February 25, 2018
Humanly speaking, which saint from the Bible would you trade places with? Would you be willing to live the earthly life of any of the saints in Scripture? Adam's firstborn son murdered his second born, which reminded Adam that sin entered the world because of him. Noah survived the great flood, but everyone he knew outside of his seven family members died in the deluge. God kept Abraham waiting for decades before giving him his son after making him leave his homeland. Joseph ruled Egypt, but not before he was sold into slavery and was imprisoned for years. King David lived as a fugitive more than once fearing for his life. Daniel was fed to lions. And the twelve disciples were either tortured, killed or both. You know, to be honest, I wouldn't trade places with any of them.
Why does God let his saints suffer so? It seems for those who love and trust in God, they can expect hardship in this life. And perhaps you have experienced such hardship. When God doesn't answer your prayers, it is easy to think that God has forgotten you or perhaps that he even delights in your suffering, as Saint Job prayed in his anguish, "I cry to you for help and you do not answer me; I stand, and you only look at me. You have turned cruel to me; with the might of your hand you persecute me." (Job 30:20-21) And a common thought for the Christian going through suffering is that God is punishing him for some sin. So, why does God permit his Christians to suffer?
Hebrews 12 states, "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline." (vss. 6-7) And this we certainly can understand. A child, who is not disciplined, will be rebellious. As a father disciplines his children for their good, so much more for our good does God discipline us.
Therefore, when you suffer, it is always appropriate to repent of your sins to God, even those sins, which you do not know. Yet, not all suffering is a result of a direct sin. And sometimes Christians even suffer for doing what is right. Yet, God permits this suffering too, because suffering strengthens faith. St. Paul writes, "suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us." (Romans 5:3-5)
God doesn't permit us to suffer to be cruel or to push us away from him. He permits us to suffer, so that we will be drawn closer to him and bear much fruit. Jesus says that every branch that bears fruit will be pruned, that it may bear more fruit. (John 15:2) So just as pruning might seem to hurt a plant, a gardener does it so that a plant will grow more fruit and be healthier. And some gardeners will even beat a fruit tree with a stick if it doesn't produce fruit, so that the tree gets shocked and starts to produce.
God wants you to produce fruit. He wants your faith in him to grow as well as your love for him and your neighbor. And God knows how much your faith can handle when he permits you to suffer. One of the authors of our Lutheran Confessions, Philip Melanchthon, wrote, "Hypocrisy mimics the Spirit of God, but trial will show the truth, since in affliction only the faithful endures." Hypocrites, that is, those with fake faith will not endure the trials God sends. They won't keep the faith when times get rough. But true faith endures trials and affliction.
When going through suffering it can be easy to take your focus off your faith, especially when it seems that God isn't answering your prayers. But the most important thing to do when going through trials is to focus on God's Word. The Canaanite woman in our Gospel text teaches us how to do this.
The woman's daughter is badly oppressed by a demon, which is a horror that none of us should wish on our worst enemy. She cries out to Jesus for mercy. Yet, she doesn't simply cry out to Jesus, because she hears that there's this miracle worker going around, who might help. She calls Jesus, "Son of David," which is the title of the Messiah. Even though she is a Gentile and not a Jew, she has faith in Jesus, because the Scriptures say that in him the Gentiles will hope. (Isaiah 11:10)
Yet, Jesus doesn't answer her. Was her faith wrong? Did she misunderstand the promise? I'm sure you've experienced something similar, where you've prayed to God for mercy in some part of your life, but God doesn't seem to answer. This is where many would simply give up. But not the Canaanite woman, she continues to cry out for help. And so should you even when it seems that God is silent to your prayers. As Jesus said in another part of Scripture that we should continue to pray and never lose heart (Luke 18:1).
As the woman continues to cry out, even Jesus' disciples plead to Jesus on her behalf. Yet Jesus responds, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." This is even worse than silence. Jesus says he was sent only to the house of Israel. This woman is a Gentile, not a Jew. Is Jesus really saying that he won't help her because of her race?
Yet, the woman persists. She falls down on her knees before Jesus and says, "Lord, help me." But Jesus responds, "It is not right to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs." The Jews are the children. She's a Gentile dog. Surely, she'll give up now. How clearer could Jesus get. He's saying, "no." Isn't he?
But the woman still isn't deterred. And here we learn the greatest lesson about prayer from our sister in Christ, the Canaanite woman. You see, the woman was listening carefully to Jesus' words, even as she was in distress. Jesus called her a dog. So, she says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master's table." It's true isn't it? You're not going to deny a dog crumbs! So, Jesus says, "O woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you desire."
The woman beat Jesus in the war of words. Jesus didn't say anything untrue. He was only sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. It isn't good to take from children to give to dogs. But the woman listened closely to find a promise. You don't deprive dogs of crumbs. And so, the woman proved herself not to be a dog after all. Rather, she is a true sheep of the house of Israel. Israel, as we learned in our Old Testament lesson, means one who struggles with God and men and wins. This woman struggled with Jesus and came out victorious! And she proved that a person becomes a member of the house of Israel through faith and not through flesh.
When Jesus teaches you to be persistent in prayer, he is not telling you to throw a temper tantrum like a two-year-old and cry and cry until we get what you want. He's not saying that if you want it really, really badly, then you will get it. As if God doesn't give you what you asked for, because you didn't want it badly enough. No, when Jesus teaches you to be persistent in prayer, he is teaching you to cling to his word. Just as the hymn says, "By the light His Word doth lend you, Prayer will joy and comfort send you." God's Word provides the light to your prayers. You don't know what to pray for without God's Word. And you don't know that God will answer your prayers unless he says so in his word.
Jacob wrestled with God all night. And even as his hip was out of joint he clung to God and wouldn't let go until he blessed him. Why would Jacob do this? Is he teaching you that if you try your hardest God will reward you? No. He's teaching you to trust in God's word even when it looks like God is going back on his word. God said to Jacob, "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 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 have promised." (Gen. 28:14-15)
Jacob struggled all night and fought through the pain, because he had a promise from God. Scripture does not teach that you will get whatever you want if you never give up. There might be things you want that God doesn't promise to give you. There might be things you want that are wrong for you to want. But God promises you great things in his word, not the least of which is eternal life in heaven through the merits of Jesus Christ. God wants you to believe that he will give you everything he promises. And when it seems that God will not give what he promises, God wants you to cling to his promise with all your might.
When you are going through a trial, whether it is sickness or a broken relationship or financial troubles or a guilty conscience and it seems that God is silent to your prayers, God wants you to go to his word and pray according to his promises. God promises to clothe you and feed you. He promises to protect you from the devil and that no one can snatch his sheep out of his hands. God promises to forgive all your sins for the sake of Jesus' suffering and death. God promises that all who have been baptized into Christ are baptized into his death and are also joined to Christ's resurrection. God promises that whoever receives Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament in true faith receives forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation. God promises that guardian angels are watching over you. Read the Scriptures. Recite the Creed. Go to church and hear a sermon or go and talk to your pastor. Hear and learn God's word. Be like that Canaanite woman and listen carefully for God's yes to your prayers.
Jesus was defeated by the Canaanite woman. And he wanted to be defeated. And he wants you to win too. But the only way you can win when you wrestle with God is by clinging to God's Word. That is how Jacob won. That is how the Canaanite woman won.
You are saved through faith alone apart from your works. Yet, faith puts you to work. And you will find yourself exhausted in body, soul, and mind exercising your faith during life's trials. Yet faith is a resilient thing when it holds to God's Word. In the midst of Job's suffering, he was able to say of God, "Though he slay me, I will hope in him." (Jobe 13:15) Through faith, St. Paul was able to say, "For I consider the sufferings of this present time not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.", and, "For those who love God, all things work together for good." (Romans 8:18; 28) And in the midst of your suffering your faith can say this too, because Jesus has promised you that whoever comes to him he will never cast out.
Jesus said, "In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart. I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) Jesus overcame the world through his suffering on the cross. And through this suffering he won for you eternal life. Jesus' suffering also shows you God's willingness to give you every good thing. With faith in Jesus' suffering for your sins, you can have confidence to pray to God in every trouble, as King David said in Psalm 34, "The young lions suffer want and hunger; but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing."
God always keeps his word. It is impossible for him to break his promise. So, if you want assurance that God will answer your prayer, listen to what God promises to give you in his word for the sake of Jesus Christ. No good thing can God deny you. Don't lose heart. Keep praying. Amen.