The Second Sunday in Lent| March 1, 2015| Rev. Rolf Preus| 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
The woman from Canaan whose daughter was severely demon-possessed displays for us what true faith is all about. Only God can see your faith. You know if you believe, but your neighbor cannot look inside your hear to see what is there. Faith is invisible. This is why we call the church invisible. The church is the Communion of Saints. We become righteous before God through faith alone in Christ who is our righteousness before God. This is how we become saints. Since only God can see our faith, only God can see the church.
But that’s not to say that the church cannot be identified. The church has always been identified by certain marks. The marks of the church are the pure preaching of the gospel and the right administration of the sacraments of Christ. We cannot see faith, but we can hear the voice of the Holy Spirit through which he draws us to faith. St. John / Trinity is a church because we have here the means by which the Holy Spirit creates Christians. The church is the assembly of the Christians, the Communion of saints.
If you want to find the church you don’t look for Christians. You look for the pure gospel of Christ. God only knows who the Christians are. But we can and must know what the gospel is. So we don’t look for the biggest group, the most prestigious group, the holiest group, or the most spiritual group of people. We seek out the pure gospel of Christ. We follow the example of that poor woman from Canaan whose daughter was severely demon-possessed. She knew more about the church than most theologians do. If our Lord Jesus said, “Oh woman, great is your faith,” it would do us well to pay attention to how she exercised her faith.
The first thing we notice about this woman’s faith is that it was grounded in the truth. She had heard the gospel preached. She knew that Jesus was the Christ. When she addressed him as “Son of David” she was confessing him to be the Christ. David was anointed as king of Israel. Christ is a title that means “anointed one.” It was David’s throne that the promised Savior would assume, as Gabriel said to Mary before Jesus was born,
And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever and of His kingdom there will be no end. (Luke 1:31-33)
The woman was not a descendent of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, or Judah. She did not belong to the kingdom once ruled by David, the kingdom over which the promised Christ was to rule forever and ever. She was on the outside looking in. She appeared not to be a member of the church. But she knew Jesus. She confessed him as the Christ.
And she pleaded for his mercy. She teaches us how to worship, as we sing,
Lord, have mercy upon us;
Christ, have mercy upon us;
Lord, have mercy upon us.
We join this woman who in her suffering went to Jesus and pleaded for mercy. Jesus never denied anyone who came to him for help. Jesus has never failed to show mercy to sinners seeking forgiveness. His mercy knows no bounds. He is not limited by weakness for he is almighty. He is not limited by his love, for his love is for all sinners bar none. He is not limited by his grace because his grace is fully sufficient to deliver us from every evil. The woman was right to go to Jesus.
Demon possession is not so common today as it was in Jesus’ day. When God became incarnate to redeem the human race it was as if all the demons in hell rose up in rage to defy God by inflicting as much pain on humanity as they could. At no other time in recorded history was demon-possession as common as during the time between our Lord’s baptism in the Jordan and his death on the cross where he crushed Satan’s head. The demons displayed their defiance of the friend of sinners.
It was unthinkable that Jesus would leave this poor woman’s daughter to the power of evil spirits. Jesus is full of grace and truth. He could not fail to help her. He who came into the world to save sinners could not possibly leave a sinner under the power of vicious devils bent on inflicting as much pain as they possibly could.
But the unthinkable appeared to be so. The woman begged Jesus and Jesus ignored her. Perhaps at first she could have thought that he hadn’t heard her because of all the noise. But when his disciples interceded for her Jesus appeared to deny their request by pointing out to them that he was send only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. Clearly, that excluded her. She didn’t belong to Israel. She wasn’t of the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. She was a Gentile. So much for Jesus helping her in her need!
But she knew better than to give up hope. She knew Jesus was the promised Savior. She knew he came to destroy the power of the devil. She knew he was full of mercy. She knew it. And Jesus didn’t deny it. He didn’t deny her when he ignored her. He didn’t deny her when he said he wasn’t sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It only looked as if he had. Finally, when she came and worshipped him and begged him for mercy it appeared that she had simply made a fool of herself and invited the scorn of the man in whom she trusted. He told her that it was not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs. How could she not take this as a denial of her prayer and a repudiation of her faith? Calling her a dog?
Now some bristle at this. They think that faith has to do with dignity and status and all sorts of self-congratulatory sentiments. The word faith is tossed around as if it is some sort of a religious virtue – a measurement of a person’s spiritual status. This popular view of faith is grounded in vanity and ignorance.
True faith is born in humility. Indeed, it is born in humiliation. Just as Jesus humbled himself and became obedient all the way to the death of the cross to destroy the power of the devil and his demons by bearing away the sin of the world, so we who call on him, pray to him, and plead for his mercy find him only when we are humbled.
It’s not that our humiliation earns us anything from God. Grace is freely given and cannot be earned. But God’s grace is for the spiritually weak and helpless. It was precisely in her weakness and helplessness that her faith was brought to its goal and received what it sought from God.
When afflictions sore oppress you
Lo with grief and anguish bowed
Then to earnest prayer address you
Prayer will help you through the cloud
Still to see your Savior near
Under every cross you bear
By the light his word doth lend you
Prayer will joy and comfort send you.
Learn to mark God’s wondrous dealing
With the people that he loves
When his chastening hand they’re feeling
Then their faith the strongest proves
God is nigh and note their tear
Though he answers not he hears
Pray with faith, for though he try you
No good thing can God deny you.
This woman was a Christian. That much is obvious. Contrary to all appearances, she was a daughter of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus Christ personally vouched for her. I cannot see your faith and you cannot see my faith. But God in the flesh has confirmed for us all that this woman was a Christian. She was right to put her confidence in Jesus. Her daughter was being tormented by demons. She was unable to control her most basic bodily functions. She was suffering under a cruel and hurtful power. She was helpless. This woman knew with the certainly of faith that Jesus and only Jesus could deliver her daughter from all evil. She was right. And he did.
He did. God may try you. He won’t deny you. Is there any Christian anywhere who does not suffer from temptation? It’s not as if the devil takes a holiday. There are sins that present themselves as virtues. There are sins whose consequences are so hurtful that we think we can’t be forgiven of them because we are constantly being reminded of the ongoing harm that they have caused. There are sins that lure us into their service every day. All of this is the power of the evil one.
And then there are the sins of those we love. They have fallen into sin and embraced it. They refuse to confess the faith. They won’t go to church. They won’t listen to our counsel. What are we to do? Perhaps we think there’s nothing that can be done.
The Holy Spirit recorded this particular episode to teach us never to give up on God’s mercy. Mercy defines God and identifies him. When Jesus bore the sin of all sinners as the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, he revealed God’s mercy to the world. No one who comes to God in Jesus’ name, claiming his mercy, will be denied. Listen to the familiar words we sing every Sunday here in church:
Lord, have mercy upon us;
Christ, have mercy upon us;
Lord, have mercy upon us.
This is no mindless mantra. This is the prayer of faith and it is never ignored. God hears. He may try us. He will not deny us. Amen