16 February 2016
Isaiah 55:10-11; Matthew 6:7-15
A fine book on ethical teaching in the New Testament bears the title of The Great Reversal. While God’s saving work always fulfills the deepest longings that our Creator has written on our hearts, that work must often reverse our superficial, misguided, and short-sighted longings. With Lent, the Church offers us a yearly spiritual discipline in testing and often reversing our expectations.
God’s preeminently great reversal is Jesus himself, a very different kind of messiah than our cultures have come to expect after millennia of imagining prosperity only through exploitation, military domination, and an us-versus-them preference for our own people’s good over that of others. A lifetime of other reversals thus ensues for disciples of the one who teaches that the last shall be first, and that those who would save their lives must lose them for Christ’s sake and in service of others.
My suggestion as we are embarking on our season of Lenten self-examination, therefore, is that we pray the Our Father or Lord’s Prayer, of course, but also use it as a checklist for recognizing how God is continuing the great reversal in our own time, in our own lives.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …
We begin with the most basic and life-reorienting of reversals. God would not seem to need our help to be holy, sanctified, set apart – the meaning of “hallowed.” Yet whenever we live for ourselves, without regard for God’s purposes, we act as though we indeed were God. Whenever we live as though this life is all that there is, with no mindful attention to the transcendent that culminates in heaven, then by default we hallow something other than God and the ultimate purposes that are to guide our lives even in this world. Simply to address God as our heavenly Parent and our ultimate Source of purpose is to begin the process of Lenten self-examination and invite other reversals.
thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. …
Key to that most basic of reversals is recognition that God’s saving work in history is finally not about Me but about Us in community reorienting our lives together according to God’s will. As much as God loves each one, it is not individual fulfillment for which we pray in the Our Father. “Kingdom” is communal, political language. To be sure, the Reign of God for which we pray dare not be simply the projection of our ethnic, or economic, or nationalistic, or otherwise tribal longings either. Thus we must do our best – prayerfully, conscientiously, regularly – to check against our tendency to pray that our will be done in heaven as on earth. The Lord’s Prayer reverses that order and reminds us to do the same.
Give us this day our daily bread …
The need for food, sustenance, or “bread” is so basic to human life that this checklist item might seem to ask little that is challenging or unexpected. But wait. Are we content with daily bread? Or are we preoccupied with storing up bread for tomorrow, next week, next year? Or insisting on daily cake while others starve? Do we hoard the goods of the earth in such a way that we make it hard for God to answer the prayers of others when they too ask God for their daily bread?
and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us …
And now the great reversal gets personal. We all want to be forgiven. But we also want to be free riders who hold on to our justifiable resentments until those other folks (whoever our latest enemies may be) repent and humble themselves and ask our forgiveness first. No wonder a peaceful world seems out of our grasp. No wonder God’s Reign seems to recede. Someone must go first. And thankfully, Christians proclaim that in Jesus Christ God has gone first, empowering and giving us the courage to do likewise. But now it is our turn to go next.
and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Was God going to do that – lead us into temptation or abandon us to evil? Because God’s purposes are larger than us or our capacity to fathom, Christian and non-Christian alike have often struggled with a sense that God is harsh or fickle. Lest our Lenten self-examination reinforce any such image of an unloving God, it is fitting that we end with a more comforting reversal. We are able to look our lives honestly in the mirror because the triune God – who created us for good, suffered to restore us to relationship, and empowers us to respond – is standing with us. Have we imagined otherwise? May God deliver us from that temptation too.
Thus may we add in gratitude to God, “For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.”