Faith Breaks Through The Barriers
Sunday Sermon 17 August @ 10.30am
Faith Breaks through the Barriers – Rev Lester Simpson
Isaiah 56:1-8, Matthew 15:21-28
Are you surprised to be here this morning?
There’s a perennial danger – of taking God’s grace for granted, of losing the capacity to be surprised by it, of singing “amazing Grace” without being amazed, of our faith to becoming like stale bread.
Cf. Walter James’ prayer: “Gracious Lord, it is a great marvel to me that I am allowed to be a minister of Thy Word.” Every preacher ought to pray that.
Allow the Canaanite woman to re-awaken within us a sense of surprise at how gracious is the Lord, to rekindle our first love for Him.
Setting –the region of Tyre & Sidon, north of Galilee, over the border in Phoenician / Gentile territory (Lebanon today). Jesus withdrew there, seeking some rest after a testing time with his critics. He was looking to get away somewhere where he wasn’t known, away from the crowds, away from the opposition mounting against him, have some time alone with disciples…Can’t you imagine it – a few quiet, restful days, enjoying the Mediterranean views, walking on the beach, revelling in the sea breezes…?
But no such luck. He wasn’t there long before his presence was discovered, word spread and a voice rings out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me!” It was the mother forever after known as ‘the Canaanite woman’ (or in Mark’s Gospel ‘the Syro-Phoenician woman”), pleading for Jesus to heal her demon-possessed daughter.
First thing to note about her –she had to overcome the prejudice her people harboured against Jews (admittedly mutual).Cf. a Palestinian slipping over into Israel, or asking a favour of an Israeli. Also there was the risk, in her appealing to Jesus, that it might be a let-down.
All faith begins at this point – daring to come to Jesus, even at the risk of disappointment.
When a seeker cries out, “God, if you are real, make yourself known to me ….” there is no guarantee God will come through in the way expected. There is no faith without risk.
First Hard Knock – Silence. He answered her not a word.
Cf. Tommy – “I banged on the doors of heaven, but God didn’t come out.”
The Cross was the greatest silence of all –
No answer to Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
But that very hour, when God spoke no word and gave no answer, was the hinge, the turning point of history, the veil of temple was rent asunder, and God’s heart was opened to us, with all His surprises.
The disciples – “Send her away …”
Cf. the little children brought to Jesus (Matt. 19:13)
or the crowd hungry as evening draws near (Matt. 14:15)
Haven’t we thought the same when we’re at end of our tether and feeling inadequate to provide help needed?
Second Hard Knock – seeming rejection
Jesus: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel”
Point is, Jesus was conscious that his personal vocation was not to spread the gospel to Gentile world, but to announce to Israel that their long-awaited deliverance was at hand. Cf. Mt 10:5-6
The Gentiles would be brought in soon enough – after the cross and resurrection and Pentecost – when what was anticipated or pre-empted in the Canaanite woman would become universally true, and the King of the Jews would become the Saviour of the world.
But first, Israel needed to hear the gospel before it was too late. So, for the moment, it was vital Jesus not be distracted from his primary task.
Jesus’ wasn’t sent to be an itinerant medical missionary but to inaugurate God’s Kingdom.
If we remake Jesus in the cosy image of a universal problem-solver, we miss the towering importance of his unique assignment – his messianic vocation that will lead him to the cross.(Tom Wright)
The woman is not to be dissuaded. Desperation drives her. She’s not going to be denied just because she doesn’t fit within Jesus’ mission priorities.
She kneels before Him: Lord, help me!”
Third Hard Knock:
Jesus: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Did Jesus really say that? Sounds so uncharacteristic of him. Shocking even!
Two ways of looking at it:
- He’s engaging in a bit of playful banter with her.
- He’s testing her (and also his disciples – see John Ortberg L.p.189ff)
Is her concern for her child so deep, her confidence in Jesus’ power and compassion so strong that she will persevere in her plea despite him seeming unwilling to help her?
Jews commonly referred to Gentiles as dogs (though Jesus softens it by using the diminutive ‘little dogs’).
”… the children’s bread” – The Gentiles were not yet eligible.
At this point, according to his mission priorities, Jesus was not yet available to the Canaanite woman. i.e. she didn’t belong. People often feel they don’t belong. They’re drawn to Jesus, would like to believe, would like to have the faith or peace or hope they see in others, but … “I’m not the type, I’m not churchy, I’m not religious, I don’t belong in that scene.”
Canaanite woman not only felt/thought, but was told she didn’t belong. Here her faith shone through – her confidence that, in spite of her being a Gentile, Jesus could help her.
Contrast the rejection and unbelief Jesus encountered at the hands of his own people – e.g. in Nazareth: Isn’t he the carpenter? Where did he get this wisdom? Who does he think he is? Even his own family were scandalised by him…
Cf John 1:11 He came unto his own and his own received him not.
Hungering and thirsting for Jesus is already faith. People with a hungering heart and broken spirit are the favourites of God. Cf. Beatitudes. Saving faith is not doctrinal correctness, or pride in having arrived.
Cf. Matt. 7:21-23 “Not everyone who says, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the Kingdom of heaven …”
There’s an uncomfortable surprise in store for some. Saving faith is coming to Jesus, “Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to thy cross I cling.” “Yes, Lord …” she says, and she engages in a little verbal sparring with him. i.e. You’re right in passing me by. It’s not a foregone conclusion that you will help me. I have no claim on you.
Forgiveness is not God’s ‘line’ as Heinrich Heine supposed. God is not the official grace dispenser for humankind, available for help whenever called upon… It is all vastly different from what a diluted Western Christianity has taken for granted.
God doesn’t have to forgive us, save us, help us. We can’t claim anything from God as of right. We can never say to God, “You owe me.”
Maybe God will have to pull the rug of our comfortable and satiated Christian West out from under us, in order that we may be surprised when we discover how he can break our fall and graciously save us. (Helmut Thielicke) But this woman wasn’t giving up.
“Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
She’s quick with her repartee, this woman. She’s got courage, audacity, grit.
She evokes our sympathy, our support. She accepts the apparent insult (being referred to as a Gentile dog) and turns it to her own advantage: I have no claim on you. You can pass me by. But will you do it?
Actually the dogs under the table were already sharing the children’s bread – and pretty soon (i.e. after Pentecost) they would cease to be dogs and become children alongside the others, sharing in the blessings of God’s Kingdom.
Even way back in Isaiah’s time it was prophesied that foreigners and eunuchs would not be excluded from God’s people, but would joyfully find their place in God’s house of prayer. So the woman throws the sack of God’s promises down at Jesus’ feet, and the Saviour cannot step over that sack.
“O woman, you have great faith!” – Jesus only said this to one other person – and that a Roman centurion, not one of his disciples – “I have not found such great faith in Israel.” (Matt. 8:10) What a rebuke to the critical, proof-texting Pharisees (“blind guides”), to the dull, slow-to-understand disciples,
It’s a gutsy, desperate, unnamed woman, an outsider who’s not even an Israelite, that Jesus commends in this way – “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed.
Conclusion – this woman, as a Gentile, wasn’t eligible for Jesus’ help; she had no claim on him. But like Jacob who wrestled all night with an angel, and wouldn’t let the angel go until he blessed him, and like the importunate widow who kept on asking, she kept pressing in, she wouldn’t give up, until Jesus came through for her,and she went home gratefully rejoicing that her daughter was restored to wholeness. Wonderful, marvellous!
We too have no claim on Jesus. It is while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
Amazing love! How can it be that thou my God should die for me? (Charles Wesley)
In that spirit of wonderment and gratitude, let’s come to the Lord’s table