Presented on The Lutheran Hour on July 5, 2020
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2021 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Matthew 6:1-18
The Prince looked narrowly at the superscription, and then at the seal of the letter. John then opened it with apparent agitation—agitation, which visibly and greatly increased when he had read the contents of the letter—contents, which were expressed in these words: "Take heed to yourself for the devil is unchained." Take heed to yourself for the devil is unchained. The prince turned as pale as death. He looked first on earth and then up to heaven, like a man who had received news that sentence of execution had just been passed upon him.
That's a scene from the classic story Ivanhoe written by Sir Walter Scott. First published in 1819, Ivanhoe tells a romanticized history of England during the reign of King Richard. The story takes place in the summer of 1194. Battle-scarred King Richard is returning to England, but he is detained, imprisoned, in chains in a foreign land. In his absence a phony king, an imposter, Prince John, tried to reign in his place. Thus, the English people were faced with a choice. Will they stay devoted to their true king? Hold out for his return? Even if that means missing out on status and success in the present time, or will they give in, sell out, devote themselves to the way things are right now—seeking the favor of a phony king?
Of course, some chose neither. They stayed on the fence, so to speak, remained neutral, see who would come out on top. But those on the fence did not know what Prince John himself knew after he had received that letter. His adversary, the battle-scarred king, had broken his chains and was on his way back. He may be here already. These elements of Ivanhoe's story might help us. They might help us understand the narrative background of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount, one of Jesus' most famous sermons recorded in the Gospel according to Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. Now read in a certain way the Sermon on the Mount could be taken as a series of sayings strung together, bits of good advice about how to be a properly religious person. Love your enemies. Turn the other cheek. Don't let your left hand know what your right hand is doing when you give to charity. Basically, it all boils down to don't be a hypocrite. Don't make a show of your religious practices. Don't wear your religion on your shirt sleeve.
But if that's all you hear in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount, you might've missed the narrative background of the Bible. The battle-scarred King has broken His chains, and He is on his way back. He may even be here now. See, Matthew and all the New Testament writers unanimously present Jesus as the crucified and risen, the ruling and returning Son of God. And therefore, He is the rightful King of heaven and earth. The earth and its inhabitants had come under the spell of a phony king, a powerful spiritual being that the Bible calls the evil one, the serpent, the devil, the adversary, who is in rebellion against his Creator. And so, Jesus comes to reclaim the earth for heaven's kingdom, but the evil one tried to stop Him. He manipulated the system so that Jesus would be publicly shamed, humiliated, crucified, dead, and buried, but Jesus broke death's chains. And when the stone was rolled away from the tomb, the evil one heard the news that the sentence of death had been passed upon him.
The battle-scarred King has broken death's chains, and He is on His way back. He may even be here now. See, that's the background narrative that inspired Matthew to write his Good News story, to write the Gospel. And it shapes the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus is not giving general advice on how to be a good religious person. He is talking about devotion to two different times. Either you're going to be devoted to how things are right now, or you're going to be devoted to how things will be when Jesus returns as King. And if you are devoted to the way things will be when Jesus returns as King, when His kingdom is revealed, then that's going to shape what you do and why you do it. But if you're devoted to how things are right now, you're going to have different motives, different goals.
And so the question is which reward are you seeking? Are you seeking the rewards that come with the way things are right now? Or are you seeking the reward that will come when Jesus returns as King? That's the question. And that's the narrative background. So listen for it in this section of the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6:1-18.
Jesus says to His followers, "Pay attention, not to practice your righteousness before other people so that you will be noticeable to them. Otherwise, you will have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
"Therefore, when you are giving to those in need, do not sound the trumpet before you as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets so that they will be glorified by other people. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward, but when you are giving to those in need, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret, He will reward you.
"And when you were praying, you must not be like the hypocrites for they love to stand praying in the synagogues and on street corners. Why? So that they will be noticeable to other people. Truly I say to you, they have received their reward.
"But when you are praying, go into your storeroom and after you have shut the door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret, He will reward you. And when you are praying, do not babble on and on and on like the pagan nations do, for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. But your Father, before you ask Him, He knows what you need.
"Therefore, pray like this. Our Father who is in heaven, let Your Name be hallowed. Let Your Name be kept holy. Let Your kingdom come. Let Your will be done as it is in heaven, so also on earth. Give us today our bread that is coming from You, and forgive us our debts as we have forgiven those indebted to us. And do not bring us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. For if you forgive other people their trespasses, your Father in heaven will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses, your Father will not forgive your trespasses.
"And when you are fasting, do not be gloomy faced like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces. Why? So that they may be visible to other people as fasting. But when you are fasting, anoint your head with oil, wash your face so that you may not be visible to other people as fasting, but to your Father who is hidden in secret, and your Father who sees what is hidden, He will reward you." The Words of Jesus, Matthew 6.
Ivanhoe, the story that I was telling you about earlier, written by Sir Walter Scott, 200 years ago. Ivanhoe has become a primary source for modern retellings of the Robin Hood story. Early in the novel we're introduced to this character—Robin of Loxley, he's called. Robin presents himself as a simple archer, a humble woodsman but in fact, he is Robin Hood, the king of outlaws who live in Sherwood Forest, loyal to King Richard and live to make trouble for Prince John.
We're also introduced to this other character early on. This mysterious knight who wears black armor, the Black Knight as he's called. Nobody knows who he is or where he's come from. But he always seems to be there at the right time to save, to intervene, on Robin Hood's side, to bail them out, to rescue them from Prince John and his minions. And toward the end of the novel, the Black Knight and Robin Hood are in Sherwood Forest, and all the men are around them. And the Black Knight takes off his helmet. He is unhelmed, and his face is revealed, and they see that it's King Richard. And at once all the men fall and pledge their allegiance to their king. They are in shock: shock first because of the presence of their sovereign lord, right there in their midst, and doubly shocked because they realize that he's been there the whole time. He'd seen it all. He was at the knight's tournament. He saw his nobles clamoring for favor, with this phony imposter. He saw his subjects jockeying for status in this false regime. And he'd even seen those incorrigible outlaws of Sherwood Forest raiding the king's land and poaching his deer.
And so the men fell down before him, and they begged his pardon. And pardon he gave. He lifted up his countenance upon them and blessed them and said, "Rise friends." And then he explained. He explained why he had chosen to remain in secret, why he had elected to be incognito. He said to them, "The time that I have spent and am yet to spend in concealment is necessary. Necessary to give my friends and faithful nobles time. Time to assemble their forces so that when Richard's return is announced, he should be at the head of such a force. As enemy shall tremble the face and thus subdue the meditated treason without even unsheathing a sword."
And this is more or less what Jesus is saying to you and to me. He's assembling a force to resist the evil one. And He wants you to be part of it. Your battle-scarred King is coming, and He's here right now. He has broken death's chains and is present before you. And so, you don't have to be devoted to the way things are right now anymore. With the way things are right now, your success, your rank, your value as a person depends on how other people perceive you; how they more or less reward you with money and status and admiration. But these rewards are quickly fading, and this time is passing. And so, you do not need to be devoted to it anymore because the battle-scarred King has broken death's chains, and He is on His way back. He is here already.
And if you are devoted to the way things are right now, this message could be terrifying. Because you know your time is short. But if you are devoted to Jesus and to His time that is arriving, this is the source of greatest encouragement. Because you know that even when you are unseen, even when you are unnoticeable to the world, your King sees you, and He is with you. But what if you're on the fence? On the fence is where we meet this character, Friar Tuck. In the story of Ivanhoe, King Richard still disguised as the Black Knight knocks on Friar Tuck's hermitage, deep in the forest, and the lazy friar won't even open his door. And then when he does after much complaining and belly aching, the fat friar won't even share his food with this errant knight, even though he has more than enough—more than enough venison that he's poached off the absent king's land. And later when Friar Tuck realizes that it was King Richard, he is mortified, because he's been exposed as being devoted only to himself. He was on the fence.
In situations like this, you can't be on the fence. And this is the situation in which we find ourselves. Jesus, the King, He is on His way back. He is here. See the evil one, unlike Prince John, he isn't after your love, your loyalty, or even your money, he's only after your destruction. And if he can keep you focused on yourself and your own interests, then he's won that battle. He's cut you off from the Lord of life.
If this message has found you today, you can no longer be on the fence with Jesus. The secret's been unhelmed. You've heard it with your own ears. To whom will you be devoted? In the story of Ivanhoe, when Friar Tuck begged King Richard for pardon, the king didn't shame him. He didn't punish him for lack of devotion. He forgave him and said, "Speak no more of it, brother." If your devotion to God, your King, has faltered—turn back, seek His pardon. And Jesus will say to you "Speak no more of it, brother. Speak no more of it, sister." Blessed are the poor in spirit for yours is the kingdom. Yours is the rule and reign of heaven. You see whatever was lacking in your devotion to Him, He has more than made up for it in His devotion to you. He's got the scars to prove it. Amen? Amen.
Reflections for July 5, 2020
Mark Eischer: You're listening to The Lutheran Hour. For FREE online resources, audio on demand, our mobile app, and more, go to lutheranhour.org. Once again, here's Dr. Michael Zeigler.
Mike Zeigler: Thanks, Mark. Happy Fourth of July weekend to you. Today, I'm visiting with Dr. Jeff Gibbs again. He's written a three-volume commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. How many pages was it? Did you ever count them up—1,800 or so?
Jeff Gibbs: Yes, but that counts the indices, for which I'm not responsible.
Mike Zeigler: Okay.
Jeff Gibbs: So it's too long, but I finished.
Mike Zeigler: All right, well thank you for joining us, Jeff.
Jeff Gibbs: Thanks, Mike. I appreciate it.
Mike Zeigler: The Lord's Prayer, it's sometimes called the "Our Father." It's probably the most well-known prayer in the world. I often forget that Jesus actually taught it within the context of the Sermon on the Mount. How might knowing that help us better understand the Lord's Prayer and appreciate it?
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, that's a good question, Mike. I think two things come to mind. One is because the Sermon on the Mount is delivered to Jesus' disciples, you see that at the beginning of Matthew 5, the crowds are there and they're interested, but they're not really, as we would say, "believers." The disciples, however, imperfect their faith, they've begun to believe in Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is really truth that Jesus offers to His disciples. I think that's an important thing to say that the Lord's Prayer is actually not a generic prayer for every human being, but it kind of only makes sense if you are following Jesus. If you, as we would say, are baptized and confess that He's Lord, and now this is a prayer that's for you.
The other thing that comes to mind is that the Sermon on the Mount, as you know, is really super important for understanding all of Christian existence and all of Christian life. That means that the Lord's Prayer is embedded in Christian life, right? It's crucial, it's central, but we don't understand it as isolated from all these other important teachings that Jesus gives here.
Mike Zeigler: Now I've heard you say that the first three petitions of the Lord's Prayer are a three-part prayer for the earth. What did you mean by that?
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, just looking at the prayer itself now, I think even Luther's Small Catechism reflects this. If you look at Luther's explanations to the first three petitions, they're kind of the same. They're a little different, but let Your Name be hallowed or hallowed be Thy Name. Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done. These are not radically different requests or prayers. We're asking God to act. And the Catechism, of course, He emphasizes that we're asking Him to act in our lives and for us.
But then after the first three petitions, you have this phrase, and I'll do it literally from the Greek New Testament: "As in heaven, also on earth," right? How are things in heaven?
Mike Zeigler: They're going pretty well.
Jeff Gibbs: Just peachy. Just fine, right? But the problem is down here, so it's down here that we want and we ask that God's Name would be regarded as holy. It's down here that we want God's will to be done and so forth. It's a big picture prayer in my little part of the earth, of course, right? May it be done among us as well. But it's really a prayer for God's world. This is my Father's world, and this is a prayer for the earth.
Mike Zeigler: Then when we think about the second half of the Lord's Prayer, you say in the commentary that it's a prayer for today in light of the last day. What did you mean by that?
Jeff Gibbs: Well, it acknowledges that we haven't heard the trumpet yet, and that life is still difficult, that we as creatures need to be sustained, so we pray for daily bread. We, even as Jesus' disciples, are still sinful, and so we live by that constant forgiveness He offers us, and then, in turn, are willing to forgive others. And that Satan is on the move, and we need to be delivered from the evil one. When the last day comes, it'll all be good, right? But until then we actually have needs. And it's in that second half of the prayer that every single occurrence of "we," "us," and "our" occurs. It shifts to our needs until Jesus comes again.
Mike Zeigler: Martin Luther once wrote that everybody tortures and abuses the Lord's Prayer and few take comfort and joy in its proper use. What do you think could help us get out of, maybe the trance-like state we get into, when we say the Lord's Prayer? What do you think would help?
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, that's a good question. Thank you for an honest question. That's called meddling. Well, two things come to mind. One is, I wonder sometimes in our worship services, we tend to have prayers from the altar or from wherever depending on the worship space. Then we tack on the Lord's Prayer at the end. I wonder if we could put the Lord's Prayer at the beginning. I've even thought about taking the prayers for the sick, for instance, and embedding them in "Thy will be done." It would, in a sense, be giving a priority to the Lord's Prayer and including all of our other prayers underneath that. The other thing, I'll just say this briefly. I saw this done once in a seminary chapel long ago. I've used it occasionally in some settings. If I'm the pastor, say, and I'm leading the Lord's Prayer, you can actually lead it a petition at a time and then pause. Now that was radio pause, right? Just that three seconds.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah. You don't want to go too long.
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, what's going on? Yeah. But you can say, "Our Father who art in heaven." The congregation then echoes, "Our Father who art in heaven." Then for 15 seconds you think and pray about the fact that God is our Father in heaven, in silence.
Mike Zeigler: That's worth thinking about.
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah, then you do that through the prayer. It will make people crazy because it feels like an eternity, but it actually gives you a chance to get out of, as you said, the trance-like repetition where you're already thinking about what you're going to have for lunch, to be honest, and to actually meditate and pray on each request of the prayer.
Mike Zeigler: That could be a good practice for private devotion, too.
Jeff Gibbs: Very much so. Very much so, yeah. Or Bible studies. It takes about two-and-a-half minutes instead of 26 seconds. It's really a neat thing that I saw, and it was really a blessing to me.
Mike Zeigler: Good. Well, we should try that out. Thanks for joining us.
Jeff Gibbs: Yeah. Thanks, Dr. Ziegler. It's nice to be here.
Mike Zeigler: Yeah, Dr. Gibbs.
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House)