When Jesus is the Problem, Not the Answer: A Sermon for Reminiscere on St. Matthew 15:21-28

Canaanite Woman, Très Riches Heures  Duc de Berry circa 1410

The Christian life is filled with mystery and wonder. God is often doing His work in the last place anybody would think to look. He consistently chooses the “least likely to succeed”, be it the slave nation of Israel, the carpenter’s Son from Nazareth, and even you, O chief of sinners. God’s mighty power to save is seen on the cross, the most incredible display of weakness the world has ever known. And today we see that peace, joy, and comfort are found in conflict, the very last place you’d expect to find them. Today we learn that the whole of the Christian life could be described as a blissful battle, in which we wrestle against the devil, the world, our own sin, and even God.

As we begin our meditation on today’s Holy Gospel, let us pray Walther’s prayer for the second Sunday in Lent:

Lord, how wonderfully You associate with Your own. You struggle with them not to conquer them but to be conquered. You alone are the One who gives them power to conquer. You will crown them. Teach us today from Your Word how to struggle with You and conquer, that You can also someday gloriously crown and lead us into Your eternal kingdom. Hear us for the sake of Jesus Christ, Your dear Son and the Lord of our salvation. Amen.

Christianity is not the easy life. Salvation is by grace alone and Jesus has done all of the work for you in that regard. But that’s salvation. We have all sorts of daily obligations and problems, and while Jesus gives us the strength to face them, grace alone isn’t all that’s needed. Grace alone will not get the baby’s diapers changed. Grace alone will not cure cancer (not in this life, at least). Grace alone will not get the bills paid. And, as at least one of my confirmation students found out the hard way, “Jesus” is not the correct answer on your math test. Jesus is not always the answer. In fact, sometimes He’s the problem, as we see in today’s text.

When we are baptized, the burden of the cross becomes our own. We are like our Master; we share in His sufferings before entering into glory. And Jesus even deals harshly with us at times. How often has life not gone according to plan? In fact life does always go according to plan—it’s just not always according to your plan. God’s will is always done in our lives, sometimes with us kicking and screaming all the way.  

Consider how harshly Jesus deals with the Canaanite woman. First of all, it wasn’t easy being a Christian in Canaan. As hard as it is to be a faithful Christian in our country these days, we’ve got it easy by comparison. To be a Christian in Canaan back then would like being a Christian in modern North Korea. Most of North Korea is atheistic, and being a Christian is considered one of the worst crimes possible. Just owning a Bible in North Korea is grounds for execution.

Yet, this Canaanite woman remained faithful to Jesus. And how does God repay her? By allowing her daughter to become “severely oppressed by a demon.” So much for Christianity being easy street. But one day along comes Jesus into the region of Tyre and Sidon, and finally she has a ray of hope. The Savior, the Son of David in whom she trusts, the One who has the power to cast out demons, is coming her way. So naturally, she goes out to meet Him, begging for mercy.

Not only is this her daughter’s chance for a cure, it’s also a golden opportunity for her to show all of her pagan neighbors who’s really God once and for all. Imagine her surprise when, instead of greeting her with joy, Jesus responds to her pleas with silence.

We face enough struggles every day and life can be hard enough when they’re just of the temporal variety. There’s the pressure to perform at school or work, to take care of our health and our loved ones, and to fulfill whatever obligations we have in this life, whether we happen to like them or not. Now on top of that add the deafening silence of God when we need Him most, and that’s about enough to drive anybody to despair.

But not this woman. Still, she cries out after Jesus. Finally when He does speak up, He treats her as if she’s the enemy. “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel,” Jesus says to the Canaanite. But even then the woman persists, “Lord, help me!” She doesn’t allow her feelings or her mind get in the way. Logic would say, “Jesus doesn’t want to help, so give up and go home.” Surely she was feeling rejected. And if facing rejection from other people is bad enough, how much worse to be rejected by God in the flesh! But still she persists, continuing to trust in Jesus even though all of the signs are pointing in the opposite direction.

So Jesus speaks up again, and it’s not pretty. This time He holds nothing back, essentially saying, “look, you’re a miserable dog. You don’t deserve anything from me. It’s not right for me to give what belongs to my children to a mutt like you.”

That’s harsh. At this point she could very well wonder what her faithfulness had gotten her. Why bother with Christianity at all? You couldn’t fault her for thinking maybe she would have been better off if she had never bothered with Jesus in the first place. She undoubtedly suffered for being a Christian in a pagan land, and now she’s being treated harshly by the One for whom she suffered.

And then the most remarkable thing happens: she agrees with Jesus. She says, “You’re right, Lord. I am a miserable, good for nothing mutt. I don’t deserve a place at your table. So treat me like a dog. I ask you nothing more than a dog’s portion. So let me catch the crumbs that fall from Your table, just like every other dog.”

The woman has caught Jesus in His Words, and He’s glad to be caught. She battled with God and prevailed, because she wouldn’t let Jesus be anything other than what He promised to be, her Savior.

And here we find a great deal of instruction in the art of war with God. First of all, we approach Him with humility. We don’t like being caught in our guilt. The first thing we try to do when we are found guilty is to point the finger at others. “Well, I may not be perfect, but do you know what so and so did?” But self-justification is the opposite of justification by faith in Christ. To make excuses for our sin is a poor substitute for the blood of Christ which atones for our sin.

It’s not pleasant to hear that you’re a good for nothing mutt, but that’s the truth about the sinful human flesh. The only thing it’s good for is to be killed, and that can’t happen where we live in denial. Humility and confession, to agree with your Lord’s verdict on your sin is what’s needed. Don’t ask God to treat you fairly; confess your sin and trust in your Savior. As bad as the verdict is, as bad as things may be in your life at any given time, it could always be worse. After all, your sins have earned you hell—and Jesus doesn’t give you that.

We deserve God’s total silence; we deserve suffering with no relief, no joy. It’s easy to lose heart, to become overwhelmed by our problems. Everything happens according to God’s will, and sometimes we find this problematic. But like the woman, we cling to Christ and His Word, never giving up, even when He looks like the enemy. He tests us for our good, to call us to repentance and strengthen our faith.

Nobody likes conflict, but the wonderfully good news is that God doesn’t give up on you and hand you over to the devil. He continues to wrestle with you, which is a sure sign of His love. It may not seem like it at the time, but we continue to trust in His goodness and hold to His promises even when it seems it’s not doing any good. It always does. We waste all sorts of time and effort doing things that don’t ever help us, but we never struggle with God in vain. In fact, there’s nothing better you could do for yourself than to wrestle with God in His Word and prayer.

Wrestling with God isn’t a bad thing. Jesus may even look like our enemy at times, and that’s okay. If you never wrestle with God, that’s when you should be nervous. Giving up may be easy, and it may end the conflict, but it leaves you as a prisoner of Satan. The struggle is evidence of faith.

Nobody who teaches the truth faithfully will ever tell you that the Christian life is  an easy one. As Acts 14 says, “Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God,” (v. 22).   

Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able,” (Luke 13:24). Even many who seek to enter will not make it, Jesus says. If this is true, what of those who are complacent in their faith, who never battle? Jesus warns us against such complacency, which is nothing other than death faith. He speaks His Word to bring your faith back to life, and nourishes you with so much more than crumbs, but with the Very Bread of Life come down from Heaven, His true Body and Blood, given for you.

Peace, joy, and the comfort of salvation are found in Christ, in the daily struggle with sin, death, the devil, and yes—even with God. He promises to restore to you the joy of your salvation. All other helpers will eventually fail; every other comfort will flee. But when those whom you regarded as trustworthy and sure have long from you departed, God’s grace shall still endure.

Though all else depart, Christ is with you. Whatever joy or comfort is found in the world, even more so is found in Jesus. When you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the darkness, take heart, for it will not last forever. Christ has overcome the darkness. You will not languish forever. Cling to Word, to His promises, even as this woman did, even when it looked like God was her enemy. The darkness cannot overcome God’s Word or even keep the joy of your salvation contained for very long. So cling to that Word, and the light of Christ’s grace and joy will break through. The joy of salvation is yours in Christ Jesus, now and forever.

Soli Deo Gloria

+Rev. Eric Andersen
St. Matthew 15:21—28: “When Jesus is the Problem, Not the Answer”
Reminiscere, 2014 (Several thoughts adapted from Walther’s Reminiscere sermon)
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