March 8, 2020
“O woman, great is your faith!” What a compliment our Lord gave this Canaanite woman, who proved herself to be a daughter of Abraham through faith. Wouldn’t we all love to have so great a faith as this woman. But what does it mean to have a great faith?
One of my favorite illustrations to teach what faith is, is the story about two different men on two different lakes in the winter. The first man needs to get across the lake, but he fears that the ice is too thin to hold him up. He decides to crawl across the ice, spreading out his weight so as not to crack the ice. He does this until he sees a great big pickup truck drive across the ice without any problem. He realizes that the ice is three feet thick and he has no need to fear it breaking open beneath him.
The second man on a different lake has no such fear. He is positive that the ice on this lake will hold his weight. He needs to get across to the other side, so he confidently marches onto the ice. Almost immediately the ice breaks from under him. It was only a centimeter thick. The man’s confidence was misplaced.
Which man had a stronger faith? Well, certainly the second man. He was confident the ice would hold him. But he was wrong. His faith was wrong. The first man had the better faith, even though he feared and trembled like a bruised reed in the wind.
And this teaches us that the greatness of a faith is not measured in the confidence a person has alone. A sinner who has doubts, but who does trust in Jesus has saving faith. A person may have much stronger faith in something false, but that doesn’t make his faith true. The object of your faith is much more important than the strength of your faith. The object of our faith is Jesus. Faith receives Jesus and all the blessings he gives us. If Jesus is not the object of your faith, you will not receive his blessings.
The two people we learned about in our Old Testament and Gospel lesson struggled a lot with God. God seemed to be mean to them. God wrestled with Jacob all night long, even knocking his hip out of joint, so that he limped for the rest of his life. And that poor Canaanite woman! All she wanted was for her daughter to be rescued from the demon that oppressed her. Yet, Jesus ignored her, treated her like an outsider, and finally insulted her, calling her a dog.
Now, why did God treat these two individuals so harshly? He was testing them, in order to strengthen their faith. But I thought even a weak faith can receive salvation! Why does Jesus test this woman’s faith? Because losing your faith is a real danger. Jesus knows that those who follow him will bear their own crosses. A few weeks ago, we heard the parable about the sower. The seed he sowed was the word of God. Those planted on the rocks were those who heard the word of God and believed it with joy, but when the sun came out, that is, when tribulation and persecution arrived, the plants withered, because they had no depth to their roots. They indeed had true saving faith! But they fell away, because their faith was weak and unable to withstand the cross.
Jesus knows that those who follow him will be attacked by the devil, persecuted by the world, and that even their own sinful hearts will betray them to turn them away from Jesus. And so, our God tests us. He wrestles with us. He permits us to suffer, so that we will gain endurance, character, and hope that will not put to shame.
Little Bayla, who was just baptized into Christ a few moments ago, is a Christian. God has washed away all her sins in the washing of rebirth that joins her to Jesus’ death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit dwells in her. She has a simple, yet real infant faith in her Lord Jesus Christ. As she grows, she will learn more about her Savior Jesus. Her parents will teach her how Jesus, who is both God and man, died on the cross and rose from the dead to save her from her sins. She will learn that when she dies, she will go to heaven. The instruction will be simply and childlike. Yet, as she gets older and wiser, the devil’s tricks will become more sophisticated in order to trick her growing intellect. Her parents will not be able to control her environment, but the world will grow bigger and bigger around her, and so will its influence. And as her body grows and matures, so will her sinful flesh, which fights against the Spirit of God, who dwells inside her.
So, just as her parent feed her only milk now and do not discipline her at all, yet as she grows she will eat more complex foods, be given more responsibilities, and will be disciplined along the way, so also, her spiritual food will become more complex. She will be taught the faith in greater depth. She will learn arguments to fight against the devil’s lies and to withstand the pressure of the world and win the struggle against the sinful flesh. And God will permit her to suffer along the way too, as he does for all of us. This is how we grow in faith. This is who our faith grows stronger, so that we can bear the crosses of this life with patience.
Both Jacob and this Canaanite woman wrestled with God. And both Jacob and this Canaanite woman won. Jacob stubbornly held onto God, who was in the form of a man, until he blessed him. He wouldn’t even let go when his hip was knocked out of joint. Why did Jacob refuse to let go? Why did he insist on being blessed? Because God promised to bless him! God promised to be with Jacob wherever he went and that he would protect his family and make his offspring like the dust of the ground. God promised Jacob that he would not leave him until he had done as he promised (Gen. 28:13-15). Yet, in our Old Testament lesson, it looks like the opposite was happening. It looked like Jacob’s brother Esau was going to kill him and his wives and children and take all that he had. What Jacob saw looked like the opposite of what God promised. So, what did Jacob do? He prayed to God and held him at his word. Before his wrestling match with God, he said in a prayer, “But you said, ‘I will surely do you good.’” Jacob held on to God’s promise, just as he held onto the man he wrestled. And he won.
The Canaanite woman won in the same way. She called Jesus the Son of David, which means that she believed Jesus to be the Christ, God’s anointed Savior. And she believed the promise of Scripture that the Christ would save not only the people of Israel, but also the nations of the whole world. So, she called out to Jesus, the Son of David, for mercy.
But Jesus ignored her. When she continues to cry out, he said that he was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, that is, he was sent only to Jews. This woman is not a Jew, not a descendent of Israel. What Jesus says is true on two counts. He was sent first to proclaim the Gospel only to Israel. This is why he told his disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. This is also why St. Paul writes in Romans chapter 1, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” So, technically yes, Jesus’ ministry at that time was directed at the Jewish people. Jesus’ statement was also true, because everyone who believes in him, both Jews and non-Jews, are grafted into the one House of Israel. We are members of the House of Israel through faith.
It sounds like Jesus is rejecting her, but the woman continues to ask for help. Jesus says that it is not right to take the children’s bread and give it to the dogs. Here, Jesus is calling the Jews children and the Gentiles dogs. He’s calling her a dog. Will she give up? Will she walk away from Jesus and seek help elsewhere? No. She agrees with Jesus. She acknowledges that she is a dog. That is, she acknowledges that she doesn’t deserve anything from Jesus. But she knows what has been promised. She clings to the promise.
This is why Jesus says she has a great faith. She has a great faith, not only because she trusts in Jesus, but because she clings to Jesus even when it seems like he is rejecting her. She has a great faith, because she clings to Jesus’ word and promise.
A great faith clings to God’s promise, even when it seems like God is delaying, even through suffering and hardship. In fact, this suffering, hardship, and waiting strengthens the faith, which clings to the promise.
Many people measure their faith based on their feelings. When they feel good, they think their faith is strong. Others measure their faith based on their perceived power: how good they are at being a Christian. Some even measure their faith on whether they can speak in tongues or prophesy, or heal sick people. But these are false ways of measuring faith. You might feel good and strong, but that does not mean that you have a strong faith. And you might feel miserable and weak, but that doesn’t mean you have a weak faith. Rather, the true measurement of faith is Jesus Christ and the promise of forgiveness and salvation he offers in his word. If you hold onto Jesus and his promise, your faith is great. Your feelings will change. If you base your faith on your feelings, then your faith is founded on sinking sand. When your feelings change, when you get depressed or feel under attack, then your faith will crumble. But if your faith is grounded on Jesus and his promises, then whether you are sick or healthy, happy or depressed, weak or strong, your faith remains strong.
When I was in high school, I was on the wrestling team. Someone put up a poster in the wrestling room that said, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” At the end of a grueling practice, when my clothes were drenched in sweat and my arms and legs felt like rubber, our coach would make us run sprints, do push-ups, and other exercises. They called it conditioning. In one exercise we would sit against the wall as if there were a chair underneath, with only our legs holding us up. As the strength was running out of me and my legs were burning and as the clock on the wall seemed to stop, I would look at that poster and read, “Pain is weakness leaving the body.” And I hated that poster.
When you’re in pain, when you’re suffering, you don’t like being told that your pain is good. When things are going well, it’s easy to quotes scripture and say, “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28). But when you’re suffering, you don’t want to hear it. You just want your suffering to go away. But it would still be foolish to say the suffering did no good, or to give up Christ in an attempt to escape the suffering.
It is good that God lets us suffer here on earth, so that we cling closer to him and his promises. God has promised in our Baptism that we are his own children. He has promised that through Christ he will answer all our prayers. He has promised to forgive all our sins for the sake of Christ’s death and resurrection. He has promised to give us eternal life, to raise us from the dead. God has promised that our suffering is only temporary and that it is better to lose our life here on earth for Christ’s sake, than gain the whole world. God always keeps his promises.
The suffering we experience in this life is an exercise God gives us to strengthen our faith. As we suffer, we cling closer to the promises God gives us through Jesus in his Word. As we suffer, we fall out of love with our bodies, which cause us so much pain. We fall out of love with the world, which leaves us behind. We fall out of love with ourselves, and claim to be nothing. And Jesus becomes everything. It is as the Psalmist says in Psalm 73, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.” (vss. 25-26)
When this world, its cares and troubles, our pride and power, and everything else becomes nothing, and Christ is our everything, then our faith is great. Scripture promises that the suffering of this present time is not worth comparing with the glory to be revealed to us in Jesus. God grant us the faith to believe that. Amen.