Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1. A week ago in the Gospel of Invocabit Sunday, we read the story of Christ struggling with Satan in the wilderness as he overcame the devil’s temptations. In today’s Gospel Reading, we encounter another struggle. This time, it’s a Canaanite woman who is struggling with Christ as she desperately pleads for him to heal her demon-oppressed daughter. In this Gospel reading, we encounter a version of Jesus that we generally don’t like very much. We like the Jesus who blesses the little children, who heals the sick, who raises the dead, who overcomes Satan for us. We don’t like the Jesus with whom we have to struggle. Yet for many of us, this Jesus with whom we have to struggle is the one we encounter so often in our lives. This is also the Jesus whom we encounter both in this morning’s Gospel Reading and in the Old Testament Reading. As we explore these two readings, we will learn something about how to handle our own struggling with God.
2. The Old Testament Reading from Genesis 32 is the famous story of Jacob struggling with God. It’s an odd story no matter how you look at it, but knowing the context helps to make a bit more sense of the story. Jacob first enters the story of Genesis in chapter 25 when he and his twin brother are born. The manner of the boys birth is significant because both are named according to the circumstances of their birth. Esau was born first. He was an extremely hairy and red child, so he became known as “Edom”, which sounds like the Hebrew word for “red.” Jacob, however, was born clutching the heel of his brother. He was given the name “Jacob.” Jacob means “heel-grabber”, which is the Hebrew way of saying, “cheater.” And, boy was Jacob a cheater. Much of the rest of Jacob’s life as we know it from the story of Genesis was characterized by him cheating. He cheated his brother out of his birthright and later out of his blessing. He cheated his uncle Laban out of sheep and then he took his family and fled from Laban without saying goodbye. As he prepared to face the brother he had cheated so badly earlier in life, Jacob had a moment which changed the trajectory of his life as he struggled with God.
3. As Jacob was alone in the wilderness near the ford of the Jabbok River, a man showed up and began wrestling with him. It’s not until later in the reading that we learn the identity of this man. It is God who has come to wrestle with Jacob. Notice the irony of how this wrestling match ends. As dawn approached and Jacob showed no signs of giving up, the man touched Jacob’s hip and dislocated it. Having a joint dislocated, especially one like the hip, would not have been the most comfortable thing in the world, to say the least. Yet dislocated hip and all, Jacob would not let go. He was desperately clinging to and clutching this man, refusing to let him go. We’re not told this directly in Scripture, but the way I always imagine this scene playing out is the man standing up over the injured Jacob as Jacob desperately clutched his heel, refusing to let him go. But in this moment, the cheating heel-grabber is given a new name: “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). Israel in Hebrew means, “he struggles with God.” Jacob and all of his descendants would no longer be known as “cheaters”, but as the one who struggles with God. Think about this story though. How strange is this? It’s strange not only that God would come to wrestle with Jacob, but it’s even more strange that Jacob would prevail over God in this wrestling match. What kind of God is defeated by a mere man in a wrestling match? I’ll tell you what kind of God is defeated by a man in a wrestling match—one who wants to be defeated, one who allows himself to be defeated, one who initiated the wrestling match not for the purpose of winning, but for the purpose of engaging Jacob. God wanted Jacob to wrestle with him and he wanted Jacob to struggle and prevail over him.
4. As we turn to our Gospel Reading, we see another story of someone struggling with God. This time it’s a Canaanite woman who struggles with Jesus. It’s not a physical struggle, but it is a struggle nonetheless. Jesus and his disciples are in the district of Tyre and Sidon, which is a Canaanite region. While there, this woman comes to Jesus and says to him: “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon” (Matthew 15:22). This is a simple request, yet it is packed with theological understanding. First, we see that the woman’s request is for “mercy.” Showing mercy, as you probably know, is one of the things that our Lord most delights in doing. Second, we see this woman recognizes who Jesus is. Just as the blind man from our Gospel Reading two weeks ago did, she calls Jesus, “Son of David.” She knows, at least in some sense, that Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. Finally, we notice that this woman’s request is a humble, selfless request. She is not asking anything for herself. She simply wants Jesus to heal her daughter from demon oppression. This woman, in significant contrast to Jacob, is a woman whose humility before God is commendable.
5. Yet Jesus does not respond to her in the way in which we might expect or want. In fact, he say nothing to her at all. He completely ignores her. Jesus doesn’t even speak until his disciples are so annoyed that they ask him to just get rid of her. It’s at this point that Jesus speaks. Admittedly, the Greek text behind what Jesus says in verse 24 doesn’t translate nicely into English for a variety of reasons that I won’t bore you with. I think that the New King James Version’s translation of this verse does an excellent job of accurately communicating exactly what Jesus means here: But He answered and said. “I was not sent except to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 15:24, NKJV). Jesus is not saying here that he was sent to Israel alone. Actually, he’s quite emphatically saying: “I was sent to the lost sheep of the house of Israel—that is the reason why I came. I came to preach and teach about the kingdom of heaven in Israel.” By the way, that’s absolutely true. Jesus is Israel’s Messiah. He was sent to them. It’s only after his death that the apostolic mission the Gentiles begins in full force—and even then it’s a mission primarily intended to bring the Gentiles into God’s family so that they can be grafted into the true Israel. But back to Jesus, what he’s saying is absolutely true. He was sent to Israel…Yet here he is in a Canaanite territory allowing this Canaanite woman to struggle with him. It’s almost as if he was seeking her out.
6. Despite Jesus’ harsh treatment of her by ignoring her and dismissing her, the woman humbly kneels before Jesus and says: “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25). Jesus finally speaks to her directly and says: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs” (Matthew 15:26). The woman cleverly replies to Jesus and says: “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table” (Matthew 15:27). Do you see what just happened. The woman caught Jesus in his words. She has struggled with him and prevailed. She doesn’t want what rightfully belongs to the children. She knows that she is not an Israelite. She is not one to whom Jesus has been sent. She is a Canaanite, part of the nation which was the enemy of Israel for generations. Yet she knows that even a dog can be brought into the master’s house and eat the crumbs which fall from the table without taking away from the children. The God whose cup overfloweth with mercy has more than enough to give to her. And so, we read: Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly (Matthew 15:28). How strange is this interaction? It’s strange not only that Jesus came to Canaanite territory where he met this woman, but it’s even more strange that he would struggle with her and that she would prevail over him in this wrestling match of words. What kind of God is defeated by a mere woman like this? I suspect you know the answer, but I’ll tell you anyway. The kind of God who is is defeated like this is one who wants to be defeated, one who allows himself to be defeated, one who initiated the struggle not for the purpose of winning, but for the purpose of engaging the woman to test her faith. Jesus wanted this woman to struggle and prevail over him.
My friends, sometimes the way in which God engages us is through a struggle. Sometimes life isn’t going well. Maybe it’s our own fault, as was the case with Jacob. Maybe it’s really not our fault, as was the case with the Canaanite woman. But either way, we all know what it’s like to have life go against us. We all know what it’s like to feel the pain and suffering of life and to cry out to God only to hear nothing in response. We all know what it feels like when Jesus does not respond to us in the way in which we might expect or want. We all know what it’s like her hear nothing at all, to feel completely ignored. What do we do in those moments? Do we give up all hope because it feels like God has abandoned us, or do we cling desperately to God’s word knowing that his cup overfloweth in mercy—it is one of the things that our Lord most delights in giving. My friends, when we go through gut-wrenching, life-altering challenges in life, yet cling in faith to God’s Word and refuse to let go, maybe just maybe our story will end like the Canaanite woman’s story. Maybe just maybe we’ll come to see that there are more yeses in Jesus’ no’s than we can see at first. I can’t promise that all your struggles will have a fairy-tail ending. But I do know that the Lord doesn’t strengthen faith apart from suffering. It is through suffering that Jesus strengthens our faith. When he allows us to struggle with him, we know that he wants us to prevail. We know too that he works all things for good (Romans 8:28). He wants nothing more than to say to you, “O man, O woman, great is your faith!” May God grant that we all might prevail in the face of sufferings so that this same great faith might be ours.
In the name of Jesus. Amen.