Friday, March 6, 2009

Lent 2

“Bread for the Dogs” Matthew 15:21-28 Lent II March 7 - 8, 2009

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. It’s bad enough when people turn against us and make life difficult. It’s bad enough knowing that the devil is against us and seeks to cause all sorts of harm in body and soul. But what do we do when it seems as if God is against us, when it appears as if He’s our enemy? What do we do when He doesn’t seem to care about our pain and trouble, doesn’t answer our prayers, and doesn’t help us out as we hope?

That is precisely the situation in which the Canaanite woman finds herself in today’s Gospel. The Canaanites, you recall, were the ones whom God had told the Israelites to drive out of the Promised Land. Canaanites were ancient enemies of Israel, pagans, heathen. They were not among God’s chosen people. Israelites called the Canaanites dogs.

Yet knowing that she had no right to ask, this Canaanite woman still comes to Jesus and seeks His help. For she had heard the Word of Christ. Faith came by that hearing. She calls Jesus “Lord” and “Son of David.” She believes Him to be the Messiah. So she cries out to Him and begs Him to have mercy and help her daughter who is severely demon-possessed.

“But Jesus answered her not a word.” She is thirsty ground, pleading to the heavens for rain, but Jesus is a cloudless sky. Her prayer is met with a stony silence. It is as if He doesn’t hear her. The silence of God is one way to describe what hell is like. Even in this world which is under the curse of sin and death, the Word of God still continues to give life and motion and blessing to creation, both for believers and unbelievers. But in hell, where God never speaks, there is no creative Word of His to bring any sort of life or joy or peace. There is only the emptiness and the nothingness of His silence, the utter agonizing, torturous loneliness and pain of being cut off from Him and His creating voice. That is where the Canaanite woman was.

The temptation when you find yourself in that same position is then to give up on God, to think, “Well sure God loves other people, but He doesn’t love me. It’s no use. I’m not even worthy to pray, anyway, lousy sinner that I am. Why should I keep calling upon the Lord when it’s done me no good so far?” In that way the devil wants to shatter your heart and cause you to succumb to doubt and unbelief.

Sometimes God puts us into the hell of His silence, so that our faith in Him may be exercised and strengthened, and we may drawn closer to Him and to heaven in the end. Notice that Jesus did not say “no” to the Canaanite woman’s prayer. He knows her faith, better than she knows it herself. He knows what He is eventually going to do. But for the moment He is silent, and in His silence, trust in Jesus is tested and purified. Does she trust Him when He ignores her? Do you trust Jesus when He seems to be turning His back on you?

Faith clings to Christ and His Word alone. Faith clings to Jesus’ death and resurrection alone and not to whether or not God seems to be coming through for us. Even if God never responds to a single word of our prayer in this life, even if He reserves all of His “yes’s” for the resurrection from the dead on the last day, even if all we receive in this life is suffering and silence, so be it. We still have Christ and His everlasting kingdom and His forgiveness and His Word. We have God’s “yes” even when the silence seems to say “no.”

Jesus Himself experienced the silence of God in his own ears. He prayed on the cross, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” And the Father was silent. There was no voice from heaven, no angels to bring the answer to His “why” question. Not even His disciples stood with Him. There was only the thick, awful silence of God’s judgment against us, laid on Jesus. Because Jesus suffered that hell for us, in our place, we are rescued and redeemed.

The Canaanite woman doesn’t give up. She keeps crying out. The disciples become weary of her prayers and, thinking themselves more compassionate than Jesus, join in with her prayer, asking Him to give her what she wants so that she can return home. Surely now Jesus will listen, right? If you’ve got Peter, James, John, and the other disciples praying for you; if you’ve got all your friends and neighbors and the prayer chain praying for you, then God has to respond favorably, right?

Imagine the disciples’ shock and dismay when Jesus replies, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Can this be the same Jesus who said, “Ask and it will be given you. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened?” Now He seems to slam the door in her face and in the face of his disciples.

Again, Jesus hides His “yes” inside of a “no.” He doesn’t say He won’t help this poor woman. He simply reminds her that He had come first to the Jews. The Gentiles would have to wait their turn, and that would come only after His death and resurrection. Just because you get a bunch of people praying about something doesn’t mean that you’re more likely to get what you ask for, as if this were a tug of war contest with God. Prayer doesn’t work that way. There is faith to be exercised. The purpose of prayer is not to conform God’s will to our will, but to shape our will to His will and to receive everything from Him as a gift.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” This is the second way in which God tests and tries our faith in order to strengthen it. He acts as if we are rejected. He deals with us as if He had not come for us, as if we have no place in His kingdom, as if we have no business seeking His help. Jesus doesn’t even speak directly to the poor woman. He speaks to His disciples and lets her overhear what He has to say. Not only does Christ appear to reject her, he rejects the prayers of his own disciples. Christ teaches us to trust in nothing but Him–not our own prayers, nor the prayers of the pious and holy, nor the saints in heaven, but only in Jesus.

That is a hard thing for us to learn. We are increasingly impatient. We are accustomed to having things our way right now. Habits years in the making we want broken in a few simple steps. When we call someone, we expect them to answer instantly, drop everything, and respond to us right then and there. We expect the same thing from God. We expect our prayers to be dealt with immediately. We don’t like to be told to wait and to hold on.

The Canaanite woman does hold on. In fact she persists even more fervently in the face of Jesus’ rejection. Now on her knees and with a much shorter, more fervent prayer. She just doesn’t give up. “Lord, help me,” she says.

How does our Lord respond? “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” How cruel and insensitive Jesus seems! He utterly humiliates her in front of his disciples. This is not the kind and gentle Jesus we learned about as children. We would never put up with such treatment. We barely tolerate a rebuke or warning from a pastor or a fellow Christian, much less be called a dog by the Lord.

And this is the third way that God exercises faith–He breaks our pride and humbles us. He puts us down with the dogs. He humbles the exalted, and He exalts the humbled. “He fills the hungry with good things, but he sends the rich away empty.” If you are resting on your achievements, your works, your piety, your good looks, your intelligence, you will be humbled. If you look down on others from your lofty position of self-importance, then be prepared. You will be humbled. And that is good and needful. Because it is on our knees, with empty hands and broken hearts and crushed spirits, that we are most ready to receive God’s gifts. Our hands must be emptied before they can be filled. Before we can live in Christ, we must die to ourselves.

So what do you do when the Lord calls you a dog? The woman could have been indignant, walked away, saved her self-esteem. Instead she receives His judgment and confesses it. “Yes, Lord, I may be a Gentile dog; but the dogs get to eat at least the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Do you see what she did there? This is the most important point of the whole Gospel. She traps Jesus by His own words and holds Him there, which is exactly what He wants. Like Jacob wrestling with God, she won’t let Him go until she receives a blessing. She has him caught by His Word, embraced in great faith. “If the Lord says I am a dog, then I’m a dog.” But dogs get the crumbs, and she knows that the crumbs that fall from Jesus’ table are rich crumbs of the Bread of Life, and her great faith will not be denied them. She is a true Israelite by faith; for she wrestles with God and man in Christ and prevails.

How the Lord loves it! He loves to be trapped in His own words! “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed that instant by the Word of Jesus. Her faith was great because she was nothing, a “dog,” and Jesus was everything for her. Faith is great that clings to a great Jesus.

Jesus is indeed great. Greater than the demon that possessed the Canaanite’s little girl. Greater than the Law which separated Jew and Gentile. Greater than your sin and your death. God’s Law calls us something far worse than “dogs.” It calls us sinners. And if God is to be righteous in his words and justified in his judgments, then all we can say is, “Yes, that’s what I am, a poor miserable sinner; but Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, and so I trust in Him and will not turn my heart from Him but will cling to Him persistently for forgiveness, life and salvation.”

The fact of the matter is you have an even more sure Word to cling to than this Canaanite woman ever did. For God has put His very Name on you by water and the Spirit. God can’t vacate His name. He can’t wriggle out of what He said and did for you at the font. Even when everything seems to be coming against you as a challenge and an uncertainty, your baptism nevertheless stands sure. It is a fact which surely happened on a specific day, and God does not now take His Word back. It is always there for you to hold to. With His Word God has gladly and willingly made Himself your captive. Hold on to Him. Cling to His Word. Trusting in Christ you will not only eat the crumbs that fall under the table, you will have a place reserved for you at God’s table as one of His children. Come, receive the Bread of Life at the table of the Master, His body and blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Lent Midweek 1
March 4, 2009
“Beware of Idols”
(The Ten Commandments)

Our Lenten emphasis is catechesis, that is, instruction in the basics of the Christian faith. In the early church, the forty days of Lent would serve as the final time of instruction before the catechumens were then baptized during the Easter Vigil. And not only for new Christians do Lent and catechesis work well together. The intensity and increased devotion of this season can aid us longtime Christians in returning to and being renewed in the most basic and always relevant aspects of Christian faith and life.

Tonight we start a six-part series on “The Six Chief Parts of Lenten Catechesis.” We’ll be following the six chief parts as Luther lays them out in the Small Catechism: The Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Sacrament of Holy Baptism, Confession, and the Sacrament of the Altar.

We begin tonight with the Ten Commandments, as we just read them. During this season of Lent it is fitting that we hear the Ten Commandments. For in this solemn and somber season of repentance, the Ten Commandments, God’s Law, will show us our sins and our need for God’s forgiveness, which we will then find in the blessed Gospel that God gives us here in Word and Sacrament.

The Ten Commandments: Obviously we could do a ten-part series, let alone a six-part series, simply on this first chief part of the Catechism, the Commandments. But just in our brief time here tonight, we’re going to zoom in on just one of these Ten Commandments to do the job for all the rest. For if we could keep the First Commandment, we would keep all the others as well. However, since we do not keep the First Commandment, that shows up then in all the ways we break all the other commandments.

That’s why Luther can start his explanations for all the remaining commandments with the words, “We should fear and love God so that…” That’s certainly clear for the Second and Third Commandments--how we use God’s name and how gladly and diligently we hear his word are reflections of how we are or are not fearing, loving, and trusting in God above all things. But it’s also true for the other commandments, Four through Ten, which deal with our neighbor. How we treat our neighbor--do I love my neighbor so as not to harm him or take advantage of him but rather to help him and be kind to him?--how I treat my neighbor is a sign of how I am or am not loving God. The First Commandment, then, as Luther says in the Large Catechism, “the First Commandment is the chief source and fountainhead that flows into all the rest.”

Tonight we want to get to the root of the problem, why we do not keep the First Commandment or any of the other commandments as we ought. The root problem, lying at the base of all sin, is idolatry. Idolatry is to have another god, a false god, any god other than the one true God. The commandment says, “You shall have no other gods,” and the problem is, we do. And, if we have some other god, then we are not fearing, loving, and trusting in the God who speaks to us in these commandments, the God who created us and made us his people. Idolatry, worshiping other gods, lies at the heart of all sin.

But you say, “I do not worship an idol!” Now it is true, you probably do not bow down to an image of stone or wood, like a pagan tribesman out in the jungle. No, your idols no doubt are of a more refined, not so obvious, kind. Luther helps us out here, again from the Large Catechism:
What does it mean to have a god? Or, what is God? Answer: A god means that from which we are to expect all good and in which we are to take refuge in all distress. So, to have a God is nothing other than trusting and believing Him with the heart. . . . Whatever you set your heart on and put your trust in is truly your god.”

So things like money, success, popularity, pleasure--these are common everyday idols, false gods that people worship. They look to these things for their peace and happiness and satisfaction in life. Even people without these things can still worship these false gods. The man without money who can only think of how to get it and who envies the rich and is never content or satisfied--that man, too, is worshiping the god of Mammon. Do you see how even good gifts from God can take the place of God, so that people are worshiping the gifts rather than the Giver? Family, for example--a good gift from God--family can become an idol, when a person loves father or mother or wife or children more than he loves God. Idolatry is very common, and it can be very subtle. Whenever you are loving and trusting in something--anything--more than God, you have created an idol and are worshiping it.

So be honest and ask yourself questions like these: In what or whom do I trust above all else? In what or whom do I trust most for financial security, physical safety, or emotional support? Do I fear God’s wrath, avoiding every sin? Is my love for and trust in God evident in my daily living? Do I expect only good from God in every situation, or do I worry, doubt, complain, or feel unfairly treated when things go wrong? Do I withhold from God what is rightfully his?

Now beneath the familiar idols of money, power, pleasure and so on, which can vary from person to person, there is one idol that is common to us all. Tonight, as we’re getting to the root of the problem, I want you to become aware of an idol. An idol that is living in your house. An idol that is living in your heart. It is an idol that is common to every one of us and yet--and therefore--is different for each person. It is the idol called “I,” “me,” “myself.” This is the god everybody worships, and thus there are as many gods as there are people. Each one of us loves himself above all things, above other people, above God. That’s what it is to be a sinner, to be your own God, to serve yourself, to make your own decisions about right and wrong. “I will do what’s right for me!” That’s the nature of all sin. It started with our first parents in the Garden, and it’s been passed along to all of us, their children. This is the original sin, the root sin: to be your own God, to tune out the true God and his word. The result of that, the curse placed upon sin, we heard tonight: “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” The wages of sin is death.

Oh, who shall rescue us from this body of sin and death? Who will save us from our idolatry? Answer: The very God against whom we have sinned. For God is so rich in his mercy and grace that he provided the Answer, the answer to all our ills, the answer and remedy for sin and death, the answer to our rebellion and commandment-breaking. The Answer is Jesus. “For the Son of God, Jesus Christ,” Paul writes to the Corinthians--“all the promises of God find their Yes in Him.” Whatever your question is, Jesus is the Answer.

What does this mean? It means that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ our Savior, to keep these commandments perfectly in our place. Jesus alone loved God and loved his neighbor the way we all ought but don’t. It means that Jesus, the sinless one, then went to the cross to take our place also there, bearing the punishment prescribed for all who break the Commandments: judgment under God’s wrath. It means that Jesus, by fulfilling the Commandments, both their keeping and their punishment, has fulfilled all righteousness and taken away the judgment and the death. Now he gives us forgiveness and life in their place: the forgiveness put in your ears in the gospel and put in your mouth in this Sacrament; the life he will show forth once again at Easter, life that rises from the dead.

Now, what’s more, he gives you a new life even now, life in the Spirit, so that now you can even begin to keep and to do the Commandments yourself. A new life of love, love for God and love for your neighbor. To be sure, you will never do the Commandments well enough to earn your salvation. You still have that old idol, the idol of self, hanging around in your heart. You will always need God’s forgiveness every day, for as many days as you live as both sinner and saint. But one day that idol will finally be cast from its throne, and you and I will forevermore worship and serve only the one true God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength, together with all the saints in the joys of heaven. Amen.