Sermon for Reminiscere, the Second Sunday in Lent, AD 2021

Matthew 15:21-28; Genesis 32:22-32

Lent comes before Easter. Advent comes before Christmas. In the church calendar this fact is built in – God never gives anyone great fortune without first giving great hardship.  We try hard to remove the curse of Adam, that all our work must involve toil and hardship. We want the benefit without the work. We want feasting without fasting. This is why we fall so often for the temptation of the devil – fall down and worship me, and all the kingdoms of the world will be yours. If there’s an opportunity to get ahead, to make things easier, to make life what we want, we seize it – regardless of the will of God or the good of our neighbor.
           
This is the temptation that Jesus defeated. He did not take the easy way to glory, nor follow the devil’s lies, but took the hard road to the cross. He knew he must suffer and die before he be glorified. Such a life was not a secret in the Old Testament. Those Old Testament saints who experienced great blessing from God also had to struggle through great hardship. Joseph was sold as a slave and sent to jail before becoming a ruler of Egypt. Job had to suffer and lose all before he received back double what he had. David had to become a hunted fugitive before he could be king. And Jacob had to wrestle with God before he could be blessed.
           
Jacob did not have an easy life. Second-born of the twins of Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob had to contend with his faithless brother Esau. Esau valued his birthright so little that he sold it for stew, and when Jacob took Esau’s blessing by deceit, Jacob had to run from home so Esau would not kill him. While on the run, God gave Jacob a dream of a ladder from heaven and promised the land to him and his offspring. Jacob went to live with his uncle Laban and married Laban’s daughters, Leah and Rachel, but was tricked into working many years for it. When he did get out of debt to his uncle he became so prosperous that his uncle sent him away. On the road with his family, Jacob hears that his brother is coming with an army of four hundred men. Fearing the worst, he divides his family into two groups so that if one is attacked the other can get away.
           
At this point everything that Jacob hoped for is threatened. The promise of God in that first dream seems like it won’t come true. All of Jacob’s family could be easily destroyed by Esau in revenge for what Jacob did. That night, at this low point, a man attacks Jacob and wrestles with him. Jacob wrestled him throughout the night and would not let him go until he blessed him. The man blessed him and named him Israel, meaning wrestles with God, for he has struggled with God and man. This mysterious man, of course, was the Son of God.
           
From there Jacob’s life improved. Esau did not come in vengeance, but as a loving brother. Jacob was able to live peacefully with his family. All of this came through his struggle with God. When Jacob was in his worst position, when it looked the most like God’s promise would fail, he was actually closest to God. The greater the trouble, the nearer God is.
           
Israel became the name of Jacob’s descendants, a people set apart by God from whom his Messiah, Jesus Christ, would come. Following their father, they also wrestled with God. At many of the darkest times in their history, God was there in the midst of them, working repentance and trust in Him, But Israel often did not hold onto God as Jacob did. Often they took the devil’s easy path, turning to idols and the practices of other nations who promised fertile land and prosperity if they would only worship these false Gods. For this, they received neither land nor prosperity, but exile and servitude to other nations.
           
The Israelites of Jesus’ time were different. They learned this lesson and worked as hard as they could to keep the law, and made up their own rules to help everybody keep it. They wanted to do everything to avoid punishment again, avoid a dark time, and to please God so he could keep them happy. In doing this they hypocritically set up rules to allow people to disobey God’s commandments. So Jesus said of them, This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men (Matthew 15:8-9). Thinking they were close to God, they were far. Most of all because they did not see God right their with them, Jesus Christ.
           
What of this Canaanite woman in our gospel lesson? She is from the very people that led the Israelites into idolatry. She is of the people that led Jacob’s brother Esau to abandon his birthright. Jesus has retreated from his rebuke of the sons of Israel and is trying to rest while in her area. She sees him and calls out to him, asking that he would heal her demon-oppressed daughter. Who knows how her daughter got the demon. Maybe it was through her people’s pagan practices. What is certain is she is not of the lost sheep of Israel.
           
While Jesus comes to bring salvation for the whole world, his earthly work is meant for the redemption of Israel. He has come to fulfill what they could not, to bring them to repent and believe in his gospel. His works aren’t for the Canaanites of Tyre and Sidon, like this woman. He has come to fulfill the promise to Jacob. Yet this woman still comes to him even without such promises. She knows who he is, and cries out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David!” She knows Jesus is the Lord, the God of Israel. She knows He is the Son of David, the Messiah, the coming king. With faith in this she cries out that he might help her.
           
Jesus ignores her, and then rebukes her. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. This woman has no promise given to her. She was not of the house of Israel, of Jacob, the one who struggled with God. Does she think she can just ask and receive? Does she think she can be called a child just by wanting it? She has not faced their struggle, how can she deserve the children’s bread?
           
Jesus is not displeased with her faith, but is testing it. Like Jacob at the ford of Jabbok, she has come to the end of her rope and the darkest place. In her pleas to Jesus, he appears to be farther and farther away. He ignores her, denies her, rebukes her. She holds on to her trust in God. She does not let appearances dissuade her but trusts that God is gracious and merciful. She falls down and worships at Jesus feet. She does not presume to be a child, to deserve anything, but only as a little dog receives crumbs from the table, she hopes for mercy.
           
She, this Gentile woman, this Canaanite of pagan ancestry, knows better where to find God than the sons of Israel. They thought God was in their rules and self-righteousness. They thought God’s favor means a good and easy life. God is not seen most in the easy life. God is nowhere better seen and discerned than from the blessed cross.
           
The cross of Christ is where we see who God truly is. In Christ’s cross we know God is merciful. We know he has such compassion for us that He sends His Son to die for us. We know that our sins have wounded Him deeply, yet He would pay all to get us back. It is there in our crosses, our suffering, that He is with us. In the times we need him and call out, it may seem like he says nothing. Or we may hear that we deserve nothing. But that is when we should hold on to him the tightest. That is when we should say, I know I deserve nothing, I know I am full of sin. But Jesus died for my sin. He is my Lord and my Savior. I will trust in his cross even when everything else in my life tells me otherwise. Such faith pleases God, because it rests on nothing in us, but on the work of Jesus alone.
           
After Lent comes Easter. After winter comes spring. After the cross, comes the resurrection. As Jesus followed the path to the cross, he took on the burden of our sin. He called out to God, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Matthew 27:46). It seemed like He was not heard. He died. Three days later, at the darkest point of Easter morning, He rose. As we eat the crumbs from the Lord’s Table, his very body and blood, we share the same life of the cross that he led. When we are wrestling with him, struggling to keep our heads up, He is nearest. When He seems silent, He is caring for us. God never gives anyone great fortune without first giving great hardship. In Christ, the cross that we bear in this life leads to a life everlasting with Him in eternal peace and joy.

Inspiration for this sermon comes from a devotion on Genesis 32 from The Great Works of God by Valerius Herberger.

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