The Second Sunday in Lent

February 25, 2018

“Fighting with God”

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.  Matthew 15:21-28


During this Lenten season, we Christians focus our attention on spiritual battle.  Just as Jesus did battle against the devil in the wilderness and overcame him by the word of God, so we Christians, claiming Christ’s victory as our own, do battle against the devil.  We are reminded of our three spiritual enemies: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.


Today’s Epistle Lesson deals with our battle against our own sinful flesh.  St. Paul addresses specifically the matter of sexual immorality.  It is God’s will that we Christians avoid all sexual immorality.  What does this mean?  It means that God has placed sexual intimacy within the bond of marriage.  God approves of sexual relations between husbands and wives, but he condemns sexual relations outside of marriage.  Premarital and extra-marital sexual relations are sins against God.  St. Paul says that God will avenge those who do these things.  He will punish them.  The verse following today’s Epistle Lesson reads, “Therefore he who rejects this does not reject man, but God, who has also given us His Holy Spirit.” (1 Thessalonians 4:8)


This is a difficult battle, especially for the young.  God has given us certain desires that, when rightly governed, can be a beautiful expression of love between a husband and a wife, and – God willing – may be the means by which God creates new life.  Our American culture, on the other hand, celebrates sexual immorality.  It is par for the course.  It is expected.  To say that sexual intimacy belongs to marriage and nowhere else, means denying the demands of our flesh and denying the teaching of the world.  Such spiritual struggles are to be expected as sinners living in a sinful world.


But there are some spiritual battles that are not expected.  Such a battle is set before us in today’s Gospel Lesson.  This account of the Canaanite women who won’t let Jesus deny her her plea stands as one of the most moving stories in the Bible.  Jesus’ behavior appears inexplicable.  He in whom there is pure mercy appears to be hard-hearted, if not downright cruel.  He who stood up to the devil himself and drove him away with the word of God does nothing to help this desperate women whose daughter is suffering from demon-possession. 


She begs him.  He ignores her.  It looks like he is rejecting her.  He says, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  That would exclude her.  She’s a Canaanite.  She is not of the house of Israel.  She cries out, “Lord, help me!”  He tells her it isn’t right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.  She was a Gentile dog.  She met God and God appeared as her enemy.


It’s hard to fight against the devil.  He’s cleverer than we are.  He’s very accomplished at luring people into sin and unbelief.  It’s hard to fight against the world, because we want to belong, we want to fit in, and it’s hard being different from the crowd.  And it’s hard to fight against our sinful flesh.  I think of a song popular when I was in college where the singer who is singing to his lover while cheating on his wife croons, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.”  The flesh is a liar.  He tells you that if you obey him you will be satisfied.  That’s a lie.  Sin doesn’t satisfy.  It leaves you empty inside.


We must learn to fight the good fight of the faith.  It is the fight against the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh.  But this woman from Canaan was engaged in a far more serious battle.  She was fighting a fight against God himself.


Now I don’t want you to misunderstand.  God is not our enemy.  He is never our enemy.  He cannot be our enemy if he is our loving Father.  Christians are – by definition – children of the heavenly Father.  We belong to the Father through faith in the Son that the Holy Spirit establishes in our hearts.  We are children of God!  He isn’t our enemy.


But he looks like her enemy!  She confesses Jesus as her Lord.  She acknowledges him as the Son of David, the Christ, the Savior promised by the prophets.  She begs him for mercy.  She says, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.”  She is a Christian!  But he ignores her.  He ignores her Christian confession and he ignores her plea for help.  When she persists, his words appear to exclude her completely.  He tells her that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  She was a Canaanite.  She was not of Israel. She was not a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  She was a Gentile – a dog.


That’s what he called her: a dog.  If that’s not rejection, what is?  Prayer doesn’t work.  Jesus is not merciful.  See?  She begged him, she honored him, she confessed him as Christ and Lord, and he rejected her, calling her a dog.


Oh, dear.  Jesus, gentle Jesus, loving Jesus, merciful Jesus: what have you done?  We confessed your mercy.  We called you Lord.  We confessed you as our dear Savior.  You promised!  You promised, “The one who comes to Me I will by no means cast out.” (John 6:37)  But you are tossing her out!  How can we trust anything you say?  You aren’t so gentle; you aren’t so merciful; you aren’t so compassionate as you claim.  You’re cruel and heartless!


Is this what the woman thought?  This hurting woman, this insulted woman, this woman who came to Jesus crying out for help – did she think Jesus was cruel?  Did she think that Jesus would leave her daughter under the control of evil spirits?  No!  She knew that Jesus would answer her prayer.  She knew that Jesus would be merciful to her.  She knew.  She fought with God.  She wrestled with Jesus until she pinned him on the mat.


She was not an ancestor of Jacob by blood, but she most certainly was Israel’s daughter.  Jacob, who wrestled with a man who was God all night long and wouldn’t let him go until he blessed him, taught this woman how to fight with God.  You hold him to his word.  You don’t let go of his word.  That’s what she did and she defeated him with his own words.  “Call me a dog!  Now I claim what belongs to the little dogs.  You cannot deny me that!”


So many fancy, hifalutin prayers, with flowery language, extolling God, praising him with many words, prayed with perfect diction and eloquent speech – and what are they but empty noise compared to the prayer of this Christian woman.  Faith holds God to his word.  That’s how you fight with God when he appears to be your enemy.  You hold him to his word.


You don’t hold him to what he hasn’t promised.  The name it and claim it health and wealth gospel is a lie.  It tries to bind God to what he hasn’t promised.  This woman prayed as a Christian.  She understood how to pray.  She humbled herself.  She persisted.  She prayed by holding God to his promises.  She prayed according to God’s word.


If you want to know how to pray according to God’s word, pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Pattern your prayers after it.  God has promised to hallow his name among us; to bring us into his kingdom; to do his good and gracious will for us: to provide us with what we need to support our physical needs; to forgive us all our sins; to lead us away from tests that would destroy us; and to deliver us from the evil one. 


But it often appears that God is our enemy.  David writes in the Psalm,


But to You I have cried out, O Lord,
And in the morning my prayer comes before You.
Lord, why do You cast off my soul?
Why do You hide Your face from me?
I have been afflicted and ready to die from my youth;
I suffer Your terrors;
I am distraught.
Your fierce wrath has gone over me;
Your terrors have cut me off. (Psalm 88:13-16)


Job complains,


I cry out to You, but You do not answer me;
I stand up, and You regard me.
But You have become cruel to me;
With the strength of Your hand You oppose me. (Job 30:20-21)


Consider with me today the most intense battle any man ever fought with God.  I’m talking about an innocent man.  He loved purely.  There was no trace of envy, lust, greed, or malice in his heart.  The highest and most respected religious leaders punished him for his goodness.  He was betrayed into the hands of sinful men who by an outrageous miscarriage of justice had him sentenced to be crucified.  He had prayed to his heavenly Father that the cup of suffering might pass from him, but that could not be.  He must drink the cup.


What was it?  What was the cup?  It was the cup of divine wrath.  It was God’s indignation, his vengeance, his retribution against all sinners.  The holy Son, begotten of his Father before all worlds and born of the Virgin Mary in time, was dutiful and obedient.  Yet God punished him.  God became his enemy.  God fighting God – what a terrible spectacle that was!  It is so awful, only Christians dare believe it.  The holy man, not just a man, but God in the flesh, must suffer God’s punishment against sinners.  He who was very God of very God found God as his enemy.  Did he not?


Look beneath his suffering and see what is there.  The Father loves his Son.  He is well pleased with him.  The Father’s love for his Son is so great that it embraces all those for whom his Son died.  The wrath, the woe, the pain, and the suffering that Jesus suffered on Calvary – where is it now!  It is removed from us.  Jesus bore it so we would not have to bear it.  At no time during Christ’s ordeal did the Father’s love for his only begotten Son ever waver.  Even when the Son cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” he remained in perfect union with his Father.


When it looks as if God is your enemy think again.  Search for his mercy underneath your suffering.  Hold onto his word.  The Psalmist writes:


O Israel, hope in the Lord;
For with the Lord there is mercy,
And with Him is abundant redemption. (Psalm 130:7)


Who is Israel?  We who with the Canaanite woman cry out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me O Lord, Son of David” are Israel.  We are God’s children, his chosen, his elect, washed in Christ’s blood and forgiven of all our sins.  When God appears to be our enemy we will not trust in what appears to be so.  We will trust in God’s word.