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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

March 25, 2018


Ephesians 6:10-13; Matthew 11:1-10

            In 2011 Connie and I spent three-and-a-half days in the city of Stockholm, Sweden, the only time I have ever been there.  The highlight (for this nerd!) was the Nobel Museum.  I learned something that day that connected with something from my past.  When in seminary, I had taken a course called, “The Novelist as Theologian,” and had read a novel written by a Swedish writer named Pär Lagerkvist.  I was surprised to learn in touring the Nobel Museum that Pär was a Nobel laureate for literature.  The novel was called, Barabbas.  Lagerkvist traces the life of the one who was released in place of Jesus on the day before Jesus’ death. 

            Barabbas becomes, in the novel, a Roman slave, a plausible outcome for a criminal who had been freed and released.  He is on the island of Cyprus in the copper mines, and he meets there another slave, a man named Sahak.  Sahak, he learns, is wearing around his neck a disk, as all slaves were, with Caesar’s name inscribed upon the front.  Sahak informs Barabbas one day that on the back of his disk he has etched the name of Jesus Christ.  Barabbas tells Sahak his story, and he decides that he too wants to inscribe the name of Jesus Christ on the back of his disk.  Their conversation is overheard, and they are suddenly ushered into the presence of the governor who wishes to speak to them about what they have done. 

            The governor makes it very clear to them that in Rome, there is only one Lord who can be worshiped, and that is Caesar.  He says, “What are these markings?”  Sahak explains that the only God he can worship is the one known as Jesus Christ, and he has inscribed that name on the back of his disk to remind himself who God is.  The governor says, “You know that this is a crime, punishable by death.”  The governor looks at Barabbas and says to him, “Do you believe in this God?”  Barabbas cannot even speak, but he nods his head “No.”  The governor says, “Then why are you wearing his name?”  Barabbas is utterly silent.  “Is he or is he not your God?” the governor asks.  Finally, all Barabbas can do is whisper, and he says, “I have no god.”  Sahak looks at him with sadness. 

            Once more the governor turns to Sahak, and says, “If you renounce your faith, no harm shall come to you.  Will you?”  Sahak looks at the governor and says, “I cannot.”  The governor sends Sahak out to be crucified.  He turns to Barabbas and says, “An extraordinary man, indeed.”  Then the governor takes a knife, grabs the disk and scratches out the name of Jesus Christ.  He says to Barabbas, “There is really no need for this, since you don’t believe in him anyway.”  For the rest of his life Barabbas lives with a disk that has the crossed out name of Jesus Christ.

            That is what this petition in the prayer is about.  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”  Jesus was not talking about minor temptations – eating too much chocolate during Lent, or saying something unkind about someone, or some other lesser temptation.  No, those kinds of temptations are always going to with us.  This prayer is about something more serious, about what I would call the Final Test, the very trial that determines the question of our identity: Who and whose we truly are.  This petition is about the very real possibility that we would turn our backs on God and end up like Barabbas, in effect, with the crossed-out name of Jesus worn like a badge of shame. 

            The Greek word in this prayer for “temptation” can also mean “testing” – it is the word “peirasmos.”  Pyrotechnics are fireworks; “pyro” means “fire.”  “Peirasmos” means “to be tried by fire.”  The New English Version of the Bible translates this line as “Do not bring us to the test.”  Jesus Himself experienced this testing, this peirasmos.  Following Jesus’ baptism he was led by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested or tempted, by the devil.  Matthew, Mark and Luke each record this same event in Jesus’ life, and all three temptations begin with the same line: “If you are the Son of God....”  Which is to say that the devil tempts and tests Jesus at the point of His identity, who He is and who truly, as a human being on this earth, Jesus is going to become. 

            Remember the three temptations?  The first, to turn stones bread.  The second, to throw Himself down spectacularly from the pinnacle of the Temple.  The third, to worship Satan in exchange for earthly power and prominence.  Every one of them is an appeal for Jesus to place self at the center of His universe in the place of God.  That is the temptation that Jesus is facing all over again, as He mounts the donkey and rides through the eastern gate into the ancient city of Jerusalem.  We have no idea how large the crowd was in Jerusalem, but we have a historical connection with the Passover in Jerusalem.  Josephus, the great historian of the Jewish people, points out the historical detail that during one Passover in Jerusalem, two hundred thousand lambs were slaughtered for the celebration of the Passover.  If you assume that ten people on average sat at table to observe the Passover mean, that puts two million people in the city of Jerusalem in order to celebrate Passover. 

            No matter how many people lined the streets as Jesus entered the city, we know it was the high-watermark of Jesus’ public ministry.  The people shouted over and over again, “Hosanna, hosanna,” which means “help us,” or “deliver us,” or “save us.”  Clearly, they wanted Jesus to engage in a show of power, the likes of which only David had ever demonstrated in their midst before.  They wanted Jesus to be a warrior to deliver the people from Roman oppression, as Judas Maccabeus had in that very city one hundred sixty years earlier.  Jesus sat on that donkey, with all this adulation and all these expectations, laid upon Him, and He had to ask the question, “Who am I?” and “Why am I here?”  “What is my life and my mission on this earth to be about?  Is it to be spent in service of what the people expect of me, what they long for from me?  Or is it to be about the will of God?”  We are not just tempted or tested this way once in our lives.  No, it happens over and over again, as we are forced by life to ask in ever new situations, Who am I really?   What kind of man, what kind of woman, am I created and intended by God to be?

            For the early church, this peirasmos, this testing, came in dramatic ways as they were persecuted by hostile elements.  I find, though, for us, it usually comes quietly, as evil often sneaks up on us.  It usually comes more insidiously and seductively.  I remember being a young pastor just called to the church in Spartanburg, South Carolina.  I was called to the bedside of a young ophthalmologist in the congregation, whose wife had just had a stroke.  The doctors had just explained that his wife was brain dead, and he had three teenage daughters that he had to talk to about what they would do.  I spent the better part of an evening with my friend that night, and he said to me in the course of the conversation, “You know I grew up in this church, and it was a central part of my life.  Then, I went to med school, got married, and we moved back to town.  We bought a big house, joined the country club, and got involved in so many things in our kids’ lives.  I suppose what we’ve become is Easter and Christmas Christians.  I never intended for it to happen.  Right now, Todd, God seems so very far away.  I just kind of let my faith slide.” 

            A lot of folks do just that.  We do not mean for it to happen.  We get busy and engaged and involved in so many things, so many good and valuable and important things.  Pretty soon all the screen time we are spending crowds out any meaningful God-time.  Instead of our relationship with Jesus being marked by life and joy and passion, it is hardly something anybody else would even notice makes any difference in our lives.

            I wish I could scare all of you into realizing how crucial this petition in Jesus’ prayer is, because what I am describing is worse than war, or pestilence or death itself.  In Matthew 10, Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”  Paul knew as well how dangerous evil can be, precisely because it is so insidious.  He said, “We are not contending against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers, against world rulers of this present darkness, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in heavenly places.”

            The great New Testament theologian N.T. Wright calls this the “supra-personal nature of evil,” meaning that evil is more than just a human phenomenon in this life.  Wright understands how seductive evil can be.  After all, evil specializes in pretense, and appeals to our egos.  And our egos can get us in so much trouble!  Goodness, on the other hand, never pretends, never deceives, and as a result, often it is not as attractive to us.  It does not appeal to our egos; it appeals rather to the virtue or the goodness in us, that which would cause us to place self aside, and focus instead upon God. 

            So how do we resist evil?  Paul does not ever recommend resisting evil by becoming an expert in the field of evil!  Rather Paul says, “Be strong in the Lord.”  Paul went to Corinth, and he stood up on the bema in the middle of that city, with idols to gods all around him, and he said, “I have decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”  The great German theologian Helmut Thielicke said, “There is a sense in which we can say that we should not fight against temptation, since this only mires us more deeply in it.  We should rather say that we are to keep our eyes upon the Lord.”  I love the Secret Service agent who spent time working to uncover counterfeiters.  Somebody asked him once, “Do you spend a lot of time looking at counterfeits?”  He said, “No, absolutely the opposite, I spend my time looking at the real thing.”  Well, Jesus is the Real Thing.  Jesus says, “In this world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”  Oswald Hoffman says, “God is not our enemy, forever trying to trick us into mistakes.”  But we cannot resist the tempter on our own; we need God.  Which is why Jesus invites us to pray, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

            When I was a pastor in Columbia, South Carolina, I went to the University of South Carolina to hear a lecture on the Vietnam War, given by James Dickey.  You know the novel James Dickey wrote, made famous by a movie that broke all kinds of box office records.  The novel was called Deliverance.  The movie told of four suburbanites who take a canoe trip down a river in rural Georgia.  It starts out like the fun adventure of a lifetime for these guys, and they are completely unaware of the evil which lurks high upon the hills in the canyon, down the river that they are about to canoe.  The novel itself was a modern-day morality play.  Dickey was saying that life itself is a passage down a wild, primitive canyon where evil waits.  In the story, two of them are attacked violently, one is raped, and when they finish, they cannot even speak a word to anyone about all the things that have happened to them.  The difference is that in James Dickey’s novel, as in the movie, there is no discernable presence of a God who might deliver them.  You get the sense in the novel that we are stuck in this world by ourselves, and that we have to deliver ourselves.  Thank goodness for the promise of Holy Scripture!  “Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (James 4:7).  Or, better yet, the words of Jesus: “In this world, you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

            Marguerite Mizell was a magnificent human being who spent her life working for the Presbyterian Church as a missionary.  In her retirement, she moved to Black Mountain, North Carolina, and continued to serve the Lord wherever she was.  At the age of eighty-seven she went to her doctor for a physical.  He said, “Marguerite, you are as healthy as you can be.  You’re going to live at least another ten years.”   When Marguerite turned ninety-seven, she said to her doctor, “You know you told me ten years ago I was going to live at least another ten years.  Now what?”  He looked at her, smiled, and said, “Well Marguerite, I guess it’s in the Lord’s hands now.”  And for another four years, she lived out her life in the Lord’s hands.  Whether you are seven or ninety-seven, this is how you are called to live out your days: In the Lord’s hands, safe and secure!  “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”


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