The Second Sunday in Lent (sermon)
1 Thessalonians 4:1-8 St Matthew 15:21-28
Lent is a season for us to become more free: to draw near to God, and in that closeness to experience true freedom – the liberty of the sons and daughters of God.
These ancient readings, put before our minds the ways we are bound and the ways to be liberated.
In last week’s Gospel – the Temptations of Christ – Jesus was confront by, but not falling for, temptation. This Sunday and next, we hear of the devil enslaving human beings – who cannot help themselves, but then receive grace to be freed. We learn how to be freed once we have fallen and become enslaved.
This morning it is the daughter of a Canaanite woman who is “severely oppressed by a demon.”
What is the devil’s way? In catechism classes we considered last month how it is that the devil enslaves people – it is primarily through the telling of lies. He takes something true and subtly twists it by mixing with it something untrue. If we fall for the lie, and then act on it, we become more and more bound by the lie…we lose our freedom. There is an active maleavolence that we are to be aware of and on our guard from its influence.
We don’t know what the particular oppression for the Canaanite woman’s daughter was, but it could be any number of ways that we become unfree, bound by a destructive way of thinking and then acting. It was some strong passion of the soul – a desire for satisfaction, but that resulted then in acting out in some way that was leading to her degradation. What begins as a temptation in the mind, when acted upon, becomes an experience of some satisfaction, and so we go back to that way, hoping for further satisfaction, and we become enslaved. We know today that neural networks are actually physically strengthened by repeated behaviour, it becomes encoded in our physical brain, and so it is easier to go in that direction, that pathway, again.
What began as an experiment becomes an addiction – with seemingly no other way out. The good news on the creation side of things is that our minds have a plasticity – they can form new patterns, new neural networks to follow – but how will this happen? It begins by attending to the thoughts of our hearts. And the good news is that Jesus has come to give us grace to overcome destructive ways of thinking and acting.
In today’s Epistle reading, St Paul reminds us of one of those ways that can hurt us – he speaks of abstaining from sexual immorality – and what Paul would mean by that is sexual relations outside of marriage between a man and a woman. The Greek word is porneia, those sexual relations forbidden under the Law of Moses – see Leviticus 18 and 20. He refers to the same word, several times in his letters, and Jesus refers to the same word, porneia, as a thought coming out of the heart of man that can lead to our destruction. [Matthew 15:19-20] In fact he says this in the passage in the verses right before today’s Gospel.
Today’s Gospel is an explication of what happens when we don’t attend to the thoughts of our hearts – whether that is sexual immorality or other passions of the soul which can lead to our enslavement – greed, gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, pride. And all of these passions of the soul, gifts of God with their place in the human soul, but that can be means through which we can become bound by a demon. And the source and head of these passions is pride – it is our deciding for ourselves what is going to make us happy instead of listening in obedience to the God who made us for glory and to enjoy perfect freedom.
The point of today’s Gospel is that we can become bound, enslaved, by thoughts put in our mind by the devil and we need help from above, grace from God, to free us. Our Collect acknowledges that we can come to a place where we cannot get out of it by ourselves – “Almighty God, who sees that we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves…”
As followers of Jesus we have come to believe this. And so we come to God seeking in our prayers, help to transform destructive patterns of thinking and living, and to form new patterns of purer thought and virtuous living. And as these new patterns form we can love better those around us.
In the Gospel today, the Canaanite woman comes to Jesus, not for herself, but that Jesus might help her daughter, who is enslaved by a demon. And Jesus responds to her and this gives us hope that we can pray to God to help our loved ones around us to be freed up from destructive patterns of thought and living in which they are bound.
In this Gospel reading there is a very uncomfortable back and forth conversation which happens between Jesus and this woman.
Martin Luther loved this passage and the example of this woman’s faithfulness – Listen to what he says,
All this, … is written for our comfort and instruction, that we may know how deeply God conceals his grace before our face, and that we may not estimate him according to our feelings and thinking, but strictly according to his Word. For here you see, though Christ appears to be even hardhearted, yet he gives no final decision by saying "No." All his answers indeed sound like no, but they are not “no”, they remain undecided and pending. For he does not say: “I will not hear you;” but is silent and passive, and says neither yes nor no. In like manner he does not say “she is not of the house of Israel;” but that he “is sent only to the house of Israel;” he leaves it undecided and pending between yes and no. So he does not say, “You are a dog, one should not give you of the children's bread;” but “it is not right to take the children's bread and cast it to the dogs;” leaving it undecided whether she is a dog or not. Yet all those trials of her faith sounded more like no than yes; but there was more yea in them than nay; aye, there is only yes in them, but it is very deep and very concealed, while there appears to be nothing but no.
In the Old Testament, the story of Jacob struggling with the angel of God by the Ford of the Jabbok throws light on our Gospel this morning. [Gen 32]
Do you remember how Jacob wrestles with the angel until near the break of day – the angel tells him to let him go, but Jacob says, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” The angel blessed him, after putting his hip out of joint (!) and renames him Israel – he says, “for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Israel means – “he who strives with God.”
The Syrophoenician woman is a lost sheep of the house of Israel – because she has out of great love for her daughter and with great faith in Christ, striven with him and received what she desired.
“O woman, great is your faith! be it done for you as you desire.” And the Gospel tells us, her daughter was healed instantly.
What an example to us to persevere in prayer, when the answer seems to be no. What an example to us of great humility before Jesus. And of boldness.
The Syrophoenician woman’s words are remembered in Anglican Services of Holy Communion, in the Prayer of Humble Access, which we will soon pray. Her example is memorialized by Anglicans Sunday by Sunday around the world - recalling this great moment in today’s Gospel, when we say – we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under your table, but you are the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy, grant us therefore…to eat at your banquet.
The Prayer of Humble Access is a prayer that combines the elements of self abasement (not trusting in ourselves) but also a boldness (trusting in the goodness of God). In the prayer of Humble Access, the table spoken of is in heaven, and the crumbs that fall from that table are unmerited grace – a free gift.
If we are to participate in the Christian life in an ongoing transformative way, to be lifted up continually to sit with Him in the heavenly places, it requires that we continually remember that grace is a gift – pride or presumption do not have a place in our soul, they only sever the link with heaven. If we remember grace is a gift, our disposition will be one of humble asking and not one of demand – and our hearts will be in the right place, ready to receive. Then, we are told, our prayers for the freedom of our souls from enslavement and for the freedom of the souls of our loved ones and enemies who are bound by demons will be effective. Jesus tells us to pray for deliverance and he will deliver us!
This morning we are being lifted into the heavenly places as our minds think upon Jesus – to look on the face of God – in our distresses.
Let us prepare ourselves now as truly the lost sheep of the house of Israel, as children invited by Jesus to sit at the table of the heavenly banquet, and to eat the bread of heaven prepared for us. Those crumbs of grace are not only for us but for those around us, our beloved whom we are to hold before the throne of grace. And, like Jacob with the angel, like the Syrophoenician woman, let us not let go of Jesus, until we receive an answer to our cry.
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Except the Lord build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. Psalm 127:1,2