Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have
In last week’s Gospel you and I studied the temptations of Christ in the wilderness. And I hope that we came away with a real sense of Christ’s identification with our own fallen nature –a nature that is sore tried and tested by the distractions that Satan throws in our way. I hope too that we came away with a renewed confidence in Christ’s desire to lead us out of the death that those temptations threaten and into a new life that his caring real presence offers to us. God is a God of the living (St. Luke xx. 38) Jesus says elsewhere, and as Ezekiel reminds us this morning, He has no pleasure in the death of him that dieth. (Ez. xviii. 32) And yet there is a kind of dying that we must endure in this earthly life if we are to begin to live truly in Jesus Christ our Lord and through to his Kingdom. That dying will culminate for us in Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday. But in order for us to receive the life that comes to us from his death then, we must begin to die to ourselves now. Our first death is a spiritual one; some authors have called it the necessary un-selfing, which alone creates and makes a space into which the dying Christ’s love can flow and then mold and fashion us into creatures ready and willing for His Resurrection.
But what is this dying to self all about? How do we find it? We seem to be very much alive to ourselves, to our daily tasks and duties, to preoccupations with family and friends. We seem to be so very immersed in this world of our own busy-ness, that there is no time left over for this call to our dying. Well first of all we must make time for God’s work in our lives. St. Paul tells us this morning that God has not called us to uncleanness but into holiness. Therefore he who disregardeth this, disregardeth not man but God, who hath given unto us his Holy Spirit. (1 Thes. iv. 7,8) So first and foremost we had better examine ourselves in the light of Christ’s love. We must take a moral inventory of our lives, and find those desires and expressions that have been unclean, unholy, or unrighteous. We must name and claim our sins. With honest self-appraisal, we must locate any person, thing, or habit that stands as a barrier between us and the Lord Jesus. We must discover or remember whether or not we continue to hold a grudge, resentment, bitterness, or unforgiveness against anyone either living or long since dead. Then we must offer our sinful associations and thoughts over to the Lord for death and annihilation in prayer. This will comprise the dying that is called for if we are to live to the coming vision of Christ’s love for us at Calvary Hill on Good Friday. The Lord says to us this morning, Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord God. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin. (Ez. xviii. 30)
Yet we cannot really undertake this endeavor unless and until we sense and appreciate the seriousness of our sinful state. The danger and urgency of the sinful condition is revealed to us beautifully in this morning’s Gospel lesson. Then Jesus went thence, and departed into the coasts of Tyre and Sidon. And, behold, a woman of Canaan came out of the same coasts, and cried unto him, saying, Have on me, O Lord, thou son of David; my daughter is grievously vexed with a devil. (St. Matthew xv. 21, 22) Jesus is traveling on the border between Israel and Phoenicia. A certain Canaanitish, or Syro-Phoenician, woman approaches him. The Canaanites were the ancient enemies of Israel, were polytheists, and so were known for the strict protection and defense of their families and nation that the gods afforded them. As such, they were considered dirty, polluted, and unclean by their Jewish neighbors. They were seen to be alien to or separated from the one true God’s promises to his people Israel. And so from this nation comes the woman in this morning’s Gospel. True to her nation’s desperate protection and love for the family, she pleads with Jesus to heal her daughter, who is grievously vexed with a devil. (Ibid, 22) She bears and carries the burden of her daughter’s demonic possession to Jesus. There can be no doubt that she had heard of the healing power of this Jesus of Nazareth. And yet she had everything working against her from a Jewish perspective. At first, Jesus seems to honor his people’s rejection of the Canaanites. We read, But he answered her not a word. (Ibid, 23) Jesus is known in Scripture as much for his silence as for his verbiage. When the woman was taken in adultery, Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. (St. John viii. 6), and only afterwards spoke. When questioned by Pilate we read, and he answered him never a word; so that the governor marveled greatly. (St. Matthew xxvii. 14) God’s Word often seems so silent, distant, and removed from the complaints of man in Holy Scripture. The Psalmist asks, Has his Word disappeared from generation to generation? (Ps. lxxvii. 9) Jesus is often silent; he will even be silenced on the Cross. But here he is silent for a reason, for he knows what he intends to do with this woman. His disciples selfishly shout out, Send her away; for she crieth after us. (Ibid, 23) They, no doubt, did not want their spiritual experience of Jesus to be spoiled by just any one, and least of all by the likes of this pestiferous heathen woman! Had they known the dire and desperate sinful condition afflicting them as Jews, they might have been all the more able to see it in this their Gentile neighbor. Instead they settle for the heartless pursuit of their own peace and comfort. Jesus says, I am not sent but unto the lost sheep of the house of Israel, (Ibid, 24) as if to suggest: wouldn’t it be nice if they –who here seem so confident of their entitlement and right to my mercy and power, knew that they were lost? But the woman persists, will not be deterred, draws closer, and worshipfully implores him: Lord, help me. (Ibid, 25) Jesus seems to taunt her by replying, It is not meet to take the children's bread, and to cast it to dogs. (Ibid, 26) But he is doing no such thing. He is eliciting or drawing out from her the true nature of her faith and desire. His words will evince and evoke the true content and nature of her own self-knowledge. She responds, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table. (Ibid, 27) She is not angry; she does not leave in a huff of despair. The greater the knowledge of her daughter’s desperate condition, the stronger her determination to pursue its cure. She even turns our Lord’s words back to him, with agreement and assent that compel his mercy. True enough Lord, I am not a chosen child, but a desperate dog, who without his Master and the food he provides, will be left to forage this world for the love and mercy that even dogs need. Even stray dogs eat of the crumbs that fall from other masters’ tables. Her faith is her salvation. Make me lower than thy chosen people, make me the last and even the least of those deserving of thy healing power and salvation. She knows she is an alien and outcast; she knows she is a sinner and idolater. Knowing her disease and condition acutely, she seeks out the cure more fervently and passionately. Are they the lost sheep of the House of Israel? Well then I am more lost than they, she must have known. Those who know that their condition is worse are all the more eager to secure greater deliverance. Jesus responds to her: O woman, great is thy faith: be it unto thee even as thou wilt. And her daughter was made whole from that very hour. (Ibid, 28) She stands at a great distance from the promises given to Israel. Her daughter lies sick at a great distance from Jesus. Her faith will stir the Word of God to surmount the boundaries and to travel the distance needed to administer the cure. (Trench: Miracles, p. 273) Her faith thus moves Jesus and shames the disciples.
By now it should be clear enough to us that this woman had died to herself that the power and love of Jesus might touch and heal both her own tormented soul and that of her daughter. What this woman offers to us today is an example of the humility and faith that we must put on as we approach Jesus for the emptying and healing of our souls. She is consumed with the healing that Jesus alone can give. Deliverance from false gods, freedom from the hold and grip of all temptations and distractions, come only when we admit that we are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs that fall from [Jesus’] table, or that we are dogs. But what is essential more than all else are the persistence and the determination which zealously pursue the Lord’s mercy. Christ will try and test our faith in Him; he will remain silent for a time, as our desire and love for Him grow. He will push us back into that tight corner that demands true confession and honest admission of our sorry state and tormented condition. He does this not to destroy us, but so that our faith and love will incessantly hope their way into the everlasting arms of his healing mercy. This comes only with the un-selfing of ourselves, for as Archbishop Trench says, All that is [ours] is the faith, or the emptiness of self, with the hunger after God, which enables [us] to appropriate and make so largely [our] own the fullness and power of God; so that here also that word comes true, ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (Trench: Miracles, p. 274). Amen.
St. Michael and All Angels Sermons: