We are down to the next to last phrase of the Lord’s Prayer, which is the one about temptation and evil, so easy stuff to describe. Here’s what I had to say.
When you watch a series on television, whether on a network or one of the streaming services, the episode often begins with a recap—“Previously on . . . whatever the show is—and then it goes on to the new stuff. Even though you have seen all of the other episodes, it is helpful to get a quick review to get your back in the rhythm of the story.
In that spirit, I will begin this morning with, “Previously in our series on the Lord’s Prayer,” mostly because I have learned as I have worked on these sermons that the phrases build on each other and are best understood in that relationship.
The whole prayer begins with the word “our,” which means we are praying together, that the whole thing rolls out in the context of relationships. Jesus told us to pray that we would grasp that God was the Center of Everything, and that God’s will—God’s intent that all of creation would flourish in relationship with one another—would be a reality in our world just as God dreamed it, which implies that we are willing to live our lives in such a way to help that happen—and that takes us to the next phrases about bread and forgiveness, as well as our phrases for today—”lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”—which are all how we live together.
The words are familiar and roll off our tongues, but what do we mean by temptation? What do we mean by evil? I’m not sure we would find standard definitions for either word if we had time to go around the room this morning and hear from everybody. Though I am the one doing the talking for the next several minutes, I hope the definitions I offer will lead to further discussion.
One of the things that struck me this week is that this phrase of the prayer is stated as a negative: lead us not into temptation. We are asking God not to do something. It reminded me of a sermon Ginger once preached on the Ten Commandments where she rephrased them as positive charges rather than negative ones. Instead of “You shall not kill,” for instance, she talked about how we foster life; “Don’t steal” might be better grasped if we said, “Be content with what you have,” or even, “Be generous.”
The version of the prayer from The Message that we used today says, “Keep us safe from ourselves.” That’s pretty good, for a couple of reasons. One is that God is not the one who tempts us. When we pray “lead us not” it can sound like we think God would intentionally do so and we are asking for God to change course. That’s not it. Theologian Neil Douglas-Klotz describes temptation as “a failure to look deeper when the situation calls for it.” Taking not so much the easy way out, but perhaps the less examined way. Temptation, in the context of relationships, means choosing what feels good for me without seriously considering the relational repercussions. A positive rendering of the prayer might be, “Help us to see beyond ourselves.”
We read the account of Jesus’ temptations this morning as a companion to our study. His choices revolved around food, control, and security. None of those is bad in and of themselves. In each case, the temptation was to make choices that made the world better for him regardless of what his choices meant to anyone else. I don’t think there is a way around that kind of temptation. Even though the gospel writers talk about Jesus going into the wilderness to be tempted, he had to stare down those same temptations almost every day of his life. He never allowed himself the luxury of not looking deeper into the lives of those around him.
I spent several years working as a youth minister, and in that role one of my least favorite things was a lock-in. If you don’t know what that is, the name pretty much describes it: you lock everybody in one room—usually a gym or the like—for the night. I’m not sure who invented the idea, but I can tell you it sounds better than it is; it is exhausting. I was committed to not doing them.
One day a group of high school seniors came to me and asked me to plan a lock-in for New Year’s Eve. One of them summed it up: “Our options are to go to parties where everyone is drinking or to stay home. Give us another option,” which was her own way of asking to not be led into temptation and asking me to do more than take care of myself.
Our New Year’s Eve Lock-In became an annual event because I was asked to see beyond my own inconvenience and help others stay true to themselves and who they wanted to be. It also led me to be more creative. Instead of staying in one room all night, I rented a city bus that took us around town, and we spent a couple hours each at a bowling alley and a mini golf place, and then came back to the church to watch a movie and eat Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. I learned to love that night because it called me beyond myself and my temptation to choose rest over relationship. We had a New Year’s Lock-In every year I was there.
If temptation is a difficult word to define, it looks easy when compared to evil. It is cliché to point out that evil is live spelled backwards, but that does feed into what we have already said about the centrality of relationships. We might say evil is anything that fosters something other than life, other than relationships. At the same time, we must remember that evil and difficult are not synonyms. The circumstances of our lives can be brutal, but that doesn’t mean we are being besieged by evil. To ask to be kept at a distance from evil is asking for more than a pain-free existence.
Life is difficult. Life is painful. Life is often unpredictable. None of those things is necessarily evil. The pain caused by the gall stone that led to my emergency surgery a few months back, and even the dead gall bladder they found inside me when they operated were not evil. Nothing sinister was at work. Sometimes our bodies fail us, or they succumb to disease, but illness is not evil in and of itself.
Evil actions destroy our humanity, both for those on whom it is inflicted and those who inflict it. The Greek word translated as deliver carries the idea of being dragged out of trouble. The image I have is of being carried from a burning building by a firefighter. A rescue. That image takes me back to the stories around the Marathon Bombing in Boston where people noticed those who ran toward the blast when they heard it rather than away from the chaos so they could help others get to safety. In both examples, we need to see ourselves not only as those in need of rescue but also as those capable of carrying others out of the fray.
I like the way Neil Douglas-Klotz rephrases the lines about temptation and evil: “Don’t let us be deluded by the surface of life, but neither let us become so inward and self-absorbed that we cannot act simply and humanly at the right time.” Those words also make me think of another theologian, Mr. Rogers who told people to “look for the helpers” in times of crisis.
As I have said before, life and faith are team sports, not individual events. The temptation to get what I deserve and to do all I can to make my life easier is one we have to stare down daily. Our prayer is to be reminded that we are integral to one another, that we cannot survive without each other. Love is stronger than temptation and evil, if we are willing to look beyond the surface of life and dig down into the connections that God created from the beginning.
It is that connection that takes us to the Communion Table. When Jesus shared the bread and wine with his disciples, it was not so he could make all the tough stuff go away. He knew those who wanted him executed were going to be able to kill him. He knew that most of those around the table with him had no idea what was about to happen. Instead of running away he served his followers and talked about how much he loved them. That love—Jesus’ refusal to give in to the temptation and the evil around him—is what we celebrate as we gather today with all that wears us down in our lives alongside of all that is good.
May we be people who are not deluded by the surface of life but are committed to digging deeper in our relationships with God and with one another so those around us can find their way to love. Amen.