Sisters and brothers, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Way back in the 1990s, when I was just starting college, I was introduced to a rather obscure singer whose name I won’t bother you with. I didn’t get much into his music but one song stuck in my head ever after I heard it, the way a song sometimes does. It was called “Jerusalem,” and it was based on the phenomenon called the Jerusalem Syndrome. Some visitors to the Holy Land, mostly non-religious men in their 20s, have a psychotic episode and believe that they are figures from the Bible, that they are Christ returned to earth or another messianic figure. And the song starts with the lines that stuck in my head: “When I tell you that I love you, don’t test my love / Just accept my love / Don’t test my love / Cause maybe I don’t love you all that much.”
These words stuck with me because it’s such a different sentiment than the way popular culture usually depicts love. Love does not, in fact, in this song, conquer all. Love can’t accomplish everything. Love can bring you to Jerusalem but it cannot keep you from having a psychotic episode and wandering into the desert at your peril. And we should not want to put our love to the test, because it might fail if we do.
Today we come to the end of the story of Jesus’ life. And we have come to the last petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
This is a moment where our 17th-century translation of the Lord’s Prayer can be misleading. We might think of “temptation” as an urge that we want to resist: eating food we shouldn’t eat or spending money we shouldn’t spend or giving in to some kind of compulsion. And that’s an important part of it. Most of us know more than we let on about the situations in which we are liable to be tempted, and how to avoid them.
But the Biblical word here is bigger. Today, it might make more sense if we translated it as “testing” or “trial.” Do not bring us to the time of testing. Or more simply, Do not put us to the test. Do not test our faith and our love, God, because we don’t know if we trust and love you enough to endure. “Pray that you do not come to the time of trial,” Jesus tells his friends as he prays in the garden of Gethsemane on the night of his arrest.
And indeed, in today’s Gospel, everyone does come to the time of testing, and almost everyone does fail. Judas betrays Jesus. Peter denies him. Most of the rest of the male disciples flee. The religious leaders yield to their fear of Jesus. The Roman authorities put him to a cruel and unjust death. The agitated crowd at the Roman headquarters calls for his death. And the great majority of the city simply went on with their lives, probably trying not to think too much about the brutal actions of the Roman garrison in their midst.
Humanity does not endure this particular test. As we so often do not endure the test of being brave or loyal in the face of a system that can simply destroy a life with no more thought than a horse swatting away a fly.
It is a terrible thing to find the limits of our love, our faith, our hope, or our courage. We don’t know in advance what those limits are. We can speculate. But until we come to the moment of truth, we do not know. And we can, and should, always be training to expand those limits. And in a way that’s what church and the life of faith is all about: practice for our lives to be put to the test in ways we cannot anticipate. Learning to love God and our neighbor more selflessly; learning to trust God more simply; to hold our faith and to do what is required of us more bravely, even at a cost to ourselves. But most people have a limit. For most people, there is a test that we will fail.
And so we ask God, do not put us to a test that we may not endure. Accept the faith and love we have. Within this prayer is, I think, another prayer: give us only those tests we can endure, and which will strengthen us.
Because there is, of course, the second part of this petition: deliver us from evil. This line could also be translated as “deliver us from the evil one.” Do not bring us to the time of testing, O God, but instead deliver us from the evil one.
This part of the prayer has, in a way, already been answered. Because for all of the human failure we see today, one man endured. And God endured. The voice of temptation that has haunted humanity from that moment at the tree in the garden down to today did not prevail against the one human whose life carried all of us. The one person whose endurance and whose victory incorporated all of us. The one who represents humanity to God, and who represents God to humanity, was faithful until the end even to those who abandoned and spat upon him. In today’s story, Jesus comes to this time of trial and he does not falter. The evil one does not prevail. And so at the end of all our failing, after the limits of all our love, there is Jesus. He is the one who conquers, and he is the one who brings us, small as our love may be, into his victory. Amen.
God's Work. Our hands.