What was the first bedtime prayer you were ever taught as a child? For untold millions of children, the words they were taught to pray were these:
“Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
A simple but profound little prayer. It was our child-like statement of faith. Relying on God’s love and grace, we were placing our souls securely into our Heavenly Father’s care.
On this Palm Sunday, we have come to the end of our series of sermons on the “Seven Last Words of Jesus” from the cross. Jesus’ final word was in the form of a prayer he prayed to his heavenly Father – a prayer not unlike that bedtime prayer you and I may have prayed when we were children. Jesus lifted his eyes to heaven and said, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” A simple but profound little prayer. It was his child-like statement of faith. Relying on God’s love and grace, he was placing his soul securely into his Heavenly Father’s care.
In fact, it is not by accident that Jesus’ final prayer reminds us of a bedtime prayer – because in actuality, that’s precisely what it was. In Jesus’ day, what do you suppose parents taught their children to pray every night before they went to sleep? You guessed it: Jewish children bowed their heads and prayed a prayer not unlike that prayer you may have taught your own children to pray: They instructed their children to pray, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” It was a verse right out of the 31st Psalm.
Isn’t that interesting. In the previous 24 hours, Jesus had experienced humiliation, desertion, torture, and crucifixion – and yet here at the very end, we don’t find Jesus lashing out at his murderers, lamenting his fate, or expressing bitterness toward God. Instead, the last words ever to pass the lips of Jesus were the simple but profound words of a child’s bedtime prayer – the first century equivalent of “Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” – “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” It’s as if Jesus simply leaned back into the secure loving arms of his Father and drifted off to sleep.
I think that this final prayer of Jesus as he died tells us a lot about the trust he had in his Heavenly Father – a trust that enabled Jesus to live his life with boldness, and to end his life in peace. And I believe that these words of Jesus can teach us a great deal about what it means for you and me as children of God, to live and to die – how being in a faithful relationship with our Heavenly Father allows us to live our lives with boldness, and to die with peace.
Jesus was able to approach his dying with such remarkable serenity because he was confident in his relationship with God. He knew that there was absolutely nothing the world could do to him that could separate him from his Father in heaven. It’s as Paul wrote in Romans (8:38-39): “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God…” With that assurance in his unbreakable bond with God, Jesus could face anything the world threw at him – even being willing to suffer death. Even has he hung on the cross, Jesus had no doubt that his Father would raise him from the grave and grant him eternal life.
Because he was so confident in God’s promise of victory over death, Jesus was freed to live his life boldly, speaking the truth of God even when that word was unpopular; doing what was right and just, even when those things that he did angered the authorities – words and actions that would eventually lead to his crucifixion. Because Jesus was confident in God’s promises of eternal life, he could devote his life on earth to doing God’s will – living without fear – knowing that the glory of his resurrection would far surpass the suffering he would endure at the hands of evil men. And on Easter morning, God proved that Jesus’ trust in his Father was not misplaced.
Paul said made the same point in his letter to the Philippians (2:8-11): Jesus “humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Jesus was able to commit his life and death to God because he was confident in the eternal life God has promised.
And what was true for Jesus is also true for all those who follow him. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have taken courageous stands for what was right, even when they might face persecution or even death – WHY? Because they knew that this earthly life is not all there is, that in fact, it is only a prelude to the eternal life God has promised to all who love him. So countless people of faith have courageously taken stands to advance the Kingdom of God, no matter the cost. (We often call them “saints.”)
It’s why, on the Day of Pentecost, Peter, who only weeks before had denied ever knowing Jesus, was able to stand up before the very same crowd that had called for Jesus’ crucifixion, and preach the first Christian sermon, converting 3000 people to faith in Christ – even though he knew doing so would put his life in mortal danger.
It’s why Steven was able to be bold in declaring the Gospel, even as the angry crowds were stoning him to death – and it’s how, as he died, Stephen could pray, using words very much like those Jesus prayed: “Lord, Jesus, receive my spirit.”
It’s why the Apostle Paul could write: “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him… I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” (Phil. 3:9-11) And Paul remained filled with joy throughout decades of persecution, even as he faced his beheading in Rome.
It is why people of faith throughout the centuries have been willing to take unpopular stands for what is right, often paying a high price for their stance. They have done so gladly because they were aware that this world is not their final destination – they knew that God had reserved them a place in heaven.
And that, I think, is the lesson you and I are meant to take away from this final word from the cross: If you and I have entered into a relationship with God through his Son Jesus Christ, we can be assured that we will live eternally with him, no matter what happens to us in this life. Come what may: good times or bad, prosperity or poverty, sickness or health, life or death – it doesn’t really matter, because we are safe in God’s care.
Jesus had the assurance to commend his spirit into the care of his Heavenly Father. He died as he lived, trusting in the promises of God.
As always, we take our cue for Jesus: Once we have the faith to commend our own spirits to God in death, we will be freed to commend our lives to God, as well. We can live boldly for Christ without fear, because we know that ultimately we are safe in God’s care.
And so, on this Palm Sunday, as we approach the cross of Good Friday, may we remember the confidence of our Lord, who was able to see that beyond the dark shadows of suffering and death, lies a glorious sunrise; an Easter dawn. God has raised Jesus from the dead, and he has promised that, if we remain faithful during the dark Good Fridays we will face in our own lives, you and I will know an Easter dawn, as well.
Perhaps this Holy Week, we should pray a different version of that bedtime prayer, one that reminds us that no matter how dark our nights seem to be, there is a sunrise to come:
Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep;
Guide me safely through the night,
And wake me with the morning light.