Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Learning to Pray (Fifth Midweek Lenten Devotion)

[This was shared during the final Wednesday Midweek devotional worship for Lent at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, earlier this evening.]
James 1:12-16
Luke 4:1-2a
Tonight, we’re focusing on the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer: “And lead us not into temptation. But deliver us from evil.”

Someone has said that the easiest thing to empirically prove about the witness of Scripture and Christian belief is the reality of sin and evil. The Bible asks us to accept as matters of faith, among other things, the existence of God, Jesus' birth to a virgin, the divinity of Jesus, Jesus’ resurrection, the true presence of Christ's body and blood "in, with, and under" the bread and wine of Holy Communion, and eternity as a reality that will be experienced by all who repent and believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord.

But it requires no leap of faith for us to believe that each of us is a born sinner or that, except for the God-man Jesus, sin is indemic to the human experience. Each of us can testify to the reality of sin and evil from what we see in the headlines, in our homes, and in our own hearts.

Ann’s and my home pastor used to tell us, “If you doubt the existence of original sin, put two 2-years olds in a locked room with a single toy.”

Our natural impulse is to be completely wrapped up in ourselves, to love ourselves but not God, and certainly not neighbor.

Our inborn desire to be in control of the universe, to “be like God” as the serpent put it to Eve in the garden of Eden, is something we all share, no matter how hard we may try to conceal it from others...or ourselves.

But after the Christian has prayed that
Jesus encourages us to pray for what may be the biggest miracles of all!

Jesus teaches us to ask our Father to “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil” or as a modern translation of the prayer puts it, “Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.”

Think about that: Jesus is teaching us to militate against our inborn impulse to do be our own gods and ask God for the power to not do every selfish, willful, destructive, hurtful thing which, inside of us, we want to do! That the Holy Spirit would actually move us to even pray for such things is a miracle, let alone give us the power to mean the requests and actually contemplate living them!

Of the sixth petition, "Lead us not into temptation," in The Small Catechism, Martin Luther makes the same point as Jesus’ brother James makes in the words I read from the New Testament a few moments ago. Luther writes, “God tempts no one to sin, but we ask in this prayer that God would watch over us and keep us so that the devil, the world, and our sinful self may not deceive us and draw us into false belief, despair, and other great and shameful sins. And we pray that even though we are so tempted we may still win the final victory.” Here, Luther underscores the fact that, in this petition, we ask God for a miracle.

But that’s OK; God is in the miracle business!

On the First Sunday in Lent each year, we remember that Jesus, though sinless, shared the very human experience of being tempted to sin. As an often-quoted passage of Hebrews reminds us, in Jesus, our high priest, “…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Jesus’ successful resistance of temptation in the wilderness--along with His life-long avoidance of sin--was a miracle, in its way.

Jesus didn’t take the easy way out.

He didn’t take the selfish way out.

He endured in His faithful obedience to the will of God and because Jesus endured, He can help us to endure faithfully in the face of temptation and evil.

But we can do more than endure. The God Who has shared our life experiences has also conquered our temptations, our sins, and death itself through Christ’s cross and empty tomb!

Whenever we ask God to “deliver us from evil,” we express our conviction that no matter what temptations bedevil us and whatever sins we need to confess in Jesus’ Name, those who entrust themselves to Jesus can be raised above all evils.

During our lives on this earth, God will minister to those who truly seek to walk with Him, just as God sent His angels to serve Jesus in His wilderness of temptation.

To pray, “Deliver us from evil” is to pray for more than the power to resist evil in this life. In Matthew 24, Jesus talks about what this world will be like as its life draws to a close. There will be an “increase of lawlessness,” Jesus says, and “the love of many will grow cold.” “But,” He goes on, “the one who endures to the end will be saved.”

It was no doubt with passages like this in mind that Luther wrote of the seventh petition of the Lord’s Prayer—“Deliver us from evil”: “We ask in this inclusive prayer that our heavenly Father would save us from every evil to body and soul, and at the last hour would mercifully take us from the troubles of this world to Himself in heaven.”

In teaching us the sixth and seventh petitions, as is true of all the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus invites us to trustingly live in the glory of two transcending Christian realities: Surrender and Triumph!

When by faith, we surrender to Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit makes it possible not only for us to confess our faith in Jesus’ Lordship, but also to be empowered to relate to God as “our Father,” our intimate and loving parent. We can speak honestly to God about our desires, our hopes, our troubles and temptations, our requests.

Last Sunday, I mentioned that I've been reading John Ortberg's new book, The Me I Want to Be: Becoming God's Best Version of You. Today--after I thought I had finished this sermon yesterday--I got to a chapter where Ortberg talks about this whole business of surrender to God. To the world, he points out, surrender is equated with defeat. But for the Christian, surrender is the first step to life.

In fact, when a movement among Christians called the Oxford Group birthed Alcoholics Anonymous, it presented twelve practical steps to freedom from addiction, all of which are rooted in the Bible and Christian belief. The first step to freedom for the addict is admitting that they have a problem too big for them to control or overcome.

That is the first step to freedom from sin and the freedom to truly live for all of us. Surrender is a hard pill to swallow for us, especially for we men, who are seem to liberally imbibe the myth that if we're not in control, we're less than human.

But as Ortberg points out, when we play God, when we think that we must have things under control, we walk down the road of disappointment and unhappiness. That's because, my fellow recovering control freaks, when we presume to be in control of our worlds, we take responsibility for something over which we have zero control: the outcomes of life.

When we surrender our lives to God, God gives us the freedom to live day by day, working, loving, and living faithfully and leaving the outcomes in the hands of God.

That's a relief and that's liberating!

The child who surrenders to the Father in faith also shares in Jesus’ triumph over temptation, sin, evil, and death.

The person who asks their Father to deliver them from evil is claiming their share in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Surrender to Jesus Christ brings triumph as God sets us free to be our true selves, our best selves!

We usually end our prayers, of course, with the word, Amen. Amen is more than a religious way of saying, “Over and out.” Let Luther have the last word tonight:
Amen means Yes, it shall be so. We say Amen because we are certain that such petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him. For He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us.
When we say, "Amen" in our prayers, we take Jesus up on His offer of new life to those who surrender to Him and walk in the triumph of new life for all who repent and believe in Him!

Lord Jesus: Teach us to pray as You have taught us and live our lives in surrender and triumph in Your Name. Amen

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