The Lord Has Mercy.
The Second Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 15:21-28
In Christ Jesus, who does hear and who does help, dear fellow redeemed:
What was the first sign that something was wrong with her little girl? Maybe it was gradual. Maybe it was the culmination of multiple incidents where her daughter said things she had never said before or behaved in ways that were nothing like her usual behavior. The changes could not be chalked up to the typical attitude issues of growing girls and boys. Something more sinister was at work. Her daughter’s erratic behavior convinced the mother that she was under the influence of a dark force. She believed that a demon had entered her.
But how could she be so sure? Our culture would not see this as a valid diagnosis. The experts would want to assign some sort of mental or behavioral disorder to this girl, something that could be treated with medicine or therapy. We have to assume her demon possession was obvious. Maybe she behaved like the girl in Philippi who could tell people’s fortunes (Act. 16:16). In that case, Paul cast out her demon “in the name of Jesus Christ” (v. 18).
Whatever the symptoms of her demon possession, the strain upon her mother was great. But she had hope. At some point, she had heard the prophecies of the Old Testament Scriptures, and she had heard about the works of Jesus. She believed that this Jesus, who had cast out demons from others and had even raised the dead, could and would help her and her daughter.
She must have thought about going in search of Jesus. No desperate mother would do less. But such travel plans were not necessary. Jesus came to her. The text does not indicate that He came to the district of Tyre and Sidon for her sake. In fact, the evangelist Mark says that Jesus entered a house in the region “and did not want anyone to know” (Mar. 7:24). But when the Canaanite woman heard He was close by, “immediately” she came and “fell down at his feet” (v. 25) and cried out, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon!”
It is significant that she said, “have mercy on me, O Lord.” This shows what pain the mother was feeling. She was probably suffering even more intensely than her daughter, assuming the girl was not aware what had happened to her. We can appreciate the mother’s perspective. We understand the pain of watching someone we love come under the influence of the devil. This could be a close family member or friend who discards the saving faith because they want to live in sin free of any moral restraints, or because they think human reason and worldly wisdom have more to offer than God’s Word.
This is not to say that a demon has taken up residence in each of these cases. But it is true that a person who no longer wants to listen to and abide by the Word of God is under the devil’s influence if not under his absolute control. These situations are heartbreaking. We want nothing more than to have the people we love here join us forever in heaven. But we cannot make it so. We cannot impose our will or our faith upon others. And we cannot assume that just because a person is baptized and confirmed, that they will always believe.
What we can do is to teach our children the truth (Pro. 22:6). We can encourage fellow Christians to hear the Word (Heb. 10:25). We can prepare ourselves to be ready to speak to others about the hope we have (1Pe. 3:15). And we can always, always pray. We can pray for those whom the devil has drawn away from Christ. And like the woman in the text, we can pray for God’s mercy on us.
But how can you and I be certain that God hears our prayers? I am sure that you have prayed at some point that God would change someone’s heart and lead them to Him in repentance and faith. But as far as you can tell, your prayer has not been answered. Maybe your marriage is still rocky. Your adult child keeps avoiding the topic of getting back to church. Your co-worker still treats you with disrespect. Your neighbor still hates you. This is a helpless feeling.
The devil wants you to think that your prayers to the Lord are a big waste of time. He wants you to become impatient when God does not meet your timetable. He wants you to feel totally alone, totally helpless to confront the evil that afflicts you. But the Lord does hear your prayers. He is not a liar; the devil is. Jesus says, “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” (Mat. 7:7-8). He couldn’t present the effectiveness of prayer in more glowing terms.
But there is more to prayer than being certain God hears it. Prayer also requires trust that God knows the best time and way to answer it. If we instantly received everything we asked God for, we wouldn’t have to give much thought to His mercy. “Oh, my bank account is getting low”—here’s another $1000. “Oh, I’m getting the sniffles”—here’s perfect health. “Oh, I’m having some troubles at home and work”—here’s a perfect homelife and workplace. Getting everything we wanted all the time would spoil us. It would keep us thinking about our own needs and wants, instead of remembering the will of God for our lives and the needs of our neighbors.
St. Patrick, whose life is celebrated on March 17th, is an excellent example of this. He was captured from his home on the English coast when he was sixteen and taken as a slave to Ireland. He prayed for deliverance for six years before he was able to escape on a ship to France. But Patrick couldn’t forget the sad condition of the pagan people of Ireland. So he studied to be a pastor and returned to the land of his captivity as a missionary. His preaching of the Gospel led to the conversion of many of the Irish people. His time as a slave was not pleasant, but God used it for his good and the good of many others.
By sometimes delaying His answer to our prayers, the Lord trains us to recognize our own weaknesses and grow in faith. “For we do not know what to pray for as we ought” (Rom. 8:26). Our priorities are not always where they should be. Our faith is not as strong as God wants it to be. But through our sufferings and trials, that faith is tested and purified like gold in a hot fire.
This is what Jesus wanted to accomplish in His interactions with the Canaanite woman. At first, it seemed as though He did not hear her cry for mercy – “He did not answer her a word.” But the woman did not give up. She believed that this Man before her was the “Son of David,” the Savior promised for sinners. She cried out again and again to the extent that the disciples became annoyed. They now petitioned Jesus to do something for or about her. This means the woman had succeeded in enlisting others to plead with Jesus on her behalf.
We get the impression that Jesus may have been walking away from the woman at this time. So she stopped Him in His tracks. “[S]he came and knelt before Him, saying, ‘Lord, help me.’” Again, she did not say, “Have mercy on my daughter. Help her.” She said, “help me.” Because the way Jesus would show mercy to her and help her was to help her daughter. But Jesus said, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel…. It is not right to take the children’s bread—what belongs to the Israelites—and throw it to the dogs—the Gentiles.”
And here, the faith of this Gentile woman shines. She does not dispute that Jesus came for the Israelites. She would not steal their portion from them. But she believed that if Jesus had mercy for the Israelites, then He had plenty of mercy for her too. If they should be served bread, she like an eager house pet would gladly lick up the crumbs.
This is how to pray with faith in the Lord’s promises. Because Jesus has told us to pray and promises to hear us, we “pray without ceasing” (1Th. 5:17) for the needs of ourselves and others. We pray even when it seems that God does not hear our prayers or does not have time for us. He does not need to prove His love and care for us. He has already proven that beyond any doubt.
This Wednesday in our midweek services, we will hear from Isaiah how our Lord “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” how “he was wounded for our transgressions,” how “with his stripes we are healed” (53:4,5). He did this for all people, for Jews and Gentiles. He gathered up all their heartache, all their pain, all their sin, and carried all of it to the cross. The cross is where Jesus reconciled sinners with their Creator, where He won access for us “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
This is what the Son of God took on flesh to do, and the Canaanite woman believed it. She believed that God’s presence in the flesh meant that He would not deny her cry for mercy. Why else would He be here, except to save sinners? You can bring your requests before God with the same confidence—confidence that He took on flesh for you and those you love.
When you pray for any who are suffering, you do not pray to an impersonal god, one who has no clear motivation to assist mankind. You pray to your heavenly Father in the name of His Son, the-God-who-became-Man. You pray knowing of the love He has for you, His child. You pray knowing that The Lord Has Mercy, and that He will answer your prayer in the best way and at the right time.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is from a 15 century French Gothic manuscript painting)