A Good Lenten Prayer
"Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," is a good Lenten prayer, or is it? Surely "Forgive us our trespasses," "Lead us not into temptation," or "Deliver us from evil," would be better. No, not to start Lent, not when we stand besmeared with ashes before God.
Quick, think of the deepest desire of your heart. What was it: money, things, health, peace, satisfaction, or even sanctification? It wasn't that God's name be hallowed or that His kingdom come, was it? Yet, these are what the Lord Himself told us were to be there first two things we should pray for. Even after that big thing you desperately desire, these didn't even make your list, did they? Nor mine.
So what if God's name being hallowed and His kingdom coming weren't on my list when you startled me to make one? Big deal. It is. As C.S. Lewis said, "Surely what a man does when he is taken off guard is the best evidence for what sort of man he is? Surely what pops out before the man has time to put on a disguise is the truth." To find out if cockroaches are infesting your kitchen you're more likely to see them if you go in suddenly, aren't you? But your suddenness doesn't create them; it only doesn't allow them to hide (Mere Christianity, 164-5).
My asking what you wanted this Lent flipped on the light before your cockroaches could hide. This little exercise with the list shows we don't will that God's name or kingdom have the primacy. To put it another way: this exercise shows that the key to happiness, satisfaction, and life for you is something other than what God wills. This should frighten you, but it shouldn't surprise you. In our Catechism we say it's not just the Devil and the World but our own Sinful Nature that don't want us to hallow God's name or His kingdom to come. You see why this petition even more than "forgive us our sins," "lead us not into temptation," or "deliver us from evil," is so fitting for the one day a year we mark ourselves with ashes? This petition is directly prayed against self. I've met the enemy, and it is me.
I know what the Devil, the World, and my Flesh will this Lent, and their will finds encouragement even within the church. Find out what's the latest sermon series at a contemporary church; go to a Christian bookstore. You will find lots of talk about the will of God for your life. None of it will mention that God wills His name be kept holy and that His kingdom come. No, God wills your marriage be happy; your children raised rightly; you a good steward or evangelist. Even though God commands us to pray "hallowed be They name; Thy kingdom come," to Christianity in general and our fallen flesh in particular they aren't that important.
Thankfully, despite the Devil, the World, our Flesh, and contemporary Christianity "the good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer." See it happening in our text. God is hallowing His name by willing that the innocent Jesus who always wanted and willed what His Father did should go to the cross for punishment.
God wills that His name be kept holy, but you have trashed it, denied it, abused it in a thousand little ways and in one big unbelief, so to keep His name holy, He sent the perfect Jesus to the cross. God had staked His holy name on the promise that no sinner, no sin, no violation of His name would be left unpunished. When you last misused His name by attaching it to what God never said did your tongue swell up and choke you? When you last used His name casually were you hit with a whip? In your unbelief that God doesn't will what is good for you or won't do what is best for you have you ever been thrown down on your back and had nails pounded into you? No, because that happened to holy Jesus instead of you, as God willed.
What God wills is what happens this Lent. He wills not only that His name be hallowed at the expense of His Son but that His kingdom come. When Adam rejected the rule of God in Eden, when Adam asserted his will be done rather than God's, what happened? God threw Adam and Eve out of His kingdom and left them to their own will. Their will could only produce thistle and thorns, tears, and sweat. Their will could only drive them ever further from God's kingdom. Have you been here? I have. I've clung to my will scorning the hallowing of God's name and the coming of His kingdom and not only didn't I get the fruit, roses, joy and rest I sought, but I got the thistles, thorns, blood, sweat, and tears, I didn't seek or want.
Like Adam and Eve before me I rejected God's kingdom on His terms, so I remained on the outside. But that wasn't satisfactory to the God who is love. He sent the kingdom to Me in the flesh and blood of His Son. Jesus didn't reject the will of God as I had. All His life He embraced it, thrilled to it, reveled in it, and did it in flesh and blood that was just like mine. Then He rightly claimed the kingdom on Palm Sunday. But the church rejected Him, then the people, then the State, and finally God Himself rejected the King of His Kingdom. They crowned the Man Jesus with thorns so that blood, sweat, and tears came from Him. But because it was the blood, sweat, and tears of God, they were perfect, and through them God wills to bring His kingdom to sinners and sinners into His kingdom.
And you know what? As the hatred of the church leaders, the faithlessness or feebleness of followers couldn't stop God's will from being done then, so none of these can prevent His will from being done now in your life. And I will tell you a secret which all those who believe in free will, decision theology, or you-do-your-part-and-God-will-do-His don't know. Not even you yourself can prevent God's will from being done in your life. That's what the Gospel says; that's what the Gospel means. If the mighty Devil and the powerful world can't stop God's will from happening, do you really think your little, old sinful flesh can?
No, it can't. So this Lent we pray, as our Large Catechism says, that what must be done without us, may also be done in us (LC, III, 68). The focus of our prayer is not the hidden will of God but His revealed will. I go to God with my deepest desires, pains, and fears, but aside from God revealing that He wills that I bring these to Him and I am not to be afraid because of them, He hasn't revealed what He wills to do about them. Anything God doesn't reveal in Scripture is part of His secret will. I don't know if He wills my desire unfulfilled, my pain to get worse, or what I fear to remain. But, "God does not want to rule us in accordance with His secret will; He wants to do so in accordance with His will as it has been ordered and revealed by the Word" (LW, 3, 289). Therefore, we pray focused on what God's Word has revealed.
When we pray "Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven," we can know, believe, and trust that God responds by breaking and hindering every evil plan and purpose of not only the Devil and World but our Sinful Nature. Our sinful self-will can want things harmful to our everlasting salvation; the Lord deals with it when we pray, "Thy will be done." So when we pray this petition and the opposite happens, we can and should leap for joy. Our sinful will isn't happening, but God's holy, gracious saving will is.
But here's the rub. Our deepest requests, petitions, desires don't seem like they're coming from our sinful natures, do they? I'm not saying they necessarily do. I'm saying that the expectation that all our will be done when, where, and how we think does come from our sinful nature, and it's a good thing for God to frustrate it. For the will of our sinful nature is not to live with God in Paradise eating such food as He gives to us, but to live outside of Paradise eating whatever we please. When we pray "Thy will be done" we are praying directly against that outcome because we know God's good and gracious will is to save us for all eternity and to do that He must save us from ourselves.
And He does; not only by answering our prayer "Thy will be done" by breaking and hindering every evil plan and purpose of our sinful nature, but by strengthening and keeping us firm in His Word and faith until we die. Our heavenly Father not only frustrates and puts to death the Old Adam, He empowers and perseveres the New Man.
The Father, whose Word is so sharp and alive it's able to separate not only bone from marrow, and soul from spirit, but the thoughts and intentions of the heart, makes a distinction we can't make. He distinguishes between Old Adam and New Man. We can't because both speak with the same lips, out of the same heart. Even when praying the Lord's Prayer we become discouraged because our words are tainted by the ashes left by the Old Adam's footsteps. The Father, however, doesn't see ashes strewn throughout our prayers. No, He sees like those fluoroscopes. He sees what petitions, what words, what syllables are from the Old Adam and He separates those from the pleas of the New Man. The Father knows how to answer prayers in such a way that His name is hallowed; His kingdom comes, your Old Adam is broken, your New Man is built up, and you are saved. So we can pray this Lent with confidence, with gusto even: Thy will be done. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Ash Wednesday (20100217); Passion Reading I, Third Petition