Sermon 02-12-17: “What Reward Do You Have?”

February 16, 2017

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If last week’s sermon was about the sinfulness of anger, this week’s sermon is about its ultimate cause—which is implicit in Jesus’ question in verse 46: “What reward do you have?” Not counting “righteous anger,” which we don’t often feel, we usually get angry when someone messes with our “reward,” or our “treasure.” This sermon, therefore, explores that seldom mentioned motive for serving the Lord: that we will receive a reward. Is there something wrong in working for Christ’s reward?

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:38-48

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]

If it’s true that there are five stages of grief, this past week I got hung up on the second stage—anger. I’m referring, of course, to the anger that arose within me around 10:15 or so last Sunday night, when the Patriots broke an NFL playoff record and overcame a 25-point deficit to tie up the Super Bowl at the last minute. The anger I felt wasn’t kick-the-couch kind of anger. I’ve shared with you before how, back in the mid-2000s, when my children were very young, I got so angry when the Georgia Bulldogs took a last-second lead in the annual rivalry game with my Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and I responded by kicking the couch in frustration. Deeply shameful incident, which I had hoped my kids were too young to remember… but they enjoy reminding me—it’s hysterical to them—of that time when they saw their father kick the couch in frustration. Because of a football game.

ryan

No, the anger I felt last Sunday night wasn’t that kind of anger. It was an anger that expressed itself as disgust… Resentment… I felt an urge to disown this team, which, mere minutes earlier, I was cheering for. “Who are these losers?” I thought. I didn’t want to be associated with their city!

I know some of you felt the same way. The difference is, no one in this room besides me preached a sermon about anger a mere twelve hours earlier! Seriously, I was sharing my frustration about the game with one of you on Wednesday night, and you rightly pointed out—in a joking sort of way—what a hypocrite I was. And you’re right!

Anger! Where does it come from? Why is it so pervasive? Why is it so hard to overcome?

In today’s scripture, which has to do with not retaliating against enemies but loving them instead, our Lord has given me an opportunity to take a second bite at that apple concerning this emotion of anger. Because let’s face it, if someone insults us, or physically assaults us, or persecutes us, or takes advantage of us, or steals from us, or exploits us, or mistreats us in any way—as Jesus describes in this text—what is our natural emotional response? Anger! And we retaliate against them, and we fail to love them, because we’re acting out of this anger.

So what is it that makes us angry? Why did I get angry at the Falcons last Sunday night—instead of feeling great compassion and pity and sorrow for them. While it’s true that they lost that game through any one of about two-dozen different mistakes, it’s not like I haven’t made plenty of mistakes that have cost me victories in my life. And it’s not like the Patriots had nothing to do with it! They are a great team! 

The point is, I could have been compassionate and merciful but wasn’t. Just like we can be compassionate and merciful toward one another when we get hurt. But we’re often not. Why?

I think Jesus gives us a clue in today’s scripture—in verse 46. Jesus has just told us to love our enemies. Then he says, “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have?” Big deal. Even the tax collectors do that, Jesus says. What reward do you have?

So Jesus implies that we get a “reward” for loving our enemies—or heck, a reward for doing any number of difficult things that Jesus commands us to do in the Sermon on the Mount. For example, in verse 11 of this chapter, in the Beatitudes, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad,” he says, “because great is your reward in heaven…”[1] So we rejoice and be glad in the face of insults, persecution, and suffering, because why? Because “great is our reward in heaven.”

And then, later in this same sermon, when he talks about giving to the poor, he says we shouldn’t give like the hypocrites give—who blow a trumpet in the synagogue to let everyone know how generous they are. Instead we should give “secretly.” And what happens as a result? “Your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”[2] A couple of verses later, he says that you shouldn’t pray outside on the street corners—like the hypocrites do—in order to parade your righteousness before others. Instead, you should go into your closets or rooms and shut the door. Why? So that your Father who sees in secret will reward you.[3]

Are you detecting a theme here?

Finally, in this same sermon, Jesus says, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.”

So Jesus doesn’t want us to lay up earthly treasures, but he commands us to lay up treasures in heaven. He’s speaking again about rewards. Rewards, heavenly treasures, same thing. Keep in mind: when he talks about “treasures in heaven” and “rewards,” he doesn’t just mean treasure and rewards that we’ll receive after we die and go to heaven. He’s also talking about a “heavenly bank account,” if you will, which we can draw upon even now. He’s talking about not just something in eternity but a better quality of life now. There’s something that we find in in Christ right now—on this side of heaven—that’s so good that it will make us deeply happy—it can make us glad and make us rejoice right now—even as we’re going through difficult trials in this life. Not to mention what’s waiting for us in heaven. But there’s a reward now in Christ. There’s treasure to be enjoyed now in Christ.

There’s a new Martin Scorsese movie out right now called Silence, about the first Christian missionaries who went to Japan a few centuries ago. Japan was very hostile to Christianity back then. And the movie portrays, in very graphic terms, the extreme suffering and martyrdom of early Christians in Japan. I haven’t seen it yet, but in one profoundly moving scene, some Christians are literally being crucified on a beach. The tide is coming in and will soon drown them. And as this is happening, they break out in song. They start singing a hymn. Somehow, they are able to rejoice in the midst of the worst possible suffering. And while that’s a movie, history is filled with examples of Christians who are able to rejoice in suffering. A few years ago, when ISIS beheaded those twenty or so Egyptian Christians on the beach in Libya—and put it on the internet for all the world to see, they likely didn’t count on the response of these Christians, who, one by one, praised the Lord Jesus before meeting their end. These terrorists probably didn’t want the world to see that.

What spiritual resources were these men drawing upon—what treasures in heaven were sustaining them—as they died? I want what they had, don’t you?

Jesus tells us that that’s the way we’re supposed to be. In fact, he tells us that we ought to work for this reward. We ought to work for this heavenly treasure.

I’ve rarely ever preached about this; I don’t think many of us Methodist preachers, at least, preach about rewards and heavenly treasure being any kind of motivation for the good work we do. And I think in part it’s because we think it’s selfish for our actions to be motivated by the thought of reward. But if Jesus says it’s not selfish, why would we second-guess him?

These rewards, after all, aren’t material, tangible. Moths and rust can’t destroy our heavenly treasure the way they can any earthly treasure. We’re not talking about televangelists asking their congregation to bless them with a 65 million dollar private jets! Besides, as great as 65-million-dollar private jets may be, Jesus knows that those things can’t sustain us—however much we imagine that they might.

No, it’s not selfish to work for the rewards that Christ offers. But it is self-interested. Which is to say, “If only we knew what was good for us, if we knew what it was that really could bring us happiness, then we would strive to do the things that Jesus teaches us to do and live the way Jesus teaches us to live. Pastor John Piper is famous for saying this, and I believe it from the bottom of my heart: “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.” I want to know that kind of satisfaction.

Recently I’ve been asking during prayer time for you to share ways in which you’ve seen God working in your life or in the world in the past week. If I weren’t a pastor, I would have shared an experience I had this week. But I want to share it now because it’s relevant to this scripture. On Monday of this week I got a call from a clergy friend who told me that she was so frustrated with her church work that she was thinking of quitting the ministry. And I reminded her of something of which I’ve reminded you recently: John Wesley’s so-called “covenant prayer,” in which we pray, “Let me be laid aside for thee” and “Let me have nothing”—if that’s God’s will for us. In so many words, the prayer says, “Whatever you want for us, God, we will gladly accept. It’s all about you. We’re doing this for you.” So I challenged her: “Do we mean those words or don’t we?” I said, “We’re not doing this for our own glory, right? It’s all for God’s glory.”

I was very proud of this sage counsel that I offered to my friend. I mean, she is so blessed to have me as a friend, right? And then… something happened to me which exposed my own hypocrisy on the subject of personal glory.

[Here, I share a personal anecdote, which I’ve omitted for the sake of privacy. The point of the anecdote was to say that I am desperate for personal glory, and I often resent when other people receive it and not me.]

And before I drifted off to sleep, I had a strong sense that the Lord was working on my stubborn, sinful heart—and was reminding me of the very words that I spoke to my clergy friend last Monday: “It’s not about you, Brent. It’s not about your glory, but mine. You’re getting angry right now because your heart is craving something that you think will make you happy, but it won’t. The only thing that will truly make you happy is more of me—more of my love, more of my grace, more of my power. I long to give that to you, Brent, so you can know deep and lasting happiness. But I’m not going to force it on you. You’re going to have to decide whether your treasure is on earth or your treasure is in heaven.”

I sensed that the Lord was telling me something like that.

And maybe he’s telling you something similar this morning?

In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis says that the reason we human beings struggle to find happiness in this world is that there’s really only one kind of happiness—and it’s available only in one place: in a loving relationship with God through Christ, as we seek to be his obedient children. That’s it. If we look for it anywhere else—in human relationships, in money, in possessions, in popularity, in fame, in our own personal glory—we won’t find it. As he puts it, with great eloquence:

George Macdonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, ‘You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.’ That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not: He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. [There are only three alternatives:] To be God—to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response—to be miserable—these are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows—the only food that any possible universe ever can grow—then we must starve eternally.[4]

If we have received God’s gift of eternal life in Christ, we will go to heaven; so we won’t starve eternally. But if we’re starving in the meantime, before we get to heaven, it’s because we’re looking for our treasure—we’re looking for a reward—in some place other than God.

So let’s go back to the beginning of this sermon: You know what makes us angry? When someone messes with our treasure, when someone or something threatens to take it or steal part of it or harm it or destroy it. I think that’s what anger comes down to. So my “treasure” last Sunday night was savoring a little of the glory that would come my way when my team won the Super Bowl. But they lost, and I was angry. My “treasure” last Thursday night—like so many other nights and days—was my personal glory. When I don’t receive it—or when someone else threatens to take it away from me—I get angry.

What about you?

[Prayer: God, enable us to repent of the desire for any treasure that thieves can break in and steal, that moths and rust can destroy. Give us the desire to look for it only in you, and by your grace, to find it. Amen.]

1. Matthew 5:11-12a NIV

2. Matthew 6:4 NIV

3. Matthew 6:6

4. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 47.

One Response to “Sermon 02-12-17: “What Reward Do You Have?””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that there is nothing wrong with the idea of rewards as a valid motivation for our actions. In fact, that is a constant theme throughout scripture. (Including in the Sermon on the Mount, as you reference.) “He that comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a REWARDER of them that diligently seek him.” Hebrews 11:6, I think. Although certainly we are to look to God as our reward, part of looking to God is recognizing Him as just the sort of person who likes to give good things to those who do good. “How shall he not with Him give us all things?” So, it is a “both/and” deal. We want God, and we want the good things that the good God creates for out enjoyment out of His goodness. We don’t have to worry ourselves over whether this is some type of “selfishness”–it is, as you say, “self-interested.” And God says, “That’s okay. Just know that you are supposed to look to Me for the satisfaction of that.”


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