Sunday, March 12, 2017

Sermon on Matthew 15:21-28, for the 2nd Sunday in Lent (1 YR), "Unforgettable Faith"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Gospel reading today, with the Canaanite woman coming to Jesus for help, may stir a variety of emotions in us. Sympathy for the woman and her daughter; confusion or even shock at Jesus’ initial cold reaction. And probably amazement at the woman’s unforgettable faith in pursuing Jesus’ help till she received it. But one emotion might be absent that was present among Jesus’ disciples and the original listeners. Resentment.

You see, she was a Canaanite—not a Jew. The shadowy history of her ancestors included lewd and barbaric practices connected to idol worship. That’s why God drove them out of Israel. That stigma hung over her. The disciples thought she was a nuisance, and wanted to be rid of her, and assumed Jesus would too. She followed them around, crying out loudly, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” But the most puzzling part of the story is why Jesus seemingly played along at first with the disciples’ desire to get rid of her. It seems harsh and unfeeling. But it’s like today’s Old Testament reading, where Jacob wrestles with God, and demands a blessing. Likewise, this Canaanite woman won’t give up, and wrestles with Jesus for a blessing.

But because she was a Canaanite, whether or not she shared in the sins of her ancestors, she was an “outsider” and the disciples’ prejudices were aimed at her. But right from the start she shows that she and her daughter are trying to escape the clutches of evil, as her daughter was tormented by a demon. Words fail to describe a mother’s anguish over her suffering child. And she is not unaware of who Jesus is, but addresses Him—Lord, Son of David! She called Him by a combined title that confessed He was the Messiah, or promised Savior.

Now just imagine if Jesus had healed her upon the first request. Then she would not have faced Jesus’ seeming refusals, persevered, and ultimately proved worthy of this difficult test of faith. But there’s something else going on in the story also. The disciples are part of the discussion, and are trying to keep her from Jesus. There is a double learning opportunity. They’re in for a lesson too. A triple lesson, actually, if you count us into the mix, which you certainly should! But we’ll get to her lesson first.

She is first of all ignored by Jesus, then at her second request, she is shut out, as Jesus tells the disciples He was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel—seeming to confirm their attitudes. And when, on her knees, she again begs, “Lord, help me!” Jesus says, “It’s not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not hard to read this as insulting. He’s put her in a bad light, as though she shouldn’t receive the blessings of His kingdom. Ignored, shut out, and humiliated, it seems like Jesus has closed every door for her entry. Martin Luther wrote that Jesus gave her an “extremely unanswerable reply,” and yet although His answers all sound like “No”, they were still undecided and pending. He’s not yet finally, actually said NO.  

What would you do in such a situation? Give up in despair? Demand a place at the table? Shoot back an insult and walk away? It would have been easy enough to succumb to the flip side of the disciple’s prejudice and shoot back with her own. Prejudice can go in many directions when we isolate ourselves into suspicious groups. But instead of responding like that, she presses on, undeterred. Is it any wonder that she had such an unforgettable faith that her story was written down in the Gospels and is still being talked about 2,000 years later?

While we view dogs as friendly and loving animals; in Jesus’ time and especially among the Jews, they were not pets, but were unclean scavengers. A dog was even less than a pig. But in this impossible situation, ignored, shut out, and potentially humiliated, she surrenders none of her dignity but accepts Jesus’ judgment, and catches Him in His words. Yes Lord, but even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table! It’s a masterful reply to Jesus. She’s willing to take seconds, or leftovers. She’s not trying to assert her rights over someone else, but simply claim ever so small a place for His help. Jesus is her Lord, He is her master, and He must help her! She won’t surrender her right of appeal for His help!

And suddenly all His apparent hardness melts, and He opens His heart completely to her. She wrestled with Jesus and won! And Jesus’ answer gives us an answer to why He put her through this triple learning experience—a lesson that pitted her own faith and determination against suffering and opposition; a lesson for the disciples, and for us as well. Jesus says, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Suddenly, the outsider woman, who was a nuisance to them, became the object of Jesus’ praise! She passed the test, and became a remarkable example to the disciples of faith under fire, that remained steadfast in clinging to Him. Against the odds, she held onto Jesus and came to Him. We’re mistaken if we think that our faith should never face testing or opposition, an opportunity to struggle and prove itself or grow.

But what about the disciples’ lesson? Jesus pretty much verbalized their hidden prejudices and biases, when He referred to the children and the dogs. He let them see what it meant to harbor those thoughts, and to keep away a person in need of His love and help. But then He shows them how remarkable her faith was. On many other occasions He had to chide the disciples, “O you of little faith!” What if Jesus were to do the same to us? What if He were to verbalize our hidden prejudices and biases? What if He cut right to the heart of the ways we consciously or subconsciously elevate ourselves above others, or make judgments about who is deserving of God’s help? Would it be painful and embarrassing? What would we learn from it? Who would we treat as outsiders?

While the main point of the Gospel is not about prejudice, clearly part of the lesson for the disciples and us, deals with their willingness to withhold Jesus’ help from the suffering woman. Jesus tells us that He came into the world to save the lost, to heal those who were sick, to give Himself up on the cross for the world. Part of the lesson here is an invitation to see others with the compassionate eyes of Jesus, and to have mercy on those who need Jesus every bit as much as we do. It’s for the disciples and us to see that Jesus’ kingdom and His mercy is a kingdom meant for sharing, for giving away to even the most ignored, shut out, and humiliated in society. His mercy, sent out into the world, creates sons and daughters of Christ, when it touches and transforms hearts and lives. Even the disciples’ lives needed transformation, in this story. As one commentator notes, that their evil thoughts had to be exposed before they could be redeemed. Likewise Jesus confronts the sin and darkness of our hearts, to expose it with the light of His truth and love. And by driving out the darkness, He calls us into His redeeming light. He aims to redeem both the disciples and the woman through this encounter.

But the major point of the Gospel is she doggedly pursued her faith and hope in Jesus, her master, and that she knew He could help her. Crumbs was all she needed—with that she would be content. But when Jesus opened His heart to her, she received much more than that. She was welcomed like a child at last—no longer an outcast, but a daughter of Christ. The burden of her heart, her daughter’s health, was lifted, and her child was freed of the demon.

We come to Christ with our neediness, with sins and guilt afflicting us, with crosses and hardships that we cannot relieve ourselves. Christ invites us to wrestle earnestly with Him; to cry out for mercy, and grab His promises and hold to them tightly. Sometimes in life our prayers are answered with a “no”, for reasons that only God knows. Sometimes no answer seems clear, but we remain persistent in prayer, like Jesus taught in another place, we should always pray and never lose heart (Luke 18:1). And sometimes the answer finally becomes Yes. But there are prayers that are always answered with a “Yes”. The prayer of confession, that God would forgive our sins. Or the prayer for the Holy Spirit, that God would increase our faith. To these, we already have a promised “Yes.” The prayer for wisdom.

When we come in faith to Jesus, just like the Canaanite woman, Jesus opens His heart to us, and He treats us as beloved children, feeding us with more than mere crumbs. In fact, Jesus taught us that He’s the Bread of Life, come down from heaven—the Bread of Life given for the world. Let me read to you what Jesus says about how He feeds us, in John 6:

“I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. 36 But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. 37 All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out.” (John 6:35-37).

A couple of notable things Jesus says, in relation to today’s story of the woman. Jesus says whoever comes to Him will never hunger, and whoever believes in Him will never thirst. Our spiritual longing is filled and satisfied in Him. We’re not left starving or hungry; He supplies all we need. Then He says whoever comes to Him, He will never cast out. Though the woman felt the sting of apparent rejection, she never gave up, and she came to Jesus and was never cast out. Neither will Jesus turn us away when we come to Him. He welcomes His children. However deep our needs, if we are at our Master’s table, we’ve found the right helper. We can confidently say we’ve found our Savior, and His grace is ours!

Saving faith must always, finally rest here on Jesus. It looks to Him alone for help, and doesn’t give up or lose hope. It’s the confident trust that the Holy Spirit works in us, to know that Jesus truly is our Savior, Helper, and Friend, and that whatever we may face in this life, we can endure it with Him. For He is our Lord and Master, Son of David. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Matthew 15:21-28 features Jesus’ encounter with a Canaanite woman. The Canaanites had a dark history of lewd and barbaric practices connected to their idol worship. How did that color the disciples’ attitudes toward her? Who are those against whom we harbor prejudices and stereotypes today?
  2. Right from the start, the woman shows unusual faith by calling Jesus, “Lord, Son of David.” What do these two titles confess about Jesus? What does it say about her unfailing hope in finding help from Him?
  3. Both the disciples and the woman interact with Jesus on separate sides. What do you learn by placing yourself in the shoes of each side? In what way does God’s Word “pierce” and reveal what’s in our hearts? Hebrews 4:12-13. One author observes that “evil cannot be redeemed until it is exposed.” What does Jesus want the woman, disciples, and us to learn?
  4. What do Jesus’ disciples want to do with the woman? How does Jesus seemingly agree with them, and start to close the door on the woman?
  5. Dogs were not pets in the Jewish world, but unclean scavengers. What responses might we expect from her, in the face of this? What is the surprise of her response, and how does she catch Jesus in His words?
  6. When the hardness of Jesus’ initial responses finally melts, what does He give and grant to her? What do the disciples learn from this experience and example?
  7. Jesus gives His love to all the world. How can we bring those “outside” His church into His love?

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