March 17, 2019
Jacob’s anxiety levels are so high, he’s having trouble breathing. His brother Esau is coming to meet him with four hundred men; Esau, who swore that he would kill Jacob. Jacob thinks that he is going to lose everything that God gave him: his flocks and servants, his wives and children. And then a man from God comes to wrestle him all through the night, as if to taunt him saying, “God will not bless you. You will die with your family. Your name will die with you.”
A mother’s overcome with anguish only a mother worried for her child can know. Her daughter is badly oppressed by a demon. St. Matthew doesn’t tell us from what exact ailment this little girl suffers, but from other accounts of demonic oppression from the Gospels, we can come up with a number of likely possibilities: Deafness, muteness, seizers, paralysis, extreme pain, the loss of her mental faculties, torture of the mind. Regardless of the exact nature of this particular demon, her daughter suffers and this mother feels helpless.
She’s a Canaanite, a descendent of pagans, whom God commanded Israel to drive out of the land. Yet, she believes in Jesus. She calls him her Lord. She calls him the Son of David, which means the Christ. She pleads for him to have mercy on her daughter, believing that God is merciful as Scripture promises. But Jesus doesn’t answer. Then he says he was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel, which clearly excludes Canaanites. And finally, Jesus calls her a dog.
This Canaanite woman and Jacob both had faith in the one true God. They heard the promises God made through his word and they believed God. Why then is God so mean to them? Why can’t he just give them a break? Why must he push them away, insult them, and pour salt in their wounds? These two stories sound strange, yet Scripture is filled with examples of God’s people crying out to a seemingly disinterested or even vindictive God.
Psalm 10:1, “Why, O LORD, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” Psalm 13, “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day?” Psalm 44, “In God we have boasted continually, and we will give thanks to your name forever. But you have rejected us and disgraced us and have not gone out with our armies. You have made us turn back from the foe, and those who hate us have gotten spoil. … All day long my disgrace is before me, and shame has covered my face at the sound of the taunter and reviler, at the sight of the enemy and the avenger. All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way; yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered. Awake! Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever! Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?”
Why does God let his Christians suffer? He still does, doesn’t he? Don’t we Christians still suffer? And I’m not just talking about physical pain and the anxieties of day to day life, which even the unbelievers must endure. I’m talking about suffering that attacks your very soul; Physical suffering that makes you wonder whether God loves you; Betrayal from those, who you thought loved you. I’m talking about a suffering that certainly includes physical, emotional, and mental pain, but goes much deeper than that; suffering, which assaults your faith in God. Why, oh why does God permit such suffering to happen to his children?
It’s not because God hates his children. God didn’t hate Jacob. Jesus didn’t hate the Canaanite woman or her daughter. And he doesn’t hate you. Rather, God permits his dear Christians to suffer in order to strengthen their faith in him.
Martin Luther explains how this works when he writes on how to become a theologian. A theologian is someone who studies God’s Word. We should all seek to be theologians. Luther says that a theologian must go through three stages: oratio, meditatio, tentatio.
Oratio refers to prayer. Luther teaches that the Holy Scriptures are not like any other book. The Bible is the Word of God. It teaches spiritual things, which cannot be understood by natural man, but only by those who are Spiritual (1 Corinthians 2). That is why you must always begin with prayer. You need the Holy Spirit to understand the words of God. This is also why we pray before we listen to a sermon. God is always the teacher of his word.
Meditatio is what it sounds like, meditation. Yet, the meditation Luther refers to here is not what you might think of with Buddhist monks meditating with their eyes closed, trying to reach a state of nothingness. No, Christian meditation does not happen apart from God’s word. Meditating on God’s Word means to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God’s Word. This is different than reading any other book. When you read any other book you make constant judgments as to whether what the author says is true, whether it makes sense to you, whether it is acceptable to your school of reasoning. Not so with Scripture. When you read Scripture, you must submit yourself to it. It is God’s Word. God must teach you.
Meditating on God’s word is how your faith in Christ grows. Faith of course comes from hearing the words of Christ. Scripture is the word of Christ. Yet, as you grow in understanding and conviction in the promises found in God’s Word the third stage happens: tentatio.
Tentatio refers to spiritual assault. This is when the devil attacks you. This sounds terrifying and strange, but this is exactly what will happen if you believe the words of Christ. Satan hates Jesus. He doesn’t want anyone to follow him. He wants all Jesus’ Christians to fall away and go to hell. So, he violently attacks Christians, you, me, and little Canaanite girls.
God permits these attacks. Not because he’s cruel or reckless, but in order to strengthen your faith. “No pain, no gain,” is a cliché, but it is true. If you have a traumatic accident and can’t walk and must go through physical therapy, you must learn to work through some pain in order to walk again. This is the same thing with faith in Christ. This is why Jesus says, “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciples.” Your faith comes with a cross. If you are not willing to bear the cross, then you will lose your faith as well.
God uses Satan’s attacks to strengthen your faith; Satan clearly has a different goal. He desires to kill your faith. He does this by trying to make the cross you must bear for Christ too heavy, so that you throw out your faith in order to escape the cross. Satan is in a mad furry to kill your faith, but he is also cleverer than you know and well versed in his craft.
Yet, what foils these attacks of the devil is his own attack. What do Christians do when they are spiritually assaulted? What should you do when Satan attacks you? Pray to God and go to Scripture. Take refuge in the promises of God. This is how you foil the devil’s attacks. And this is how you defeat God in a wrestling match. The devil wants you to despair of God’s promises. God intends you to cling to his promises even if you lose everything else.
This is what Jacob did. Jacob wrestled God himself. Yet, he would not let go until God blessed him. Why did he say this? Because God promised to bless him. Even with a dislocated hip Jacob clung to God’s promise. He would die clinging to it. God said to Jacob in Genesis 28, “I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I promised you.”
God promised Jacob, “in you and in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” Jacob clung to this promise. So did the Canaanite woman. She believed that she would be blessed through Jesus Christ, the offspring of Jacob. When Jesus ignored her, she clung to the promise. When Jesus said he was only sent to the lost sheep of Israel, she clung to the promise. When Jesus took away her pride and humiliated her, she clung to Jesus’ words. She called herself a dog and Jesus raised her up to sit at the table.
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.” We heard Jesus say these words last week when he defeated Satan. So, it seems strange that Jesus would not help this woman, whose daughter is oppressed by a minion of the devil. Yet, Jesus is teaching the woman these very words, which thwarted Satan’s plans. Through this trial Jesus taught this woman to value nothing, not her strength, not her intelligence or pride, nothing, but the word of God. And Jesus teaches us the same thing in our lives.
The trials we face, the suffering we endure, God uses them to teach us to trust solely in him. We sang last week, “Take they our lives, goods, fame, child, and wife, though these all be gone, our vict’ry has been won; the Kingdom ours remaineth.” Let these all be gone. If I have but God’s word, his promise, then I have everything I need.
It is important for our faith to mature to such a trust that we can lose everything and yet still be satisfied with Christ. Because, our lives will change. We will lose what we love. That’s part of life. When you have everything you think you need, you feel like God is with you. But it would be a terrifying thing if God were only with you when you felt that he was with you. Because you will not always feel that way. Things may not always go as you’d like them to. You may feel like God is far away. But if you cling to the promises God makes to you in his word, you know that he is near, with you every day.
It seems brutal that Jesus would permit us to suffer so. But Jesus himself had to wrestle with God. In the garden he suffered anguish on account of God’s word. Yet, he trusted in his heavenly Father even as he gave him the cup of woe to drink, the bitter cup of guilt and condemnation of all people. He trusted in the promise of Scripture that he would be raised from the dead, even as he cried to God in dereliction from the cross. Jesus knows more than any human being in the world what it feels like to have his faith tested by God. And he endured it for our sake. He went to the cross confident that his Father would raise him from the grave.
When Jesus willingly bore the guilt of the whole world and died on the cross for sinners, he confessed his confidence in the word of God. And his resurrection from the dead proved God keeps his promises. God permits you to suffer. And sometimes God himself pushes you. He does this so that you will pray to him even more fervently and so that you will look to his promises in Scripture with even greater hope. Satan would have you escape God’s hand and find solace in some earthly, temporal pleasure. Don’t do that. Rather, when affliction oppresses you turn to God. Cling to his promise and remind God of the promise he made to you. Find your comfort in the fact that God sent Jesus to die for you to save you from your sins. God is pleased with you. He loves you and wants to give you all things as a free gift. Let the trials God sends you be an opportunity to cast off all distractions and rest in God’s grace alone. God accepts you for the sake of Jesus’ suffering and death. He forgives your sins on account of Christ. There is no greater comfort you can find in this life than the comfort of God’s love for you revealed in Scripture. And Scripture promises that the sufferings you now endure are not even worth comparing to the glory to be revealed to you. God loves you. And there is nothing on this earth or in heaven or hell or in your past or future that can change that. Amen.