, so let’s pray that God will help all of us to embrace the call to a holy Lent. Amen.

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