Passing the Test
By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Luke 11:1-4
I remember my driver’s test like it was yesterday.
When I was in high school in my tiny town, the first semester involved all the classroom stuff, consisting mainly of films about people who had come to a speedy demise due to vehicular irresponsibility. I don’t know if this practice is still being used but I can tell you, it definitely scared me straight; so much so that, initially, I had no interest in getting my driver’s license. It seemed to me that teen driving was a death sentence and I wanted no part of it. Eventually I got my permit but I was still reticent. Behind the wheel in Driver’s Ed, my instructor asked me nearly every week, “Do you have your permit yet?” Maybe his memory was just bad; but it seemed like a sign to me; a portent from the heavens like a neon sign flashing: “Don’t do it; don’t do it.” Now I dearly loved my dad but he was not the most patient instructor. He seemed – to me at least – as discouraging as my Driver’s Ed teacher. But after nearly a year of indulging my anxiety, my dad made it known that my extracurricular activities were jamming up his schedule and it was time for me to take the plunge so he could retire from the chauffeuring gig. So, quite reluctantly, early one Saturday morning, I went to take my driver’s exam. I was white-knuckled, in a state of deep anxiety, trying not to cry. It seemed it took so long for me to Parallel Park, I expected the sun would set before my task was done. At the end of it all, I looked sheepishly at the man in the passenger seat, grimly – or so it seemed to me – marking the sheet on his lap. At long last, he looked across at me and said, “Congratulations. You passed.” And I said, “Really?” in the most incredulous tone imaginable. It is no fun to endure a test, especially one we fear we may not pass.
As I mentioned last Sunday, we are currently in our Lenten sermon series entitled A Passion for Life. Through this series, we are considering how events and themes in the final hours of Jesus’ life connect to earlier experiences and teaching in the gospels. Jesus’ final hours of his passion are portrayed through Stations of the Cross and local artists have depicted renderings of those stations. The second station, a beautiful watercolor by Jerie Artz, depicts Jesus going into an Olive Grove, the Mount of Olives, to pray just before his arrest.[i] His disciples accompany him and he instructs them to pray also, so that they might not come into the time of trial or testing. Unpleasant as that teenage driving exam was, it could not begin to compare to the fear and anxiety that must have plagued Jesus’ disciples that night on the Mount of Olives.
But that evening was not the first time Jesus had instructed them to pray in this way. Earlier in the gospel, earlier in Jesus’ ministry, on an occasion when he himself was praying, Jesus’ disciples asked if he would teach them a prayer. So, he teaches them what I shared this morning. It likely sounded familiar to you, yet perhaps not quite right. It is Luke’s version of what we call The Lord’s Prayer. It is briefer and more concise than Matthew’s version[ii]; the one we pray each week during worship. According to Luke, the final petition or request is this: “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” Now, it may be helpful to know that, in Greek, the same word can be translated “trial, test or temptation.” However we translate it, it’s no fun and dreaded by anyone with a lick of sense. And yet, in a sinful and broken world, times of trial and testing are also inevitable. In a sinful, broken world, no matter how hard we try, facing trials and temptations is unavoidable.
All of us at various times in our lives have faced dreadful things; so dreadful we may even begin to doubt God’s care for us: when a child dies suddenly; when a spouse comes home and announces they no longer wish to be married; when we’re given the diagnosis that our cancer is already in stage 3 and the prognosis is not good; when we suddenly realize that the pain pills we started taking after an injury have taken control over our lives. On and on I could go with examples; but I trust you can fill in your own blank. Times of trial; times of testing are part of the human condition.
As I’ve already mentioned, our gospels contain two versions of this prayer. What we today refer to as The Lord’s Prayer is found – in slightly different forms – in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s is the shorter of the two and most bible scholars believe it is likely to be the more original. Matthew’s is the one that adds the familiar concluding phrase, “but deliver us from evil.” We need to keep in mind that the “assembly” of our bible didn’t happen in a neat and orderly way. Early followers of Jesus shared with others what they’d heard and seen and experienced. Their goal was to share the good news of Jesus, the Son of God. Those early evangelists certainly had no thoughts of a printing press that would turn their proclamation of Jesus into words locked on a page for all time. So we should not be surprised or bothered by the fact that even our New Testament writings were subject to interpretation within themselves. But that simply reveals how the earliest Christians wrestled with the same questions with which we struggle today. They – like us – did not want those trials to come and yet they did. So what could they do when they were enduring such a painful and difficult test that it felt to them as if evil might prevail; as if the power of evil was pressing down upon them and threatening to undo them? Trials were inevitable. But far worse was the dreaded thought that, in the midst of those trials they might be overcome by the destructive power of evil.
That is a position no one wants to be in. Perhaps you have experienced it; perhaps you live in dread of it. Perhaps you have watched some horrible thing befall a friend, a good person, and wondered “If that happened to me, would I make it through?”
So, how do we make it through? As disciples of Jesus what are we to do?
On the night of his arrest when Jesus entered the Olive Grove to pray with his disciples, they had already been prepared, already been duly warned; their beloved rabbi had sought to impress upon them that trials and testing would come – it was inevitable – and that, when those trials came, they wouldn’t be able to get through simply on their own steam, their own rugged determination. They would need prayer to get them through.
Prayer draws us near to God. It heightens our awareness of God’s presence; it keeps us mindful of God’s faithfulness to us. Prayer is something that sustains us and anchors us.
I remember the first funeral I performed. I looked at – what seemed to me – a rigid order of service in the Methodist Book of Worship. I wondered if I needed to say something clever and creative and unique. But when my dad died, I attended a service that did just that: contemporary choruses and original prayers and not your typical scriptures. And as I listened I felt anger welling up inside. It was strange and bizarre. And then I realized: I needed those familiar passages of scripture; I needed those prayers I had heard over the years because they anchored me and drew me near to the heart of God. They grabbed hold of something deep within me – deeper even perhaps than I could consciously access. Those familiar prayers, those familiar scriptures, anchored me in the memories of God’s faithfulness to me. They carried me back to other places and other times when I had been tested, when life had been hard and painful. But God had seen me through. Prayer anchors us. Prayer draws upon our past memories and experiences with God… with the God who sees us through and sustains us through our hardest trials. We pray “Do not bring us to the time of trial” knowing full well that trials and tests in life are inevitable, inescapable. But when we pray “Do not bring us to the time of trial” what we are really praying is “Do not let us succumb; do not let the trials life throws our way crush us. Be near us, Lord Jesus, and carry us through. Be faithful as you have in times past.” And Jesus can carry us through because he is stronger than any test or trial.
Matthew, Mark and Luke are all in agreement that, immediately after Jesus’ baptism and just before his public ministry began, Jesus was in the wilderness being tested by the devil for forty days. And Jesus emerged triumphant.[iii] His strategy was to place his full trust in his heavenly Father’s loving faithfulness and providence. In Luke’s gospel that story of Jesus’ temptation concludes with a rather ominous note: that the devil “departed from him until an opportune time.” That time, of course, will arrive when Jesus goes into that Olive Grove to pray and wrestles with his impending painful, violent, unfair death. But hard though that test will be, he doesn’t succumb. His trust in his heavenly Father’s faithfulness is unwavering.
Jesus prays to gain strength for the test to come but he doesn’t just pray for himself; he prays also for his disciples. He encourages them to pray the prayer he has already taught them: a prayer that they might not come to that time of trial. But again, it is not really a plea to avoid the inevitable; but rather a plea to endure it; to pass through it and not be destroyed by it. It is not so much a request to be preserved from such testing as it is a plea to be preserved in or through those trials.
That very night, just before they leave dinner to go to the olive grove, Jesus warns Peter (who is rather arrogant and confident in his own personal strength and integrity). Jesus warns him that Satan is going to test Peter also; but that, already, Jesus has been praying for Peter.[iv] And the power of Jesus’ prayers will get Peter through. He will not be destroyed by this; he will emerge on the other side of this test with greater strength and deeper faith.
Friends: God does not want you to suffer. God does not put you to the test.[v] The New Testament says so. But we live in a sinful, broken world and times of testing and trials and temptations are inevitable. We can’t avoid them; but we can get through them because God is faithful to us.
In Luke’s gospel, when Jesus teaches his disciples this prayer that concludes with those words, “Do not bring us to the time of trial,” he follows that prayer with a parable; a parable that is often misinterpreted.[vi] But it is a parable about prayer and about the reliability and faithfulness of God. When we are most desperate, in the dead of the night, when we come up empty and needy; when we have nothing of our own left to drawn upon; we can go to God in prayer and believe and trust that God will not let us down. In times of testing, God is faithful. And we do not call out to God alone. We do not pray alone because Jesus is already interceding for us, already praying for us just as he prayed for Peter. The Spirit is with us to strengthen us and to keep us mindful of the loving faithfulness of God. Friends: sometimes life throws us horrible, painful tests. But God who is faithful can and will lead us through.
[i] See Luke 22:39-46.
[ii] See Matthew 6:9-13
[iii] See, for example, Luke 4:1-13
[iv] See Luke 22:31-34
[v] See James 1:13
[vi] The parable found in Luke 11:5-8, known as The Friend at Midnight, contains a Greek word in verse 8 that is often incorrectly translated into English. The Greek word anaideia means “shamelessness.” But, because the USA is not an honor/shame culture, we translate the word “persistence;” a translation that (as Alan Culpepper points out) is not translated that way in any other ancient text. When we translate the word correctly, the meaning of the parable is this: the awakened neighbor will be of assistance because, to decline the obligation of hospitality in the Mediterranean world, would have brought shame on the village. Hospitality was a corporate responsibility. If someone had the necessary resources to lend a neighbor so that they might show hospitality to a stranger and the neighbor with the resources declined to help, they would be judged to be shameless in the negative sense of the word. In other words, they couldn’t care less how much they embarrassed (shamed) their village. The analogy is this: God has a reputation to uphold as one who is good and gracious. We can count on God to be true to who God is. A neighbor might help just to avoid shame and embarrassment. God will certainly do far better than that. God can be counted on.
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