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Lead us not into temptation…
March 4, 2013, 6:35 pm
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday March 3rd 2013

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” We come to the last phrases of the Lord’s Prayer proper, so to speak; because the doxology “For thine is the kingdom, etc.” is a conclusion added by the Church.

“Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Two aspects of a single idea: our struggle with evil. First, we ask that we may not fall into it, then that we may be brought out of it. But let’s start with “temptation”. When we hear that word, I suspect that we most naturally think of some inducement to sin, in particular to some sin of self-indulgence, some excessive desire for delicious food, or sex, or expensive possessions. Everything that the moralist tends to call “concupiscence.” At the back of our minds is a certain lingering Puritanism that thinks anything too pleasurable must be bad, especially that anything pleasurable to our bodily senses must be bad. Spiritual equals good, material (or worse, “fleshly”) equals bad. Lead us not into temptation, Lord, please don’t let us be tempted to enjoy the world you have made.

Of course, that is a travesty of true spirituality. God saw all that he had made, and behold, it was very good. He wants us to enjoy it all, just as any artist wants his work to be appreciated. To understand what our Lord means by temptation, perhaps we should look at another occasion when he uses the word. In the garden of Gethsemane, as he asks his three closest friends, Peter, James and John, to pray with him, he says “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” At that moment, he was not counselling them against excessive desire for pleasure: he was warning them against cowardice in facing the prospect of pain.

The old philosophers of human nature distinguished two basic human “appetites”. One was the attraction we feel towards anything perceived in any way as good. This they called “concupiscence”. The other was the repulsion we feel towards what we perceive as bad. These are basic instincts. The negative instinct- our reaction in the presence of some “evil”- may take the form of an aggressive attack on it (if we are strong enough), or flight from it (if we think we are too weak to resist).

The word “temptation” really means “testing”. In some circumstances, we are tested in order to “show what we are made of”, as we say, just as a metal may be tested chemically to show whether it is true gold or silver, or just some cheaper substance. When he tells us to pray to the Father, “Lead us not into temptation,” our Lord is reminding us that it is no light thing to undergo the judgement of God, a judgement which is not simply a far-off event in the future, but is going on every day as we face the ordinary trials of life. Whether we are faced with pleasure or pain, have we, first, the discernment to relate it to our ultimate goal, and to the welfare of others? How should we react to it? Is this particular good to be embraced here and now, or set aside for some greater good? Is it a help or a hindrance? Or is this bad thing something to be resisted and fought; to be avoided and fled from, or simply to be endured? And when we have decided what, here and now, is the right thing, can we find the strength actually to do the right thing? All that is involved in “Lead us not into temptation.” It is not a lack of trust in God; but it is a very proper lack of trust in ourselves.

“But deliver us from evil.” Is this evil with a small e, or evil with a big E- the Evil One himself? Scholars differ. The point is, sometimes, perhaps often, we fail the test; or we find ourselves in a trial we feel to great to overcome, by our strength. We cry to God for help: “Save us, Lord, we are perishing,” like the disciples in the storm at sea. Sometimes (as the Holy Father said so movingly the other day) the Lord seems to be sleeping in the boat. But we cry out to him, “Lord, save us. Deliver us from evil.” And always the Lord says, “Do not be afraid. I am with you always. Always.”

Dear Lord, do not let us be tested beyond our strength; but deliver us from evil. Amen.

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