Second Sunday in Lent

Prevailing In Christ

Saint Matthew 15:21-28

In his letter to the Ephesians, the apostle Saint Paul writes of the conflict and struggle that’s going on—the war being waged against Christians, like you dear people. And he says, “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Now when he says that, we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood, he means that our real enemy is not mortal like you and me. Our real enemy is the devil and his goal is to take your life—to murder you. Oh, not physically, but rather spiritually. Physical harm, however, may accompany the devil’s spiritual warfare, for in seeking your eternal damnation, the devil often makes use of temporal, flesh and blood servants and the harsh, painful things of this world to persuade believers into thinking that God, in whom we put our trust, cares nothing for us.

The history of God’s redeemed people in this sinful, fallen world is full of spiritual warfare, and it continues unceasingly. Every day you wrestle against the old evil foe, who seeks your eternal harm and ruin. And every day, the Lord God is protecting you and keeping safe from the devil. He sends His holy angels to watch over you. His Holy Spirit dwells within you, working faith through the Gospel to give you strength to resist temptation and wisdom to seek forgiveness through the shed blood of Christ when, in the weakness of your flesh, you stumble and fall.

Today we hear also of another way that the Lord God helps you in your life of faith to remain strong to resist the devil, so that you’ll never tap out as you wrestle against him. Now, it may sound a bit strange to put it this way, but God gets you in spiritual fighting shape by working out with you; He trains you in the gymnasium, the dojo, of your everyday life. He spars with you so that when you wrestle against the devil you will gain the pinfall—the one, two, three count that declares you to be the victor.

Speaking about wrestling, in the Old Testament Reading we’re told about a wrestling match involving the patriarch Jacob. Long before this match took place, when Jacob was still in the womb of his mother Rebekah, God chose him, over his twin brother Esau, to be the one through whom the salvation promise made to Abraham and Isaac before him would continue. However, when it was time to receive this blessing from his father Isaac, rather than trust in God’s Word, Jacob schemed and worked through sinful deception to gain the birthright from his brother. Later on in his life, Jacob would continue in his deceiving ways, tricking his father-in-law Laban to get what he felt he deserved, rather than trusting in God to provide.

Now, as we all come to find out in this life, there’s always a day of reckoning, isn’t there? With Jacob, that day came when he had to face his brother Esau again—his brother whom he had cheated—and the prospect of this made Jacob greatly afraid. He prayed to God for help, that he might be spared his brother’s wrath and retribution; he even reminded God of His promise to make his offspring “as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude.” But then he went right on, as he had always done, relying on his own clever scheming. Instead of trusting in God, he planned to appease his brother with presents; instead of repenting and telling his brother he was sorry, he planned to buy his way out of his troubles. That’s when God, the pre-incarnate Christ, came to Jacob and wrestled with him. Jacob needed to be trained—both out of his sinful ways and into the way of God.

From the way that this account is presented, it may seem like Jacob is actually holding his own as they wrestle together “until the breaking of the day.” We might think that the Lord pleads to be let go because He’s worried He might lose. But not so. Rather, the wrestling goes on all night long because that’s what the Lord wants. He pleads for Jacob to let Him go only after Jacob’s hip is dislocated—to make Jacob think that he still has a chance of winning—to give Jacob the incentive to continue on, even in his pain. The bout only comes to an end when the training has worked its intended good and Jacob demands to be given a blessing. For instead of seeking a blessing through trickery and deception, as he had before, he now relies on the promise made by God to give him the blessing. Therefore, the Lord tells Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.”

Another who strives with God and with men, and prevails, is a Canaanite woman whom we hear about in today’s Holy Gospel. She has a great and overwhelming problem; her daughter has been “severely oppressed by a demon.” Now, demonic possession still happens in this modern world of ours, but only when people either knowingly or unwittingly open themselves up for the devil to enter in. Back then, however, the devil needed no invitation; he and his henchmen could take hold of anyone. And they did, in great numbers, in wicked response to our Lord’s incarnate presence in this world—in order to work against His sacrificial mission to save humanity from sin and death. A great portion of Christ’s ministry was spent driving out demons, so much so that, it wasn’t long before word about it spread as far north as Syria, which means that the woman with the demon possessed daughter from Tyre and Sidon would have heard about Jesus and how He could help her daughter.

So she goes to Jesus, when she learns that He and His disciples happen to be nearby, and she cries out to Jesus, “Have mercy on me, O Lord, Son of David; my daughter is severely oppressed by a demon.” From all that she’s heard of Jesus, she undoubtedly expects to be received with compassion and a willingness to help. But she hears not a word from Jesus in response. It’s a different matter with His disciples, though. From them she hears plenty—she hears them begging Jesus to send her away.

Now, we can perhaps understand that the disciples are only looking out for Jesus, trying to see that He has the peace and quiet that this time of withdrawal to Tyre and Sidon was intended to provide, but how do we explain Jesus? How do we understand His seemingly uncaring silence to the woman and his subsequent blunt and heartless sounding comment to the disciples that He “was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”? If it seems perplexing to you, just imagine how this poor mother must have felt hearing this. The only hope that she has for getting help for her daughter is ignoring and rudely dismissing her. But yet, as we see—as Saint Matthew tells us—the woman doesn’t give up. She goes over to Jesus and kneels before Him and renews her plea, saying, “Lord, help me.”

Surely, this is enough to move Jesus to give her the help for which she so earnestly pleads. But no, it isn’t. Instead, Jesus says to her, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” Did you hear that? He calls her a dog! He uses a hateful insult often hurled against Gentiles by Jews at that time. This Gentile woman, however, ignores the apparent affront to her dignity and turns our Lord’s words into a wonderful testimony of faith and trust. She replies to Jesus, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” With everything that has happened, she still addresses Jesus as Lord, affirming her continued belief that Jesus is the “Son of David,” that is, the Messiah, the Christ. And she believes that His Word is true; she believes that the one who declared through the Psalmist, “those who hope in me will not be disappointed,” will answer her prayer and provide her with the help that she needs for her daughter. She believes that even a crumb of His mercy and grace, will be enough.

Despite everything, dear friends, she hasn’t given up on her hope in Jesus. And, as we see, she is not disappointed. Jesus says to her, “O woman, great is your faith! Be it done for you as you desire.” Immediately, as Jesus speaks these words to her, her daughter is healed; the demon is driven out.

Both Jacob and this Canaanite woman wrestled with God and prevailed. They prevailed, not against God with whom they strove, but against the devil who was working through their earthly fears and troubles to bring them to despair and give up. They prevailed because Christ was there for them in the midst of their troubles—not eliminating their hardships right away, but working through them to bring about an even better outcome than either of them had hoped to see. For them it was not just reconciliation with a brother or having a daughter free of demonic possession. It was also being strengthened in the faith that they had been given—strengthened by Jesus through the very same adversities that the devil used to work their downfall.

For you, dear friends, the circumstances may be different, but the story is the same. Life, because of sin in this world, is full of trouble and the devil will surely use that trouble to tempt you to think that God doesn’t care. But He does. As Saint Paul says, “you can trust God. He will not let you be tempted more than you can bear. But when you are tempted, God will also give you a way to escape that temptation. Then you will be able to endure it.” God’s way for you to escape temptation is most certainly in the gifts of forgiveness and life that you receive here today in Christ’s Word and Sacraments. These Gospel gifts give you Christ, who bore your grief and carried your sorrow, who took your weakness and gave you strength. He is your strength in all things.

And this means that He is also your strength out in the world. He’s is there for you in your troubles, helping you in ways that you can’t always see or understand—wrestling with you at times, challenging you to look past the way things seem to be, so that you would trust even more firmly in His Word of promise and hope. Saint Paul tells us that we can “rejoice in our sufferings … because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” And God’s love, dear friends, as Saint John tells us, is “made manifest among us,” in God sending “his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him,” and at times, even wrestle with Him. In the name of Jesus, through whom we prevail against the old evil foe and have the victory. Amen.