March 16, 2014
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
There’s a picture of Jesus in that office over there that you would probably recognize in an instant. It’s the standard picture of Jesus you see in most churches—a man with wavy hair to His shoulders and a neatly trimmed beard. Although He has distinct features, they’re not rough or ugly. His face lacks any particular emotion, but you might be able to imagine a slight smile starting to come across His lips. His eyes in particular relay the message of the painter. Jesus is not looking at you, but rather off to the side, eyes slightly raised, eyebrows arched and welcoming, forehead smooth of creases. Whatever way you may describe it, scowling is the opposite of the Jesus. Behind His head is a soft glow. A welcoming, gentle, kindhearted face ready to help in time of need.
But what happens when that’s not the face of Jesus that you get? What happens when you approach your Lord Jesus and find Him to be stern, harsh, even cruel? This Jesus isn’t the kind of Jesus that you want painted on canvas and hung up in the Church, and it’s even less of a Jesus you want answering your prayers.
Yet this is the Jesus that a certain Canaanite woman finds in her time of great need. And Jesus went from there and withdrew into the region of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that vicinity came out and was crying out saying, “Have mercy on me, Lord Son of David, my daughter is badly demon-possessed” (vv 21-22). First off, it’s a peculiar thing that this woman would come to Jesus in the first place. The region of Tyre and Sidon was beyond the borders of Israel. What was left of the Canaanites settled there after Israel claimed the Promised Land long years before Jesus walked in Galilee. The Canaanites were an idolatrous people, honoring the god of fertility. So what makes this Canaanite woman so interesting is that she comes to Jesus and addresses Him as, “Lord Son of David.”
There are two parts to her confession. First she calls Jesus “Lord.” The Divine Name. She addresses Jesus in the same way that the Israelites addressed the God who made the heavens and the earth. He is no false Baal. What’s more, she also calls Him the Son of David. A true man in the lineage of David. She confesses Jesus to be true God and true man.
How does she know this? She had heard the report of this Man who was more than a Man. But it was the Spirit who created this particular faith that Jesus was also truly God, and the only one able to answer her cry for mercy.
And what did this Man, who was more than a Man, who was God Himself, who was the only hope for her badly demon-possessed daughter, what did He do? He gave her the silent treatment. But He did not answer her a word. And His disciples came to Him and begged Him, saying, “Send her away because she is crying out after us” (v 23). Even the disciples were taken aback by this Jesus. “Say something, Man! Anything! She keeps crying for You to have mercy. Why don’t you just tell her that her daughter will get better and send her on her way?”
Have you ever gotten the silent treatment? It makes you want to shut down, to give up. Has it ever felt as though your prayers were falling on deaf ears? It makes you want to stop praying, to shut down, to give up. Imagine that painting in the back office looking directly at you with stern eyes that say without words, “I could speak to you right now, but I’m not.” You don’t see too many pictures of Jesus like that hanging up in churches.
But this Canaanite woman is persistent. She keeps crying out. And He answered and said, “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (v 24). When He finally does answer, it’s not even addressed to the woman—He’s talking to the disciples. It’s as if He’s saying, “Woman, you have no voice here, I’m only here for the Jews.”
Maybe even worse than the silent treatment is when you hear Christians raving about how God has answered prayers, and you feel more like you’ve just gotten the divine “Whammy!” Maybe God answers only people who are really full of faith, only special Christians. Maybe my faith isn’t what I thought it was. Imagine walking into a church and finding a painting of Jesus with His backed turned to you. No, no Jesus for you.
The Canaanite woman then starts to play the nag. She runs around and plants herself right down in Jesus’ way. But she came and fell down before Him, saying, “Lord, help me” (v 25). The prayer has changed a bit. No longer is she asking for mercy, but help. There is only one other time that a person makes such a raw, desperate plea for help; it was another parent of a sick child. And what does Jesus do? He adds insult to injury. And He answered and said, “It is not proper to take the children’s bread and throw it to the little dogs” (v 26). Now the picture has turned around and the face of Jesus has gone from stern to harsh to downright cruel. Have you ever prayed for something, and the complete opposite happened?
The outward appearance of Jesus is often a stern, harsh, or even cruel, “No!” And worse, He often appears that way when you’re at your worst, when you have your greatest need. When life is coming up roses, Jesus looks just like that painting back in my office; but when life is in the gutter, you’d rather just run away.
It’s quite amazing that the Canaanite woman pressed on with Jesus, considering His outward appearance. But with Jesus, outward appearances are always deceiving. What appears to be plain water is a washing of regeneration. What appears to be bread and wine is His body and blood. What appears to be just another man is the sinless Son of God. And what appears to be stern, harsh, and cruel is kind, yielding, and merciful.
What is it that keeps the woman coming back, that throws her down at Jesus’ feet, confident that He will answer her prayer? It’s not in His outward appearance, but in what she finds in His words. She said, “Yes Lord, for the little dogs also eat from the scraps that have fallen from their lord’s table” (v 27).
Dr. Luther writes, “What a superb and wonderful object lesson this is, therefore, to teach us what a mighty, powerful, all-availing thing faith is. Faith takes Christ captive in his word, when he’s angriest, and makes out of his cruel words a comforting inversion, as we see here. You say, the woman responds, that I am a dog. Let it be, I will gladly be a dog; now give me the consideration that you give a dog. Thus she catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught. Very well, she says, if I am a dog, I ask no more than a dog’s rights. I am not a child nor am I of Abraham’s seed, but you are a rich Lord and set a lavish table. Give your children the bread and a place at the table; I do not wish that. Let me, merely like a dog, pick up the crumbs under the table, allowing me that which the children don’t need or even miss, the crumbs, and I will be content therewith. So she catches Christ, the Lord, in his own words and with that wins not only the right of a dog, but also that of the children. Now then where will he go, our dear Jesus? He let himself be made captive, and must comply. Be sure of this: that’s what he most deeply desires” (Luther’s House Postils).
It’s faith that finds under the stern, harsh, and cruel exterior the welcoming promise of Jesus and the mercy for which she prays. Then Jesus answered her and said, “O woman! Great is your faith. Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed from that hour (v 28).
It’s quite amazing that the Canaanite pressed on with Jesus. Actually, it’s more than amazing; it’s miraculous. Whenever faith is present, there also is the Holy Spirit working with faith to grab hold of the promises that Jesus buries—sometimes quite deeply—in His Word. The Spirit led the woman to find in Jesus’ silence an invitation to draw closer and intensify her prayer. The Spirit led the woman to find in Jesus’ seeming dismissal the kernel of a promise, that there is mercy in Christ. The Spirit led the woman to find in Jesus’ seeming insult a gracious invitation.
And so the Spirit leads you. He gives you faith to find hidden underneath Jesus’ stern, harsh, and even cruel, “No!” a merciful, “Yes!” The Spirit gives you faith to find these handholds in Jesus’ Word, to catch Him in His words, to hold Him captive. The Spirit takes your hand and wraps your fingers around these promises, and He makes them your own. And so He leads you from faith to faith, to find a blessing in the Words of Christ, no matter how they appear on the outside.
Faith Catches Christ in His Words, and Wins the Gifts He Longs To Give
In + Jesus’ name. Amen.
Rev. Jacob Ehrhard