Time of Trial

Volodymir Zelenksy trained as a lawyer and then went on to have a successful career as a comedian on TV.  His first language is Russian, not Ukrainian – and then just three years ago he was elected to be the President of Ukraine. people doubted he would be up to the job.

but in the short three years of his presidency, he has had to face the greatest of all challeges. Not only Covid for the past two years – enough for any government to deal with –  but now a brutal and relentless invasion by Russia with no clear indication of what Russia wants or why they are fighting, except to annihilate a country. 

The overwhelming consensus of opinion around the world is that he has risen to the challenge, that he is an inspirational and brave leader for his people who has not deserted his post or run away from the conflict.  If he is captured he will most certainly be killed by the Russian forces. 

Surely none of us can imagine what it must be like one day living peacably in a country, and then being brutally attacked for no apparent reason. People going about their daily business, – taking children to school. going shopping. visiting friends and family – and then the next day hiding in an underground shelter for fear of your life.  not knowing where food or water or medicine will come from.  watching your family taking up guns against one of the most powerful armies on the planet – or having to take up arms yourself.   Most of us cannot even begin to imagine what that must be like.

At the end of the Lord’s prayer – a prayer some of us say every day, and a prayer which just trips off the tongue – we pray the words ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’  

I don’t know what you imagine  ‘temptation’ or ‘evil’ to be?  Usually for us, in our rather comfortable lives, temptation is to lie?  or it’s sexual temptation which makes us feel guilty.  Or it’s temptations to steal or fiddle the books.  .. power, sex and money – the big three.     But Temptation for those early Chrsitians meant something much more concrete – much more dangerous – much more like the suffereing of the people in Ukraine.   That is why one of the modern translation of the Lord’s Prayer translated it ;  save us from the time of trial.

The early Christians were a persecuted church.  For about 250 years Christians were denounced, captured and executed.  People would be going about their business one day, and then the next the soldiers would come and their world would be turned upside down.   Would they deny Christ?  Would they deny their faith,  burn incense to the Roman Gods?  take part in Roman worship?  Worship the Emperor?   Or would they remain faithful to Christ and go to a certain death?

When St Polycarp, the old bishop of Smyrna in modern day Turkey, was arrested, then bound and burnt at the stake, he famously said : For Eighty six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong.” “How then can I now blaspheme my King and Savior?

But he is not a lone voice – throughout those troubled years many were cruelly tortured and exectuted, – martyrs for the faith:  and no doubt many many more failed when they met the time of trial – the time when their faith would be put on the spot – the Temptation.   Many burnt the incense, worshiped the pagan Gods and the emperor in order to save their own skin – as I think most of us would probably do. 

You can see why they would pray :   Lead us not into Temptation, but deliver us from evil.   Temptation – the time of trial when they would have to choose between life and death – was terrifying.

And if the Roman persecutions have ceased, and if we don’t expect to be denounced, arrested and executed for our faith,  then let us ponder for a moment the people of Ukraine and their terrible choices this morning and every morning for the past 10 days.   Temptation – the Time of Trial – is on their doorstep.  ‘Deliver us from evil’ is their prayer every second.

And as we ponder the people of Ukraine, let us be thankful that we do not have to make those choices.  We are no different to them.  We are no better than them, no stronger than them, no more ‘christian’ than them.   ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil’   …  Next time you pray those words, be thankful.

And spare a thought for God.  

In today’s Gospel Jesus tells the devil ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’   or literally ‘Do not tempt the Lord your God?’    Usually that simply means do not ask for a sign.  Do not demand that God do something so that you and others may believe.    But what if God also prays with us ‘Lead us not into Temptation and deliver us from evil’ ?

What if God looked down on the suffering and persecuted Christians of the first four centuries and wept … ‘ why do you put me and my people through this Time of Trial at the hands of evil men?’   

What if God looks down today on the people of Ukraine and sees a conflict that God has had nothing to do with, a conflict which God has not caused, nor do I believe even allowed to happen, as come people casually say, as if God controls all our actions?   What if the war in Ukraine is entirely – and I mean entirely  man-made  – and when I say man- made I mean made by one man.

What if we are all truly responsible for the mess we make of this world and of this planet?  Which, of course, I think we are.  Yes, our faith knows that the victory has been won,  that evil is conquered eternally,  –  St Polycarp was able to say ‘you threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, but after a little while it will be quenched;’   but yet evil still has a grip on us and on this world and ‘temptation’ the ‘Time of Trial’ is always around the corner.

What if our prayer is more than just asking God to step in and act for us  – to do the miracle we so want and need – what if prayer is something else –  binding our own hearts and minds with the heart and mind of God – so that we can  step in and act together – us and God – co-operation?   resilience, bravery, fortitude, choices.

Let me end with a terrible thought.   I suspect Vladimir Putin has said those words from the Lord’s Prayer many many times:   Thy Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven –   forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us –  lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.   

But I suspect he has never ever prayed them.    If he had things would be very different.

The Very Rev’d Paul Kennington