October 20, 2019

What are you leaving out?

Have you ever prayed the Litany? Traditional churches often say it twice annually, but not too long ago it was common to pray the Litany every week. This fell out of fashion around the same time that churches became wary of focusing on spiritual realities that might be perceived as “negative.”

Well, if the Litany is not part of your church experience you may well be wondering what I’m going on about. The Litany is the oldest part of the prayer book, hearkening back to the 4th century, and it is a very long responsive prayer. That is to say, it is thorough. If you’ve ever had the feeling that you are leaving something or someone out in your prayers, try saying the Litany. Through its words, you’ll reflect on the character of God, consider the work of Christ and bring before our Lord an array of concerns for the world, the church and your own well-being.

The Eighteenth Sunday after Trinity

(The BCP Readings for today can be found here).

One of the petitions found in the Litany goes like this: “From all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil… Good Lord, deliver us.”

And today’s collect (which has got me thinking about the Litany), goes like this:

Lord, we beseech thee,
grant thy people grace
to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
and with pure hearts and minds
to follow thee, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

World, Flesh, Devil

“Ever since the fall of humanity in Genesis 3, God’s people have lived in hostile territory. If you’ve been a believer for any length of time, you’ve probably discovered that the Christian life is not easy. There are many forces at work in our world seeking to thwart God’s purposes, and yet the outcome is already determined… Those who lead a life of faith – then and now – do so in a Genesis 3 world: with the world, the flesh, and the devil conspiring to do what harm they can. And yet in spite of this, we have hope because we’ve read the last chapter of the book and we know who wins!” (622, Year 2, Lesson 14)

It may not seem like a positive thing to spend any time at all focusing on a hostile world conspiring to rip us from all that is good and right. But it is honest. Do we really imagine that those whom we seek to reach don’t already know that the world is evil? Of course they do! The so-called problem of evil is a major obstacle to faith for many! So there’s no point in avoiding it. In fact, there is a strong argument for addressing it head on: Yes, there is evil. Yes, there is a reason for it. Yes, there is one who has already triumphed over it. Yes, there is a future in which we can be free from it.

Admit There’s a Problem

In the meantime, here we are, muddling through. But we are not defenseless.

With the Evangelist John we acknowledge that these things are not good. In 1 John 2:16 he says, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” Whether our sin is the result of our own nature or an external influence, step one is recognize it for what it is and repent of it. This is the foundation of the Gospel: turning away from sin and towards our holy and loving God.

Our Role Model for Handling Temptation

One of the Gospel narratives that I wish we spent more time with in the modern church is Matthew 4:1-11: the temptation of Christ. What better role model could we have than Jesus?

So, we read that Jesus was in the wilderness for forty days, and the Gospels tell us about three specific temptations that he faced. By way of a brief reminder, the temptations were: to use his power to transform stones into bread; to throw himself off the temple pinnacle in order that angels might rescue him; and to worship the devil in exchange for the kingdoms of the world. Did you notice what these temptations all have in common? Each one is an invitation to disregard the Father’s plan and go another way. And isn’t that somehow at the heart of all temptations?

Know Scripture, Live the Answer

But notice how Jesus responded. Each time he responded with scripture. This much is obvious, and yet there’s a point here which is easily missed. Scripture illuminates our minds to know God’s will. It enables us to identify when something is out of line with God’s will. But more than this, God’s word is powerful: it strengthens the faithful. Hebrews 4:12 says, “The word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (NASB). 2 Timothy 3:16 says, that “Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (NASB). So if we would emulate Jesus, if we would follow his example in resisting temptation, then we must know holy scripture.

But it is my belief that Jesus’ response to the famous temptations did not stop with a scripture quotation there in the wilderness. Rather,

“where each temptation seeks to pull Jesus in the direction of a sin, his entire life moves in the direction of its opposing virtue. Jesus was tempted to indulge his physical appetite through a misuse of his power, but instead he chose the way of selfless service, using his power to feed others. He was tempted to a prideful display of ego and self-preservation, and instead led a life of humility, self-sacrifice and obedience to the Father. He was tempted to grasp worldly wealth, status and power, but lived a life of self-giving love.” (622, Year 2, Lesson 18)

Seek the Father’s help

And what remains for us but to seek the Father’s help?

I had an Old Testament professor many years ago and a drier lecturer you’d be hard-pressed to find. I don’t remember much from those lectures, but I remember this. Every now and then, he’d stop in the middle of a narrative and say something like, “If you remember nothing else, remember this: no matter how far you stray from God, no matter what sin you commit, never close the line of communication.” Of all the temptations that we face in life, the most dangerous temptations are the ones that coax us beyond disobedience, beyond even defiance, into a kind of divorce.

Remember David. He was no role model for us in resisting temptation. But he was a spectacular role model for us in what to do once we’ve fallen: repent and return. Like a thousand prodigals throughout millennia and on every continent, we will find a loving Father waiting, longing to forgive us. He is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in loving-kindness” (Psalm 103:8, NASB).

And this is why we know that he hears us when we seek his help in obeying his will:

Lord, we beseech thee,
grant thy people grace
to withstand the temptations
of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
and with pure hearts and minds
to follow thee, the only God;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

“The Screwtape Letters”
by C. S. Lewis


October 20, 2019

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