Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Reminiscere (Matthew 15:21-28)

Neither Saint Matthew nor Saint Mark tell us how the Canaanite woman came to faith. There is no conversion story, no account of how she, who lived miles up the coast from the homeland of God’s people, heard of the one born King of the Jews. There is no digression by either evangelist, telling us how someone could believe who lived in the region of Tyre and Sydon, a place so wicked that the prophets and Jesus Himself repeatedly decree its ultimate destruction. We’re not told how a Canaanite woman, part of a people that Israel was to destroy centuries before, came to have faith in Israel’s Messiah. It’s often this way. There are many who come to Jesus who already believe in Him, who believe without seeing, who cry out to Him believing He can save. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Faith cries out to God. Faith sees its object, its Lord walking this earth, and it cannot help but cry. For faith sees not only its Lord, faith sees its need. This is what believers do when they experience affliction: they cry out to the One who can heal, the One who can save, the object of their faith, the One who has promised to help. Faith cries as only faith can: “Have mercy on me.” Kyrie Eleison. Lord, have mercy. This is the right cry, the right prayer, directed at the right man, the only One who could help. She recognizes her God walking past her in the flesh, somehow, by some miracle, in her darkest, most desperate hour miles from His home, seemingly there simply to bring her daughter healing.

But her God doesn’t listen. “He did not answer her a word.” Silence. God ignores her cries. God doesn’t heal. God doesn’t save. She isn’t crying out to a false God, she isn’t offering a blasphemous prayer. In faith, she is crying out to the only true God, incarnate for her salvation. She is offering the prayer that Jesus has heard so many times, the prayer that seems to tug on His heartstrings, that causes Him to spring into action, the prayer that halts Him in His path. But not for her. Faith cries out, and God doesn’t listen. He doesn’t pause, He doesn’t stop, He doesn’t acknowledge her at all. Her God ignores her. He who has healed so many, who has given such great promises, is silent. The ministers of the church, the clergy, join their voices to hers, entreating her God to listen, to heal, to save. “And His disciples came and begged Him, saying, ‘Send her away, for she is crying out after us.’” But their prayers are no better than hers in moving God to action. She could’ve gone to Facebook, sent out a mass e-mail, called the church office to be put in the bulletin or on the prayer chain, but it would’ve made no difference. The volume of prayers makes doesn’t matter when God remains silent.

Faith cries out to the right person with the right prayer; faith cries out in humility, in sorrow, with tears, but God does not answer. It seems that unbelievers are quickly freed from their troubles; their time of trial is short and insignificant. They pray to the wrong gods, they pray in the wrong way, if they pray at all, and they seem to be blessed, while the children of God, who in their suffering take refuge in the true God only sink deeper and deeper into distress. There is no relief, there is no answer. They just continue to suffer. The fire gets hotter, the trials get tougher, the suffering gets worse.

Faith gets no reward for its cry, not even an acknowledgement. God, who is seemingly never at a loss for words, has no words or action for us, only silence. “And Jacob was left alone.” The sufferer feels alone, abandoned by God, abandoned by men, left to his own devices. And we can’t handle it. Like Jacob splitting his camp and sending people back and forth across the river, we try to fix the situation ourselves. We fill the silence with our own words, our own works. We put our trust in ourselves, or in other people, depending on human resources alone to fix our suffering. We are impatient, unwilling to wait for God’s answer. I want to be delivered right now, and if God won’t do it, I’ll quip praying, I’ll look somewhere else. But that is not the path of faith. Faith is persistent. Faith is not deterred. The silence of God is anguishing, but it does not stop the voice of faith. “She came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’”

Faith doesn’t quit crying out to God; faith doesn’t give up the fight. Martin Luther teaches us, “Even if [God] hides himself in a room in the house and does not want access to be given to anyone, do not draw back but follow. If he does not want to listen, knock at the door of the room; raise a shout!” Faith is persistent, faith is stubborn, faith refuses to be cast aside. Faith knows that there is no other place to go, that no one else can help if God Himself is silent. Faith enters the arena with God, faith takes Him on, faith wrestles with the God who has promised to be gracious. The woman doesn’t leave, though Jesus has given her every reason to; she doesn’t give up. But as Jacob wrestled with God all night, she is in it for the long haul. She will wrestle with her God, she will take Him on, and she will struggle with Him until the sun rises.

But this Jesus is no ordinary man, just as Jacob was wrestling with no normal combatant. “When the man saw that He did not prevail against Jacob, He touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with Him.” When you wrestle with God, expect to be put in your place, expect to be reminded of who you are. “He answered, ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.’” You deserve nothing from me; no grace, no mercy, no salvation. I came for the people of Israel, you have no reason to claim anything from me. Then He gives His most devastating blow, more terrible, more painful than Jacob’s hip being put out of socket. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” You are a Gentile dog. You have no right to ask anything of me, for you deserve nothing of what I have to give. You are a sinner, you are not part of my chosen people, you stand condemned.

So it is that God appears as our enemy. He not only ignores us, with devastating silence, but often He actually seems to be opposing us. The more we pray, the worse it gets. Job complained that the wicked prosper while the righteous suffer, the Psalmist threw up his hands and said, “All in vain have I kept my heart clean and washed my hands in innocence. For all the day long I have been stricken and rebuked every morning.” Loving, gentle Jesus, full of mercy and compassion for so many others, has nothing for us but His wrath; the wrestling match has left us defeated. Our hip is out of joint, we are crushed and crippled, filled with excruciating pain. God has given us every excuse to give up, to run the other way, to follow the advice of Job’s wife, echoed by many others in our lives, perhaps the voice in our own head: “Curse God and die.”

But faith does not let God go. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” She doesn’t argue, she doesn’t dispute His accusation, the voice of God’s harsh Law. She agrees. She owns her sin, she owns her identity, she agrees that she deserves nothing from her God, that there is nothing Jesus has to give that she has earned. Faith knows that it has done nothing to deserve anything from God but His wrath. “I, a poor, miserable sinner…” She agrees with this truth, clearly revealed by God’s Law. But then she declares her trust in a truth that is greater than the truth of the Law. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, Lord, I am a dog. I deserve nothing from you but death and hell. But you came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost, and here I cling to your mercy, your grace. The crumbs are enough, they are sufficient, for they are everything. The crumbs from your table are a food that lasts to eternity, and you have them in such abundance that even those who wait under the table are filled with eternal life.

She doesn’t say this based on any merit of her own, any worthiness that she possesses. She clings not to herself, but to His promises. She knows she is not worthy, she hears the Law and she agrees with it, but she clings to a truth that is greater than the Law’s demands and threats: this Jesus has come to fulfill the Law’s demands and destroy its threats. She clings to the mercy of a God who promised a Savior from sin and death, who through this Messiah He will give the forgiveness of sins, along with every good gift. Like Jacob of old, on the basis of His promises, not her merit, she refuses to let her God go, she wrestles Him to the ground, saying, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

This is the faith which conquers God. “Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly.” The Canaanite woman understood her identity as a fallen, sinful creature, and she knew His identity as the One who came into this world to save sinners. When God is silent, when He appears as our enemy, faith doesn’t give in or give up, but it clings to the promises God has given despite everything that it sees to the contrary. Martin Luther teaches us, “If [God] should cast me into the depths of hell and place me in the midst of devils, I would still believe that I would be saved because I have been baptized, I have been absolved, I have received the pledge of my salvation, the body and blood of the Lord in the Supper. Therefore I want to see and hear nothing else, but I shall live and die in this faith, whether God or an angel or the devil says the contrary.”

You do not look to your sufferings, your afflictions, your tribulations, or your sins to know what God thinks of you. You look to the cross where Jesus bled and died to win your salvation, and you look to your baptism, to the Lord’s Supper, to Absolution, where Jesus delivered that salvation directly to you. With those gifts, those pledges of God’s grace, you can then be persistent in prayer, but also patient, constantly crying out to God but waiting patiently for Him to answer, clinging to the ‘Yes,’ even when all you seem to hear is ‘No.’ And whether He answers your prayer in this life or in the next, He will deliver you from evil, He will give you every good gift. He will remember His promises, for He remembers your sins no more; He remembers you not according to your iniquity but according to His mercy. Today, we live on the crumbs, but a day is coming when we will feast at the table with all of God’s children, forever and ever. In the Name of Jesus, Amen.

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