Second Sunday in Lent – Reminiscere, March 16th, Year of Our + Lord 2014
St. John and Trinity Lutheran Churches, Fairview and Sidney, Montana
A Christian Prays to Jesus – Matthew 15:21-28
Come my soul with ev’ry care, Jesus loves to answer prayer… Really?
Even though I know how it ends, this story of the Canaanite mother and Jesus’ treatment of her shocks me, again and again. How can our Lord be so callous, so unfeeling, so rude, to this woman who comes begging, begging not even for herself, but for her demon possessed daughter? One might even ask why the Son of God wasn’t more interested in helping this woman with her battle against a demon, given the fact that the demon possessing the little girl is one of the angels who rebelled against God, back near the beginning?
Maybe your reaction to Jesus’ harsh treatment of this Canaanite mother is more personal. Maybe you feel like her, in your prayer life. Do your prayers seem to go unanswered? Do you beg Jesus to help you, to help your friends and family members, but He doesn’t seem to say a word to you?
Lord willing, the Canaanite woman will be a good teacher for us this morning, as good a teacher as she was for the disciples. From her matching-of-wits with the Savior we can learn a great deal, about faith, and prayer, and the Church, her Mission, and most especially, her Lord.
Christian prayer confesses the one true God, revealed in Jesus. Knowing the Lord is the first thing we get to explore a bit today. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David”, cries out the Canaanite woman. We have four young Christians seeking confirmation in our two congregations this year, and I will be thrilled to hear them confess as clearly and profoundly as this Canaanite mother. By her cry, this woman confesses her faith, and her faith is very well informed. To call Jesus Lord could simply mean that she acknowledges Him as master, as someone with greater spiritual or earthly authority over her, kind of like calling someone ‘Sir’ in English. Or, it could mean she is confessing that Jesus is Lord, that is, Jesus is the LORD, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of King David. When she completes her titling of Jesus with “Son of David,” to say nothing of when she falls on her knees before Him, it becomes clear what she means. She confesses Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah or Christ of God, the promised coming eternal King of Israel, who is the LORD God Himself, come to shepherd his people. And so, she prays to Him.
The only true prayer is Christian prayer. Jesus was only sent to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but word about Him has leaked, out beyond the Jews, to other nations, to the gentiles, and that Word about Jesus has created faith in our Canaanite mother. The voice of faith is prayer, and so she boldly prays to Jesus: Have mercy on me, save my daughter! Unbelief or false faith in a false god does not, cannot, pray like this. Unbelief or false faith may cry out for help to some force or imagined power, but this Canaanite woman directs her prayer to the man Jesus, even kneeling down in worship before Him. True faith and worship, and true prayer, is always centered on Jesus, Son of God and Son of Mary. There is a great deal of praying, done in the name of many religions, or in no name at all. But all of those faiths say that mankind must do something to earn God’s favor, and none of them confess that God has reconciled the whole world to Himself through the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus. So, as impressive as the prayers of the world may seem, and even though in our day it is considered very narrow and unloving to be exclusive, Christian faith clings to the words of the Bible. Any prayer, however heartfelt, that is not prayed through faith in Jesus as the only Savior, is, sadly, empty and without effect. For no one comes to the Father, except through Jesus.
The value and effectiveness of prayer depends on faith in Christ, and nothing else. The disciples do not respond well to this Canaanite woman and her plight, their normal level of sanctification showing through again. Remember, these future ministers and builders of Christ’s Church like to chase off children, and covet the favored seats in Jesus’ kingdom, and desire to rain down fire and brimstone on those they deem less faithful than themselves. But, after the Resurrection and Ascension and Pentecost, as these disciples made to be apostles began to build Christ’s Church, the Canaanite woman’s faith and Jesus’ praise of her no doubt came to mind. She was preparing them for the big surprise that they were to take the Gospel to every nation. Perhaps she also helped them focus in on salvation by faith alone, not by good works, nor by one’s genealogy. It has always been this way. Salvation comes, not for being physical descendents of Abraham, like the Jews. Salvation comes, not for the good works we do. No, salvation comes to those who believe the same promises of a Savior that Abraham believed. God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness. We are all sons of Abraham, true Israelites, by faith in Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.
Christian prayer seeks and accepts the way and will of God, even when hard to understand and endure. There is no arguing that Jesus really exercises the faith of this woman, in ways that seem harsh, at least to us, although there is no sign she was ever offended. God works as He works, for reasons that are often not clear to us. Indeed, it’s pretty strange that Jesus did not actively take the Gospel to non-Jews, restricting His ministry to the people of Israel, only dealing with gentiles occasionally, when they forced their way to Him. In God’s perfect plan, it is the Apostles who will be sent to the nations.
Yet still Jesus, missionary to the Jews, makes full use of the opportunity this woman’s faithful prayer creates, to teach His disciples about God’s way. God’s way is not our way, His thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s way is the way that works. That God should choose to build His Church only after the Ascension of Jesus, that God should work through such an unlikely bunch of men like the Eleven, that God would continue to work through the weakness of pastors, that God would take His Word to every nation through forgiven sinners, like you and me, all of this helps us remember who is the One truly building the Church. This also helps us remember that the will of God is always best, even when we cannot see it. Lord, we beg you to help us in our difficult moments, and yet not our will, but Thy will be done.
Christian Prayer is confident prayer. Thou art coming to a king, large petitions with thee bring. Prayer is, among other things, begging God, for we poor sinners are definitely beggars, offering nothing of heavenly worth, and yet receiving everything good from God. For prayer is not bargaining with God. The Canaanite woman does not offer anything in return for what she asks. How can we bargain with God when we believe that He has already given us every good thing in Jesus Christ? This faithful woman simply prays boldly, asking what she knows the Lord has promised. She holds God to His promises, which is exactly what He wants us to do. Faithful Christian prayer rests on the knife’s edge that is the difference between this world, and the world to come. Christian prayer is always looking forward, to life everlasting in God’s perfect peace, free from sin and all its consequences. We are energized to pray for today’s needs by the promise of the new heavens and new earth. From this forward looking perspective, Christian prayer is bold to ask for foretastes of eternity, today, for manifestations of what’s coming, today, and mostly especially for the defeat of evil and the expansion of God’s kingdom, which is what this mother prays for her child.
Christian prayer confesses our sinfulness, and claims God’s superabundant mercy. With my burden, I begin, Lord, remove this load of sin. Let Thy blood, for sinners spilt, set my conscience free from guilt.
"It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." Ouch. Jesus just called her a dog. The education of the disciples is especially pointed at this moment. From the perspective of God’s kingdom, being called a dog, an animal which is not a sinner, isn’t really as bad as being called a sinner, a wicked rebel opposing God. The disciples, however, with their Jews first and Jews only attitude that they so often display, might well have thrilled to hear Jesus put this woman in the place they think she deserves.
But true faith already knows we are sinners. Faith is all about confessing sins and sinfulness, for the sake of the good news that God was reconciling sinners to Himself in Jesus. So, while we, and probably the disciples, think being called a dog is a terrible insult, the Canaanite woman thrills to this name, for now she has Jesus right where she wants Him. Now the conversation has come round to ultimate truths.
"It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs” "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." Yes, Lord, I am a sinner, and worse than a dog, but You came to feed me and every other sinner with forgiveness and eternal life. Give me a crumb, Jesus, and I will have all I need, all my daughter needs, for all we need is You. What a blessing to be so bold as to seek from Jesus a morsel of the bread that brings life!
Jesus loves to answer prayer. Rejoicing in her confession of faith, our Lord exclaims in delight, "O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire." And her daughter was healed instantly. What was there to hold back, when salvation by grace through faith in Jesus had so clearly come to her household? Nothing at all, for they already had all things, including most importantly forgiveness, and a place at God’s table, by faith in Christ.
Christian Prayer is simply the voice of faith in Jesus. Christians believe in the mercy of God, revealed in Jesus, crucified and resurrected for the salvation of the world. Christian faith includes trust in the promise that God wants to hear us pray, and will answer our every need, that it will be done for us as we have believed. That is, I may not receive from God exactly the earthly benefit I think I need, but I will receive the eternal and glorious benefits that are accounted to me by faith in Jesus Christ.
Christian Prayer is a Godly struggle. While I am a pilgrim here, let Thy love my spirit cheer. Christian prayer is not easy, for the life of the Christian is not easy, not while we remain on this sinful earth, not while we remain sinners. Faith struggles with unbelief, by the power of God’s Word and Spirit, and Christian prayer is the play by play announcement of that struggle. Sometimes the battle seems lost, but prayer goes on, because we know the victory is ours, in Jesus.
In your darkest moments, when all your prayers seem dry and you hear not a word from Jesus, keep praying. Pray like Jesus, by praying God’s Word, as in the Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer, and then the Spirit will preach Good News to you, even as you pray. Pray out loud, or silently, but always remember, you never lack for a word from Jesus. For you never pray alone. Along with the Spirit interceding for us with groans too deep for words, Jesus is also and always praying for us at the Father’s right hand, always praying for His Church, always praying for each one of His sheep, until the day when He comes to gather us into the Father’s arms, forever and ever, Amen.