17 March 2014

Homily for Lent 2

Our Truest Friend
Text: Matthew 15:21-28, with Genesis 32:22-32 & 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7

Last week’s readings reminded us that we Christians have an enemy who likes to act like our friend. Today’s readings remind us that we have a Friend who sometimes seems to act like our enemy.

What do I mean? Satan comes to us with his mask of friendliness, but behind that mask he has only malicious  intent, hatred and destruction. The devil befriends us because he desires to torment us and drive us away from God. But our true Friend, who sometimes wears the mask of an enemy, or so it seems to us, has a different desire. Behind His occasional rough handling of us, He desires only that we come to share in His joy, His peace, His light, and His love for all eternity. The enemy sugarcoats his malice. But our true Friend sometimes disguises His benevolence behind a guise of bitterness.

Jacob learned this as he wrestled through the night with that mysterious figure on the banks of the Jabbok River. Yes, he walked away from the encounter limping and in pain, but he walked away a blessed man. He even walked away as a man with a new name: “Israel.” He wrestled and struggled with God and with men, and he prevailed. With that new name and that blessing, he was strengthened and encouraged to face his brother Esau. Remember, Jacob last saw his brother Esau 20 years earlier, and at that time Esau wanted to kill him for stealing the family blessing. So this mysterious figure wrestling with Jacob may have seemed like an enemy, but He turned out to be Jacob’s dearest Friend. He was the same Friend who had promised Jacob: “I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (Gen. 28:15).

And what about the woman in today’s Gospel? She knew something of the Friend who disguises Himself as an enemy, wouldn’t you say? Like so many others, she came to our Lord, crying for mercy. “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” And look at how her best and truest Friend treated her: “He did not answer her a word.”

He just ignored her…as though she weren’t even there…as though He never heard her cry…as though He did not see her desperation! He just kept walking. Who could blame this woman if she thought that this was no Friend at all, but rather an enemy? But did she give up? No! She kept crying out behind Him, begging for His mercy. The disciples must have wondered, “What on earth is He up to? This is getting downright embarrassing! Look at all the people starting to stare! “Send her away,” they cried, “for she is crying out after us.”

And how does her dearest and truest Friend answer that? “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” Who was He looking at, when He said that? Was He looking at the disciples, or at the woman? If He was looking at the woman, was He making it clear that He knew she was not a Jew? Yes, she had called Him “Son of David,” but He knew she was a Canaanite. He knew she had no claim on Him at all. He owed her absolutely nothing. So, would she give up now? Would she just crumble and lie on the road in a heap of despair? Would she believe the whisperings of the real enemy when he told her: “See, He does not love you. He doesn’t care for you at all. You don’t belong to those who might hope for His kindness. Despair and die!”

Such thoughts probably did wage war in her heart. But she did not give in to them. She refused to take “No” for an answer. She refused to believe that the love and mercy of this Friend is too small to embrace her and her daughter. So, as Jesus was answering His disciples, she ran around Him and planted herself in the dust right in front of Him. She lifted her tear-stained face to Him, to heaven,  and pleaded with persistence: “Lord, help me.”

Surely He would help now, right? Wrong! He delivered His sharpest blow yet: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” He didn’t just call her a dog, did He? Yes, He did indeed! Luther was quite honest. He said, “If he had spoken in this manner to me, I would have been scared off…. I would have been frightened to death” (HP 1:325). But the woman does not let her Friend scare her off. She looks up at Him and says, “Yes, Lord.” Yes what? Yes, Lord? “Yes, Lord, I am a dog. I am nothing but a dog. I have absolutely no right to the children’s bread. But I am Your dog, Lord. Won’t you please give me just a little table scrap? Won’t you please toss some little crumbs under the table for me? That’s all I ask, just a crumb of mercy for my little girl. Please?” Luther said this about the woman’s faithful comeback: “Thus she catches Christ with his own words, and he is happy to be caught” (HP 1:325).

In that split second, the guise of the enemy vanished. Instead, Jesus showed Himself for who He really is: her Friend—her dearest, best, and truest Friend, her Friend who will not abandon her in her need. “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” He gave her that little crumb she begged for: “her daughter was healed instantly.”

Have you walked in this woman’s sandals? Perhaps you are kneeling in the dust beside her even now? Your dearest, truest Friend seems to ignore your pleas for mercy. His followers seem rude and impatient. He seems to insult you. He seems to handle you or someone you know quite roughly. And Satan sneaks up behind you and whispers in your ear: “Go ahead, hang it up. Forget about Him. He has no room for you in His heart.” But, dear friends, don’t ever pay attention to those sly, deceptive whispers! Instead, hold on tight like Jacob did: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” Be persistent like the Canaanite woman was. Plead for His mercy; fall down before Him crying, “Lord, help me!”; be glad to be the little dog who loves the tiny crumbs of His mercy.

Persist in believing that your Lord truly is your truest and best Friend forever! After all, He is! He showed it by the path that He walked for you…all the way to Calvary…all the way to the excruciating pain and forsakenness of the Cross. As Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lays down his life for his friends” (Jn. 15:13). Yes, He laid down His life for yours. He shed His blood to blot out your doubts and despairs. He poured Himself out into death so that death may no longer hold you. And your Friend did not stay dead—no matter what cable TV shows or Hollywood movies may try to sell us this season. Your truest, dearest, best Friend did rise from the dead, triumphing gloriously over death and grave. And His triumph is His pledge and promise that the life He gives you—even now in His holy Meal—is the life that never ends.

Dear friends, this is your truest Friend! As the hymn says, “But, oh, my friend, My friend indeed, Who at my need His life did spend.” Since your Lord Jesus Christ has done all this for you, faith knows that behind the mask of all the rough handling, it will find a Friend complete with mercy and kindness and love. “Here might I stay and sing, No story so divine! Never was love, dear King, Never was grief like Thine. This is my friend, In whose sweet praise I all my days could gladly spend!” (LSB 430:2, 7).

This is why the Apostle Paul can urge us in our second reading to grow in living and pleasing God, and to “do so more and more.” Even when we see our dearest Friend wearing the mask of rough handling, the Apostle reminds us that “the will of God is [our] sanctification”—the will of God is to make us holy, make us His children. Our divine Friend is purifying us from the impurities of our doubts and despairs. He is making us holy in the same faith that the Canaanite woman had. And as the Apostle says elsewhere, “We have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” It’s a peace that helps us rejoice in the midst of our sufferings. It’s a peace that helps us know that God uses our sufferings to produce endurance, character, and hope, “and hope does not put us to shame” (Rom. 5:1-5).

So, don’t let the rough treatment scare you. God’s love has been poured into your heart through the Holy Spirit. Even though He may seem to ignore your prayers or insult you, or even leave you limping, He IS your dearest, truest Friend, the One who endured cross and grave, and left the grave empty. Faith clings to Him and never lets go, because He works all things for our good. Amen.

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