July 26, 2015
“Lead Us Not Into Temptation”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
The gift of the summer season is that it allows your pastors to explore some thornier passages of scripture which may lie outside our longer sermon series. If you remember a couple weeks ago we looked at a tough section of the Lord’s Prayer, the part about asking God to forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. This part of the Lord’s Prayer was a struggle for many of you. It raises the question, if God only forgives us if we forgive others, does that mean that God’s love and forgiveness which we had thought we had to do nothing to earn, is actually conditional, that it depends on what we do or don’t do?
And we discovered that that particular part of the prayer reminds us that our experience of God’s forgiveness and our forgiveness of other people are intimately connected – perhaps even that one is inseparable from the other.
I will share that the part of the Lord’s Prayer that we are looking at today is a struggle for me, and perhaps it is for you as well.
We are reading the version of the Lord’s Prayer found in the Gospel of Luke, and you will notice that it is more compact than Matthew’s version which we read last time.
Luke 11:1-4 (NIV)
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.’”
You may remember that in Matthew, Jesus’ teaching on praying comes in the middle of the long and famous sermon to a crowd of people gathered to hear Jesus speak on a mountainside. The Sermon on the Mount, as we frequently call, highlights two themes that are on Jesus’ mind throughout his ministry: how to love God more fully and others more deeply.
In Luke we find this teaching on prayer in a little different setting. Jesus has been teaching about love of God and love of neighbor, but it is now later in the timeline and he has moved on from the place where he was teaching, he has spent time with his friends, and he takes some time apart one day to pray. Luke, more than any other biographer of Jesus, stresses the importance of prayer in Jesus’ life.
And we can imagine Jesus’ followers watching him, wondering “what would Jesus pray?”
So when he gets done, they come to him and ask him to teach them how to pray, because learning to pray is about learning to know God.
In Luke, Jesus gives them just a few phrases that get at some really important things: our relationship to God, God’s majesty and God’s kingdom coming, our trust in God for what we need, our experience of forgiveness and how we relate to and love others, and finally something having to do with temptation.
I chose to read the NIV translation this morning, because your pew Bible takes the translation in a little different direction by teaching to us to pray, “And do not bring us to the time of trial,” which is not how we pray this prayer every Sunday.
Here is where I struggle.
First, temptation is implied to be a negative thing – the thing we would very much like to avoid. Temptation is a tricky thing because, for the most part, we have taken the teeth out of the meaning of the word.
We might say, “I’m tempted by that chocolate cake,” or “I’m tempted to take the dog for a walk now before it gets hot.” It implies something we might be inclined to do and it may not exactly be the best choice at the moment or what we should be doing, but it likely will not cause any lasting harm to ourselves or others.
We might use temptation in a stronger way – we are tempted to cheat on a test because we didn’t have time to study, we are tempted to cheat on our taxes, we are tempted to roll through a stop sign, we are tempted to check out the adult movie selections on the hotel room TV, we are tempted by things we put in our bodies or on our bodies, we are tempted to trespass on our relationships. These temptations are more serious, with greater and darker consequences for ourselves and others.
And there are the temptations we may never name as such which can be even more grave – the temptation to believe that we are worthless or unlovable, the temptation to believe that there is no God, the temptation to believe that we can control every part of our lives or people in our lives, the temptation to believe that someone else’s life is far better than our own, the temptation to live without hope, the temptation to believe that all that matters is money and power.
But temptation is not the same as sin; temptation is pre-sin, the point where we stand on the edge with one foot raised but we haven’t yet stepped off.
So we pray that God keep us from even that?
Because we find other places in Scripture where trials and temptations are things which strengthen us. The beginning of the book of James tells us to “consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.”
C.S. Lewis writes about how trial and struggle and temptation are not necessarily bad things: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”
The second thing I struggle with is: what does it mean to pray that God not lead us to temptation? What does that say about God and how God relates to us?
When we do our Theology 101 class with the parents and mentors of our 8th grade commissioning students, one of the first and fundamental things that we talk about is the Doctrine of the Attributes of God, meaning what do we believe to be true about God’s essential nature? What is God like?
God is love, not like love or loving – but love itself, and all other loves points to God’s love, but are a poor replica. We see love only in a mirror dimly, but some day we will absolutely and completely what that love looks like. And God is just, and it is a justice that we can only barely comprehend with our limited way of looking at the world and history. God’s justice is loving, and God’s love is just.
So what does it mean to pray that God not lead us into temptation? Does God DO that a lot? And are we praying that God keep us away from the difficult things in life? Is that how God works?
Again, going back to the ways that Rich and Dan shared with us about how to go about reading scripture, especially the tough passages, we look at how the Bible interprets the Bible.
At the beginning of the book of James in the New Testament, and James alludes a great deal to the Sermon on the Mount where, you remember, we find the longer version of this prayer, says that God tempts no one – that is not God’s business. But it IS the business of those forces in the world that strive against God.
Paul writes to the church in Corinth telling them: “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
This is that passage that so many of us go to, especially those who are facing over and over truly painful, difficult, soul-breaking things. God will not allow us to be pushed beyond what we can bear – can we believe that it is God who led us into the trial in the first place?
But there is also this traditional understanding of God that we find in the stories of Abraham with his son, and Job when he loses everything, and the Israelites when they are wandering in the wilderness, and Jesus’ struggle in Gethsemane just before his arrest when he knows what is about to happen – we see this understanding that God is in control of all of life. The good and the bad all est in God’s hands. And that is echoed throughout the Lord’s Prayer:
God who is in control of our daily needs (our daily bread) and God who is in control of our spiritual needs (right relationship with God and others), do not also allow us to be lost to the things that would threaten to separate us from God.
Let’s look back on the most prolonged scenes of temptation found in the New Testament, in the life of Jesus, when at the very start of his ministry, he goes out into the desert and faces there the greatest challenges to who he is and what he was sent to do.
He has just been told by God at the moment of his baptism, “You are my Son, my beloved; with you I am well pleased” and out in the desert he is tempted to act as though those things weren’t true.
You’ll find, if you look at Luke chapter 4, that each trial is an attempt to corrupt what it means to be in relationship with God.
The devil says, in essence, make your own bread – you don’t need to trust God for that; the devil says, take this world for your own and you can own it, you can possess all of it, you don’t really need to believe that it is God’s; the devil says turn God into your butler, see if he will make your life completely safe, see if he will do exactly what you want him to do.
And Jesus passes the test.
He teaches us how to pray as someone who has come to the breaking point and knows the temptations we face, the small temptations that make us stronger and the temptations that are faith-killing, the ones that will break us.
There is a fifth century Eastern liturgy that adds to the Lord’s Prayer: “Yes, O Lord our God, lead us not into temptation which we are not able to bear, but with the temptation grant also the way out, so that we may be able to remain steadfast; and deliver us from evil.”
There is so much that can happen in our lives and in this world which test us and push us.
We know what this looks like in our own lives – the hatred we let fester, the things we are ashamed of, the doubt that grows in us, our anxieties that rule us, the things we obsess over that distract us from what really matters, the things that push us to pay far more attention to ourselves than to God or anyone else, the lies we believe about ourselves.
O God, we pray as you have taught us, and we pray again and again, let these trials and temptations not overwhelm us.