For this week’s bulletin, click here: 13th Sunday after Pentecost 2011bulletin

This sermon has some similarities with last week’s text, but also quite a few differences. Here the example is of shining faith, not faith failing; and the trial the Canaanite woman undergoes is much more severe, in my estimation. It’s truly amazing what this woman takes and keeps going. It was inspiring to consider. She almost seemed deaf to what Jesus was saying and how He was acting — truly remarkable.

This sermon also affords the opportunity to ponder the “dark night of the soul” — no, not Batman, but that all-engulfing sense of lonliness, abandonment, anomie, and despair that strikes every Christian sooner or later. If you haven’t been through it…you’re lucky, and you’re also a rare case. If you have, you know what I’m talking about. St. John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite friar, coined the phrase, but the experience is far older than that. Just read the Psalms. That’s what this Canaanite woman is thrust into by Jesus’ outwardly harsh treatment of her, and her faith in Jesus’ mercy is the only thing that delivers her from it.

The parallels between that woman and us are numerous and instructive: Canaanites were filthy sinners and enemies of God. By virtue of who she was, her very nature and person, she didn’t deserve anything from God. Yet she obtained what she needed, because she trusted. Scripture teaches justification through faith alone in a thousand different ways and from a thousand different angles, and accounts such as this one are part of that.

Another thing that really gripped me about this text was the idea of God’s silence — that He simply doesn’t say anything, and the effects that can have on us. For we who understand that God’s Word gives life, His silence is terrifying. Yet His promises still stand written and they reveal God’s true heart to us. He longs to be merciful, but He also has His purposes for waiting to answer us at times.

May God hear your cry for help and bring you mercy if you should ever find yourself in the dark night of the soul. Amen.

“Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to
the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that
vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My
daughter is suffering terribly from demon-possession.”  23
Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send
her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”  24 He answered,
“I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”  25 The woman
came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.  26 He
replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their
dogs.”  27 “Yes, Lord,” she said, “but even the dogs eat the
crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus
answered, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her
daughter was healed from that very hour.” (matt 15.21-28 niv84)

For a parent, there’s nothing worse than having a sick kid. When we visited Toronto this summer, we saw a big hospital there, and that was the name of the hospital– Sick Kids Hospital. It was descriptive, but I wondered if you could be that blunt in the US. We don’t like to be so straightforward at times, and
especially not where sick kids are concerned – especially when they’re your own
kids. There’s nothing worse for a parent than having a sick kid. You feel like
your stomach is tied up in knots. You feel powerless to help them. It hurts you
worse than it hurts them when they’re sick.

Even if you don’t have children, you can sympathize with what the Canaanite woman was feeling in our gospel for today when she came to Jesus looking for help. She came looking for Him. Jesus was in a place He normally didn’t go, up by Tyre and Sidon, north and west of the Sea of Galilee. This is probably the
furthest away from Jerusalem and Nazareth Jesus ever went during His days on
earth. This woman has heard about Jesus. She’s heard that He cures the sick,
raises the dead – and He helps those who are possessed by demons. So she leaves
her daughter and goes looking for Jesus. When she finds Him, she cries out to
Him, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly
from demon-possession.”

unusual enough that she calls Jesus Lord, and it’s really unusual that she calls Him Son of David. Taken together,
those are Messianic terms. She believes that Jesus is God’s chosen one, born of
the house of David, sent to rule on David’s throne and rescue God’s people. This
woman’s faith is entirely correct. That’s exactly who Jesus is. It’s even more
remarkable when you consider that she’s not a Jew, she’s a Gentile. Somebody
along the line had told her about Jesus, and that good news about Him had
planted faith in her heart – so here she is. Jesus’ reaction is very unlike
Him. He doesn’t say anything – not one single thing. He doesn’t say a word to
her, either good or bad. He simply turns His back and starts walking away.

is borderline rude! How can He be so cold and callous to this poor woman? She
knows He heard her. He heard every word she said, He heard the fear and the
desperation and the exhaustion in her voice, and He still doesn’t respond. Jesus
didn’t even treat Gentiles this way. He might make someone wait for a while
before helping them, but He never totally ignored someone who came to Him. Jesus
never acted this way, with anybody.

how that woman’s heart must have sunk when she saw Jesus turn His back on her. That
must have been terribly hard on her, after she’d decided to come find Him and
she’d finally tracked Him down. This mom is riding on a knife edge of panic and
despair, and He can’t even be bothered to look her in the face and tell her no.
He doesn’t say anything at first. He just walks away.

you’ve experienced God’s silence too. God still is silent with us at times. He
can seem really distant and uncaring, like we’re ants in His eyes and He can’t
be bothered with us. We can cry out to Him, yell and scream, beg for His help,
and it can seem like our words are just flying out into the void. We can sob
and scream and plead and none of it seems to help. He still doesn’t answer or
do anything for us. It’s like being lost in the woods on a pitch-black night
and calling out for help, and not even hearing an echo of your own voice. Maybe
it’s caused by a crisis in your family or in your own life. Maybe there’s
addiction or abuse or apostasy within your own household. Maybe there’s
emergency piled on disaster piled on catastrophe. Maybe you just feel empty
inside – no longer connected to God and estranged from Him. That’s one of the
worst possible feelings to have: to be wallowing in despair and you feel like
God has left you all alone, where you feel like Jesus describes in Psalm 22 –
“trouble is near and there is no one to help.” Or like He felt in Psalm 69 –
“Save me, O God, for the waters are come in unto my soul.” One Christian pastor
referred to God’s silence as the “dark night of the soul,” and that’s what it
is for us. At least when God speaks the Law, then we have a chance to be sorry
for our sins and repent and be saved. But if He won’t speak anything at all to
us, either good or bad, how will we live?

disciples aren’t sure what to do either. They’re used to Jesus helping anybody
and everybody who came to Him, but this is unusual. This lady didn’t go away,
either. She kept following Jesus around and trying to get His attention. The
disciples feel uncomfortable that Jesus is treating her like this, and they
know there’s nothing they can do for her, so they ask Jesus to send her away. No
sense in having her yelling around after them. Jesus’ answer piles insult on
top of injury: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” We don’t like it
when we hear someone tell us, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do for you,”
whether it’s someone in the legal system, in the government, or it’s a customer
service person we’re talking to on the phone. But usually it’s not because of
who we are. Here, Jesus is essentially pushing this woman away because of who
she is. He’s saying, “You’re not one of us, so you shouldn’t get any help.” Remember
that Matthew calls this woman a Canaanite, which is an older term that recalls
Israel’s past history with the people of Canaan, from the time of Joshua and
before. The Canaanites used to be rank unbelievers, filthy sinners, and enemies
of God. Jesus seems to be shutting this woman out because she’s not one of
God’s people – but notice He doesn’t tell her no outright. It sure sounds like
a no, but He doesn’t forbid her His help. That’s important because it leaves
the woman an opening to squeeze through with her faith.

she gets around in front of Jesus and prostrates herself on the ground before
Him. He can’t even step around her or ignore her any longer. She begs again:
“Lord, help me!” Jesus’ answer might be the worst blow yet: “It’s not right to
take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs.” Jesus basically calls her
a dog here. In that time and place, calling someone a dog was a huge insult –
even worse than it is now. This isn’t one of the street dogs that had no
owners, that roamed around in packs and ate garbage. This is a lap dog, a house
dog, the kind of dog that lays by your feet under the table hoping for some
scraps. Still, it’s not a very complimentary thing to say by any stretch of the
imagination. Jesus is telling her that she doesn’t deserve to have Him help
her. He’s saying, “The children have one status, and you have another. You
don’t deserve My help, because you’re not My child.” If any of us had made it
this far, this probably would have finished us off. We probably would have
wanted to give up earlier than this, when Jesus didn’t talk to us or He told us
He wasn’t called to help us. But this woman doesn’t give up. She determinedly
ignores everything Jesus is saying, His whole bearing and demeanor, and she
keeps after Him. Her answer shows why.

Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
She takes Jesus calling her a dog in stride! She freely admits, yes, I’m a dog.
I don’t deserve anything good from God. She knew that about herself and that
had ceased to bother her, because she was focused on something bigger. Instead
of getting wrapped up in Jesus’ seeming rejection of her, or in her own
unworthiness and her own bad feelings, she clings to the promise of God. She
had heard that Jesus was loving and kind, that He never turned anyone away who
needed help – and she trusted that Word about Him. She clung to the promises of
God when everything she heard and saw from Jesus tried to make her think
otherwise. This lady could be excused for thinking that God hated her. People
have turned  their backs on the church
for far less. Jesus seems to treat her so roughly, even rudely, but she still
is convinced that God will be gracious to her and help her!

takes Jesus’ comment that sounds so demeaning, and she turns it around. She
says, “Yes, Lord, I’m a dog, but You’ve promised that even the dogs get to eat.
You have promised that You will hear and save everyone who calls on You – no
exceptions. That has to mean me too!” Now that’s faith! Even after Jesus treats
her this way, she still is convinced that there’s room at Jesus’ table for her.
She thinks in her heart, “Lord, I don’t want much; whatever You give me is
best. Just give me something, Lord.
Even if it’s crumbs, just give me something. One of Your crumbs is better than
anything else the world has to offer. My soul waits entirely on what You want
to give me. I have stilled and quieted my soul in You and in Your Word, and my
hope is entirely in You.”

Jesus’ demeanor changes radically. He beams at her and says, “Woman, you have
great faith! Your request is granted.” Let it be done for you as you have
wished. Her faith literally changed reality. She trusted, against all reason
and the evidence of her eyes, that God would be gracious to her and help her –
and He was. He came through for her just as she’d been convinced He would. She
trusted that Jesus would heal her daughter, and He did. Her faith won the
reward she sought.

think about your dark night of the soul. When God seems to be silent toward
you, what do you do? Do you shrug your shoulders and give up? Do you decide God
won’t do anything because He doesn’t care anyway? The next time you find
yourself in that dark night of the soul, don’t give up. Faith always obtains
what Jesus promises. He’s not telling you no; He’s just teaching you to rely on
Him. He will not turn His back forever, nor will He forget to show mercy to
you. There is room for you at the Lord’s table, too. He gives you His very body
and blood to strengthen your faith in Him, and He gives you far more than
crumbs – He gives you Himself as the pledge of His faithful love. His promises
stand written in God’s Word, and heaven and earth will pass away but His Word
will never pass away. Nobody can take those promises away from you. They are
and must be true; God must do what they say because He cannot lie to us.

silence works on us like a jeweler cutting a rare and precious diamond. It
grinds away at us and grinds us down until at last our faith is revealed as the
beautiful, precious, and valuable thing it is. So the next time you start to
wonder if God hears your prayers, if you’re saved, or you’re even a Christian,
don’t listen to your heart or your logic – listen to Jesus’ promises. God’s
silence is grinding you down and uncovering your faith. Jesus’ promises and the
faith that they give are the only things that will get you through when God is silent. Amen.