Second Sunday in Lent – Reminiscere
February 24th, Year of Our + Lord 2013
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, MT
Wrestling with Offenses – Matthew 15:21-23 and Genesis 32:22-32
God is love. God wants all people to be saved. So, encountering God should be a happy time, right? But when Jacob encounters God, he has to wrestle with Him all night, and comes away with a permanent limp. A Canaanite woman encounters God, and is in turn ignored, dismissed, and called a dog. What about you? Is seeking an encounter with God nothing but a joyous, pleasant time, or is it a struggle to gather around His Word and Sacraments, a struggle to open your Bible and read, a struggle to get yourself here, and then put up with the other people you meet when you get here, a bother and at times an insult to have to deal with the rules of Church, wearisome to put up with the shortcomings of your pastor? If God is good, why is encountering Him sometimes so difficult?
Jacob was a trickster, a thief, disloyal, cowardly. He was willing to accept the Lord’s blessing, and he sought God’s help in time of need. But Jacob wasn’t much into seeking the Lord on a regular basis, not very concerned with living in the Lord’s way. Nevertheless, God had chosen Jacob, and blessed him richly, and God was bringing him back to his homeland, after a long exile. But just shortly before Jacob’s arrival, God attacks him in his sleep. The Lord really seems to be messing with him, since the Lord could have won the wrestling match whenever He willed. Instead He keeps Jacob wrestling all night long. Then, when it was time to go, God, with just a touch, puts Jacob’s his hip permanently out of joint, ending the wrestling match.
Amazingly, even after this injury, Jacob doesn’t seem to have taken offense. He didn’t seem to be upset by this unexpected Wrestlemania; would an offended victim have struggled so long and hard? He just wouldn’t quit. I would expect to be miffed if God woke me from a good night’s sleep with a half nelson. I would be pretty cranky if I had to wrestle with God, all night long. I might feel patronized when God ends my struggling with one touch of His finger. I might want an explanation from the Almighty as to just what He thought He was doing.
Not Jacob. No, despite all the struggle and discomfort the Lord had inflicted on him, Jacob just wants a blessing, and to know His antagonist’s Name. Something about this long night of wrestling changes Jacob, makes him want to know more about this man, who turns out to be God, come to wrestle with Him. Jacob asks, and the Lord answers. Jacob indeed receives a blessing, a new name, earned through his night of wrestling, the name “Israel,” which means “struggles, or wrestles, with God.” Oh, and Jacob receives a limp to remind him of that night for the rest of his life. But Jacob doesn’t complain. Rather he marvels that he has seen the face of God, and lives to tell about it.
The likelihood of the Canaanite woman taking offense seems even greater. Our discomfort with the Lord’s actions may be greater too. Jesus treats her in a very strange way, first ignoring, then rejecting, then insulting: “Go away, you dog, you are not worthy.” What’s going on here? She is an outsider, not a descendent of Jacob, not a daughter of Israel. Even worse, the Canaanites are the enemy, worshipers of strange gods, the people the Israelites were supposed to drive from the Promised Land, 1,400 years earlier. But the Canaanite woman doesn’t concern herself with any of that. For the sake of her daughter, and for the sake of what she believes about Jesus, she will not take offense. No matter what Jesus says, she believes He can and will free her daughter from demon oppression.
Consider for a moment what she confessed to be true about herself. By accepting what you and I would most likely consider insults, she agrees that she is unworthy of God’s attention. She agrees that she is not properly part of God’s chosen people. She even agrees that she deserves to be called a dog, and not a human being. Why? How did she believe these things about herself?
Well, somehow, through some work of the Holy Spirit through His Word, she recognizes and believes that the God who wrestled through the night with Jacob is back, traveling through Tyre and Sidon, God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of David. The appearance of the Lord to Jacob in the night is very mysterious, brief, and unique. Moses leaves many questions we might have unanswered. But now God’s appearance is plain, continuous, verifiable. Jesus has been openly displaying the power of God, as He wanders about the countryside. He was in one place one day, and then walked to another the next. You could follow Him around; you could try to approach Him today, and then again tomorrow, and the next. So, the Canaanite woman seeks and finds Jesus, because she knows who He is, the One, the only One, who can conquer the evil that has entered her life. Like Jacob, who knew it was a special act of God’s grace that he was not immediately struck dead in the presence of the Almighty, the Canaanite woman sees the face of God in the man Jesus Christ, and she knew that in Him she, and her daughter, could find real life, life free from the power of evil.
Yes indeed, the Canaanite woman confesses a lot about Jesus, too. Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter, my Canaanite daughter, is severely oppressed by a demon. With this cry, she confesses that God is merciful, that He cares about each and every human life, despite how life and its trials and Planned Parenthood might try to teach you differently. She confesses that this Jesus of Nazareth, a man descended through His mother Mary from the line of King David, is at the same time the Lord, the great I AM, the One who created the heavens and the earth, the One who renamed Jacob, calling him Israel. And she confesses that this merciful Man-God Jesus has the power to cast out demons, to rescue her daughter, and herself.
Believing and confessing these marvelous facts, she rejoices to be called a dog by Jesus, she rejoices to argue, to wrestle with the Lord. As Luther says, now she has Him. When finally Jesus responds to her pleas, even though it’s in an insult, she knows she has Him. She knows she has Him, because every Word that comes from the mouth of God gives life to those who trust in His mercy. “It’s not right,” says Jesus, “to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." She has Him now, and so rejoicing with great joy she replies, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Salvation is from the Jews, yes, from the descendents of Jacob, but the Lord God who wrestled with Jacob and made him into Israel did so for the salvation of the whole world, for the blessing of every family on earth, as Jesus had earlier promised Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham. In this seeming insult from Jesus, she finds the crumb of life that she needs, that her daughter needs, the Word with which she can hold God to His promises. A crumb from you Jesus, that’s all I need. That’s all my daughter needs. That’s all anyone needs.
Jesus answers, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. Why did He do it? Jesus knew her faith. Jesus knew He would heal her daughter. Why did He treat her so harshly? For you. Jesus knew her faith would endure, because He is the One who, by His Word and Spirit, gave her faith in all His promises. He knew her faith would only be strengthened by refinement, so He insulted her, to help you, and me, get over ourselves and trust only in Him. You see, our self-importance, our pride, our demands for special, kid-glove treatment, these are impediments to faith. These are what threaten to keep us on the outside, looking in with drooling muzzles, wishing for a seat at God’s banquet, even under the table. We don’t want anyone calling us names. We certainly don’t want to admit that before the Almighty and Holy Lord God we are spiritual dogs.
But the truth about ourselves that we don’t want to hear, Jesus knows we must hear. For if we reject the Word about ourselves, about our condition, then we also reject the Word about the Master, the Good News that feeds poor mongrels like you and me with the very Bread of Life, the forgiveness and healing and eternal restoration that Jesus came to earn, and give to us.
In human, earthly terms, Jesus gave great offense to the Canaanite woman, and also to Jacob. But because of Who they knew this man to be, neither of these sinners took offense, for they, by God’s grace knew they were in the very presence of God, the very source of life and healing and joy. Whatever Jesus gives, they receive with thanksgiving. Everything that comes into the life of a child of God is good, even when it’s painful, even when Satan or the world or your enemies mean it for evil. For Jesus has and will continue to work out all things, pleasant or painful, for your eternal good. Did someone take your pew this morning? Perhaps the Lord knows you’ll hear better in a new spot. Did someone not smile and greet you warmly? Perhaps Jesus is giving you an opportunity to bear their burden, maybe even to pray for them, possibly even to go the extra mile and greet them kindly, and speak well of them, even though they seemed to have slighted you. Did someone point out your sin? Thanks be to God, rejoice exceedingly, for now you can confess your sins, to God and to your neighbor, that they be lifted from you and taken away, forever.
We’re not to give offense, certainly not intentionally. We are not Jesus; we cannot read each other’s hearts. Sowe are not called to pick on the Canaanite woman in order to teach the disciples and the Church. That’s Jesus’ job. Insofar as we are able, we are called to treat each other with kindness, gentleness, and the honor that is credited to Christians by the Name of Christ. But that name, Christ, does mean there is one offense we must always give, one harsh truth we must always keep at the center of all we do: Jesus Christ, crucified, for my sins, for your sins, for the sins of the whole world.
We are far worse than dogs; we are sinners, worthy of God’s rejection, forever and ever. But in that offense, in the harsh Word of the Cross, is also the very Bread of Life, the crumbs of the Master that have the power to set you free. Keeping the offense of the Cross at the center of our life together means that our remaining sinful nature will always be offended. You and I need to recognize and remember this. It is offensive to our sinful pride that there is nothing we can do to save ourselves. It is offensive to our sinful nature that God saves through a Cross, and delivers His salvation through such unimpressive things, like mere words spoken through the mouth of a sinner, and combined with water, wheat and wine. It is offensive to the Old Adam, that lives on in each of us, that God calls Christians to consider themselves as nothing, and their neighbors as though they are Christ Himself.
There is only one True reason for us to take offense. We should take great offense if someone tries to take away the offense of the Cross from us. If a hymn or a song suggests that Christianity is all about what you do, if a sermon implies that your works are required to earn forgiveness and salvation, if a teacher or a church sets aside part of God’s Word in order to please human fashion, then with Jacob and the Canaanite woman we must refuse to sing, we must close our ears, and confess the whole counsel of God, come what may.
On the other hand, when we take offense for something other than the removal of God’s True Word and Sacrament, beware. The offense may be real. You may be in the right, or maybe not. But either way, Satan will try to use this worldly offense to remove Jesus, and put your pride at the center of your life. So let worldly offenses go, they are of no concern to you, for you have Jesus as your Savior. Repent, confess your doggishness, and believe in the blood of Christ alone. With the Canaanite woman, confess your doggishness, and claim God’s mercy. Then the angels will rejoice, and Jesus will exclaim: How great is your faith! View every struggle through the lens of the Cross, and Jesus will turn your wrestling with offenses into joy and healing and everlasting life, in the Name…