Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Prayer (& Fasting) and the Cross of Christ

Ash Wednesday
February 17, 2010
Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

During our midweek Lenten worship services we will be meditating on the Lord’s Prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the prayer our Lord has given us to pray and in it is contained everything we need in order to pray to our Heavenly Father. A lifetime of praying and meditating on the Lord’s Prayer is what our Lord has in mind for us in giving us His holy Prayer.

If you look at the Lord’s Prayer you will see that it is concerned with the things we need. What we need in order to live is what we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer. If you look at what Jesus says in the Gospel reading for Ash Wednesday you will see that what He is teaching us about prayer is nothing else than teaching us about what we need and about living out our lives in a way that is in consonance with His will.

So in the three things He mentions—giving to those in need, praying, and fasting—He is doing nothing other than teaching us how we ought to live our lives. Our lives are lives of prayer. Jesus begins His teaching on prayer by talking about practicing our righteousness before others. We are not to do it for the purpose of being seen by them. We are to do it in a way that doesn’t draw attention to ourselves.

It is in the verses between the ones of our Gospel reading where our Lord gives us His holy Prayer. The petitions He gives us to pray are for those things we need. The more we pray that Prayer, the more we ponder it, the more we will see that giving to those in need, praying, and fasting are things we need.

Those things focus ourselves outwardly. They get us to look beyond ourselves and to the cross of Christ. Giving to the poor is easily understandable because you’re helping someone out and looking beyond yourself. But when you pray isn’t it so easy just to focus on your own needs rather than the needs of others? And when you fast, aren’t your thoughts consumed with the rumblings and even the pain of your stomach and the weakness you experience from not having enough food to sustain you?

But this is why we need these things. Even in giving to the poor we tend to focus on ourselves, how good of people we are in helping others; or agonizing over what extra time and effort and money it’s costing us to help someone else. We tend to think more about our own needs than the fact that there is someone else who is in need.

But giving to those in need is not only for their sake but for our own. It’s not so much something we must do as it is an extension of who we are in Christ. Because of the cross we see others in need as an opportunity to serve rather than as a drain on our time and energy. Because of Jesus giving Himself wholly in His suffering and death we are ready and willing to give of our time and money in order to help those who are experiencing burdens.

When our prayers tend to revolve around our own needs or even our own wants what we need is the prayer our Lord has taught us. There we see what our true needs are. There we see that our wants need to be melded into what our Heavenly Father wants for us. He wants what is best for us. That is brought out in the Lord’s Prayer. Otherwise it would be filled with the things He gives us that help us out only in this life. Those things are wonderful and we need them and He desires we have them. But if that’s the main thing then we don’t have a very loving God—we have a God who cares for us only for a time. The things we pray for in the Lord’s Prayer are primarily the things we need for our soul, the things that last forever. There is nothing better to receive in this life than those things.

How do we know this? Again, the cross of Christ guides our view toward this. Jesus didn’t suffer just injury and harm in being crucified. He was forsaken by His Heavenly Father on account of the sins of the world. His suffering was enduring the punishment of hell we all deserve. His sacrifice was being counted as the sinner in our place. Giving His life was nothing else than suffering in our place so that we may have eternal life. Reading and meditating on and praying the Lord’s Prayer helps us see more and more that that’s what that prayer is getting at that we need in our lives.

Most Christians would think it’s odd if you told them that they shouldn’t give to those in need. It’s pretty clear that Scripture tells us to give to others. But do we need to be told not to pray in public? Many Christians would rather stand on their head than pray in public. And what about fasting? Outside of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, fasting to many Christians seems like a ritual that is better suited to those in a monastery or those in a church that is based on the Law where you do things in order to gain favor with God.

But Jesus doesn’t teach us about fasting for any purpose of what we must do or how to gain favor with God but rather for what we need. Where when we fast our minds are telling us that we need food—and really want food; and our stomachs are doing more than just telling; God is showing us that there is so much more to His gifts to us than just daily bread. That while our stomachs are craving to be filled the Word of God feeds us with eternal blessings that sustain us long after we again need another meal.

You don’t have to give to those in need. But you will be blessed when you do. You don’t have to fast either. But you will come to see that it’s true that man does not live by bread alone. And when you give to those in need you don’t have to make it an elaborate thing. You can be very simple about it: offer to help someone you know who needs help with their yard work or a ride to the doctor. Lend an ear to someone who is going through a rough patch or is grieving the loss of their loved one.

When you fast you can make it something simple, such as getting up on Sunday morning and reserving eating any food until after you have been fed by your Lord in Word and Sacrament. And if you have a particular condition that would make it prohibitive for you to abstain from food, then take something else in your life that you need or want in your daily life and cut a portion of it out. Put in its place meditation on the Word of God. Praying and meditating on the Lord’s Prayer. Reading and studying the Catechism. Pondering the suffering and death of your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

It’s true that prayer is something commanded you by God. But it’s true because He commands things of you that are for your benefit. It’s true that humbling yourself, serving others, giving up things in your life that you crave is difficult. But the things we need, the things that are truly best for us come through difficult things. Christ on His cross was giving of Himself to those in need: you and me and the world. He was praying to His Heavenly Father on our behalf. He was fasting, not taking in anything of this life for help or benefit. That’s because He was giving of Himself so that we may be the dear children of our Heavenly Father in boldness and confidence. Amen.


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