Sermon for Reminiscere – Lent 2
Isaiah 45:20-25 + 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7 + Matthew 15:21-28
The Holy Spirit holds up to us today one of the greatest role models in Holy Scripture: The Canaanite woman who begged before Jesus like a little dog. Jesus calls her faith “great.” That’s something He said about only two people in the entire Bible, this Gentile woman and another Gentile, the centurion who sent to Jesus for help. Over and over in the Gospels Jesus admonishes the Jews for their lack of faith, and He repeatedly rebukes His disciples for their “little” faith. This Gentile beggar-woman gets higher praise from Jesus than all of them.
That’s ironic, because the world hears this Gospel and can only think, “Boy, was Jesus mean to that woman.” That’s the voice of human reason talking, the voice of the devil, really, repeating his old, old lie, “God is not good. You deserve better than what He has given.” Now, believers in Christ may not understand everything Jesus does and may wonder why He didn’t help her right away, but faith’s response to that lack of understanding is to admit that the problem lies with us, not with Jesus or His Holy Spirit. And so faith looks to God’s Word for understanding and cries out to God in prayer for guidance and for wisdom. And He will give it. As He promises through James in his epistle, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all liberally and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind. For let not that man suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” So let’s ask God today in faith, not in doubt, “Grant us wisdom to understand your actions in this Gospel—and in our lives, that our faith may be preserved and grow into the great faith your Holy Spirit wants to give.”
Let’s look at our text. Then Jesus went out from there and departed to the region of Tyre and Sidon. Tyre and Sidon are not in Israel. They’re regions to the north of Israel. That’s important, and it will help us to make sense of something Jesus says later.
What happened in this Gentile region? 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.” A woman of Canaan—a descendant of the cursed people, the people whom God had told Israel to completely wipe out 1500 years earlier because of how wicked they had become. But Israel didn’t obey God back then, so the Canaanite peoples continued to live as Israel’s neighbors. Aren’t her words striking, though? “Lord, Son of David!” This woman had nothing to do, biologically or socially or politically, with David or with David’s kingdom. And yet she does have something in common with David spiritually. She had heard about the Christ, the Son of David. She had heard of Jesus and His power and His great mercy and she believed in Him as the Christ. She believed that He had come to help her, too. And so when the Christ left Israel to come into her region, she jumped at the chance to seek His help on behalf of her demon-tormented daughter.
But that help was not given immediately. Her cries for help were not even acknowledged immediately. And so her faith was tested. We discussed this on Wednesday evening, how God tests faith. He doesn’t test faith like a cruel villain poking an injured animal to see how it will react. He tests faith as a master Teacher and Trainer, in order to exercise it, to grow it and strengthen it and mold it into a faith that perseveres, not just for a moment, but for a lifetime.
But the testing of faith always involves some sort of hardship. The woman already had the hardship of her daughter being afflicted by a demon. Now Jesus adds another test, another hardship: She begins to call out to Him for mercy, and He answers her not a word. When it seems like God is ignoring your cries for help—that’s a hardship. Human reason says, He doesn’t care. The sinful flesh says, I deserve to be helped! Right now! That’s the entitlement mentality of our flesh. Somehow, in spite of all our sins and rebellion against God, our flesh still thinks God owes us something. But in fact, He owes us only what we confess at the beginning of the service: that we have “justly deserved His temporal and eternal punishment.” Faith acknowledges that and doesn’t deny it at all, but it still is bold to approach Jesus for help, based, not on what we deserve, but only on His great mercy revealed in His Word, AND on His promises, “Call upon Me in the day of trouble. I will deliver you!” Or His promise taken from the Lord’s Prayer, “Deliver us from evil!” He doesn’t say how or how quickly He will deliver you, but He says He will, so you should believe Him.
The Canaanite woman did believe Him. She kept calling out to Jesus, even though He wasn’t answering. His disciples asked Him to send her away rather than let her go on humiliating herself. But Jesus added another test, another hardship. He says, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Human reason would have answered, “Well, then. I might as well despair, because I am a Canaanite woman. What do I have to do with the house of Israel?” But faith doesn’t let go so easily. Faith knows that it has a merciful and loving Father only for Christ’s sake, not for the sake of one’s bloodlines or one’s ancestry. And there are plenty of Old Testament promises that say just that. You heard one today from Isaiah 45, where God says: Look to Me, and be saved, All you ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other…To Me every knee shall bow, Every tongue shall take an oath. To Him men shall come, And all shall be ashamed Who are incensed against Him. In the LORD all the descendants of Israel Shall be justified, and shall glory.’ You see? First God invites all the ends of the earth to look to Him and be saved. Then He says that “all the descendants of Israel” shall be justified. It’s true that most people in the world are not physically descended from Israel. But here God opens up the door to Israel, so that all the ends of the earth can be part of Israel in a spiritual way, by faith in the God of Israel who sent His Son, the Christ, to save mankind.
So the woman continues to pray, “Deliver us from evil!” “Lord, help me!” And then Jesus adds the third and final test of her faith. He answers: It is not good to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs. He refers to the children of Israel as the children who get to sit at the table and eat bread, and He refers to the non-Israelites as “the little dogs.” Human reason can’t put up with a statement like that. There’s too much pride in our nature, too much entitlement, too much self-righteousness. The flesh wants to reply, “Fine! Go back to your precious land of Israel, Jesus! You’re not so good and loving after all. I give up.”
But that’s not what the woman did. She found an opportunity. She found the open door in Jesus’ words that He left open for her. Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table. What a beautiful confession of faith! Utter humility, complete recognition that she deserves nothing from her master, even as the little dogs don’t deserve anything that falls from the table. And yet, the master, in His goodness, allows the little dogs to have those crumbs. But the crumbs of God’s grace are more than enough to satisfy every need of every sinner. He gave His Son into death for His enemies, for us. As Paul says to the Romans, He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? So the Canaanite woman claimed her place at the Master’s table, her place as a little dog. That’s fine. That’s more than enough. I’m satisfied with a few crumbs. Please just give me that.
This is what prompted Jesus’ response: O woman, great is your faith! Let it be to you as you desire. She puts to shame the Jews who thought they were entitled to God’s grace based on their heritage. She puts to shame those who think they’re somehow entitled to God’s help and grace based on their own goodness, their own works. And through her, God puts to shame all those who refuse to acknowledge their own neediness before God because of sin, all those who, for whatever reason, refuse to come to Christ for help in their need, including all those who continually find better things to do than come to church to seek help and mercy from Jesus where has commanded that His help should be sought, in the ministry of Word and Sacrament.
Lord, help me! That simple prayer of the Canaanite woman is what describes our Divine Service. Lord, help me! That’s what we’re here to cry out. And in His absolution, and in His Gospel, and in His body and blood, He gives that help. He forgives sins. He strengthens faith. And He teaches you in His Word to rely on Him at all times, even when it seems like He’s ignoring you, even when it seems like you’re not included in the group of people who receive help from Him. He isn’t ignoring you. And you are included in that group of people, because you, too, have been baptized into Christ. And as Paul says, As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Is your faith being tested? I certainly hope so. Because that’s what God does for all His children. But remember this: The Lord knows how far your faith can stretch and needs to be stretched, and He won’t stretch it beyond that point. That’s His promise. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. Trust in the faithful God who gave His Son into death in order to help you. He won’t abandon you now. Seek His help, and keep seeking it until it comes. As the Holy Spirit has shown us in the Canaanite woman, you won’t be disappointed. Amen.