A Prayer for a Good Death
Since death is a "when" not an "if", it's important to remember that the last petition of the Lord's Prayer is a prayer for a good death. But how do we get from a plea to "deliver us from evil" to a good death?
For many this petition is the first and most important petition. Though our Lord taught us to pray this last, many put it first. No matter if God's name be holy or not, His kingdom come or not, His will be done or not, only deliver me from evil. In fact, sometimes when praying we're really not focused on our Father in heaven but the evil on earth we're facing. Helmut Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor in Germany throughout World War II. He observed, "Very often in our anxious prayers we are not really speaking with God, but with the dangerI am not really thinking of the Helper, but of the approaching missile" (Trilogy, 229).
Focusing on the evil at hand to the exclusion of all else is dangerous even if God is not in the picture. Take Pilate. His fear of falling out of favor with the people and consequently his Roman superiors was a greater evil than judicial murder. In our terror of being delivered from evil at all cost, we run right into another one.
Then again it must be admitted that what is and isn't evil may not be clear to our fallen minds. Take Simon of Cyrene. Simon was heading to Jerusalem for a holiday. The text says they "seized him" to bear the cross for Jesus. He didn't want to follow a condemned criminal to execution. Surely it was a great evil to be identified even in a offhand way with this Man. Mark, however, tells us the names of Simon's sons, Alexander and Rufus. This means the people Mark writes to knows these two men; they're in the church. So how do you suppose the family of Simon ended up looking at the day he was forced to carry the cross?
Take the daughters of Jerusalem. They were certain what was happening to Jesus was a great evil something to be mourned and wailed over. How startled they must have been when the Jesus who was too weak to bear His own cross suddenly turned on them and told them don't weep for Him but for the evil that was to befall them that was so great they'd count women without children blessed and men would rather be buried alive.
Have I established the evil of focusing on evil and the ambiguity as to what is and isn't evil in the sinful condition? Good, but before we can be delivered from evil a whole lot has to happen first according to the Lord's Prayer. God's name must be hallowed; His kingdom must come and His will must be done. In other words, if these don't happen, no matter how great our life, how good the time, how big the blessing, it would still be evil. But we are helpless to make God's name holy, bring His kingdom, or do His will. We know we're helpless because Jesus tells us to pray for them to happen. Who prays for what they can do themselves without help?
Before you can be delivered from evil God's name must be hallowed. God's name is hallowed when God's children live holy lives according to His Word. So how you doing? What happens in your life when you get stressed? Wrongly accused? Suffer unjustly? The fear, love, and trust of God that the Word requires of me is the first thing out the door. I fear the evil more than I do God; I don't love the God who lets me suffer, and I sure don't trust Him either. Not so Jesus. Though His face was driven into the dirt, though His name was cast out as evil, criminal, worthy of death by crucifixion, Jesus kept the Name of God holy. He could have declared to all that He didn't deserve death, but the Father had declared He did deserve it in our place. So Jesus hallowed God's name by keeping silent.
Before you can be delivered from evil God's kingdom must come. How you going to do that? In order for the kingdom to come, the heavenly Father must give His Holy Spirit. Up till the events of our Passion Reading on who only has the Holy Spirit ever landed? Thousands of people were baptized by John, but the Holy Spirit landed on Jesus. The man Jesus received the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God for us. The kingdom comes in, with, and under the Man Jesus.
Before you can be delivered from evil, God's will must be done. God's will is to break and hinder the devil, the world and our flesh and to strengthen and keep God's people firm in His Word. Jesus only speaks twice in our reading. Once He does God's will by preaching sharp law to the daughters of Jerusalem rebuking their understanding of evil. The second time He does God's will by preaching sweet Gospel. The Passion History skips over the hammer striking the nails; the nails piercing the flesh, and the shrieks of pain from Jesus. They just tell us, "They crucified Him," and jump to, "Jesus said, "Father forgive them." "Said" is imperfect which means Jesus said it more than once. And "forgive" is imperative, so we have Jesus repeatedly saying, "Father you must forgive them." It is the will of God to forgive sins in Jesus' name; Jesus did the will of God.
Moreover, it was the will of God that Jesus drink the cup of wrath that your sins deserve. It was the will of the Father that His Son answer for your sins. It was the will of God that all you rightly fear you should suffer to pay for your sins, Jesus did suffer. And in the very midst of so suffering Jesus repeatedly commands that your sins be forgiven, be sent away from you, not be held against you. Surely the Father did that.
We're about to make the final turn toward seeing how "deliver us from evil" is a prayer for a good death. This petition is the summary of the six that have gone before it, and rightly translated it should read deliver us from the "Evil One." Our Large Catechism says, "Jesus would summarize every petition in one. So the entire substance of all our prayer is directed against our chief enemy" (LC, III, 113).
The Devil wants God's name mud so we don't call upon it or trust in it. The Devil doesn't want God's kingdom to come to us so God's grace, mercy, and peace reign. A successful kingdom, a powerful kingdom, a kingdom that even the world could admire the Devil has no problem with. What he can't abide is a kingdom that preaches forgiveness of sins in Jesus' Name. A kingdom built on a powerful, awesome, cool Jesus, he can allow, but not one built on a crucified, rejected, powerless Jesus because in that kingdom he is defeated by the forgiveness of sins. Neither does the Devil want God's will done. He want his will or even ours done, just not God's because God's will is to be gracious, merciful, and forgiving of sinners.
Understand this as long as God's name is hallowed, His kingdom come, and His will done, evil can't happen even though you are following a Jesus condemned to be crucified, are seeing Him maligned by the world, or are watching as disease, affliction, or a problem approaches missile like. For even then, God is giving you your daily bread, forgiving your daily sins, and leading you not into temptation.
All Jesus promises that the Father does in the first 6 petitions has the goal of delivering us "from this valley of sorrow to Himself in heaven." Did you get that? Even though all 6 other petitions happen, and Jesus assures us they will, this remains a valley of sorrow, a vale of tears to delivered from. But it doesn't always seem like one. It doesn't seem like the great evil we need to be delivered from. I've never had a person who knew they were dying or who was suffering greatly debate with me about this being a valley of sorrow, but let them have plenty of not just daily bread but bread for all the tomorrows they can think of; let them think their sins small, and their temptations light, and it is being pessimistic, a downer, a party pooper to call this a vale of tears.
No, even with all 6 petitions daily being done by our Father in heaven this fallen world remains a depression on the road of life. This world will never stop crying for Jesus to be crucified; the proud will always think they can take care of their own sins as easily as they wash dirt off their hands; the innocent will regularly be put to death while the guilty go free. No one get's delivered from this valley of sorrows, from the Evil One apart from being taken to the Father in heaven. And be very afraid of thinking otherwise.
The lottery winner isn't delivered from the Evil One. The person healed from disease isn't delivered from the Evil One. The happy, successful, upbeat and positive person isn't delivered from the Evil One. That takes an act of God, and it happens at death, but not just any death. Not everyone who dies is delivered from the Evil One; many, Jesus Himself says most, are delivered to the Evil One at death. Most are delivered into the Devil's kingdom where their daily bread is pain, they are ever tempted but never having, and their will to be outside of God's grace in Christ is done as well as the Devil's will to torment them.
Only those washed, sprinkled, covered with the blood that came from the holy Body of Jesus are delivered from the Evil One. Covered by the Blood of Jesus the Devil has no place to grab hold of you to drag you to hell. What unkept law sticks out from your body if Jesus did them all? What unanswered guilt sticks out from your soul if Jesus answered for them all?
We are delivered from the Evil One when we die in Jesus and that is a good death. In Detroit when a person died, the old women would come to the funeral home. After paying their respects they would stand in the back and talk a bit. Then one of them would say, "It was a good death." They didn't say this all the time, and I'm not even sure what their criteria was. But I do know from the Bible's point of view whether a death may be easy or hard, painful or not, slow or fast doesn't make it good or bad.
The only good death is one where you're delivered from the Evil One to your Father in heaven. That's what we're praying for when we daily say, "Deliver us from evil." We're not praying for a beautiful, sweet, painless death, but one that is the culmination of God's name being hallowed, His kingdom coming, His will being done, our daily bread being given, our sins forgiven, and our tempting avoided. Regardless of how ugly, bitter, and painful our death may be, it will nevertheless be good when our Lord answers the prayer He told us to pray. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers IV (20100317); 7th Petition; Passion Reading 5