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Monday, August 29, 2011

The Heart of a Praying Person

A friend of mine years ago led teenagers from his Washington DC church on a ski trip in Pennsylvania. It was fun trip. There was no mission project; there was no organized evangelizing; there was no devotional time with scripture reading and teaching about the Christian life. These were kids whose common bond was the church, and they went skiing together under the watch of adult leaders from the church. At the McDonald’s, relaxing after a fun, tiring day, my friend asked the kids, “When did you, in the course of our day, get a chance to act as a Christian?”

What a question! I don’t remember anything particular from the kids’ responses. I am more interested in how we, Christ-followers at HillSong Church, deal with this question.

I ran errands: post office, bank, grocery store. It took 90 minutes. Great! In that time, in those places, when did I express my faith in Jesus? When, where, and how, did I live out my life as one who is walking with Him?

I woke up. I did my morning walk, 2½ miles in 45 minutes. I got my kids’ breakfast ready. I kissed my wife goodbye. And, 2 hours after I woke up, I was on my way to work. OK, in that time, how I did represent Jesus and express His gospel in my interactions, in my words and my behavior.

There was nothing super spiritual! We just went skiing.

I just went in and mailed a package.

I just did my walk and saw the same joggers and dog walkers and commuters I see every day. What do you mean, how did I live my Christianity?

Failure to see Jesus in our ordinary places, our everyday experiences, and we fail to understand the fullness and the reality of him coming, him teaching, him dying, and him rising to resurrected life. Faith is only real and Jesus only matters when faith is applied where we live and we see Him and interact with Him and He impacts our approach to others in our daily lives.

Some words I am afraid to use in church – holiness; righteousness; purity. We wouldn’t normally comment on the holiness of the waitress. Man, she filled my coffee just right, to the perfect spot in the cup. I asked for ½ cup, and that’s what she gave. It wasn’t a third and it was not 5/8. Perfect – a righteous waitress.

Oh the mechanic who fixed my car; he was holy. He did the job right and my car has run like new for a year now, and it’s going on 6 years old. Yes, that large man with greasy hands is a holy man. The work he does shows it.

Sounds pretty silly. Holiness and righteousness seem like churchy words and we leave them at church. And does purity have any meaning beyond a young woman who has not had sex or a clean snowfall that has not been disturbed?

Purity, righteousness, and holiness are wonderful words and should describe the character of all who claim they are Christians, Christ-followers. We are called to holiness in life – throughout life, even in the daily, mundane places of life. Especially there. The kids on the ski trip or the post office run or the home life from wake-up to out the door … in these places we express the holiness we are called to.

Richard Foster writes in Streams of Living Water, “Holiness is the ability to do what needs to be done when it needs to be done. It means being ‘response-able,’ able to respond appropriately to the demands of life.”[i] The Gospel of Jesus determines what is appropriate.

We may be tempted to comb through the Gospels for rules about appropriateness. When is a divorce Biblically appropriate? When is it appropriate for me to use physical force in a situation? What does Jesus say is appropriate and is a witness to my faith when I am in my role on the job, in friendships, in encounters with people at the mall, in my role as a student … etc? This can be helpful and the scripture does offer guidance in the situations of our lives. But there is also an important caution. We miss the mark if we turn the Bible into a rules book or a reference manual. That’s what was taking place in the event recorded in Matthew 15.

Again, from Richard Foster:

Holiness is not rules and regulations. Elaborate lists of dos and don’ts miss the point of a life hidden with God in Christ. …

Holiness is sustained attention to the heart, the source of all action. It concerns itself with the core personality, the wellspring of behavior. It focuses upon … the transformation of [the heart].

Holiness is not otherworldliness.

Holiness is world-affirming. The holy life is found smack in the middle of everyday life. We discover it while being freely and joyfully in the world without ever being of the world. Holiness sees the sacred in all things. It is integrative, synoptic, Incarnational.[ii]

In Matthew 15, tension arises as leaders in the community, experts in Torah law, see in the Bible a rule book. Jesus sees the rules as a means for opening the way to relationship with God.

The controversy kicks off when the Pharisees and scribes travel from Jerusalem all the way to Galilee in the North. There they confront Jesus. “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands before they eat” (15:2). This infuriates Jesus because the Pharisees worry more about keeping the rules than helping people make their way to God.

According to scholar Robert Mounce,

The tradition of the elders was a body of oral literature that grew out of a desire to expound the written law and apply it to new circumstances. … The Pharisees considered this [oral tradition] to be as binding as the written law itself [the law Moses received at Sinai]. The Sadducees rejected it, and [everyday folks] ignored it. The washing before eating had to do with ceremonial uncleanness, not hygiene. Leviticus 11-15 treats the subject of unclean foods. From the Jewish point of view, people became unclean by contact with any sort of “unclean” object or person. To ensure purity, people would go through a rather elaborate ritual of purification before they ate.[iii]

Jesus’ disciples skipped the ritual. They didn’t follow the rules the Pharisees were sure mattered. For their part, the Pharisees wanted holiness. They wanted to be right in God’s eyes. They wanted this more than anything. So, they worked hard at it. Furthermore, theirs was a communal mindset more than an individual one. Not only did they want to be clean and thus be righteous. They wanted everyone in Israel to follow suit.

The problem the Pharisees had was the same problem you and I have – a heart problem. No amount of work or religious effort or ritual-keeping will drive the sin out of our hearts. As long as the sin remains, we may appear clean, but inside, we are corrupted. We are fallen people. Made in the image of God, very good, we have fallen and have turned to the ways of self-worship which leads to all types of destruction in our lives. The Pharisees were fallen, the disciples were fallen, and we are fallen.

A further problem of the Pharisees is they did not understand the way out of their predicament. They knew about sin. They thought the answer was in their own ability to get things right. Actually, the answer lies in having a life that near to God. When our lives are marked by a love relationship with the Heavenly Father, then the sin has been driven out and we are near that holiness he has called us to live out. We are able in all things in life to “do what needs to be done” as Foster says. We are able because God makes us able and we are responsive to God.

In the back and forth with the Pharisees, Jesus breaks with tradition. He re-interprets truth when he says, “It is not what goes into the mouth (food held by unwashed hands) that defiles a person. It is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (15:11). “What comes out of the mouth” – words that reveal the content of a sinful heart. A question everyone could ask daily, if he or she truly wanted to live as a Christ-follower, would be, “Will my words today reveal a corrupt heart, or the life of someone who is so near to God that Jesus is seen in me?”

How would our lives look if we took that question seriously and took that question to God all the time?

“Will my words today reveal a corrupt heart, or will my words reveal the life of someone who is so near to God that Jesus is seen in me?”

How will our lives look if we don’t pray this question?

Jesus answers. The disciples were terribly concerned. “Do you know the Pharisees took offense when they heard what you said” (v.12)? Umm, yes, Jesus knew that. We could ask the same thing. “Jesus, do you know that if we strive for holy living by consulting God in prayer all the time and then doing what we know God wants us to do … do you know that if we do that our lives will look very, very different than those who are materialistic, self-serving products of the 21st century consumerist age?” Umm, yes, Jesus knows.

He said of the Pharisees they were blind guides, guiding blind people. All would end up in a pit. If we follow the popular trends of our day especially in terms of ethical decisions, morals, and our treatment of people – if we do it the way everyone does it – if we live for the sake of being popular and serving our own selves, then we are blind and are following the guidance of the blind. We will not end up living the abundant life of unsurpassed joy Jesus promised. We might end up rich and in possession of a lot of cool things; we might not. But if we ignore God and follow after the trends of our day, we end up in a pit. We fall and cannot get up.

Jesus says, “Out of the heart comes evil intentions,” and the evil born in our sins and the sins of those around us is what corrupts us, dragging us far, far from our Heavenly Father.

Rejecting the way of the Pharisees, holiness achieved by makings rules and then following the rule, Jesus shows a better way. It begins with his presence – God became man. At Mount Sinai, God gave the law to show us how to be in relationship with God. In Jesus, God gives himself. The law was only ever intended to help human beings into a relationship with God. Jesus accomplishes what the law could not. He makes us holy – right in God’s eyes. It only happens, though, when we are near to him. We have to be near to Jesus to live rightly. Without that relationship, a relationship we are conscious of and attentive to throughout every day, we cannot be holy. God calls us to be holy.

How then do we do it? We’ve already said that Jesus rejected a religion of rules. We don’t want to ignore that by listing our “to dos” for spiritual formation this week. We cannot will ourselves to holiness. Jesus had said out of the heart comes evil – murder, adultery, fornication, theft, dishonesty, wicked maligning speech. It all proceeds from your heart and mine. So how do we respond when someone asks, “At the McDonalds after the ski trip, or in conversation with your family when you got up this morning, or when you first got into work, how did your live your Christianity?

There’s much to say that will go unsaid this morning. We must discuss death to self. We must discuss forgiveness. We must go over spiritual disciplines and the role they play in spiritual formation. We cannot hit all these highly important topics this morning. This August, I believe God wants HillSong Church, the people of the church, to go deep in our prayer lives. How do we take the first step on the walk to holy living? We take a step in our relationship with Jesus. We decide we will deepen our prayer lives.

More specifically, we decide we will take everything in our lives to God in prayer. We decide we will turn to the Holy Spirit and we will ask God to show us how to listen to and how to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit. Really, there’s nothing we can do to become holy. God is the one who makes us holy. What we can do is turn to Jesus.

The rich man came and asked Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life.” Jesus responded, “Sell all you have and give the proceeds to the poor. Then come and follow me.” Jesus is not rejecting wealth per se. But for that man, wealth made it impossible for him to be present with God and open to God. He had to remove the impediment and then stay near Jesus. Many times, Jesus healed someone, they begged to follow him, and he did not allow it but instead sent them to the priest to show they had been healed. But for this rich man, Jesus insisted he divest himself of everything and be with Jesus.

That’s it for us this morning! Listen to the great 19th century South African Pastor, Andrew Murray:

Nothing but the knowledge of God as the holy one will make us holy. How are we to obtain that knowledge of God unless we go to him alone in the place of prayer? It is utterly impossible unless we take time and allow the holiness of God to reveal itself to us. How can anyone on earth obtain intimate knowledge of another if he does not associate with that person and remain under that one’s influence? And how can God himself [make us holy] if we do not take time to be brought under the power of the glory of his holiness? … No man can make progress in holiness who is not often and long alone with God.”[iv]

When we develop a life of prayer, we’ll understand what holiness is because we will know God. We’ll be prepared when someone asks, “In your dinner out at Breadman’s Restaurant, how did you live out your faith in Christ?” We can say how because our faith permeates everything. We don’t try to be holy in our relationships. We try to be completely open and completely honest with the Lord, and we involve Him in every minute aspect of our lives. In doing that, we open our hearts and he goes to work on us. He makes us new so that when we interact with people, they see Him in us. There are many things we do to get to that point. It starts with prayer and is sustained by God as we continually go to him in prayer.

We pray for holiness. We ask for it. Praying in all things and in all circumstances, developing a conversational relationship in which we lean on God in everything and put God first in everything, He makes us righteous, holy, right before him and in our dealings with people. The first step is toward Jesus in prayer.

[i] Foster (2001), Streams of Living Water, (HarperCollins Publishers, NY), p.82.

[ii] Ibid, p.83.

[iii] Mounce (1985), New International Bible Commentary: Matthew, (Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA), p.148.

[iv] Murray (2002), Living a Prayerful Life (Bethany House, Bloomington, MN), p.72.

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