Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Lord’s Prayer // Dealing with Evil, Jesus-Style

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/16/2012

watch video at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand

[swimming in the pool vs. the ocean..."there's life in the ocean."]


Our topic today is: How do we deal with evil, Jesus style? Whether that evil is a big bad thing going on in the world, or some bad thing closer to home, or even something like a temptation.


Our answer is in is the last line in the prayer Jesus taught his disciples to pray: Lead us not into [the great trial, the test, the tribulation], but deliver us from the evil.

We don't go looking for it, to pick a fight. Neither are we on the run from it, out of fear. Instead, we trust our Father in the heavens that if we stay close to him and evil is in the vicinity, then he has a way through it for us. It might not be the way we'd choose, but it will be the way that leads to evil's defeat.

We already know that the Father has spared us the capital T trial, test, tribulation. We already know that the Father has ultimately delivered us from evil. In Jesus' resurrection, God has guaranteed our future. He will one day set everything right, just as everything has been set right in Jesus' resurrection body. But nonetheless, evil is still present in our world, and it affects us, troubles us, has the capacity to cause us and our neighbors great grief. So what does this prayer teach us about how Jesus would have us respond to evil as his followers, as students learning to live from him in the light of the good news of God's kingdom?

In Jesus' day there were three basic responses to evil.

The Sadducees typified the bury your head in the sand approach. "It's not that bad." [Nazi Germany early on...]


The second is the mirror image: to become preoccupied with evil. To see it everywhere, and feel like you've got no hope of opposing it. So run as far away as you can. That was the Essenes.


The third was the approach of the Pharisees. It's the self-righteous approach: "Sure, evil's real. It’s the fault of those idiots out there. If they’d just get their act together, I wouldn’t have to deal with all this hassle. Now I’ve got to go fix all this mess others have created, starting with fixing these losers!"


[Shooting in Connecticut... Some want to keep it at arm’s length, hope it is an isolated incident that won’t ever get closer to home, put it out of sight, out of mind. Some wallow in it, get depressed, connect it to all the other bad things in the world, let it affirm to them their deep suspicions that the world is a terrible place to be, throw up their hands and say let’s just find a way to start all over, get away from everything that led to this. Some want to figure out who to blame (video games, music, bad parenting, drugs, who knows?), to say I know how to keep this from happening again, use it as an opportunity to move their agenda forward.]


Jesus' approach to evil?


Unlike the Sadducees, Jesus doesn't minimize evil. He looks it in the eye. He sees evil for what it is. Real, powerful. Insidious. Destructive. Somehow more than the sum of its parts, personally opposed to the good purposes of God on the earth, bent on ruining the image of God in human beings.

At the same time, unlike the Essenes, Jesus refuses be preoccupied with it. Evil, from Jesus' perspective, is never to be given a controlling interest in one's life; to do so would just be another form of surrender to evil.

And unlike the Pharisees, Jesus isn't eager to go toe to toe with evil, self-righteously proclaiming an invulnerability to its influence. Rather, Jesus knows evil is present and active everywhere, even within us. He has a sober awareness of its danger. Facing it on our own, it will destroy us, because we have given it authority over us by our cooperative complicity.


At the same time, Jesus also sees the kingdom of God for what it is. Real, powerful. Creative. Astoundingly beautiful, life-giving. The great reversal, setting everything right.

And in light of the good news of the kingdom, Jesus knows evil is not going to have the last word. Though it may, of course, have many deafening words left to shout. Yet, evil is not to be feared; the God of the kingdom is the one to be feared, and he loves us. If Jesus is going to be preoccupied, he's going to be preoccupied with the God's kingdom.

And Jesus is aware of the power of God's kingdom over evil. He knows that in this age of grace, even now and today, God's kingdom is present and active everywhere, even within us sinners. As he faces evil with confidence in the good news of the kingdom, he knows evil will be destroyed.

In this prayer, Jesus shows us the way to confront evil. Walking towards the Father, even in the face of evil. Trembling, but with the fear of the Lord, not afraid of the evil itself. Praying to be delivered from evil, but in the same breath surrendering to the Father's will with regard to it, knowing that his Kingdom will win the day, and that's all that matters in the end.

Let's break it down.

Lead us not...

Implies we're being led, doesn't it? Not "help us not stumble into the great test..." but, rather, "Lead us not...". We're only being led if we're keeping our eyes on the Father and going wherever we see him going.

If our eyes are fixed on the bad things around us, from the outright evils oppressing our world to the temptations that entice us into destructive choices, we're not being led by the Father. We're being led by evil. It's as simple as that.

Are you keeping an eye on evil so you can avoid it? If so, then Evil is leading your life. And evil will lead you to destruction. Are you looking under every rock for evil so you can fight it? Evil is leading your life. And evil will lead you to destruction.

The way of Jesus is to look to see what the Father is doing, and join in. No matter where it leads you. Simple as that.

Is the Father extending a welcome to the sinners? Jesus goes to the party. Not to pick a fight with the evil present in their lifestyles, not to pick a fight with the forces that have excluded them from community. Not afraid of either of those things, either. He goes to announce, demonstrate, embody good news. Is the Father healing a leper? Jesus goes to heal him. Not to pick a fight with leprosy. Not afraid of it, either. He goes to announce, demonstrate, embody good news. Is the Father leading him to Jerusalem, where a trial and a crown of thorns and 39 lashes and a cross await? Jesus enters on a donkey, despite the cautions of his followers. Not to pick a fight with Rome, or the leaders in Israel conspiring against him, nor the devil himself. But not afraid of them either. He goes to announce, demonstrate, embody good news.

And whenever evil does make its presence known to him along the way, Jesus' attention is directed to the Father. Father, please don't lead us into this test. I can tell evil is gaining strength like a gathering storm, and I really don't want to be there when the thunder and lightning start. But on the other hand, I do want you to deliver us from this evil. So I will keep my eyes fixed on you - confident that your love is bigger than this storm - and I will go wherever you are leading me.

God is saving the world right now. He's not mainly giving us comfortable lives. We're the followers of his son, on whom he's pouring out his Spirit to continue the work of his son. His son has won the decisive victory that empowers us to join him in his work. This is the prayer we pray along the way to picking up our crosses and following him.

Climate Change/Financial Crisis/Poverty/Racism/Sex Trade/War/etc. We don't bury our heads in the sand and say, "It's not that bad." Neither do we get preoccupied with it, fretting, worrying, complaining, railing against ___________. Nor do we treat it like it's only the fault of others in their sin, for us to come swooping in self-righteously with our prescription for the cure.

Instead, we begin by going to our Father in the heavens. A great test is brewing, Papa. Please don't lead us into it - it promises to be very difficult. But still, nevertheless, we want to be delivered from this evil that causes us to destroy the world you've given us in order to have what we want, even at the expense of __________ to which/to whom you made us to bear your image. If you want me to pick up this cross and follow Jesus as part of his victory over this evil in the world, then not my will, but your will be done.

And then we look to see what the Father is doing, and go wherever we see him leading us, announcing, demonstrating, embodying his good news when we get there. Because Jesus already died on the cross and rose from the dead; his kingdom already has the last word. We have nothing to fear, even though it may not be easy. This is how the abolition movement came into being in the United States. This is how the civil rights movement came into being. This is how Jesus' victory on Easter begins to be implemented in the world today.

Or some more local symptom of evil gets our attention. Women being abused by their husbands, feeling trapped, powerless. Unborn children losing their lives because their mothers feel like they've no better options. Boys growing up without good men to mentor them and encourage them on a healthy, life-giving path. Family’s struggling to make ends meet because of illness or job josses or addictions.

We don't say, "It's not that big a deal, it'll all work out with a little extra effort here or there." We don't get preoccupied with it, fretting, worrying, complaining, railing. Nor do we treat it like it's only the fault of others in their sin, for us to come swooping in self-righteously with our prescription for the cure.

Instead, we begin by going to our Father in the heavens. A great test is brewing, Papa. Please don't lead us into it - it promises to be very difficult. But still, nevertheless, we want to be delivered from this very real evil and all its destructive consequences. If you want me to pick up this cross and follow Jesus as part of his victory over this evil in the world, then not my will, but your will be done.

And then we look to see what the Father is doing, and go wherever we see him leading us, announcing, demonstrating, embodying his good news when we get there. Because Jesus already died on the cross and rose from the dead; his kingdom already has the last word. We have nothing to fear, even though it may not be easy. This is how youth ministries are born, or recovery ministries, or compassion ministries. This is how Jesus' victory on Easter begins to be implemented in our community today.

Let's make it even more personal. You find out from your doctor that you have cancer. Or your child has down syndrome. Or the bank or your landlord has lost patience with your job search, and you're going to be evicted . Or your spouse is having an affair.

You don't minimize it, pretend that it will just work itself out with a little extra effort. You don't fix your eyes on it, either, let it dominate your attention. Nor do you delude yourself that if you do everything right, you'll be able to put the evil in its place, that it won't be able to touch you.

No. You begin my going to your Father in the heavens, who has already demonstrated the extent to which he loves you by sending his Son to the cross to defeat every evil that assaults you, who is as close to you as your next breath. A great test is brewing, Papa. Please don't lead us into it - it promises to be very difficult, maybe more difficult than I am up for. But still, nevertheless, we want to be delivered from cancer, from down syndrome, from impoverishment, from infidelity. If you want me to pick up this cross and follow Jesus as part of his victory over this evil in the world, then not my will but your will be done.

And then you look to see what the Father is doing, and go wherever you see him leading you, announcing, demonstrating, embodying his good news when you get there. Because Jesus already died on the cross and rose from the dead; his kingdom already has the last word. We have nothing to fear, even though it may not be easy. This is how the saints bear suffering with grace and rejoice even in the midst of it. This is how parents sacrificially love their children through great difficulty and the enemy loses ground in their family. This is how broken marriages are miraculously put back together against all odds. This is how Jesus' victory on Easter begins to be implemented in our lives today.

Practical Tips:


1. Sprinkle on some Gethsemane: Not my will, but yours be done.

It will remind you that you pray this prayer now as an apprentice of Jesus, and sometimes God's answer to you also will be no, for the sake of his kingdom.

2. Make it a habit. Pray this every day, in advance of whatever trial may arrive that day.

We have self-supervision exhaustion point, so our only hope to consistently follow the way of Jesus in the face of evil is to make it our habitual response to surrender to the Father, not to evil, when evil shows up. [explain...]

It's a discipline that creates a tipping point for us in our response to evil. To whom will our surrender be directed? To evil? Or to the Father? This prayer practiced daily may well provide the tipping point for our surrender. [explain...]

2. Go to bed with thanks. Say thanks at the end of each day for whatever answer God gives you that day. Whether it's yes, or no.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

"When darkness breaks, glory itself awakes."

The dark night wakes, the glory breaks, and Christmas comes once more…

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Lord’s Prayer // Deliver Us from Evil

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/09/2012

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand


Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Here’s my thesis:

As human beings living in a broken world, we pray this prayer in response to the evil we see all around us. We pray that the Father would spare us from having to fight the big bad things we see coming our way, and we pray that he would somehow defeat them anyway. The shorthand version of the prayer goes like this: "Dad, get us out of this jam."


No one wanted World War II, did they? No one wanted to have to leave their country and go die on a beach in Normandy, or lose a limb on Iwo Jima.

And yet, at the same time, the war had to come, because there is something evil that must be stopped, that we must be delivered from. And it will not be stopped without bloodshed. God, please deliver us from the evil knocking at our door. If there hadn't been a war, if there hadn't been men and women who were not spared the great trial, but shed their blood, the forces of Nazism and Imperialism and Fascism would rule the world today.

This is the terrible reality that we pray this prayer out of. We want the terror around us to end. But we know that sometimes terrible things must come in order for the terror to end. So we pray, Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

As followers of Jesus, living in the light of his resurrection and empowered by his Holy Spirit, we pray this prayer as we learn how to pick up our crosses and follow him into the dark places he has called us to shine his light. We pray this prayer as we learn how to obediently trust the Father's goodness instead of surrendering to the Evil One's evil.

We'll spend this Sunday and next unpacking that as best we can.

Called my dad. "What are you preaching on?" he asked.

"Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil."

"Interesting," he said. "I've never really liked that part of the prayer. It's always troubled me."

"Oh yeah? The temptation part?"

"Yes, exactly," he said. "It's just hard to figure out what's going on with God leading us into temptations. When you pray it, it's like you're assuming that's something God might actually do - lead you into temptation. And so you're praying that he would stop? Just strange. Isn't that something God wouldn't be doing anyway? Never felt quite right about it."

It is strange, isn't it?

It's strange, primarily, because "temptation" might not be the best word to translate the word Matthew wrote down in his gospel when Jesus taught him and the other disciples to pray this prayer.

When we hear temptation, we tend to think of enticement to sin. Something tasty, fattening, beckoning, sexy, alluring, exciting but unauthorized, illicit, dangerous, destructive. Something that, if we embraced it instead of resisting it, it would destroy us.

Why would God ever intentionally lead us into that kind of enticement? Isn't that the job of the devil? And doesn't that go against God's character? Some kind of cosmic entrapment?

I've even heard people say, well, if God keeps putting this temptation in front of me, he must want me to do it, so it's up to him to keep those things out of my path if he wants me to stay away from them.

Jesus didn't give his followers this prayer in order to produce that kind of bad theology.

All that's a long way round to saying: what in the world is this prayer all about?

The Lord’s prayer is a prayer for all people, for all time, and because we are naturally self-centered (no knock on us, it’s just how human beings work), we limit this prayer’s power to the scope with which it first presents itself to us. But that would be a sad mistake. Because it was first a prayer for some specific people, for a specific time. And the past always has something important to say to us.

[ring around the rosie…]

The Lord’s prayer is first a prayer about a coming conflict, an onrushing war that's going to be brutal, and ugly, and messy, and painful, and filled with horror. Our Father in the heavens – just like a kid cries out for help from Dad. Hallowed be your name – the big bad wolf is making a name for himself, you’d better stop him! Your kingdom come, your will be done – you, God, I know and trust; you’d make things right, but this awful evil rule has got to come to an end. Give us this day our daily bread – in terrible times, it’s all about making it day by day, one day at time. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive – we are going to need each other, and we are all going to blow it in these trying times.

And then, this last line: Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Let's start with redefining that word, temptation, in a way that opens up the prayer's deeper meaning. The word Matthew wrote down in Greek is peirasmon. It means testing, or trial, or tribulation. In this particular case, it's a reference Jesus is making to what's going to happen when he is crucified, although at the time he taught them to pray it, they had no way of knowing that.


Imagine that you knew something terribly difficult was going to happen soon. (I don’t mean that you have to watch that Nicholas Sparks movie, or Twilight, maybe, that you promised your wife you'd watch with her...) Like that you were going to die from an incurable illness. Or that your mother was going to forget everyone and everything she knows from Alzheimer's. Or your drug addict brother was going to be put in jail, and you were going to be responsible for picking up the pieces of his family's life. Or your company was going to have to file for bankruptcy, and you'd be looking for work. Or you have to start chemotherapy, or have open heart surgery.

Those are more like the peirasmons - the trials, the difficulties - that Jesus is talking about.

Moreso than having to see that piece of chocolate cake on the counter while you're training for a run, or the person cutting you off on the highway on your way to your anger management class, or even than seeing that bottle of whisky late at night while you're in your hotel room away on business. Not to dismiss them, because temptations can be a form of peirasmons, of trials or tribulations. Rather, to say that we'll have more power to respond to those smaller trials when we learn what Jesus is teaching us about how to respond to the capital T Tribulation.

Jesus prays it with us, as a fellow human being. Father, spare us from this great trial. It's too much for us. We weren't made for this sort of life. But, still, nevertheless, deliver us from the evil that is coming, that we see all around us.

He prays it also, though, as someone who is here among us to be the Father's answer to our prayer. The one who is not spared the great trial, so that we can be. The one who will endure the terrible stench of evil's hot breath, and shed his blood, so that we can be delivered.

And as we fix our eyes on him while we pray, Jesus teaches us how to pray this prayer not just as human beings, but as his followers, his imitators, his apprentices.

So let’s start with Jesus. What was this prayer about for him?

Don't lead us into the trial, but deliver us from the evil.

The great tribulation, the trial, the test Jesus is talking about ends up being the cross. Let me explain.

Jesus and his first disciples were Jewish, remember. And Israel had been enduring a long period of exile, currently under Roman oppression. Jesus knew from Israel's prophets, that before the world could be set right, a great difficulty was coming. A dark night before the morning star rises. Like a woman giving birth - terrible birth pangs had to come before the new creation was born. And Jesus knew from the scriptures that Israel was chosen by God to play a special role in the cataclysmic events that would precede God's work in renewing the world that had been corrupted and enslaved by evil. And it was clear from Jesus' announcement of good news (that the kingdom of God was near, here, encroaching, approaching) that the prophesied trial, conflict, showdown, furious tribulation was also imminent. Signs of heaven were bursting afresh and anew into the earth, but it wouldn't really start flooding in until all hell had broken loose.

Jesus sees this tribulation as being centered around him, a whirlpool of evil that threatened to engulf him. The first skirmishes started at his birth, and amplified as soon as he was baptized by his cousin John. Evil met him in the wilderness in personalized form as he wrestled with what it meant to be God's anointed one. Evil pursued him in mobs, kicked up a fuss through the demonized, hassled him through the critical attacks of the Jewish leadership. He even encountered it in his own followers resistance to him continuing his salvation agenda - "Get behind me, Satan!"

Jesus approaches evil soberly. He doesn't minimize it, he doesn't get all hyped up about it, nor does he run out gleefully to do battle with it. Because he knows the toll it's already taken on the human race, and he's not looking forward to the price it might exact when its fury is unleashed in full measure in the coming trial.

So listen with fresh ears to the first part of this prayer.

Father, lead us not into this great trial, the awful tribulation that will test us beyond measure.

Jesus knows that this gathering storm, the great eschatological, apocalyptic battle rushing towards them will be too much for them. It will destroy them if they get caught in its riptide. Lesser evils have brought down greater men, have they not?

So he wants them to ask the Father to spare them.

Father, lead us not into this great trial. We know it's the path marked out for your chosen people. But we won't survive if you lead us down it. Spare us, please. Have mercy, please!

When we see this coming conflict coming to a head, it's the last place we would want to be. Jesus knew it was the last place his disciples would want to be. He himself had a certain reluctance to be there. God, please spare us from that terrible trial.

Our Father...lead us not into the great trial, but deliver us from the evil.

And now the second part of the prayer makes sense, too.

Father, lead us not into this great trial. But, nevertheless, deliver us from the evil.


Not, but instead deliver us. Rather, but deliver us even though you spare us from the trial. Jesus wants his disciples, wants Israel, wants humanity to be spared the great Trial. At the same time, the great Trial is necessary if Evil is going to be defeated, undone, neutered of its destructive power. So he wants them to pray that somehow, someway, the Father would get them out of that jam, anyway. Spare us the awful tribulation. But still, nevertheless, somehow, someway, deliver us from the evil that is rushing forward to do battle with your coming kingdom.

There's a tension in this prayer, isn't there? It's a catch-22 prayer.

First time I had stitches as a kid, after they were removed from knee, which had been immobilized for a while so my knee could heal, the doctor said it was time to start using my knee so that it could regain its strength and flexibility. But when I tried to move it, the pain was excruciating. Father, lead me not into this terrible pain, because this hurts too much for me to bear. But what was I going to do? Not move it ever again? I didn't want that, either. Nevertheless Father, deliver me from my immobility.

Father, I don't want to go through labor, because I can't imagine how I'd ever deal with this pain. But Father, I don't want to stay pregnant forever, either, so somehow, someway get this baby out.

You find out your child has something abnormal about them, something that as a parent presents an ongoing, and unknowably difficult road ahead for all concerned. Nonetheless, you know the only way the evil of this condition will be defeated is through your faithful love towards your child in the midst of their condition, regardless of its cost to you. Father, lead us not into this great trial - it might be too much for us. But Father, don't let this evil win, deliver us from it, somehow, someway.

Father, this cancer is too much for me; spare me from the great trial I that I know has to happen for me to be set free from cancer, because I don't know if I can survive it without it getting the best of me. But, Father, nevertheless deliver me from it, somehow, someway give me victory over it.

Father, there is evil at work in my relationship with my wife; spare me from the great tribulation that I know has to happen for our relationship to be restored, because I don't know if I can survive it without it getting the best of me. But Father, nevertheless, deliver us from it, somehow, someway give us victory over it.

What happens with that tension? Jesus happens, is what happens. Salvation happens, is what happens.

As the darkest night in human history approached, in the garden of Gesthemene, Jesus told his students to pray this prayer again: "Keep watching and praying that you may not enter into the great trial; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:41)

There must have been tears in Jesus' eyes as he taught them to pray this. Because he was praying it too, the same night, the night Evil's hurricane hit earth's shores. "My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me." (Matthew 26:39) Father in the heavens, lead me not into this great trial. Let someone else face it other than me. Do you see? It's the same prayer.

We pray the same prayer, we and Jesus. Only the Father's answer was different for Jesus than it was for us. And Jesus wasn't oblivious to that reality.

"Yet not as I will, but as you will."

"My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, may your will be done."

The trial is coming. The cup will not be taken away from Israel, from Jesus' disciples, from the human race unless Jesus drinks it for us.

So Jesus entered the great Trial, the tribulation, the vortex of the conflict between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of darkness alone, because he alone was meant to be swallowed in it on the cross for the salvation of the world. Jesus would not be delivered from the Evil. But in his faithfulness to the Father, he achieved a victory over it that delivered us from it.

So, now, the Father can, once and for all, definitively answer the prayer of Jesus' disciples, "Lead us not into the great trial, but, nevertheless, deliver us from the evil." His answer to us is yes. I have a way. Yes.

But only because he first said no to Jesus. The no given to Jesus was the yes given to us.


That's why it says in first Corinthians 10:13 - No trial has overtaken you except what is common to us all. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tested beyond what you can bear. But when you do face tribulations, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.

Jesus is our way out. He is always the way, after all. Thank God. Jesus is always the answer to our prayers.

Practical Tip: (just one this week - next week is really all about how we flesh this prayer out in our daily lives in light of its full meaning)


1. Cheat on the test. We already know the Father's answer, so pray with the answer in mind. This week, try praying this way: Father, send your son to get us out of this jam. And then keep eyes peeled for Jesus and follow his lead. The Father's answer always starts with Jesus showing up...

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Lord’s Prayer // Forgive Us Our Sins

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 12/02/2012

video available at www.sundaystreams.com/go/MilanVineyard/ondemand

[Confession of sins at conference...]

You want to know what it's like to experience the presence of God? Confess your sins to someone and receive forgiveness. God is in the room whenever that happens, because all forgiveness is rooted in his forgiveness. (There's risk in it though - come to someone with your sin and experience them pulling away, now that's some serious pain...God's present then, too, but he’s with you as a fellow sufferer; that’s an experience of God we don’t often seek after.)


To follow Jesus is to be someone who is participating with him in the forgiveness of sins, learning from him and alongside brothers and sisters what it means to be a recipient and graceful extender of forgiveness. "Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us."

Matthew, the tax collector who recorded these words of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray, was a man living in a world awash with debts, and well aware of the crushing weight an unpayable debt could place on the shoulders of a human being. In fact, when revolutionaries took over the Temple at the start of the Jewish war against Rome 30 years after Jesus' death and resurrection, the first thing they did was burn the records of debt. To have a debt cancelled, forgiven, was to be set free from crushing weight.

And so debt is one of the words that was commonly used in Matthew's time as a metaphor for sin. When you sin, when you miss the mark set by Love for humanity, you incur a form of debt. You become indebted to the one you transgressed against. A weight is placed on your shoulders. You feel it every time you think of them, every time you're near them, every time you look them in the eye. [engagement ring white lie...]

And since you and I all belong to God, every missing of the mark, every sin, incurs a debt both to the holy One who loves us and to the ones we wronged with our sin. Eventually, if the wrongs aren't righted, if repayment isn't made, that weight can become crushing. It cuts us off both from God and from those we've wronged. It cuts us off from life itself. [practical joke gone wrong...]

So when we pray: forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors, we are praying, "Father, forgive all of our sins, as we forgive everyone who commits sins against us. Mercifully cancel the debts that we owe you, as we cancel the debts that others owe us. Father, take this weight off our shoulders as we do everything we can to take it off the shoulders of others. Father, restore us to the life with you and each other that we have cut ourselves off from by our sins."

If we want to understand what it means to pray, "Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us," we need to see the vision of the Father's forgiveness that Jesus describes in the parable most commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. The parable we might also call the parable of the running father. Because it is to the reckless, marvelous, shocking, phenomenal Father in that stunning story that we come, praying, "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us." And it is that Father we are empowered to imitate when our prayer becomes the breath that gives life to our actions.

Here's how that story came about...

Jesus had been spending a lot of time hanging out with the wrong people. The sexually immoral, the homeless, the traitors, the lepers, the dirty, the ignored poor and the unrespectable rich. He'd been eating meals with them, laughing with them, attending their parties, even counting some of them as his closest friends.

One day, some of the pillars of the community criticized him for his behavior, challenged him, called him out. This fellow welcomes sinners, they harrumphed, within earshot of Jesus. He even eats with them!

So he told them some stories in response, the most powerful of which was the story of the running father. It went like this...


A father had two sons. One of them, the younger one, came to the Father and told him he'd had enough. He was fed up with living in his dad's house, fed up with his dad. I wish you would hurry up and die. I wish you were dead, and I could have my portion of your stuff now. Because if I could, I would take it today, and be done with all this. I would get out of here without so much as a tear, without looking back, and set off on my own and never have to think of you again or my brother or any of this again.

(Isn't that what we say sometimes, in effect, whenever we sin? You might as well be dead, Father. I'd rather make do on my own, taking as much as I can get my hands on before I go.)


No one expected what the dad did then. No backhanded slap from the dad. No harsh words. No, the dad did what the son wanted. Sold off half of the family business, took out a second mortgage on the family's house, in order to satisfy his son's heartrending request. No doubt the Father shed private tears, spent sleepless nights overcome with sorrow. Nonetheless, he gave him his inheritance and let him go.


(Isn't that how God treats us so often, in our sin? Rather than stopping us in our tracks, he lets us go freely, even when our leaving costs him and our brothers dearly? What's up with that? Is his love that reckless, or is his love that unafraid? Could it be that a love like that is the kind of love it takes to raise someone from the dead...?)

The son took off for Vegas, or Dubai, or an Al Qaeda training camp, or Amsterdam, or some place like that. Wherever it was, it was the last place on earth his dad ever would have wanted him to go. The son spent all the money, wasted it really, and had a riotously great time, or at least, what felt to him like a great time. You can imagine.


But then a famine came to that part of the world. And the son became destitute. He was forced by necessity into the most degrading work, feeding pigs who ate better than he did.

His sorry state served as a wakeup call. As Jesus tells the story, the son...


"...came to his senses. 'Just think!' he said to himself. 'There are all my father's hired hands with plenty to eat - and here I am, starving to death! I shall get up and go to my father, and I'll say to him: "Father; I have sinned against heaven and before you; I don't deserve to be called your son any longer. Make me like one of your hired hands.'" And he got up and went to his father..." (Tom Wright's translation)

Freeze the scene.

At this point, all of the power in the story has been in the hands of this younger son. He used his power for himself. He's used it to shame his father. To take from his father and, ultimately, from his brother as well. Causing great loss, economic and social and emotional. He then wasted his power in the foreign land, making his father's enemies richer and more powerful in the process. And now his sins have gotten too much to bear, they've pressed down on him, pushed him into the mud of a pig sty. The only power he has left is for a shameful, desperate journey home.

Who knows what awaits him? He certainly does not. All the son's power is spent.

Everything now hinges on the Father. The Father now is the one who holds the story in his hands. The father is in position to crush him, complete his shame, say I was dead to you, now you are dead to me. The father has the power to bury him with the weight already on his shoulders. That would only be fitting, wouldn't it? That would balance the books.

Keep the scene frozen for a little while longer.

We are, all of us, playing a part in this story. We are participants in it: some identifying with the son in his sin, or the Father about to be faced with the one who caused him so much pain, or the older brother fed up with having to carry the extra burden caused by his younger brother leaving him to do all the work of the family business on his own.

Imagine this is Prodigal Idol, and your prayers are votes. Text IDOL01 for DieHard style vengeance. Text IDOL02 for stern discipline and a 12 month restitution plan. Text IDOL03 for the kind of crazy twist that energizes us to pray with wild abandon, "Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us."

What are we longing for? What are we rooting for to happen in the story? Pretend you don't know what happens next. What do you imagine the Father will do?

[Leave the stage. Return in an undignified manner.]

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

The indignity! So wrong on so many levels. We don’t deserve this, we should be the ones to be shamed in order to return to him. But no, he is shameless in his love for us, so shameless that he’s willing to endure any shame, just to have us in his arms again.

Wrapped in his father's embrace, the son chokes out the first part of his prepared speech, confessing...

Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.

Truer words have never been spoken by the son, have they?

If any of us were in the Father’s place, this would be the sweetest moment, a moment to be savored. When we’ve been wronged, this is what we fantasize about, this is what we work towards. Finding some way to make the person who hurt us come to regret it, come to taste just some of the pain they’ve caused us. Yes, go on...

But not this father. He cuts him off, mid apology.

But the Father said to his servants, “Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.”

Consider the freedom of this Father. He breezes right past the confession. Bitterness and anger have no hold on him whatsoever. No influence on his actions. He has no craving for the pain of those who’ve wronged him. It’s like he has some deeper source of satisfaction. It’s like he has some sweeter end in mind that he’s eager to get to. He is totally free, and he’s using his freedom to forgive.

Doesn’t that go against everything we know, against our every instinct? Maybe. But this Father, in this story, is meant to show us what God is like. This father is free to do as he pleases. And he pleases to forgive, Jesus is saying, whether it pleases us or not.

The greatness of the son’s sins, the depth of his shame, is drowned in the fullness of his Father’s love. The particulars of your apology don't matter - all that matters is that you've come home to the Father.

All that matters is that the Father has chosen to clothe you in his best clothes.

He’s chosen to adorn you with jewelry, to bring you into the family business.

He won’t have you barefoot as a servant; you wear the sandals of a son.

No waiting to eat until you’ve earned your keep in this household.

No, the Father is beside himself with happiness that you are home, alive again in his house, and a feast is on. A feast where you are the honored guest. The honored guest? Yes. Honored not for your actions, but for the joy you bring to the Father.

This is what’s happening right under your noses, Jesus is saying to all who are listening. The forgiveness of sins is happening. The Father is embracing sinners, restoring them to sonship, calling for a feast. The free one is using his freedom to welcome people into his freedom. Don’t you want to get in that game, dive into that river, swim in that sea, drink from that refreshing spring?

When we pray, Father, forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us, we are saying to God, let us into that freedom. Take the weight off of our shoulders that our sin has put on us and let us be part of taking that weight off of all our brothers and sisters, too.

Every part of me that's dead because of my sin, Father, may it become alive again because of your forgiveness. And may I use my life to breathe life on those who have been dead to me because of their sins against me.


Practical Tips:

1. Instead of using words, use your imagination in prayer this week. There is some sin in your life that has you in the mud, right...? Instead of working out your apology to God, just imagine yourself getting out of that mud and going home to your father. Imagine him embracing you, running out after you, kissing you, bringing you in for a feast, etc. And just say in your heart - That, God, is what I want. Would you do that for me.

And imagine someone who has sinned, or is sinning, against you. And imagine the famine they are living in, the mud they are getting stuck in. And picture yourself coming across them today, and they turn their eyes at you and something in their eyes tells you they'd ask for your help getting out of it if they believed you wouldn't spit at them. And imagine that instead of you, it's the Father that's there, and how he would scoop them up, muddy clothes and all, and embrace them. And just say in your heart - That, God, is what I want to want to do today. Would you give me the opportunity to do that today.

2. Pray for all of us and our sins, not just for you and yours. This is the prayer of a community, not just an individual. Many scholars, in fact, see the prodigal son as representing all in Israel who were unfaithful in Jesus' day, and the welcome of the Father as being extended to all in Israel who had run from the Father's house. And Jesus teaches his students to pray, forgive us our sins, as we forgive...

Maybe pray for your family's sins, since they affect all of you. Or our church's sins, since they affect all of us. And pray that "we" - whoever we is - would be together forgiving those who sin against "us."

3. Look. And Look again. Imitate the father's forgiveness by looking twice.

Look out for someone to forgive, so you can see them coming. It's human nature to try to put those who've hurt us out of sight, out of mind. It's God's nature to keep his eyes peeled. Ask the Holy Spirit to put someone on your mind to keep an eye out for them returning...

And look for a way to give robes, sandals, rings, and a feast to the people you are forgiving. A robe is a way of saying, "I won't let your shame go uncovered." Sandals are a way of saying, "You're not my servant, you're part of my family." The ring is a way of saying, "You've got all the rights and authority of a business partner." The feast is a way of saying, "I'm letting the whole village know that things are good between us; I'm going out of my way to be seen with you again."