“From the Master’s Table”
Sermon, Reminiscere, Lent 2, Gospel, Matthew 15:21-28, March 1, 2015
The cross shapes the life of a Christian, that is, we are guaranteed that we must pass through trials and temptations, as our Lord Jesus did. As Christians, the devil, the world and our sinful flesh will attack us in our lives. The only glory we can expect to experience in this life is the glory of being adopted into God’s family through faith in Jesus Christ and faith in the promises of the Father, faith that Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins, that through Him our sins are forgiven, and faith in the promise of eternal life and salvation for all who believe in His life, death, and resurrection for our sins. All the blessings that we may receive in this life, longevity, health for ourselves and for our children, prosperity, happiness–these are not promised by God, but are received by grace alone. For whatever measure we receive of these and other blessings, we give thanks to God. And we pray for these things. But what do we do when God does not seem to answer our prayers, when He seems to be absent, or even angry with us? Does this mean He no longer loves us, or even that we have lost our faith, that we were mistaken to believe in Him in the first place?
Of course we hear the message all around us, from the televangelists and popular Christian authors that if we just pray the right prayers and really, really believe, that God will bless us materially–the “name it and claim it” prosperity Gospel, or as Martin Luther called it, the theology of glory, that the glory promised to us by Christ after a life of suffering can be attained in this life if we just pray the right way. Of course, if this is how prayer works, why do we not hear of the apostles’ great wealth? Why did Jesus live a life of poverty? Why were the early Christians persecuted, imprisoned, tortured and killed? Did they not pray the right way? Did they not have real faith? The briefest look at the lives of the apostles and the martyrs for the faith show us the falseness of any claim that believers should naturally enjoy prosperity and the “good life”. This is not what God has promised us. Of course, even if we admit this, we are still tempted when bad things happen to us and our loved ones, tempted to wonder if God has abandoned us, if He has turned a deaf ear to our pleas, our prayers. That is when our faith is put to the test. That is when we find out what our faith is built on.
The hardest thing that most of go through, or can imagine going through is the loss of a child or seeing a child suffering from sickness or disease, addiction or spiritual attack. Seeing a beloved child in physical pain or experiencing the effects of mental illness can drive parents to despair. When our children suffer, we Christians go to God in prayer. We ask, like Moses pleading with God on behalf of the children of Israel that He take our lives rather than theirs. We fall to our knees and beg our Father in heaven to have mercy on our child and us.
This is what the woman in today’s Gospel story is doing. She has a daughter who is tormented and demon-possessed. The mother has probably heard that Jesus and His disciples are near. She has, like the blind man outside Jericho, heard about Jesus from others, heard about His healings, His teaching about the Kingdom of God and how the least will be first and how the hungry will be filled. And like blind Bartimaeus she calls to Jesus, “Son of David”, this Gentile woman, this Canaanite, despised of God’s people. She believes in Jesus, she has faith, she comes to Him and cries out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David: my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” She “names it and claims it”. And what does she hear? Nothing. Silence.
This is the silence that will kill a faith built on feelings. This is the silence that will kill a faith built on anything but the Word of God. It’s worse than hearing “no.” It is as if one were not even worth responding to. Psychologists say that spouses that often heatedly argue with each other, as bad as that is, are less likely to divorce than ones who simply ignore the other person, or talk past each other. The husband walks in the door and says, “Honey, you wouldn’t believe what happened at work today!” And the wife answers “Did you get the milk on the way home, like I asked you?” Or the wife saying, “Honey, could you watch the kids while I go for a walk?” And he says, “What’s for dinner?” It’s that denial of the other person’s presence and needs that is worse than strife. At least when you’re arguing, you’re talking to each other. And here, Jesus says nothing. He doesn’t even acknowledge that the woman is there. Silence.
Paul also experienced the silence of God. He prayed God that the thorn in his flesh, a messenger from Satan, be removed. God did not answer. He remained silent. Paul asked again and did not get an answer. Silence.
Even Jesus in Gethsemane seems to have heard the terrible silence of God when He asked that the cup pass from Him. And must it not have been the silence of God that caused Him to cry out as He hung on the cross, bearing the crushing weight of your and my sins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus knows what the silence of God feels like. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)
If the Canaanite woman’s faith depended only on her feelings, she would probably have walked away in sorrow, but she didn’t. She stayed. The disciples asked Jesus to send her away. Jesus told her that he was sent for the lost sheep, the house of Israel, but she still didn’t go away. She stayed because she believed that Jesus was the Son of David, the promised Messiah, the promised seed of Eve, the promised seed of Abraham, through whom all nations, even her nation, despised Canaan, would be blessed. She dropped to her knees before Jesus saying, “Lord, help me.” Jesus looked at her and said to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs.” Oh, how I wish that Matthew had told us Jesus’ expression because I imagine Him looking down at her kneeling, smiling gently at her, loving her, his heart breaking at how people His people called her people dogs. She answered, “Yes Lord, and even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
What a beautiful ending to this story. This Gentile Canaanite woman understood what the Pharisees and Scribes and High Priests didn’t, that Jesus was sent first by God to fulfill the prophecies and promises in Scripture to God’s chosen people. But not only to them. She didn’t let Jesus’ silence and a feeling of rejection destroy her faith in the Word of promise made to Abraham, the father of the nation, that in his seed all nations would be blessed. Through a descendant Abraham, and David, the savior of Israel would come, whose blessing would overflow to all the nations, to everyone, to the Jew first, and then to the Gentile.
Paul didn’t let God’s silence destroy the faith he had in God’s Word, His promise to hear for Christ’s sake all those who come to Him in faith. He asked God a third time to remove the thorn from his flesh. And God answered him, but not with the answer Paul had hoped for. God instead said to Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my strength is perfected in weakness.”
And Jesus’ plea that the cup of suffering pass from Him was not granted either. . But Jesus clung to God’s Word of promise that He would glorify Him, that He would raise Him from the dead. On the cross He spoke for all of us in the agony of our suffering God’s silence, “Why have you forsaken us?” And He committed His spirit, as we do in our prayers, into His Father’s hands, that His will be done. Jesus suffered and died. And we know that God did not leave His Son in the silence of the tomb. He did not leave Paul’s prayers unanswered, but He answered them in His time, and according to His gracious will, for what God wills is always best, as the Hymn says. He did not leave the Canaanite woman in silence either. He answered in His time, and according to His gracious will, as well.
God will not leave us in silence, either. He has given us His Word, spoken by His under shepherds in the reading of the Holy Scriptures, the pronouncing of Absolution, in the preaching of His Law and Gospel, in the sung hymns and songs and liturgy of the church. And He has given us His Word made visible in the sacraments of Baptism and the Sacrament of His Table, Holy Communion, where He gives us not the crumbs from His table, but the whole loaf, His complete self. He gives us everything, His Spirit, His Body, His lifeblood. We receive it mysteriously and truly with the wine and the bread so that we need not rely on our own feelings and emotions. We taste it and swallow it. He says, “This is my body, which is given for you for the forgiveness of sins. This is the New Testament in my blood, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” The Son of David, the Lord, has spoken mercy to you. You, who were once outside the children of Israel, have been brought into the Kingdom of God. You are part of the true Israel in One, Jesus Christ, who is the head of the body, His Church. As as one of the children of Israel in faith, your prayers are heard.
You may in you life, like the Canaanite woman who came to Jesus in our text today, receive silence in response to your prayers. You may feel that God has forsaken you or a loved one. You may feel that God is angry with you. You may feel that, but don’t put your trust in your feelings, but in the Word of God, in His promises. He has promised to be gracious to you in Christ. He has promised that your sins are forgiven. He has promised that He will hear your prayer and answer it according to His good will. He has promised and God never breaks a promise. Amen.