Second Sunday in Lent 2012
Readings: 1 Kings 8:37; Ps. 142; 1 Thess. 4:1-8; Matt. 15:21-28
4 March a. d. 2012
ARGUING WITH GOD RELENTLESSLY
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be always acceptable in thy sight, 0 LORD, my strength and my redeemer. AMEN.
Unfortunately most people think of Lent as a season of deprivation. In reality it is a season of restoration.
What purpose does fasting serve in Lent? To remove every distraction so that can see ourselves as we truly are. To step out from behind the screens we use to keep God at a safe distance: work & drink & sex & video games & sports & TV & entertainment and busy, busy, busy.
When you put those distractions down, when you get quiet, a tsunami crashes on your idle mind. You remember all your problems, your failures, those sins you have pushed aside to deal with “later.” There is a word to describe that realization: powerlessness.
After all, the burrs that really get under our saddle & rub us raw are not the irritations and failures that we can reach and remove. No, what galls our souls most, what makes us tear our hair and grind our teeth and fervently wish that we had never been born and could die right now are all those things we are powerless to solve, inward or outward.
You may be powerless over an inward problem. Some sin may have taken up residence in your heart that rules and ruins your life like a demon. It may be drunkenness, it may be pornography or adultery or fornication, it may be greed or fear of want, or outbursts of anger or gossiping or pride and self-righteousness. It may be a persistent dullness of heart that fails to see your duty. It may be refusing to love God, and love your spouse and children. Whatever it is, when that sin says “Hop!” you say, “How high?” and start jumping.
Or you may be powerless over some outward problem. It may be your husband or wife who never listens to you and keeps on hurting you in the same way over and over. It may be your child who has set his feet on destruction’s path and won’t be called back. It may be people at work who backbite and persecute you. Nobody respects or understands you, and that’s not whining, that’s the truth.
Your powerlessness may not be over people but over a situation:
- you need money,
- you have no job,
- your car broke down,
- your teeth are bad,
- your health is giving way,
- your indigestion is killing you,
- your heart is fibrillating,
- your liver enzymes are high,
- your cholesterol is out of control,
- you weigh too much,
- and your breath is bad.
Every outward situation lines up as your enemy.
And whether inward or outward, all these problems share one thing in common: you are powerless to control them. No matter what you do, you are already defeated.
Oh, outside you may keep up a brave front. After all, none of us want to be exposed as powerless, so we must keep up appearances. We never admit to anyone, even ourselves, that we are powerless. So we all walk around holding up wet cardboard screens in front of ourselves, billboards painted to look like happy people fully in control of our lives. And if anybody asks us how we are doing we shoot back, “Fine! Just Fine! Everything under control!” But if anyone comes closer, and pokes a finger into us, it punches right through that wet cardboard front. So we like to keep people, especially our brothers and sisters in the Church, at a nice, safe distance so that no stray fingers poke holes in our wet cardboard fronts.
LENT IS A CONFESSION OF POWERLESSNESS
Lent brings us face to face with ourselves and with God, forces us to see ourselves exactly as we are, so that we will grasp and cling to God’s mercy in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Our Lord Jesus never pulls any punches. He punctures every pretense at power, in the plainest and most direct and sometimes most painful or insulting words. No jargon, no masquerading, no hiding from Jesus: Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires are known, and from whom no secrets are hid!
Our Lord Jesus goes straight to the heart and sees our secrets at once, most of all our pretensions to power and self-control. That’s why all spiritual healing and growth begins with confessing our own powerlessness.
So today’s collect prays:
ALMIGHTY God, who seest that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves; Keep us both outwardly in our bodies, and inwardly in our souls; that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
What is the only plea we can bring to God? Our powerlessness.
- We are powerless before events.
- Powerless before the world’s daily threats against our lives.
- Powerless before the anger and sin in our own families.
- Powerless before the devil’s traps and temptations.
- Powerless, most of all, before our own weakness & pride & despair & anger & sloth, & envy & lust & gluttony.
Understand this: that confession of powerlessness is the ONLY reason we can present God to move him to help us. Not “God, we need a little help here, just a little, to put us over the top, but “God, without you we are going down today, right to the bottom, forever.”
Today’s Gospel perfectly pictures powerlessness. It piles hopelessness on hopelessness. The woman is a Syro-phoenician, a Gentile: not even a pure-bred Gentile at that, but a mixed breed in a day when the Jews could trace their lineage back 40 generations and more, like somebody from Charleston, South Carolina. Not her, and worse, her daughter is possessed by the devil.
HOW MUCH FAITH IS NEEDED?
How much faith did she have in Christ? Barely any, and that itself was the gift of God. Do not miss that: she did not begin with a little faith of her own and improve it. From the beginning her faith is already the gift of God.
How much faith did she have? Barely any, but enough to call Jesus “the Son of David, the Messiah.” Enough to call on him.
How much hope did she have in Christ? Only the desperate hope of the hopeless. People with other hopes don’t go to faith healers. Christ comes through town, and this hopeless woman hears that he has helped other hopeless people, so she runs to follow him. Who knows? Maybe he will help her. What other hope does she have? None.
Now I know that every one of you raised in the South was taught at home to be “nice.” That means that you wait to be served, you don’t reach across the table and stab a piece of chicken with your fork, you hold back and wait your turn and ask nicely, and most of all, you don’t act like an uncouth yankee and keep on harping on something once you’ve been told NO.
This hopeless woman throws all that out the window. Her desperation, her powerlessness drives her on to plead, beg, and holler to Christ. She yells at Jesus at the top of her voice.
Not once but three times she calls on Christ, & three times he refuses to grant her wish. She’s so loud and insistent that the disciples ask him to send her away. Only when she calls on him a fourth time, reminding him that God shows mercy precisely to the unworthy, does he answer her prayer.
Follow the sequence:
The first time, Christ ignores her. He acts as if he never even heard her.
The second time, Christ answers, but only to discourage her. He points out all the obstacles to answering her. She is not a Jew but a Gentile, a stranger to God’s covenant. “I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” You’re not one of the chosen people, so scat!
The third time, Christ rebuffs her even more strongly, “It is not fitting to take the children’s bread, & cast it to dogs.” Grace is not for you. Don’t miss what Christ says. He clearly insulted and dismissed her. A dog was a despised, unclean animal.
But even after three refusals, she won’t go away. She won’t give up hope in Christ, because she knows he is her only hope. If he can’t help her, she is done for.
The fourth time she turns Christ’s words back on him. She argues with Jesus? Does anybody else in Scripture dare to do that and win? “Truth, Lord,” she says, admitting that she is no better than a dog, “but even the dogs feed on the crumbs of the Master’s table.” Even despised dogs get the leftovers of mercy.
ARGUING WITH GOD
What holy argument is she presenting Christ? She is teaching you how to pray, so pay close attention.
She argues from Christ’s own character. “Lord, you are mercy! You are the source and original of all mercy. How can you deny yourself by not showing mercy now? You must be always what you always have been.”
This argument, and her faith, melts Christ’s resistance. He praises her faith, and grants her prayer. He casts the devil out of her daughter.
The powerless receives power. Compare 2 Timothy 1:7.
SIX PRINCIPLES OF PRAYER
What does this story teach us? Six principles of prayer, but these six all boil down to just two: pray about everything, and keep on praying.
1. We can only approach God with a confession of powerlessness. If you still cling to the hope that you can somehow work matters out on your own, that you are strong enough, clever enough, rich enough, or tough enough to see things through, then you don’t need God’s help. No need to bother God with your problems, you can handle it.
2. No matter how far you are estranged from God, he still has mercy for you. You didn’t grow up a Christian? Doesn’t matter, he still has mercy for you. You have despised and ridiculed Christianity? You haven’t prayed in ten years? You are a habitual sinner? If it weren’t for rotten fruit you’d have no fruit at all?
Not one of these can build a wall between you and God so high that God’s mercy cannot break it down. Could you be worse than a filthy Gentile dog with a demon-possessed daughter? This Gospel teaches us, without qualification or hedging, no matter how estranged you are, God still has mercy for you.
3. God answers prayer in his time, not yours. We don’t like to hear this, but it’s true. You pray, and nothing happens. You pray again. More silence. More inaction. You pray and pray and pray, and nothing seems to change.
What did this woman do when Christ first said no? Did she go home and say to her daughter, “Well, Hon, I reckon you’d better learn to live with that demon, because he’s going to be with you for the rest of your life”?
NO, no, she came back to Christ again and prayed again, and again, louder and louder until Christ answered her. She was not even intimidated when he told her No to her face. She still came back and prayed.
So when God seems not to answer our prayers, what do we do next? Pray again. Pray more often, pray more fervently, fast, and then pray again. Argue with God.
When I say that, I don’t mean argue with God out of your own selfishness. You can’t pray for what you know he condemns – “Lord, protect me while I rob this bank because I’m going to do great things for your kingdom with the money.”
Rather, place your request against the backdrop of God’s character and God’s kingdom. Think of how his granting your prayer will glorify him. Think of his mercy and grace and goodness and care for his people, his loving nature, and present that argument in all humility to him. And don’t forget, you can be insistent and humble at the same time.
Remember Abraham’s argument when he prayed for Sodom & Gomorrah, how he kept on coming back to God, arguing for mercy based on God’s mercy. He was humble, but very insistent.
Be patient. God’s timing is perfect. When his answer comes, it is never a minute too soon or too slow, it comes like lightning, bringing more than we could have asked or imagined.
4. She had faith in a particular person. This woman had faith in a particular person, Jesus Christ. She did not call out, “O Faith, save my daughter!” “O Buddha, cast out the demon!” “New Age spirit of the earth, heal her!” She did not say, “O non-specific higher power, throw out the devil!” No, she called out to Jesus Christ, “O Lord, thou Son of David.” She directed her faith and her prayer to the correct and only object.
5. Christ rewards faith. Yes, faith is the gift of God, but God is also pleased to reward it as if we deserved some credit.
Unanswered prayer is a gift, too, a reward for your faith. God sends it as a gift, to try your faith because he knows you will pass the test even when you don’t know it.
- To instruct you in perseverance.
- To build your hope.
- To throw you back on God with renewed devotion.
- To teach you not to trust yourself, but to trust him.
- To show you how utterly dependent you are.
- To teach you to submit to him, and trust him, in all things.
- To move you to pray again.
6. Never stop praying. “Pray without ceasing,” St. Paul says, and that means pray while you are standing, while you are sitting, walking, driving: any time is the right time to pray. (1 Thess. 5:17) But that also means never give up. Never stop praying.
FOR YOU AS WELL
This very day every one of you is carrying around some burden that you have lived with so long, and prayed about so often, that it has sent roots of doubt deep into your soul. You have begun to believe that God will never answer you. You may have begun to wonder whether God even hears, or cares, or is able to do anything about it.
But know this: God has heard. More than that, God has listened.
Ever wondered why every Sunday we pray for the same long list of people? Ever thought, “It is pointless to keep praying for these same people over and over, because nothing ever happens.” Beloved, that is exactly why we keep on praying for them, because God has not answered our prayer yet, and with God there is always hope.
True, sometimes God’s answer is, “No, that doesn’t fit into my plan.” Often, his answer is, “Not yet.”
God treats us as a father treats his belovéd child. He doesn’t give the child everything he asks for, because it might not be good for him.
One day when he was about four my grandson Tucker Bain, out of the blue, asked his dad, “Dad, would you teach me to use sharp knives safely?”
That’s us. Day after day, we keep asking God for sharp knives. “God, give me a sharp knife. While you’re at it, make it a really long sharp knife, so I can poke a lot of holes in myself, and hurt myself really badly.”
God, give me riches! Give me success! Give me respect and reputation! Give me a long, sharp knife.
And God says, “Not yet. You don’t know how to use sharp knives safely.” But his answer is never, “I am not listening.”
What can we take home from all this, to live with day by day? Keep on praying. Pray relentlessly, shamelessly, arguing with God from God’s own mercy and goodness and honour and glory. And when you are so empty that you cannot pray, pray for the Spirit of prayer.
Remember this, and pray: You are never so estranged from God, your sin is never so terrible, that he will not listen to your plea for forgiveness and answer in mercy. In his time, at exactly the right time, God will answer your prayer, because God loves you, and he rewards the faith he has given you.
Now, right now at Lent, in a season of repentance and reconciliation to God through his love poured out on us in Jesus Christ, Now is the acceptable time. Now is the time for you to draw near to God, now is the time to renew your prayers and your hope in him.
Now, because God shows us in this gospel story how great is his mercy toward us, and his love.
Now — pour out your complaints before him. Confess you are powerless to help yourself, show him your pain, show him your shame and helplessness, and he will surely hear you, for Christ’s sake.