The Power of a Positive Secret 

Matthew 6:1-18

(c) Copyright 2000 Rev. Bill Versteeg

Our congregation has started doing some self evaluating and visioning with the help of the Natural Church Development Survey tool developed by Christian Swartz.  The results of the survey indicated that though we have many strengths, like so many other churches, our weakest stave is the one entitled "Passionate Spirituality."  Because the questions of the survey which evaluate passionate spirituality often have to do with the hidden habits of faith, we will choose to reflect on one of Jesus teachings regarding the habits of faith that should remain hidden.

Matthew 6:1-18 "Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

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 honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 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.

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 men. I tell you the truth, 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. 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.

9 "This, then, is how you should pray:
"‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.'

14 For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

16 "When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show men they are fasting. I tell you the truth, 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 men 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.

Let me start my comments on this passage this morning by saying the general principle for both of our messages today. That principle is this:

"Secrets shape our lives."

Whether this is a negative secret like sin, or even abuse, or if this is a positive secret, the simple truth is that secrets shape our lives, and it is their secrecy that gives them the power to shape our lives.

It is this fundamental truth that Jesus reminds us of in this passage that highlights some of the prevalent religious practices of his day. Certain religious leaders, in other places we discover these hypocrites were the pharisees, had a distorted idea of what it meant to be a leader, they had a perverted notion of mentoring. Because their motives were mixed up, between pride, and really wanting to lead God's people, they would take what should have remained secret and they practiced it in such a way that everyone would notice. When they gave financial gifts (almost always to the temple, hardly ever to the poor) they would make sure that everyone noticed how much they gave, after all, you have to set the bar high so that people will increase their giving! And when it came to prayer, these men would pray in the middle of the market place for everybody to see, with lofty words and powerful expressions. These people were admired by the public. They were the religious leaders doing their duties in public, a model for all to follow. When it came to fasting, they would make sure that the people would see even this discipline by the expression on their faces. But Jesus called them hypocrites.  The word he used actually comes from the Greek understanding of what it means to be an actor in a theater. These men did their acting for the people around them, in the end it had nothing to do with their relationship with God.  There was not secretive quality about it, their entire reward would come from the applause of their human audience.

You probably did notice in this passage as Jesus surveyed the major religious practices of his day, three times Jesus said told his followers to keep their practices secret - and then he added

Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

Now we are good at distorting what Jesus said, especially when we forget the most basic principle that it's a secret that has the power to shape our lives. (Joke)

A friend was in front of me coming out of church one day, and the preacher who was a fairly bold man, was standing at the door as he always is to shake hands. He grabbed my friend by the hand and pulled him aside.
The Pastor said to him, "You need to join the Army of the Lord!"
My friend replied, "I'm already in the Army of the Lord, Pastor."
Pastor questioned, "How come I don't see you except at Christmas and Easter?"
He whispered back, "I'm in the secret service."

I have actually heard this passage used as a justification not to give to the church because then somebody, ie. the treasurer knows what a person gives. I have actually heard this passage used as a justification not to witness to non Christians, after all, your faith is an entirely private thing. I am sure people have used this passage as a justification not to attend church or not to pray in public. We are good at distorting what Jesus said.

Jesus is simply saying that our secrets shape our lives. In the area of our passionate spirituality, this is so profoundly true. What we do in secret with our Father in heaven will shape the passion, the excitement, the desire, the growth that we have in our faith like nothing else. Don't you find it interesting that when the disciples right after Pentecost were captured and interrogated by the Jewish leaders, the Jewish leaders took note.  Listen to what Acts 4 has to say: 3 When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus. It was noted that these men had been with Jesus. The passion of their faith and testimony had a secret behind it - they had been with Jesus.

I believe the reward that Jesus is talking about in this passage has everything to do with character, courage, power and passion. It also has to do with eternal rewards such as treasures in heaven, but the truth of scripture is that rewards from our Father in heaven are present and future.

If you had with you a King James Bible, you would notice that our text is just a little different. In the King James Bible, the text reads

and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.

The reason the King James version includes the word openly is because translators for that version of the scripture had less ancient and therefore probably less reliable manuscripts to work with. Somewhere in the history of the scriptures being copied word for word, a scribe added the word openly because he knew that the sense of the passage was that God does reward our positive secrets with him, even now.

This morning, in contrast to the religious leaders of Jesus day, we simply need to learn one basic truth.  That which we do with our Father in secret has the power to shape our lives and create the growth that shows up in spiritual passion.

Let me close with just one more illustration that will bring this point home a little clearer.

These hypocrites in Jesus time were certainly very poor gardeners. They should have realized that you cannot expect a plant to flourish if every day, or every week, for that matter, you pull the plant out of the ground to boast about how big its root system is getting. The very process of ripping the plant out of the ground sets it back in terms of its growth and health. That is exactly what they were doing with their practices of faith.  What we do in secret is the root system to a passionate faith life.  Those things which should have remained hidden they were exposing for everyone to see and the consequence was that they would receive no benefit from being rooted in God.

It is when we keep a positive secret with God, it is when we let our roots in him grow deep without being disturbed by public perception, that our spiritual vitality and passion grows stronger and stronger. It is when we turn our eyes and hearts to the Lord, in private, again and again, that we are transformed from one degree of glory to another. It is in the secret, the quiet place, where we are formed. This is true in naturally, God forms us in the secret place of our mother's womb; this is true spiritually where God forms us in the secret place where the Spirit is powerfully at work.

And so I conclude this message with a simple accountability question for passionate spirituality: Ask each other again and again.

Are you keeping a positive secret?

This is a question to which we should be answering yes or no without details because we want to keep it a secret. But understand that God's reward will be evident, in increased witness, increased joy in service, increased excitement in praise and worship, increased spiritual passion and power for others will take note, that you have been with Jesus.

If secrets have the power to shape our lives, then this evening we will look with our children in a children's story at the power of a negative secret.  (See Kenny and the Watermelon Seeds: The Power of a Negative Secret)

(NIV) Scripture taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION. Copyright (C) 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

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