Three Spiritual Practices, Giving, Praying and Fasting Matthew 6:1-18

The essence of all of Jesus’s teaching, and especially of the Sermon on the Mount, is this incredibly challenging saying in Matthew 5:48. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The standard of righteous living which is our correct response to the Kingdom of God is nothing less than the righteousness and justice and holiness and love which God our heavenly Father demonstrates. We have seen how this must begin with our innermost thoughts and attitudes. Hatred is as sinful as murder. Lust is as bad as adultery. Last week we thought about putting other people before ourselves, turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving to everybody who ask from us and loving our enemies with the same kind of sacrificial love as God himself always shows.
Jesus then goes on to think about “deeds of righteousness” – three of the spiritual practices which will express our discipleship. These were activities which all Jews would routinely do as part of their religion. Giving to the poor and needy. Praying. And fasting. Jesus does not tell his followers to stop doing these things. On the contrary, he encourages and expects all of them from Christians. Giving to the needy, and fasting, should be regular parts of normal Christian living just as much as praying is. But again, Jesus takes these activities to a whole new level. When it comes to giving, or to prayer, or to fasting, Jesus says, as the old song puts it, “It’s not what you do, it’s the way that you do it.” It isn’t enough just to give to the poor, or to say prayers, or even to practise fasting. HOW you do these things matters just as much.
Matthew 6:1 ‘Be careful not to practise your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
How we do things is important. The practices of our faith must never be ways of showing off to other people. We should never be doing things so that other people will see us and praise us. The moment we do anything so that other people will watch us, then we have missed the point completely. Our spiritual activities must be between us and God, and nobody else. Let me say a little bit about each of these deeds of righteousness.
2 ‘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 others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full.
Giving to the poor and needy should be something that every Christian does. This should be in addition to giving to the church. It is also good to give to support the work of the church, but that is for other reasons. It is good to give generously to help people who are poor and disadvantaged and marginalised, because God cares about everybody and especially about people who are poor. We read in many places in the Old Testament about God’s compassion for widows and orphans and refugees, people in every society who are often powerless and suffering in poverty. But how should we choose who to support by our giving to the needy?
It can be very easy to give our money to large anonymous charities and never really know anything about the needs of the people we are helping. I am convinced the Bible would encourage us to actually get involved with helping specific people. That is why NSBC has always supported the local work of CHESS, the Chelmsford Homelessness Emergency Support Scheme run by the churches, and equally Chelmsford Food Bank. I am so happy that folk have supported the appeal for rucksacks as gifts for the Diligence Academy in Zimbabwe so generously, as well as the other projects of the Sakubva Helper UK Charity. In past years the Marbles Project has helped orphans and poor people in Bulgaria. And thank you also for all your support for the Arise Project and Kapumpe Christian Primary School in Zambia. Their Christmas Buckets Appeal has just come around again, providing essential foods to some of the poorest families in Kaniki near Ndola. It is good to find out who our gifts for the poor are going to, not least so that we can continue to pray for them.
It is also good to be able to support Christian charities when we can. Many secular charities caring for the poor get support from lots of people. But Christian charities and projects and relief work are often only supported by churches and individual Christians. When we give to these we are not only helping to meet the needs of the poor but also supporting a Christian witness, often in countries where it is hard to preach the good news of Jesus. Galatians 6:10 exhorts us to do this. As we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.
We can also give directly to support people experiencing different kinds of need. I know of many Christians who generously support other families directly, paying their bills for them or buying food or clothes or even other things like carpets and furniture – whatever is needed. But in all our giving to the needy, the principle will apply. “It’s not what you do, but the way that you do it.”
Jesus says, 3 But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, 4 so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Our giving to other people must never become a way of showing off. We give as an expression of our gratitude to God for his wonderful love for us. And we give to share his unconditional love with those in need. Nobody else should ever know what we are giving. There is a story about the great preacher Charles Spurgeon and his wife. They kept chickens and would always sell the eggs. Even if a poor hungry person came to the church begging for food, they refused to give away any of their eggs. Some people considered them to be greedy for this. They accepted the criticisms without defending themselves. Only after Mrs. Spurgeon died was it revealed that all the profits from the sale of eggs went to support two elderly widows. The Spurgeons where unwilling to let the left hand know what the right hand was doing. Our giving should always be in secret.
As well as giving, jumping to the end of our reading, Christians should also practise fasting. This should be as much a part of everyday Christian living as giving and as prayer. As part of their religious observance the Pharisees in Jesus’s time would used to fast for two days every week and Jesus presumes that his followers will also fast. Fasting just means going without food, and sometimes even without drinking, for a period of time. If it’s for more than a day, you would usually drink water even if you didn’t eat anything. A 24 hour fast could last from one evening meal to the next. A 36 hour fast could mean missing out all the meals in one day. Fasting is a very helpful spiritual practice. It helps us focus our minds on God. Whenever we feel a pang of hunger or thirst it reminds us of our dependence on God. Some people would use the time they would have spent preparing food and eating to pray. We might be seeking God’s guidance, or maybe praying for something specific. Fasting is a way of demonstrating to God that we are sincere and passionate about the things we are praying about. But that is why it is important that our fasting is something which is personal and private.
16 ‘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. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 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.
When we are fasting that is just between us and God. We won’t tell anybody about it. We will have another church day or even a week of prayer and fasting again in the New Year, if not before. But God must be the only one to know whether we are fasting or not. Like our giving, our fasting should always be in secret. And so should the third, and perhaps the most important, spiritual activity which Jesus mentions – our praying.
5 ‘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 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.
Our prayers should never be a way of showing off to other Christians. Of course it is good to be able to join in prayer together with other Christians. Praying in our services is good, and prayer meetings are good. But the heart of prayer is our personal conversations with God. . 6 But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.
Jesus also has a rebuke for people whose prayers are lengthy or elaborate or full of fancy words.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
Our prayers should be short and simple. It is God our heavenly Father we are talking to, not anybody else who happens to be present. One feature of the American presidency is that they hold regular prayer breakfasts in the White House. On one such occasion, a famous Senator who was known to be a strong Christian was leading in prayer when the President interrupted him. “Speak up, man, we can’t hear you.” The Senator replied, “I wasn’t talking to you, Mr President.”
In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus goes on to introduce the most famous Christian prayer of all, which we call the Lord’s Prayer. 9 ‘This, then, is how you should pray:
The Lord’s Prayer gives us a prayer which Christians can pray whenever we want. All Jews would pray their set prayers every morning and every night, and we can assume that Jesus did the same. But the Lord’s Prayer also gives a pattern for our prayers.
It starts by focusing on God, and on his glory
‘ “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
The next phrase is borrowed from the Jewish daily prayer, the Kaddish,
10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
We go on to bring our requests to God for the things we need. Our physical material needs:
11 Give us today our daily bread.
And then our deepest spiritual need – for forgiveness.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
It is interesting that that prayer comes with a condition, which is so important that Jesus repeats the point.
14 For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
Finally we pray for God’s strength to become more holy.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
This prayer Jesus teaches his disciples to pray as a pattern for our prayers is obviously very important for Christians. I preached five sermons on it back in 2014 and these are online, but I have also put them in a booklet which I will email out to everybody and put on Facebook for us all to look at again.
For this morning I want to finish by pointing to one thing Jesus says three times in connection with these spiritual practices. After talking about giving to the poor, and praying, and fasting, each time Jesus says this. Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
Three spiritual practices. These deeds of righteous living will bring great rewards for everybody who makes them a regular and central part of their spiritual lives. Giving. Praying. Fasting. But remember, it’s not what you do, but the way that you do it!

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