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Thursday, April 14, 2011

Midweek Lent 2011 + Lord, Teach Us to Pray

Week 5: “Deliver and Save Us”
Sixth and Seventh Petitions, the Lord’s Prayer
Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Texts: Romans 8:31-39; Matthew 26:36-44

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

So goes a night-time prayer which for generations has been prayed by families and taught to children. Except, I would hazard to say, for many in my generation, and perhaps a half-generation before mine. Something happened between when we were children and when we became parents – perhaps the prevalence of wars and the fear of imminent nuclear war – suddenly people didn’t like the threatening, frightening end of that prayer. With all the things to fear in life, praying to be delivered from the evil of death every night is not something modern parents are eager to teach their children. So other alternatives were created, and many families use them.

But for centuries Christians have taken the model of the Lord’s Prayer – which ends with “save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil” – and prayed that and other similar prayers at night, as they face sleep and darkness and the unknown. The question is, how do we understand this prayer in our day? What evils do we fear and how do we pray about them? What trials do we face? And can we learn to pray for deliverance?

This prayer of Jesus has given us a vision of a lifetime of conversation with God.

We have learned from Jesus to ask that we make God’s name holy by our lives. That we live under God’s rule and reign, and follow God’s will. That we trust in God for all things we need and help God provide for others. That we ask forgiveness from God and offer it to others. These are all our needs for this life, and they are important prayers. With them we’re invited to see our entire life as wrapped up in God’s care. Luther included all the necessities and nourishment we need for this life under “daily bread,” and covered the waterfront of our needs, even the smallest things. There is nothing we need for which we haven’t prayed. Except one thing.

Now Jesus says – don’t be afraid to pray for the really big stuff, too – the things that you fear, the things that can harm. For the first time in this prayer we acknowledge the presence of evil, and the reality of times of trial. We’re invited to ask God to save us. Defend us. Protect us.

We acknowledge in these petitions that this is a dangerous world and we need God desperately. Trials and temptations will come, Jesus knows this. The evil one is at work in the world, Jesus knows this, too. And so he encourages us to trust in God for all we need – even such things as these. To trust as Paul says in those beautiful words of Romans 8, that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus – not even death.

And it’s inexpressibly powerful and comforting that Jesus himself understands not only our fears but also the infinity of the love we find in God.

We are days from our Holy Week journey. And what does Jesus face in the garden but these two things: a time of trial, and the attack of evil? He is tested, tried, whether he will do his Father’s will. Evil is seeking to destroy the very Son of God in the world.

The early Church saw Jesus as not only our Savior in his death and resurrection, but the pioneer for us, the one who leads us on the path having walked it himself. When we pray for help in times of trial and deliverance from evil we pray to the One who faced both and overcame them in love. We pray to the One who can help us in our own time of need. Who turned to his disciples on the very night of his trials and once more encouraged them to pray that they not be overcome in the time of trial.

When we consider first the sixth petition in light of Jesus in the garden, then, it’s a good thing that we use the translation we do.

For over thirty years we’ve been praying in this prayer to be saved from the time of trial, instead of not being led into temptation. Trial, temptation – both are legitimate translations, but trial is closer to the sense of what Jesus is saying here. And so we’re praying for exactly what Jesus told the disciples to pray for in the garden. We need it as much as they.

Life is confusing, frightening, sometimes. Often difficult. We’re easily distracted from things that matter by things that do not. We fear death. Illness. Financial loss. We try our hardest to keep our heads above water. And like the disciples, those fears can cause us to lose faith, even to walk away from the other things we’ve prayed for – walk away from living under God’s rule, following God’s will.

Like the disciples, we want to be strong in faith. But when things get hard, we fall asleep, instead of praying. We close our eyes to the reality. Like the disciples, we want to be close to Jesus. But when things get hard, we run away. We seek only ourselves. It would be better to die with Jesus than to live apart. But they do not know that yet in the garden. And we certainly don't. Like the disciples, we hope for easy answers to difficult questions, and when things get hard we fall away from our convictions and our principles. We fall away from God.

And so Jesus encourages us with these words. Pray for help. You will receive it. God will be able to strengthen us and keep us when we struggle to be faithful, to obey, to forgive, to honor God’s name.

The last petition is a little more awkward for us – we who believe we are modern and sophisticated.

What Jesus actually says in this prayer is we should pray “deliver us from the evil one.” So not only are we invited to pray for deliverance from things that can frighten our children and even us, we are asked to pray for deliverance from the devil. And if people aren’t thrilled about thinking of their death every night, many tend to be even less thrilled about belief in the devil’s existence.

But of course Martin Luther had no problem with it. And in his evening prayer he ends with that image. In our house we’ve prayed it – the same one we use in Evening Prayer – pretty much every night for years. And the last line – in a slightly older translation than our current one in the worship book – the last line my children have memorized and prayed for longer than they can remember, is this: “Let your holy angels have charge of us, that the wicked one have no power over us.” For Luther, that’s an image to cherish as we fall asleep, that God’s angels will protect us from the wicked one.

It strikes me that we need not be so sophisticated that we cannot allow for the possibility of personified evil. But that we need not fret about it, either. There’s plenty of evil in the world from which we seek deliverance. Be it illness, terrorism, hatred of others, poverty, war, natural disaster – the list is long, as Luther has said. We may not cower in fear in the dark as some of our ancestors did, waiting for demons to pop in on us and harm us, but we have plenty enough to fear.

And that’s the true gift of this petition – that we’re told by Jesus we can ask for God’s help, God’s deliverance. Whatever we think or imagine about how evil happens, whether we’re comfortable with the biblical and other images of the demonic, we need to know we can come before God and ask God’s help.

It should be said, though, that we aren’t promised that we won’t be harmed. We are promised, however, that God will be with us, no matter what. In one of my favorite passages, from Isaiah 43, God doesn’t promise that we won’t pass through fire or flood, but rather that God will always be with us, in whatever struggle with evil we have, and we will not be overcome. It isn’t that we won’t face death. Of course we will. Or the powers that be, as Paul says in Romans 8. Or heights or depths, or sickness. All these things can and will afflict us.

But they cannot harm us ultimately – we’re in the hands of our risen Savior. That’s Paul’s point – nothing, nothing can separate us from God’s love in Christ Jesus.

So that’s what we’re praying for – that God fill us with that hope and confidence.
Evil will happen – and sometimes we will even be participants. Life will be hard sometimes and we will literally feel as if we’re on trial, under temptation, struggling to follow God. But we can always pray, “save us from the time of trial, and deliver us from evil,” or even “deliver us from the evil one,” and trust in the God who will not let us go, the God whose love for us is permanent and cannot be taken from us.

And in the end, that’s all we need to know. At the end of our prayers, every night, that’s all we need to say before we close our eyes in sleep, or even in death, trusting in the love of God which holds us forever.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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