LUTHER MEMORIAL CHAPEL, SHOREWOOD, WI
If you want to make sense out of the Readings we have during Lent there’s a couple things you should know. Historically the season of Lent is a time of catechesis and instruction for those coming to know Christ. Preparing to receive the new life of Baptism and the Holy Supper of our Lord for the first time. Which would then take place at the Easter Vigil. Lent was and is a time of careful training and catechesis. In military terms, you might just call the season of Lent – Basic Training. And what better way to start training than to meet the enemy and know who you’re up against. So the first Sunday of Lent, last week, introduces the newbies, the new Christians to the devil. Helps them see that there really is an enemy out there. An enemy hell-bent on destroying their faith in Christ. So last week we all learned about our defense, where our strength comes from, which is the Word of God. Which alone, has the power to defeat and drive out this enemy.
This Second Sunday in Lent, however, deals with a different phenomenon in the Christian life. An experience which seasoned Christians know very well. That the Christian life is not for sissies. It’s no walk through the roses. It’s hard. It’s difficult and it’s dangerous. Often like a wrestling match – fighting, violently sometimes, with the promises of god. And sometimes it seems as though God himself is our adversary. Just take Jacob in our Old Testament lesson this morning. He’s a man on the run. He stole his brother Esau’s birthright and now Esau is marching his way with 400 men. Revenge? Total annihilation? Jacob can only guess at the tragic fate that awaits him and his family.
And so Jacob prays a beauty of a prayer in his time of need. He confesses who God is and what He has done. He confesses his unworthiness. Then he does something shrewd. He throws God’s promises right in his face: “but You said, God, that you will surely do good to me. You said, God, that you would make my offspring as the sand of the sea.” So how bout them promises now!? In prayer, he remembers God’s promises, holds them up stubbornly and persistently, promises which are the basis for all of our prayers. Namely, the promise to bless and pardon us for the sake of Christ, the offspring of Jacob. What a beautiful prayer.
But later that very night, when Jacob was struggling in unimaginable fear and distress, what does God do? Does he give him instant relief? Do the heavens open up? No way. Instead, seemingly at the worst time, God picks a fight. Jacob maybe thought it was his older brother Esau wrestling with him in the night, just as he wrestled with Esau in the darkness of his mother’s womb. But it was Jesus, it was the Lord, disguised as a man. It was the Lord who picked a fight and fought with him until daybreak.
Many of you have wrestled with God mightily too! When God takes those whom you love. When the cancer report comes back. When faced with new pressures and troubles in which it’s hard to see any relief or way through. What darkness and distress we sometimes feel!
Alone and faced with danger, Jacobs finds God to be his adversary. Yet Jacob grabs hold and refuses to let go until her receives a blessing and a new name as well, “Israel,” meaning he who wrestles or strives with God. What can we learn It does not always seem that God is on our side. He often causes Christians to bear trials, troubles, sufferings, and the holy cross. Yet this is not to destroy us, but to strengthen us and finally bless us.
Now, this morning, I’d like you to fix your eyes on this Canaanite woman, in our Gospel. You’d expect Jesus to run to her, grab her, and comfort her. Do whatever he can. But our text simply says that he did not answer her a word. He ignored her it seems. At this point the woman is making a real scene and she is probably annoying the heck out of the disciples. Then Jesus says to the woman “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Jesus shrugs her off. This woman is a Canaanite, an enemy of the Jews, a friend by no means. A descendent of Ham, the cursed son of Noah.
The woman however runs after Jesus again and drops on her knees. Our text says that she worships him. And calls out again loudly “Lord, help me!” Then Jesus really seems to let her have it. He says to her “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it do the dogs.” This is not like saying she is a cute puppy or something like that. It’s an insult of the worst sort. He’s calling her a dog.
But the fascinating thing is that the woman does not deny it. On her knees, she looks at Jesus lovingly and says “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.”
Jesus is floored. He is blown away: “O woman, great is your faith! Then let it be done.” The woman’s daughter was healed instantly – right there and then.
This poor woman had won the wrestling match with God. When God seems to be silent, she cried out louder, knowing that he heard her voice. When Jesus, in her own experience seems to be saying, “no” she kept praying. When he seems to turn away from her and even insult her, she persisted in her faith. She did not deny the things Jesus said. “Yes Lord, I am a dog. I am a poor miserable sinner. But I know that what they say about you is true. I believe that you are the Savior. I know that you are merciful. I have heard and I believe that you have come for the likes of me and my broken family.”
There is much we can learn from this text this morning. The woman did not trust in her own experience, she did not take no for an answer. She stubbornly persisted in her faith. When Jesus was silent, she cried out louder. When Jesus seems to be saying no, she said yes. Faith is a tenacious and stubborn thing! This woman was delighted to consider herself a dog at the Master’s table. She knew that even dogs receive the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.
Jesus is amazed at this woman’s faith, because of her stubbornness. She refuses to believe that Jesus will withhold his love and his healing. She knows that God must act. She believes that God does work all things together for good. And she plants her knees in the dust and cries out Lord have mercy! This woman has caught Jesus in his own words. She has caught the Son of God, hang on to him and refuses to let him go until He helps her. She refuses to let Jesus go, until her daughter is healed.
This mother is not a quitter, she doesn’t throw her hands up, saying better luck next time. And by the way, she doesn’t say “well my daughter has turned 18 it’s not really my business anymore.” No, this tenacious mother grabs a fist full of God’s promises and throws them right in his face. She has caught Jesus in his own words, and she knows that He cannot break his promises. He must act and act he does. Just like the Lord and Jacob exchange blows and grapple so does this Canaanite woman truly strive with God and prevails.
Yes, these are strange texts today. But they teach us a lot about faith. The Christian life in many ways takes the shape and form of a bloody, and violent fight. The Christian life, like the Canaanite woman and Jacob, is about blood, sweat, and tears. It’s not picturesque, it’s not neat and tidy, it’s messy. And so is the Christian life. God is not experienced as always merciful. He often seems to ignore us. He often seems to be saying no. He gives the cold shoulder. Yes, can be harsh with his children!
God often appears to be our adversary, who wrestles with us, like he did with Jacob. But know this! God does not wrestle with his enemies! He only wrestles with those whom he loves. All fathers who love their children wrestle with their little ones. They make them believe they are losing and at the last minute, they let themselves be pinned down, and those children walk away stronger.
And so it is with the Lord, He only wrestles with the children whom he loves. For He Himself lets Himself be pinned to a cross, that your prayers would never be ignored. Jesus is possessed by your sin that he might be your savior. He lets himself be possessed with all the evil in the world, that your children might come to church and be possessed with the love of God and His kindness! He is afflicted that you would be healed. He is killed that you might be made alive. He is raised that you would be called a winner.
Like Jacob, you too bear the scars of the Christian life. Your wrestling match has not been an easy one. You too limp along, like Jacob. But don’t forget about God’s love for you. Don’t give up so easily. Don’t give into despair so quickly. What do we learn this second Sunday of Lent? Stick to Jesus and keep praying and asking. Luther told his folks in Wittenberg to stick to Jesus like burrs stick to a dog. Remember that tribulation produces perseverance, perseverance character, and chapter hope, and hope will not disappoint. Even though God seems to give you one continuous “no,” just know and believe that he has prepared a glorious final “Yes” for everything you have ever hoped for.
Like Jacob, you leave here with a blessing from God, absolved, and given His own name. So be bold in your prayers, believing in your heart, that whatever you ask in his name he will give you.
Sure, we don’t deserve even a scrap of mercy, but this morning he lays before us a feast. God has heard our prayers. And He is here to give us heavenly bread and drink. A feast for the forgiveness of sins, healing for sin-sick souls, and crumbs that bestow eternal life. In the name of Jesus. Amen.