The Second Sunday in Lent

March 16, 2014

“Perfecting Faith”

St. Matthew 15:21-28


Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon.  And behold, a woman of Canaan came from that region and cried out to Him, saying, "Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David! My daughter is severely demon-possessed."  But He answered her not a word. And His disciples came and urged Him, saying, "Send her away, for she cries out after us."  But He answered and said, "I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel."  Then she came and worshiped Him, saying, "Lord, help me!"  But He answered and said, "It is not good to take the children's bread and throw it to the little dogs."  And she said, "Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table."  Then Jesus answered and said to her, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire."  And her daughter was healed from that very hour. St. Matthew 15:21-28


Anyone who thinks the Bible is out of date has never read it.  Just look at the Scripture lessons appointed for today, the Second Sunday in Lent.  Our Old Testament Lesson addresses the sin of idolatry.  The Epistle confronts the sin of sexual immorality.  And today’s Gospel reading deals with demon possession.  That’s what is going on today. 


Look around and see for yourself.  Everybody chooses for himself what god he will worship and serve and if you presume to speak authoritatively about the true God – as if the true God has spoken to us and revealed himself to us – you will be told not to put God in a box.  It’s okay to believe in God as long as you don’t say what he says about anything.  Idolatry has become institutionalized.  We may not have a state religion in America, but we do have a national religion and this is it.  Each person chooses for himself who God is, what he is like, what he demands, promises, and does.  You may not claim to know the authoritative truth about God.  Idolatry rules.


As far as sexual immorality is concerned, sexual sin has also been institutionalized as meet, right, and salutary.  Fornication – which is sexual intimacy with someone other than one’s husband or wife – is accepted as normal, even respectable, behavior.  Couples move in together and fornicate with each other, pretending that they have the right to do so because they want to do so.  They are openly unrepentant.  Churches and pastors silently acquiesce to such behavior, thereby leading souls into the bondage of the devil.  Is it God or is it the devil who says that one can live in sexual sin and remain a Christian?  The devil traps sinners in their sins with his lies.  This is how he robs them of their faith.


Demon possession as the complete control over a person’s body by an evil spirit was quite common in Jesus’ day.  It was not very common in Old Testament times and it is not very common today.  But spiritual possession most certainly is.  We can imagine the anguish of that poor Canaanite woman as she witnessed the bodily control over her daughter by an evil spirit.  But the spiritual control of the devil and his demons is just as heartbreaking to see.  Parents watch as their children live lives that ignore God’s commandments and deny his word and they are powerless to do anything but watch.  They watch as an evil power possesses those they love.


Would not he who came into this world to save sinners be willing to listen to the plea of a mother for her demon possessed daughter?  This woman lived among idolaters and rejected their idolatry.  She may not have been an Israelite, but she worshipped the true God of Israel.  After all, she came to Jesus for mercy, confessing him as Lord.  She called him the Son of David, that is, the promised Christ.  She knew of the Old Testament promises about a merciful Savior and she knew that Savior was Jesus.  Shouldn’t she come to Jesus?  Shouldn’t Jesus help her in her need?


You would think so, but Jesus apparently did not think so.  He ignored her pleas.  She asked him for help and he did not answer her.  It got worse.  When Jesus’ disciples interceded for her, Jesus told them that he was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  The clear implication was that he was not sent to help this suffering woman because she did not belong to Israel.  But she persisted.  She refused to stop asking.  In fact, she worshipped him, confessing his true deity.  But it looked like Jesus shut the door firmly in her face.  He said: “It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.”  Jesus said no.  No, I will not help you.  No, I was not sent for the likes of you.  No, you are unworthy of my help.  You’re a dog.  Go away and leave me alone.


He looks cruel, doesn’t he?  But he is not.  He is kind.  He is gentle.  Listen to what he says:


Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (St. Matthew 11:28-29)


Is that so?  Does he really welcome all who labor and are heavy laden?  It does not look like it.  Is he really gentle and lowly in heart?  It does not look like it.  Faith confronts apparent rejection.  God tests faith.  He doesn’t tempt us to sin, as St. James writes:


Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He Himself tempt anyone. (James 1:13)


But the faith that receives God’s word needs to be tested.  God tests it.  Faith is exercised.  It is put to the test.  God is doing this and it is wonderful, though it appears to be cruel.


Jacob wrestled with God and would not let him go until God blessed him.  Did God not want to bless him?  No, God wanted to bless him.  And he wanted Jacob to wrestle with him for the blessing.  Faith is not just an intellectual assent to a theological proposition.  Faith is not just a decision to invite Jesus into one’s heart to make him Lord of one’s life.  Faith is trust.  It is confidence.  To whatever God promises, faith adds the words “for me.”  Jesus is not just a Savior for others.  He is my Savior.  Jesus is not just a helper for the troubles of others.  He is for me.  He came for me.  He will help me.  Whatever spiritual burden I bear, he will come to my aid and help me.


It does not always seem so.  Jeremiah spoke for Christians of all ages in his Lamentations where he writes:


He has hedged me in so that I cannot get out;
He has made my chain heavy.
Even when I cry and shout,
He shuts out my prayer. (Lamentations 3:7-8) 


So it appeared.  So it seemed.  And so it felt.  But faith relies not on what appears or seems or feels.  It relies on God’s word.  Jesus had ignored her, insulted her, and treated her as a dog.  He even called her a dog.  What does she do?  She latches on to Jesus’ words.  Jesus said it was not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs.  So she replied, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters' table.”  That is faith.  Faith takes God at his word and holds God to his word.


There is no greater worship than to credit God with being faithful to his word.  This is why the observance of the suffering and death of Jesus is at the very heart of Christian worship.  This is why Jesus gave us the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in which we eat and drink Christ’s body and blood to proclaim his death until he comes.  The death of Jesus is where his mercy for sinners is revealed.  There it is that the power of the devil is undone.  When the Lamb of God bears the sin of the world he bears it away.  He forgives it.  Where there is forgiveness of sins, the devil and all his demons lose their power.  Christ crushes the devil’s head under our feet whenever we kneel at his altar and eat and drink the body and blood that delivers us from Satan’s power.  We hear the words, “Given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins,” and we hold God to his word.


The Canaanite woman bound God to his Word.  By binding God to his Word she bound God to herself and claimed the status of a child.  The simplicity of her faith was pure genius!  All she did was latch on to Jesus’ words.  In so doing she trapped Jesus in his own words.  And this is what Jesus wanted!  This is why he appeared to deny her.  He never intended to deny her her prayer!  He was not ignoring her.  He was not being cruel to her.  He was not rejecting her.  He was exercising her faith, not to frustrate it, but to purify it, to drive it more firmly into his very words.


This is what his love did and this is what his love does.  But what stands in the way of his love and us?  Our pride!  Listen to this woman, “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table.”  Pride says, “I won’t be a little dog.  I won’t be insulted.  God will honor me as I am if he is to be my god.”  Pride is what keeps sinners away from their Savior.  Pride is what destroys faith.  True faith that holds on to Christ and the mercy he alone can give is the faith that is born in humility.


Lord, have mercy upon us.  Christ, have mercy upon us.  Lord, have mercy upon us.  This is the posture for prayer.  This is where faith is born, strengthened, and perfected.  I am a beggar in need of mercy.  It is in my own humiliating need that my faith is tested and strengthened.  I may offer a brilliant defense of the faith and sincerely devote myself to live the sanctified life, but my faith is known chiefly in humble reliance on God’s mercy in my need.


Idolatry rules as the religion of the larger culture.  It goes by the name Christian, but it is not.  The woman whose faith Jesus called great had little self-esteem.  Preachers of the self-esteem gospel would have advised her to stand up against such bullying treatment.  Since they seek salvation within they cannot see grace for what it is.  But it is precisely when God humbles us, setting us before him stripped of any defenses and naked in our helplessness that his mercy becomes ours, sets us free from all trouble, answers all our prayers, and confirms us in our holy Christian faith.


True faith is faith in Jesus.  There is no other God than the God who is incarnate by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary.  This is he who cried out on the cross:


But I am a worm, and no man;
A reproach of men, and despised by the people.
All those who see Me ridicule Me;
They shoot out the lip, they shake the head, saying,
“He trusted in the Lord, let Him rescue Him;
Let Him deliver Him, since He delights in Him!” (Psalm 22:6-8)


He who called himself a worm as he suffered and died to take away our sins invites us to regard ourselves as little dogs, eagerly licking the crumbs from the floor beneath the children’s feet.  He who called himself a worm and no man is exalted up on high at the right hand of God the Father.  He seats his Christians alongside him in glory, even as they must suffer pain, disrespect, and apparent failure here below.  He tests their faith.  He perfects their faith.  He answers their prayers as he draws them to himself and to his mercy in a bond that no power of evil can break. 


Rolf D. Preus


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