Catch Christ in His Words
September 11, 2011
Grace and peace to you, in the name of God the Father, Son (X) and Holy Spirit. Amen.
We come to church today, on the Lord’s Day (Acts 20:7), to keep the Sabbath holy (Exodus 20:8). And so we praise and thank God in our hymns and prayers, confess the creed together, and hear the word and receive the Sacrament of the Altar. But today we have a problem because in the Gospel reading Jesus figuratively slaps the Canaanite woman, by calling her a dog (Matthew 15:26) – and so we get hit too when we hear it read again! Why does Jesus do that? It kinda makes you wish you’d stayed home!?
A True Masterpiece
“Well pastor,” I can hear you say, “why don’t you just pick some other verse to preach on?! You don’t have to mention this passage if it’s so upsetting. Just move on to something else!” Well, you surely make a good point. And I would follow your advice – if it weren’t for blessed Martin Luther (1483-1546), the progenitor of our little corner of Christendom called Lutheranism, and whom we regard as our “most eminent teacher” [The Book of Concord (1580), ed. T. Tappert (1959) p. 576]. For in a 1534 sermon on our Gospel reading for today, he says that it’s “truly remarkable,” and in fact is even “a true masterpiece” [Luther’s House Postils, ed. E. Klug (1996), 1:325, 323]. Now just imagine that! What a shock!
Now the reason Luther says this may have to do with a little known fact about the New Testament – that “the word which encapsulates the gospel,…. more often than not, will be the ‘hard saying’ we would prefer to avoid” [Gerhard O. Forde, “A Short Word,” dialog 20 (Spring 1981) p. 91]. And so it would be foolhardy indeed to take the course of least resistance, for then we would feel good alright – but without any gospel (Luke 12:20)!
A Broken Spirit
But it still won’t be easy to follow our text – and that’s because, in our case, the end doesn’t justify the means! And neither is it so that All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare, 1605)! Now it is true that it all turns out fine in the end. The Canaanite woman’s daughter is indeed healed. And thank God for that! But we still don’t much like how it all takes place. But Luther, in another 1534 sermon on our same Gospel for today, says that it nevertheless is as it must be [Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. J. Lenker (1988) 2:149]:
This woman felt her need, hence she followed the sweet scent [of the Gospel]…. Therefore all is in vain, however friendly and lovely Christ may be pictured, if man is not first humbled by the knowledge of himself, and [if] he possesses no longing for Christ.
And that’s because God only blesses those who have a contrite and broken heart (Psalm 51:17; Luther’s Works 27:308)! So if you’re full of yourself, with an inflated sense of self-importance (LW 52:208, 26:310), then God will not bless you, but he will despise you instead (Psalm 51:17) – to your great shame and horror!
So we, like that Canaanite woman of old, will have to take this slap in the face, and say with her – I am a dog (Matthew 15:27)! And like Mephibosheth, that crippled grandson of ol’ King Saul, we’ll have to regard ourselves as nothing but dead dogs (2 Samuel 9:8)! But in the process, another miracle happens, before the one that brings this trying episode to its glorious end. Luther spells this out in that first sermon of his which we’ve already quoted from:
What a superb… lesson…. to teach us what a mighty… thing faith is [which] takes Christ captive in his word, when he’s angriest, and makes out of his cruel words a comforting inversion…. “You say,” the woman responds, “that I am a dog. [Well] let it be, I will gladly be a dog; now give me the consideration that you give a dog.” Thus she catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught….It is a true masterpiece [in which] we might learn not to be rebuffed by this man who God permits to oppose us [but rather have] the kind of heroic, soldier-like faith the woman had, [which is] truly remarkable! (LHP 2:325, 323).
Remarkable, indeed – to craft “a comforting inversion” out of such cruel words! For we would think Jesus might well slap her again for claiming even this little bit of comfort for herself – because of her sassy, brazen ways! But nothing of the sort happens. Instead Jesus graciously exclaims – “Woman, great is your faith!” Yes indeed, her faith is great – “soldier-like,” he says. And that’s because, like that other faithful woman – albeit Jewish – this Canaanite woman takes Jesus at his word. “Let it be,” she in effect is saying, “according to your word” (Luke 1:38)! And the reason is this – God is bound to his word – to his revelation. And so we only know of his grace if it’s revealed (Matthew 11:27; LW 46:276).
Still Needing Mercy
But still we’ll need God’s grace and mercy if we’re going to catch Christ in his word – because we’re not by nature textual people. We instead long for experiences – and even more so because we’re Americans! Westward ho! Stake out your claim! Squatters’ rights! And this experiential approach spilled over into the church – with tent revival meetings, sawdust trails, experiencing God in mystical, numinous moments, and making Jesus your personal Lord and Savior. But none of this glorified any Bible verses. No! all these highly charged moments only raced right past the pages of Holy Writ, like John 20:29 and Hebrews 11:1 – and to such a degree, that the Bible in American, while being a highly revered and even iconic book (Humanizing America’s Iconic Book, 1982), is ironically not read much (James D. Smart, The Strange Silence of the Bible in the Church, 1970)! From the age of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, down to our own time, American Christians have been Biblically illiterate – and to an alarming degree [Steven J. Keillor, This Rebellious House: American History & the Truth of Christianity (1996) pp. 177, 230, 248, 267, 291, 295]!
But there is mercy – even for the likes of us. Psalm 67:1 cries out, “May God be merciful to us” – and he has been! But it’s not beautiful sunsets or other wonders that prove this. 1 John 4:10 says it’s by sending his only Son to be the sacrifice for our sins that God shows us his mercy! Just think of it! Christ, who knew no sin, became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21), and was punished for our sins, that we might be set free from eternal punishment in hell for them. So this death of his can’t be praised enough. But alas few actually do that! Not Luther, however. He instead boldly proclaims:
Christ…. has shown us great kindness and we should never forget it,… confessing: His pain is my comfort; his wounds, my healing; his punishment, my redemption…. No one can preach it sufficiently (LHP 1:474)!
All those repetitions drive home the saving death of Jesus Christ. All those repetitions draw us to Christ, so that we might love and follow him (John 12:32). For Christ was punished that we might be blessed. It was the will of God to bruise him, so that we might be healed through his wounds (Isaiah 53:10). He was stricken by God and afflicted, that God would be satisfied (Isaiah 53:11). And indeed he was satisfied because he deemed the sacrifice of his Son to be a fragrant offering (Ephesians 5:2) – and not a reproach!
Justice & the Sabbath
Therefore follow the one in whom you believe (1 Peter 2:21), by doing good works in his name. Isaiah 56:1-6 tells us to maintain justice and keep the Sabbath holy. May we join in doing these two good deeds together – so that our faith doesn’t die for lack of being practiced (James 2:26; 2 Peter 1:5-11; LW 30:159, 51:71)!
Let us then first work for justice by treating people fairly. Now that’s not so complex – but it isn’t easy because of that! I know a man who last week turned down three job offers in these economically perilous times, because they expected him to take advantage of his future clients! Everywhere you turn, injustice raises its ugly head. Everywhere you turn, it’s made tough to treat people fairly. Call on God then to give you strength to do the right thing – for he answers the prayers of those who love him (Psalm 145:19-20)!
And secondly, keep the Sabbath holy. I remember thinking after the first time I read Wallace Stevens’ (1879-1955) award winning poem, “Sunday Morning” (The Collected Poems, 1982), how difficult it is to also keep the Sabbath holy – much like maintaining justice! And that’s because there are so many counterfeit ways to spend Sunday mornings. In his poem, Stevens says that “late coffee and oranges in a sunny chair [give us] things to be cherished like the thought of heaven.” Amazing to hear, isn’t it? And so it ends by saying that the “grave of Jesus, where he lays [isn’t] the porch of spirits lingering.” That puts having coffee out in the sun, one step above the empty tomb of Jesus! Can you imagine?!
Therefore you better call on God again for help – so that you may stand apart, steadfastly, and keep the Sabbath holy. And God will help you, for by worshiping him on Sundays in spirit and truth (John 4:24), you’ll also be catching Christ in his words. Amen.
(printed as preached but with some changes)