Fourth Sunday in Lent (Laetare)

Readings: Exodus 16:2–21 | Galatians 4:21-31 | John 6:1-15

Text: John 6:1-15

The name, Laetare, comes from the first word of the Introit, Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; that you may nurse and be satisfied at her consoling breast.”

It sounds great to invite people to rejoice, but let’s dwell there for a moment so that we learn the cause for rejoicing.  These verses for the antiphon are at the center of a bigger lesson for today.  (It might be helpful to open the pew Bible to this passage, so you can follow along better.  Isaiah 66:7-13, page 625)

7“Before she was in labor she gave birth; before her pain came upon her she delivered a son.
8Who has heard such a thing? Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day? Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor she brought forth her children.
9Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?” says the Lord; “shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?” says your God.
10“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her;
11that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.”
12For thus says the Lord: “Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream; and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip, and bounced upon her knees.
13As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. 

These verses fall in the midst of a controversy.  It’s between those who tremble at the Word of the Lord, and those make themselves the Lord’s enemies.  It would be easy enough if the God-fearing wore red arm bands while the haters of God’s Word wore white, but it’s not that easy.  The controversy is between two groups which outwardly claim the Lord, His City, His Temple, and they allege to be His true people. 

In that much, nothing has changed.  Even a cursory glance at Church history will show parties who claim to have the right to the Name of God.   How can this dispute be settled?  That’s what this portion of Isaiah teaches us.

But some will object to reading all this into Isaiah.  How can you say that Jerusalem stands for the Christian Church?  I mean, it’s found on a map, and since 1947 it’s been part of a country called Israel!  Doesn’t that mean that the city of Jerusalem holds some dear place in God’s heart, in His plan for the fullness of time?

St. Paul explains this, himself a Jew, one who had the highest regard for Jerusalem and the activity God was doing in the Temple and on Golgotha outside the city. Still, however, he comes back to the controversy of two parties claiming a place and, with that, claiming God’s blessing.  The party claiming Jerusalem the city, the ancestry, the traditions, the Temple itself, are also saying that in order to be saved, you must obey at least some parts of the Mosaic Law.  Yet in doing that—even though they are claiming the right of children of God with the outward trappings—they are insisting that their human birth and outward obedience to God’s commands gives them the right to become children of God.  They are willing to fight those who claim, “to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” (John 1:12-13)

21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.”

We’re naturally attracted to outward proofs, and that’s how God operated for Israel under Moses.  He gave them outward signs: circumcision, the Temple rites, national borders, a city for His Name to dwell.  But as is the case with sinful man, it was abused.  Rather than be seen as an inexpressible gift for God, whom “heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain” (1 Kings 8:27)—for Him to locate His presence and bestow His undeserved favor upon the sons of Israel—it was turned into a source of pride.

But what’s needed is more than to say, you’ve got it wrong; now do this instead.  God goes further by making it clear that those who are truly His people are not able to boast even of their faith.  Listen to this analogy of birth:  You are born of water and the Holy Spirit.  You, the barren one, break forth and cry aloud even though you do not labor!  And despite all the effort and alleged holiness, it’s the children of promise who are named before God.  It’s the children who believe in the promised Son of God who are of the true Jerusalem.  Those who are enslaved in the blindness of the old covenant—who actually hate the Word of God—are slaves in the present Jerusalem.

“But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.”  This is where we properly call the Church our mother—not a human institution, but the work of God.  You, hear the Word of God and keep it, who have the gift of faith in Christ, the Church is your mother.

So Paul continues,

28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.

One of the dreams of our age is for there to be peace in the Middle East.  There actually hasn’t been outward peace in that region since the days of King David and Solomon, about three thousand years ago.  But since the time when Christ was born, this is a major reason why: People are clamoring over the city of Jerusalem and claiming it as their holy site.  Jews, Christians, and Muslims have all gotten wrapped up wanting to find God in a place.

Jewish Zionist movements of the 19th and 20th centuries certainly haven’t helped this either.  The fruit of their labor is seen in the fact that a nation-state by the name of Israel exists today.  It’s also believed by many Christians that rebuilding a brick-and-mortar Temple in Jerusalem—where the Muslim Dome of the Rock currently sits—will usher in the return of Christ.

Yet those who are still yearning for the earthly city are blind to the work which God actually is doing.  Why long for the Jerusalem who rejected God’s Christ, because He did not bring a kingdom on their own terms, a salvation that could be worked for, and He made it dependent completely on divine work!

Let’s return to the antiphon from the beginning of service: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; that you may nurse and be satisfied at her consoling breast.”  Jerusalem is a picture of the Church, what we confess in the Creed as the Communion of Saints.  Rejoice where the Church is, where she gives birth to sons and daughters who are “born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” 

So if the present Jerusalem is a place of slavery, and the Jerusalem from above is free, who is our mother, where can we look for God in the world?

This we learn in the Feeding of the 5,000 which we heard from John 6 today.  This miracle appears in all four Gospels. It richly reveals Jesus as the fulfillment of the ministry of Moses, the presence and provision of the Lord amid His people, and it affirms that man does not live by bread alone, but by every Word which comes from the mouth of the Lord [Deut. 8:4].

Consider the miracle itself, though: He sees the large crowd, and tests His disciples by asking, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?”  Philip gives the event-planner answer and says there isn’t a catering service or a budget in the world that could pull off suddenly feeding this multitude (Matthew tells us it was 5,000 men besides women and children).  In the wilderness which prefigured this, God made the bread to appear on the ground in the morning.  But where does the food come for this?  From a boy “who has five barley loves and two fish.”  He takes these, gives thanks for them and by these five loaves and two fish, He gave the people their fill.  Let the words of Isaiah echo in your mind, “that you may nurse and be satisfied from her consoling breast; that you may drink deeply with delight from her glorious abundance.”  That God in Christ will provide for His people.

God is located not simply in city, but where He puts His Word and promises His presence: Where the Church gathers and is bestowing His forgiveness, “there I am among them” (Matt. 18:20).  Where disciples are born of water and the Spirit in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “behold, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20)  Where, not the sacrifice of bulls and goats, but the Lamb of God is feeding His redeemed people, we rejoice in this reality that is known to faith from Hebrews 12:

22 But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23 and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:22-24)

All who believe in Christ, who hold fast in faith to God’s Word, are the true members of Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.  We don’t yet see these things, which is hard when we are being called pretenders by the unspiritual and deceived.  Irish theologian J. Alec Motyer (1924-2016) explains:

Zion is looking forward to blessings still in store; to rejoice with Jerusalem is to share this forward look. To love her is to prize what she stands for: the city where the Lord dwells in holiness, mercy, and law. We are to live in the benefit of divine mercy, enjoy the richness of divine fellowship and fashion our lives in obedience to the divine word. To mourn over her is to lament the sins of the visible church, its shortcomings, its weakness and ineffectuality in the face of the world and the presence within of compromisers and apostates, but to do so as a fellow-sinner, longing for the blessings and the perfection yet to come.[1]

All these blessings are ours now, but our eyes will have to wait to see them.  That’s why we can rejoice even now!  Even under disappointments, suffering, and hoping for what is unseen.  Beloved in Christ, believe the words and promises of God, and be consoled as children of God, nourished with the pure spiritual milk at the bosom of your mother, the Church.  Your God will not fail to provide, and you will eat and be satisfied.  Amen.

[1] Motyer, J. Alec. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary. Intervarsity Press, 1993. pp. 537-38

Third Sunday in Lent (Oculi)

Readings: Jeremiah 26:1–15 | Ephesians 5:1-9 | Luke 11:14–28

Text: Ephesians 5:1-9

The art on the bulletin cover is unsettling.  It’s disturbing to think of a demon possessing a person.  It’s grotesque because that’s not what the human body was made for.  The demon, whether it was visible or invisible—doesn’t belong there.  Neither should it have been for the man himself: the tongue was not made to hang loosely, nor the vocal folds to be absent of words.

Looking at it from this perspective, in His ministry, Jesus healed the other members of sin-broken people: ears were opened so that they could hear the Word, eyes were opened so that they could do their proper function of beholding God’s beautiful creation and witnessing the saving acts of God, lame feet were healed so that one might follow the Savior and go about the work He gives every day.  He raises the dead and gives them back to their relatives in order to show that death is not natural and is not the way the world is supposed to be.

Another part of the body upon which Jesus works is the heart.  Now, when we hear ‘heart’ today, we think of it as the seat of the emotions. That’s not how the ancients thought of it.  The heart—lev in Hebrew and kardia in Greek—is the core of a person.  Sometimes this is translated, “the inner man,” but not in the sense that we have a “ghost in the machine.”  For our present life, our heart is tied to soul, mind, and body.  They’re all bound up together, and God is the only surgeon who can treat one without breaking the others.

That’s what Jesus does—He operates on the heart.  More accurately, He creates a new heart—“And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, 20 that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God.” (Ezekiel 11:19-20)  This is the same thing we earnestly pray for after the sermon and before Holy Communion: “Create in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right Spirit within me. (Ps. 51:10)

God the Holy Spirit’s work is that change of heart.  It’s a necessary change, too.  When it comes to malfunctions and diseases of the body, people are good at recognizing them.  You go to the optometrist if your eyes don’t see clearly; the gastroenterologist for digestive issues; the neurologist for non-responsive muscles and seizures.  But diagnosing the heart is another matter.  Psychology can get at some of the processes of the mind, but doesn’t get to the Biblical heart of a person.  That takes the ministry of the Spirit to “make ye straight what long was crooked” (Comfort, Comfort, Ye My People, LSB 347, st. 4).

That is what St. Paul is doing in the beginning of Ephesians 5:

1 Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.

But sexual immorality and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints. Let there be no filthiness nor foolish talk nor crude joking, which are out of place, but instead let there be thanksgiving.

We human creatures of God were first made in His image and likeness, so it is reasonable that we should resemble our Creator.  But in so many ways we do not.  That requires the diagnosis of the Great Physician, and His benchmarks that He gives us in His Word.

There are several things the Apostle Paul mentions which are “out of plumb” with our humanity:

  • Sexual immorality (Greek: porneia) is the distortion of “in the beginning, He created them male and female, and the man shall cleave to His wife and the two shall become one flesh.” (Gen. 2)  It’s when that one-flesh union, or a part of it is divorced (pun intended) from the rest of the intended unity between husband and wife.  While the word, porneia, specifically referred to prostitution, people have been innovators when it comes to ways to “get the milk without buying the cow”—from the damage birth control has done, to the volume of explicit content that is available on TV and other screens.

This has become so prevalent in our era, that it’s increasingly difficult to avoid it and protect our children from being influenced and have their sexuality misshapen by it. By a kind of saturation of it, we have become partially numb to this abuse of what is meant to be private between a man and his wife.

  • Impurity (uncleanness) – Sexual immorality isn’t the only thing that results from our deformed humanity.  This same word, uncleanness, is used in Romans 1:24 to describe people following the lusts of their hearts, dishonoring their bodies after having exchanged the truth of God for a lie and serving the creature rather than the Creator.

To identify what’s wrong here, we again return to the creation of man and woman.  We are embodied souls. Our body is part of our existence, so much so that, when we are adopted as God’s children in Baptism, our body actually becomes a temple for the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19).  Uncleanness (even in much of the Levitical law) describes the misuse or dysfunction of the glorious creation of God which is the human body. “My body, my choice” echoes the cry of servants who have appropriated their Master’s property for their own benefit.

  • Covetousness – The Greek word literally means being filled with having. This is a deformity of our will.  It’s so important—and slips past our notice—that it also is called out by the last of the Commandments.  To lust after something God hasn’t given you truly is sin.  It’s not a matter of how much you have, but contentment with what your Creator has provided.  Whatever the historical reasons, this malady isn’t cast in such a negative light in our culture, but it is equally enslaving.  Because we are surrounded by it and it’s nearly all we’ve known in our lifetimes, it’s hardly noticed.  Covetousness drives the consumer market, the loan industry, credit card debt, and casinos.
  • The next are distortions of how we use our tongue: Filthiness (obscenity, deformity, ugliness), foolish talk (lit: the words of fools), and crude joking (ribaldry).  These describe taking a sick satisfaction with, or approval of, the way things are in this world.  St. James puts it condemningly-well when he writes,

“So also the tongue is a small member, yet hit boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” (James 3:5-10)

From all this (and there is certainly more), it’s clear how much we need to be worked over in order to resemble God’s creation of us.  For me, it would be like holding up an X-ray of a healthy spine next to mine with scoliosis which is severely bent.  God, through His Word, holds this perfect overlay up and it shows all that is deformed in us.

It’s all too common for us to resemble the image of our father Adam, and the other people around us.  Seeing that the society around us either turns a blind eye or celebrates these maladies as good, it’s that much harder for beloved children of God to live in between our new birth in Baptism to when our time in these evil days comes to an end [Eph. 5:19].  No wonder He must continually call us back to what we were created for and what we, as His children, are destined toward.

But what shall we do?  Wouldn’t it be great if we could put the proverbial genie back in the bottle on these things?  I’m afraid that won’t be enough for a couple reasons.  One, as several of the Church’s teachers have noted, humanity is gradually getting worse—weaker in self-control, more depraved, willing to let slide what was previously outrageous (see Augsburg Confession, XXIII 14.  The second reason, connected to that, is that St. Paul says that outward prohibitions may stop the action for a while, but comments, “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (Colossians 2:23)  What we need is change on the inside, a new heart.

The first thing we do is repent and admit that we have gone with the crowd (even if up until now you didn’t know any better!), and that we have followed the desires of our sinful minds and hearts. 

The second is to ask the Lord to drive out what is evil and grotesque within us—the evil spirit that is at work in this age, as Paul described earlier to the Ephesians: “the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” (Ephesians 2:1-3)  Remember that disturbing bulletin cover art?  Yes, that’s what needs to happen to us when we have been enslaved by the devil’s lies and our own lusts.  And by His Word and the Holy Spirit, the Lord Jesus is the stronger man of the Gospel reading (Luke 11:14-28), and we are those plundered from the devil and the world, for God to adopt us as beloved children!

Third, we need to pray every day for the Holy Spirit to create that new, clean heart within us.  He is called the Holy Spirit because His work is to make God’s people holy, which He does from the inside, out. 

We will sin and we will fall short of the glory God has created us for.  We are not able to achieve perfection, and God doesn’t demand that of us.  That isn’t an excuse to give in or give up the struggle.  Fight the good fight, press on toward the goal of the upward call in Christ Jesus [1 Tim. 6:12, Phil. 3:14].  That is, knowing that your God created you for better, do your best to flee sexual immorality, avoid uncleanness, foster contentment, and bridle your tongue. Yet, it’s even in our weakness, our deformity, our cries of “I believe, help my unbelief” [Mark 9:24], our groaning over failing for the thousandth time in our wretched body of death [Rom. 7:25] that the beauty of our Savior shines.

“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32) Sinners have a Savior.  So, be a sinner and confess your sins, believing that Jesus has the power to save you from what you’ve been, what you can’t seem to shake, and even death from which none of us can escape.  Except, we will in Jesus who has both broken the power of sin and of death.

Finally, St. Paul started this all out by telling us, “Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave Himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  This is the key to our life: That Christ has loved us in our abysmal condition and gave Himself up that we might be beautiful in God’s sight, called “The Redeemed of the Lord” with renewed hearts and minds.  We are about to sing Psalm 51:10-12 in the Offertory, but would you please pray with me the verses which follow:

“Then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you.  Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God, O God of my salvation, and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise.  For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.  The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. Do good to Zion in your good pleasure; build up the walls of Jerusalem; then will you delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings; then bulls will be offered on your altar.”  Amen.

Reminiscere (Second Sunday in Lent)

Text: Matthew 15:21-28

Last Sunday, we heard Jesus teach us about His victory over the Devil on our behalf, and how we draw comfort in our own temptations and weakness as the Devil assaults us.  Today, He teaches us about prayer.  When it comes to the great examples of prayer in the Bible, you might name Abraham who interceded for Sodom, or David who penned a bulk of the Psalms the faithful still prays, or Solomon with his grand dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8.  But for this lesson, our Lord takes us completely out of Israel, to the land of Tyre and Sidon—a place previously cursed by the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel (Isa. 23; Jer. 25:15-26; Ezek. 28:1-10).  There, the Lord is approached by a woman of that land.

But what we find in this woman is not what the prophets cursed.  Far from the pride of the King of Tyre, this woman is worthy in the way the Lord sees worthiness. She doesn’t presume to come to Jerusalem. But that doesn’t mean she didn’t have need.  She is earnest about saving her daughter from demon possession.

The evangelist Matthew speaks against the woman, so that he would highlight her marvelous act, and celebrate her praise all the more. It’s intentional that she is called a Canaanite woman.  This should bring to mind those wicked nations which the Lord drove out before Israel, who from their foundations violated the laws of nature. They are the ones who burned their sons in the fire to gain prosperity from Molech, who went into cult prostitutes of Ashtoreth to attain a blessing on the harvest, and who shed their own blood to get the attention of their Baal.  And being reminded of these, consider the power of Christ’s coming. For God’s people of old, the Canaanites were cast out, so that they wouldn’t spread their perversions to God’s people.  But what about those people of the land who spiritually “went out” from their father’s house?  The likes of Rahab, Ruth, and Naaman.  These foreigners appeared so much better disposed than the Israelites, who had actually been witnesses to the Red Sea crossing.

Having come to Christ, this woman from Canaan said nothing but “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon,” and by her cries she made quite a spectacle. It must have been a pitiful sight to see a woman crying aloud in so great affliction, and that woman a mother entreating for her daughter, and even for a child in such evil condition.  She didn’t dare to bring her daughter in person to the Lord, but she brought herself to entreat the Lord for mercy.

And she tells her affliction only and leaves it to His compassion.  She doesn’t venture to demand the way He should grant her relief, saying, “Come and lay your hand upon her,” and, “Come down before my child dies.” [Matt. 9:18; John 4:49]

But after describing her daughter’s calamity and how intense the condition is, she appeals to the Lord’s mercy and cries aloud.  She also doesn’t even say, “Have mercy on my daughter,” but, “Have mercy on me.” You can see in her how she takes her daughter’s torture to heart!  She bears in her prayer the sleepless nights and agony that love engenders.

“But he did not answer her a word.”  This is certainly not the response we expect to hear in a lesson about prayer.  He had permitted many to come to Him and be healed—even the Gentile centurion of whom He commended his faith.  But to this woman—running to Him and entreating Him, to her who had been educated neither in the Law, nor in the Prophets, and was exhibiting so great reverence—to her He doesn’t give her so much as an answer.

Who wouldn’t have been offended by this? The reports had gone out about Jesus, that He went about the villages healing.  Now this woman, when she had come to Him, He utterly repels. And, unless our hearts are covered in unfeeling fat, who would not have been moved by her affliction, and by the plea she made for her daughter?  She had approached Him with such humility, not demanding, but she begging that she might find mercy, giving a heartfelt account of her own affliction; yet she is met with silence.

Perhaps many of the hearers were offended, but she was not put off. Even Jesus’ own disciples had heard enough.  They may have sympathized with this woman, but they followed what they supposed was the Lord’s lead: “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.”  They assumed that the silence meant the Lord had rejected her.

But Christ’s response was not rejection.  Instead, He says, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.”  What did the woman do, after she heard this? Did this silence her, and did she desist? Or did she relax her earnestness? No, she was the more insistent! But often, that’s not how we respond.  When we fail to obtain, we just give up.  Instead, when by appearances it seems God has brushed off the needs of His children, this ought to make us the more urgent.

And yet, who wouldn’t be perplexed by the Lord’s response to her? His silence could have been enough to drive her to despair, but His answer was not meant to crush her, but press her for a fuller confession of faith.  This woman was not perplexed, but she was driven by a conviction that the Lord has mercy on the humble and contrite.  So, she is not afraid to make herself shameless with a good kind of shamelessness.  Call it godly self-abasement.  Before this, if you look carefully, she had not been so bold to come right in front of Jesus.  She went from crying out after the group to kneeling right in front of the Lord, humbly yet insistently.  She worships, “she came and knelt before him,” and prays, “Lord, help me.”

In this, the Canaanite woman shows a greater confidence than the apostles. She displays faith in a hand which grasps onto the Lord, like Jacob, and will not let go [Gen. 32:22-32].  She acknowledges that He was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but true as that is, she confesses Jesus to be Lord, and the Lord who reveals Himself in the Psalms, “For the needy shall not always be forgotten, and the hope of the poor shall not perish forever.” (Psalm 9:18)  “Help me,” therefore, “Lord.”

In our impatience, we think this must be enough of a test of her faith.  She has endured silence, being told that God didn’t send His Christ for Canaanites.  But then He presses her with one more apparent rejection. Not even with all this was He satisfied, but He makes her perplexity yet more intense again, saying, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.”

With these words, He strikes her more sharply than He did by His silence. No more does He refer the cause to another, nor say, “I am not sent,” but the more urgent she makes her plea, so much the more does He seem to solidify His denial. And He calls them no longer “sheep,” but “children,” and her “a dog.”

Here we see her faith in the Lord shine, even over against adversity and what in the moment appears as rejection.  What does she say next? Out of His own words she frames her plea. “Why, though I be a dog,” said she, “I am not an alien.”  For, “Yes, that food is necessary for the children,” she reasons, “yet neither am I forbidden, being a dog.  But if, they ought to be partakers, neither am I forbidden, though I be a dog.”  Whoever has tried to feed children at a table can understand what she’s talking about.  And how much did Israel act like the age of children who reject their food and throw it on the floor!

It was for this that Christ had put her off, for He knew she would say this; for this did He deny the grant, that He might exhibit the conviction of her faith.

For if He had not meant to give, neither would He have given afterwards. But this is similar to the account of the centurion, where He says, “I will come and heal him,” that we might learn the godly fear of that man, and—for our benefit—hear him say, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word.” [Matt. 8:8]  Also, as He did for the woman who had an discharge of blood, saying, “Someone touched me, for I perceive that power has gone out from me,” [Luke 8:46] that He might make her faith manifest, “she came trembling, and falling down before him declared in the presence of all the people why she had touched him, and how she had been immediately healed,” and His praise of her is also a lesson to us: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.” [Luke 8:47-48]

The Lord did not want so great virtue in this Canaanite woman to remain hidden. He did not speak to her in insult, but calling her forth, and revealing the treasure laid up in her.  “O woman, great is your faith!” This is why He put her off, that He might proclaim aloud this saying, that He might crown the woman, before the Jews and before us as well.

“Be it done for you as you desire.” If we marveled before at who the Lord answered in prayer, now He shows how powerful a thing prayer is.  In effect, He is saying: “Your faith indeed is able to effect even greater things than these; nevertheless, Let it be done for you as you desire.”  This was akin to that voice that said, “Let there be…and it was.” [Genesis 1]  For when we pray to the Lord, this is who we are asking, and we all too often forget His almighty power and His willingness to answer our faith in Him.

“And her daughter was healed from that hour.”[1]  Do you see how this woman too contributed to the healing of her daughter? Asking in faith, she received.  To this end, Christ didn’t just say, “Let your daughter be healed,” only but, “Great is your faith, be it done for you as you desire,” to teach us that the words were not used at random, nor were they flattering words, but great was the power of her faith.

The certainty of this faithful prayer and its answer, He left to the issue of events: Her daughter was healed that very hour.

But notice how, when the apostles had failed, and had not succeeded, this woman had success. This is the great outcome of persistence in prayer. To think He would even be asked by us, guilty as we are, on behalf of those who belong to us. May this rid us of the thought that God regards the prayers of so-called holy people more than He does the pleas of poor sinners like you and me!

Who was Jacob in this life but a younger brother and a scoundrel?  What claims did this Canaanite woman hold before the Lord?  Yet the Lord displays His grace, His gift of faith, and the wonderful outcome of His answering prayer.  He is not to be pictured as a vending machine for whatever we want when we want it.  Prayer to Him is not to be understood as a magic formula ending with, “in Jesus’ Name.”  Prayer is of faith—knowing the character of God who shows mercy and fulfills His promises, holding Him to it, waiting on Him—and that faith results in His answer: 7 Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matt. 7:7-8)  Amen.

The bulk of this sermon was adapted from Homily 52 by St. John Chrysostom(Schaff, Philip, ed. 1888. Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Vol. 10. New York: Christian Literature Company.)

[1] Based on the ESV footnote which translates the Greek more precisely


~ First Sunday in Lent ~

Readings: Genesis 3:1–21 | Hebrews 4:14–16 | Matthew 4:1–11

Text: Matthew 4:1-11

The season of Lent is not a 6-week period of feeling bad for ourselves, bemoaning our inadequacy, or—God forbid!—feeling more pious than the rabble of the world.  It is a time of teaching, of catechesis, that we might learn to know our Lord better.  The Gloria in Excelsis stops, because He whose birth the angels announced, also humbled Himself to the point of being unrecognizable as good news for anyone [Luke 2:14 comp. to Isa. 53:3].  The Hallelujah’s (“Praise the Lord”) stop (and have stopped) so that we can better hear the lessons of our God’s work in suffering and weakness, His presence in darkness and death [Psalm 139:11-12].

So, we begin Lent where all of our sorrow and trouble began—where sin entered into the world.  The Old Testament reading today shows us where it all broke down.  God made everything good—even on the sixth day extolling His creation “Behold! It was very good” (Gen. 1:31).  But the Serpent came and deceived the woman. The man betrayed his Creator, spurned his duty as a husband, and unleashed misery on all his descendants. 

Adam and his wife gave into temptation under the best of all circumstances.  They were surrounded by trees bearing ready-to-eat food, had not a care or trouble in the world, and they were at peace with it all.  And yet, they were so quickly turned away from God!

But Lent isn’t about Adam and Eve.  Thank God it’s not, because that’s a frustrating narrative, full of mistakes and hurts.  That’s because we bear the image of Adam; we no longer bear the image of God [Gen. 5:3] (Yes, we were originally made in God’s image, but our lives from conception to death are the experience as the image of the man of dust, 1 Cor. 15:48-49]  Adam’s story is suspiciously like our stories—only the names have been changed.  It’s the same story every person on this earth is living for the short time we’re given.  No, we need a better hope than to look to our fellow descendants of Adam.

Lent starts at the beginning: the beginning of the ministry of Jesus.  Right after He is baptized in the Jordan, declared by the voice from heaven to be the beloved Son of God, He is driven out by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to be tempted.  There’s no wasting any time here, because there is saving to do, which is God’s sole purpose.

Why the wilderness?  Wilderness is where those who are exiled from the Garden go.  Life and abundance were in the primeval garden, but sin brought death and scarcity.  Thus, the wilderness is God’s proving ground for what’s in a person’s heart. In what will you trust?  Will it be what your eye can see and is readily in reach?  Or will you cast your needs upon your Creator and stay true to Him?  This is how it was for Israel in their 40-year journey through the wilderness of Sinai.  The Lord God was testing to see what was in their hearts, and the results were abysmal.

It was in the wilderness that God commanded sacrifices so that He could dwell in the midst of this people who were impatient, greedy, ungrateful, and inventors of evil.  The highest sacrifice day was the Day of Atonement, described in Leviticus 16.  At the center of that Day are two goats: Then he shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting.  And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel.” (Lev. 16:7-8) The first goat gets killed as a sin offering, a death for life exchange.  But the second goat is treated like this: “Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins. And he shall put them on the head of the goat and send it away into the wilderness by the hand of a man who is in readiness. The goat shall bear all their iniquities on itself to a remote area, and he shall let the goat go free in the wilderness.” (Lev. 16:21-22)  We’re accustomed to the sin offering as justice for what our sins deserve.  But the other goat—the Scapegoat—is imputed with the sins of the people—“all their iniquities, all their transgressions, all their sins”—and then he is led into the wilderness to go to Azazel.  Azazel is a transliteration from Hebrew, and many commentators associate with the devil or a demon.  So it is actually the beloved Son of God who is both the appointed sin offering and the sin bearer and substitute.

In the wilderness, handed over to the devil, He stands in place of Adam and all his children.  Here, it’s helpful to stop and consider just how serious Jesus’ situation was: “And after fasting forty days and forty nights, he was hungry.”  He went without food for 40 days, which is far longer than average.  Even half that time could ordinarily kill a person.  He must have been like a skeleton, not able to think, perhaps his organs failing.  But He lived because God kept Him alive.  If you think this is preposterous, listen to what the Lord says just before the verse Jesus quotes:

The Lord your God has led you these forty years in the wilderness, that he might humble you, testing you to know what was in your heart, whether you would keep his commandments or not. And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Your clothing did not wear out on you and your foot did not swell these forty years. (Deut. 8:2-4)

Sin has so corrupted our desires that we think our lives are kept going by food and doctors, jobs and retirement, that the Word which comes from the mouth of the Lord is a nice afterthought, some more information to use so we can broaden our horizons.  But Jesus shows this truth in his emaciated body (and maybe I’m totally wrong, and he was vigorous—God can do that also).  But along with that bodily hunger, is the weakness of God’s Son’s humiliation. He was mortal, and confined to one place, and giving up any divine foreknowledge, the man Jesus didn’t know if He would make it out of the wilderness alive.  He had all creation at His disposal, as the Word by which all things are made, and yet He willingly humbled Himself.  St. Paul would later describe this as the mind which Christ gives us to follow: “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:5-7)

He was in the likeness of men, but where man has failed again and again, Jesus stood firm.  When He was tempted to use divine “cheat codes” in order to feed Himself, He refused—even though it could have meant His death.  Where Eve and Adam evaluated food on their own terms and for their own benefit, Jesus obeyed His God and fully entrusted His life into His Father’s hands.

When Jesus was tempted to have a little Temple-jumping recreation along his way, claiming that God would surely protect him from harm, Jesus affirmed something we are dreadfully weak about: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test, as you did at Massah.” (Deut. 6:16)  In case you’re not familiar with that incident, that’s where the people came to a place with no readily accessible water, and they blamed Moses and accused God of bringing them into the wilderness to kill them, even doubting in the Lord was among them at all (see Exodus 17:1-7).  Lying through our teeth, we might say we never do that and that we have such perfect submission to our Father’s will, and we’ve never charged God with wrongdoing when we suddenly lose someone we love.

No, even when tempted with that, Jesus did not put the Lord His God to the test, and even willingly accepted all the tests which happened in the wilderness. 

Finally, when the devil shows his true colors and flat out asks Jesus to worship him instead of God, Jesus again and alone succeeds where we so many times have failed.  It’s really no big deal, we tell ourselves; we’re only doing what everyone else is.  Trouble is, those of the world are deceived and eating from the devil’s hand.  There’s no hope here in going with the crowd, following our feelings, because it will wind us up where the rest of the sons of Adam have landed—sin and death.

Our hope is in Christ, who is called the Second Adam.  He is the only one who can outmaneuver and defeat the devil.  He’s the only One who can take on and take away our unfaithfulness and our naked shame before God and one another.  It’s Jesus alone who, having done all this, is able to go into the grave as a free man, and rising on the Third Day to free us from death’s power!

Listen to how St. Paul explains what Jesus Christ has done for us:

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned…15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many… 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19)

And about the victory over death, and restoring that lost image of God to us, Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:

47 The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. 48 As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. 49 Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15:47-49)

This is our hope and our confidence in Christ!  He has saved us where all other help was powerless.  God has come to our rescue through the water of Holy Baptism, where He declared in Christ, “You are my beloved child.”

Even though the devil was bested in the wilderness with Jesus, he will be after us all the more because we belong to God, and because we still bear that image of Adam.  This is the realm of spiritual warfare—“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” (Eph. 6:12)  And that topic can be both scary and exciting.  Scary, because we know what a mighty enemy the devil is and because of how weak we are.  Exciting because it’s true that there is an unseen battle taking place in the world between good and evil.  It’s just that in our own strength and understanding, we get spiritual warfare wrong.  It isn’t like video games or heroic epics where we somehow have power in ourselves.  Our strength and shield are in Christ alone.

Sometimes the devil’s tactics will be obvious—making disobedience to God’s clear Word sound appealing and reasonable.  Call this the front door attack, if you will.  But the devil also has a backdoor attack, and that is to divide us from Christ and divide us from one another.  That is actually what his Greek name, Diabolos, means—the Divider.  So, he will try to divide us from Christ by making His Word seem irrelevant or less important than the stuff happening in our daily life and the world.  But he doesn’t stop there, because he also seeks to divide us from the flock of God.  So, he brings up hurts that we can’t seem to get past, stirs up feelings of resentment, and gives us excuses why we’re better on our own.  We can get by without hearing the precious voice of our Savior, because, according to the devil, it’s just information.  Yeah, I learned that all in Catechism. I was raised in it, so it must magically stick.  Hook, line, and sinker.

Our only hope against the devil and all his craftiness is our God who comes to our rescue.  He covers our shame with His righteousness.  He says, “Be gone, Satan!” and sends His angels to minister to us.  There is no need to fear, because the Son of God has truly done for you what you needed most.  Through faith in Him, you have the victory over sin, death, and the devil, and eternal peace with your Creator.  Amen.

Scapegoat Lev. 16

Does what Adam did not do

Obeys where we are disobedient

His humiliation: hunger and thirst, gives up his divine attributes

Shares in our weakness (Heb. 4:15)


Bread of God is enough; Adam had enough, Israel in their wilderness journey still complained (Dt. 8)

            Putting God to the test (Dt. 6)

            Bow down (Dt. 6)

Our only hope in our struggle with sin and bearing Satanic attack, is Jesus. 

Demon possession, spiritual warfare can often be a scary topic which we don’t like to take on in our love for clinical safety.  But the defeat of Satan has already been accomplished.  When the devil or a demon comes to a Christian, he will use the same attacks.  If we respond on his terms and in our wisdom or strength, we will surely fall.  Do not imagine yourself strong enough to do what even our first parents failed to do in paradise!

Instead, hold up Jesus, your Lord and Savior.  Whether that means having a crucifix on your wall or around your neck.  Here, bare crosses require more imagination which can be hard to muster in the heat of battle.  Hold up Jesus, the scapegoat who went into the wilderness on your behalf; the lamb of God who was led to the slaughter and now whose blood has been sprinkled on you in the cleansing flood of Baptism, the Passover Lamb whose flesh and blood are now given you to eat and drink.

You are not left alone as Satan’s prey, and you are not hungry because you feed upon the all-sufficient, life-sustaining Word of God.  Though you and all your ancestors have daily put the Lord to the test, He has remembered His steadfast love and covenant toward you—not based on your promise or fortitude, but upon the covenant which Jesus ratified with His own blood.  Even though Satan and the godless world may promise you your hearts’ desire, your Lord alone is pure, throws down all idols, and His Spirit jealously fights our idolatrous desires and replaces them day by day with a hunger and thirst for God and what is pleasing to Him!