Friday, August 29, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 16:21-26 for 15th Sunday of Pentecost, "The Thoughts of God vs. the thoughts of men"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is the Gospel, Matthew 16:21-26. Last week we heard about Peter’s rock of confession, that Jesus is the “Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Then Jesus gave the unusual command to His disciples that they tell no one that He was the Christ. Perhaps you wondered why Jesus commended Peter for this great confession of faith, then commanded the disciples to be silent about it? Today we’ll see why the Jews, and even His disciples, weren’t ready yet to consider that the Christ would suffer and die. His purpose as the Christ, the Messiah, couldn’t fully be grasped until Jesus actually died and rose from the dead. Then the final puzzle pieces dropped in place to reveal the whole astonishing picture of Christ. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

The difficulty of accepting who Jesus Christ is, wasn’t limited to the first century. We see the same difficulty today, not only in the world, but also in ourselves. It stems from thinking the thoughts of men rather than the thoughts of God. Here in Matthew chapter 16, Jesus first starts talking plainly to His disciples that He would have to “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” This would be the hardest thing for them to believe about the Christ. Yet it was divine necessity. It had to be this way, and Jesus was intent on the thoughts of God. He was intent on His Father’s will that He go to the cross to suffer and die for our sins. He could not be turned from this purpose.

Yet clearly Peter thought otherwise. It was unthinkable to Him that His Lord should die! As if Peter had just forgotten who he was speaking to—as if he had forgotten that he had just confessed Jesus to be the Christ, the Son of the Living God—Peter pulls Jesus aside to rebuke Him! “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” As amazed as we might be at Peter’s presumption, as a man trying to correct God, we can perhaps sympathize with his misguided love, and the apparent desire to keep his Lord Jesus safe from death. It wasn’t easy for the disciples to hear that their master must go on to His death. Peter’s instinct was for self-preservation, and that extended to wanting to protect Jesus, his friend and master. More astonishing yet is Jesus’ response, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

In a startling turn-around, Peter goes from being commended by Jesus for his confession of Christ, the rock on which the church is built, to being rebuked by Jesus as Satan, and being a stumbling block to Him. It shows how even Christians of great faith and conviction can in a moment be turned to false thoughts and temptation. From a rock of confession to a stumbling stone for Jesus, Peter had gone from thinking the thoughts of God to the thoughts of men. And the thoughts of men are incomparably worse. Jesus addressed Peter as Satan, because it was Satan’s desire to divert Jesus from His goal. Satan desired to cause Jesus to stumble and fail on the path that God had laid for Him. Where Peter had been the mouthpiece of God, by confessing Jesus as the “Christ, the Son of the Living God;” he was now the mouthpiece of Satan by trying to take Jesus’ cross away from Him.

Peter’s stumbling block, versus Jesus’ way, shows the difference between saving one’s life or losing it. Peter wanted to save Jesus’ life, by turning Him away from the path of suffering. But Jesus’ way was to lose His life, to take up His cross unto death, that He might find His life. It’s easy to criticize Peter though, without seeing this same sin in ourselves. We’re also thinking Satanic thoughts when we desire to take Jesus’ cross and suffering away from Him. Do not think that we would have been spared the rebuke had we spoken those words to Jesus. We must be transformed in our mind, to stop thinking the thoughts of men, and to think the thoughts of God. To realize that Jesus’ cross was divine necessity—God carrying out His plan of salvation in the most unlikely way—even a way that was repulsive to both Peter and us.

Last week we talked about common misidentifications of Jesus. In the church in particular, the tendency is to separate Jesus from His cross. One of the first and most influential megachurches in America has made it clear that they won’t display the cross anywhere in their church or on the grounds of their facility. They’re a church without a cross, and on purpose. But far worse than not seeing the symbol of the cross anywhere, is the absence of the word of the cross from Christian preaching! The pastor of that church says that the cross is too likely to offend “seekers” and turn them away. Of course the cross will offend! And it must! The word of the cross is foolishness to those who’re perishing, but to those who’re being saved it is the power of God! (1 Cor. 1:18). But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews, and foolishness to the Gentiles, but the power and wisdom of God to those who believe. (1 Cor. 1:23-24).

The cross will offend those who are perishing in their sins. Our sinful flesh doesn’t want to hear about it! We don’t naturally want to acknowledge our utter helplessness and dependency on God, our total sinful depravity before Him, and that His Son is our Savior, who had to die on the cross as our substitute. We would rather have a Jesus without a cross. St. Paul says that Christ crucified was a stumbling block to the Jews, because so many of them wouldn’t believe in Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus used the same word, “stumbling block” to describe what Peter was doing to Him. By Peter trying to take Jesus’ cross away from Him, by trying to interfere with what “must be” because of God’s plan, Peter became a stumbling block to Jesus. This was the work of Satan. Peter thought these sufferings were beneath the glory of Jesus as the Christ. Peter was processing the thoughts of men, not the thoughts of God. Be watchful that we don’t fall back into that same trap. But to embrace Jesus and His cross is to find our life.

Why are the thoughts of God so at odds with our human thinking? Jesus’ path to the cross was one of self-sacrifice and loss. It was a path of self-denial and humility. Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” It’s not easy for us to deny ourselves. It’s easier to gratify ourselves and our desires. We don’t readily give up what we’re accustomed to having. To make sacrifices and surrender our will to the will of God, isn’t natural to us. Sin is a self-pleasing, self-satisfying mindset. Christians often think that the devil only wants to spoil our fun, keep us from getting what we want. But is it a good thing to always get what we want? The devil would be perfectly happy giving us all we want, so long as we aren’t putting our trust in God or seeking to follow His will. If we’re self-satisfied and self-pleased, and living how we want, we may find no need for God. In fact, if this is our state, then we most likely will be indifferent to God. But it’s often those who face hardship that turn to God. All are equally needy of God, but not all recognize the spiritual hunger.

The instinct of self-preservation is built into us. And while in itself it may not be bad, there are all sorts of things that we’ll do for self-preservation that we might not do otherwise. We may commit acts of crime, we may hurt those we love, we may make choices that harm us, we may even violate our conscience for the sake of what we think is essential to our self-preservation. But Jesus shows Peter that self-preservation isn’t on His agenda. Jesus would actually give Himself over to His enemies, to those who hated Him, and suffer. What gain was there in that? Jesus reversed that implied question: What good is there in gaining the whole world, yet forfeiting your soul? Then we can see what gain there was for Jesus. By losing His life, He found it. By losing our life to Christ, we find it in Him. In Christ alone is it true that we can find our life by losing it.

What part (or whole!) of our life are we unwilling to lose to Him? What part of our old sinful existence, our pattern of thinking, are we holding on to? Think about this: Everything that is true that you don’t believe about God, is contained in the Bible. The whole truth of God’s Word, parts of which we’d prefer to pick and choose, remains there, whole and entire. Peter believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God, but he did not want to see Him crucified and dead. We don’t want to believe that our sin is big enough to require Jesus’ death in our place. It’s too uncomfortable to admit that He was a substitute for me and my sin.

We’re determined to try to preserve our way of thinking. This is a stubbornness to try to save our life, with its old patterns of thought and actions, rather than lose it to Christ. One of my seminary classmates made this statement in a paper on Christian suffering: “The cross of Christ demonstrates sinners’ inability to judge outward appearances correctly. Men’s eyes see Christ’s shameful suffering and death; God sees the salvation of the whole world” (Carl Roth, Luther on Christian Suffering, p. 77). It’s true. Like Peter we cannot see why God’s plan of salvation had to involve the cross. We can’t judge the outward appearance correctly. The cross is the “emblem of suffering and shame,” but in it God worked the salvation of the whole world. Thinking the thoughts of God, Jesus denied Himself, gave up His life to His enemies, that we might have the full redemption of His blood. Through the apparent foolishness of the cross, which causes many to stumble at Jesus and His works, God was demonstrating the greatest power and glory. Through Christ’s death He reversed the power of death, so that whoever loses his life for Jesus, will find it. Whatever we lose, we find in greater measure through Him.

This gives us a new cross-focused perspective on suffering and afflictions in our own life. In the midst of suffering we often fail to see further than “the now”, and don’t recognize God’s loving work in our lives. Our sufferings always put faith to the test, as we’re tempted to doubt whether God is still faithful and good to us. Job, in the midst of his despair and loss, said, “Shall I receive good from God, and not also evil?” (Job 2:9). Physical pain, mental, spiritual and emotional affliction all lead us to doubt whether it’s really true that God works all things for the good of those who love Him. The Christian’s cross is to bear this suffering, and still have faith in the promise that God will work all things for good. Even if it doesn’t mean recovery from illness, deliverance from pain, or an immediate solution to our troubles. To face even the greatest enemy of death, knowing that if God allows that I should die, this isn’t due to His disfavor towards me, but that as a believer I can be assured of eternal life and a resurrected body. What death seems to steal in the short view, cannot take away what God has given in the long view.

The writer Gerhard Forde explains that the cross demolishes all our other supports and “escape hatches.” It leaves us as a simple human being, “because there isn’t anything to do now but wait, hope, pray, and trust in the promise of him who nevertheless conquers, the crucified and risen Jesus. By faith we’re simply in Christ, waiting to see what will happen to us and in us.” Suffering gives us over to the faithful acceptance of God’s will, even when we’re not in control of our circumstances. We surrender our attempts to explain suffering away, or to blame or excuse God, but cast ourselves trustingly on His care, receiving His gifts through Word and Sacrament as a solid sign and promise of His continued faithfulness to us.

So the crosses that Jesus gives us to bear in this life pull us away from self-centered thoughts, the thoughts of self-preservation, the thoughts of men. If our lives are to be conformed to Christ, how could it be that we would not also take up our cross of suffering? Christ’s perfect life, death, and resurrection alone accomplishes our salvation, but the pattern of His life becomes the pattern of the Christian’s life also. We’re not exempted from persecution or trial, but we’re spared from the ultimate condemnation of sin, and the punishment it brought to Him. Jesus must have His cross, because in the cross He takes all our foolish thinking captive to Him, so that by losing our life for His sake, we may find it. This Christ alone, Jesus Christ who died on the cross, is the redeemer of our souls. We know His identity, and also what He had to accomplish on our behalf by His death on the cross. Confess and hold fast to this Christ. Amen.

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

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 16:13-20 for 14th Sunday after Pentecost. "The Rock of Confession"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Matthew 16:13-20, the Gospel reading. We’re going to look at Peter’s Great Confession of faith, the Rock of Confession on which the church is built. But first, I need to give a brief definition of what we mean by “confession” here. Just a few minutes ago you all made “confession” of your sins, at the beginning of the Divine Service. Obviously a confession of faith isn’t the same thing. In Christian use, “confession” means to speak back what is true in response to God’s revelation. In the confession of sins, we speak back what is true about ourselves—namely that we have been found sinful before God. In Peter’s confession of faith, he spoke back what is true about Jesus—that He was the Christ, the Son of the Living God. When we confess our faith in the words of the creed, we speak back to God what is most sure and true—that which He has taught us in His Word. With that clarification in mind, let’s look at the Gospel. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus puts a question to His disciples: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” It was a question of identity. After He got their answers of what other people thought—He puts the question more forcefully to them. “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” And this is the all-important question of faith—the all-important question for the disciples, as much as for us today. On this question hinges the difference between faith and unbelief. Whatever else people might focus on, this is the heart of the issue: “Who do you say Jesus is?”

The disciples’ initial response about what other people thought was that some said He was John the Baptist, others said Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. So in this “public opinion poll,” the consensus seemed to be that Jesus was a prophet. All of the men named were prophets, and all had already gone on to heaven. What did this show about public opinion of Jesus? That most of them had a high regard for Jesus. Perhaps the focus on Him being a prophet came from their expectation of Moses’ promise. That prophecy is recorded in Deuteronomy 18:18, where Moses said, “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.”[1] These and other Old Testament passages, combined with the fact that a prophet of the Lord had not appeared in Israel for about 400 years until John the Baptist came—left their anticipation of a prophet pretty high.

But Jesus wasn’t interested in pursuing these ideas of public opinion. These all fell short of the mark. We could ask the same question today: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and get a far more diverse range of answers. Oprah and her new favorite author Eckhart Tolle have been promoting Jesus as merely an enlightened man, who came to awaken the “Christ consciousness” within us. In popular music both old and new we hear all kinds of references to Jesus. “Jesus is just alright with me” sang the Doobie brothers. Another 70’s song that still gets airplay sings: “Never been a sinner, I never sinned; I got a friend in Jesus, So you know that when I die He's gonna set me up with The spirit in the sky.” A more recent band sings about the “Jesus of Suburbia” and Christian hypocrites. Actress Kathy Griffin received her Emmy award with the statement: “A lot of people come up here and thank Jesus…I want you to know that no one had less to do with this award than Jesus...” I won’t finish her quote. Jewish comedian Sarah Silverman mocked: “I hope the Jews did kill Christ…” and I won’t finish her quote due to profanities. In the best-selling Da Vinci Code book and movie, Jesus is a mere human who teaches secret wisdom and promotes feminist goddess worship with His supposed wife Mary Magdalene.

Others have a more neutral assessment of Jesus, or just use Him to accomplish their agendas. Jesus is regularly called on by both parties to aid a candidate in seeking political office. Jesus is huge for marketing—helping to sell all kinds of books, music, toys (yes, there is such a thing as a Jesus action figure!). Jesus is borrowed to promote vegetarianism by the activist group PETA. An auto-company selling hybrid vehicles carried the slogan, “What would Jesus drive?” Opinions of who Jesus is, and examples of how He is used or rather misused by culture, academia, politics, and even the church(!), abound. In the church Jesus is often misrepresented as our therapist, life-coach, or lover.[2] But Jesus is after one answer—one bulls-eye statement about His identity. And it’s not an idea that originates from men, from “flesh and blood;” but rather this truth was directly revealed by God the Father to Peter. We must reject all the worldly claims and identifications of Jesus as false, and acknowledge the one true revelation of who He is, that is not given by man, but by God the Father. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Any other answer falls short; misses the mark. Even the high claim of Jesus as prophet in His own day, was inadequate.

In contrast, the faith that the Father reveals to Peter is the rock of confession on which the church stands immovable. Remember back to our talk about “confession” at the beginning? That it means to speak back the truth? The faith that God the Father revealed to Peter, namely that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is the One True confession about who Jesus really is. Not on any of the multitudes of false confessions about Jesus, but on this truth alone, could the church be established. Jesus commended Peter for his confession, though He gave the Father the credit for revealing it. He said, “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” This is what I meant when I said that the church stands immovable on this rock of confession. Death and hell cannot prevail against the church, because it’s founded on the rock of confession that Jesus is the Christ. Because in Christ and His cross, our sins are forgiven, death’s grip on us is broken, and the serpent’s head is crushed beneath Christ’s heel. And only the true Jesus, confessed by Peter, can accomplish this. The false “christs” all be gone, they cannot save. The Son of the Living God stands alone, above and beyond any human categories—the only one to accomplish so great a salvation.

This is why what we say about Jesus—what we confess about Him is so all-important. This is why Jesus wasn’t interested in pursuing all the popular opinions that had been spun about Him, but demanded to know, “Who do you say that I am?” For none of those “false Jesus’s” of the world can save. To be sure, they’re much easier to market, but they’re also much easier to ignore. And perhaps that is why so many people form their own ideas about who Jesus is, rather than taking it from the Bible. A Jesus who is just an enlightened philosopher, promoting the Christ-consciousness, is convenient enough, because He makes no demands on my life. The Jesus who is a life-coach can give me pep-speeches whenever I’m feeling low, but He’ll never point out my sin and call me to repentance. The Jesus who is just a rebel might help me accomplish my cause, but He won’t identify my hypocrisy.

Imagine what it would be like to really face Jesus with all these false notions about His identity. Could we stand before Jesus hanging there on the cross, dying for the world’s sins, and honestly say these things? Say things like, “Thanks for being a vegetarian for my cause;” or “Even though I’m not a sinner, I’m glad you’re my friend and are going to ‘set me up with the Spirit in the sky’”; or “Thanks for awakening the ‘Christ-consciousness’ within me.” Of course no one could say these things before Jesus’ cross. It’s appalling even to think of it. Because with Jesus on the cross, these false ideas and imaginations about His identity vanish. Even the unbelieving Roman centurion, who witnessed Jesus’ death and the earthquake that followed, was forced to confess, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54). His words echoed Peter’s confession. There at the cross, all false notions about Jesus crumble away like an empty fa├žade, and the true Christ, our Savior, is revealed. This was His crowning work as the Christ, and apart from His cross, all other supposed-identities are false.

So on this “rock of confession” that Jesus is the Christ, Son of the Living God, is built the Christian church. And Jesus declares to Peter, that death and hell will not prevail against it. Furthermore, Jesus gives Peter this commission: “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Roman Catholics have made much of this passage, to say that here Jesus is confirming Peter as the first pope, and giving him all authority over the church. But when Jesus here gives the keys to Peter in the singular, in Matthew chapter 18 and John 20 He gives them to all of the apostles. The keys of the kingdom of heaven aren’t given to one individual, but to the Christian church. So what are these keys? The answer is in what Jesus means by “binding and loosing.” From those other two passages in Matthew and John, it becomes clear that binding and loosing refers to withholding forgiveness of sins, and giving forgiveness of sin. This is why I as a called and ordained minister of the Church of Christ, can pronounce to you absolution or the forgiveness of sins, upon your confession at the start of service. You have confessed or spoken what is true about your sinfulness, and I speak to you the absolving, forgiving word of Christ—that He has borne your sins away on His cross. These are the “keys of heaven.”

This is the chief weapon and stronghold against the devil and hell, that rage against the church. When Christ said that the gates of Hades cannot prevail against His church, it’s because the church has the forgiveness of sins, earned by Christ, the Son of the Living God. Our faith rests on no less a certain truth than this—that our sins cannot accuse us, and death can have no power over us, when we repent and are forgiven by Christ. Sins that aren’t confessed and repented of, are just as surely bound to us. For we know that no sin is hidden from Him. But when we grasp the revelation of the Father, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God—and when we repent of our sins and confess Him as our Savior—then the door to heaven stands open to us. Christ gives His keys to the “confessing church”—the church that confesses its sins in humility and repentance. And He gives His keys to the “confessing church” that speaks back the true confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God. For on this rock of confession, the church stands immovable. Stand firm then on this rock, knowing that founded on Christ, your entrance into heaven is sure, and hell has no claim on you. Amen.

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

[1]The Holy Bible : English standard version. 2001 (Dt 18:18). Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.
[2] Everybody Loves Jesus: The Culture Cherishes a Counterfeit Christ, Life of the World. Rev. Todd Wilkin http://www.lifeoftheworld.com/lotw/article.php?m_vol=8&m_num=4&a_num=3

Trusting in God's Certain Promises

Two months ago in my newsletter article, I referred to the importance of “Seeking God where He may be found.” My aim was to get us thinking about how when we are seeking to find God, we ought to go where He has promised to be. Or we might say, where God has located Himself for our sake. We know that God is present everywhere, as even the highest heavens cannot contain Him (1 Kings 8:27), and we cannot escape from His presence anywhere (Psalm 139). But while we can certainly raise prayers to God at any time and place, if we want to be assured that we are receiving His saving benefits, we turn to where He has surely given and promised them. In that previous newsletter I concluded with the words of Peter to Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the Words of eternal life” (John 6:68). Where shall we go but to the Lord and His Word? For it is in God’s Word that He has located His promises. When we rest secure on His Word of Truth, we have the assurance of eternal life.

It is for this reason that Lutherans have stood out distinctively from many other Christians, in our emphasis on God’s “Word and Sacraments.” Word and Sacraments has almost become a catchphrase in the Lutheran church, which gives us reason to stop and reexamine why we refer to it so often. In speaking so highly of God’s Word (the Bible) and His Sacraments (Baptism and the Lord’s Supper), we are especially emphasizing the “locatedness” of God in these promises. Another way of thinking about the “Sacraments” is that they are the “Visible Word.” By this I mean that God’s Word is attached to, and makes Baptism and the Lord’s Supper what they are. They are able to bring us forgiveness and grace only by virtue of God’s Word that is attached to them. We can have a sure and constant source of comfort when we receive God’s gifts through these “means of grace.” Because we acknowledge that God works out His plan of salvation through these gifts, we have an objective basis for our faith. We are not left wondering whether God has shown His grace to me or not; whether some other person may be certain of their faith, while I am not.

For example: how can I be assured that I am a child of God? Sure, I may confess Jesus’ name, and pray to “Our Father,” but how do I know that God has adopted me into His family, and not just someone else? I can have that assurance by looking to my baptism, and trusting God’s objective Word and promise given to me there. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, I was baptized with Word and water (Matthew 28). In my baptism I know that I have been buried and raised with Christ (Romans 6); I have been saved through baptism, given a pledge of a clean conscience through Jesus’ resurrection (1 Peter 3); I have been reborn through water and the Spirit, so that I may enter the kingdom of God (John 3); I have been clothed with Christ (Galatians 3); I have been forgiven and given the gift of the Holy Spirit through my baptism (Acts 2). All of these promises of God (to name just a few!) are made sure and were given personally to me and all baptized believers in our baptism. These promises continue to be ours by faith. Christ Jesus earned these benefits for us through His death and resurrection—He now packages and delivers them to us through baptism. Baptism is God’s work; His gift to us.

In a unique but similar way, we have the Sacrament of the Altar, or the Lord’s Supper, where we are personally given the forgiveness of sins through Jesus’ body and blood (Matthew 26:28). All of these means by which God brings us His grace: His Word, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper (the Sacraments) stand as objective truth “outside of us.” We can find certainty and comfort in trusting in these God’s gifts for us, knowing that their truth rests in what God has done, not in our changeable emotions, thoughts, and actions. Consider the contrast to putting our trust in subjective things such as our feelings (how “close” I feel to God), our good works (how good a life have I really led?), our personal will-power (how sincerely have I committed my life to Jesus?). These and other subjective things we might put our trust in will all leave us in a cloud of uncertainty and doubt when we try to answer the question of “how do I know that I am saved?” By contrast, as we so often emphasize as Lutherans, when we trust in God’s Word and Sacraments, we are trusting only in what Jesus has done for us through His cross and resurrection, and how He has delivered this to us by His Word, by Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These promises do not rest on the shifting sands of our emotions or sincerity, but on what God has determined to do for you, and where He has located Himself so that we may seek and find Him.

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.