Monday, November 17, 2008

Preparing for the Worst

(This is the seventh in a series titled A Declaration of Dependence: The Lord's Prayer.)

When I was in grade school I remember having disaster preparedness drills. The first Monday morning of the month, a horn would sound in our town, testing the warning system for a nuclear attack. Seriously. We saw films and had classroom lessons on what to do if the Soviets hit us with a missile—we learned how to survive the blast, how to deal with the fallout and the effects of radiation… It’s amazing that any of us came out of that era with our sanity intact.

But in Southern California there was another kind of disaster to worry about. I was in 2nd grade when the Sylmar earthquake hit in 1971. It shook our apartment and I can remember my dad running into the room I shared with my baby sister—he grabbed the baby and told me to get out of the building. After 1971, people in California started talking about The Big One, and we all lived under the shadow—under the threat of an enormous earthquake.

Kids in my part of the world grew up with the constant threat of two different types of disaster—of catastrophe either from nuclear war or massive earthquakes. And so we all learned how to be prepared. We all knew—or thought we knew—what we had to do to survive these massive threats.

We continue our journey through the Lord’s Prayer. We’ve been saying that this prayer of Jesus is at the core of our faith—that it shows us the heart of what we believe and also what we’re called to do about it. The Lord’s Prayer functions like a heart in that it takes us in wherever we are: broken, wounded, afraid, and depleted. It takes us in and restores us—it gives us back our spiritual energy—it renews us and sends us out for service again.

It functions, at times, a lot like a disaster preparedness exercise.

Even though we say the Lord’s Prayer over and over, we’re different each time—we’re in different places each time, and that makes the prayer new and different and life-changing…each time.

We’ve prayed most of the prayer already:

Our Father, who really exists,
You reveal yourself to us as holy and loving,
Bring your Kingdom,
Make this world into the world you meant it to be from the beginning.
Provide for us, O God, and teach us to provide for others.
Forgive us, and teach us to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation everywhere.

Today we get to the end of the prayer the way it appears in the Bible. In the Scriptures the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t end with that great victorious chorus—it doesn’t have the Hollywood ending of ‘For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory for ever and ever.’ In the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus teaches us how to pray, the prayer ends like this:

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’

Well. That’s not very nice or positive or happy sounding at all. You might see French movies and maybe independent films ending with everyone cowering and afraid…or dead. But that’s not the way we like our stories most of the time. That’s certainly not the way we want the Lord’s Prayer to end.

‘And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Don’t test us beyond our limits, O God, and while you’re at it, protect all of us, especially the weakest, from the evil all around us.

I’ll confess to you all right now, before we go any further with this text: I’ve never liked this part of the Lord’s Prayer. There have been times in my life where I didn’t even say it out loud—it sounded so strange or even wrong to me. It’s always sounded like Jesus was telling us to pray to God for protection from, well, God. Like he was the one who was the source or the cause of whatever was tempting me at the time. ‘Deliver us from evil’ always made sense to me, but why do I have to ask God not to shove me into the path of a train full of temptation?

I’ve been using a book on the Lord’s Prayer by Telford Work, a theologian at Westmont College—where the fires destroyed part of the campus this week. He writes that “The Lord’s Prayer repeatedly makes requests that are obvious to the point of absurdity.”

Of course the Father will give his children their daily bread. Of course his name is holy. Of course his will will be done. The last petition of the prayer is just as obvious: Of course God won’t lead us into temptation or fail to deliver us from evil. These things are exactly what God does, right?


He finishes by saying: “Readers get into trouble when they treat this prayer as less obvious than it is. Instead of ‘Amen’ at the end of this prayer, we should be saying ‘Duh.’ The clarity and authenticity of this prayer are a function of its bone-headed straightforwardness.”

We’ve been saying all along here that the Lord’s Prayer tells us something about who God is and what he’s promised to do. It also tells us what we’re supposed to do in response. In this last line of the prayer we’re called to trust that God loves us and cares for us and has a disaster plan in place for our salvation.

But what about this business of being delivered from evil? Aren’t we a little too well-educated—a little too sophisticated to be talking about evil? Have you been watching the news this week? On this Sunday especially, when we’re focusing on our ministry to children, is it possible to have seen the two trials that started this past week and still believe that ‘evil’ is an outdated idea? The mother and friends of Baby P and the family of Shannon Matthews are just the most extreme examples of the terrible blend of cruelty and stupidity and deceit and shamelessness that make up just one strand of what we have to call evil.

With that in mind, denying the existence of evil is really an insult to those who live every day as prisoners to evil’s power. In this part of the Lord’s Prayer we pray today that all children in hellish homes like the ones we’ve been hearing about would be delivered…from evil. We also pray today for people who aren’t abused by monsters, but who suffer the effects of evil in the world just the same. For anyone trapped in a place or a situation that prevents them from living and loving and thriving like God intended.

Bruce Thornton is a classics professor in California. In a book called Plagues of the Mind: The New Epidemic of False Knowledge, he wrote this:

“The idea that evil doesn’t exist, or that it is a metaphor for some as yet unknown physical phenomenon, is the most dangerous piece of false knowledge circulating in the modern world—for the simple reason that inexplicable evil does exist, not just in the atrocities of monsters but in every one of our own hearts.”

How does that sound? That last part is a kicker, right? I can see the emails and notes in my inbox now: ‘John, I didn’t know you were going to talk about us having evil in our hearts.’

But of course I was going to talk about that. You don’t pay me to stand up here and lie to you. If I said to you that there wasn’t evil in each one of our hearts—in yours and in mine—I’d be cutting the legs out from under the Gospel. Because only when we acknowledge and confess the evil in our own hearts can we fully experience the renewing, restoring, forgiving grace of Jesus Christ.

‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Don’t test us beyond our limits, O God, and while you’re at it, protect all of us, especially the weakest, from the evil all around us.

The point here is to remind ourselves that the Kingdom of God—that Christ’s reign—is both now and not yet. Jesus taught that the Kingdom had arrived, and he also taught that it is still on its way. The answers to each petition of the Lord’s Prayer reflect the now and not yet of our lives—of our struggles to remain faithful.

It may sound quaint or backward somehow to talk about the struggle to be faithful in the face of temptation, but that doesn’t make it any less true. It would also be silly for me to stand up here and say that each person here is somehow immune from temptation—you might want to agree with me, but that would just be a way to cover up the temptations that we all want to hide from each other. There’s no need for me to list them here. You know exactly what they are for you—they might even have crossed your mind as soon as I said that—I know they did for me.

The bottom line is this: We don’t try to resist temptation just to follow the rules. Think about that for a moment. We don’t try to resist temptation just to follow the rules. We try to avoid these things because they keep us from living according to the values of the Kingdom. They prevent us from being living witnesses to the rest of the world of what it means to be disciples of Jesus Christ—living under his reign, in obedience to his call on our lives.

On the other hand, when we accept God’s gracious gift of deliverance—his gift of standing in front of that train full of temptation, in our place—we experience the full presence of Christ in our lives. We experience the full measure of the Kingdom of God here, now, in this place and everywhere we go.

‘Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.’ Don’t test us beyond our limits, O God, and while you’re at it, protect all of us, especially the weakest, from the evil all around us.

Remember the disaster preparedness drills at my school? The Lord’s Prayer, and especially this last plea for salvation and help, teaches us what to do to be prepared for the threats we face in our lives. Praying this prayer like we mean it doesn’t mean that temptations and other disasters won’t happen, but it does mean that we don’t have to face them alone.

Telford Work, who I’ve quoted already, wrote that ‘every biblical drama features ungodly characters who rely on their own devices and whose love for God grows cold. Faithful ones, on the other hand, rely on God their savior and endure to the end.”

We’ve called the Lord’s Prayer our ‘declaration of dependence,’ and nowhere is that more true than when we try to stand firm against the temptations to live as if God didn’t exist. As we pray this prayer together this morning, claim your piece of God’s promise to stand beside you, to work within you, and to go before you in everything you do. Pray that your love for God won’t grow cold. Pray that God will help you endure to the end. Let’s stand and pray together.

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