Lead Us Not Into Temptation

By Jenny Andison

Before the 1960s, when civil rights activists first complained that it was cruel, there was a tradition common in American prisons. As a condemned man was being led out of his cell toward execution, the other prisoners would bang on their bars and shout out “dead man walking, dead man walking.” On this reluctant last walk, if the condemned man were to reach out to his fellow prisoners, they would recoil, not wanting the stench of death to infect them.

This morning we have just heard about a dead man walking. Jesus of Nazareth entered Jerusalem in triumph, knowing he would be dead within days. This dead man’s last walk was intentional, though. Jesus was coming to be crowned King, and his coronation was going to take place on a wooden cross.

Now, you are working your way through the Lord’s Prayer, and today we will focus on the petition “Lead us not into temptation, save us from the time of trial.” Today, we will look at that petition through the lens of Palm Sunday. Let’s look at temptation and evil and see what hope there could be for our daily lives.

To start, some background: Jesus is entering Jerusalem as Passover week begins, a week-long festival celebrating how the Israelites had been rescued by God from slavery under Pharaoh in Egypt. Ten plagues were needed before Pharaoh would release his Israelite slaves. The tenth and worst of the plagues was the death of the firstborn Egyptian sons.

The Israelites were instructed to mark the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a lamb, and upon seeing this, the spirit of the Lord passed over these homes, sparing the Israelite sons, hence the term Passover. Jesus and his disciples had decided to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem and were making their way there with thousands of other pilgrims.

As Jesus made his entry into Jerusalem on a donkey through the Eastern gate, a quite different triumphal entry was also taking place. Historians believe that on the same day Jesus arrived in the city, the Roman governor Pontius Pilate would have made his own procession. Coming from the Western side on the Mediterranean coast, Pilate, riding on a stallion, would have entered the city with imperial cavalry and foot soldiers (their helmets glinting in the sun, flags fluttering in the breeze) to reinforce the already existing garrison of soldiers on the Temple Mount.

It was Passover, and Jewish expectations always ran high at this time that this would finally be the year when God would bring the long-awaited Messiah who would rescue them from the oppression of the Romans, like God had rescued them so long ago from the Egyptians.

With that background, let’s look at “Lead us not into temptation.” Now, my sense is that when most of us think about temptation, we either think on the more serious side about sexual temptation, such as wanting to sleep with someone who is not yours, or using pornography, or, on the lighter side, being tempted to eat the extra cupcake in the fridge or doing some unnecessary online shopping while we are all cooped up in our homes. And while I don’t intend to dismiss either the serious or milder versions of this understanding of temptation, what is being talked about here by Jesus is much deeper than that.

The deep temptation underneath all these other, surface temptations (baked goods or affairs) is the temptation to be our own Savior, to displace God at the center of our lives and to think it would be best for us to be left to our own devices in this world — against all observable evidence. I remember when our middle daughter was around 5 or 6 years old, and I was disciplining her for some reason, and she didn’t like it. “You are not the boss of me, Mummy!” she said defiantly. “Oh, yes, I am,” I swiftly replied.

You are not the boss of me, God! This is the temptation under all the other temptations. This is why “lead us not into temptation” is not saying that God does the tempting (that is made clear in other parts of Scripture), but that God will allow temptation to happen, knowing that battling temptation (however it manifests itself) can, at times, strengthen and purify us.

Like an ironsmith, God will sometimes allow pressure on his people to refine our faith, to make us stronger and more resilient. God does not bring about the trials or temptations, but God can use deeply painful and challenging times to build us up, to strengthen us for the future.

God did not cause COVID-19, and there is undoubtedly more pain and suffering to come. For many, it is going to be a great trial. But as so many things are being stripped away from us — contact with our friends and family, fresh air, control, and maybe even life itself — there is an opportunity to recalibrate our lives. Where do we put our ultimate hope and trust? How have we moved God out of the center of our lives? What habits and character traits might God want to form in you and your children during this lockdown?

Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week — the most important week of the year for followers of Jesus — as we trace his last days on earth. On Thursday we will remember the night before he died and his personal anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane about what was soon to happen to him.

In the garden, Jesus wrestles with the deep temptation to take any other path than his impending crucifixion, to put his will, his desires, in front of his heavenly Father’s will. He is fully immersed in that temptation, his great trial.

Every day we are subtly tempted to place our will above God’s, and many of the most painful things that we experience in life are consequences of our relentless desire to be our own Saviors, to be our own bosses. And yet, when we pray “lead us not into temptation,” we can do so with confidence because, as Episcopal priest Wes Hill puts it: “We will be saved from this ultimate temptation, sheltered from it and spared from ever experiencing its true horrors, because there is One who already has experienced those horrors in our place. Because Jesus was not saved from temptation, we are.”

In our daily temptations, whether you are a disciple of Jesus or someone who is spiritually searching this morning, remind yourself that the temptation underneath that surface temptation is to be the boss of yourself. And the good news is that Jesus faced that temptation and it swallowed him whole, so that it does not need to devour our lives. The life-giving God, who can give us hope and peace in these dark days, can be at the center of our lives. “Lead us not into temptation.”

Jesus came as a King when he entered Jerusalem that fateful day, but he knew his coronation would be on the cross. The crowds clearly had some understanding of who he was. “Hosanna to the Son of David!” He was not your average Passover pilgrim. They even knew, at least on some level, that they needed rescuing.

“Hosanna” means “save us” — a call for freedom from the occupying Romans, most likely, but their words were still unwittingly prophetic. Some of you here today are asking questions, wrestling with doubts, and others want to go deeper in their walk of faith. Regardless, we all need the rescuing that Jesus brings from our self-indulgent habits and narcissistic relationships, from the relentlessness of work, from our obsession with our children’s worldly success, from unemployment, fear and loneliness, and the list goes on. “Lead us not into temptation, save us from the time of trial.”

So, where is the hopeful effect on our daily lives? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis for not giving them his allegiance, said this about his allegiance to Jesus: “If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the other direction.”

God has put his cards on the table. The dead man walking has already faced the great trial for us. Will we follow? Will we board the right train? The same question faced the first crowd: “and when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying ‘Who is this?’ and the crowds said, ‘This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth in Galilee.’”

Like the crowds, we may not have made up our minds about who we think Jesus really is. Or perhaps you are like the city of Jerusalem and in turmoil, emotionally or spiritually. You may be in the first stages of experiencing how Jesus rearranges your priorities and plans for your life. This can be very hard; it’s tough.

Or you may have lost count of the Palm Sundays in your life. Yet each day the society that we live in demands that we choose where our allegiance will lie. Will we follow the dead man walking? Will we continue to journey with him on the long and often painful way home to God?

All trials hold within them ways that we can be strengthened by God, and experience his great love for us. The ultimate trial, the great trial, has already been faced by Jesus for us. “Save us from the time of trial.” Out of boundless love for us, God has already accomplished in Holy Week what we have asked of him.

The Rt. Rev. Jenny Andison is rector of St. Paul’s Bloor Street in Toronto.


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