School is, generally, back in session. Fall is now officially only 19 days away (or this weekend already). Here at the end of Summer, it’s a good time to look back. We’ve been building this Summer on the Rock, Jesus Christ. You could short it and say that we’ve been working on our faith; we’ve been sharpening the way we think about God and ourselves in Christ. Now, if we were assessing where we’re at in this building process, we’d like to say that things are good, wouldn’t we? We’d like to say that we’ve built something worthwhile, that we’ve grown, advanced – even gotten to great. But have you? In your faith life? Would you call it great? If you’re not sure, the gospel writer Matthew brings a picture this morning of what we seek. He shows us Jesus and a Canaanite woman as if to say to you and me, “This is a great faith.”
The woman in question is just like you. She’s a non-Jewish woman. She apparently knew some specific things of Jesus; she speaks to him in Jewish terms, “Lord, Son of David…” That’s the religious person’s name for God’s Savior who would come from the line of David, who had never been this non-Jewish woman’s king. Yet, just like you, she had heard something of this Jesus – obviously she had heard good news about Jesus that she would come to him. And whether she understood everything about him right from the start, Jesus calls hers “great faith” at the end. But what makes it so?
Note how the woman approaches Jesus. Her great faith cries out, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David!” This runs contrary to our natural conception of greatness. Greatness is being able to do the work ourselves, handling our projects, being a master of life’s problems, and being generally self-sufficient. More than that, we’re awash in a world that also tempts us with “whatever we think and do is great” – there’s no such thing as wrong – there’s just my experience and yours. But the woman cries out for, follows persistently after, seeking mercy.
“Mercy” is total vulnerability. It’s that moment at the end of the medieval sword battle when one knight has his foot on the chest and his sword at the throat of the other and the one lying in the mud can only cry out, “Please don’t kill me – have mercy.” Mercy is help supplied when you’re powerless. This woman, who had surely tried every possible medical and spiritual thing for her daughter’s health, finally found herself incapable, beaten, owned by demonic strength.
Great faith in you and me does the same: it recognizes its powerlessness. In humility it cries out like Jesus’ parable of the tax collector: “God have mercy on me, a sinner.” Great faith knows that it has been owned and beaten down by sin and needs mercy.
The woman knows that Jesus has the power to supply help. Rightly the woman calls Jesus “Lord” or “master” – maybe here that’s “the one who owns everything”. The woman’s daughter was possessed by this demon – owned by it, under its control. This woman was putting her trust in the power of Jesus, that the power that possessed her daughter was about to be owned by the power of God almighty instead – he could do what she could not.
Great faith in you and me does the same: it finds its help in Jesus the Lord as the one who declared his power over sin and his ownership of sinners when he purchased us with his own life-blood at the cross. God exerted his great power in Christ when he raised him up from death and seated him at his right hand to rule all things. And that power is at work for us who believe – who have faith (Ephesians 1:19-20). Practically, it works just like it did in our story this morning…
But this is one of those stories that sort of makes you cringe a little, isn’t it? The woman comes in abject need and Jesus ignores her – says nothing. Later he asserts that his help belongs somewhere else. He finally seems to say that this woman is a dog. It seems like everything from Jesus is a “no”. And yet her great faith perseveres in seeking blessing. Why? Perhaps it’s all in her answer, “Yes, Lord, but even the dogs eat the crumbs…” She doesn’t indignantly disagree that she is a dog – rather, in humility, she agrees she isn’t worthy of his help, and then she perseveres in asking.
Is this not how great faith works? You and I acknowledge that we don’t deserve the full meal of God’s grace. We are undeserving of his kindness. And we prove in all manner of actual sins we do – we are mongrel dogs. But that is exactly the way to lay hold of the promises of God! We trust that God gives mercy to those who don’t deserve it. Remember Paul’s words to Timothy? “Even though I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man, I was shown mercy…” And, in light of God’s abundant grace and love he makes this statement he wants you to take home: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst (1 Timothy 1:13-15).” Who can make the admission – the dog-worst of sinners? Paul…you…me. And what do the worst of sinners receive? God’s grace and mercy abundantly! They receive God’s salvation and a place in his family! They have the benefit of his ear – they can pray to him because he’s their Father! They have good news and new status in glorious promises they can continue to trust – and, by which, they can persevere. Even when sometimes everything outwardly seems like God is saying “No”.
Isn’t the woman’s interplay with Jesus just like how our trust in God is tested too? It is, in a very specific way. Did you notice Jesus’ actions and words with this woman? They appear as though God’s grace and salvation are about as far away as they can be. But in actual fact, Jesus didn’t tell the woman no and he didn’t send her away. At first he didn’t speak, it’s true. And after, he said his work was for God’s lost sheep in Israel – but he didn’t say whether she was among God’s people or not among them. And even when he talked about the children and their housepets, Jesus never said she couldn’t eat. Perhaps he was allowing her by faith to place herself in one camp or the other. Perhaps he was calling her to consider which was more true – the hard things that seemed to say Jesus didn’t want anything to do with her or the good news she had heard about Jesus and the promise he could help.
We’re always tempted to consider which is more true too. Sometimes everything seems “no”. Perhaps God seems silent when we need an answer. Perhaps his promises seem to apply to another kind of people. Perhaps our worthlessness is so great because of some sin that we fear he will not answer at all. But when everything seems “no” God’s mercy to us as sinners calls us to trust the good news we know – that in Christ, with great power, God has already said, “yes” to us. He’s said “yes”: with forgiveness when our sins should have heard “no”. He’s said “yes”: we are his children, dearly loved. He’s said “yes”: we can bring him our prayers and expect him to hear and to answer…just like fathers do – sometimes yes, sometimes something better, sometimes at a different time. He’s said “yes”: his ways are higher and deeper than ours in supplying what we need. He’s said “yes”: he works for our good, in all things. He’s said “yes”: what he has given us in Christ will bring glory like we cannot begin to imagine and far more than we can ask. And, since with great power Jesus has had mercy on us, we know that we can persevere to ask for what we need, to trust in his grace and mercy, and to glorify his name.
With all the weakness of sinners who need the complete help and merciful power of God, lay hold of the promises of God – and that will be great faith. Ask for God’s blessing, seek it out, especially when it seems like he is saying “No” because you know that in Jesus he has said a tremendous “yes” to you already – the one in which he made you his own and promised to hear you – and that will be great faith. And, as you build on the foundation of Christ’s love, you’ll grow in his Word to trust him more and more – and that will be great faith. And the peace of God which transcends all understanding (especially when everything seems “no”) will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus (God’s resounding “yes”). Amen.