Sermons, Uncategorized

Great Faith

“Christ with the Canaanite Woman and Her Daughter” by Henry Ossawa Tanner

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“But she came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’ And He answered, ‘It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.’ She said, ‘Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.’ Then Jesus answered her, ‘O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.’ And her daughter was healed instantly” (Matthew 15:25-28).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Jesus withdraws to the district of Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile territory, a coastal region northwest of Galilee that had never been part of Israel and had been dominated by the Phoenicians in Old Testament times. Jesus goes there, not primarily to engage in ministry, but to avoid the opposition arising from His recent confrontation with Pharisees from Jerusalem. The Canaanites who live there are descendants of those whom the Israelites failed to exterminate when they occupied the land. Most are unbelievers and idolaters, but this woman is an exception.

With the word “behold,” Matthew draws attention to this Canaanite woman and her words. She speaks like a disciple and calls Jesus “Lord.” This woman, who might so quickly be dismissed as unclean, speaks like a believing Israelite and addresses Jesus as “Son of David,” in sharp contrast to the Pharisees who had just been offended by Jesus’ teaching on what makes someone clean or unclean.  

“Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David,” she pleads. “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” It is a heartfelt prayer to the only One who can help. But how does Jesus respond? “He [does] not answer her a word.” Jesus’ response, or rather, lack of response, may surprise or even puzzle us. We have never seen Jesus treat anyone this way, and we wonder why He did this. Many commentaries seek to provide a satisfying answer, as though Jesus’ actions require a defense from us. But it is useless to conjecture why; Jesus simply remains silent.

But is that so out of character? Doesn’t it seem to you, that God is often silent when you are most anxious for an answer? At times, God seems inattentive, inactive, indifferent. And this silence may lead us to disappointment, despair, and hopelessness. God’s silence can be hard to take. It must have been excruciating for the woman in our text. You could probably tell of times when you have experienced this. It can be difficult. But it is necessary because it is only out of the silence that faith arises. As the writer of Hebrews puts is, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

The woman hopes for healing for her daughter. But even before that, she hopes for a response from Jesus. You, no doubt, have hoped for many things, too. Some of your prayers are known to others. Others you have kept hidden, because the hurt is too raw, you’re afraid it will overwhelm you if exposed. The need is so deep, you prefer to keep it under wraps to avoid the pain.

Jesus is silent as though He has not heard the woman’s plea. His disciples, however, have had enough. They ask Him to “send her away.” Give her what she wants so she’ll leave us alone and we can all get some rest.

Why Jesus replies to the disciples as He does, with words about His not being sent except to Israel’s lost sheep, we cannot be sure, but the words of the Canaanite woman provide a likely answer. She, herself a Gentile, has raised the issue of who Jesus is by calling Him “Lord, Son of David.” These titles are key to Jesus’ identity. In an especially important sense, Jesus has been sent only as Israel’s Messiah. To be sure, His identity as Israel’s Messiah and Savior has implications for His relationship with the rest of the human race and the entire creation. Nevertheless, Jesus is, first and foremost, “the Christ, Son of David, Son of Abraham,” as Matthew describes Him in the opening verse of his Gospel. Jesus is not there for the disciples’ convenience or to be a wandering wonder worker.

Undeterred and unfazed by Jesus’ apparent indifference, the woman persists. She “kneels” before Jesus, the same word usually translated as “worship,” calling Jesus “Lord” for the second time, and continuing to cry out, “Help me!”

Finally, the Messiah of Israel speaks to her directly. If His silence was disappointing, His words are crushing. If His words seemed harsh before, now they are brutal. “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” It’s not just that Jesus has been sent only to the lost sheep that are Israel’s house, but it’s also that He has come to give bread to feed the children, the people of Israel, and “it is not right,” if this woman is thinking that she should get what by right and by divine economy belongs to Israel.

Remember, Jesus has just provided bread in the wilderness for five thousand men, besides women and children, with twelve baskets of fragments left over (Matthew 14:13-21), and He will soon provide bread for four thousand more (Matthew 15:29-38). In Jesus, Israel’s God is feeding His ungrateful, uncomprehending people once again, as He had done during their forty years of wilderness wandering, while they waited to get into the promised land, the land that God had taken away from the idolatrous Canaanites. Now, Jesus wants to know this: does the Canaanite woman really know who He is, or are the things that have come out of her mouth just words and no more?

The woman speaks and shows her faith. “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” In other words, “Yes, Lord, You’re absolutely right! It would be bad indeed to try to deny or contradict God’s plan to save His ancient people Israel. You are Israel’s Messiah, and the bread you give belongs to the children. I agree and believe, and I don’t want the children’s bread. But when the children eat, they drop a few crumbs, don’t they? And the dogs get to eat them, don’t they? The bread of the Messiah is so abundant and so overflowing that everyone can eat and there are still fragments leftover. I’ll take the crumbs!”

Last week, we had Jesus rebuking his disciple as Little-Faith. We learned what little faith looks like. We learned the dangers of little faith. And we were reminded that little faith in Jesus is still saving faith. This week, Jesus lauds an unnamed Canaanite woman for her faith: “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire” (Matthew 15:28).

How did she know? Who had taught this Canaanite woman about Israel’s Messiah? We simply do not know. We do know, however, the ultimate answer to the question of how this woman came to know and believe. The Father revealed to her His Son Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. She is an unlikely candidate for such faith. That, however, is the way of God, to hide things from the wise and understanding and to reveal them to little children (Matthew 11:25-27).

Great was her faith. In what does greatness of faith consist? Two things. She knew who Jesus is: Lord and Son of David. And she knew that Israel’s Messiah has come to give such abundance that there will be something left over even for her. Great faith puts all hope in Jesus. It believes Jesus can and will help. The woman demonstrates this faith by looking for Him, following Him, begging Him for mercy, and continuing to ask even when it seems that He doesn’t care a whit about her. That’s the way all genuine faith in Jesus works.

The unnamed woman is not too proud to hear that she has no right to ask or demand anything. She listens humbly as Jesus says He was sent for the children of Israel and referred to her people as dogs. The children of Israel were God’s chosen people. They had received the promise and the Messiah came to them now. The Canaanite woman does not belong to His people. She recognizes her lack of standing. She identifies herself as a beggar—worse, a dog. She also recognizes who she is talking to. Jesus is the Master and He has bread (even if it was just crumbs) to spare. That’s the way it always is with true faith. Faith knows that if He helps, it’s undeserved grace.

The Scriptures make it clear how you and I are also beggars and we have no standing before God outside of Christ. He has all that we need for this life and for eternal life. In Holy Baptism, He has made us God’s children, heirs of God’s kingdom. He has washed away our sins and clothed us with Christ’s righteousness. He feeds us with the Bread of Life, Himself, His very body and blood, for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. Furthermore, God’s Word reminds us that Jesus is still Lord, and He has even more to spare. So, we come to Him, like the woman came to Jesus, and continually cry out for mercy, “Lord, help me.” And He does. He will. Not always when or how we would like Him to, but always at the right time.

It is interesting to note the different ways that Jesus deals with people who come to Him for help or for healing. He often surprises us by the way He treats people. When we analyze each episode, however, we see that He deals with each person in exactly the right way, for He can look into their hearts, and He knows what is best for them. In this way, He also teaches us that He deals with us as individuals. He knows our needs, and He is always concerned about providing what is best for us. His primary concern is to keep us in the saving faith to everlasting life. Nothing could be more important than that. We need to remember that always, especially when our gracious Lord deals with us in ways that we cannot immediately understand or appreciate. Any difficulties we have to endure in this life are not worthy to be compared with the glory that will be revealed in us in the life to come.

The promise in this text is not that Jesus will respond here and now by doing our will. He does on occasion, and at such times we sing His praise. But in many cases, and in an ultimate sense, we are stuck with the silence. Our shared experience with the Canaanite woman in our text comes to an end… for now, at least.

You see, our story is not yet finished. Our healing and restoration has not taken place yet. But it will. At the return of Jesus, when God’s silence is broken by the trumpets and His absence is replaced with His glorious presence, we will know the fullness of His mercy. As He did for the unnamed woman and her daughter, God will bring you and me full and eternal healing. In the meantime, we live in faith and prayer, appealing to and trusting in the mercy of God in Christ. Such is how it goes for those who live by faith alone. Amen

The peace of God which passes all understanding guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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Sermons, Uncategorized

A Perfect Man

waitingfortheperfectmanClick here to listen to this sermon.

“Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body” (James 3:1-2).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

There once was a man who, while listening to a sermon in church was convicted of his sin, and he set out to do better. “I have sinned against [God] in thought, word, and deed,” he’d said week after week, but this day he especially sensed it was true. He reasoned that his evil thoughts often caught him off guard and might be difficult to change. His evil actions, he decided, were often a product of his thoughts and words. So he would first focus on his words; his words were more likely something he could change. If he could catch himself before he said something he’d regret, he would also have more control over things he did and, in time, perhaps eventually even over the things he thought.

For a while, the man was very successful. He always took his time. He didn’t speak without first considering what he would say. Oh, he wasn’t perfect, but then who is? As time went on, though, he found himself back to his old habits. He hurt people with what he said. He created problems for himself with what he said. “I’ll try even harder,” he thought, and he committed himself to being more diligent. But the harder he tried, the more he failed, or so it seemed. Finally, he gave up.

The story, really, is the same for every one of us, isn’t it? The only question then is this: What do we mean when we “give up”? Are we simply defeated? Or is there a “giving up” that’s really moving forward?

Again this morning (evening), the Epistle confronts Christians of every age—and so also each one of us—with the inconsistences between faith and actions. The warning we hear this morning (evening) is very clear, and what’s also clear is that no one is immune. “How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:5b-6).

We need to respect the mighty power of the words we speak. “Talk is cheap,” people say. “Sticks and stones may break your bones but words will never hurt you.” James strongly disagrees. Although words seem to be merely moving air, although the tongue is just a three-inch muscle, wet, floppy, and only partially visible, it is tremendously powerful. Like a tail that wags the dog, the tongue drives our lives. James gives examples of little things that have big effects:

  • The bit in horses’ mouths. That little piece of steel in a horse’s mouth, when managed properly, can control a 1,500 pound animal with the lightest touch.
  • The rudder on a ship. That little shaped plank, most invisible beneath the waterline, enables a captain to control the course of an immense ship filled with cargo, crew, and passengers.
  • A spark in a forest. Under control, a spark can make a small fire to warm cold travelers and cook their food. Out of control, a spark can cause an inferno that can reduce thousands of acres of mighty trees to blackened, smoking stumps.

James thinks it urgent that people learn to control their mouths, not only to avoid hurting other people emotionally and spiritually. But an uncontrolled tongue can also turn on the uncontrolled talker, corrupting the whole person, poisoning his or her mind, and plunging the body into the dangers of the fires of hell.

In last week’s Epistle, James addressed the issue of favoritism, but many of us may have dismissed ourselves from those charges. “Not me; I would never show favoritism in church!” But now, his charges run deep and should cut deep into the heart of everyone who hears. Your tongue is an agent of harm. It is on fire with the fire of hell. “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue” (James 3:7-8a).

No fallen human, not one, is innocent—not you, not me, no one. And to drive the point home, James reminds us of what we are all too capable of doing: we can sit here in the Divine Service, praising our God in heaven, and then leave here cursing His most precious creations—other people. We praise God one moment, and then the next the very same tongue, can utter such filth about others and even to others. “Look what he’s doing! What a hideous man! Look at her! Imagine what God must think about her! O God, I thank you that I’m not like those people!”

St. Paul writes: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). James would agree wholeheartedly. His proof is the tongue. His proof is your tongue. Ours are tongues that cannot be tamed. Sure, we try. We try and we try. Just like the man in the opening story, we put our mind to fixing the problem. After all, we are children of God. Such a fiery tongue is not befitting us. Wouldn’t God want us to tame it so that it speaks only words that glorify Him? Sure he would. He does. But the harder, we try, it seems, the worse we do.

James offers the hypothetical perfect man: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle the whole body” (James 3:2b). It is as if James is saying, “If anyone could do this without flaw… well, that guy would be perfect in every way, wouldn’t he?” But I am not a perfect man. Neither my tongue nor my body is bridled. With St. Paul, I must confess: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24).

So, is there nothing we can do? Are we doomed to live this life in a never-ending battle against a tongue that would just as soon destroy us as it would honor the God of our salvation? Well, in a way, yes, and in another, no. The battle will go on for each of us. But the very same words of the Epistle point us toward the victory that is ours in the battle. The battles rage on, but the war is already over. Listen again: “If anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle His own body” (James 3:2b).

And here is the good news of God’s grace toward imperfect men and women such as you and me—He sends us the perfect man. Isaiah writes of Him:

For He grew up before Him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, and no beauty that we should desire Him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces He was despised, and we esteemed Him not. Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities; upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on Him the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed, and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so He opened not His mouth” (Isaiah 53:2–7).

There is one who bridled his tongue and bridled his whole body. There is one who lived the perfect life you and I cannot live. There is one who deserved  none of what He received at the hands of those who hung Him on the cross, but silently suffered every moment as He bore the burden of our sinful tongues.

That perfect Man, our Savior Jesus Christ, lived and died and rose exactly because our tongues are “a fire, a world of unrighteousness” (James 3:6). He bridled His tongue even in the face of death so that we might receive His righteousness as He now lives in us. So we need not “give up,” not in the sense of living in despair or guilt. Instead, we live as children of our heavenly Father. We live as those given the inheritance of the only Son of God, who was silent on our behalf. We live by giving in.

Talk is not cheap. Words do wound. Words can build or destroy a person’s self-confidence. Words can turn someone’s proud achievement into humiliation. Words can create or destroy relationships. Words can spread hate or love. Words can sow truth or plant lies. Words can cause suspicion or build trust. Words are powerful. But God’s Word is even more powerful.

God’s Word is His means to rescue people from hell. A sermon, a Bible study, a catechism lesson, or an evangelism visit all look tame and ineffectual. But God’s power to save people, to create and sustain saving faith, rides with words, with His spoken and visible Word.

In the waters of Holy Baptism, that fire that burns from your tongue was extinguished. The Word of God that you hear fills your mind and your heart with the pure truth from God. That Word replaces all of the “other words” and gives your tongue something righteous to speak. As you receive the body and blood of Christ under the bread and the wine, in your mouth and on your tongue, by faith,  the wounds inflicted on you by the things you say are healed. God’s grace is a saving flood that not even the fires of hell can stand against. And what you are helpless against on your own, you conquer in Christ.

There is no one perfect except Jesus. You will try to bridle your tongue and your body and your mind, but they will fail you. And though you will never stop trying, your trying must now be in Christ—giving up on yourself and giving in to Him. In Him, you receive the forgiveness of sins that goes beyond giving up. For, “all things are possible for one who believes” (Mark 9:23b). What’s impossible for you, perfection, is yours in Christ. In the forgiveness of your sins, God makes you perfect—and thus renews you, strengthens you, and guides you according to His will.

Perfection comes only through the one perfect man, Christ, but it does come through Christ. In Christ, the story does not end for that man we heard of at the beginning of the sermon, nor does it end for you, in despair and uncertainty. In Christ, it ends in victory. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a). All is not lost, and your tongue, though it rages with the fire of hell, will not condemn you. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.