Breathe Your Last
With this last Petition the analogy between breathing and praying brakes down. 'Breathe Your Last' is dying, but we don't stop praying when we die. The prayers of the saints are as incense before God (Rev. 5), and the saints under the altar pray (Rev. 6). So, those in Christ never stop praying. Luther said, "'As surely as the Lamb rules the world, 'the world is ruled by the prayers of the saints'"( Franzmann, Revelation, 58). A fitting thing for us saints to pray about is our last breath.
Whether we pray about breathing our last or not, we will. One day soul will be separated from body, our heart will stop beating, our lungs stop filling, and our gray matter stop firing. However, we're disciplined to follow science closer than God's Word, so 'science's' ever increasing life expectancy rules our thinking. We all expect way beyond the 3 score and 10 years Moses spoke of. We all end up saying to ourselves what the Rich Fool did in Luke 12: "'You've stored up a lot of good things for years to come. Take life easy, eat, drink, and enjoy yourself.'" But what did God say to him?, "'You fool! I will demand your life from you tonight! Now who will get what you've accumulated?'" I don't know. Do you?
We think not thinking about breathing our last can forestall it, but Death is relentless. The pre-Enlightenment era knew this. About a 100 years before Luther, there were two Latin texts named Ars Moriendi, the "Art of Dying". Did you catch the subtle but all important difference? To pre-Renaissance man death was not a science but an art. It was not something that could be calculated, quantified, or measured. Type your age into the internet. It will tell you how many more years you can expect to live. Contrast this with the Ars Moriendi. It listed 5 satanic temptations of dying: unbelief, doubt, impatience, self-indulgence, concern for the perishing earth (Peters, Lord's Prayer 188). Don't you find it amazing that the last Satanic temptation of the 15th century was concern for the perishing earth? Those caught up in climate change, sustainable this or that, are focused on the dying earth and usually not at all with their dying. How foolish!
The Passion Reading is Jesus' death. Because it's a harmony, some things are left out. We read, "When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed. 'Surely He was the Son of God.'" This is what Matthew reports. But Mark 15:39 says, " And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard His cry and saw how He died, he said, 'Surely this man was the Son of God!'" I want to die like Jesus did. Do you?
It's good, right, and, edifying to focus on Jesus' death, but look, really look, at how He died before concluding you want to die like that. Jesus died ridiculed, teased, tortured to death by church, state (He's calling Elijah they mocked.), and by mom. I don't mean that torture killed Him because Jesus said, "I lay down My life--only to take it up again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of My own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again.." (John 10:17-18). But He was tortured all the way to death. He was ridiculed by the leaders of the OT church: "He saved others, but He can't save Himself! He trusts in God. Let God rescue Him now." He was teased by the soldiers. I'm assuming it wasn't His mother or John who ran to give Him a drink and said, "Leave Him alone. Let us see if Elijah comes to take Him down." And He was tortured by mom. What? Remember Simeon had told her that her own soul would be pierced with a sword even as her Son's would be. Even sinful mortals suffering, often feel worse for their loved watching than they do for themselves. How much more so the One who is love, compassion, and empathy incarnate?
Are you sure you want to die like Jesus? He is utterly abandoned by God. Whatever the darkness means, it isn't good. It lasted for 3 hours. Luke says the Sun failed. Ever had a flashlight fail when you needed it most? I had one fail the moment I pulled the trigger while standing beneath the tree where the raccoon was. At 3 hours of darkness, Jesus can no longer take it and cries out, "My God, My God why have you forsaken Me!" Note, 'not Father' as He last addressed Him, but the cold, barren, hidden 'God'. And can't you hear Satan laughing with delight? Remember Luke 4 told us at the end of the Great Temptation, "When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left Jesus until an opportune time." He's ba-a-a-k. And the temptation is the same, "If you are the Son of God, save yourself."
This is Christianity 101. If Jesus comes down off that cross, instantly God would take us by the hair and nail us to one. And though I get down and out feeling that God has forsaken me and there is no hope, that is never true. As Alexander Pope says, "Hope springs eternal in the human breast:" Jesus was indeed hopeless on the cross, and so driven to pray, "My God why have you abandoned Me?" Me, the Perfect Son. Me, whom you proclaimed beloved and chosen? Me, who always did your will? Me, who never sinned once not even in thought? You know the answer to all of these: God loved you more than Jesus. The Father chose you instead of Jesus. He forsook, tortured, was pleased to crush says Isaiah, Jesus because we never do our Father's will on earth as it is done in heaven. He in anger abandoned and damned His Son because our thoughts are always soiled with sin, even our 'good' ones.
How much pain does it take to make the Perfect Man, God incarnate in flesh and blood, to cry out? It's interesting that Scripture never records Jesus crying out in pain. Just this disturbing, haunting, question we in arrogance, ignorance, and rebelliousness think we have a right to ask of God: Why? No, only Jesus gets to, has to, is driven to ask the endless, empty 'why' question. We never have to pray, "My God why have you forsaken me," because He never can, will, or has in Christ. And because of Christ we get to, can always pray, can breathe our very last praying, "Father into your hands I commend my spirit."
Did you notice this last Petition is not a prayer not to die? It's not a prayer for a long life. Indeed it's a prayer for a good death; "a blessed end" is how we put it. We leave the matter of the when of our death entirely in the hands of our dear, true Father in heaven who daily hallows His name, brings His kingdom, and achieves His Will. We say, "when our last hour comes" not asking for more time, a long time, or a good time. No, the when is in the hands of Father who daily gives us bread for today and for the eternal tomorrow, forgives our sins, and gives us victory over all temptations. We don't pray not to die but to be delivered from evil.
What do you think? Is it evil in general or the Evil One in particular? The Eastern Church decided for the masculine Evil One and the Western Church the neuter, evil. You know the Confessional Lutheran answer? The Small Catechism follows the West praying about, "every evil of body and soul possessions and reputation." The Large Catechism speaks of the Evil One saying: "In the Greek text this petition reads, 'Deliver or keep us from the Evil One, or the Wicked One.' The petition seems to be speaking of the devil as the sum of all evil in order that the entire substance of our prayer may be directed against our arch-enemy. It is he who obstructs everything we pray for: God's name or glory, God's kingdom and will, our daily bread, a good and cheerful conscience, etc." (LC, III, 113).
We began Lent on Ash Wednesday with Satan entering into Judas moving him to approach Jesus' enemies with an offer to betray Him. Then in the upper room when Jesus said the person who takes this piece of bread is the one who would betray him, Judas took it and we hear, "As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him" (John 13:27). On the First Sunday in Lent the Spirit gave Jesus over to temptation by the Devil himself for us and our salvation. We speak a lot about the Devil, Satan, a personal, malicious, pernicious being. The world will speak of evil but not the Evil One. July 2009 Google had the motto: "Don't be evil" but said publicly, "We don't' know what the definition of good and evil is..'" (Harris, ). A KLBJ talk show host said last week of EISD having pedophile stories in their library that while he no longer went to church much, even he can see that there is a big battle between good and evil raging. That host doesn't know and wouldn't believe that outside of Christ as he is, he's on the side of his father the Devil. He's part of the evil raging now.
No we're not up against a generic evil but a personal, powerful, Evil One and only Christians can pray to actually be delivered from him. 1 John is clear: "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil's work" (3:8). And Hebrews 2 shows how: "Since the children have flesh and blood, Jesus too shared in their humanity so that by His death He might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (14-15). The Devil holds the power of death and would enslave us all by fear: Eat/ don't eat this and you'll live; do/don't do this exercise and you won't die. We're like the knight who was so worried about going on his quest to kill the dragon, that he got the biggest horse, the longest lance, and the thickest armor. Confidently he rode off to face the death-dealing dragon. But coming to the first bridge, the weighted down knight broke through the wooden boards, fell into the river, and drowned.
We too ride forth to face the Dragon, the Devil, but we can be confident that our Father in heaven has destroyed him by our Brother, Jesus. But even a snake with a crushed head thrashes about looking fearful and threatening. But as we sing, "He can harm us none; he's judged; the deed is done." And instead of Death delivering us because of our sins and sinfulness into the hands of the Evil One, being redeemed, restored, forgiven by Jesus, Death delivers us from the Evil One, forever and ever. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Lenten Vespers VI (20220406); Lord's Prayer VII, Passion Reading 6