Great faith – Matthew 15:21-28

Sometimes we think of great faith as the kind of faith that prays for great things and sees amazing answers to prayer.  That is probably how great faith frequently looks, but great faith need not always look the same.  Consider the case of the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15.

21 And Jesus went away from there and withdrew to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22 And behold, a Canaanite woman from that region came out and was crying, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” 23 But he did not answer her a word. And his disciples came and begged him, saying, “Send her away, for she is crying out after us.” 24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25 But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26 And he answered, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” 27 She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28 Then Jesus answered her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The greatness in the woman’s faith is not that she asked for anything more than others might ask.  The Gospels give several examples of people coming to Jesus on behalf of their children and Jesus healing them or even raising them from the dead.  He cast out plenty of demons.

Jesus commends her faith before granting her request, but only after an interaction in which Jesus seems to refuse her.  First he says nothing (v.23), then he pushes the Gentile/Jewish distinction beyond what we might even consider polite (vv. 24-26).  Her humility and persistence in the face of Christ’s seeming condescension and persistent refusal brings out his praise (v.28).

If you are like me you have several prayer requests that God has not seen fit to answer even after many years, maybe decades or most of your life.  And like me you struggle and are tempted to give up.  You might see numerous reasons why God would never answer these prayers.  “I’m not worthy.  I’m really not worthy.  God doesn’t answer prayers like these for people like me.  Why should he?”  These reasons (and I have more) sound a lot like “The Jewish Messiah isn’t about to grant the request of a Canaanite woman, is he?”  But he did.  

The point is that neither an unanswered prayer nor what looks like a humiliating refusal are the same thing as a final “no.”  Jesus used his delays to draw out further expressions of the woman’s faith.  That faith was in her all the time, but had Jesus responded quickly, none of us would have seen it and we might never know.  

Let’s be the kind of people who hang on like the devil – or better, like this Canaanite woman – with whatever faith we have and then even more.  Sometimes faith grows in its praying, its asking, humility and continuous kneeling before God.  Sometimes God’s answers come only after long delays.  A paltry, weak and sickly faith can be satisfied with quick answers, and then it may mislead us into thinking such faith is great.  In fact, great faith, like this woman’s, may be the faith that keeps asking without any answer in sight.

Satisfied in Christ – Matthew 14:1-21

This chapter starts with two feasts and leads naturally to a discussion of several kinds of satisfaction.  The first feast is the birthday party of Herod the tetrarch.  The second is the feeding of the five thousand by Jesus.

The daughter of Herodias is both a niece to Herod and his stepdaughter.  Josephus tells us that her name is Salome. At the feast held for Herod’s birthday, “the daughter of Herodias danced before the company and pleased Herod” (v.6).  There is nothing in the text that absolutely assures us this dance and/or the way Salome “pleased” Herod was utterly sensuous, erotic or otherwise unsavory.  From what we know of the times, the culture and the Herods, however, it is understandable that this is how interpreters have often understood the scene.

I have no desire to dig into any of that, but the available literature is plentiful.  You are welcome to track it down for yourself.  Or just look at our own times, culture and public figures to compare, in which case Herod might not look so bad.  Let’s give the tetrarch and his guests an undeserved benefit of the doubt and imagine that Herod was pleased in a completely wholesome way.  His satisfaction was of the innocent entertainment variety.  It was a great show and Salome deserved some applause for a job well done.  This kind of satisfaction never lasts.  We want the next show, the next thrill, the next laugh or the next diversion.  There is nothing wrong with it, but does have serious limitations.

An uglier form of satisfaction comes when Herod offers Salome “whatever she might ask” (v.7).  Heeding her mother’s counsel, she says, “Give me John the Baptist’s head here on a platter” (v.8).  Herodias is training the girl to walk in her vengeful, merciless footsteps – and Herod complies.  Her thirst for blood is satisfied, but some forms of satisfaction are simply wrong.  John was the messenger to Herod and Herodias that their forbidden relationship (the brother and sister-in-law divorced their spouses to marry each other) was wrong.  They killed the messenger to block out the message.  Alas, every part of this series of satisfied desires is misguided.

On to the feeding of the five thousand, or far more when we count the women and children.  We might think more in terms of a sellout crowd in an NBA or NHL-sized arena.  The crowd was hungry, Jesus feeds them and there are twelve baskets full of leftovers.  The key point for us is “And they all ate and were satisfied” (v.20).  Jesus meets the need of the weary crowd and they all feel like they just finished Thanksgiving dinner.

if we stopped right there we would already have learned something helpful.  Jesus is willing and able to meet our needs.  He does not consider them trivial or choose to ignore them.  Many of our desires are good and helpful.  We need food to survive.  This desire ought to be satisfied.

But there is more.  When John tells the same story, he adds considerable dialog as a followup.  There, in John 6:35, Jesus says, “Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.”  This is the ultimate satisfaction. 

Putting our faith and trust in Christ fulfills a desire that we may not even want to acknowledge.  We can satisfy ourselves on entertainment and when the satisfaction wanes, we can do it over and over again.  We can allow our selfish, dark and harmful desires to consume us.  If we satisfy this inner Herod or Herodias, no good will ever come of it and never has.  Some desires deserve to go unmet.  Still, there are natural, healthy desires that inform us of our basic needs.  Jesus is happy to meet these, but they are not the whole story of our existence.

C. S. Lewis observed in Mere Christianity, “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.”

We were made for an unfallen, eternal world that is free from corruption.  The problem is that we have corrupted this world and sentenced ourselves to death in the process.  We have taken the beauty that God gave us and ruined it beyond anything we can repair. This is not one category of problem like crime or climate change.  There is no cause to support that will solve this one.  We can only admit our need and let Christ satisfy it.  He alone is able.  When we do so we will find that world for which we were made.  Everything else finds its place only when we let Christ have his place first.

John Piper has put it like this, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.”  He is right.  Let’s determine not to let ourselves be satisfied with anything less.  We need to prioritize our desires properly and, as citizens of heaven, glorify the God who made us.  We can only be fully and forever satisfied in Christ.

Some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty – Matthew 13:3-9, 18-23

The Parable of the Sower is one of the best-known parables of Jesus and one of the most important.  By it we can gauge our response to God’s word.  Here it is,

And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.”

And here is the divinely inspired explanation of it according to Jesus himself.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

The lesson is simple.  The same word yields different results depending on the soil it lands in.  We want to be like that good soil.  

Some seed was devoured by birds.  This person did not immediately understand the word and evil one snatched away what was sown in his heart.  To counteract this possibility we have to be prepared to do a little work to make sure we are getting out of the word what God has put into it.  A little thought, a little study, a little reflection and conversation with others can go a long way.  We must make sure the evil one cannot devour the word once we have received it.  If we are attentive, hold on to that word at all costs and do not ignore it, we will forever avoid the first pitfall.  

Some seed sprang up immediately but had no depth.  Initial enthusiasm is no guarantee of long-term success.  What happens when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word?  Are we prepared to endure the rejection and ridicule that come along with a deep and firmly rooted faith?  Perhaps the main thing to know about difficulties is that we must expect them.  We Christians need to expect trials as a result of our commitment to the word of God.  Stand firm.  Do not waver.  Hold on tightly and never let go of Jesus and the walk with him that is continuously fueled by the word.  If we can survive these most certain troubles, we will avoid the second pitfall.

There is one pitfall left and i may be the most insidious.  The thorns, which represent the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches, can choke out a well-informed and firmly-rooted faith.  In this case a person may say,”Sure, I believe,” but the fruit of their faith is simply absent.  Zoom in a little closer and we will likely find that this person’s faith is not their first priority.  One care or another gets in the way.  There is some status symbol, a relationship, a reputation among certain people who care little for the things of God, or of course, the next dollar.  Any of these can stand in the way of wholehearted devotion to the word.  Fruit gets choked out and never appears. 

Put the word first and fruit will come naturally.  Decide right now to not let anything or anyone stand in the way of it.  Others may come along if they choose, but we must determine not to be distracted from our Number One Priority – which is our faith.  No earthly thing compares.

Pay careful attention, stand firm under pressure and stay focused when distractions assault us.  This is how we avoid the three main pitfalls and diligently prepare our soil.  The fruit will now come if we are patient.  We may be surprised at how much there eventually is.  Some produce a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

Jesus cares – Matthew 12:9-14

My thought today is a simple one, but still always relevant: Jesus cares.  This occurred to me while reading the following passage.

He went on from there and entered their synagogue. 10 And a man was there with a withered hand. And they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”—so that they might accuse him. 11 He said to them, “Which one of you who has a sheep, if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 Of how much more value is a man than a sheep! So it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.” 13 Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And the man stretched it out, and it was restored, healthy like the other. 14 But the Pharisees went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him.

It seems the observers were more concerned about their questions pertaining to the Sabbath than they were with the poor guy who needed to be healed.  Afterward, the Pharisees who witnessed the healing confirm this by going out and conspiring how to destroy Jesus.  Their additions to or interpretations of the law took priority over helping someone in need.  

Jesus, as we know, was willing to be their victim.  He would not, however, hold back from doing good to the man with the withered hand.  Admittedly the man’s hand was no life-threatening injury.  He may have lived with his problem for years.  During that time, however, his frustration may have grown.  His discouragement may have increased.

We have reason to be encouraged when we see ourselves as someone comparable to the man with this disability,  We cannot do as much good as we would like.  We are not as capable as we often feel we need to be.  Our inadequacy is constantly glaring at us in the mirror and laughing.  And Jesus cares. 

Christ is happy to renew our strength.  He is not too busy nor overly concerned with Sabbath requirements that were mere legal additions or interpretations to begin with.  He cares.  Jesus simply and personally cares.  And he wants us to know that.

Is this the Jesus we wanted? – Matthew 11:2-6

Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

John the Baptist was languishing in prison.  Conditions were harsh even for him, a man unaccustomed to comfort.  Further, he was not a criminal, and he knew he didn’t belong there.  Where was that Messiah that was going to set the world right?  Jesus was certainly that very man, wasn’t he?  There was the voice from heaven and the Spirit descending like a dove.  He was a relative and John knew him well enough to believe Jesus of Nazareth was the one.  But again, here he was, locked up and no happy ending anywhere in sight.  Who can blame him for asking Jesus for some word of hope or instruction?

The doubts of a saint are vastly different from the doubts of the skeptic.  When we find we don’t have the Jesus we wanted, we need assurance, even if we are determined to believe.  It’s a question of trust.  We can trust someone during difficult times, but still acknowledge that the times are difficult.  Disappointment with God is a real thing.  Our faith may waver, but it will not fail.  Surely, as we wait, God will strengthen our heart.

The skeptic sees things differently.  Difficulties just add to his denials.  She builds a wall of doubt out of bricks inscribed with objections.  Trials are never an acceptable outcome of obedience.  Disobedience can always find its reasons.

The saint knows better.  The narrow gate and the difficult way lead to life.  The rugged cross is something to cherish and something to cling to, while awaiting to exchange it for a crown.  Is this the Jesus we wanted?  No matter, it is the real Jesus.  And he would tell us the same thing he told John: 

“The blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”

Devotional thought for Good Friday

In Romans 5:7-9 Paul reminds us,

For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

Today we remember the greatest example of love the world has ever known.  This is the day we remember that Christ died for us while we were still sinners.  True, Paul writes this at a time when many who would read it were alive at the time of Christ’s death.  He could say “while we were still sinners” and look back on the crucifixion and the space of time before he believed in its value.  We look at it somewhat differently.

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/notre-dame-cathedral-on-fire-crucifix-altar-cross-paris/

Notre Dame altar cross, early Tuesday, April 16, 2019, by Philippe Wojazer, Reuters

From our standpoint Christ died before we were ever born.  He died before we ever sinned.  He also died long before we saw our need for a Savior.  How wonderful that by the time we saw our need, the Savior was risen.  The price for our sin had already been paid.  All that was lacking was our making use of Christ’s payment and asking it to be applied to us.

The love he shows to us is every bit as great as if we had known Christ personally while he walked the earth.  He was the lamb of God, taking away the sins of the world.  We are the sinners, who have corrupted the world by our sin.

As children of the very wealthy are in danger of not appreciating the true cost or worth of their riches, we run the risk of not appreciating the price that Christ paid.  We were born into a world whose sin was already dealt with at the cross.  We have been forgiven based on a work done long ago, a completed suffering.  We need to take some time to consider the cross.  Grace can be freely extended to us only because our Lord Jesus Christ humbled himself to a death that we deserved.

Thank you, thank you Jesus.

Amen.

Our worth or his? – Matthew 10:28-33

Jesus said we “are of more value than many sparrow.”  Sometimes we think of this in isolation as a statement of how valuable we are in God’s eyes.  After all, if not even a sparrow can fall to the ground apart from our Father, then we can rest assured that God cares for us too.  

There is nothing absolutely wrong with those thoughts.  Our heavenly Father does care.  He is attentive to the smallest detail of our tiniest trouble.  The big troubles mean even more to him, we can be sure.  But let’s read the verses surrounding the sparrows along with the verses we love.

28 And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. 29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. 32 So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, 33 but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.

Overall, they seem to be about not fearing in the face of opposition.  What if I am tempted to deny Christ?  We need to fear God rather than any human opponent.  We should want Jesus to acknowledge us and know that he will, as long as we acknowledge him first.  Christ is telling us we need to have a public faith.

What Jesus is saying is something like this: “You are valuable to your Father and mine, he cares about your smallest concern, but how valuable are he and I to you?  Would you remain faithful to me even if it costs you something?  Will you fear those who can only kill the body, but not fear God more?”

Let’s remember that if we are “worth more than many sparrow,” then Jesus is worth something far greater still.  He is worth our very lives and even those lives are something akin to the penny paid for sparrows by comparison.  Our worth is derivative; it comes entirely from him.  Christ’s worth is original and derived from any other source.  He can share his worth with all of us and still have infinite value left in himself.