July 30, 2023
A Prayer for the Hardest Times
The Rev. Dr. Patrick W. T. Johnson
35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, ‘Let us go across to the other side.’ 36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. 37 A great gale arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, ‘Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?’ 39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, ‘Peace! Be still!’ Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. 40 He said to them, ‘Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?’ 41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, ‘Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?’
This is the word of the Lord.
Thanks be to God.
Today we are finishing this series of sermons on the Lord’s Prayer. This is not just a prayer, it is the cliff notes version of everything Jesus teaches. The New Testament scholar Joachim Jeremias wrote that, “The Lord’s Prayer is the clearest, and in spite of its terseness, the richest summary of Jesus’ proclamation that we possess.” Nearly everything that Jesus preached is contained in this prayer. When we pray it alone, it forms us. When we pray it together, it forms our community of faith.
The opening words, Our Father, place us into a relationship with God and with one another that is both inclusive and intimate. Our, not my or mine; our loving parent, not a distant God. When we pray for the kingdom of God to come on earth as it is in heaven, we pray with global concern for all people, and for our private lives. Likewise, our prayer for daily bread is a prayer for the most urgent needs of our neighbors as well as ourselves, and our request for forgiveness is tied to our practice of forgiving others.
So, now, we come to one of the trickiest petitions of the prayer, the sixth and last petition: lead us not into temptation. This line is on the downhill side of the prayer. The words begin to tumble over themselves, as we head for the conclusion. And yet if we were to slow down and say them carefully, most of us – certainly me included – have never been quite sure what to make of these words: “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Does God lead us into temptation? Does God play games with us? Like when I was training my dog to stay, and I would hold out a treat to see if he would resist the temptation to get and get it. Is that how God is? Will you be honest? Will you say no? Will you keep your commitment? Is that what we’re praying for here, that God will not tempt us?
In the book of James, in the New Testament, James assures us that God does not work that way. That is not what this prayer means. James writes, “No one, when tempted, should say, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted by evil and he himself tempts no one. But one is tempted by one’s own desire, being lured and enticed by it…” Temptation is real, but it comes from within us. It does not come from God. We may choose unwisely, we may turn away from the right path, we may do the wrong thing, but the temptation comes from our own desires and the disorder that lives within us. God is not tempting us.
So, what does Jesus mean when he says, “Lead us not into temptation?” As is often the case, we get closer as we look at the original language of the New Testament, and here the word is better translated as “trial” or “testing.” The New Revised Standard Version puts it this way: “And do not bring us to the time of trial but rescue us from the evil one.” As much as I love the traditional language of the Lord’s Prayer and believe it is worth holding onto in our corporate worship, this translation brings us closer to Jesus’ meaning. “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” The Greek word is peirasmos. You could use this word to describe a chemical test in a lab, which sorts a true substance from a false one. Or a drug trial, to see if the drug is effective. This is a trial or a test that proves the truth.
Now, that gets closer to Jesus’ meaning, “do not lead us into the time of trial.” But does that make sense? Should we really we pray that God will never test us? It is contrary to scripture and to common sense to believe that God will never test our faith. God always tests the faith of God’s people in order to grow God’s people. This is how God strengthens us. This is how the Apostle Paul puts it: suffering produces endurance, and endurance character, and character hope, and hope does not disappoint. That’s testing. Through testing we share the life of Christ, who was tested in the Wilderness and tested in the Garden.
You and I know that when we are pushed, like being pushed physically in a race or an endurance test, we grow. If you train for a marathon, or prepare for a big exam, you grow stronger, you grow sharper. Likewise, when we are pushed spiritually, when we have to choose wisely or trust more fully or wait more patiently, we grow. It defies common sense and scripture to believe that God should never or pray that God would never test our faith. That’s how God grows us.
Instead, I believe what Jesus is asking us to pray is not that we will never be tempted, and not that we will never be tested. Jesus is teaching us to pray this: that God would never overwhelm us with testing. Let’s look at this short story from the gospel of Mark.
After a long day of teaching on the shore by the Sea of Galilee, Jesus said to the disciples that they should get into boats and go across to the other side to find some rest. They took him as he was, utterly exhausted, and placed him in the boat and these fishermen set out on the sea. The Sea of Galilee was prone to having violent storms that come up quickly because of its geography, and because of its shallow depth these storms created very rough seas.
The waves beat against the boat and the boat was being swamped and overwhelmed with water. The disciples bailed as hard as they could, and where was Jesus? He was asleep in the back of the boat. They ran to wake him up, and said, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing!” Do you not care? We are in a great trial. Do you not care? We are being tested beyond our limits. Do you not care? We are in danger of being completely overwhelmed. Do you not care?!
When the waves are battering your boat, and the boat is being swamped, and you are bailing as hard as you can, but still, it’s not enough, “Lord, do you not care? Lord, we are perishing. Will you not help? Will you not wake up! Rescue us. This is more than a test. We are being overwhelmed.
This story brings us to the heart of what Jesus means when he says to pray, “Do not bring us to the time of trial,” to the peirasmon. We are praying that God will not test us so much that we are totally sunk. The great theologian, Origen, wrote in the third century, “We should pray not that we should not be tested, for this is impossible, but that we should not be engulfed by testing, for those who are in its midst are so overcome.”
When the disciples finally wake Jesus up in the back of the boat, he gets up and speaks to the wind and sea, “Peace! Be still!” The wind ceased and there was an absolute calm. Then Jesus turned to the disciples and he says this strange thing. You know, we might expect him to say, “Are you okay?” Or, “I’m sorry I was asleep. Forgive for not helping sooner.” Instead, he says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
No, this sounds harsh, but it was a time of trial, the disciples were learning. Jesus is asking them this to help them grow. Did you believe I would let you drown? Did you believe that I called you and chose you just to bring you here to die? Did you not trust that I would rescue you? Jesus asks them “Why are you afraid?” because he wants to grow their trust.
Jesus could well ask this question to us when we are overwhelmed in the circumstances of life and we feel helpless and afraid. So often when we are in the midst of trials – and I know this in my own, in many of your lives – when we are going through trials, even if people around are very supportive (helping bail the boat), it feels like God is very far away. Is God there? We are so used to being capable and independent and strong, used to helping more than being helped, never being beyond the limit of our abilities. It’s so hard to come into very deep waters and feel like our boat may just sink.
Are you there God? Do you care? Jesus speaks up from the back of the boat, “Why are you afraid? Do you think I would let you go?” “Do you think I’ve led you all this way to leave you now?”
Jesus teaches the disciples to pray, “Lead us not into temptation” to give us words for the hardest times in our lives to remind us that there is no trial in which we will be utterly abandoned by God. There is no storm in life that will possibly come that could bring us down to utter defeat. God is faithful to uphold us, to make us strong, to see us through. That is the heart of this petition: God is trustworthy. God will never let us go.
The author and teacher Kenneth Bailey spent his career studying New Testament in the Middle East, and he brings a unique perspective to this part of the Lord’s Prayer. When travelers take long camel trips into the deserts of the Middle East, he says, they must have a guide who knows how to reach the destination, and the guide must have their full trust and confidence. He must know where he is going and know how to cope with any emergencies that might arise on the journey.
Bailey says that he and his friends made a number of extended trips into the Sahara to visit a famous well called Bir Shaytoun, and for that trip they always trusted a man they called “Uncle Zaki” to be their guide. He was self-confident, humble, a man with enormous personal dignity. Bailey says that Uncle Zaki, did not walk in the desert, as much as he flowed over the sand. It was beautiful to watch.
As they would leave the village near the edge of the Nile and head out into the almost trackless Sahara, Bailey says that each person felt an inner urge to say, “Uncle Zaki, don’t get us lost!” He writes, “What we meant by that statement was, ‘We don’t know the way to where we are going, and if you get us lost, we will all die. We have placed our total trust in your leadership.” They were not saying, “We don’t think we can trust you.” Otherwise, they would not have chosen him as their guide. Instead, they were affirming their confidence in his leadership, reminding themselves that they could trust him.
That is what we are doing in this part of the Lord’s Prayer. “Lord, we trust you to guide us, because you alone know the way we must go.” “Do not bring us into a time of trial.” Do not let us be lost, do not let us go. We are reminding ourselves that we can trust the one Jesus taught us to call Our Father.
Sometimes the words of hymns and songs express this prayer better than we are able to do, especially in the moment when our soul is overwhelmed. In a few minutes, the choir sing a “My Hope is Built on Nothing Less.” The words from that song that ring in my ears in times of trial, are these, “When all around my soul give way, he still is all my hope and stay.” The one who speaks to the winds and waves promises to be there for us. We remind ourselves that this is God’s promise.
In the most recent storms of my life, another hymn reminded me often of this promise. I’ve never been one to say, “Why me, God?”, but I did often say to myself myself, “This is too much, Lord. This is too much…” Some days it was nearly all I could make out as a prayer. But the words of this hymn helped my soul. “Abide with me, fast falls the eventide. The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide. When other helpers fail and comforts flee, help of the helpless, Lord abide with me.” We remind ourselves of the promise of God.
Perhaps you can remember a time when you have been in deep waters, on stormy seas, bailing in the boat as fast you can, wondering where God could possibly be. Perhaps you are there now. Let us not rush pass these final words of the prayer Jesus taught or pray them with too much haste, or confusion. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver from evil.” Hidden within these words is the sure and unfailing promise of the God who will not abandon us in life’s hardest moments. “Peace, be still,” Jesus speaks to the storm.
Or, as God said to the prophet Isaiah, so God says to us: “When you pass through the water I shall be with you; when you pass through the rivers they will not overwhelm you; walk through fire, you will not be scorched, through flames, and they will not burn you. I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your deliverer… and I love you.”
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.