Vicar Christopher Gillespie
Immanuel Lutheran Church of Frankentrost
Lent 2 (February 17, 2008)
Matthew 15:21-28; Genesis 32:22-32; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-7
Title: “Encouragement Without Evidence”
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, our meditation for today is taken from the Gospel text, especially these words “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” (Matthew 15:28)
Let us pray:
Heavenly Father, You teach us in Your holy Word that You do not willingly afflict or grieve Your children. Look with compassion on us. Remember us in mercy, strengthen us in patience, comfort us with the memory of your goodness, and let Your face shine on us that we may be guarded by Your peace. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
This week we continue our Lenten series on “Encouragement.” Last week Pastor spoke of “Encouragement in Temptation.” Today, we consider God’s encouragement for us when it would seem there is no evidence.
Have you ever heard someone say, “If I could see a miracle, or even any evidence that God exists, I would believe”? Before the devil plants the same idea in your mind, consider the story Jesus tells in Luke chapter 16:
“Now there was a certain rich man, and he habitually dressed in purple and fine linen, daily living in splendor every day. And a certain poor man named Lazarus was laid at his gate, covered with sores, and longing to be fed with the crumbs which were falling from the rich man’s table; besides, even the dogs were coming and licking his sores. Now it came about that the poor man died and he was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. And in Hades lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away, and Lazarus in his bosom. And [the rich man] cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, … send [Lazarus] to my father’s house-for I have five brothers-that he may warn them, lest they also come to this place of torment.’ But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ [The rich man responded:] ‘No,Father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent!’ [Abraham replied:] ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be persuaded if someone rises from the dead'” (Luke 16: 19-31).
Miracles do not automatically create faith! Through Abraham God makes this point: Seeing a miracle or evidence of an unusual event does not automatically result in faith. This Bible teaching is also demonstrated in Jesus’ public ministry: “[Jesus] began to reproach the cities in which most of His miracles were done, because they did not repent” (Matthew 11:20). Even Jesus’ most spectacular miracles were often met by stubborn unbelief!
So then, what is faith? God says faith does not come by seeing miracles, as Abraham pointed out, or spiritual events. So, where can you go, or what can you do to find faith and to avoid ending up in hell, as the rich man did?
In His parable of the Sower (Luke 8:4-15), Jesus explains that faith is produced by the seed which God sows, and that “The seed is the Word of God” (Luke 8:11).
Therefore, when God comes to you in His living Word and His miracle of Baptism, He is planting His Seed. The fruit of God’s Seed in your heart is His gift of faith. All other ways of achieving or growing faith are rejected by God. As God says, “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:17).
Consider our Old Testament reading for today. Jacob has just run in fear from his father-in-law Laban. Now he approaches his brother Esau, from whom he stole the birthright of his father Isaac. Esau’s battle force of four-hundred men is intimidating, to be sure. Jacob is greatly distressed, so much so that he splits his camp in two so that some might be spared if Esau attacks. Where does Jacob turn when his faith is challenged? Where does he find encouragement in the face of eminent doom?
In the moment of despair, Jacob turns to the Word of God. He says “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, â€˜Return to your country and to your kindred, that I may do you good.'” (Genesis 32:9) His brother appears to stand between him and the promises of God. Rather than trust in his fear, his thoughts or feelings, Jacob turns to God and His Word.
Encouragement despite the evidence comes through prayer when you return to the promises of God for you. In humility, Jacob prays “I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant… Please deliver me from the hand of my brother… you said â€˜I will surely do you good.'” (Genesis 32:10-12) It is not wrong to make demands of God, as long as you are repeating his promises to you. In true faith, Jacob prays just as our Lord has taught us.
Jacob confesses God as his only god. He prays that God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. He confesses he is unworthy to have received the forgiveness he has. He prays to be led from temptation and delivered from evil.
But our Lord isn’t finished testing Jacob. God himself comes in the form of a man and wrestles with him through the night. Our Lord even breaks the rules of good sportsmanship in the match as He throws out Jacob’s hip. Jacob persists despite what looked to be a losing battle. He trusts in the the Word, that his he and his family will be delivered home safely. The striving of Jacob continues until our Lord is satisfied. So satisfied is He that He gives Jacob the new name Israel because he had striven with God and prevailed.
Jacob held God to his promises in both trial of prayer and wrestling. He did not trust in his thinking or feeling to determine whether He was a child of God, whether God’s promises or true. In the face of what would seem outright rejection, true faith clings to the Word of promise. “I will not leave you or forsake you” says our Lord. You trust not not in the life you have been given with its ups and downs but instead you are encouraged by the promise of salvation and eternal life.
The Canaanite woman from the Gospel of St. Matthew has a similar battle to Jacob. She too must take to the Lord to task, insisting that His promises are for her, despite the evidence. First, Jesus ignores her plea for healing for her daughter. She is persistent. She has heard the Word incarnate. Her faith pursues Christ, trusting that he is the Son of David, the Messiah, the one who can save her daughter.
So incessant is this woman that the disciples whine to our Lord to send her away. He seems to answer their plea saying “I was sent only for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” He appears to have rejected her as she is not of the house of Jacob. Yet again, the woman pleads “Lord, help me!” Your gifts are for me! Give to my daughter what only you can give!
But our Lord seems to reject her, saying “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Whether a first-century Canaanite or modern American, to be called a dog remains derogatory. But the true faith of the woman persists, acknowledging she may be a dog but that even the crumbs of our Lord’s mercy is sufficient to save her daughter.
What a model of faith! How could this woman possibly be encouraged when repeatedly our Lord himself appears to reject her? She does not trust in appearances. She like Jacob approaches her Lord with humility. Her pleas are seemingly ignored. She is not of the house of Israel. She is a sinner, a dog in the Lord’s house.
By all indications, Jesus is not interested in her. But her faith demands of our Lord that he keep his promises. The Word of God promises freedom from sin, death, and the power of the devil to all who believe. Her great faith trusts in this Word of promise and not the evidence of the world, her thoughts and feelings.
Notice that neither the striving of Jacob nor the pleas of the Canaanite are self-serving. Both operate within the stations which God has placed them. Jacob seeks to protect and preserve his family from danger. The woman seeks for her daughter healing and rescue from sickness. One is serving as father and the other as mother. Their faith compels them to protect the ones they love.
When St. Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica, his plea for them is to remain steadfast in the Word of God. This Word is the instruction of the Lord Jesus in preserving their faith. Paul gives a specific negative example of running contrary to the Word. Those who ignore their faith and allow their bodies to succumb to passion and lust are acting in self-interest and not for the neighbor. They are not acting as Jacob or the Canaanite woman. Rather than trust in good intentions of our Lord for their bodies, they look inward. They ignore God’s instruction for holiness and purity. Paul rightly that such sins of lust and passion begin as selfish desires, become selfish actions, and in the end, transgress and wrong your neighbor.
Instead of falling into sin, be encouraged in whatever life God has given you, whether single or married, young or old, for God has promised you all that you need to support this body and life, despite what evidence appears to the contrary. Your body may tell you to transgress against his Word and commit a fleshy sin. But heed the Word of your faith and abstain, lest your faith be snatched away. It may seem God has left you with a lonely life or a struggling marriage. But these are not indications of our Lord’s faithfulness to his promises. He has not left you. These trials are but for a moment and for the testing and proof of your faith in Him.
Be careful, that you do not refuse to heed God’s Word, and so join with the devil in sin. In our day, people wrongly look to their health, or their wealth, or the success in life as indicators of God’s grace and saving faith. In Luther’s day there was a great trend to find God and achieve faith through miracles, visions, and extraordinary spiritual experiences. When people were tempted by the devil to trust in experiences, Luther pointed them to Isaiah 8:19-20: “Should not a people consult their God? Should they consult the dead on behalf of the living? To the law and to the testimony! If they do not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.”
Luther then explains this section of God’s Word:
“There, too, is a clear text, penetrating and compelling. We are to consult God’s law and testimony in everything we want to know. He who will not do this, will be robbed of his dawn [of his faith], which doubtless is Christ and truth itself. Note that when [Isaiah] says we ought to consult God, he also shows us where and whence we should do so. This prevents anyone from gazing at the heavens, expecting something extraordinary from God.”
Thus, the prophets and Luther are clear. When you follow your thoughts and feelings rather than God’s Word, your faith is weakened and salvation can be lost. Don’t mess around with the devil and evil spirits! They are many times stronger than you are.
During this season of Lent, we focus our eyes especially upon the saving Word of the Gospel. Christ died for you. He was persecuted, suffered, and hung on the cross for you. He was buried and rose again so that you too might die and rise again in Him. Our sufferings and death no longer have their sting. Jesus Christ took the penalty of sin upon his own flesh. Our trials are meant to recall His ultimate trial before Pilate. God’s own Son died to keep the Father’s promise. He kept His Word that He would save us from the hands of our enemies and guide us into the way of peace, heaven.
When Satan tempts you to seek signs and wonders outside God’s Word, remember Abraham’s words to the rich man in hell! The rich man asked Abraham to send Lazarus to warn his brothers so that they would not end up with him in the torment of hell. God’s response was swift and to the point. Through Abraham, God says: If people do not seek God and salvation through His living Word, even witnessing a resurrection will not save them!
Stop seeking signs and sensation as the rich man suggested. “For this slight momentary afflication is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:17-18)
When God wrestles with you through trial, sickness, persecution, suffering, and mourning, do not trust in your own eyes, ears or ability. Instead be like Jacob and the Canaanite woman who hold God to His Word. Say to him in prayer, “You, O Lord, are my shepherd! I will not fear for you are with me!” (Psalm 23) “I remember your deeds, your wonders of old. You promised with your arm to redeem your people!”
Trust in His saving name placed upon you in your baptism. Daily die to sin and rise to new life. God’s living and saving Word will flow into your soul to water the Seed of faith He has planted in you. God will grow your faith through Christ-centered sermons, Bible studies, and His absolution. Receive Jesus regularly in the Holy Supper. Then, rejoice everyday that God has established your faith and salvation, not on the chance that you might see a miracle or feel God’s favor with your senses; rather, He has established your faith and salvation on His unchanging Word, the salvation promised of old and wrought upon the cross. Amen.
Dear Lord Jesus, focus my eyes of faith on You and You alone. Remove all temptations of the devil to verify my faith by the unusual or the miraculous. Cause me to recall regularly Abraham’s words that, if I reject or remain indifferent to Your Word, even seeing a resurrection will not save me. I believe, Lord, help my unbelief and encourage me despite the earthly evidence (Mark 9:24). Amen.’
(Adapted from “Encouragement When You Feel You Need Some Evidence so You can Believe”, Good News, 30:18-19. 2007)