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Who will win the Oscar?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Matthew 6:1

Last Tuesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for this year’s Academy Awards. The winners will each receive something called an “Oscar,” though no one knows why. One possible answer is that early on, the Academy librarian said the statuette resembled her Uncle Oscar.

An Oscar weighs 8.5 pounds and stands 13.5 inches tall. It depicts a knight holding a crusader’s sword, standing on a reel of film. It takes twelve people twenty hours to make one of the 50 statuettes produced each year. The Oscars are then shipped in unmarked cardboard boxes for security reasons, though they were stolen three years ago and found nine days later next to a dumpster.

Last year, 41 million people watched to see who would win an Oscar. On March 23, we’ll watch again. And then forget what we saw. Who won last year? The year before? Who really cares?

However, another performance is being watched every day by an audience of One. You’re on his stage right now. And his judgment will last forever.

This morning we’ll learn that God cares more about our hearts than our hands, our motives more than our methods. His is the only reward which can give us joy, peace, and significance, long after the world’s awards have faded. So, how do we receive his reward, in this life and for all eternity? How do we please our audience of One?

Who is our audience?

Jesus begins: “Be careful.” The words in the original are much stronger; they mean to be on your guard now, to take heed immediately. Jesus sets up a sign along the highway: Don’t go here! Bridge out—falling rock—dead end. Turn back now! When the all-knowing, all-seeing God of the universe warns us not to travel down a road, we want to “be careful.”

Of what? “Not to do your acts of righteousness….”

Jesus refers to the religious activities he’ll address shortly: giving, praying, fasting. But he also means the issues he has just addressed: giving to those who ask, loving our enemy.

He assumes that we’ll do these “acts of righteousness.” The issue is not the action, but the motive. Not the “what” but the “why.”

So here are the key words: “before men, to be seen by them.”

The syntax means, “for the purpose of being seen by men.”

Now the Oscar comes into view: “to be seen by” translates the word theathenai, from which we get “theatrical.” The phrase means “to be theatrical before men” and is best translated, “do not do your acts of righteousness as an actor on a stage, seeking the applause of men as your audience.”

His concern is not with our methods, but our motives. He wants us to work hard and well, so that our world will praise the God whom we serve. Not for our glory, but for his. Not for our applause, but for his alone. Why does he warn us so strongly about this “desire for glory”?

Such pride can corrupt us morally, as we compromise for applause. The Chinese have a proverb, “He who sacrifices his conscience to ambition burns a picture to obtain the ashes.” How many in public life have done this in recent years?

Ego steals our peace and joy. As the story goes, a monk in a wilderness cave was so famous for his holiness that even demons tempting him with great wealth and sensuous pleasure failed. He just sat serenely. So the devil barked, “Step aside, and I will show you what has never failed.” He leaned over to the monk and whispered, “Have you heard the news? Your classmate Makarios has just been named bishop of Alexandria.” And the monk scowled.

Pride causes us to hurt others for our sake. T. S. Eliot was right: “Most of the trouble in the world is caused by people who want to be important.”

Pride hurts us with God, not just with people.

God’s word is clear: “If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Romans 14:8); “Whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (Colossians 3:17); “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

Pride keeps God from using us fully. Martin Luther: “God creates out of nothing. Therefore, until a man is nothing, God can make nothing out of him.”

Kenneth Blanchard, co-author of the business classic The One-Minute Manager, says, “I define ego as Edging God Out.”

And Jesus taught us that when we live for the applause of the world more than for God’s glory, “you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (6.1b). His reward is “an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade—kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:4). His is the reward for which we were made. It alone satisfies the hunger in our souls, the longing for significance and meaning in our hearts. The world’s applause will die as quickly in our lives as at the Oscars. But the reward Jesus gives to those who live for his glory, to please him, is for now and forever.

My favorite story about humility comes from the time Muhammad Ali was about to take off on an airplane. He was in his prime, on top of the world. The flight attendant reminded him to fasten his seat belt, and he said brashly, “Superman don’t need no seat belt.” She came back, “Superman don’t need no airplane, either.” He fasted his belt.

That was then; this is now. The former heavyweight champion of the world was interviewed not long ago. The reporter met him in the barn on his property. His awards, trophies, posters were lying against the barn walls, bird droppings running down them. He could barely speak, and his hands quivered constantly. He gestured to the awards around him and whispered, “Look at all that. It don’t mean nothin’ now.”

What motivates us?

Let’s apply Jesus’ words to our church first, and then to our personal lives. What motivates Park Cities Baptist Church? Who is the audience of our ministries and activities? For whose sake do we do what we do?

Our vision is clear, and given to us by our Lord: “go and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19). Disciples are fully-devoted followers of the Lord Jesus. So, we are here to help people follow Jesus.

Our church exists to “help”—to minister, to serve.

To help “people.” Success is not how big our programs become, but how effectively our people follow Christ.

To help people “follow”—as a lifestyle, not just a weekend religion.

To help people follow “Jesus,” to know him personally and eternally.

This is Jesus’ vision, so it must be ours.

Our values are clear.

We exist to evangelize the lost, then equip the saved for their ministries, then engage them in those ministries so they can evangelize the lost.

Remember the difference between evangelism and discipleship: if I won one person a day to Christ for 33 years, 12,045 would be saved. But if I won and discipled one person a year, and they in turn won and discipled another person next year while I did the same, and so on, in 33 years, more than eight billion would be saved.

And our power is clear.

As we exalt Christ, he empowers us to evangelize, equip, and engage. Worship is the center of all we do, for we exist to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. Only then can we love our neighbor as ourselves. We must worship passionately before we can live biblically, serve joyfully, and love practically.

And so the purpose of worship, as this text makes clear, is not to impress you but to impress God. As Stephen Holcomb has said, worship is encountering God. You are the performers, not the ones on this platform. The sanctuary is the stage; this platform is the sideline, where the coaches stand and help. We send in the plays, but you must perform them. We encourage, but you must exalt. God is your audience of One.

And so we select music and message each week which will best help you encounter God. On some Sundays we use traditional elements; sometimes we use classical elements; sometimes we use more contemporary elements—all depending on the text, or the season of the year, or the world circumstances of that week. Our music and message do not depend on what we on this platform “like,” but on what you need to encounter God that week. We are successful to the degree that you encounter God each week.

Now, is our motive clear? Do we help people follow Jesus for his sake, or for ours? Are we trying to build a bigger church, or a bigger Kingdom? Do we worship for us, or for God? Is our church for us, or for God?

Corrie ten Boom was asked if it was difficult for her to remain humble. Her reply was simple: “When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday on the back of a donkey, and everyone was waving palm branches and throwing garments on the road, singing praises, do you think that for one moment it ever entered the head of that donkey that any of that was for him? If I can be that donkey on which Jesus Christ rides to his glory, I give him all the praise and honor.” So must we.

Conclusion

Now, let’s close personally. What motivates you? Why do you do your “acts of righteousness”?

Why are you trying to succeed at school? At work? At home? Is it for God’s glory or yours?

Why do you do your “acts of righteousness” at church? Why do you teach your class? Serve on your committee? Perform your ministry? Sing in the choir? Why do I preach? Is it for God’s glory or ours?

John Adams: “I believe that there is no one principle which predominates in human nature so much in every stage of life, from the cradle to the grave, in males and females, old and young, black and white, rich and poor, high and low, as [the] passion for superiority” (David McCullough, John Adams, 170).

The ancient Roman historian Tacitus agreed: “The desire for glory clings even to the best men longer than any other passion.”

If “ego” is “edging God out,” what can we do to prevent this? To be sure that we do our “acts of righteousness” for God’s glory and not our own? I have two suggestions.

First, every time you are tempted to pride yourself in what you do, make the conscious decision to be humble instead. To do this for God’s glory alone. Be intentional about this. Erasmus, the outstanding Reformation-era scholar, offers brilliant advice: “use temptation as a means to virtue. If your inclinations are to be greedy and selfish, increase your donations to charity. If you tend toward boasting, make a deliberate effort to be humble in all things. This way you can find in temptation a renewed determination to increase in piety. This procedure is the one that most galls Satan. It makes him afraid to tempt you because nothing is more hateful to the Author of Evil than that he should be responsible for some good” (Handbook of the Militant Christian, 1503, twelfth rule).

Second, pray about this daily. Jesus stands ready to help you. And you need his help. Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the great English Bible teacher, prayed every day of his life this prayer: “Lord, keep me from pride.” How long has it been since you made this your prayer?

The largest statue ever carved from a single piece of stone weighed more than two million pounds. It was a figure of Ramses I, the Egyptian Pharaoh who died in 1317 B.C. When the children of Israel left Egypt, they passed his enormous statue.

Who would have dreamed that these ragged former slaves, trudging out into the hardships of the unknown desert, would amount to anything? But today Ramses’ statue lies broken in the sands of Egypt. Meanwhile, the movement God began with those children of Israel, men and women willing to live in God’s will and for his glory, have been used by his hand to change our world forever. To touch your soul and mind. To glorify our Maker and King.

They win the only Oscar that matters. Will you?