It was in the summer of 2014 while staying on sabbatical in our family cabin that I was saved.
Rapturous thunder shook the earth, and the lightning lit the heavens; monsoon season had begun and the rains were pouring in Pinetop. While my family retired to their rooms for the evening I stayed in the kitchen eating microwaved ramen and listening to a sermon series on the ancient wisdom of Solomon, in the book of Ecclesiastes.
“Meaningless! Meaningless!” said the Teacher. “Everything is meaningless!”
And for an angsty teenager like myself, Solomon’s sharp and biting words were medicinal- exactly what was needed to wake me from my spiritual slumber. “Everything is meaningless,” vanity, that much is true, apart from loving God. But at that point, my heart was far from him, and my First Love had grown dim.
For I was, as a freshman and sophomore, gripped by what the ancient Greeks called the vice of acedia or the sin of spiritual slovenliness. The early church fathers diagnosed acedia as the Noonday Devil, that wretched state of boredom, apathy, and laziness before God and Spiritual Reality; it is popularly translated into English today as sloth if you are familiar with the language of the seven deadly sins. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in God, or I didn’t profess a faith in Jesus of Nazareth as Lord- I did! And it wasn’t that I couldn’t offer a cogent intellectual articulation of my faith. No: I was biblically literate, doctrinally sound, free from any serious moral sin and depravity, and, perhaps most importantly of all, an active participant in the youth group.
Yet despite that, I was far from Jesus. For whatever reason, that summer I was moved to pray and plead to God for help. And He did. God awakened me from my sleep and sent His Spirit to my aid.
Now, before we continue, I want to offer a quick clarification about my testimony. When I say that I was saved that summer I mean lower-case “saved”, not upper-case, which again, I need to be clear, is not to downplay its significance in my life. Indeed, that moment was just as important as when I was upper-case Saved at nine years old and responded to God’s love by being baptized. But in that cabin, hours away from my friends and the familiarity of home, God was working on my heart. Like a broken bone that needs resetting, my life was misaligned, and He had set it right.
Throughout my life, I had intellectually affirmed the reality of God and the claims of scripture, but as I grew older my heart had slowly calcified and become hardened. While God had moved me vividly in my youth, for many years then He had been silent. About four years before that summer, sometime in the seventh grade, I began to feel acutely alienated and alone; I was depressed, and, paralyzed with fear and anxiety, kept it to myself. I have little idea why, it just happened. I had pleaded with Him for relief, yet heard nothing.
His absence was scandalous to me. I didn’t want to threaten my faith any further and so, instead of letting myself be perpetually disappointed, I just stopped praying. Like Adam in the Garden, I fled into interiority, silence, and solitude, and hid from God. I still believed He existed, I just didn’t want to talk. To talk to God would run the risk of having no response.
Like all temptations from the Father of Lies, my shame was used against me, and so I retreated from the only one who could heal me- God.
But that summer everything changed; Amid monsoon rains, while eating spicy ramen noodles, as I heard the word of God proclaimed via podcast, I began to pray again. I decided then and there that I would love God throughout my life, and speak to Him daily, even if it meant silence on His end. Solomon’s words in Ecclesiastes impressed upon me deeply that everything is meaningless and banal and empty if I did not love God. And how could I love Him if out of fear I hid from Him? How could I love God if I didn’t speak to Him? Mere intellectual affirmation of God’s existence was not enough- I had to pursue him like a lover.
Almost instantaneously, like the prophet Ezekial, and King David before him, God took my heart of stone and gave me one of flesh. What Paul teaches in his letter to the Romans was confirmed in me: “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”
That summer my depression didn’t go away: It was transfigured. Like Paul’s thorn in his side, it had become the instrument by which God had inflamed my love for Him. I recognized His silence not as absence, but as presence. Like the parent of a child learning to walk, God my Father had stepped aside so I could learn to stand, and build strength.
Again, in his same letter to the Romans, Paul intuits a similar spiritual insight when he encourages us to “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”
Amadeo, this is the Good News: that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” I can testify to that.
This morning we will be continuing our study through the Gospel of Matthew as we read together the story of Christ and the Canaanite woman, and learn about the virtue of spiritual obstinacy, of hard-headedness for heavenly things. Today’s reading is a compelling passage that points to the power of prayer, pleading, and petitions before God, and, hopefully, a reason for hope when God is silent, distant, and aloof.
Let us stand for the Reading of the Word
And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Today’s reading begins with Jesus and his disciples leaving Gennesaret, on the west shore of the sea of Galilee, and withdrawing into Tyre and Sidon, Gentile territory. The ancient Jewish historian Josephus described the land of Gennesaret as a rich and fertile environment: He wrote that “there is not a plant which its fertile soil refuses to produce, and its cultivators in fact grow every species; the air is so well-tempered that it suits the most opposite varieties.” And it was there that Jesus rebuked the scribes and the Pharisees for the hardness of their hearts and their hypocrisy. So he left and withdrew, away from the Jewish leaders, to Tyre and Sidon, perhaps to illustrate in a physical way to his disciples of God’s plan to bring salvation to “everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”
“And behold!” Scripture tells us that a foreigner, a Canaanite woman from that region came crying out to Jesus: she called out “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David.” Whereas the Jewish leaders criticized and condemned Jesus, this Gentile woman calls him Lord. It is a remarkable display of faith on her part- how would she have known? And, how are we to make sense of this event? It is a mystery. But what we do know is this: this Canaanite, who lived outside the fold of Jewish faith and identity, recognizes in Jesus a spiritual authority to heal and to liberate her oppressed daughter from a demon. Her request begins in the exact way that Psalm 51, David’s great song of repentance, begins: “Have mercy on me, Oh God, according to your steadfast love”.
But Jesus does not answer her, at least not at first. Now I want you to be honest with yourself: If you were this Canaanite woman, and your daughter was severely oppressed by demons, how would this make you feel? Really?
I want you to imagine this: If you were in a foreign country and stricken by a disease, a disease, mind you, that was easily and effectively treated by medicine that could be instantaneously prescribed by a doctor, and that very doctor you visited withheld that treatment from you, simply because of your ethnicity, how would you feel? Or to the parents here: what if your child was the one sick, and you were responsible for their health? Imagine if this doctor you traveled to see was notorious for liberally prescribing this medicine for free to all who visited him, and, for some reason, just ignored you.
I don’t know about you, but I imagine that I might grow irritable and upset, and raise my voice. I imagine that I would fervently try to visit another doctor in the hopes that they could heal me. Or, I imagine that I might leave, without saying a word, falling into despair, hopelessness. Or perhaps you might respond with any combination of those reactions.
And I imagine that the Canaanite woman, if she were anyone else, might have responded likewise. I mean Jesus, the Great Physician, the God-Made-Flesh, is standing right before her and could easily heal her daughter with just a word. Maybe she had heard of Jesus the wonder-worker from whispers and rumors. Maybe she had keen spiritual discernment, we don’t know. Nevertheless, she believed that he had authority, otherwise, she would not have pleaded with him to heal her daughter.
But she doesn’t respond with rage, or by seeking another physician, or by walking away dejected. No: she continued praying and petitioning for Jesus to help. This woman was so obstinate and persistent in her efforts, scripture points out, that she bothered the disciples to such a great extent that they literally begged Jesus that he would “Send her away, for she [was] crying out after [them].” Matthew, who wrote this very story that we are reading today, was probably among them that asked Jesus to send her away. She, in a way, is the prototypical patron saint of the prayer warrior, a mother making intercession for those whom she loves.
And her witness is a challenge to all the parents in the room. First, to recognize that spiritual warfare is real; For Peter advises us to “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” We can not allegorize this story totally, reducing it to a mere metaphor. No, the Canaanites daughter is possessed by a real, actual demon. Ask yourself: Mothers, fathers, are you interceding on behalf of your children? This story, if it illustrates anything, is that we must advocate on behalf of our families and our neighbors, for there is a heavenly war raging, and that we have the authority to heal and help.
But back to the text: Jesus answered his disciples by saying “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” This woman, by being Canaanite, was a Gentile, and not of the house of Israel. Jesus here, I believe, as a master rhetorician, is turning the disciple’s world views and cultural assumptions totally upside down. Time and again Jesus makes clear that what is truly important is the heart, what is inside. Just last week, in the text Bruce taught on, earlier in chapter fifteen, Jesus clarified that what defiles and defines a man is what is inside him; “Hear and understand: [Jesus taught] it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” So, how could Jesus claim that he was sent “only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” and then, just four verses later, praise her for her faith and answer her prayers? What Jesus is teaching his disciples through this encounter is a wholesale redefinition of what it means to belong to God’s family. This scene is the fulfillment of what Jesus taught just three chapters earlier in the Gospel of Matthew when he declared that our true family is “whoever does the will of my Father in heaven”, not those who are merely related to us by blood. But more on that in a bit.
After Jesus answered them we are told the woman comes up, I imagine her running forward, humbles herself, and kneeling before him once again pleading “Lord, help me.” She is resolute in her mission to seek God’s mercy. She will not take his silence for an answer. She is a model for us of true faithfulness.
Perhaps it was she who inspired Jesus’s parable of the persistent widow as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, chapter eighteen. It is written that
Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: “In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared what people thought. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, ‘Grant me justice against my adversary.’
“For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, ‘Even though I don’t fear God or care what people think, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won’t eventually come and attack me!’”
And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
“Will he find faith on the earth?” We need to be honest with ourselves. When our prayers aren’t answered, and our souls are sick, how do we respond? Do we respond with anger, by searching for answers elsewhere apart from God, or by falling into despair and depression? Or do we continue to pray and to seek as obstinate, and foolish, lovers of our Lord? As Billy Graham declared “You can be a fool in the world’s eyes — or in God’s eyes. Whose fool are you?”
After asking yet again Jesus retorted back to her “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” First, he was silent and now he is calling her a dog. Again, be honest: how would you feel? In our pain, and our humiliation, sometimes it may feel like God is mocking us. But the Canaanite woman doesn’t relent. She responded, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.”
After acknowledging Christ three times as Lord, and identifying as a lowly Canaanite Canine (do you see what I did there?), she was triumphant. Like Jacob, she had wrestled with God and prevailed, and in that sense, she is a true Israelite: not by blood but by striving with Christ.
You see what I didn’t understand immediately at sixteen was this: God’s silence was a provocation. He was eliciting from me a response of total surrender. I was called to love him unconditionally as He loved me by dying on my behalf. This is the mystery and scandal of the cross. Even Christ himself, crucified upon calvary, cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is the ultimate silence of God.
Last week Pastor Bruce, teaching from earlier in this chapter, warned against the excesses of tradition. And one of the great traps of our great tradition, as evangelicals, is the mistaken belief that God will always speak back. He might, that is true. And He does. But read the Bible. There are several times when scripture gives witness to long bouts of silence from God. Consider, for example, the time from Malachi to Jesus and his cousin John; generations came and went without God speaking up. If we were to find ourselves in a long silence, could we remain faithful?
One of the pernicious inclinations that we need to be vigilant of as evangelicals is the belief that God will always speak. When we believe this with complete certainty, and without humility, we run the risk of mistaking God’s voice for our own. To continue to labor and to love God, regardless of our circumstances, is how we “walk by faith, not by sight.”
Augustine of Hippo, in his commentary on the Canaanite woman, wrote that “Christ showed himself indifferent to her, not in order to refuse her his mercy but rather to inflame her desire for it.”
We need to examine our hearts. Are we hungry enough? Are our hearts aflame for our God? The test of true hunger is that we would be grateful even for mere scraps, for morsels of God’s mercy. This again is what faithfulness looks like. Complacency and comfortability are the twin enemies of our faith, and we must ruthlessly eliminate them to keep our minds on heaven rather than on earth.
After her incredible response of faith, we are told that Jesus answered her “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.” After hounding Christ consistently the Canaanites daughter was healed through her mother’s intercession.
Psalm 37 says
Trust in the Lord, and do good;
dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.
Delight yourself in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
And Jesus himself teaches us to “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
Ask yourself: What is it that you desire? Not superficially, like what lunch you’re going to have this afternoon, but what do you truly love? What fills the deep recesses of your heart? These are pressing questions that we need to answer because we are defined by what we love. Do you seek security, pleasure, friends, or a home? These are all good desires, but they are incomplete desires.
Jesus says to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” Love, and love alone, will satisfy our hearts.
The Canaanite woman diligently sought the healing and wholeness of her daughter: she, through love, willed the good of another and ended up before He who was Love.
You’ve heard me say before: It is not a question of if we worship, but what we worship; and what we ultimately love, above all else, is our God. The inestimable prophet Bob Dylan once sang “You’re gonna have to serve somebody / Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord /But you’re gonna have to serve somebody”.
Your mind is not enough. It is not enough to assent intellectually to a series of propositions about God- we must seek him and speak to him. Even when we don’t like it. Even when He doesn’t answer. We must claim our birthright and wrestle with our God. He is waiting for us like the father of the prodigal son, anticipating our return.
Amadeo, we would be wise to imitate the Canaanite woman, and take the promises of scripture seriously.
That is why we stand together for the reading of the Word, every Sunday morning: so we may be at full attention and that our imaginations might be washed with the promises and character of God, and that we might make claim to them like this tremendous mother did.
That is why we pray weekly through intercessory petitions, because we believe that when we pray God listens and that he extends mercy on us.
And finally, that is why we end every service with an invitation to come and receive prayer: because God speaks in and through his body, the Church.
At this time I like to invite several church leaders to come forward and be available for prayer. If you’ve never come forward to receive prayer, come and receive God’s mercy. If you’ve become disheartened because you feel oppressed under the weight of God’s silence, like I was eight years ago, come and let our leaders pray over you. May we be like the Canaanite woman, obstinate and obnoxious hounds of heaven, pleading for Christ’s mercy.
James, the brother of Jesus, wrote
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.
Another thing I didn’t understand immediately at sixteen was this: That the church, the bride of Christ, is the presence of God in the world. If you want to love God, love one another. “There is no greater commandment than [this].”
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body — Jews or Greeks, slaves or free — and all were made to drink of one Spirit.
This is the Good News. Let us rejoice and, like the Canaanite woman, “pray without ceasing.”
The service is over, but please, come and receive prayer.