Controlling Your Breathing
In running, swimming, and shooting breath control is very important. It has to do with how far, how long, how accurate you'll be. It's also hard to do. We're using breathing as a metaphor for praying as we look tonight at "Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven." I'm saying this petition has to do with controlling your breathing.
So how you doing with that? Got your breathing under control do you? Do you find yourself hyperventilating over Ukraine, nuclear war, World War? Or maybe it's the avocado shortage, the Fitbit recall, or any other fearmongering headline. Hyperventilating in prayer is praying repetitiously. The problem isn't with short prayers like, "Lord have mercy", or, "Jesus save me". It's matter of saying words without sense. Praying out of control is Shakespeare's, "Words without thoughts never to heaven go" (, iii, 3).
Maybe it's not national or international news that's got you breathing erratically. Maybe you're holding your breath over health news. You know you can die from Covid. Of course, you can die from the flu. I hunted on a guy's place near Rockdale. He went to the doctor for a tiny black mole on his foot. He was dead from melanoma within the year. What tiny black mole are you missing? A dermatologists told me the most common place for a melanoma on men is the back. Yea, I'll check that out. There are more things that can kill you than any of us can imagine. So, I won't think about any of them. I won't pray at all because the moment I do I start to worry about it and my praying becomes worrying.
If not international or health headlines have caught your breath, then surely politics has. Unless this person does get elected or that person doesn't, it's all over. What in the world are we going to do about higher taxes, inflation, the denial of reality that is LGBTQ? This stuff can really get me going to the point I slip into mantra-like praying. If you've ever heard Catholics going through Hail Marys or Our Fathers, that's mantra-like praying. So, is the Orthodox, The Jesus Prayer. There's nothing wrong with the Lord's Prayer or even The Jesus Prayer, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." It's the idea that repeatedly saying something is better praying or a pious mind-exercise. This originated in 18th century Hinduism or Buddhism and is called a mantra. And when we're caught up in what to do about this or that, the mantra could be how can my will be done? Or, how can what I think should happen be made to happen? Or what will I do, what can I do, if it doesn't?
I want to get outside of my thoughts, my desires, my understanding of whatever issue, person, thing is chasing me in circles. With this petition, "Thy will be done on earth as it is heaven" we give up trying to control our breathing. A 18th century poet said, "'Break your head, not so sore; / Break your will - that is more'" (Keil-Delitzsch, Proverbs, i, 351). C.S. Lewis observed that "We are not merely imperfect creatures who must be improved: we are, as Newman (J.H. Newman, 19th century Anglican turned Catholic priest) said, rebels who must lay down our arms... Hence the older type of nurse or parent was quite right in thinking that the first step in education is 'to break the child's will" (Problem of Pain, 91). We fallen mortals shouldn't desire to "do God's will, but should desire that God Himself would" (Peters, Lord's Prayer, 96). Even pagans get that the will of God is what is central not their own. According to Plato, Socrates accepted his death with the words, "'If it is so dear to the gods, may it be so.'" When a friend said to Greek mathematician Thymaridas at the beginning of a voyage, "'May what you desire be done by the gods!'" He replied, "'God forbid, rather would I desire, what is done for me by the gods'" (Ibid., 95).
God's good and gracious will, we confess, is done even without our prayer. God is busy, even when we're not aware, not thinking about it, not relying on it, breaking and hindering every evil plan and purpose not just of the Devil, not just of the World, but of our Flesh, the sinful nature, this right here: me, myself, and I. You know why we're so conflicted all the time? Because we have a civil war going on inside of us. All Christians and only Christians do. They have the Old Man who does not want God's name hallowed or His Kingdom to come and Christians alone have the New Man, which Paul says is created after Christ Jesus in true righteousness and holiness (Eph. 4:24). This New Man always and only wants God's name kept holy and His kingdom to come.
The trouble is we can't neatly point to the Old and New in us. We believe but we don't. We fear and love God but we don't. That's why with this petition we confess that what we breath out in prayer we don't absolutely want done. No, we want our Father in heaven to break and hinder our will. We say in the Large Catechism that if our "will were not broken and frustrated, the kingdom of God could not abide on earth nor His name be hallowed" (III, 70). Twentieth century German pastor, Helmut Thielicke, said in a sermon on this petition, "The truth is that we cannot pray the Lord's Pray to the glory of God unless at the same we pray it against ourselves" (Our Father, 45). We must recognize that for our good "God has left Himself a discretionary power. Had He not done so, prayer would be an activity too dangerous for man and we should have the horrible state ...envisaged by Juvenal: 'Enormous prayers which Heaven in anger grants'" (God in the Dock, 106-7). Deist Ben Franklin agrees: ""If a man could have half his wishes he would double his trouble'" (Knock on Wood, 223).
Think of the short story by W. W. Jacobs, The Monkey's Paw. The 1901 short story illustrates the truth of Jesus' words to James and John, "You don't know what you are asking for" (Mt. 20:22). Or Paul's words about all of us, himself included, "We do not know what we ought to pray for" (Rm. 8:26). Hence we pray the Father's will not my will be done. But tonight we have a conundrum. We hear Jesus praying this petition. The God who is Man, the one free of sinful flesh, prays, "Thy will be done, not My will." Though perfect Man, Jesus had to give up His will in favor of whatever His Father willed. Jesus didn't will for His soul to be overwhelmed to death. His friends to betray Him. He willed, "May this cup of wrath, of judgment, of sin, death, and damnation be taken from Me." The perfect Man Jesus needed an angel to strengthen Him to do His Father's will. He sweat blood over doing His Father's will.
Maybe you don't see the real issue here. His Father in heaven had put at His disposal upwards of 70,000 angels. One angel killed 185,000 Assyrians. I would think 2 could handle the Gethsemane mob. Look what Jesus did merely by confessing who He was, I AM, Jehovah in flesh and blood. Just those 2 words flattened the arresting mob. This is Ps. 114:"Why was it, O sea, that you fled, O Jordan, that you turned back, you mountains, that you skipped like rams, you hills, like lambs? Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob" (5-7).
The God who could do anything He willed in Gethsemane, wills to do only what the Father wills. That means drinking the cup of God's wrath against all sins, all sinners, all sinfulness. That means embracing the cross. Remember He had said earlier that no man can take His life, but He lays it down willingly. Had Jesus not willed so, nails could not pierce His flesh; soldiers could not whip, slap, and abuse Him. But it's only by His stripes, His wounds, His pain, that you are healed, forgiven, renewed, reborn. Your wounds, pains, illnesses, and crosses, don't pay for one sin, one day in heaven, one prayer to be answered. No, Jesus' blood and righteousness does that. And tonight He wills to shed His blood and give up His righteousness for our salvation. He wills as the Father does: He be abandoned to hell's flames rather than the world be. By doing His Father's will, Jesus insures there is nothing between God and us, no sins, no anger, no punishments, to keep God from doing His good and gracious will in our case.
And just what is that will? I don't know if it's to heal me, to finally bring judgement on baby-killing America, to deliver Ukraine, or bring another pandemic. I do know, because Jesus' says it, that His will is that His name be hallowed and His kingdom come, and so, on the other hand, He wills to break and hinder every evil plan and purpose of the Devil, the World, and our Flesh that never want these. But on the positive side, our Father in heaven wills to strengthen and keep us firm in His Word and faith until we die. There did you sense it? When you wake up from a really bad dream, you can be in panic mode. You can be panting, heart racing, have trouble catching your breath until reality dawns on you. The Devil, the World, and our Sinful Nature don't determine reality. In fact, they lie, they deceive, just to panic you, to drive a wedge between you and the God who loved you so much that He spared not His own Son in order to deliver you from your sins and into His salvation. Take a deep breath of that. This is reality.
The unholy 3, Devil, World, and Flesh, want to chase you around with the secret will of God. What if He wills you get cancer, WW III start, Covid return with a vengeance? And what if your kids do this or that, what if you spouse dies, what if ad infinitum? Luther in his lectures on Genesis says, "God doesn't want to rule 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). Is there anything in the Person or Work of your God Jesus, that makes you hyperventilate, gasp, hold your breath, or reduce you to repetitious mantras? On the contrary, who Jesus is and what He does calls forth prayer, praise, and thanks. Listen to David a sinner chased by enemies, betrayed by a spouse. "O Lord, my heart is not conceited. My eyes do not look down on others. I am not involved in things too big or too difficult for me.2 Instead, I have kept my soul calm and quiet. My soul is content as a weaned child is content in its mother's arms. Israel, put your hope in the Lord now and forever" (Ps. 131). Praying "Thy will be done" doesn't change or control God but you. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers II (20220309); Third Petition, Passion Reading 2