22 February 2016

Homily for Lent 2 - Reminiscere

When the Lord Tests Your Faith
Matthew 15:21-28 

Listen here. 

Faith is often tested through trials and ordeals. That’s what the Canaanite woman discovered. This believing little lady comes to the Lord Jesus. She calls upon Him. She laments her need—a heartfelt plea disguised as a mere statement of fact: “My daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” Sounds dire! Her need is great. By faith she is asking for help. But she doesn’t get it, not right away at least. First, her faith undergoes a testing and trial. Yes, the Lord does test your faith!

Our Lord Jesus Christ still deals with His people—with us—the same way today. He does test and exercise our faith, at different times and in different ways for each of us. The words of 1 Peter 1(:6-7) ring, oh, so true: “Now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Just as gold is tested and purified by fire, so also faith is tested and purified through various trials and ordeals.

“But, Pastor, isn’t faith a spiritual light? Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven’ (Matt. 5:16)?” Yes, He did indeed. And yet a torch also burns more brightly when a wind blows on it. In the same way, faith shines much brighter if a bitter north wind blows various trials on it.

Let’s try another picture. When we receive God’s Word of forgiveness, life, and salvation in the farm land of our ears and hearts, God wants that Word to produce a crop of faith. But an unplowed field does not produce a good harvest. So our Lord cultivates His believers by means of cross and trial so that the seed of His Word may produce the fruit of faith, along with other fruits of the Spirit.

In our Gospel reading today, we see what happens when the Lord tests your faith. We see four tests, and we see how all four of these tests drive us again and again to our merciful Lord.

The first test is external tribulation. This is the easy one to see. This believing little lady was carrying a heavy burden: her daughter was severely demon-possessed. The devil directly assaulted the young girl, and both mother and daughter suffered. Yes, when God sends tribulations upon His people, even loved ones endure a severe cross.

But it all happens so that faith, patience, and hope can be tested and strengthened. Our Epistle reading says so. “We rejoice in our sufferings”—not because of them, but “in” them—”knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame.” God sends tribulations so that our faith may shine forth through perseverance and patience.

And notice what the little lady did—she’s our role model here. She went straight to Jesus. She begged Him for help. Let’s receive our times of trial and ordeals as times to drive us to Jesus in fervent prayer. You see, in the midst of our trials and ordeals we come to realize our poverty, our need, and our unworthiness. So, let’s turn to our perfect, overflowing Fountain of mercy and every blessing. There we’ll find plenty of help in time of need.

This believing little lady shows us how to craft our prayers. She prayed with true trust. She had no doubt that the Lord Jesus could help her. She simply lifted up her hands without anger or quarreling within herself (1 Tim. 2:8). Not only that, but as she prays she grounds herself on two rock-solid attributes of Christ—His omnipotence and His mercy. Yes, she trusted that He is true God, almighty Lord, and able to overcome the devil. And, yes, she trusted that as true Man, Son of David, He  has pity and shows mercy. She sought His mercy. And she did so with humble heart. She did not pray from any sense of worthiness in herself. So, let’s trust our Lord without doubt. Let’s ground our prayers on the rock-solid foundation of His omnipotence. Let’s plead only for His mercy, and with no sense of our worthiness or deserving anything from Him. As Psalm 27(:8) says, “You have said, ‘Seek My face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, LORD, do I seek.”

Then comes the second test: God is silent and postpones His help. Jesus gives no answer, no help right away. Job received the same kind of silence and postponing of help. He said, “I cry to You for help and You do not answer me; I stand, and You only look at me” (30:20). David endured the same thing. He cried out: “How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). And David cried out more than once. Here’s another one: “O God, do not keep silence; do not hold Your peace or be still, O God!” (Ps. 83:1). And then there was Jeremiah’s lament: “Though I call and cry for help, He shuts out my prayer” (Lam. 3:8).

Job, David, and Jeremiah experienced it. So did this believing little lady from Canaan. Let’s learn from her. She did not give up. No, she held on with prayer. Let’s not receive God’s silence as refusal to help. Rather, let’s regard it as time to exercise faith. Remember, what Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7)? Let’s run those words through the filter of faith. Let’s hear those words as Jesus inviting us: “If you have a need, pray. If you don’t receive help right away, then keep seeking. If help and deliverance still don’t come, then keep knocking. Help is on its way. “For still the [prophecy] awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay” (Hab. 2:3).

Here’s the third test of faith: when we fall into thinking, “I don’t belong to Christ; He couldn’t possibly love me; His promises don’t apply to me.” Yes, it is what Jesus told the believing little lady: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” She was certainly a lost sheep, just not of the house of Israel. And, yes, Jesus did come to be “servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness” (Rom. 15:8); He is the Prophet greater than Moses, promised and sent primarily to the Israelites.

But don’t let such doubting, anxious thoughts invade and infect your hearts and minds when you are weighed down by trials and ordeals! The little Gentile lady from Canaan didn’t. She did not allow such thinking to drive her away from Jesus. No, she kept chasing after Him. She kept crying out after Him. She kept pleading and praying, “Lord, help me.” And it’s a good thing too. You see, this same Jesus, the Suffering Servant, the Prophet like Moses, the Christ headed for a Cross, also said things like this: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked man turn from his way and live” (Ezek. 33:11). And remember this promise, not just for Israelites, but also for you little Gentile children: “Come to Me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). And He even inspired St. Paul to proclaim His heartfelt will for all people: He “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4).

So trust His promises more than the troubled thoughts or fleeting feelings that well up inside you. You see, His promises are divine, and they never fail. Let’s cling to the Word made flesh and to His universal promise like a baby clings to its mother. Then we can calmly say, with St. David, “I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me” (Ps. 131:2)

And here’s the fourth and final test of faith: anxiety about unworthiness. Jesus tells the little lady, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the [little puppy] dogs.” Sure sounds like Jesus calls the lady a dog! And unworthy of any help! And so such thoughts creep into our hearts and minds.

But listen to the little lady’s faith-filled come back: “Yes, Lord, yet even the [little puppy] dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Yes, she was unworthy. She freely and openly admitted it. But that was no reason to let her trust fall way! Same goes for us. Yes, we are unworthy. Yes, “we daily sin much and surely deserve nothing but punishment.” What do you expect from poor, miserable sinners, from dogs such as us? And why else do you think this Jesus ends up on a Cross, bearing your burdens, shouldering your sins, bleeding out to fill you with His life? But once again, let this believing little lady be your role model. Respond to your Lord as she did: “Yes, Lord, I am a poor little puppy dog. But I still desire only the crumbs of Your grace. Yes, Lord, I am a sinner—in thought, word, and deed. But I come crawling to You in repentance. Yes, Lord, I am absolutely unworthy of any help. But Your faithful promise is [so] precious that I believe it … and still cling to You.”

What happens when the Lord Himself tests your faith? You get to be like this little believing woman. You get to hear the Lord Himself say, “Great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And you get to be healed. … Oh, and by the way, you also get to come to His Table to receive more crumbs of His grace and mercy and help. Amen.

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