Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28 fpr 13th Sunday after Pentecost. "Crumbs of Grace are more than a Feast"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel reading, from Matthew 15:21-28, which tells of the great faith of the Canaanite woman, and her persistence in getting a response from Jesus. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Today in our worship, in song and prayer, we join in the same plea of the Canaanite women, “Lord, have mercy on me!” The short phrase, “Lord, have mercy!” is one of the commonest parts of our biblical liturgy, as it expresses the deepest cry and need of every believer and hurting soul. These words quickly became part of Christian worship and have lasted down through the centuries, because it’s a cry of brokenness and for times when words fail us. It’s the cry of our soul for needs that only the Lord can meet. Listen as the woman lifts up those words to Jesus in today’s reading: “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”

Feel the wretchedness of this woman’s distress. She doesn’t bring her plea to the Lord privately, but like so many of those who are afflicted in the Gospels, she broadcasts her cry for all to hear. “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” She herself shares the misery of her daughter who is afflicted by a demon, and carries her plea to the only one who can help. From what we know of demon-possession, the victims were wretched. Sometimes the person carried on in a rage, other times they would inflict bodily injury on themselves, other times it lead to physical ailments like blindness and muteness. All this left the person and their family living in terror. While we don’t know the particular details of how this little daughter was afflicted, it certainly was real, and it certainly was terrible. And when she saw Jesus, her only hope for a cure, walking away, with her plea unanswered…she showed remarkable faith and persisted in her request. Where another might have given up, her love for her daughter and her hopeless situation drove her to ask again. She could not accept this sentence for her daughter.

What plea and what request do we bring to God? Are we persistent in our faith, to seek God’s mercy? What deep cry of the soul is carried up in our prayer of worship: “Lord have mercy”? Do we cry out for ourselves, or for the ones we love? Are we afflicted by circumstances beyond our control? Or are we struggling with a persistent sin? Have you doubted whether your failings even as a Christian, have somehow left you outside of God’s grace? We look to Jesus, our only cure, and know that He will hear our prayer, even when it seems He’s not listening. For He didn’t turn away even the Canaanite woman. A foreigner and a nuisance to His disciples. Yet He showed compassion to her and commended her for her great faith—surely a shock to the disciples. Prayers may not always be answered when and how we want them, but God is compassionate and gracious to those who trust in Him.

But when the woman first cried out to Jesus, He did not answer her. After her repeated cries, and refusal to leave Him alone, the disciples became agitated and asked the Lord to send her away, because she “kept crying out after them.” It’s not clear whether they wanted Jesus to send her away with her request fulfilled, or not—but they definitely wanted to be rid of her. They were probably also carrying with them the common prejudices of the day against the Canaanites and other Gentiles. Jesus’ initial response seems as if He agrees with the disciples. He said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” He seems to have approved the disciples’ eagerness to be rid of her, and as if to suggest that He shouldn’t help her. Undaunted by this apparent rebuff, the woman bows to Jesus and cries, “Lord help me!” She feels as if her prayers have fallen on deaf ears. Is God listening? At this point we expect Jesus to respond by granting her request right away—but He takes it one step further, and corrects her: “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” By this He is referring to the Jews or Israelites as the children, to whom God’s grace properly belongs, and the Gentiles as dogs. Surely this would be enough to cause anyone to give up.

Jesus’ response carries the implication of the Jewish antagonism to the Gentiles by referring to the “dogs.” The Jews commonly referred to Gentiles as “dogs,” looking down on them as unclean intruders in the land. Even the suggested of some, that Jesus’ term “little dogs” was a more affectionate term for pets, it doesn’t lessen the apparent rejection. He seems to affirm what the disciples thought of her place. But was He testing only her faith, or also theirs, by speaking this way? Surprisingly, rather than being insulted, she accepts Jesus’ statement and cleverly turns it into yet another way to plead her case. She argues that even the dogs have a place beneath the table, and the right to eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table. Even on the terms Jesus set, she still could not be refused His help. At this Jesus lifts her up from her lowly status and acknowledges her great faith—certainly a startling turn-around for the disciples.

“Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed from that very hour. Only after she has been granted her request, and Jesus’ praises her exceptional faith, do we see what Jesus was after when He put off her request with the harsh-sounding, “It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” He knew that she would respond admirably, and by exercising her faith a little more, He was able to teach both her and His disciples valuable lessons about faith. Although He came first and foremost for the Jews, He showed grace also to the Gentiles. Rarely did Jesus ever commend someone for their great faith, and here it was a Gentile woman! The disciples learned that this was no “Gentile dog” or a problem only to be sent away; but she was a woman of great faith. Even from the way she addressed Jesus as “Lord, Son of David” recognized His authority over Jew and Gentile alike, and that He was the promised Messiah. What made her faith great was that she knew the one in whom she trusted for help. And she could not let Him go by with her plea unanswered. It wasn’t that she had some special quality in herself, but that she knew where her cure was—and that was Jesus. May we learn from her faith!

The woman acknowledged that she had no special right or claim to the children’s bread, but she nevertheless pleaded for even the crumbs that fell from the table—knowing that if God just showed the slightest mercy to her, this would be more than sufficient for her needs. In effect she persuaded Jesus that even the dogs deserve their crumbs and scraps. Her low status doesn’t exclude her from mercy. Even if God gives sparingly, she will be satisfied. Every time I think of this passage, I can’t help but think of how she was content even with the crumbs. The thought that always runs through my head is that “Crumbs of grace are more than a feast.” When they’re God’s “crumbs,” even the leftovers from God’s grace would be more than sufficient for her need. For the grace, the bread that Jesus gives, is rich in God’s mercy. Yet when Jesus actually grants her request, He doesn’t just give her the crumbs, He doesn’t give a “leftover miracle” or anything less than her full request. The Lord desires to be acknowledged as the giver of all good things, and when we trust in Him, far from being stingy, He pours out grace in greater measure than we can either expect or deserve.

How do we carry our requests to God? Do we come demanding what we deserve, or do we, like the Canaanite woman, acknowledge our unworthiness before Him? Do we, like her, make bold with our request, counting on His great mercy to grant even what we don’t deserve? Are we content to receive whatever the Lord should give us? When we sing or pray, “Lord, have mercy,” we are like the Canaanite woman. We recognize our need and our insufficiency to meet it. And we are calling on the one whom we can count on to be gracious. If He did not withhold His mercy from a Gentile woman, who His disciples considered a nuisance, and who was not one of the chosen children of Israel—we can be assured that He will show the same mercy toward us.

Consider how it’s for us, that “crumbs of grace are more than a feast.” God is lavish in His mercy toward us. Salvation doesn’t come to us incomplete, but wholly and entirely accomplished. God didn’t just give us a “leg-up” and then leave us on “probation” to see whether we could live good enough lives to deserve His kingdom. The Christian life isn’t an examination to see whether you can pass into the pearly gates. God sealed salvation for us completely in the death of Jesus Christ. “It’s finished!” He proclaimed at the cross. When we are called by God to a new life as Christians, He does not leave us to our own resources to change and walk after Him. He does not leave us ill-equipped for the purpose to which He has called us. Rather He gives us the Holy Spirit to live in us and produce the change of heart and life that shows we are renewed by God’s Word. The gift of the Holy Spirit works repentance in our hearts, and calls us to our baptism to drown the old sinful nature with its temptations and weaknesses. We are provided with the whole armor of God to shield us in the spiritual battles that rage in life. His truth and righteousness and salvation are ours by faith in Jesus Christ.

When God commands us to love our neighbor as ourselves, He supplies His own forgiving love to us—so that His love overflows from our lives to others. In other words, salvation isn’t a “jump-start,” a “leg-up,” a period of “probation,” a “team-effort” or anything less than God’s complete and undeserved grace on your behalf. And the Christian life that follows after our faith doesn’t fall back on our own efforts either. We are caught up in God’s work, to be sure, but He is the supplier and giver of all the gifts and good things that reflect in our new lives. In other words, God does not leave us starving with crumbs and scraps, but rather His abundant mercy proves to be more than a feast for us, so that we are completed filled and satisfied.

He serves you with His own Bread of Life when we eat Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. Here He pours out forgiveness in full measure to repentant hearts. Here again we aren’t left with crumbs, but with the full feast that we join in together with the “angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven” to celebrate. Jesus’ own death on the cross demonstrates that God’s salvation isn’t one of half-measures. He carried through to endure even this great pain and death, so that it could be given fully and completely to you. Jesus did not suffer what He did so that He could be stingy or reluctant in pouring out His gifts. No, He intends us to have the full and free gift of salvation, and to trust in Him and no one else for this. Jesus died on the cross because not even death could stop God from giving us His greatest and best gifts—forgiveness, life, and salvation. All of which we did not deserve, but all of which it was His desire to give. Just like the Canaanite woman who knew that her only hope for a cure was Jesus, so also we are to trust in Him alone for the cure of our deepest needs. So let your prayer of “Lord, have mercy” rise to the One who alone can satisfy our soul’s deepest longing, and who alone takes all of our fears and afflictions upon His strong shoulders. To Him be the Glory alone, both now and forever! Amen.

Now the peace of God, which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

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