We began this morning’s service with a procession of palms, singing “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” thereby celebrating Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. According to the gospels, Jesus rode into the city of Jerusalem on a donkey as a large crowd hailed him as their king. The authorities, as they watched this scene unfold, would have seen this as a rejection of Caesar’s rule. Many others in the crowd might have wondered whether they were witnessing the inauguration of God’s reign in the world. Yes, it would seem as if Jesus had the city in the palm of his hand. It must have been tempting to hear the cries of the crowd. If he chose this moment to launch a revolution, surely the people would have come out in force to overturn the system. Yes, it must have been tempting, but Jesus understood that God’s kingdom would come into the world in a very different way.
The journey that led to this apparent day of triumph begins in the desert after Jesus’ baptism by John. It’s a story of temptation that gives context to both Palm Sunday and the prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples.
1. The Story of Temptation
This morning we come to the final petition in Jesus’ prayer. In it he speaks of temptation and deliverance from evil. It is a petition that finds its roots in Jesus’ own experience of temptation in the desert. According to the gospels, the Spirit leads Jesus into the desert after his baptism, where he fasts for forty days and forty nights.
By the end of this sojourn in the desert, he’s hungry and thirsty. He’s weak and vulnerable. It’s at this moment that the devil shows up, and presents Jesus with three tests. On the surface, these tests don’t seem all that evil, and yet they’re designed to appeal to human weakness and desire.
Consider the first temptation – turning stones into bread. If you’re hungry and it’s in your power to provide yourself with relief, then why not do it? The second temptation is an offer of power, and we all know that power is important, if we’re to get things done. All that the devil asks in return is a bit of reverence and allegiance. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple and reminds him that people like spectacles. So, why not jump and let the angels rescue him. That will get a crowd and a following. In each case, Jesus rejects the temptation, rooting his answers in scripture.
That experience in the desert prepared Jesus for Palm Sunday. The people offered him a crown, but he resisted their offer to lead their revolt against Rome. Instead of picking up arms, he resisted both empire and temple through his preaching – though he understood full well that preaching God’s kingdom as a new way of living in the presence of God would lead to his death. He understood that God’s reign is a parallel culture that comes into existence not with power and might, but by way of the cross.
2. Some Basic Assumptions about Temptation
As we consider this petition, asking that God would refrain from leading us into temptation, it’s important that we consider a couple of basic assumptions. First, we should note that according to the scriptures, God can neither be tempted nor can God tempt anyone else (James 1:12-16). This is true because God is good, and therefore God cannot and will not do that which is evil. This means that if anyone suggests that we do that which is evil in the name of God, they have either misheard or misrepresented the God of Jesus Christ. Second, while Jesus has been tested as we have, he remains without sin (Hebrews 4:14-16). This says two things: First of all, since Jesus has been tested as we have, then it seems clear that God isn’t in the business of pulling us out of any and every tempting situation. Still, while we have personal responsibility in this matter, we also have an example – one who shows us a way of living in the midst of enticement and even evil. In Jesus, we encounter the parallel culture that is God’s kingdom, a different way of living that stands apart from all evil.
3. Facing Temptation
Having laid out a couple of basic assumptions about temptation, it’s important to put this request that God not lead us into temptation in its proper context. Most scholars think that Jesus is speaking here in apocalyptic terms. That is, he’s encouraging us to pray that God would keep us from enduring that final day of testing when good and evil collide. Help us, we pray, to avoid such a day. But, as we pray this prayer in our own daily context, what are we asking?
It is good to remember what James had to say on the matter of testing. He said that faith is strengthened when it’s tested – even if God is not the tester. Athletes understand what it means to be tested. So do musicians and even writers. You have to go through difficulties and challenges if you’re going to improve. Yes, as James puts it: “Know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4). Knowing that God, who is good, won’t tempt us to do evil, then our prayer becomes a statement of trust in God’s leadership, especially when we read this petition in light of Jesus’ words about worry. Later in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells us not to worry like the Gentiles do, and say: “‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’” Instead, seek above all else, God’s kingdom.
In mentioning food, drink, and clothing, Jesus speaks to some of our biggest concerns in life. These also speak to some of the temptations that we face – especially temptations rooted in consumerism and narcissism. Every day, we’re bombarded with enticements to buy this or that item that promises to make our lives easier and better. Whether we’re watching TV, reading the papers and magazines, listening to the radio or checking the Internet, or even as we walk the aisles of Costco or Walmart, we hear voices calling out to us: Eat this, wear this, drink this, do this, and you’ll be happy. And if we don’t really have a need, advertisers know how to create one within us. When consumerism is paired with narcissism, then the message is: Buy this, because you deserve it! Yes, you’re number one, and it’s important take care of number one – even if that means stepping on your neighbor! With this as our context, then our prayer is, in reality, a prayer of discernment so that we might walk with God in the midst of temptation and testing.
4. Deliverance from Evil
The second half of the petition is absent from Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, but it may be the key to understanding it. Although we begin by asking God to carry us through the time of testing, we conclude by asking God to deliver us from the evil one – that is, the one who encourages us to act contrary to God’s purposes.
Before we look at Jesus’s definition of evil, it would be helpful to think about the nature of deliverance. And, lest our imaginations get the better of us, I don’t think Jesus has exorcisms – like the ones portrayed in famous movies – in mind. Deliverance from evil involves putting our trust in God rather than the evil one. If we make the assumption that God is good and will not tempt us to do evil, then the way to put aside evil is to discern God’s will and direction, which is what we do when we pray that God’s kingdom would come and that we would do God’s will. Ultimately, our deliverance is found in two commandments that summarize the law and the prophets – love of God and love of neighbor. Everything that is good flows from these two commandments.
Although the way of deliverance involves committing our lives and futures into the hands of the good and gracious God revealed to us in Jesus, what is the nature of this evil from which we’re to be delivered? As we consider this question, it’s instructive that the Greek word translated here as evil derives from a word that speaks of poverty and deep need. Therefore, when we ask God to deliver us from the evil with which the evil one tempts us, it appears that Jesus is speaking of actions that undermine efforts to relieve poverty and need. Or, as Father Michael Crosby writes:
To pray to be "delivered from evil" involves doing good toward those in need. In this sense poneros also involves economic and political iniquity, not just individual and interpersonal wrongdoing. (The Prayer that Jesus Taught Us, Orbis, p. 165).
It’s a matter, he suggests, of discerning the difference between good and bad fruit. As for the fruit of our lives, Jesus says “that the good person brings good things out of a good treasure, and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure” (Matthew 12:35).
The question before us, then, as we pray this prayer Jesus taught us comes down to this: Which tree defines your life? Or, to put it a bit differently, what do we mean when we sing, as Christians, “they will know we are Christians by our love?”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 28, 2010