Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Lord's Prayer 3 - Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen. (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 18, 2013)

This morning I want to finish my series on the Lord’s Prayer by looking at the conclusion of the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. The traditional translation is “Lead us not into temptation, and deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.” I will also be referring to the contemporary translation: “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil. For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”


The genius of the Lord’s Prayer is that it so perfectly balances the heavenly and the earthly.  Praise and worship bracket the prayer, but at its heart it gives voice to our most urgent needs:  bread, forgiveness, and refuge from evil. 


“Give us today our daily bread” and “Forgive our sins” are prayers we can pray as a matter of course.  But it can be a bit disconcerting when Jesus instructs us to pray “Save us from the time of trial” or “Lead us not into temptation” How could the Father to whom we pray “lead us into temptation” or bring us to “the time of trial?”  Is God a cosmic tempter?  Is God’s good creation full of snares and traps? 


Think with me about the petition, “lead us not into temptation.” In the 23rd Psalm we affirm that God “leads us beside still waters” and in the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God would “lead us not into temptation.”  What sense can we make of the seemingly incompatible ideas that the same God would lead us beside still waters and might also lead us into temptation?


It may help to solve the difficulty if we realize that the path beside the still waters and the way of temptation are often one and the same.  Think back to the story of Adam and Eve.  They lived in paradise.  Eden contained everything necessary to sustain human life, and God invited them to enjoy it rent-free.  God only asked that they refrain from eating the fruit of one of the trees.  Was this fruit evil in itself?  Of course not.  It was the way that Adam and Eve used this fruit that was evil, not the fruit itself.


The lesson we learn from Adam and Eve is that God has given us no gift so good that it cannot be put to evil uses.  The Book of Proverbs tells us that God gave wine to gladden the human heart.  Wine is God’s good gift, but it is also the source of misery to those who misuse it.  Sexuality is God’s good gift but has any other human appetite caused more anguish?  Almost daily we hear stories about the epidemic of obesity in America, and yet God blesses the responsible use of food. 


In other words, we are led into temptation every day.  Every day we are put to the test and face times of trial.  The Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for the strength to face these daily trials. But we usually have the strength to turn down an additional martini, or an extra slice of cheesecake. 


Jesus’ own example shows us that we dare not rely on our own strength and that all of us may face trials which will test the limits of our endurance. “Father, let this cup pass from me,” Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.  “Nevertheless, not my will but yours be done.” We will all come eventually to our own Gethsemane.  It may happen as a result of a visit to the physician:  “I’m sorry to tell you but…” It may happen when a relationship fails:  “You’re a really nice person but…” It may happen when we are euphemistically “downsized”.  But the trial will come.  Jesus was nothing if not a realist.  When that moment comes (and it will come for us as surely as it came for him), we are more likely to be able to withstand it if we have frequently and fervently prayed, “Lead us not into temptation” or “Save us from the time of trial.” 


Note also that this petition, like all the others, is phrased in the plural:  “Save US from the time of trial”.  Just as we pray to OUR Father, for OUR daily bread, and that God would forgive US, so we pray that God would save US from the time of trial.  In this there is a note of hope.  We never face trials alone.  Just as we never pray alone, so we never face trials alone.  When trials come our way, we do not face them alone.  As the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, we are supported by a “great cloud of witnesses”.  This petition also reminds us that we are responsible to one another.  The trials that your neighbor faces are also your trials.


“Lead us not into temptation” or “Save us from the trial” leads directly to “and deliver us from evil.”  Bread and forgiveness don’t give us much trouble, but evil is another matter.  We tend to make two fundamental mistakes with regard to evil.  One is to attribute too much power to it.  The other is to attribute too little. 


There are some religious groups who regard evil as nothing more than an error or a flawed way of thinking.  They say that there are no wrong turns, only wrong ways of thinking.  I beg to differ. 


I don’t want to make the mistake of attributing too much power to evil, but if the 20th century taught us anything it taught us that evil is very real indeed.  How else can we explain the fact that the land of Beethoven, Goethe, and Einstein became the land of Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels? If evil is not real and powerful, how can we explain the near-extermination of the Jews of Europe?  If evil is not real how else can we explain the triumph of totalitarianism across two-thirds of the earth in the Soviet Union, its eastern European satellites, and the People’s Republic of China?  And closer to home, how can we explain our own commitment to build an arsenal of catastrophic weapons that could destroy all life on earth? 


On the other hand, it would be a mistake to attribute too much power to evil.  The classic statement of this mistake comes from that great theologian of my childhood - Flip Wilson:  “The devil made me do it!”  Well, no… the devil can’t make us do anything.  Powerful as evil may be, it is never all-powerful.  Evil may have the next to last word, but it never has the last word.  The West defeated Hitler; the Soviet Union collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions; and the stockpile of terrible weapons that we built to defend ourselves from the Soviets is slowly but surely diminishing.


The temptations and trials that you and I face will probably be those that come to every human being – failed relationships, financial difficulties, disease, and death.  But when we pray the Lord’s Prayer we make common cause with Christians in every place and every age.  Their trials and temptations become our trials and temptations and ours become theirs.  When we pray “save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” the powers of death and hell shudder and continue their long and slow but certain retreat. 


And when we pray, “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory, forever and ever.  Amen”, we anticipate that day when evil shall be finally vanquished and God will reign upon earth as in heaven.


The Lord’s Prayer appears to be circular.  We begin and end by affirming that the kingdom belongs to God.  All appearances to the contrary God is in charge.  But then we add two more words – power and glory.  These make the Lord’s Prayer not a line but a spiral.  We have moved on.  Yes, God is the Ruler, the One who orders all things on earth and in heaven.  But earth is in rebellion against God’s rule.  Things are not as they should be, and we are not as we should be.  So Jesus teaches us to pray and long with all our hearts for that day when God’s Name will be hallowed, God’s kingdom will come, and God’s will is perfectly done on earth as in heaven.  The end of the Lord’s Prayer is a promise that it shall be so.  The Lord’s Prayer, then, is eschatological.  In other words, it gives us a glimpse of what is to come. The Lord’s Prayer is a preview of coming attractions.  “You’ve read the book; now see the movie.” 


How do we understand power and glory in this world?  Free associate with me.  If I say “power”, what comes to mind?  I immediately think of political power.  I think of the White House and the capital building. I think of the President’s fearful power to authorize the use of nuclear weapons. 


Now, glory.  What comes to mind?  I immediately think of athletes and movie stars.  The largest buildings in most medieval cities was the cathedral. Nothing rivaled them for size or beauty. The largest buildings in modern cities are sports stadiums. Tens of thousands assemble to worship at the altar of sports and lift up those demigods… at least as long as they are winning!


Or think of movie stars.  We sit in enormous dark rooms waiting for them to appear and tell us stories.  In the past people waited in enormous dark rooms called churches and venerated images of Christ and the saints and heard stories about them. 


But the New Testament has a very different account of glory. The Bible tells us that the glory of God was primarily manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. The Bible says that if you would see God’s glory you must look to the the torture and execution of an obscure Palestinian peasant crucified by the Romans 2000 years ago. 


And God’s glory continues to be on display in those who follow in the footsteps of Jesus, those  who embrace the poor and marginalized and in doing so exposed the hollowness of what this world thinks of as power and glory.  And in many cases what happened to Jesus happened to his followers, too. 


To see the glory of God, consider the theologian  Dietrich Bonhoeffer on the gallows in Flossenburg Prison; or the brilliant philosopher Sister Edith Stein in Auschwitz; Ugandan archbishop Janani Luwum, machine-gunned to death by Idi Amin’s agents; Martin Luther King, Jr., shot at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. 


But remember that the Lord’s Prayer is not a circle but a spiral.  It promises us a day when God’s rule will be accompanied by power and glory.  At the end of the Lord’s Prayer we give back to God the kingdom, the power, and the glory that we took for ourselves.  We want to possess the kingdom, the power, and the glory and use them to aggrandize ourselves.  We want people to bow down to us and praise us and do our bidding, but when we pray the words that Jesus taught us we learn that these things do not belong to us but to God.


Finally, we conclude the Lord’s Prayer with a resounding AMEN.  The Lord’s Prayer is God’s word to us.  In the 8th chapter of Romans, Paul says that we do not know how to pray as we should, so Jesus teaches us this prayer.  Prayer is our principal way of participating in God’s work in the world. 


But at the end of the Lord’s Prayer we are given our own word – amen.  Amen means “yes”, “That’s right”, “so may it be”.  When we say amen to the Lord’s Prayer, we are agreeing with God that the world is not as it should be.  We are casting in our lot with those in every time and place who have worked for God’s kingdom and have often paid a terrible price. 


Are you sure you want to say “amen” at the end of the Lord’s Prayer? Think about what you are saying when you say “amen” to the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray.


Do not say “amen” lightly.  It is your assent to what the Lord’s Prayer says. It is your affirmation that God is the rightful ruler of this world, that it is God who gives us each mouthful of food,  that we need to forgive and be forgiven daily, that evil is real and we cannot resist it with our own resources. 


Amen is a powerful word.  It slips so easily out of our mouths but it is our way of affirming that we stand with God and the marginalized against the powers and principalities of this world.  When we say amen to the Collect for Purity -- “Almighty God unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known and from whom no secrets are hid…” -- we giving God permission to look into our hearts, to do an inventory of all the deceit and selfishness we’d rather no one know about.  When at the beginning of the service we say amen to “Blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever” we are affirming that only God’s rule deserves the blessing and withholding the divine blessing from all earthly realms.  When on Ash Wednesday we say amen to “You are dust and to dust you shall return” we are affirming that we are mortal but God is immortal and that our only hope in this life and in the life to come is in the mercy and grace of God.


Amen is a powerful, life-changing, and world-changing word and never more so than when we pray the pray that Jesus taught his disciples in every age.  For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, O Lord.  So may it be.  Amen.