Lead Us Not Into Temptation (Matthew 6:13)

In case you weren't aware, you are in constant danger. Everywhere you go, signs and labels alert you to the danger all around you. There are warnings like:

"Caution: The contents of this bottle should not be fed to fish." - On a bottle of shampoo for dogs.

"For external use only!" - On a curling iron.

"Not intended for highway use." - On a 13-inch wheel on a wheelbarrow.

"Not suitable for children aged 36 months or less." - On a birthday card for a 1 year old.

"Do not use as ear plugs." - On a package of silly putty.

"Fragile. Do not drop." - Posted on a Boeing 757.

"Beware! To touch these wires is instant death. Anyone found doing so will be prosecuted." - On a sign at a railroad station.

"May be harmful if swallowed." - On a shipment of hammers.

"Warning: May contain nuts." - On a package of peanuts.

With all of these dangers around - airplanes that can't be dropped, hammers than can't be eaten, and peanuts that contain nuts - it's amazing that anyone is still alive!

It's not just warning labels that make us shake our heads. Sometimes we get so used to hearing about danger that we stop noticing the danger, even when the danger is real. Today we're going to look at a danger that Jesus talked about in the prayer that He taught us to pray. The problem is that the danger is so familiar that many of us have forgotten that the danger is real.

The phrase is at the very end of the Lord's Prayer that we've been studying these past few weeks. Let's say the prayer together.

Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not to temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
(Matthew 6:9-13)

The last part of the prayer says, "And lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil." The danger we're going to look at is temptation. Unlike last week, when we prayed for forgiveness, this is something that Jesus could relate to. He never had to ask for forgiveness, because Jesus never sinned. Jesus could pray this prayer, because He faced temptation, just like we do. He taught us to pray something he might have prayed Himself: for help in dealing with temptation.

I came across a list this week of the top nine temptations that people face. See if you can relate to anything on this list:

1. Materialism
2. Pride
3. Being self-centered
4. Laziness
5. (Tie) Anger/Bitterness
5. (Tie) Sexual lust.
7. Envy
8. Gluttony
9. Lying

Any of this a temptation to people here? The study also showed that temptations were more potent when people had neglected their time with God (81 percent) and when they were physically tired (57 percent). So if you're tired and haven't spend time lately, you're in extra danger! That just may be a whole bunch of us.

The discouraging thing about temptation is that it is lifelong. Even Jesus, who was perfect, endured temptation. You don't reach the point at which the temptation stops. No matter how spiritually mature you are, you will still continue to face temptation. Sometimes the temptation increases even as you become more spiritually mature.

It's a discouraging thing to face temptation all of the time. It's an even worse thing to give into the temptation. I'll bet there's an area of your life in which you especially face temptation. For a lot of us, that area is also where we experience a lot of failure. We're discouraged and feel completely defeated in that area of our lives.

I want to ask you to think about that area in which you are especially tempted. Go ahead, it's safe. I won't ask you to stand up and share or anything. Just think about it. It might be one of the nine areas that we just listed.

Now think about how successful you are in fighting the temptation. Go head, honestly. Again, it's safe. How successful are you in handling the temptations that come your way?

Now one more question. How often do you pray about that area of temptation? If you're like me, not a lot. It's a funny thing. We are tempted and often defeated, and yet the very area that gives us the most trouble is sometimes the last thing we pray for.

My goal is simple this morning. I want to ask the question, "How should we handle temptations and trials?" It's an important question to answer, because all of us face temptations and trials, and many of us are struggling right now with handling them.

The answer, according to Jesus, is this: "Ask for God's help." The best way to handle temptation is to ask for God's help - not just in the moment, but even in preparation. It's simple, isn't it?

But we need convincing. I know we need convincing, because the fact of the matter is a lot of us aren't doing it. A lot of us don't regularly come to God and say, "God, I need your help with pride, because you know how much I'm tempted in this area," or, "God, please help my thought life, because you know how much I'm tempted to sin in this area." Human nature is that we don't talk about these areas, for a lot of reasons.

Maybe you can relate to the person who said, "There is an eagle in me that wants to soar, and there is a hippopotamus in me that wants to wallow in the mud" (Carl Sandburg). In prayer, I find that I want to present my eagle side to God. Yet it's the hippopotamus part that really needs the prayer.

The two sentences Jesus gave us actually pack a lot of weight. If we unpack them a little, they give us three reasons why we should be praying about our temptations. Let's open them up a little, and then we'll close by actually doing what Jesus tells us.

Why pray about our temptations? Three reasons:

1. Because temptations are dangerous

A British Columbia-based nursery is trying to track down people who bought poisonous plants that were incorrectly labeled "tasty in soup."

Valleybrook Gardens, which distributed the plants, has worked with government officials to locate the buyers of 17 improperly labeled perennials sold at stores in British Columbia and Ontario from April 18 to 25. Only eight of the plants had been accounted for by Sunday.

The label should have read, "All parts of this plant are toxic," but an employee changed it to, "All parts of this plant are tasty in soup," said Michel Benoit, the nursery's general manager. "The employee was making a practical joke and thought it would be caught by a horticulturist," said Benoit.

There are a lot of our temptations that come labeled, "tasty in soup." Well, not really "tasty in soup," but they come labeled as something good when in fact they pose a great danger. Temptation always comes marked as something harmless, something that will make us feel good and that will do no harm. When we're tempted, we always see what we'll gain if we give into the temptation, but we rarely see the downside.

In the States, they have these advertisements for prescription drugs. The drugs always look like they can do wonders for your health. Then the commercials always end with all the side-effects and warnings. "May cause nausea and vomiting. Do not take if you have a history of heart disease or high blood pressure." On and on. By the time you've heard all the side-effects and warnings, you're not interested in taking that medicine anymore.

I wish temptation came with a list of side-effects and warnings. I wish that the temptation always came with a notice, "May cause a loss of character and spiritual deadness." Or, "May cause you to lose your marriage." A large part of the Proverbs that deal with temptation are all about the side-effects that come along with temptation. When we're tempted, it sometimes helps to remember what we'll lose if we give into that temptation.

That's also why we need to pray about temptation. A lot of times, we are blind to how dangerous it is. We need to pray, because all we see is what the temptation offers. Because of the invisible danger of temptation, we need to pray.

Where did I get this from? Jesus said, " And lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil." The two words to highlight here are temptation and evil. A lot of people have wondered how we could pray, "Lead us not into temptation," as if God is in the business of tempting people. There are a lot of different ways of explaining this. One of them is to understand what the word temptation means here. Temptation could be translated either temptation - the desire to do something wrong - or trial. While God doesn't lead us into temptations, he does sometimes lead us into trials to strengthen our faith. God intends these times for our benefit, but Satan can use them as an opportunity to tempt us to sin. Somebody's said, "The devil tempts us to bring us down, but God tests us to bring us up. "

If we really realized the power of temptation, like Jesus did, it would lead us to prayer. If we give into temptation, it has devestating consequences.

The rest of the phrase says, "Deliver us from evil." The last word, evil, could refer to either evil in general, or it could refer to the evil one. Some translations say, "Deliver us from evil." Others say, "Deliver us from the evil one." The problem is that a lot of us see this prayer as a prayer that we would be good little boys and girls and behave and not be naughty. This isn't a prayer that God would keep us from being naughty. It's a prayer that realizes that the enemy would destroy us if he could. Jesus said in John 8 of Satan, "He was a murderer from the beginning, not holding to the truth, for there is no truth in him." Satan isn't a cute little character with a pitchfork who knows how to have a good time. He is a murderer and a liar, and his agenda is to destroy your soul.

That's why we can't afford not to pray about our temptations. Think again about the area in which you're tempted. It's easy to think of those as being little character flaws or peccadilloes. They're not. Sin isn't something minor. Sin can capsize the soul.

I've seen this myself over the past year. A couple of my friends have been caught in situations in which they gave into temptation, and the results have been devestating.

Listen to how one person (Milton Mayer) describes it:

A farmer never notices the corn growing minute by minute. But if he stays in the field long enough, he wakes up one day to discover that it has grown over his head. The people who make up the malleable masses weren't bad at the outset. But through a series of gradual steps, they ended up in bad situations—in over their heads.

Because one day we could wake up and discover that the corn has grown in over our heads, through a series of decisions to give into temptation, we need to pray about your temptations, because the temptations pose a grave danger to our lives. If we realized how dangerous they were, we would pray a lot more.

There's a second reason why we should pray about our areas of temptation:

2. Because we can't handle temptation by ourselves

There's something implicit in this prayer that realizes that we can't handle temptation alone. That's one of the reasons why we don't do so well with temptation when we aren't praying about it.

For one thing, we kind of like temptation. It's almost a little fun to be tempted. Somebody once said, "What makes resisting temptation difficult, for many people, is that they don't want to discourage it completely" (Franklin P. Jones). Sometimes we blame Satan for temptation when he isn't to blame. He doesn't even have to tempt us. We go looking for the temptation ourselves.

We go looking for temptation. We also overestimate our ability to handle temptation by ourselves. I don't know if it's a macho thing, or just human nature, but a lot of us tend to think we can handle a lot more temptation than we really can. We put ourselves into compromising situations thinking we can handle it. If somebody challenges us, we say, "What? Don't you trust us?" The appropriate answer to that question is, "No!" We can handle less than we think we can. As the saying goes, "I can resist anything but temptation."

One of the worst dangers we face is our own presumption, the believe that we are secure and self-sufficient. The very area in which we think we are safe is the area in which we are in danger. If you ever find yourself saying, "It couldn't happen to me," be careful.

I don't know if you remember when thieves broke into our Prime Minister's residence, back in the days when Chretien was still living there. The man managed to scale the fence surrounding the property without being noticed by security. He then entered the house. The noise he made woke up the Aline, the Prime Minister's wife, who locked the door to the bedroom. Chretien famously prepared to defend himself with a sharp-edged Inuit carving. Fortunately, bodyguards responded quickly and arrested the man.

One of the reasons why the thief managed to get in was because the guards weren't expecting him. With all the security, and the fact that thieves aren't regularly trying to break in, it's easy to get complacent. It's when you're complacent that you face the real danger.

Oswald Chambers wrote, "The Bible characters never fell in their weak points but on their strong ones; unguarded strength is double weakness." We're vulnerable. We're not just vulnerable in our areas of weakness. We're also vulnerable with our strengths. No matter we need prayer!

Paul said the same thing. He wrote in 1 Corinthians, "So, if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!"

Your danger increased as well when you started to follow Christ. Before then, you weren't much of a threat to Satan. He was content to leave you alone. But the evil one doesn't retreat without a fight. He will do everything he can to sabotage your soul. You are not just up against yourself; you are up against principalities and powers. Evil is real. It is "large, cosmic, organized, subtle, pervasive, and real" (William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauwerwas)

Well, what I've talked about has been pretty bleak so far. The two reasons I've told you to pray about temptation is that temptation is very serious and dangerous to us, and that we need the prayer because we can't handle temptation alone. So far I've presented a pretty dark picture of our prospects. We can't end here. Jesus gives us some hope in this prayer, and it's where I want to finish off today. It's the third reason why we ought to pray about our temptations:

3. Because God is ready and able to help us in temptation

So far we've seen that temptation is dangerous and that we are powerless against it. It's in this last part that we find hope. Jesus told us to come to God and to ask for his help. God can and does protect us from temptations that we can't handle, and when we live a life of dependence on him, we can tap into the Spirit's power to handle temptation rather than our own.

It's ironic that the path to victory over temptation is to admit defeat. It's to stop fighting it on our own power and to come to God and to make it a matter of prayer. It's when we stop trying to lick the problem on our own that we begin to draw on God's power. With God's help, we can withstand temptation.

It's another example of God turning weakness into strength. When we come to God in weakness and depend on Him, He find His strength to help meet our needs.

I've talked a lot about the dangers of temptation today. I would be misleading you if I didn't also remind you that as powerful as temptation is, God is stronger. We should take temptation seriously, but not too seriously. Evil is a threatening power, but it is a defeated one. We need to recognize the reality of evil, but also the reality of His power over it. Jesus' victory over evil is not just out there, but it is also available here and now for each of us. We can walk into the darkness and discover that there, too, God is present, and his power is more than enough.

In the coming year, we're going to talk a lot about how to live in the reality of the new life that Christ has given us, and how to follow him in every area of our lives. Today, though, I want to just dwell on this one area. Let's stop pretending we have it all together and that we can handle the temptations that we struggle with. Many of us haven't been praying about our temptations. I'd like to suggest that we take seriously what Jesus taught us: make our temptations something we pray about. Regularly come to God and say, "Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil."

It's safe to admit our struggles to God, because we are loved by God. Henri Nouwen once said in an interview:

I cannot continuously say no to this or no to that, unless there is something ten times more attractive to choose. Saying no to my lust, my greed, my needs, and the world's powers takes an enormous amount of energy. The only hope is to find something so obviously real and attractive that I can devote all my energies to saying yes…. One such thing I can say yes to is when I come in touch with the fact that I am loved. Once I have found that in my total brokenness I am still loved, I become free from the compulsion of doing successful things.

In the end, the best strategy for dealing with temptation isn't to battle the temptation, but to fall into the hands of the One who can ultimately meet our needs, reach into our brokenness, and give us the strength that we need.

Earlier, I asked you to think about the area where you face a lot of temptation, maybe even a lot of defeat. What I'd like to suggest is that for the next week, every day, you pray about it. Come to God, admit that it's a struggle, and say, "God, I need your help. Keep me safe in this area, safe from my own self and safe from the Devil."

I wonder what would happen if we dropped the mask and started to get that honest with God. Fifty-five years ago, in a conservative evangelical school in which there was tremendous pressure to look like you had it all together, students were invited to come up to the microphone and share what was on their minds. For some reason, a student got up and simply began to confess. Something broke. For 47 continuous hours, student after student got up and admitted struggles and sins that they had been keeping to themselves, too afraid to admit to one another or to God. Masks were dropped, people got real, confessions took place, and people asked for help from God with their temptations. And now, over half a century later, we're still talking about it.

Part of our growing up in Christ is dropping the mask, admitting our need for help, and praying, "Lead us not to temptation, but deliver us from evil." Let's do that right now.

Forgive Us as We Forgive Others (Matthew 6:12)

One day, a man who hadn't been in church for a while attended one. He walked in just as the congregation was confessing, using the words of this old prayer: "We have left undone those things which we ought to have done; And we have done those things which we ought not to have done." He smiled and thought to himself, "Good! Sounds like my kind of crowd."

That is indeed our type of crowd. We need to be honest about the type of people that we are. I can relate to what Martin Luther said: "We are in the land of debts; we are up to our ears in sin."

The past couple of years, I've been able to spend a couple of weeks a year learning from one of the best preachers of the last century. He was named as one of the ten best preachers in America. On top of that he's one of the most godly people I've met. Last year, he mentioned that he's developing a greater sympathy for sinners. The reason? Because he knows himself. He said to us, " If you knew me like I knew me you wouldn't sit here and talk to me." Of course the opposite is true too. If he knew us and what was in our hearts, he wouldn't be talking to us either. He told us, "I believe in depravity."

The longer we live, the harder it is to deny sin. This is especially true as we get to know ourselves better. We come today knowing that we have all fallen short of the glory of God.

Our sin has a way of keeping us from God. Whenever there is tension in any of my relationships, I have this tendency to want to avoid contact with the other person until the issue is resolved. Sin presents this issue in our relationship with God. When we sin, we know it. It leads us to want to hide from God, to cut ourselves off from him. Not exactly a bright thing to do!

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he realized that we would often come to God with dirty hands and hearts. Jesus never once approached God this way. Yet Jesus knew us well enough to know that this would be the norm in how we approached God. There might be the odd day that we come to God with nothing to confess - that we know of! - but that's not the norm. Most of the time, when we come to God, we'll have the issue of sin staring us right in the face.

So that leads to the question. How do we pray about our sin? Given that we are up to our ears in sin, as Luther said, how do we handle this issue? Denial and avoidance aren't options. Jesus gives us another option for how to deal with our sins in our prayers. It's found in the prayer that we've been looking at, the prayer that Jesus gave us as a model for all of our prayers.

Let's read the prayer together and then focus on the area that has to do with our sins.

Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not to temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

The first part of this prayer deals with God - His character and His agenda. We're now in the second half. Last week we looked at the request for God to provide all our needs, to rely on him daily to provide: "Give us today our daily bread."

Today, we're going to look at the next phrase, dealing with our sins. It says, "And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors."

There's also a postscript to this petition. It's the only comment that Jesus expands upon, perhaps anticipating that we would have questions about it. In Matthew 6:14-15, Jesus says, "For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

So here is how Jesus says to pray about our sins:

1. Request forgiveness

Every time we pray, if we model our prayers after this one, we pray, "Forgive us our debts." The same prayer in Luke says, "Forgive us our sins."

This phrase is one reason why many people refuse to call this The Lord's Prayer. They say - correctly - "Jesus could never have prayed this prayer. He never sinned and never needed to ask for forgiveness. He knew us well enough, though, and he assumed - correctly! - that we would need to ask for forgiveness regularly.

God is not surprised by our sins. We're probably more surprised by God about our sins sometimes. This isn't to say that God doesn't take our sins seriously. He does! The difference is that He isn't surprised by them, and that he has made provision for them.

In some religions, every single action carries eternal and unbreakable consequences. In Judaism and Christianity, human actions matter deeply - but forgiveness is possible. Through the love of God, it can become actual. The Bible teaches us that God has taken care of our sins and extends perfect forgiveness to us through Jesus. Psalm 103 says:

The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will He harbor his anger forever;
he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
(Psalm 103:8-12)

This is taught all over Scripture. We've received this forgiveness through Christ. Ephesians 1:7-8 says, "In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the richness of God's grace that he lavished on us."

There are really two parts of God's forgiveness. The first type of forgiveness happens when we come to God in repentance and receive his forgiveness for all of our sins - past, present, and future. It's the type of forgiveness that Peter preached about in Acts 3:19, when he said, "Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out..."

If you've responded to Christ in repentance and become His follower, you have experienced this type of forgiveness. All the sins you've committed, and even the sins you haven't done yet, are already covered. This is the initial experience of forgiveness.

This isn't the type of forgiveness Jesus says to pray for in this prayer. Besides the initial experience of forgiveness, there is the day-to-day relationship that we have with God that needs to be restored on a regular basis. It's not that we've fallen out of our relationship with God. Our sins have still been forgiven, and God still calls us His children. But the sins that we commit daily do affect our relationship with God. Jesus teaches us to respond by coming regularly to God and praying, "Forgive us our sins."

It's like any human relationship that you have. When you hurt the other person, it's not as if you've fallen out of relationship with them. You're still married or you're still friends or parents or whatever. But you have to deal with the issue, and when you're wrong, you go to them and ask for forgiveness.

When we've wronged someone, it's human nature to avoid them rather than to go and apologize. When we sin, the most natural thing to do is to hide from God rather than to go to him and ask for forgiveness. Jesus reminds us that there is no need to do so. We can go to him as often as we need to, without fear or reluctance, and ask for forgiveness. 1 John 1:9 says, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness."

If that's not enough, Jesus gave us a picture of how willing God is to forgive. It's the picture of God as the father of the prodigal, the story he told in Luke 15. We all know the story of the prodigal son. What we sometimes miss is that the story could really be called the story of the running father. You'll remember what happened when the son returned: "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."

It's no big deal to see a man run today. In Jesus' day, the more respected you were, the less likely you were to even walk fast. Walking fast showed a lack of dignity. For a man of respect to run would be just as shocking as if I got up to preach in a bathing suit. It would be a total loss of dignity.

We have a running Father - one who shocks us with his willingness to forgive us. Jesus teaches us to pray, "Forgive us our sins."

But that's not all. Jesus tells us something else about how to pray about our sins:

2. Extend forgiveness to others

Jesus said, "Forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors" (Matthew 6:12). Luke's version says, "Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us" (Luke 11:4). Jesus anticipated that we would have questions about this, so he added a postscript to the prayer in Matthew: "For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins."

This is shocking. It is here that the Lord's Prayer is the most difficult to pray. Augustine called this the terrible petition. We are asking God here to restore our relationship, to put everything right between us, to the extend that we also forgive others. If we forgive others, Jesus says, God will also forgive us. If we don't forgive others, God will not forgive us.

Robert Louis Stevenson, the famous author of Treasure Island, used to pray this prayer with his family everyday. One day, in the middle of this prayer, he got up from his knees and left the room. His wife ran after him thinking that he was sick. "What's the matter?" she asked. "Are you sick?" "No," he answered, "but I am not fit to pray the Lord's Prayer today." He took this seriously, and we should to. We can't ask for God's forgiveness unless we are willing to forgive those who have wronged us.

Let's break this down a little. In Matthew, Jesus talks about "debts". We usually think of this as referring to offenses or sins against us. It certainly includes this, but the early church believed that it refers to financial debts too. So if someone owes you money and hasn't repaid you, Jesus says to offer before God to forgive them. The same goes for sins or offenses, according to Luke's version. It applies whether we're talking about money owed or some other offense.

At this point, I know that all kinds of objections come to mind. Why should I forgive someone who hasn't asked for forgiveness? Why should God withhold forgiveness from me if I don't forgive someone else? And most importantly, how do we forgive?

I want to briefly answer these, but let me start by saying that forgiveness isn't about pretending that something didn't happen. It's not forgetting. It doesn't gloss over an injustice or say that what happened was okay. It doesn't even mean that there aren't consequences for the wrong that has been done. Here's what it means: It means that we don't hold a grudge. It means that we don't cherish bitterness or harbor a desire to harm them. Forgiveness is an inside job. It frees us from responding in kind, from continuing the cycle of bitterness, hatred, and retribution.

One if the questions that comes to mind is, "Why should I forgive someone who hasn't asked for forgiveness?" Put a different way, it's, "Why can't I stay bitter against somebody until they ask me to stop being bitter?" There are times when the person who has wronged you dies, or never acknowledges the wrong. There are a few answers. One is that Jesus tells us that God's forgiveness is related to our willingness to forgive others. The other reason is that we shouldn't want that type of bitterness poisoning our souls. Forgiveness says, "What that person did is wrong, and I won't gloss over it, but I will also refuse to be held captive by bitterness and resentment." Lewis Smedes said, "We must begin to forgive, because without forgiving, we choke off our own joy; we kill our own soul."

Another question is, "Doesn't this turn me into a doormat?" Actually, the opposite is true. Forgiveness doesn't mean that you tolerate being wronged again. You can set up very clear boundaries, and yet still forgive what a person has done in the past. Forgiveness isn't for wimps. Only a brave person can forgive. It takes a strong person. It takes someone who will say, "I won't let sin have the final word. I'm going to throw a monkey wrench into the normal cycle of retribution and vengeance." It's a refusal to stay a victim.

Another question: Why would God make his forgiveness related to my willingness to forgive? What's the deal with that? It is a bit of a surprise, and there are really a lot of ways you could answer. The bottom line is that it would be blasphemy to go to a holy God and ask forgiveness for our sins, and then, as unholy people, refuse to forgive those who have wronged us. If God who is perfect gives us forgiveness, who are we to withhold forgiveness to others?

It's not that God's forgiveness is conditional on our willingness to forgive. It is that our willingness to forgive is a statement of loyalty, a statement that we are not just going to claim the blessing of forgiveness but live it too. One man (N.T. Wright) says that forgiveness is like air. We can only inhale it once we've exhaled. We can inhale God's forgiveness only when we exhale that same forgiveness on others.

Can't God override my failure in this area, like he does in every other area? I don't know about saying that God can't, but it at least appears that he won't. Our obedience in this area is crucial in our relationship with God.

The story that we read earlier this morning from Matthew 18 illustrates why this is so important, and also gives us a hint on how to forgive. You'll remember that the one servant was forgiven ten thousand talents. There are all kinds of guesses on how much that would be worth today. Estimates vary wildly, but it is a number into the billions of dollars. It is an amount that would be impossible to repay. Amazingly, this man is forgiven this huge sum of money that he could never repay himself. This is a picture of how much God has forgiven us: he has freely forgiven a huge debt caused by our sins that we could never hope to repay.

This forgiven man goes out, and faces an opportunity to forgive himself. Someone owes him a hundred silver coins (denarii). We're not talking about billions of dollars here, we're talking about thousands, under ten thousand dollars. This man who's been forgiven billions of dollars then turns around and refuses to forgive just a few thousand dollars. Not only does he refuse to forgive, but he chokes the man and puts him in jail - a harsher judgment than he himself would have faced if he hadn't been forgiven the billions.

As a result, the man's forgiveness is cancelled, and he is thrown in jail to be tortured. Jesus concludes, "This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart" (Matthew 18:35).

I did a bit of math and figured out the proportion of what the two amounts were that needed to be forgiven. The ratio of the first debt to the second is 600,000 to 1. The servant who was forgiven a huge debt could not bring himself to forgive a debt that was miniscule by comparison.

I did a bit of calculating this week and figured out that the distance between the earth and the moon is about 385,000 km. Let that represent the amount that God has forgiven us. He has forgiven us a debt that represents the distance from here to the moon.

If we use the same ratios as the story that Jesus told, then what we are being asked to forgive to each other is the distance from here to Eglinton. It's nothing. It's 0.6 km. Compared to God, who's covered the distance from the earth to the moon, we're asked to go just down the road. Jesus says, if you can't be bothered to cover that distance, there's really no evidence that you've grasped the magnitude of the forgiveness that God has offered you.

This really gives us a hint on how to forgive as well. It still isn't quick or easy, and it still is a process. The key to forgiveness is to stop focusing on what others have done to us, and to focus instead on what Jesus has done for us. It's to focus on how much God has forgiven you rather than on how much you are forgiving others. Every time you forgive someone else, you pass on a drop of water out of the bucketful God has already given you.

Don't forget that Augustine called this the terrible petition. But it's also a liberating one. I long for nothing more than for all of us to experience the liberation of being forgiven, and then the double liberation of being set free from the bitterness against others who have wronged us.

Pray about your sins by asking for forgiveness, and extending forgiveness to others.

Charlene is going to come up and lead us in a time of prayer on this theme.

Daily Bread (Matthew 6:11)

Twenty years ago, I remember singing a song in church:

We have come into his house and gathered in his name to worship Him...

The second verse went like this:

Let's forget about ourselves and concentrate on Him and worship Him...

I used to sing that verse with quite a bit of enthusiasm. It seemed like the right thing to do was to push out regular life and make room for worshiping God. You still hear that in churches. Sometimes, at the start of the service, someone will say, "I hope you're able to push out of your mind the details of your week and simply focus on worshiping God today." That's a hard thing to do, and some of us have gotten quite good at it.

There's a prayer that they used in the synagogue in Jesus' day that would fit into this approach. It was a prayer all about God and nothing else:

Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world which He has created according to His will.  May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during your life of the whole house of Israel, even swiftly and soon, and say Amen.

Let His great name be blessed forever and to all eternity. 

And it would go on and continue all about God.

There's nothing wrong with this prayer. In fact, a lot of people have noticed that the prayer that Jesus taught is very similar. Some people think that Jesus patterned the Lord's Prayer after this one. The Lord's Prayer begins praying about the same things:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.

I've really needed this part of the prayer in my life, because I find that my prayers are too often about me. It's easy to slip into a pattern of just coming to God when we need him, and to talk to him about our favorite subject: us. This part of the prayer gets us used to focusing on God and what he wants, praying for his kingdom and his will.

But if we just pray about the kingdom, then that has problems too. The synagogue prayer ends without praying for our needs. Contrast that to the prayer that Jesus taught. It prays for God and the kingdom, but then it also moves on to us and our needs:

Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we have also forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not to temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.

This is very different from the synagogue prayer. Jesus spends half his prayer on God, and he spends half the time talking about us and our needs: what we eat, our relationships, our struggles. You can see parallels between this and what Jesus said is at the core of following him: loving God (the first part of the prayer) and loving our neighbor as ourself (the second part of the prayer). Following God isn't just about spiritual things. Following God encompasses every part of life.

You could almost rewrite that song, "Let's not forget about ourselves as we concentrate on Him and worship Him." Faith is about all of life - diapers, bills, mortgages, car repairs, schedules, taxes, everything you can think of.

Today I'd like to look at the first line of this second part of the prayer: "Give us today our daily bread." I think all of us recognize that a large part of our lives is spent trying to make sure that we have enough to live on. For a lot of us, we spend at least forty hours a week trying to provide enough for ourselves and our families. We would live very differently if we were independently wealthy. If we're retired, we try to make sure we live in such a way that we'll have enough income to last as long as we'll need it.

We also spend a lot of time taking care of what we have. I read this week that the average person owns over ten thousand things. All of those things that we own need maintenance. We have to store everything that we have, maintain what we have. As an extreme, I heard of a couple that owned so much stuff that they had to move out of their house into a trailer, because there was no room for them anymore in the house. Sounds extreme, but a lot of us have garages and basements full of excess stuff.

Today's prayer tells us something important about our stuff. First, it tells us that God is in the stuff business. Sometimes we live as if God is just about the first part of the Lord's prayer. When Jesus teaches us to pray about what we eat, he reminds us that God is just as concerned about our daily lives - feeding our kids, paying our bills, going to work - as he is about us going to church. A theology that doesn't cover all of life isn't a theology at all.

This prayer also teaches us that God has specific things he'd like us to pray about our stuff. God is concerned about our stuff, and he wants us to pray certain things that might not have occurred to us on our own. If you've read through the Gospels, you know that Jesus had a lot to say about our relationship with our possessions. In this short phrase, Jesus gives us a theology of our stuff that is simple and yet unbelievably deep. We're just going to be able to skim the surface of what he says today.

So if you are overwhelmed with earning enough, and taking care of yourselves and those who depend on you, or just frustrated by looking after all that you have, or if you find yourself continually wanting more, Jesus tells us to transform our relationship with our stuff by regularly praying about it the way that God wants us to pray. I'm going to ask three questions of the phrase, "Give us today our daily bread": what, who, and when. These are three questions we need to keep in mind as we pray about our stuff.

What

The first question is what to pray for. I guess the real question is, what does bread mean? It's a deceptively simple question, but there's been a lot of debate about that over the centuries.

The earliest church scholars couldn't believe that Jesus really meant bread, so they spiritualized the meaning of bread - to refer to the bread at the Eucharist or Lord's Table, or to the future messianic feast. You can see why they would do this. It's what we do sometimes too. God surely can't be in the bread business.

I was driving with a very godly man once. We were looking for a parking spot. He found one pretty quickly, and as he pulled in, he said, "Praise the Lord!" I remember thinking, "Surely God's got better things to worry about than parking spots." It's easy to keep God in charge of the big stuff - the spiritual stuff - and to leave the rest of the stuff to ourselves.

But bread isn't meant to be taken spiritually here, although it can mean more than just bread. When Jesus says bread, it's a figure of speech for food. It actually stands for more than food: for all of our needs, in every area: physical, emotional, and spiritual. Somebody's said that if Jesus had given this prayer in Italy, he would have said, "Give us today our daily pasta." If it was in the Philippines, it would have been rice. If you're following Atkins, maybe it would be protein. It's a prayer that God would meet our needs.

Listen to what Martin Luther answered when asked, "What is daily bread?"

Everything that is required to satisfy our bodily needs; such as food and raiment, house and home, fields and flocks, money and goods; pious parents, children, and servants; godly and faithful rulers, good government; seasonable weather, peace and health; order and honor; true friends, good neighbors, and the like.

It's a prayer for everything that we need.

Some of us have lots of needs today. It's encouraging to know that God knows about our needs and promises to provide for them. I don't know how he does it, but he does. I've seen this in my own family, in all kinds of stories I've heard from other people. When my father left, my mother raised four kids on our own. She started out with no job, no car, and mortgage payments. Looking back, she has no idea how God stretched every dollar to meet our needs. We never had a lot left over, but God met our needs. Now that we're in a better situation, it's amazing how more money doesn't seem to go as far. God has a way of looking after our needs, whatever they are - spiritual, physical, emotional. We can pray to him to do this.

It reminds me of what happened with Israel as they wandered through the wilderness for forty years: "During the forty years that I led you through the wilderness, your clothes did not wear out, nor did the sandals on your feet" (Deuteronomy 29:5). God has always been in the business of making sure his children have enough. I'm not sure how he does it, but he does in ways that we can't explain. This prayer is good news for those of us who come with needs today.

The reality, though, is that a lot of us don't feel too needy. I guess I have a question I think we need to ask. Why should we pray for what we need when we already have enough? We don't really need more stuff. It seems crazy to pray for bread when some of us are trying to cut back on our carbs. You can get three loaves for three dollars at Costco. We may not need more bread, but we need other things this prayer offers.

One is gratitude. This prayer reminds us that everything we have is from God. There's nothing that we have that didn't come from him. Even the things that we think we earned ourselves are gifts from him. This prayer offers us gratitude and satisfaction. When we see that what we have is all a gift from God, it allows us to accept and enjoy it all as a gift.

A second thing this prayer offers us is perspective on our stuff. When we have more than enough, and we think we don't need more bread, it reminds us that we have more than we need, and we don't need to cling to it. It reminds us that our problem may be that we already have too much. Proverbs 30:7-9 says:

Two things I ask of you, LORD:
do not refuse me before I die:
Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, "Who is the LORD?"
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.
(Proverbs 30:7-9)

Our problem may not be that we need bread. Our problem may be that we have too much, and it's keeping us from simplicity and satisfaction and dependence on God. Praying for no more than our needs should remind us that we should hold our stuff loosely, or else it will weigh us down and keep us from the satisfaction that God wants to give us. We don't have to hold on to our stuff when God has promised to provide for our needs.

The third thing that this prayer offers us is the ability to see other people's needs. I've hardly noticed this before, but this line is in the plural: "Give us today our daily bread." Somebody's said that if we have two loaves and our brother or sister has none, you can't assume that you have one loaf for eating and the other one for storing. This prayer is not just a prayer that our needs would be met. It is a prayer that the needs of all Christ's followers would be met.

This one has really hit me this past year. I find it so easy to get wrapped up in our own lives that we don't even think of the needs of God's people, not just locally but around the world. One of the things we're going to focus on this year is capturing a global perspective on what God is doing around the world, and to pray for the needs - the daily bread - of the church around the world. Of course, it's dangerous to pray, because when we start to pray for their needs, we become personally involved, and we might find ourselves sharing some of what we have. It's a dangerous and yet an exciting prayer.

This prayer means a lot to me when I think of what we're praying for. If you find yourself in need this morning, it's encouraging to know that God is in the bread business. He cares about our needs and promises to supply them. I've been in situations of great need, and God has always come through. God delights in looking after his people.

This prayer means a lot to us who already have more than we need. It reminds us that what we need more than our stuff is gratitude and satisfaction. It reminds us to hold our stuff loosely, since it can get in the way. It reminds us to share with those who don't have enough. That's what this prayer is all about.

Who

The second question I want to ask is who is behind this request. It's an obvious answer. We're praying to God to provide our needs. It's easy to skip past this and go on to the next point, because it's so obvious. But sometimes what is so obvious needs to be explored because otherwise we'll miss an important point. This prayer is not ultimately about us and our needs. It's all about God and what he is like.

It is always tough to sign up for something. I looked into upgrading my fitness membership recently. The membership representative called me and said, "Good news, it will cost you nothing to upgrade your membership. It's no charge, and only an extra $50 per month." I have a hard time giving my credit card number to a company that thinks $600 a year is the same as no charge. When you sign up for something, you want some assurance that what you're signing up for is worth the price.

Jesus was very clear that following him is going to cost us. It costs us severely. Jesus said that following him requires complete obedience, and a willingness to give up everything else. Whenever Jesus spoke on this, people fled because the cost was so high. The ultimate question is, "Can I trust this God who wants everything I am and have to provide for me?" The answer, of course, is yes. Praying, "Give us today our daily bread" reminds us that God can be trusted to provide us with everything we need. We can trust God to provide.

Some of us have theologies of God that make us want to hold back. We see God as someone who is out to spoil our fun and to take away all that we love. Jesus says that we come to a God who always provides what we need:

  • "God said, ‘I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food." (Genesis 1:29)
  • "The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing." (Psalm 34:10)
  • "I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken, or their children begging for bread." (Psalm 37:25)
  • "Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows." (James 1)
  • "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life." (Matthew 19:29)
  • "Consider the ravens: they do not sow or reap, they have no storehouse or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds!" (Luke 11:24)

Praying this prayer drives us to see past our needs to see the who behind the one who provides all of our needs. God is the one who provides everything that everybody has, but only we get to see who it is. God is the provider, the one who can be trusted to meet every need we have and more.

One New Year's Day, in the Tournament of Roses parade, a beautiful float suddenly sputtered and quit. It was out of gas. The whole parade was held up until someone could get a can of gas. The amusing thing was this float represented the Standard Oil Company. With its vast oil resources, its truck was out of gas.

We are in relationship with God, the one who loves to provide. He provides us with everything we need. We never have to worry about his willingness or his resources.

When

The last question I want to ask is the when question, "When?" Jesus told us to pray, "Give us today our daily bread." The word that Jesus used for the frequency is virtually unknown. It's used only here in Scripture and in all of ancient Greek literature. There's been all kinds of debate on what it means. Earlier this century they found a fragment that looked like a list of expenses for a household, and it was used for the things that you buy that are perishable: chick peas, straw, stuff that would spoil.

The meaning seems to be a day at a time. If we pray this prayer in the morning, we are asking God to provide for that day. If we pray it at night, we're asking him to provide for us for the next day.

This doesn't make a lot of sense to us today, but it would have made lots of sense back then. Employees were paid daily back then. They were always a day away from needing something if their needs were going to be met. We are to have the same daily reliance on God as if we were completely out of resources, and needed him to provide for tomorrow. The reality - despite freezers full of food - is that we do.

Earlier, we read the story of God providing manna for Israel. It's fascinating that he only provided enough for that day. I think what God really wants more than anything else when he provides for us is our trust. The goal is that we come to him as children, trusting him to provide for that day. When my kids wake up in the morning, they never worry about whether there's enough food for the day. They trust that their parents will provide. One of the ways that God provides is for us to work. He's not condemning hard work in this prayer, but he is condemning worry. He wants us to come, a day at a time, and ask God to provide.

When you get right down to it the issue isn't so much the provision as it is the relationship, the trust. Anybody could feed my kids, but only parents feed their kids - day in and day out - out of love. God could have thought of a different way for our needs to be met, but he's chosen to provide for us himself - day in and day out - not out of duty but out of love. He provides the needs of those who serve him.

The issue for us is whether we will trust him even when we are in need.

A couple went into debt trying to run their farm. They had lost a farm previously, and didn't want to repeat the experience. They spent sleepless nights trying to figure out a way. Their debt kept going up as they tried to keep things going.

One day, the wife said, "I've just been to the farm credit company. They've taken it all! We're being forced to sell. They have a buyer; there's no price negotiation. All they want is our signatures."

They started crying. Everything they had worked for was lost: their land, that year's crop. It seemed too late to start all over again. Even after everything that was seized, they still were responsible to pay down a $100,000 debt that was left over.

They did the best they could. They worked at fast food restaurants. There were months that they didn't have enough food for groceries, but God always seemed to provide. A year and a half later, the husband was hired by an exclusive club and they began to get back on their feet.

One day they received a phone call from the head of the credit company that had taken the farm. He insisted in driving out over an hour to meet them.

He said, "I want to ask you something personal. A friend of mine recently lost everything he owned. His wife just committed suicide. We at the office have noticed that you two are handling this crisis differently than most people do. Can you tell me what your secret is?"

They replied, "We believe in the God of the Bible. He is sovereign over our lives, and he is in control. Even though the pain is real, we are confident of this: God has proven sufficient and able to take care of us."

The wife added, "God's Word promises, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'"

I don't know what needs you're experiencing. But I know what we can do with our needs. Go to God, rely on him daily, to provide for all of our needs, because he has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you."