Sermon for August 16, 2020

Love, Determination & Faith

Matthew 15:21-28

If you had a child who was ill what would you do to save the life of your child?  I know this question is not just a simple rhetorical question, because some of us have been there, and some of us may still be there.  The answer to the question is that you do everything that you possibly can.

When my son, James, was born, he had three heart defects.  Each of these sent blood back to the lungs before it circulated through the body.  This made James a pretty sick baby.  As an infant he had feeding problems, sleeping problems, breathing problems, and medications that you would not want to have to take on a good day.

What is a parent to do?  We did absolutely everything we could to get our child the best care that we could.   We found the best doctor that we could to correct the defects.  James went through open heart surgery at around 15 months old.  Thanks to the grace of God, the skill of the surgeon and a lot of effort James has been able to live a healthy and whole life.

Now, the reason I share this story is because in our text today there was a woman and she had a daughter with a life-threatening condition.  The scriptures tell us that the woman’s daughter was severely possessed by a demon. The scriptures do not tell us precisely how the child was being affected, but in general her daughter was not functioning as a whole and healthy person, and her quality of  life was not good.  She was requiring extraordinary care and attention to get her through each day.

What is a mother to do?  This mother, this Canaanite woman, heard about Jesus, and so she picked herself up and began following the disciples crying out.  You see she found the best doctor she could.  Jesus was not only a teacher, but he was also known for being a great healer and deliverer, and so the woman went forth and began crying out to him  “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely possessed by a demon.  Have mercy on me”  This part of the story is easy to understand.

However, the scriptures tell us that at first Jesus simply ignored her.   Worse yet when Jesus did finally respond he tried to put her off.  “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  And even when she fell at his feet, again he told her, “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 

This is not as easy to figure out. Jesus response seems harsh.  Why did Jesus not respond in the loving compassionate way we are used to?  Jesus reply seems so uncharacteristic when you think about it.

This has led many preachers and commentators to ponder the explanation for why Jesus seemed to turn her away.   Every sermon might give you a different idea about this question.  I am probably no different.

I would begin with three points that I will hold to be true:

1. Demonic possession can be a literal reality.  In our modern age we have a difficult time grasping what we can not see, or measure; and our scientific perspective tends to believe that there is a rational worldly explanation for every event.   In this modern age we tend to want to explain the Biblical description of demonic possession as fits of epilepsy or mental instability –maybe schizophrenia.  But what if the description of demons and evil personified, that exists in many places in the New Testament, is accurate and literally true?   This may provide an important basis for understanding Jesus response to this woman   

2. Jesus was not ignorant of the place or the situation he was in. The Bible tells us that he was in the district of Tyre and Sidon. These were two ancient cities historic known for worshipping Baal and Molech. These were idols to whom human sacrifices were made in Old Testament times.  Here Jesus is in a generally pagan area with a Canaanite woman calling after him.  How much attention should Jesus give to those who may in no way live lives that honor the true God? 

3. Jesus did not suffer from being prejudice.  Jesus refusal to help her wasn’t because he didn’t like her.  There is no place I can think of in the scriptures that would portray Jesus as being narrow minded or closed to others simply because they are not Jewish.  The image of Jesus in the scripture is one of openness to all who are seeking God in truth and good faith.  In fact, Jesus often went out of his way to talk to people who were different.

From these assumptions my guess is that Jesus and his disciples were not expecting to find much genuine faith in the land of the Canaanites.  The Canaanites practiced idolatry.  They were historically tied to the worship of Baal (a bull-like idol) and a pantheon of gods and goddesses; with fertility rituals being common.  Now while the worship of Baal was in decline during the time of Jesus there probably still were those who held on to the old ways, and I am going to suggest that it might be possible to associate this daughter’s demonic possession with these rituals of idolatry. 

Apostle Paul:  1 Corinthians 10:19-20 — What do I imply then? That food sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything?   No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be partners with demons.

I would suggest that Jesus may have had some good reasons for ignoring this women’s plea.  Is there any hope in freeing someone from demonic possession without dealing with the reasons that may have caused it in the first place?  This woman may have been living a life that was the historic antithesis to a life of faithfulness to Yahweh.  The real problem is that all our decisions about life have consequences, and yes if we associate ourselves with evil then evil will become a part of our lives.  If we seek out fortune tellers, tarot cards, séances, and Ouija boards, we very well may find ourselves connecting with something, but it will not be God.  And even if that evil is cast out of our lives by the power of God the scriptures suggest that we are worse off than before if we continue to invite evil back into our lives once we are free from it.  (Matthew 12:43-45)

The Canaanite woman did indeed have much going against her, and perhaps her greatest problem was that she had no real community of faith.  I believe that it is quite possible that Jesus did not and perhaps could not yield to every call he heard.  His initial refusal to deal with this woman is perhaps understandable.  What good can be done for someone if they simply go back to a way of life that caused their problem to begin with?  If a person is drinking too much, what good does it do to take the bottle out of their hand if they live next to a party store.  Jesus probably had good reasons for not dealing with her.

But she had a couple of things in her favor.  She had determination.  Because of her love for her child, she was not going to be put off.  She was not going to be dissuaded, and even when Jesus referred  to the Canaanites as dogs (a comment that I am not going to attach directly to this woman before Jesus), she did not argue against Jesus reason, she simply argued that at least some small portion of God’s mercy should fall even on the most undeserving.  It might be that the crumbs from the table should be plentiful enough and fall even upon the puppies that stand under the children’s table.  This was the image the woman invoked.  Surely God’s mercy is bountiful enough that even the little dogs might receive some scrap of food and be fed.

For that Jesus could not turn her away.  Whether it was intentional or not she proved that she possessed some true faith and understanding into the real nature of God.   Jesus always preached on the overabundance of God’s grace, (a good measure pressed down, shaken together and running over) and here this woman was not depending upon her on worth but upon God’s generosity.  She was right. This is where we are really fed.  It is not in our abilities, but in God’s grace that flows even to the undeserving. 

What I find important in our text is the fact that Jesus upon seeing this woman’s faith once more affirmed that the grace of God is for all who come in faith.  So much so that even a Canaanite women (who may have been deep into pagan idolatry) can become an example of faith, and receive the mercy of God.  This story, regardless of why it is the way it is, revisits for us the boundless possibilities of God’s love and grace.  It has been given in abundance so that it may even overflow beyond the boundaries of the people it has been given to in order to reach the least and farthest.  It also affirms the fact that regardless of this woman’s possible background, when she came to Jesus in an attitude of faith and trusting in the mercy of God, God would not turn her away.  Her prayers and needs were answered.  Her child was made well.  Can we ever be too far away from God?  Can we ever be in a situation that is beyond the hope of prayer?  I would say no.

How important these elements are in the life of our church: faith and determination sponsored by the love we have for something other than ourselves.  

If you love something, if you have faith, than you should be determined to seek what is best for that someone or something.  Like the love, determination, and faith of the women in our story. 

If we want our church to grow than  we need to become determined, never dissuaded, and put ourselves in a fully committed position to grow spiritually with one another.  That means we should regularly come to church and have a determination to fill up pew.  We need to study the scriptures and dedicate ourselves to a disciplined Christian life.  That means we should support our church financially, so we don’t have to worry about how we are going to pay our bills or pay for any necessary repairs to the church.  Everyone should take the time to reach out to someone.  Everyone should know where their spiritual gifts lie and put them to use.   The church should be a place where the love of God can not be avoided, because it has so been poured out upon us and through us.

It is all about having a determination to do all that you can for that which you love, and letting your determination make a difference, and faith be your guide.  Everyone who thus comes to God will not be turned away.  If that Canaanite women can come to Jesus and have the faith to change her world than so we should be able to do likewise, and in so doing find not only the crumbs under the table, but the banquet feast itself.     Amen

Published by Rev. Russell

Pastor at the Lake City United Methodist Church in Lake City, Michigan.

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