Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 – Blow the trumpet; sound a fast.
Isaiah 58:1-12 – The fast I choose is that you loose the bonds of injustice, share your bread with the hungry, invite the homeless poor into your house…
Psalm 51:1-17 – Create in me a clean heart O God…
2 Corinthians 5:20b – 6:10 – We are ambassadors for Christ. Behold, now is the day of
salvation. Paul shares that they have endured great afflictions for the sake of the gospel.
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21 – Beware of practicing your piety before others. Give secretly. Wash up when you fast.
I just love it that we read on Ash Wednesday, “Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them,” and then we smear crosses on our heads for all to see. I suppose for those of us who have Ash Wednesday worship in the evening, it is not so showy. We go home afterwards.
Matthew 6 is the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches about prayer, fasting, and giving alms. These have become the disciplines of Lent.
Prayer was very important to Jesus. A few weeks ago we read about Jesus’ healing of Simon Peter’s mother-in-law. At sundown the whole town showed up at the door with their sick. After an exhausting evening, we are told:
“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed. And Simon and his companions hunted for him. When they found him, they said to him, “Everyone is searching for you.” (Mark 1:35-37)
Ministry is so exhausting, we need prayer to renew our strength. Isaiah 40 says those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They shall run and not be weary. They shall walk and not faint. They shall mount up with wings like eagles. Prayer is waiting on the Lord. As the psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.” (Psalm 46)
Jesus says, “My Father’s house shall be called a house of prayer for all people.” What does it mean to be a house of prayer for all people? Are we a house of prayer? Are all people
welcome? Who is not here?
It was the job of every rabbi to teach people to pray. It is, in fact, the responsibility of every spiritual leader to teach her followers to pray. How does that take place in the life of your community? Who is teaching lectio divina? Who is teaching journaling? Prayer walking? The labyrinth? Meditation? Contemplation? How are adults invited to enjoy the fruits of prayer?
For that matter, who is teaching fasting? Generosity? Hospitality? People are hungry for an introduction to the spiritual life. It is our privilege to introduce them to these spiritual
disciplines, and Lent is tailor-made for this endeavor.
If we teach our people to pray, to reflect, to listen, they will benefit; our congregations will benefit and the world will benefit. Surprising things will happen. To this end, I offer this 40-day devotional on prayer. Invite people to read one devotion each day during Lent. I guarantee it will stir things up.
Ash Wednesday is a great time to set the stage. Prayer is not another task. It is an invitation to come away, to get off the treadmill, and spend restful time listening. I believe our lives are chaos without this. One writer said our lives without daily prayer are like a book written without using the space bar. Canyouimagineabookwrittenwithoutspacesbetweenthewords?
It was the job of every good rabbi to teach people to pray. This is what Jesus is doing in Matthew chapter 6, part of the Sermon on the Mount: teaching his disciples how to give, to pray, and to fast. Look at what he says in these verses:
Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you…
And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Here is a powerful teaching on the spiritual life. The thread that runs through all of this is to make sure your spirituality is not done to show off. Although Jesus participates in life of the Synagogue and Temple, he encourages people to have a vibrant prayer life with God “in secret.”
The middle section of chapter six, which is missing here, encourages people not to heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think they will be heard for their many words. Then Jesus gives them what we now call The Lord’s Prayer. This prayer is remarkable for its brevity.
Jesus’ teaching on prayer is not to be verbose. If prayer is a conversation with God, should it not be mostly listening? Prayer begins with silence.
The fruit of silence is prayer.
The fruit of prayer is faith.
The fruit of faith is love.
The fruit of love is service.
The fruit of service is peace.
– Mother Teresa
I would encourage you to invite your congregation into a deeper practice of prayer this Lent. Encourage them to renew their daily prayer habit, by setting aside time. Give them small group opportunities to process how their prayer lives are going. Preach weekly on various aspects of prayer. Daily prayer, weekly small groups, Sunday sermons on the topic everyone is engaging helps create synergy. These three things form the foundation of any spiritual growth campaign.
Here is the good news for the church, a house of prayer. While ministry is exhausting (heck, life is exhausting), God has given us a well from which to quench our spiritual thirst. When we are exhausted, Jesus invites us to come away to a quiet place and find refreshment for our souls. When we are exhausted from the ministry of the gospel to which God has called us, we are invited to wait upon the Lord. We are promised that those who wait upon the Lord will renew their strength. They will run and not be weary. They will walk and not faint. They shall mount up on eagles’ wings.
Is your house the house of prayer? Our Lord invites us to come, eat bread, drink wine, and find our souls refreshed. And it will become like a well within us, springing up to eternal life.
Let us be a house of prayer for all people.