Sunday, April 24, 2022

Not Dark to Him

In the beginning was the Word … In him was life, and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in the darkness, and the darkness comprehended it not” (John 1:1-5). The darkness couldn't understand the light. So John tells us. You'll hear a lot about light and darkness as you read or listen to the Bible. The most common is in speaking of the darkness of sin. The darkness of sin is a darkness that falls upon our souls. John describes sin as “the darkness” (1 John 2:11), which Paul says causes our “foolish hearts to be darkened” (Romans 1:21). He adds that when we sin, we're performing “the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11), and indeed, that we become participants in “this present darkness” which is ruled by “spiritual forces of evil” at work in the world (Ephesians 6:12). And this is the darkness from which Jesus has acted so profoundly to rescue us! We're told that God “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13) – that “he called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9), “for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord” (Ephesians 5:8).

But the Bible speaks of other darknesses besides the spiritual darkness of sin from which Christ's cross already has saved us and is saving us still. Even when we're living rightly, even when our souls are light in the Lord (as the Scripture says), there are other types of darkness that present themselves in our lives – darknesses we have no guarantee of avoiding as Christians. Not all of them are even unconditionally bad! Some are good presences in our lives in this world, gifts of God for the here-and-now. Others are deeply unpleasant, consequences of the Fall with which we have to bear. And still others are severe challenges, even though allowed by God for good.

First, there's what we might call the darkness of distress. Here, it's our physical body that's darkened due to some kind of suffering or illness. Job talked about it, when he said: “When I waited for light, darkness came..., days of affliction come to meet me” (Job 30:26-27). These days of affliction were dark times in his life, difficult to bear, difficult to see his way through. Likewise, it's written in Ecclesiastes: “All his days he eats in darkness: in vexation and sickness...” (Ecclesiastes 5:17). Being sick, especially being chronically ill, is a kind of dark experience in life. It can easily blind us to other aspects of our lives, because it presses itself so oppressively on our perceptions, on the way we feel. Contrary to what some heretics will tell you, sickness is a real and regular part of Christian living – bodily health isn't just something you can 'name and claim' if you've got enough faith. God calls us to have faith to trust him through the sickness, through the vexation, through the darkness.

But second, there's what we might call the darkness of depression. Here, it's our emotions and our psyche that are darkened. Job was pretty familiar with this one as well. He refers to “gloom like thick darkness” hanging over his life (Job 10:10). He complains: “My face is red with weeping, and on my eyelids is deep darkness” (Job 16:16). Sometimes, this darkness is simply a deep sorrow, of the kind that a healthy mind will experience from time to time in our world, depending on the outward circumstances or just depending on the movements of the waxing and waning of emotional life. But sometimes, this darkness is of a sort that afflicts the mind as a mental illness. A novelist suffering from clinical depression described the experience of getting lost in “depression's dark wood,” and of those early morning hours “when I stared up into yawning darkness, wondering and writhing at the devastation taking place in my mind.”1 And, yes, Christians can very well suffer from it and may very well require professional treatment for it. One minister who suffered from bipolar disorder wrote about how “a back and forth in and out of darkness lasted for years,” and how her “depressive black holes are just the darkness and void of nothingness, not even the movement of time.”2 It fittingly merits, then, to be classified as a form of darkness we must prepare ourselves to potentially face in the Christian life.

Third, there's what we might call the darkness of dormancy. Here, it's our consciousness that's darkened. And all of us are familiar with this one, because it's sleep. We read in Genesis that “as the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell on Abram, and behold, dreadful and great darkness fell upon him” (Genesis 15:12). Generally speaking, this is a pleasant and comforting darkness! It's akin to the physical darkness of the night itself, which, after all, was created by God in the beginning (Genesis 1:5). God is the one who put Adam to sleep when Eve was to be created (Genesis 2:21). The psalmist expresses confidence by saying that God “gives to his beloved sleep” (Psalm 127:2), and the sages have hope that “when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet” (Proverbs 3:24). Paul lists “sleepless nights” as a hardship alongside being beaten and jailed (2 Corinthians 6:5).

But the darkness of dormancy has its less savory side. It's not for nothing that the Greeks portrayed Sleep as the brother of Death,3 or complained of “the tyranny [Sleep] exercises over our eyes.”4 It can be overly drawing to those in the darkness of depression, as when Luke depicts the disciples “sleeping for sorrow” (Luke 22:45). The sages warn that sleep's downside is that it robs us of productivity: “A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands to rest, and poverty will come upon you like a robber” (Proverbs 6:10-11). One of Job's friends even mentioned the fearfulness of nightmares, how “thoughts from visions of the night when deep sleep falls on men,” when “dread came upon me, and trembling, which made all my bones shake” (Job 4:12-13). And so Revelation gives us a picture of a world where even this darkness will ultimately be overcome, for in heaven, the saints “serve [God] day and night” without needing slumber (Revelation 7:15), and in the new creation, “night will be no more” (Revelation 22:5). Just as we can rest assured that the risen Jesus doesn't need to sleep, we can expect that one day we won't need it or crave it either.

But there's a fourth darkness, and it's the one we're going to spend the most time considering over the coming weeks – and this one we might call the darkness of dementia. Here, it's our mind, our cognition, that's darkened to us. You could include here, by extension, the age-related forgetfulness that's a natural consequence of aging. But more than that, we're susceptible to a variety of brain diseases, injuries, or conditions that cause a less-than-natural state of progressing dementia. One doctor writes: “All forms of dementia are diseases; they are not part of normal aging.”5 And yet dementia is ever more common, as two other experts write: “Nearly 14% of adults over age 70 have some form of dementia, and another 22% have cognitive impairment … 5% of people aged 65-70 years have dementia, with the rate doubling every 5 years, such that up to 30-40% of people aged 85 and over have dementia.”6 Live long enough, and that's not a small likelihood to say nothing of early-onset dementias. I guarantee you've met someone with dementia.

In this condition, our mental faculties one by one begin to fail as the disease afflicting the brain damages tissue there. One journalist with dementia listed his symptoms as including “ongoing memory loss, poor judgment, loss of self and problem solving, confusion with time, place, and words, withdrawal, abrupt changes in mood.”7 There's the forgetfulness and confusion, there are the anxiety and the headaches, and often sleeplessness and depression and a decline in independence. One philosopher who developed Alzheimer's disease described the experience as one of “sailing into the darkness.”8 A doctor diagnosed with Lewy body dementia remarked that “for now I still see the light, but on the other side of this knife-edge ridge I walk, there is darkness.”9 A minister descending into Alzheimer's writes how “the darkness and emptiness fill my mind,” “blackness and darkness of the worst kind.”10 A scientist diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia described her experience of feeling like she was “struggling to live in a fog,” “hanging onto a high cliff above a lurking black hole.”11 “It's like being blindfolded, looking through a tunnel,” or “as if a black curtain has fallen over what has just gone by.”12

We know that Christians can find themselves in the darkness of dementia just as readily as anyone else in the world. My first assignment in pastoral ministry was as assistant to a pastor suffering from a worsening case of frontotemporal dementia. And we know wonderful members of our church and their loved ones, in years past and even right now, who have lived in this darkness that, once begun, does not end in this life. There are others among us here today who have a very high chance of either experiencing this darkness ourselves or holding onto a loved one as they do. And part of our ministry here and now must be understanding this darkness.

Does that strike home for any of us? Maybe you used to be so bright, so mentally quick on your feet, but now you identify more with the prophecy of Joel, that “the sun shall be turned to darkness” (Joel 2:31). The brain's darkness may make it a considerable struggle to locate the right memory.13 The brain's darkness may make it a struggle to find a name and a reason to put with the face – to achieve that basic connection and recognition.14 The brain's darkness may make it a struggle to piece together context for what's going on around you, and a struggle to sift through and unscramble the words and numbers in time to hear what other's have said, and to get across what you want to say – to hit these verbal targets your mind can't consistently see.15 The brain's darkness may make even the most basic tasks a struggle, as what used to be basic is now broken down into all its constituent parts, each one requiring the labor that the whole task once used.

In any of the darknesses we face, but maybe especially depression and dementia, the psalmist's words might just resonate with you: “Surely darkness shall cover me” (Psalm 139:11). But here's the good news for you. The things the darkness hides from you, even within yourself, are not hidden to God! “O LORD, you have searched me and known me,” the psalmist says (Psalm 139:1). But maybe we wonder: “How, when the darkness is so dreadful and so heavy? How, when everything is a bleary blur? How, when our hearts melt within us? How, when the brain feels like a crumbling castle in a starless void, and flickers of recognition and capacity come and go like fireflies trapped under rubble and dust – blinking vividly or dimly for a moment, but so difficult to see even then? How, then, can God search us and know us?”

This is how – hear these sacred words: “If I say, 'Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me be night,' yet even the darkness is not dark to you: the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with you” (Psalm 139:11-12). God has perfect night vision, perfect X-ray vision. And so to him, all the darkness in you – be it dementia, be it depression, be it distress, be it anything at all – is literally plain as day to his sight. For his vision of you, what's going on in your heart, what's going on in your mind, it doesn't matter whether you're cheery and transparent, it doesn't matter if you're complicated and dark, it doesn't matter if you're broken up: he can see you just as well in all cases. The night is of equal brightness with day in his sight. No rubble, no dust, no shadow, no void obscures his sight or his understanding. That can and should be consolation in depression – as one sufferer prayed: “Even though I may feel that darkness is my only companion, to know that the darkness and the light are alike to you is great comfort.”16 And equally should it be consolation in the face of dementia – as one doctor and dementia specialist reminds us: “Even the seeming darkness of severe Alzheimer's disease does not separate us from the Lord and his love.”17

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might be unsure of what's going on, might be unable to make a clear decision, might lack understanding of what's happening – for didn't Christ say that “the one who walks in darkness does not know where he is going” (John 12:35)? But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You know when I sit down and when I rise up” (Psalm 139:2a). See, when we aren't sure what we're doing, he is sure! Even if we aren't sure who is doing what we're doing, he's sure! “We may be uncertain about who we are, but God is not.”18

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might be restless, might wander around, might be frightful and agitated. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You search out my path and my lying down” (Psalm 139:3a). When things get intimidating, when we get lost to ourselves, God knows exactly where we are, inside and out. And, thanks be to God, the psalmist can likewise say: You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me” (Psalm 139:5). When we're wandering away, when we're wobbling and stumbling, God is in front of us. When we're looking to the future with dismay, God is behind us. When both past and future seem to disappear, when all we can see is a passing present, we can trust that what's behind us is God, what's before us is God.

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might forget the habits that sustained you for so many years. It just becomes impossible to keep track, to keep up. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You... are acquainted with all my ways” (Psalm 139:3b). When the reading we used to love becomes a blur, when prayer becomes a maze, when church becomes a cacophany, when everything falls by the wayside, God is acquainted with all our ways. He sees and knows our old habits as if they were present, when they've fallen through no fault of our own. When we can't sustain their practice for our souls, he sustains their fruit in our souls, so merciful and loving is he.

Sometimes, in this darkness, you might not be able to sort out the right word, might not be able to piece together the puzzle, might not be able to express the associations of images that flit through the periphery of your mind. But in it all, the psalmist praises God: You discern my thoughts from afar” (Psalm 139:2b). “Even before a word is on my tongue” – or, for that matter, in the conscious mind – even before that, “behold, O LORD, you know it altogether” (Psalm 139:4). “God knows us, even before we act or speak.”19 Before whatever we say, before whatever we do, even before whatever we think (or try to think, or try to try to think), God knows us in the deepest way. No matter the darkness, he sees and knows within our mind and brain what we cannot see ourselves. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me!” the psalmist cries (Psalm 139:6). We can't attain it, we can't know ourselves so deeply in health, much less in dementia. But even in dementia or in depression or in distress, our impairments and our challenges are no obstacle to God.

And in all the darkness, he holds us. Wheresoever the darkness takes us, even if it separates us from our friends and family, even if we're as isolated as if we were buried at sea, “even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me,” the psalmist marvels (Psalm 139:10). God isn't afraid of our darkness – it isn't even dark to him. He guides us and holds us even in the thick of depression; he guides us and holds us even in the throes of dementia. You're not far from his grip in sickness, you're not forsaken in depression, you're not in free-fall in dementia. In each of those conditions, you can be a holy child of God, held by his hand. And if he'll do that in those blacker darknesses, he'll do it in the softer ones as well. If you're facing some kind of darkness in your life, rest assured that there's no darkness that can hide you away from the searchlight of God's love. If someone you love is in the darkness, rest assured: God's love sees them there like a cloudless noon.

Whatever darkness you or your loved one are in, may you find it to be a Mount Sinai, where Israel of old saw before them “the thick darkness where God was (Exodus 20:21). If you're in the darkness of depression, may you realize you aren't alone – that it can be the darkness where God is. If you're in the darkness of distress, or the darkness of dementia, may you find that, too, to be the darkness where God is, where he's in it with you, where he sees you plain as day, and loves you still, even as your castle crumbles. “Who among you fears the LORD and obeys the voice of his servant?” asks the prophet. “Let him who walks in darkness and has no light” – is that you, is that your experience? – let him “trust in the name of the LORD and rely on his God” (Isaiah 50:10), for “he reveals deep and hidden things: he knows what is in the darkness” (Daniel 2:22). Amen.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

The Great Amen

It was a Sunday afternoon, and as the spring sun drifted west, a pair of retiring pilgrims hit a slow pace on the road back to Emmaus. The Passover was finished; there seemed little point in sticking around Jerusalem for the whole seven days of the Unleavened Bread. Not that they felt too inclined to make offerings; everything had already been taken from them, all but memories. They talked as they walked, and remembered their Teacher – the day they'd heard him say those beautiful words: “Amen, amen, I say to you: Whoever hears my word and believes the One who sent me has eternal life... Amen, amen, I say to you: An hour is coming (and is now here!) when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live” (John 5:24-25). Jesus had a habit of talking that way – of prefacing his teachings with a double amen, an assurance his words were a solid rock to build on. But they also remembered his last amen – for they'd been in the crowd, reading his lips, as he turned to the converted killer crucified at his side and said to him, “Amen, to you I say: Today, with me, you'll be in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). And not long after that amen... Jesus was dead – their Christ, a corpse.

And so these two were now leaving Jerusalem, quitting the holy city, processing their grief and disillusionment. Early that morning, they'd heard the hysterical ravings of women who'd said they'd seen Jesus alive, walking and talking. Impossible. Their friends Peter and John went to investigate, and had found the tomb emptied – no doubt robbed in some cruel twist of fate, they thought. They couldn't take it any more. They'd hoped that Jesus would be the redemption of Israel from her Gentile oppressors, that he was the prophet who'd open the kingdom and show God's promises come true. And as an ignorant stranger sidled up to them on the road, that's just what they told him when he butted into their conversation. Everything had been so certain and beautiful, rooted like a tree of life growing in their own backyard. But everything came crashing down at the cross and the tomb, and as they walked back to Emmaus, they wondered how they could ever bear to say the word 'Amen' again.

'Amen,' you see, is a Hebrew word. It's from the same root as 'aman,' the Hebrew word for 'truth.' And the root points to something regarded as firm and sure, something taking solid root that can't be ripped out. It's a word of acceptance or assertion, of affirmation or confirmation. The first times we hear people in the Bible say amen, it's a word used to accept a judgment. A woman undergoing a test of her faithfulness to marriage swears an oath and, when told the consequences of lying, she says, “Amen, amen” (Numbers 5:22). The Levites shout to all Israel curses if they fail to keep this or that word from God's Law, “and all the people shall answer and say: 'Amen'” (Deuteronomy 27:15). To say amen here is to say, “Yes, if we fail this, let your curse on us be true.” But if an amen could accept a curse, so too could it accept a blessing, when one was spoken. An amen could be used to affirm a royal decree, as when Benaiah said amen to David's decisions, meaning, “I submit and endorse what you have ordered” (1 Kings 1:36). And most common of all, 'amen' could affirm a word of blessing or a prayer. So it was when Israel gathered in worship. When Ezra read the Law and then blessed the LORD, “all the people answered 'Amen, amen,' lifting up their hands, and they bowed their heads and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground” (Nehemiah 8:6). And in private gatherings, too, like at meals, when the father of the house would recite blessings over the food or drink, those at the table would reply by saying amen.1

In all these prayers and blessings, the Jews never forgot the prophecy of Isaiah that, when the new creation was to come, all God's people would learn to know him in a new way: as the God of Amen, the God of unbreakable faithfulness and truth. “His servants he will call by another name, so that he who blesses himself in the land shall bless himself by the God of Amen, and he who takes an oath in the land shall swear by the God of Amen, because the former troubles are forgotten and are hidden from my eyes” (Isaiah 65:15-16). That's a promise.

And it was that promise which the saddened pilgrims returning to Emmaus found inconceivable now. Where was God's faithfulness and truth if the Redeemer of Israel was dead? How could God be a God of Amen if this trainwreck of an ending could make the whole story meaningless in retrospect? How could they ever say amen to a God who seemed impossible to trust, a God whose promises floated off into thin air?

But then, for the remaining hours of their walk, those two discouraged travelers listened to the stranger, who rebuked them as foolish and faithless. “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Wasn't it necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and so enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:25-26). And, setting their hearts aflame, he told them, book by book, what Paul would later sum up to the Corinthians: “The Son of God, Jesus Christ..., was not Yes-and-No, but in him it is always Yes, for all the promises of God find their Yes in him (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)!

God's promise to Adam and Eve to punish the tempter and one day crush its head through Eve's child? That promise finds its Yes in Jesus Christ! God's promises to Noah to work for human life and to make the waters a source of salvation? Those promises find their Yes in Jesus Christ! God's promises to Abraham to prosper him and make his name great, to give him offspring beyond the stars, to give him an everlasting inheritance in the land, to make him a source of blessing to all families of the earth, to provide for himself the lamb of sacrifice? Those, too, are Yes in Jesus Christ! God's promises to Moses, to redeem his people from captivity, to make them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, to lead them home and give them victory, to feed them and bless them for their day-by-day faith? Yes in Jesus Christ! How about God's promises to David to raise up a Son of David who'll build God's true Temple, and to establish an eternal throne of rest from the days of war? Aha, the promises find their Yes in Jesus Christ! And then there are God's promises by his prophets: to gather the people back with joy, to welcome the nations to Zion's light, to make a new covenant with all flesh, to feast them with heaven's abundance, to pour out his Holy Spirit, to give the Son of Man power to subdue beastly empires through his suffering, and ultimately to conquer death itself and set death's captives free. With so much written down, is it possible to believe all that the prophets have spoken? Of this you can be sure: all of them, every prophecy, finds its true Yes in Jesus Christ! And the word of the psalmist, that “this is my comfort in my affliction, that your promise gives me life” (Psalm 119:50)? The life-giving promise is Yes in Jesus Christ!

And these promises can only be Yes in Jesus Christ because the cross was not the end, the cross was not a failure, the cross was not a derailment and a trainwreck. The cross was the plan – it was “necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things,” because it was the appointed means by which he'd not only enter his own glory but open that glory to the world. All the promises of God are Yes in Jesus Christ because Jesus Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life2 – just as he'd said and sealed with his double amen! In the Messiah of the Eternal Yes, we meet at last the God of Amen face-to-face! And so, at the end of their walk to Emmaus with the stranger, he enters their place of lodging and sits down at the table with them. And from the table he takes the bread, he blesses it, and as he breaks it, they find the renewed faith to say amen to his blessing. With their faith in God's purposes restored, their amen receives from him the bread into their hands, and at once their eyes are opened by their faith to see the living Christ in their midst, proving in himself “the power of an indestructible life” in front of their eyes (Hebrews 7:16).

Swiftly Jesus passes beyond their sight, though they'll see him again when they run the seven miles back under darkness to Jerusalem. Years later, John will see the same risen Jesus, resplendent in his glory. And this Jesus introduced himself in many ways. But his concluding self-description was as “the Amen” (Revelation 3:14). Jesus doesn't just say amen – he is Amen! Jesus is divine acceptance of all the human blessings said up till then. When Ezra blessed God, and the people said amen? God was saying amen too, accepting Ezra's blessing – and Jesus is that Amen that God says, Jesus is that acceptance of our praises. So too is Jesus the human acceptance of all the divine blessings ever pronounced. As a man on the earth, Jesus enjoyed perfect communion with his God and Father, because his humanity was nothing but perfect faithfulness and obedience. So, as it's written, “the blessing of the LORD was on all that he had” (Genesis 39:5). And what did he have? Us – the people whom the Father had given him out of the world (John 17:6). For us, Jesus is the perfect human Amen that open-handedly receives every blessing God wants to pour out on the human race.

On the cross, Jesus is also human acceptance, not only of those blessings, but of all the curses ever uttered. On the day the men of Israel said amen to the Law's curse at Mount Ebal, Jesus is humanity's Amen through them, ready to step forward and accept the curse for their failures. So “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree'” (Galatians 3:13). But in his resurrection, Jesus is divine affirmation of human life as good, as worth God loving and preserving. Jesus is God's amen to our faithful prayers, Jesus is God's amen to the burning desire that life has to be lived. Jesus is the indestructible goodness of human life, the anchor of our existence and our identity and our hope. Jesus is the indomitable Amen that receives all promise and all goodness.

And so in him is God's promise through Isaiah true. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the beginning of the new creation, when our blessing comes when we bless ourselves by Jesus Christ, in whom we find the God of Amen. His servants he calls by another name: 'Christians,' the people who meet their God in a crucified and risen messiah, the people who make up the Body onto which the anointing of the risen Head runs down and perfumes it with life and love, with grace and glory. And as we forget our former sins and troubles, which are lost in this Easter grace, we swear our lives by the God of Amen to the Father's holiness, and we bless ourselves by the God of Amen whose risen life is our indestructible anchor, firm and sure, to guarantee eternal access for our prayers and our praises. For he's promised that, through him, the prayer he taught us will be heard.

In him, we're the children of the promise, who have “the promise of the life that is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:1), the “promised... hope of eternal life” (Titus 1:2), the “promise of entering his rest” (Hebrews 4:1), and the “promised eternal inheritance” (Hebrews 9:15). “He has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). And to all these promises, a risen Jesus is God's Yes and Amen! And now, “according to his promise, we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Peter 3:13).

And “that's why it's through him that we utter our 'Amen' to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20). Whereas Israel had been saying amen long before Easter, now on Easter we know why we say amen at the end of our prayers. 'Amen' is revealed as Jesus' name, Jesus' title, Jesus' action forever. When we say amen after reciting the creed, we're sealing our confident agreement in the same shared faith that's anchored by the Lord who conquered Death and Hell, the Lord who ever lives to intercede with his Father for us and to pour out his Spirit to fill the life of his Church with gifts and graces and unbreakable hope. And when we say amen after a prayer, we turn it over into Jesus' hands, calling on him as the Yes of God's promises, to deliver these prayers to the Father, purified and secure. Concluding the Lord's Prayer especially, we answer with 'Amen,' a Hebrew word so strong we keep it no matter the language we speak, for in so doing, we're “sealing by the amen... the petitions of this divinely taught prayer.”3 In saying amen, we're asking in Jesus' name, for he is the Great Amen.

Continuing on from the table in Emmaus, when the early church celebrated the eucharist – their thank-offering to God – and prepared to share the communion of God's altar through it, Paul tells us that part of the holy ritual meant everyone attending carefully to the words and saying a heartfelt 'Amen!' to the prayers by which the bread and wine became holy (1 Corinthians 14:16). In so doing, the Christians offered themselves as a living sacrifice on the altar, united in death and life with Jesus Christ, crucified and risen. As now we ready ourselves to celebrate the same at this holiest of feasts, don't be shy in uttering loud your 'Amen!' to the glory of God in our risen Lord – in whom all God's promises have found their eternal Yes! “Blessed be his glorious name forever! May the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and amen” (Psalm 72:19).

Sunday, April 10, 2022

Doxology Eternal

Their cry rings out over the Kidron Valley. Pilgrims young and old are streaming to the holy city for the festival as always, but this year, the psalm they're singing has met its heart. The Mount of Olives is crammed with those on the move, their forms a chaotic mess against the backdrop of the gleaming temple up ahead. But this year, their eyes are fixed not on that temple, but on a new temple in the shape of a man. For in their midst, moving steadily down the slopes, is a man in his thirties, seated atop an untamed colt's back, with the padding of his students' cloaks for a makeshift saddle. All along the dusty trail, the donkey's hooves tread down palm branches tossed before it in celebration. This man, think the crowds, is a new Moses come to make this Passover fresh as the first one when their ancestors were delivered from slavery to holy liberty. This man, think the crowds, is a new David, riding back into his stolen capital to reclaim his sovereignty. This man, know the crowds, is beyond their wildest dreams. For some in the crowds were one day at Lazarus' funeral, and the next week ate lunch with the living Lazarus, all because this man stepped in. And one in the crowd is Bartimaeus, who yesterday begged blind outside Jericho and who today names the colors of the sky, again all because this man stepped in.

For this man was Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, Son of David, whom they'd been waiting for. Surely, as the prophets had once spoken, he was riding into Jerusalem on a donkey colt to put an end to war, to restore peace, to renew the covenant, restore prisoners of hope, to take the reins of an untamed world as steadily as the reins of this untamed colt. So the ecstatic pilgrims raised their songs of ascent, singing out God's own praises as prayers to and through this Jesus. Listen – can you hear? “Hosanna ('save now'), we pray, O LORD!” (Psalm 118:25). “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:9). “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD (Psalm 118:26; Mark 11:9), “even the King of Israel!” (John 12:13). “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Luke 19:38). “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” (Mark 11:10). “Hosanna in the highest!” (Matthew 21:9). “Peace in heaven, and glory in the highest!” (Luke 19:38).

Indeed, even after Jesus had stepped off the donkey and onto the temple courts – even after he'd whipped the robbers out, welcomed the sons of the Greeks who sought him in Zion, taught the crowds, and healed the hurt – even then the children kept singing, “Hosanna to the Son of David!” (Matthew 21:15). And so pilgrims young and old glorified God. That night, the sound of their doxologies – their words of glory – still rang in the ears of the apostles as they retreated back to Bethany. Before they went to sleep, no doubt the disciples and Lazarus and Mary and Martha stood together, and from their lips said their prayers: “Our Father, who art in heaven...”

A thousand years before, not so far away, the leaders of all Israel were summoned to Jerusalem, not by the New David but by the First David, for the anointing of Solomon son of David as their future king, and to take up a collection of donations for the future temple of God. And when the people had given David their free-will offerings for the temple of God's glory as freely as the pilgrims gave Jesus their free-will praises, David prayed one of the most beautiful prayers in Israel's history, starting like this: “Blessed are you, O LORD God of Israel our father, forever and ever. Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name” (1 Chronicles 29:10-13).

That was the gold standard of prayers of praise. In Greek, you'd call it a doxology, which means 'speaking glory.' And so, centuries later, when the apostles wrote the New Testament, free-form doxologies spilled out, like gems from an overstocked treasury. All were plucked in substance (if not in word) from David's prayer. So Paul cries out: “To our God and Father be glory forever and ever, amen!” (Philippians 4:20). Peter cries out: “To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever, amen!” (1 Peter 4:11). John cries out: “Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever, amen!” (Revelation 7:12). And Jude adds: “To the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever, amen!” (Jude 25).

Over these past several months, we've been learning to appreciate and understand the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord's Prayer. It was handed down to us in two Gospels – Matthew, giving the fuller version, and Luke, giving an abridged one. But each ends on a petition – Luke ends with “Lead us not into temptation,” Matthew goes further and adds “But deliver us from evil.” Neither Gospel-writer, at least in the oldest Greek manuscripts we have, writes in a doxology at the end. So why do we close the Lord's Prayer like we do? Well, much as the apostles filled their letters with doxologies, so they, as good Jews, would have capped their prayers off with doxologies. Jesus would have expected no less.

But between the prayer Jesus gave them and the doxology they were invited to add, they were also free, if they wished, to fill in freely any other prayer requests they had that were in harmony with the prayer they'd already prayed. Many rabbis set that example, adding in their own prayers after they finished the prescribed ones.1 So in later Christian use, when a church would pray the Lord's Prayer together, the priest or prayer leader might add something extra before getting to the doxology. And that 'something extra' was called an 'embolism' – literally, something sandwiched between, something that plugs up a gap. I've been to churches that use an embolism when they pray the Lord's Prayer.2 Our tradition, when we pray together the Lord's Prayer at all, generally doesn't insert an embolism. But it's good to know about, because maybe you'll find it fruitful in your personal prayer life: to start your prayers with the Lord's Prayer up to “Deliver us from evil,” then sandwich in the other concerns that weigh on your heart, and then to finish with the doxology at the end.

Ah, but we still haven't answered the question: Where do we get the doxology? Well, Jesus would expect the apostles and their churches to find their own ways of closing prayer with praise, drawing inspiration from David and his great prayer. In fact, we can guess how Paul ended the Lord's Prayer. At the end of his last letter, Paul says confidently, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.” (Doesn't that sound a lot like an answer to the prayer “Deliver us from evil”?) And then Paul adds a doxology: “To him be the glory forever and ever! Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18). A few years later, we have evidence from Matthew's church in Syria, who wrote down how they prayed the Lord's Prayer. And after the last petition, they were accustomed to add: “For the power and the glory are yours forever! Amen.”3

Let a couple centuries pass, and churches all over have developed different doxologies. One place says, “For yours is the kingdom forever!”4 Another says, “For yours is the power and the kingdom forever and ever!”5 We find the familiar version in some places: “For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever!”6 And the Gothic tribes were taught a similar version: “For yours is kingdom and might and glory in eternity!”7 In Egypt, we find a personal copy of the Lord's Prayer that ends: “Through the only-begotten Son, for yours is the glory and the power and the All-Holy Spirit, now and always and forever and ever!”8 But in Milan in Italy, we hear an even more elaborate doxology being used: “Through our Lord Jesus Christ, in whom for you and with whom for you is honor, praise, glory, magnificence, power, with the Holy Spirit, from the ages, and now and always, and forever and ever!”9 By the Middle Ages, the Armenian Church was using: “Yours is the power and the kingdom, and to you the glory, dominion, and honor are fitting, now and ever and to ages of ages.”10 Even today, step into a Catholic Church, and you'll hear the Lord's Prayer mostly like we say it: “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever.”11 But step into a Greek or Russian or Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and you'll hear: “For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, now and forever and to the ages of ages.”12

All those doxologies are great! Any of these are fine to use! But maybe now you're wondering, “Wow, if there are so many different choices, how'd we get ours?” Here's how. A long time ago, in a few Greek manuscripts of Matthew's Gospel, some scribe was copying the Lord's Prayer, and in the margins, he jotted down the doxology he was used to singing in church – just as a reminder. Then along came another scribe, and when he copied Matthew's Gospel off the first scribe's work, he figured the marginal note was something the first scribe had left out from the main text by accident, and then stuck in the margin. Knowing it sounded familiar, thinking it was part of what Matthew himself wrote, the scribe added the line to the main text itself when he copied it. And from this scribe's work, an entire family of Greek manuscripts descended.

Now, up through the 1380s when John Wycliffe translated the Bible into Middle English, none of this mattered, because Wycliffe and friends were translating from the Latin Bible, which in this spot hadn't been affected.13 But then in the 1520s, a man named William Tyndale got the idea to do a fresh English Bible, not from Latin but straight from Hebrew and Greek. Just a few years earlier, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus had printed a Greek New Testament, using medieval Greek manuscripts he'd been given. And guess which kind? Yes: the ones descended from the work of the scribe who inserted the doxology. So while the first edition of Tyndale's New Testament leaves out the doxology, all the revised editions put it in.14 Some people actually criticized Tyndale's work for exactly this, since they knew from Latin that the doxology wasn't part of the text.15 After all, the official English prayer-book went straight from 'Deliver us from evil' to 'Amen.'16 But about eighty years later, the king of England, James I, gathered a team to produce a new authorized English Bible, again from Hebrew and Greek. But, working off the same copies, they got almost identical results. And to this day, if you open up a King James Bible to Matthew 6, you'll see our familiar doxology sitting there, as if spoken by Jesus himself: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen” (Matthew 6:13 KJV). And once that became the official English Bible, what English-speaking church was going to pray differently? The next revision of the Book of Common Prayer changed the Lord's Prayer to match how King James printed it – doxology and all.17 So generations of Christians ever since have learned the Lord's Prayer with this particular doxology – as part of it.18 Our church grew up on the King James Bible, so that's where we got our doxology.

But in the end, as I said, any of those doxologies are good! What matters is the principle. To our request to be delivered from evil, God answers back: “I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me” (Psalm 50:15). As the early church said: “Every prayer should be brought to its conclusion with the glorification of God through Christ in the Holy Spirit.”19 So pick one, choose one, make a new one yourself – so long as your prayers lose themselves in praise before you're through! And nowhere is this more important than when we pray together, “that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6).

When we pray together, we're likely to stick with the familiar doxology, with that nice King James ring to it. So how are we glorifying God in it? What does it mean? That's our last question today. And we start out with a transition, with the word “for...” See, these words of glory and praise and blessing we're about to say – they're explaining why we ask all the things we ask. They're why we ask for God's name to be hallowed, his kingdom to come, his will to be done. They're why we turn to God to feed us daily bread and cut us loose from our debts, why we ask God to steer us from temptation's grasp and to rescue us out of the Evil One's clutches. Doxology is an establishment of our faith. It makes sense of what we've been saying – why we're talking to God about it.

So how does it go? “For thine is the kingdom...,” we say. Already, from everlasting to everlasting, God is in charge. “Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom” (Psalm 145:13). We've prayed for that kingdom to come to earth, to be enforced here as it is in heaven. But it's been real since the dawn of creation, and will be after all is swallowed up in perfection. David prayed the same thing: “Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all” (1 Chronicles 29:11-12). God's wisdom rules over us, and that's why his will ought to be done – his authority is right. God is the provider, the source of our honors and our riches, and that means he's the one we owe daily thanks for our daily bread. But the marvel here is that, in time, this eternal kingdom pushed into earth in the gentlest way: when a man rode a donkey – not a war horse, not a chariot, but a donkey – offering the riches of love and the honors of suffering, as the Lord prepared to be exalted above all, lifted high between heaven and earth... on a cross.

'For thine is the kingdom and the power...,” we say. From everlasting to everlasting, God is strong. In the days of the exodus, “he saved them... that he might make known his mighty power” (Psalm 106:8). All God's works and all his holy ones are to “tell of [his] power, to make known to the children of man [his] mighty deeds” (Psalm 145:11-12). David prayed for just that: “Yours, O LORD, is the greatness and the power... and the victory... In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all” (1 Chronicles 29:11-12). If God is strong enough to accomplish his will, then he's strong enough to deliver us from evil, if only we ask it in trusting faith. And if God is the one who gives strength, then he can strengthen us to not fall in temptation, if only we cooperate with him, if only we desire to not fall.

And this God marches onto our scene, declaring: “It is I, speaking in righteousness, mighty to save” (Isaiah 63:1). So heard Isaiah. And Zephaniah later stood in awe of the God who enters “in [Jerusalem's] midst” to be there “a mighty one who will save,” who will soothe the wounded by his love and who gathers mourners to celebrate a festival (Zephaniah 3:17-18). And so, in time, we see the pilgrims shouting out about the Lord's mighty deeds, the great miracles of deliverance they'd seen. Power and might were indeed in Jesus' hand, as he cleansed the temple courts, as he touched the broken and made them whole. But all the more were power and might in Jesus' hand when those hands welcomed the nails. It was in gentleness that the Lord most revealed his power. It was the power of perfect restraint, when Jesus suffered in our midst, the LORD showing his power of unfailing love, the LORD giving himself for mournful man at the festival. His is the power. So too must his be the victory – Easter will see to that.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory...,” we say. From everlasting to everlasting, God is glorious – he's important, he's central, he's worthy of attention and adoration. There's no question where he's not at the heart of the answer. There's no problem where he isn't the meat of the solution. There's no well-ordered space that isn't ordered to him. There's no healthy mouth where his name isn't praised, no healthy heart where his touch isn't felt, no healthy mind where he isn't lifted high. All the reasonings of God's people lead from him, through him, and to him. And gratitude is our lifeblood. For that reason, God's works and holy ones are to “speak of the glory,” of “the glorious splendor of [his] kingdom” (Psalm 145:11-12). David prayed for that: “Yours, O LORD, is... the glory... and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. … And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name. … O LORD..., direct their hearts toward you” (1 Chronicles 29:11,13,18). God is our Father, but our heavenly Father, not an earthly one. He's majestic and glorious: he transcends heaven and earth, because everything in them is his, is defined in terms of him. That's why his name is the name that must be hallowed, treated as holy. God is implicated centrally in everything we do, inside and out, because all our actions take on their meaning only in light of God. That's why his is the forgiveness we need more than anything. That's why it's his life of love we aim to imitate in mercy to others.

But the great marvel is that, in time, this glory of God was announced as Jesus rode into Jerusalem's midst, as he was hailed with imploring hosannas and celebrated with blessings in the LORD's name. To the chief priests and scribes, who knew not God's glory, it seemed like a disruption, like a disorder – that's why they asked Jesus to put a stop to it, to plug up the praise-projectors. But it's also exactly why he refused. This is what the temple was for. It's for God's glory, God's majesty, God's praise. That was why Jesus had come: to seek the glory of the Father who sent him (John 7:18), the same Father who fully glorified Jesus in return (John 8:54). On that Palm Sunday, as even Greeks observing the Passover begged to see Jesus in the temple courts, Jesus declared: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (John 12:23). As the feast approached, he said again: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God glorified in him” (John 13:31). How was God then glorified in Jesus? At the sacrifice – at the cross. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power... and honor and glory and blessing!” (Revelation 5:12). And, Jesus adds, “If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once” (John 13:32). And what Jesus means in those words, only Easter will tell.

For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever,” we say, or “forever and ever.” Again we take the words from David: “Blessed are you, O LORD God of Israel our father, forever and ever (1 Chronicles 29:10). God's blessedness – God's worthiness to be spoken well of, God's supreme fullness of life – cannot be ended, cannot be impeded, cannot be subtracted from. Not even by the cross. Perhaps especially not by the cross. It's an eternal truth; and our heavenly hope – the beatific or blessed vision – is simply to see and know and experience everything in and through God's eternally perfect, eternally blessed life, which God himself is. And so we rightly end our prayer on the theme of God's eternity – looking back before creation, looking ahead beyond salvation, celebrating in these words that we're embraced by a Love that knows no beginning nor end.

And in a way, you could say that this doxology of ours is a mini-Palm Sunday, each time we pray. It's a chance to bless this eternal God who rides into our lives in gentle humility, yet to claim his kingship over us. It's a time to bless this eternal God who reveals his power of deliverance in the most unexpected places. It's an opening to bless this eternal God who makes manifest his glory within our lives. When we say the doxology, we lay down palm branches and cloaks upon our hearts, and offer those hearts as Jesus' seat. And in doing that, our prayer makes a triumphal entry, not into the Jerusalem of sticks and stones, but into the Jerusalem above, into heaven. For whereas here we pray for God's kingdom and power and glory to be made known, there we hope to dwell where God's kingdom and power and glory are more obvious than 2 + 2 – where they always have been and always shall be. Through this God whom we glorify – Father and Son and Holy Spirit – may we find ourselves at last glorified with him in his powerful kingdom, forever and ever! “Blessed be his glorious name forever! May the whole earth” – and heaven above it – “be filled with his glory! Amen and amen!” (Psalm 72:19).

Sunday, April 3, 2022

Still Our Strength and Shield

It was Saturday night. The year was 1253, and Friar William shivered in the cold December air, wrapping his cloak of goatskin more tightly around him, clinging harder to his horse as the fierce wind howled. William was a Flemish priest on a mission from the French king to the distant courts of the great Mongol khans. With the aid of their Mongol escorts, they made their way, steadily and surely, through the Tarbargatai mountain range, at the border of Kazakhstan and China. But the escorts in William's party seemed severely scared as they stared into the pass before them, a dark path amidst dreadful crags. William wasn't sure why. Then his guide, wealthy son of a Mongol commander, sent word with a request from his men, asking William if he knew any spells to keep demons at bay. That... was an alarming thing to be asked. Conferring with his guide, William heard that any local would tell you there were frequent reports of terrible happenings in this pass up ahead. In some tales, people simply disappeared, and no trace was ever heard of them again – rumor had it they were abducted by demons. In other stories, the people would at great length walk out of the path, complaining that their horse had been snatched out from beneath them, stolen by demons. But in more horrifying claims, travelers said they'd found confused horses carrying bodies gutted, ripped up – what demonic cruelty was this? Many might make it through unscathed, but the exceptions were rumored so commonly as to hardly promote peace of mind.

Well... there was no way around it. And so, in Latin, Fr. William and his clerical colleagues began to chant aloud what came to mind: the Creed and the Lord's Prayer. Singing the words loud and sonorous and clear, over and over again through the night, refusing to relent, by morning they were out of the pass – with not one fearful incident the entire time. What a relief! Taking no chances, as William and Bartolomeo rode onto the plain, the Mongols began approaching him, each making what their interpreter said was a request for Fr. William to write down these words that had kept them all safe, so they could carry them on their heads.

William jumped at the chance. Better than what they asked, he wanted to teach them to carry this faith, not atop their heads, but within their hearts, “which will enable your souls and bodies to be saved for eternity!” William tried just that, but alas, his interpreter couldn't keep it straight. Fearing to shipwreck these poor men with a false faith, William had to settle for their original request. On slip after slip, he wrote out the creed and the prayer for them; and patiently told them what even this interpreter couldn't botch: “What is written here is the belief a man should have concerning God, and a prayer in which God is asked for whatever a man needs. So believe firmly what's written here, even if you can't understand it, and ask God to do for you what's contained in the prayer written here. He himself taught it with his own lips to his friends, and my hope is that it will save you.”1

William's escorts weren't alone in what they feared. There's scarcely a known culture in all history, since time immemorial, that hasn't been concerned about malicious unseen presences, spiritual shadows injurious to human life: evil spirits, unclean spirits, demons. In the ancient pagan world, said one ex-pagan Roman observer, “these spirits are slender and hard to grasp: they work themselves into people's bodies and secretly get at their guts, wrecking their health, causing illness, scaring their wits with dreams, unsettling their minds with madness, until people are forced to run for help to them in troubles of their own making.”2 Today, on the other hand, the Mongol rumors and Roman observations probably both meet with at least some skepticism from many of us – I know elements of each do for me. But then again, we're more skeptical today, in these things at least, than most generations ever would have been. We're likelier than ever to doubt the rumors those travelers feared about the mountain pass. Real belief in spiritual evil that impacts the physical world is typically looked down on, mocked by those who pride themselves on being 'enlightened' above 'superstition.' We live now in the wake of a mass disenchantment of the world, a reductionistic new way of looking at things, which simply has no room for any realities it can't poke and prod, can't experiment on, can't reckon as one more cog in the world-machine.

Whether the Mongols had cause to fear, and whether demons had much to do with it if they had, I don't know. I haven't come to judge Mongol beliefs nor Roman ones. But the Bible is clear that such spirits do exist, that they have been active, that they can impact the events of the world (in ways frequently undetectable to us), and that they are not to be trusted nor trifled with. When the Bible mentions demons, under whatsoever name or whatsoever title, it isn't speaking in mere myth or metaphor, poetry or personification. It isn't positing primitive explanations for mysteries we can now demystify with newfound scientific prowess. It's simply honest in recognizing that the whole of human history hasn't been wrong about such things in the broad strokes, whatever their details.

The Bible speaks forthrightly, not only in telling us there is a God, but in telling us that there is a devil – whom it sometimes calls Satan, sometimes calls the Evil One, sometimes calls by other names still. He is real. He is personal. He is in no way God's equal, but he is certainly God's enemy and ours (Matthew 13:39). Already in the Old Testament, he appears as an opponent of Israel (1 Chronicles 21:1), as a prosecutor trying to discredit goodness (Zechariah 3:1), as a figure delighting in causing harm and suffering. More fully, he's “the deceiver of the whole world” (Revelation 12:9), “a murderer from the beginning” and “the father of lies” (John 8:44). He tempts people (Mark 1:13), influences people (Acts 5:3), binds people (Luke 13:16), even enters people (Luke 22:3). He schemes to outwit and obstruct (2 Corinthians 2:11), setting out “snares” to “capture” us “to do his will” (2 Timothy 2:26). “The whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19), and he “has the power of death” as his weapon of fear (Hebrews 2:14). “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). And he has his own share of angels or messengers who work under him toward the same dark goals (Matthew 25:41). If our occasional gullibility in crediting demons too much has stoked the world's skepticism, nevertheless the opposite error of disbelieving in them is no wiser.

But – here the good news starts to come in – the Bible tells us plainly that “the reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8)! And so the Gospels repeatedly show Jesus finding people tormented or possessed by these unclean spirits, these demons, and Jesus getting rid of them, as though he were an exterminator purging cockroaches from a room, as though he were an air purifier whisking all the smog away – for those are two fine pictures of demons, as bits of spiritual smog or as spiritual cockroaches and scorpions and spiders. There was a possessed man who challenged Jesus, but as soon as Christ said, “Be silent and come out of him,” we read that “when the demon had thrown him down in their midst, he came out of him, having done him no harm” (Luke 4:34-35). And who could forget Legion, when “many demons had entered” a single man, but by the command of Jesus they came out, restoring their victim to his right mind (Luke 8:27-36)? Jesus declared that “it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons,” which he offered as proof that “the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20). He even sent out his apostles “and gave them power and authority over all demons” (Luke 9:1), “authority... over all the power of the Enemy” (Luke 10:19).

At last, we know, Jesus “gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (Galatians 1:4), and so the Father “has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son” (Colossians 1:13). Rising victoriously from the dead, God's Beloved Son commissioned his apostles with the further authority to build his Church, and empowered this expanded Body of Christ to do even greater works than he himself had done while ministering in the flesh (John 14:12). So when the Apostle Peter stewarded that Church from Jerusalem, “the people also gathered from the towns..., bringing the sick and those afflicted with unclean spirits, and they were all healed” (Acts 5:16). When Philip evangelized in Samaria, “unclean spirits, crying out with a loud voice, came out of many who had them, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed” (Acts 8:7). And with Paul, even cloth that soaked up his sweat gained such power that when it was touched to people in faith, “their diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them” (Acts 19:12).

And this didn't stop with the apostles in the first century. We have testimony from the second century that “up to the present day, those who are possessed by demons are sometimes exorcised in the name of the real God,”3 that “some really and truly drive out demons so that often those who've been cleansed of evil spirits believe and are in the church.”4 In the third century, we hear that “by prayers and formulas from the holy scriptures, we drive them out of human souls and from places where they've established themselves.”5 In the fourth century, we're told that “whenever [these spirits] try to occupy a body and torment its soul, they're exorcised by the just and are put to flight in the name of the true God; and whenever they hear that name, they tremble and cry out...”6 Were they always right in assessing those situations? Maybe not. But were they always wrong? That I find even less likely. Through these extraordinary ministries regulated by the Church, God answers us.

See, the Lord's Prayer ends on the important note of recognizing the reality of evil. We cry out to God to at last “deliver us from evil!” But the same line could be translated just as well as “Deliver us from the Evil One,” so that it's a request for rescue from Satan. The Lord's Prayer reminds us that both evil and the Evil One are real, but also that God can do something about both sad facts in how they affect our lives. And the Lord's Prayer has, down through those centuries, been so grafted into Christian worship that the other prayers around it have often taken its shape. We know in ancient Syria, when Christians celebrated communion, they added: “Remember your Church, Lord, and deliver her from all evil, and make her perfect in your love...”7 In the Greek-speaking East, Christians came to pray during their worship “for our deliverance from all affliction, wrath, danger, and necessity,” “for the peace of the world.”8 And in the the Latin-speaking West, many Christians followed up (and still do) with something along the lines of “Deliver us, Lord, we pray, from every evil, and graciously grant peace in our days, that, by the help of your mercy, we may be always free from sin and safe from all distress, as we await the blessed hope and the coming of our Savior, Jesus Christ.”9 From 'every evil,' they say. So what are we asking?

First, when we pray for our Father to “deliver us from evil,” we're asking to be rescued from spiritual evil – we ask for protection against demonic attack and influence. It's nothing new: the ancient Jews prayed for this: “May Satan not rule over me, or an unclean spirit” (Psalm 155:15a). “Save me from the hands of evil spirits” (Jubilees 12.20). “May it be your will, Lord our God..., that you save us from... the destructive Satan.”10 And so too for us, the Lord's Prayer has always been known as a tool of real spiritual warfare. One early writer said that “those who use the appointed prayers continually and in the proper way day and night are not caught... by demons,” while a medieval preacher advised: “If you feel the devil approaching, say the Lord's Prayer, and all the demons of hell cannot harm you.” In fact, as I combed back through the history of how Christians have understood the Lord's Prayer, deliverance from spiritual evil was, far and away, the most mentioned aspect.

So we're asking in it for God to prohibit direct attacks against us by the demons – the sorts of direct attacks those Mongols feared, and which some great saints of the church have indeed told firsthand experiences of.11 We ask God to disrupt their schemes – to break idolatries, correct heresies, heal schisms, repel persecutions. We ask God to preserve us from the sins toward which demons try to influence us: “Deliver me from all my transgressions!” (Psalm 39:8). And especially do we ask God to prevent us from ever falling away, knowing Jesus' warning that “when anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the Evil One comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart” (Matthew 13:19). Whatever the case, “he who commits himself to God doesn't fear the devil, for if God be for us, who can be against us?”12

All of that, we ask when we pray this line in the Lord's Prayer. But, second, we pray for deliverance not only from spiritual evil but also from natural evil. Now, what's natural evil? Natural evil would be found in things like disasters and plagues. One of the major Old Testament words for 'evil' can be applied to catastrophes. An earthquake would could as a natural evil. A volcanic eruption, a landslide, a famine, a drought – those would be natural evils. The same can be true of illnesses: a disease or sickness or other adverse medical condition would count as a natural evil (Psalm 91:10). The ancient Jews prayed against natural evils: “Save me from a bad mishap... and from all the evils that suddenly come upon the world.”13

And in light of how readily Jesus' deliverance ministry spanned both spiritual evils and natural evils – for “he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits” (Luke 7:21) – so do we. When we pray the Lord's Prayer, we're asking to be protected from disasters. We don't want to fall in an earthquake, we don't want to be swamped by an avalanche, we don't want to be thrown by a tornado, we don't want to wither in a drought, so we cry out, “Deliver us from evil! Keep us safe from all distress!” We're asking God also to protect us from plague and disease – a pretty timely prayer, if I may say so! This is the line where the Lord's Prayer helps us rightly plead for our health and safety. Obviously, if God has purposes for natural evil that can't be achieved in our lives otherwise, then we've already prayed for God's will to be done, we've submitted to his wisdom in allowing or sending that natural evil, and that request takes precedence. But where we don't have to endure this or that natural evil, we aren't insensitive to danger: we pray for deliverance from those natural evils.

Third, when we say “Deliver us from evil,” we pray for deliverance also from moral evil. Now, what's moral evil? These are man-made hurts and harms. It's a common topic of deliverance prayers in the Old Testament. An oppressed Israel prayed, “Deliver us out of the hand of our enemies, that we may serve you” (1 Samuel 12:10), gather and deliver us from among the nations” (1 Chronicles 16:35). The psalmist would often pray things like, “Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; protect me from those who rise up against me; deliver me from those who work evil, and save me from bloodthirsty men” (Psalm 59:1-2).

Oppression would be a case of moral evil. Think of a slave in Alabama in 1860, praying the Lord's Prayer as he goes to sleep. Don't you think that, when he murmured “Deliver us from evil,” his own gut would tell him that an end to his slavery would be an answer to just that prayer? Other injustices would also be moral evils – thefts by our neighbors, lies told about us, and so on. Feuds and schemes would be moral evils – sometimes, someone really does wish you harm, does try to attack you. The violence you worry about when going down a back alley at night – that's a moral evil you're hoping not to face. And war certainly always involves a moral evil. Theft of peace from a land – lives torn apart, communities butchered, lands ravaged – that's violence, that's evil.

Rabbis prayed against such moral evils: “All who plan evil against me, swiftly thwart their counsel and frustrate their plans.”14 “May it be your will, Lord our God, that you establish peace in the heavenly entourage and in the earthly entourage.”15 Early Christians also prayed against moral evil: “Lord, let your countenance shine on us for good in peace... and deliver us from those who hate us unjustly.”16 Ever since, we've been asking God to grant peace in our time. And so do we ask again each time we pray the Lord's Prayer. We ask to be delivered from oppression, from mistreatment, from unjust laws. We ask to be delivered from the hate of others. And we ask to be delivered from warfare. These days, when you pray these words “Deliver us from evil,” you might do well to slow down and mentally picture Russia and Ukraine. You might just as easily think of Israelis and Palestinians, or of Afghanistan, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, so many lands deprived of peace. You might even think of our United States – now less united. less stately, still haunted by long shadows of prejudice, drowning in the blood of millions unborn, desperately self-medicating her despair and boredom, spinning out of control into the delusions of demons. America's afflicted with spiritual and moral evil aplenty, and we pray her deliverance.

Finally, in saying “Deliver us from evil,” we ask for final deliverance. We ask a happy death, and salvation in heaven, beyond all suffering and shame. And many Christians have aimed to pray the Lord's Prayer with their dying breath, thus asking God for exactly this blessing of deliverance from an unhappy death and an unhappy afterlife. I could tell you of Deurechildis, a young nun in seventh-century France. Shown in a vision that she'd soon be “loosed from the bonds of the present life,” the next morning she spiked a severe fever and quickly weakened. But she was happy for the hope of going to heaven, and as her fellow nuns gathered around her bed, with trembling lips she asked her abbess to help her say the Creed and recite the Lord's Prayer. And with those as the last words her lips ever said, she died in joy.17 Or I could tell you about Arnold, a nobleman and retired knight in his late sixties, who in the 1130s had become terminally ill and was getting impatient to be with God. Asking his sons to put a silver cross necklace he'd brought back from Jerusalem on him and for a priest to anoint him, he prayed the Lord's Prayer. Little sooner had he recited “Deliver us from evil,” he kissed the cross, said goodbye, and promptly surrendered his soul to the Lord, dying in wonderful contentment.18

In many churches, the prayers each Sunday include a request “for a Christian end to our life – peaceful, without shame and suffering – and for a good defense before the awesome judgment seat of Christ.”19 But today, most of us give little thought to having a happy death. Partly, it's because we come from an unusually death-adverse nation, believing that to think seriously about death is too dangerous to be healthy. Partly, it's because we've made death such an individualized, hygienic experience, instead of being surrounded and supported by numerous friends in our last hour. Partly, it's because we've been captivated by presumption, thinking that of course we'll have a good death because of course we were good people and of course we're going to heaven, as long as we can't think of an obvious reason why we wouldn't. But it might be good to question some of those assumptions. It might actually be good to plan for our deaths, not only in making arrangements for after we've gone (as many wisely do), but in making arrangements for as we go. And if we give to it the thought we should, perhaps it would be wise to plan, as did Deurechildis and Arnold and so many others, to pray the Lord's Prayer as our final words, asking one last time for heavenly deliverance from every evil.

For this prayer Jesus gave us is a powerful prayer, covering and accomplishing so much more than we realize, in accordance with the faith of the Church who prays it and the faith of each of us – be we American or French, Flemish or Mongolian, ancient or modern or medieval. Tribe doesn't matter, era doesn't matter, but faith matters, for “whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). So our faith should cry out for deliverance! After all, each of us needs deliverance from so many evils, whether spiritual, natural, moral, or final. But we have a strong Deliverer, one who's still our strength and shield, as of old. “He is my steadfast love and my fortress, my stronghold and my deliverer, my shield and he in whom I take refuge” (Psalm 144:2). “The Lord is faithful: he will establish you and guard you against the Evil One” (2 Thessalonians 3:3). This same Lord who taught us this prayer also helps us live and die with confident joy in the face of what we ask to be delivered from. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous,” we're told, “but the LORD delivers him out of them all,” one way or another (Psalm 34:19). May the faithful Lord answer this faithful prayer, and deliver us from every evil, that the saying might prove true: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet!” (Romans 16:20). Amen.