1st Sunday of Lent – the Reverend Ken Masters

A Sermon preached by The Revd Ken Masters at Wincanton

on 1st Sunday in Lent, 6 March 2022

Readings: Romans 108b-13; Luke 41-13

This sermon is the second in our Lent Series on The Lord’s Prayer.  Today we look at ‘Lead us not into temptation’.  And I’ll start with a cautionary verse by Hilaire Belloc:

The Devil, having nothing else to do,

Went off, to tempt my Lady Poltagrue.

My Lady, tempted by a private whim,

To his extreme annoyance, tempted him.     [Q&A, C37]

Or there’s the anonymous saying: ‘I can resist everything, except temptation.’   [Ibid]

However, these show the rather light-hearted ways we think of temptation.  So, let’s consider this phrase in The Lord’s Prayer.  It seems puzzling that we ask God not to tempt us.  Pope Francis, four years ago, said he wanted to make it clear that God would not lead anybody toward sin.  He suggested a better translation of the Greek prayer from the New Testament would be along the lines of, “Do not let us fall into temptation.”

Part of the problem is also because language has changed –the word ‘temptation’ to us can denote wickedness, in a rather shallow way.  We talk about being tempted by chocolates or another drink.  The original sense referred to a time of testing or a trial of faith.  When the General Synod debated a modern version of The Lord’s Prayer in 1980 and again in 2000, before authorising new prayer books, it (wrongly in my view) voted down the phrase ‘put us not to the test’, because of its associations with exams and Test Matches.

In St Luke’s version of The Lord’s Prayer the word ‘tempt-ation’ is used to translate the Greek peirasmos.  Exactly the same word is used in Jesus’ Temptations in the Wilderness.  Having been spiritually uplifted at his Baptism, Jesus was then impelled by the Spirit into the Judean desert for forty days to be tempted, tested.  ‘Forty’ was a round number that brought to mind the ‘forty’ years the People of Israel were in the desert after the Exodus.  And, in fact, Jesus’ answers to the three Temptations or Tests, are from a summary of Israel’s testing in the book of Deuteronomy (83, 613, 616).  To turn stone into bread, was to revolt against God through hunger: but Deut 8.3 ‘Man does not live by bread alone’.  To worship the devil in return for worldly wealth, was to compromise with worldly values:  but Deut 6.13 ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’  To expect angels to protect him in a foolish dangerous act was a wrong way of treating God: but Deut 6.16 ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’  [See C F Evans, The Lord’s Prayer, p.66f]

Luke’s other important use of the word peirasmos is in his account of the Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus twice told his disciples: ‘Pray that you may not come into the time of trial.’  [Lk 2240]  Luke states: Jesus ‘withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, knelt down, and prayed, ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.’  He knew his enemies were closing in.  Should he run away – stand firm or climb down?  Was he to be true to the voice at his Baptism, and at the Transfiguration: “You are my beloved Son?”  Jesus prayed desperately not to have to suffer; but then faithfully submits himself to his Father’s will; not his own.

From the accounts of the Temptations in the Wilderness and the Garden of Gethsemane we can perhaps see better what Jesus meant by ‘Lead us not into temptation’ in The Lord’s Prayer.  It is an existential question of the survival of our integrity and faith.  It may be that we are going to have to face something we dread: life changes, decisions of honesty and love; or by the suffering of someone we love, or our own illness or mortality.  We naturally ask our heavenly Father to spare us or save us from such trials.  It may be what went through the minds of people in Ukraine, faced by an aggressive and hugely powerful enemy – and will still be their prayer now.  They – and we on their behalf – may fervently ask our heavenly Father to ‘remove this cup’ from them.  We all shrink from being tested beyond our limits – and so cry out: “spare us from experiencing such severe trials and testing”.  ‘Lead us not into temptation.’

On earth, we do not know what the limits are to what God can do.  We do not know what may happen to us – or what may come out of it.  What we do know is that God is our heavenly Father – and like a good human father, will do all he can to care for us and help us live in honesty, integrity and love.  But he cannot prevent us from suffering hurt or pain – they are part of being human.  What we also know is that the Lord we follow called us to take up our cross and follow him –he promised us to be with us always – and he told us how to pray.  In voicing his prayer, we must always remember to do so in trust.  We are called to be faithful – and God will be faithful to us in his His tender loving mercy.

So, as I finish, I have to say that I may have made temptation too serious for everyday use!  I have also to admit that neither temptation nor test nor trial is precisely the right word.  It is clear that, ‘Lead us not into temptation’ is no soft option.  As we ask for deliverance, if it is possible, we ask also for grace and strength to pray equally ‘your kingdom come, your will be done; on earth as in heaven’.

‘For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and for ever.  Amen.’