Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
We’re nearing the end of our Lord’s Prayer series, which has been our focus throughout this Lenten season.
Our final line when we say the prayer together here at church (the line about “the kingdom, the power, and the glory”) appears in some manuscripts of Matthew’s gospel, but you’ll notice it’s absent from the main text in our pew Bibles. We’ll come back to that final element next week, on Palm Sunday.
Meanwhile, the basic prayer, as we find it in both Matthew and Luke, ends with talk of trial, temptation, and evil.
In Luke 11: “do not bring us to the time of trial” (or “do not bring us into temptation”)
And in Matthew 6: “do not bring us to the time of trial” (or “into temptation”) but rescue us from the evil one” (or “from evil”)
It seemed only fitting to read these lines in conversation with the story of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness, following his baptism, a story we often read during the season of Lent.
As I read these texts together, I’m reminded of a few important truths.
First, that Jesus doesn’t take us anywhere he isn’t willing to go. If we’re going to find ourselves tried and tempted over the course of our lifetimes, having to face evil or even “the evil one” head-on, we won’t be going it alone. Jesus has been there. He is there. Right alongside us.
Secondly, evil is real, and powerful. The minute Jesus’ identity as the Son of God is made clear, at his baptism, he comes under attack.
Our Christian identity, too, will at times be put to the test. For “the Christian life is no safe harbor, secure from storms and struggle…” (Hauerwas & Willimon, Lord Teach Us, p. 87)
It also occurs to me that the evil from which we ask God to deliver us has various dimensions.
For instance, there is evil of our own making – this is what we’re talking about, when we ask not to succumb to temptation, which actually follows nicely on the heels of all of our forgiveness talk last week. As flawed human beings, we screw up sometimes. Our own sins are part of the evil in the world. So we ask: deliver us, Lord, from the mess we ourselves can make of things.
But we also know that there are powerful forces of evil at work in the world that are far outside our own control. Not just obviously powerful and well-organized physical forces of evil like Isis, or Boko Haram, but even the powerful appeal of evils like greed, violence, selfishness, exploitation of others for personal gain… Deliver us, Lord. Us here. And ‘us’ meaning God’s children everywhere, as well.
There can even be a future element in this petition for God to deliver us from evil. This could be a now-and-not-yet kind of prayer, referring both to good and evil slugging it out here and now, but also in the last days. Perhaps there is a degree to which the “time of trial” Jesus refers to here has to do with the end times, the eschaton.
Whether primarily understood as present or future tense, though, “words like ‘save’ and ‘trial’ and ‘deliver’ are [clearly] words of crisis. They remind us that to pray this prayer means to be thrust into the middle of a cosmic struggle.” (Hauerwas and Willimon, 88)
Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon explain what’s at stake: “[Here] the temperature rises within the Lord’s Prayer. Things are not right in the world. It is as if something, someone has organized things against God. You pray this prayer faithfully, attempting to align your life to it and the next thing you know, it’s like you are under assault… you become a virtual battleground where the living God fights the powers… In praying that God will not ‘put us to the test,’ we pray that God will not make us vulnerable to those powers that rage against God’s kingdom… [For] Evil is large, cosmic, organized, subtle, pervasive, and real.” (Lord Teach Us, pp. 88-89)
We do know to whom we can appeal for help, however. The God who will never leave or forsake us. The God to whom we have been speaking all along in this prayer, “Our Father in heaven.”
I can’t help but call to mind in this context the strong message of comfort and encouragement we found in the NT book of Revelation, when we studied it together earlier this year.
There too we read powerful words about a raging battle between good and evil. Yet the author urged us not to be afraid, to take comfort, for Christ is enthroned in the midst of his people.
The battle may at times be frightening; its eventual outcome may seem uncertain, but as Christians we have read the final chapter, and we know who wins in the end.
And in the meantime? NT Wright reminds us: “As God’s children, we are entitled to use the same defense as the Son of God himself. Think back again about to Jesus took Satan on, in that story we just read about his 40 days in the wilderness.
“Store Scripture in your heart, and know how to use it.
“Keep your eyes on God, and trust him for everything.
“Remember your calling, to bring God’s light into the world.
And say a firm ‘no’ to the voices that lure you back into the darkness.” (Matthew for Everyone, p. 26)
As Tom Long puts it, “The best way to understand the petition ‘do not bring us to the time of trial’ is to envision the congregation heading out the front door of the church to do God’s work in a storm-tossed world … [while] whispering the prayer ‘Keep us safe out there, O God. Let the forces of evil tremble to see us coming, rather than the other way around, and bring us home at the end of this day even stronger in faith than when we go out.” (Matthew, p. 72)
“Keep us safe out there, God. Let the forces of evil tremble to see us coming, rather than the other way around.”
Don’t those sound like important words to pray for all who are in the front lines of battle right now with terrorist cells around the world? Soldiers and intelligence officers and diplomats trying to take on that magnitude of evil, not to mention all who are themselves under attack?
Don’t they also sound like important words to pray both for police officers and protestors, as racial tensions continue to escalate across our own nation? (Lead us not into temptation, Lord; deliver us from evil.)
Don’t they sound like important words to pray for kids facing the terrors of bullying, at school or in cyberspace? (Keep us safe out there, God. Deliver us from evil.)
Don’t they sound like important words to pray for ourselves, anytime we are tempted to be something other than the faithful disciples Christ calls us to be?
So how do we arm ourselves against evil, both within ourselves and out there in the world? Again, we look to Jesus’ example, in his encounter with Satan in the wilderness:
“Store Scripture in your heart, and know how to use it.
Keep your eyes on God, and trust him for everything.
Remember your calling, to bring God’s light into the world.
And say a firm ‘no’ to the voices that lure you back into the darkness.” (N.T. Wright)
Let us pray:
Lead us not into temptation, Lord. Save us from the time of trial. Deliver us from evil. “Keep us safe out there, God. Let the forces of evil tremble to see us coming, rather than the other way around, and bring us home at the end of this day even stronger in faith than when [you send us] out.” Amen.