In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Ghost.
Three weeks ago the Gospel reading was the Parable of the Sower. As we heard about seed falling in various places, most of which were not suitable for the growth of good plants, a promise was made that God can change the soil. He can turn the trampled road, the dry and rocky soil, and the thorny bed into rich, well-tilled soil, capable of producing a harvest a hundredfold. Today we hear how that conversion takes place.
It’s not a pleasant process. Anyone who has ever planted a garden knows that creating the garden is the hardest part. Weeding and watering, though tedious, are easy in comparison to the process of plotting out the size of the garden and then doing the back-breaking work of digging up the grass, turning over the soil to remove rocks and other pests, and making sure everything is just right for bringing forth a harvest. Even once that initial hard work has been done, it has to be repeated. Every spring brings the same process of sharpening the edges where the grass is trying to regrow and tossing out the rocks that inevitably rear their ugly heads as the soil is turned over more and more.
This is the same process God takes with each one of us. He doesn’t simply scatter the seed of His Word and let things be. He is constantly at work in us, always striving to make our faith the strongest it can be. But that is hard work and it is uncomfortable. But as we see in Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman, what He does is for our good because it teaches us to place all our reliance in Him.
Jesus’ encounter with the Canaanite woman shows us that there are four steps through which God works to strengthen our faith. First, He allows some sort of tribulation to come upon us, or someone close to us. Second, His divine aid does not come as quickly as we expect it to. Third, our fallen reason leads us to think that God’s promises aren’t for us, that we should just give up and look for help from another source. Finally, we are confronted by our own unworthiness which we feel makes us undeserving of Divine aid. God works through these four tests to produce a stronger faith that relies on Him for deliverance from every evil. In each step, the Holy Spirit is with us, at work through the Word and Sacraments to strengthen our faith to drive us on to the next step, and ultimately to the end of faith as we stand in heaven and see that in all things God really did love us and was always preserving us, and always strengthening us.
In the case of the Canaanite woman, God allowed her daughter to be possessed by a demon. You know whatever cross it is that you bear. You wake up and are greeted by it every morning, be it pain, disease, temptation to various sins, doubts, and any number of tribulations. These crosses are designed to drive us to prayer because they reveal our extreme poverty, our need, and our unworthiness. But we know that we don’t always turn to prayer. As Luther taught in his explanation of the First Commandment in the Large Catechism, wherever you put your trust in times of trouble, that is your god. It’s easy to turn to everything but prayer, to rely in everyone but God. God allows these crosses to come our way so that we learn that He is our only hope. Every other attempted solution only makes things worse. God alone can alleviate our every trouble and wants us to call upon Him in prayer when those troubles come.
This Canaanite woman teaches us how to pray. She goes to Jesus fully expecting His help, knowing that the only one who can help her is God Himself. If she did not think He could help her, she would not have prayed to Him. That is why we like to find help in other places, because we don’t think that Jesus can or will help us. Jesus is our only source of help in trial because He is two things: all-knowing, and all-merciful. Only God knows exactly what we need, and only God can completely relieve us of our burdens.
But sometimes that help doesn’t come as quickly as we want, and God appears silent to us, just as Jesus seemed to ignore the woman’s first request for help. But she did not give up and continued praying. Just like her, we should acknowledge that this silence is another test to strengthen our faith. God is teaching us to ask Him relentlessly, just like a young child does not stop asking their parents for what they want until they get it. This is the child-like faith which God wants us to have, and so He creates it in us by occasionally delaying help.
But when we must be relentless, that is when the devil and our sinful flesh take hold. They want us to think that God’s promises aren’t for us, that Jesus was sent for someone other than ourselves. Jesus tried that test with the woman by telling her that He was only sent to “the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” and because of that, it is not right to take what is theirs and give it to someone else. But then the woman retorts that not even the harshest master operates that way. Even dogs get scraps from the table. She embodies what St. Paul will soon write in his Epistles, that saving faith comes by hearing the Word of God (Rom. 10:17), and that this faith is for all, regardless of their ethnic backgrounds (Gal. 3:28). Repeatedly God promises that He wants all to be saved, that He is the Rest of everyone who bears a heavy burden. The Holy Spirit brings these comforting Words of Scripture to mind when the devil and our flesh attack faith in the heat of tribulation. This promise of salvation for all, because it is from God, who cannot lie, never fails.
In the last test, the reminder of unworthiness is completely true. We are indeed unworthy that God should give us any good thing, especially that He should help us bear whatever crosses we have. But this unworthiness must not deter us, just as it did not stop the Canaanite woman. She instantly replies to Jesus declaration of her unworthiness: “Yes, Lord, yet even the little dogs eat the crumbs which fall from their master’s table.” At the same time she was confessing her sin she reminded Jesus of His promise to be merciful. This is how we all must pray. St. Augustine said it best: “Lord, You are a Physician; I am sick. You are sympathetic; I am a wretch in need of pity.” What the Lord gives is exactly what we need. And if His mercy was dependent upon any merit we possess, we would could never earn it, and then it wouldn’t be mercy, it would be a reward! He gives His gifts to us sinners because He wants to be merciful and wants to give every good thing in abundance. He wants us to remember His promise, to cling to it, and to say back to Him what He has said to us. This is what faith does, it repeats what it has been told and clings to the promises, despite logic and reason, or what we think is right based on how we would act.
When you find yourself in trials and tribulations in this life, remember that God is working through them for your good. He uses them to strengthen your faith, to teach you to rely solely on Him, because He is the only one who can help. Nothing else can help, because nothing else and no one else is God Himself.
But in these trials, Jesus knows that sometimes you will fail. Sometimes you will look like the Canaanite woman, but other times you will try to find help in all the wrong places. When those times come, repent, confess your sin, and God, who is faithful and just, will forgive your sin and cleanse you from all unrighteousness. He forgives you for not perfectly bearing your crosses because He has borne His own, and carried on it all of your sin. He has died for it, and forgives you. And with that forgiveness He gives His Holy Spirit to help you in your growth in the faith, to teach you how to stand in times of trial, to look like that Canaanite woman, clinging to Jesus and His promise in faith, despite what the devil, the world, and your flesh may throw at you.
This growth in the faith is not a comfortable process. As Jesus, by His Holy Spirit, converts you into that perfect garden with rich soil, He will not leave you. He is with you always, watering you with His Blood, cutting down the thorns and weaving them into His crown, and blocking the road by His own cross. He will see you through every difficult trial, giving you His abundant mercy that has no end.
The peace of God which passeth all understanding keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus
Sermons from Mount Olive
Mount Olive follows the historic one-year lectionary (series of readings).